How Early Family Stress Led to a Children’s Book

From a Wall Street Journal story by Marc Myers headlined “How Early Family Stress Led to a Children’s Book”:

Bob Odenkirk, 61, is an Emmy-winning comedian and actor best known for his dramatic roles in the film “Nobody” and the TV series “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.” He is co-author with his daughter and illustrator, Erin Odenkirk, of the children’s book “Zilot & Other Important Rhymes” (Little, Brown). He spoke with Marc Myers.

Naperville, Ill., was a quiet place to grow up, but it wasn’t Losersville. I had plenty of friends there and lots of laughs with my three brothers and three sisters. Yet there was a powerful undercurrent of anxiety at home, fed by my parents.

My mother, Barbara, was responsible and hardworking but, as hard as it is to say, there was a selfishness there. She continued to accrue children with my father, Walter, who wasn’t making money or showing up to help.

From a child’s perspective, sorting out what was going on at home was a quiet torture. Our financial uncertainty led to an enormous lack of security. I took refuge in comedy and found comfort in Monty Python albums, which portrayed the adult world as nonsensical, hypocritical and laughable.

We lived in a two-story house with a redbrick facade on the lower half and aluminum siding on top. Ours was the second house to be built on the block, and we lived across the street from a country-club golf course.

We belonged only to the pool, went to public school and drank powdered milk. My dad was an alcoholic and seemed drawn to debt. Luckily, my mother’s father always bailed us out.

My father was a graphic artist of sorts, and there was plenty of demand for what he did. But he was irresponsible. Each year he’d tell me that we’d be broke soon and that he didn’t know what we were going to do. Nevertheless, we all had clothes, went to school and were good kids who loved each other. By the time there were seven of us, I was 14, and the uncertainty and instability was overwhelming. My dad was rarely home.

At school, teachers seemed to respect that I read a lot. In junior high, Mr. Ciardullo and two other teachers allowed me to fulfill assignments by writing one-act historical plays with friends. Then they had us go to other classrooms to perform them. That was the start of my interest in show business and writing sketch comedy. I wasn’t in any of the school plays.

Naperville was a fine place to raise kids, but I wanted the fun and excitement of ideas and people. I yearned to be in Chicago and graduated from high school when I was 16.

At first, I feared I wouldn’t fit in if I went away to college, so I attended the College of DuPage nearby. The following year, I transferred to Marquette, but I wanted a more lively, creative student environment.

I transferred to Southern Illinois University. As a junior, I majored in broadcasting with a minor in philosophy. I had a weekly radio show that featured my live comedy sketches. Nobody listened, and that was awesome. There was no pressure.

After college, I studied improv for nearly two years with the Players Workshop in Chicago. There, I met Robert Smigel, who wrote his own shows. When he was hired by “Saturday Night Live,” I worked with him on his sketches. Then he brought me onto the show to work with him in 1987.

I left in 1991 and was swept up in the new “alternative” comedy scene in Los Angeles. Having written many sketches and a few screenplays, I understood dramatic acting and how to develop a character.

Everything changed when I landed my first leading role in a recent TV drama series. I was around some great dramatic actors, and working with them was an education.

Today, my wife, Naomi, and I divide our time between homes in L.A. and New York. In L.A., we have a house with a tranquil, Southwestern vibe. In New York, we’re in a Greenwich Village co-op.

Looking back, I’m still angry at my father. When I was 22, I saw him in the final months of his life. I visited his bedside and made a hopeful effort to connect. Sadly, we didn’t have closure. He launched into his old, self-absorbed ways and barely looked at me.

Perhaps he had some undiagnosed challenges. I’m the father of two grown kids, Erin and Nate. Children are something to cherish, not peers to terrify with adult reality. My dad wasn’t mature enough to understand that.

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