Your longtime manager, the late Bernie Brillstein, said, “When your time has come, success will find you.” Where were you when it happened?
Sitting in an office at Raleigh Studios, writing a pilot that was destined to fail—one of many. I got a phone call from my agent. “You’re going to get offered a role,” he said. “Don’t say no. It’s a good one.” I don’t know why he felt he had to remind me: I’d been saying yes to everything. I was in development on a couple of projects. I was directing commercials. I’d shot three films. I wrote a show about four dads, Incompetent Husbands, and I wrote a show about minor league baseball, San Diego Snakes. I wrote a couple of movies. I was also doing little roles here and there, stuff a friend asks you to do and you show up for a day. But it’s not really filling your life. I felt a little lost in the wilderness. So I get this call, and the show was Breaking Bad. It was a drama and a different kind of acting than anybody had asked me to do before. I’d never seen the show. I called a friend who had. “Oh yeah, that’s my favorite show,” he said. “You gotta do that.” It helps to have someone go, “It’s awesome.” So I said okay. I had to fly to Albuquerque. I took the bus to the airport. From then on, good things started happening.
At the final Breaking Bad wrap party you said, “A TV series is ultimately judged by its spin-off.” What are your favorite spin-offs?
If I said Petticoat Junction, would you believe me? You would be a fool. No, my favorite is “Schultz’s Schnitzelhaus,” the spin-off from Hogan’s Heroes where Sergeant Schultz opens a noodle restaurant after the war. Lasted for eight seasons in Austria.
In his recent Playboy Interview, Bryan Cranston said he rents you his house in Albuquerque and you sleep in his bed. What are your dreams like when you slumber in the bed of the one who knocks?
I dream of being chased by Emmys trying to give themselves to me.
What was Bryan’s best advice on how to be a leading man?
I wanted to know how hard it was to have my own show. He was very encouraging: “You ran Mr. Show, so you’ve already been a leader on set. You’re ready for this.” I said, “I know that, but how do you do it? What does your day look like?” He said, “Oh, okay. You wake up, you study your lines, and you get to work. At lunch you study your lines. You have them make you dinner—because you will not have time to get dinner—and then you go home and study your lines. You study your lines in the airport. You study them on the plane. You study your lines when you’re back home. That’s how you do it.” Maybe it sounds obvious, but he made it concrete. You work hard.
It sounds like there’s no time for fun.
There are times when, if the dialogue is fairly dry, I have a great, deep-seated need to be goofy. I might ask the director if I can just do a take where I get to be stupid, to get it out of my system. On the movie Nebraska I had to read a news report. I could not get through that thing. I said, “Can I just do a silly one? Please? Shoot it, but I’m just going to completely make fun of everything I’m saying.” Once I did that I was able to do it straight. On Better Call Saul there’s a courtroom scene in the first season, a montage of me walking around yelling and lecturing. That’s all me goofing around.
Under what circumstances would you call Saul?
A car accident? [laughs] Please tell me I’ll never have to call one of those lawyers.
Late last year you and David Cross did a highly anticipated four-show run on Netflix of your inimitable brand of sketch comedy provocatively titled W/ Bob & David. Where is Mr. Show now and what is he doing?
He’s in Ukraine and is a very successful live stage act touring Eastern Europe. I imagine it’s still very popular in Turkey.
Given your recent noncomedy commitments, how much did you feel you had to re-hone your comedy edge when you did W/ Bob & David?
I didn’t. I’ve done it for 25 years pretty much day in and day out. If I had to write a comedy show starting today, I wouldn’t be intimidated by it. You have to remember a few things, but I don’t think it’s that hard. We did W/ Bob & David in just a few months. We kicked right into it. And we want to do more if we can and be even more different—like the “Salesman” piece in the last show, where we riffed on the Maysles brothers documentary Salesman. I had also recently done [IFC sketch series] The Birthday Boys. I was in the writing room every day for months, even while I was doing Better Call Saul. In fact, there are probably four sketches in W/ Bob & David that I wrote for The Birthday Boys. So I don’t feel that far away from comedy. But ask me in two years.
When you were a guest on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, he said many of his listeners regard Mr. Show as “the starting place of modern comedy.” Do you agree?
Mr. Show was a really strong point-of-view sketch show at a time when there weren’t many. Anything like that is always a touchstone for people, and it inspires them to think, What about my sensibility? If these guys can do it so purely and so directly, it gives me hope. I spent years writing on Saturday Night Live, and I learned about sketch writing from Jim Downey, Robert Smigel and Al Franken. Those guys are really good. I came to Mr. Show wanting to do the best work I could do, so it has a rhythm to it. The sketches have fairly good construction overall. I think it’s true, but you’d have to ask the people who claim to be inspired by it.
You’ve cited Monty Python as a major influence. Have you ever discussed Mr. Show with any of them?
I interviewed John Cleese onstage in San Diego for his latest book. I certainly told him about Mr. Show, but he’d never heard of it. No idea. He didn’t know Breaking Bad either. I didn’t care. It’s my job to know their stuff. Monty Python truly was the inspiration for me to try anything in this business. It makes me so happy. I don’t think the stuff I’ve done is Monty Python level, but I’m proud that the material Dave and I do is grounded there. Okay, “more leaden” could be another term. But I’m okay with that.
Is it true you originally wanted to do drama?
Even though I wanted to do sketch comedy, onstage I felt like, What am I doing up here? No one wants to look at me when I’m standing next to David Cross or Chris Farley or Jay Johnston. Those guys are fun to watch doing sketches. Instinctively I felt I might actually be fun to watch in a good drama. I have a complex energy. You watch and go, “That guy says he wants one thing, but what does he really want?” That really works in drama when you’re looking for ulterior motives; in sketch comedy it’s not good. Sketch comedy should be simple, fun, direct. [pauses] I know what you’re going to say: that I do fine with sketch comedy. Okay. But I’m not as good as those guys.
What about David Cross makes you jealous? Would David be even funnier with hair and you with less hair?
He’s funnier than me. He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He’s quick with a joke, a line, a turn. I can be quick, but he’s quick 90 percent of the time, compared with my 40 percent. I’m serious. He takes an attitude quicker and he’s got a comic dimension that’s readily understood. And he’s super funny just the way he is. I might be funnier bald—totally bald, instead of half bald.
When you work with David Cross, why does your name always come first in the titles?
Could you not bring that up, buddy?
In a Better Call Saul podcast you discussed Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman getting comfortable in his own skin. How and when did you get comfortable in your own skin?
I’m not very comfortable. I’m pretty restless. You should get comfortable at some point, don’t you think? Like somewhere around the age of, uh, 53. It’s hard to find balance in life. Maybe now I’m a little more sure of what I can do, which also includes what I can’t do, so I’m a little more secure with saying, “It’s okay I can’t do that; it’s not me.” For instance, you’re asked to do things for PR, and when I was younger I’d say, “Yeah! Anything to get the word out. I mean literally anything.” But now I know who I am, and I know when something’s not good for me and when I won’t be fun.
Which you demonstrated on Jimmy Kimmel Live! when you gave him a list of tough questions to ask you because you thought people were too nice to you.
That joke was meant to come out of honesty. I’m sorry, I can’t help but think that, however much somebody appreciates this great work I’ve been allowed to do, they also have another question, which is “Look at your fucking head. Why are you even on a show?” I would ask it. I’m proud of the work I’ve done. I think it’s good, and I’m glad it works. I don’t try to tank. But I still think that even if you liked all the stuff I got to be a part of in the past two years, you’d think, But you’re a sketch clown. What right do you have? Years ago, I remember being shocked at how my friends in comedy oftentimes couldn’t take criticism of what they did—which is weird, because all we do is criticize. We make fun of everybody in the world for being indulgent, hypocritical and full of themselves. That’s what comedy is: pointing out idiocies. So shouldn’t we expect and even look for people to do the same to us?
As you said, you’re good at playing a dramatic character who is more complex beneath the surface. So what does Jimmy McGill really want?
Sadly, respect from the people he loves: his brother, his girlfriend. I wish him luck with that. Also, to get lucky. He’s cynical but good-hearted. He’s very much an everyman. Jimmy is so much more relatable and likable than Saul Goodman. He even says, to Walter White, “My name isn’t Saul Goodman. I’m not Saul Goodman.” In Breaking Bad you only see one very small part of his life. We don’t know what his world looks like outside that office. I think we can assume, from his energy, that he’s got some equilibrium in his life, briefly. But there’s no certainty. I hope the viewers of Better Call Saul notice that.
How do you find your equilibrium?
Riding my bike up to the Griffith Observatory. Just being distracted, not trying to solve a problem or get something down on paper. Especially in Los Angeles, because the danger of riding in traffic really focuses you and makes you think of what you want on your tombstone.
When do you get scared?
I got scared about Better Call Saul when I saw the billboards go up. Up until then it’s just a project I’m raring to go make happen and do the best we can with. I’m like, “Let’s go! Let’s go! Yeah! Who knows what we can do with it! It’s exciting!” And then the billboards go up and you go, “Uh-oh. People are going to watch.”
Where do you keep the 1989 Emmy you won for writing on SNL? And the 1993 Emmy from The Ben Stiller Show?
They’re at my wife’s office, and I think they’re impressive there and make people smile. If I looked at them every day my blood would curdle and my ego would turn to an evil snake-eating-itself kind of creature.
Is it necessary to suffer for art?
Yes. Come on, do you trust anyone who enjoys doing their work too much? I don’t. That’s how you get A Prairie Home Companion and Thomas Kinkade shit.