“This place was a place for me to find myself:” SIU alum Bob Odenkirk receives degrees
April 7, 2023
Southern Illinois University welcomed back perhaps its most famous alum on Monday, as actor and comedian Bob Odenkirk visited Carbondale to officially receive two degrees from the university.
Odenkirk received his bachelor’s degree from his time at SIU in the 1980s, as well as an honorary doctorate initially awarded by the school in 2019, in a ceremony at the Banterra Center on Monday night. It was followed shortly after by a discussion and audience Q&A which lasted around an hour in total.
During the day Odenkirk came to speak with students from the College of Arts and Media to talk about his time at SIU, what he’s taken away from the school, and his journey through hollywood.
“I just don’t see it as a cutthroat industry,” Odenkirk said. “I’m totally ready to get my ass kicked and show up again the next day and go back at it.”
Odenkirk said he liked that SIU gave him an outlet to do and make things. While in attendance here he took one acting class, made a few short films, made a radio show, and did acting performances.
He also spoke about how he wanted to go into the industry right after school and do it on his own terms.
“I just wasn’t ready for Chicago or New York,” Odenkirk said. “I didn’t want the pressure of you know, who you’re going to be, what you’re going to do.”
When asked a question about the struggles he had in Hollywood, he recommended fellow colleague and actor Bryan Cranston and his book A Life in Parts.
“His book and a great perspective on trying to approach that. My point of view is not that helpful to you because I just sort of realized that I can act and people want me to act and I enjoy it.”
Odenkirk is best known for playing Saul Goodman in “Breaking Bad” and its spinoff “Better Call Saul,” the latter of which aired its series finale in 2022. He considers himself lucky to be cast in such a prominent role for two of the most critically acclaimed television shows of all time.
“Sometimes I would get a script and I would read it and think, somewhere there’s a trained actor who can’t get work, and I got this,” Odenkirk said. “And he should try to kill me.”
Odenkirk currently stars in “Lucky Hank,” an AMC series based on the novel “Straight Man.” Richard Russo, the author of “Straight Man” and executive producer on the series, was an English teacher at Southern Illinois University, and based the book off of his experience in Carbondale.
“When you watch the show, he’s kinda writing about SIU,” Odenkirk said. “Even though it’s set in Pennsylvania.”
Raised in Naperville, Illinois, Odenkirk began his college education at College of Dupage, followed by a short stint at Marquette before transferring to SIU. There, he said he found what he wanted to do in life.
“While I was here, I discovered that I was certain that I wanted to try my hand at show biz,” he said.
Odenkirk honed his craft on a radio comedy show called “The Prime Time Special,” which he joked was “neither primetime, nor special.” It aired from midnight to 4 a.m. on WIDB, Southern’s college radio station.
“This place was a place for me to find myself,” Odenkirk said. “I felt a degree of freedom here. I felt a degree of opportunity to try things.”
He fell just three credits short of graduating when he decided to move to Chicago to focus on a career in comedy. Those credits would be completed at Columbia College Chicago in 1984.
“I did not attend graduation because I was in a hurry to get into show business,” Odenkirk said. “I did get my degree in the mail, and I gave it to my mom because I thought she’d be proud of me.”
Odenkirk’s work in comedy includes a four-year stretch writing for “Saturday Night Live.” He created Chris Farley’s character Matt Foley, a motivational speaker who appeared in some of the most popular segments in the show’s five-decade run. That character originated in the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago before Farley and Odenkirk joined SNL.
“Farley did a coach character at improv one night, and was yelling at the kids, and it was funny,” Odenkirk said. “I went home and came up with the story of a character who’s a motivational speaker who is using himself as an example of what you don’t want to end up as.”
After his work with SNL, Odenkirk collaborated with David Cross on “Mr. Show with Bob and David,” as well as the short-lived “Tenacious D” series based on Jack Black and Kyle Gass’s band.
“The thing in show biz, it’s like any industry, if you get into it, you’ll see the same people over decades if you’re lucky enough to do it,” Odenkirk said. “All these people are my friends, and it’s been an amazing ride to get to know people.”
Other notable figures he brushed shoulders with include Conan O’Brien, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Dana Carvey. Whether it’s through his time at SNL, his own work, or any other avenues, Odenkirk has worked with his fair share of celebrities and benefited greatly for it.
“It’s a great business if you’re wildly talented, but it’s also a great business if you just show up every day and do your work well. And over time, you ride the waves and get opportunities,” Odenkirk said.
His work as a writer opened up opportunities for acting, something Odenkirk noted in his discussion on Monday. His interest in writing comedy came in tandem with performing it.
“Secondarily to writing a lot of comedy is you perform, because it’s fun and there’s a part for you,” Odenkirk said. “So that’s what I did.”
Odenkirk was considered for the role of Michael Scott in “The Office,” and eventually landed his most well-known role as Saul Goodman in 2009, which would propel him to global fame.
“My brother-in-law… texted me a frame grab of a television set in China that had a “Better Call Saul” ad running in China,” Odenkirk said. “I went, ‘holy cow, they’re watching me in China?’”
Odenkirk received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2022, when the final season of “Better Call Saul” premiered.
“I’m from Naperville, and I never really pursued fame,” Odenkirk said. “And then to get that honor, and with people who showed up from my whole career, it just made me feel so good. It’s beautiful.”
In October, Odenkirk will release a children’s book, made from poems that he and his children wrote when they were little. When the pandemic forced them together, they revisited those poems, and it evolved into a full collection complete with illustrations by his daughter Erin.
“Growing up in Naperville without a lot of guidance, you’re limited by what you think is possible…” Odenkirk said. “I really wanted my kids, and any kid who reads that book to sorta think, ‘I can write things too.’”
Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.