Diedrich Bader has played the best friend before. He did it for nine seasons of The Drew Carey Show. He did it two decades later on Pamela Adlon’s meditative Better Things. He also did it plenty of other times in between. But something about being the Bob Odenkirk’s wingman on Lucky Hank, the AMC series based on Richard Russo’s 1997 novel Straight Man, made it feel different for Bader — a man whose IMDb tally currently stands at 237 acting credits.
“I had stopped feeling like an artist and more like a craftsman making cabinetry,” Bader says of his mindset before taking on the black comedy about aging academics. “There’s a lot of artistry in making cabinetry, but maybe once you’ve made too many, it’s like “Here’s another cabinet!” With this, I felt like “Here’s everything I’ve got. I can bring comedy, but I can also bring some reality.”
Speaking over Zoom in late April, Bader got into why Lucky Hank — which airs its first season finale Sunday on AMC and AMC+ — came at a particularly opportune time. He also dug into family histories (his late father, William B. Bader, was a spy), the obstacles he has encountered when considering a pivot to screenwriting and the two bit parts that are almost always the reason he’s approached in public.
Ok, we’re speaking just moments after the news broke that Fox News fired Tucker Carlson. Should I get your instant reaction, for posterity?
I’m totally delighted. I really hate the guy. This has got to be years ago now, but I wrote a tweet saying, “Hey Tucker, my mother-in-law watches your show every night, and she’s an anti-vaxxer, and because of your show.” I just really wanted him to admit that he had gotten the shot and that everybody at Fox had gotten the shot and that they just weren’t speaking about it. It went kind of bonkers on Twitter. A bunch of lawyers contacted me said we could put a class action suit together with other people whose parents have been watching Fox and haven’t gotten the vaccine because of misinformation. CNN somehow got ahold of my own number. I was like, “How did that happen?” I’m not listed. But the producer said, “You want to be on Sunday morning?”
It escalated that quickly?
I was like, “I’m not a politician. I just sent a tweet saying I wish that my mother-in-law would get the vaccine shot.” Anyway, on Monday, all of the Fox hosts except Carlson said that they had gotten the shots. I’ve always wondered if I caused anything of that. Anyways, I’m absolutely delighted. I mean he’s our modern Father Coughlin from the 1930s. The reason for this whole idea of regulation of the airways, as far as political expression, that was Father Coughlin — because of his misinformation and antisemitism. It was all for ratings too. It’s just a craven.
You’re not a politician, but you grew up politics-adjacent — right?
I’m from outside of Washington, DC. My dad worked in politics. He was a spy as well, which is kind of fun, and then he was a professor. He did a lot of things.
There’s more than a little about your father on the internet — but how much do you know about his spy career?
I know some of it, but he kept his secrets. He really didn’t talk about where he went. Sometimes he would come back with a hat and it would be from Uzbekistan — and this is during the time of the Soviet Union. He was an interesting guy. You can Google him. His obit covers him pretty well. I mean, he was in the CIA and then he left and was a professor… but did he really leave? That’s the question. Later in life, he basically said he never really left. He was the one who brought down Robert McNamara, the Secretary [of Defense] for his lies about the Gulf of Tonkin — because he was working for Senator Fulbright at that time. That’s when we moved to Paris, because we had to basically get out of town.
Crazy, right? He found out through his old buddies at the CIA that they had federated the first attack and then lied about the second one — which was basically why we got into the war. When confronted with that information, McNamara said that he would have an answer for the committee tomorrow. He resigned before he really got in trouble, got out and dodge. It was a smart move, but then McNamara made his business to find out who screwed him. Dad was basically persona non grata for a while. But it was a really interesting life in Paris, because we got to meet a bunch of artists and educators. That’s why I’m an actor. Do you want to hear my origin story?
When we moved there, I was like three or something. I was supposed to learn French — and they say kids are born linguist geniuses, but that was not me. My siblings did really well, but I did really badly. So I was a very quiet kid because the language thing kind of threw me off. My mom had a deal with my siblings that if they brought me with them, they could take as many friends as they wanted to the movies. So, I would go see Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers — who I still desperately love — and Marx Brothers — I loved Harpo because he was quiet and an anarchist — and Charlie Chaplin. I had worked up this whole little Charlie Chaplin act in my bedroom. My favorite theater in Paris played silent movies because they had an organ left over from the days. One day, the film got caught and burned and everybody booed, and I was like, “Nobody boos Charlie Chaplin!” I ran in between the audience on the screen and I started doing my Charlie Chaplin act, and the organ player was like, “I might as well play my little thing.” I did a little flourish at the end, took off my pantomime hat and got a standing ovation. That was the beginning for me. Otherwise, I would’ve been a college professor like my siblings.
It’s a very Hollywood impulse to ask “How have you not exploited this?” But, between your father being a spy and this time in Paris, have you not thought of writing something about it?
Oh, his story is very good. I have thought about it, but he ended up having Alzheimer’s in the end and it was very painful for me. It still is. That’s also sort of an interesting thing. He was put into ward for CIA agents who have Alzheimer’s, because the people that worked there have security clearances.
I never even considered that.
I mean, they’re carrying around national secrets and they literally don’t know who they’re talking to. So yeah, I started writing a movie, but I found writing it was too painful. I came up with a whole plot, but then when I started getting into dialogue… I was crying everywhere. I thought, “Well it’s supposed to be funny?” [laughs] Maybe somebody else can write it. Maybe at some point when I get older I can really finally deal with it.
You’ve been working consistently for such a long time, and you give off multiyphenatve vibes, so I was surprised to see you have no writing credits. Is that a path that you’ve considered?
No credits, but I love writing. My wife and I write together. We write the comedies. The thing I don’t want to do is be in a writer’s room. I’d rather write it and then just turn it in. I don’t think it’s an environment that I would thrive in, but I’m not entirely sure. I’m open to it. These last couple years since COVID have been really interesting for me as far as reappraisal of what I want to do. Auditioning at home in front of a screen is something I really don’t like. I genuinely do not like it. I’m one of the few actors who enjoys auditions. I like working a room. I like figuring out people. I like getting the vibe.
What else do you think about in this reappraisal?
For sort of strange looking guy, I’ve had a remarkably good career. I’ve been extremely satisfied telling other people’s jokes for 35 years. But I was like, “Is that it?” I’d sort of lost energy doing it. There were a lot of things I didn’t want to do anymore, and it boiled down to — and this sounds a little snobbish — I wanted to do something smart. I wanted to do something that people could think about. I had done cotton candy for so long. There’s nothing wrong with cotton candy. It’s fantastic, but when you’ve been serving it for a long time, it gets a little sickly. [Lucky Hank] basically fell into my lap, and it was fascinating to be a part of an ensemble — and to be on location. I’m very much a family guy, so I’ll leave a set and come home. I work hard maintaining my friendships, I try to take care of my kids and be a loving partner to my wife. For the last 19 years, I really didn’t want to work out of town.
You did for Veep, though, right?
I did it for Veep because it was Veep! (laughs. But if I could do more of this kind of stuff, I would just continue doing that forever and be completely happy. If I go back to doing broader comedies here and there, then I’ll pick up the writing and work harder on it. I’m keeping my options open, but I definitely fell in love with acting again doing Lucky Hank.
Did you feel like you loved acting on Better Things?
Better Things was a magic act. Something special happened every day on that set. [Pamela Adlon] is literally a witch or wizard, however you want to put it. The eulogy episode, for example, when the youngest says, “Nobody talked about me at all, we only talked about Mom.” We were consoling her, and then I don’t even know who started it… but we started dancing around her. It’s not in the script and we just did this whole dance. The DP, Paul Koestner, followed us and made a great shot out of it. Stuff like that rarely happens on a set. That was alchemy, and I really loved it. Better Things and Veep really got me excited and invigorated.
And you played gay on Better Things, which was a departure.
This is going to sound a little strange, but I was in Miss Congeniality 2. The character that I did was very broad. I was basically doing Isaac Mizrahi. I had just seen that great documentary on him, Unzipped, I just thought that’s what I wanted to do. It was super fun, but then when I watched it all cut together, I thought… maybe it went too far. I maybe made almost a grotesque caricature. Of the gay men I knew, and I am friends with a lot, I didn’t know anyone that over the top. I was determined that if I was able to play another gay role that I would play him as another guy — a real person and not a vehicle for jokes.
What’s a job that you were really sorry to see end?
I loved doing multi-cams. Everybody talks about how they want multi-cam shows back, but they do all these pilots and none get picked up. So I had to be realistic and just stop taking those pilots.
That’s not what I expected you to say.
I kind of backed into doing multi-cam. I had thought after The Beverly Hillbillies [the movie] that I was going to be a movie star. That didn’t happen for various reasons — some out of my control and maybe some that were of my control. But then I got The Drew Carey Show. Tor the first year, I wanted to get off the show. I loved Drew. I love the cast. But I didn’t want to do the show. Bruce Helford [the showrunner] wouldn’t let me off, thank God. So, in the second year, once I realized it was going to go for a while, I actually fell in love with the format. It was an unrehearsed play and an audience that is right there giving immediate feedback. It was that love that I got when I was in that theater in Paris. That immediate feedback is just fantastic, and it’s less clinical than a single camera comedy. People laugh!
Are you in a wait-and-see mode on a second season for Lucky Hank or are you working on anything else?
I have been upsetting my representation because this is my daughter’s last year at home – she’s graduating high school — and I have very luckily put us in a financial situation where I can just do voiceovers. So, I don’t want to work right now. I can’t do another series because committed to Hank — which I am, by the way, not just contractually committed! I don’t want to be an alienated dad. I’m totally enjoying driving my daughter to school every day, even though she’s could drive herself. I pick her up and we listen to music. We listen to the soundtrack of Mamma Mia. I’m having a good time.
Well, this was lovely. Thank you so much for speaking with me.
Wait, we didn’t do the standard bullet point questions and had a real conversation. That doesn’t happen very often.
What are the standard questions that you get?
Oh, “What’s Bob like?” Everybody wants to know what Bob’s like. I mean, what am I going to say? “He’s a monster. What an asshole!” First of all, Bob is great! But people want to talk about greatest hits more than anything. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked about Lawrence.
The neighbor in Office Space?
Not that I’m not happy to talk about Lawrence. God bless that part, it’s fantastic, but that was three days of my life. Napoleon Dynamite was one day. I worked one day on Napoleon Dynamite, and people always want to talk about it. I’m happy for its success, don’t get me wrong, but I worked one day. I have a whole other life, you guys. [laughs]
Few things resonate as much as smaller parts in cult comedies.
Totally. To this day, people still ask me what I would do if I had a million dollars. I’ll be in the parking lot, and they want an answer. And I hate to disappoint. I’m an actor.