Bob Odenkirk examines the smörgåsbord of desserts that line a long wooden dining room table—espresso cupcakes, chocolate peanut-butter balls, pumpkin bread, triple chocolate caramel cookies and doughnuts among them. Like everyone else around him, he ignores the chocolate chunk cookies with a white card in front of them that reads GLUTEN-FREE. "You know what really sucks?" he asks. "Eating desserts that aren't good. It's only worth it when it's really good."
The 51-year-old actor/comedian is better looking in person than he was as Saul Goodman, sleazy lawyer par excellence, on Breaking Bad. It helps that Goodman's signature garish combover—as well as his unchecked amorality and polyester attire—remains in Albuquerque, the setting for both Breaking Bad and its upcoming spin-off, the Goodman-centric Better Call Saul. He is also more serious than his flamboyant on-screen personas (e.g., Goodman, super-agent Stevie Grant on The Larry Sanders Show, a suspiciously Robert Evans-esque version of God on Mr. Show).
Odenkirk glances my way, nodding, slightly confused by my notebook, recorder and camera. He grabs a chocolate peanut-butter ball and introduces himself. "Hi, I'm Bob Odenkirk. Do you work here?"
"No," I respond. "But don't you?"
After all, we're at the Odenkirk-Provissiero Entertainment holiday party in the management company's office, a converted home in the Franklin Village section of Los Angeles. In the backyard, TV royalty like Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and big-shot agents mingle under large heat lamps. Other guests sip the evening's signature gin cocktail, appropriately named "1936" after the number of the address of Odenkirk-Provissiero HQ.
Across the room stands Bob's wife, 47-year-old talent manager Naomi Odenkirk, the Odenkirk in Odenkirk-Provissiero and the impresario behind the evening's festivities and the careers of many in attendance (her husband's included). She clutches a drink and strolls over to Bob, who is leaning against the kitchen sink with desserts in hand. Naomi whispers something into his ear and then turns toward me. "I'll tell you something," she says. "I don't know how you feel about love, but I feel totally satisfied."
Naomi Susan Yomtov first laid eyes on Robert John Odenkirk in 1994. Robert John Odenkirk, however, didn't first lay eyes on Naomi Susan Yomtov—in a romantic sense at least—for another 18 months (give or take a few weeks), making theirs a romance borne out of sluggish fate (or unwavering persistence, depending on your point-of-view—more on that below). Back then Naomi worked as an assistant at William Morris, where she scouted new talent at comedy clubs across Los Angeles.
Among her favorite stops was the UnCabaret in West Hollywood. Every Sunday night, the small room hosted an alternative comedy show during which performers would do 20-minute sets, often without any rehearsed material, usually riffing on personal experiences. One Sunday while Naomi was in attendance, Bob took the stage and sardonically recounted what it was like to grow up in the Midwest with six siblings and an absentee, alcoholic father.
"A week later I was driving around doing errands, and I thought, That's the man I'm going to marry," Naomi says now. "It popped into my head just like that. I was disturbed at first. I wasn't marriage-minded. In fact, I was very career-minded. But I couldn't ignore this thought. I went home that night and told my roommates, 'I know which man I'm going to marry. But I'm embarrassed because I don't actually know him yet.'"
For the next year and a half, she talked about Odenkirk incessantly—to her mom, to her friends, to anyone else who would listen—even though she still hadn't met him yet. "People would offer to introduce me to him, but I didn't want to force it. I would say, 'No, no, no!"'
All the while, she continued to be a regular, if unnoticed, presence in his life. For instance, one evening at UnCabaret, she was on her way to the bathroom when she bumped into Odenkirk and a mutual friend, comedian/director Bobcat Goldthwait. But while she talked to Goldthwait, Odenkirk stared at the floor, waiting for her to pass. "That's how disinterested he was in me," she says.
Finally, a year and a half after first watching Odenkirk perform, Naomi managed to strike up a conversation with him outside a comedy night in Santa Monica. Eventually, he asked for her number, and six weeks later, he called her. "He had no idea who I was, or that I had been to all his shows and that I knew all these other people around him. I don't know why he finally noticed me," she explains. "It's not like I suddenly became his type. I still don't think I'm his type, but we got along great."
Two months later, when they were dating exclusively, she felt comfortable enough telling him that she always knew they would be together (her unwavering persistence revealed). "I told her, 'Stop! Stop! Shut up!'" Bob says. "'I don't want to hear this magic thinking. It has nothing to do with reality, and I don't want it to pressure me.'"
Says Naomi, "He said, 'First, thank you for telling me, and second, thank you for waiting to tell me.'"
Naomi sits in her office looking at the script for a TV pilot called Duty. It's about an ex-jock/bully who ends up joining his hometown's police force, where he is forced to work side-by-side with the man he bullied for years. Naomi is diligently pitching some of her clients for the project. She sucks on a jalapeñolollipop and repeatedly takes her headset on and off to talk to clients and managers who keep calling to discuss The Skeleton Twins, an indie film starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, both of whom she represents. It centers on estranged twin siblings (Wiig and Hader, naturally) coping with depression and the death of their father. Naomi found the script with the help of the United Talent Agency and brought it to Hader.
The phone rings again. She picks it up. "Hello, it's Naomi. How are you? Have you heard about Bill and Kristen's Skeleton Twins? I'll send you some reviews. It's been well-received across the board."
She's right. After the movie premiered at Sundance, the Hollywood Reporter called it "a bittersweet but refreshing tonic that will leave audiences with a big, dopey smile on their faces." Rolling Stone gushed similarly. "We knew Wiig had range, but Hader, too?" the music magazine praised. "Nothing's gonna stop them now."
Naomi's office is partly decorated with headshots of her clients—Wiig, Hader, Jenna Fischer from The Office, Casey Wilson from Saturday Night Live and Derek Waters from Comedy Central's Drunk History, chief among them. Analog is her preferred means of organization. As such, little orange sticky notes filled with messages and doodles are scattered around the room. Many of them are in a shorthand discernible only to her. "Mexico," reads one. "Lawyer role," reads another. "Vernon God Little," reads a third.
Naomi first started her career in the music business as a teenager—working, in the following order, at a radio station, an independent record label, Arista Records (as a marketing assistant) and the Shoreline Amphitheater, the purview of legendary concert promoter Bill Graham. At age 20, she belatedly entered college at San Jose State University, where she orchestrated her first comedy show. Upon moving to L.A., she landed her gig at William Morris in 1992, where she spent two years before going to work for husband-and-wife producing team Conan Berkeley and Zane Buzby. Neither stop, however, jived with her sensibilities, so she decided to strike out on her own. "I thought, I'm just going to do what I know I can do. I don't need permission. And I don't need anyone to validate what I know is good."
The first client she signed to her new management company was Stephanie Courtney, best known as Flo from the ubiquitous Progressive insurance commercials. Naomi found her doing standup in New York City on a tip from a friend. She told Courtney that if she came to Los Angeles, she would rep her. Courtney heeded the advice and moved westward, joining the Groundlings in the process.
Courtney and her fellow Groundling Wiig eventually started babysitting the Odenkirks' two children—Nate (now 15) and Erin (now 13). Naomi liked Wiig's work enough that she started booking gigs for her other than babysitting. "Kristen was so talented," Naomi says. "And she felt like family after my kids and I got to know her. I just realized how upset I would be if she was with another manager."
She discovered Hader when he was working as a production assistant on The Frank International Film Festival, an original comedy short that was shot as an extra for the DVD of Melvin Goes to Dinner, Bob Odenkirk's feature directorial debut and the Odenkirks' first major production together. After Hader started a L.A.-based sketch comedy troupe Animals from the Future, Lorne Michaels auditioned him for Saturday Night Live. "It was so great," Hader remembers. "Naomi was jumping up and down, saying, 'I think you're going to get the show!' That's the thing I love about her. There's no bullshit. You can also tell that she has a genuine curiosity and appreciation for comedic actors and good material."
Another call comes in. Someone wants footage of The Skeleton Twins. A few minutes later, Hader checks in by phone. Naomi reads him a poem one of her daughter's classmates wrote called "Disillusionment of the New Saturday Night Live Cast." It's about how boring SNL has become, partly because Hader and Wiig aren't on the show anymore. Hader and Naomi both laugh.
"At the premiere [of The Skeleton Twins], Bob and Naomi were so happy," says Hader. "It's almost like their kids doing well. Bob even asked me to take a photo together!"
For most of his career, Bob was managed not by his wife, but by Bernie Brillstein, a legendary Hollywood figure who repped comedy giants such as John Belushi and Lorne Michaels. Bob, like Hader, got his big break under Michaels, writing off and on for Saturday Night Live from 1987 to 1995, picking up his first Emmy in 1989. He did similar writing stints on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and The Ben Stiller Show. Yet it was the wildly influential HBO sketch series, Mr. Show, he created with David Cross that established him as a pioneer in the alt-comedy scene that emerged after traditional standup, like that practiced by Jay Leno, waned in popularity in the 1990s.
"I'd never worked with someone so focused and driven [as Bob], almost to a fault," Cross told Marc Maron in 2012. Bob was so uptight, he only allowed himself small windows of relaxation, Cross added. "There was very little room for pleasure in Bob's life. That changed 180 degrees when he met Naomi. He mellowed."
Brillstein's death in April 2008 necessitated further change. Odenkirk turned over his career—as he had done with the rest of his life—to Naomi, whom he made his manager. It had been a decade since Mr. Show ended, and while he found success in acting parts on TV shows and working with Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of the alt-comedy hit Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, he didn't have a breakout performance like Cross's role as Tobias Fünke in Arrested Development. All the while, he was slow to enlist Naomi to help him uncover such a role.
"I was hesitant to work with her," he says from his office at Odenkirk-Provissiero HQ. (On this day, he's the only Odenkirk on the premises, with Naomi away in Chicago.) "Like I told her years ago, sometimes I want to hear her criticism of my work, and sometimes I just want her to support the energy I have about my work."
"We figured out how to work together," Naomi explained to me a couple of days earlier. "There were a few years where we hadn't figured it out yet, and feelings would get hurt."
"I can be pretty blunt, so I think I've hurt her feelings a few times, especially when I don't like something she likes," Bob admits. "But Naomi has gotten better at her critiques, and I've gotten better at hearing them. That's true with anyone, if you're married to them or not."
Not long after they learned how to handle professional business at home, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan called. He wanted Bob, who had never seen the AMC series before, to play Saul for the show's second season. It was Naomi who pushed him to say yes. "He had to see himself through different eyes," Naomi says. "On Breaking Bad, he just showed up as an actor. He didn't write it; he didn't create it. He had to come to terms with a paradigm shift of his career from a director and creator of comedy. It was interesting to see him embrace an opportunity like that and go with it."
His Breaking Bad character became so beloved that he's heading back to Albuquerque to film a spinoff series, Better Call Saul, which is slated to premiere in November. (It also begat other opportunities, like his role as Will Forte's brother, Ross, in the Oscar-nominated film Nebraska.) The project, however, will take him away for five months from his wife and kids.
And this, of course, is where home and work blur together once again—his manager left alone with his children. "I told him, 'No pressure,'" Naomi says. "'You don't have to do the show if you don't want to, but if you decide to do it, don't worry about me and the kids. I'll make sure we're okay.' That doesn't mean there won't be challenges. I will barely see him the next few months. But we'll figure it out."
Danielle Bacher is a columnist at Playboy and LA Weekly as well as a contributing writer for Rolling Stone, Village Voice, Interview Mag, Esquire, Vice and The Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Twitter @DBacherwrites
Photos by Dan Monick