How A Writers' Room Running Joke Eventually Became Better Call Saul

"Better Call Saul" returns for its final season this year having already proven itself as one of the best prequels in TV history. The series took a nugget of an idea from "Breaking Bad"— what if that sleazy lawyer had a backstory? — and somehow turned it into a phenomenal slow burn character study. Bob Odenkirk's charm and acting chops no doubt helped inform the creation of "Better Call Saul." But it turns out the master work of a series began as a running joke.

In an interview with Collider, series co-creator Peter Gould revealed that as the stakes ratcheted up on "Breaking Bad," the team molding the show's scripts couldn't help but keep the mood in the writers' room light. "The darker the show got, the bleaker, more cancerous and death-y it got, the more giddy we got in the room," Gould admitted. The filmmaker called the team's habit for ill-timed humor "a sort of pendulum effect," a natural response to working on something as frightening as this show about mortality and corrosion of the soul.

If Saul's a joke, he's a good one

Apparently, "Better Call Saul" was born of this tonal dissonance. Gould told Collider that when the team had ideas that couldn't possibly work on "Breaking Bad," they'd use the hypothetical Saul Goodman show as a catch-all for whatever felt too light for the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston). 

Series co-creator Vince Gilligan stands by the origin story, telling Entertainment Weekly the show began as a running joke, but "we joked about it so often in the writers' room we thought maybe it's not a joke." Around the time "Breaking Bad" finished, Gilligan and Gould had decided to make the series a reality.

Somehow, it feels right that the story of Jimmy McGill, at once a striver and a slacker, started as a joke. As his con-inclined character leans into legal loopholes and aids criminals, he seems more and more like a joke to his generally upstanding peers in the industry. Jimmy's primary psychic wound, the well from which "Better Call Saul" draws its central conflict, may be that he's always felt like a joke compared to his successful, morally exacting brother, Chuck (Michael McKean). So not only did the team behind "Breaking Bad" turn a joke into an entire show, they also wrote the joke into the very core of their tragic protagonist's DNA.

No one on the "Breaking Bad" team could have foreseen its success, nor the genuine attachment fans would form to Jimmy and his peers over its six-season run. No one including, apparently, the show's star himself. Gould says that when Bob Odenkirk first joined "Breaking Bad," he asked if he'd be killed off quickly, assuming he was a disposable character. The filmmaker responded with a joking comment of his own, one he couldn't have possibly guessed would snowball so far: "I pointed out that we had built this really expensive set for his office, and that we were going to try to use it," he told Collider.