LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some readers might find offensive.
Studio 8H, 30 Rockefeller Center New York City
To say it's intimidating to walk into 30 Rockefeller Center to audition for Saturday Night Live is one of the century's greatest understatements. The building itself, once known as the RCA Building until GE bought the company and NBC along with it, is one of the city's great landmarks, built during the Depression in classic Art Deco style. You could get dizzy looking up at the Josep Maria Sert mural Time on the ceiling above the main entrance. Thank God it was summer, because if the enormous Christmas tree had been up out front, I'd probably have passed out.
Trying to ignore the hordes of tourists lined up to take the NBC tour, I checked in at the security desk — Yes, Mr. Hammond, here's your pass, go on up, they're expecting you — and stepped into the same elevator that for two decades had ferried a seemingly endless cavalcade of comedians to stardom.
I got out on the eighth floor and was escorted to makeup, where a lovely young lady dabbed me with powder to douse the shine of nervous sweat on my forehead. At least I had a few months of sobriety under my belt, so I didn't have withdrawal shakes. Although I could have killed for a slug of gin right about then.
When I'd been sufficiently fluffed and primped, I was led into the theater that I'd fantasized about forever, Studio 8H, or the Hall, as I call it, where legends like George Carlin, Buck Henry, and Andy Kaufman had performed, a few feet from where the Rolling Stones and David Bowie have played, and where Lorne Michaels, who hatched this comedy phenomenon a generation earlier to replace weekend reruns of The Tonight Show, was sitting on a chair in front of me.
I almost said, "You know what? I'm thirty-nine years old. I'm on lithium. Do you know what lithium is for? If I may quote the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health:
Lithium is used to treat and prevent episodes of mania (frenzied, abnormally excited mood) in people with bipolar disorder (manic-depressive disorder; a disease that causes episodes of depression, episodes of mania, and other abnormal moods). Lithium is in a class of medications called antimanic agents. It works by decreasing abnormal activity in the brain.
"So yeah, it's too late, and I'm too fucking scared, and apparently I have abnormal activity in my brain. Thank you. Good-bye."
Lorne looked at me and said, "Are you okay?"
"I think so," I lied.
Then he smiled at me. Fuck it, now I have to go through with it. I had been asked to do ten minutes, which is an eternity. I proceeded to peel off every impression, like Phil Donahue speaking Spanish, that I could pull together in the short amount of time that I'd been given to prepare. But really, I'd been preparing for the previous twelve years for a moment like this.
When I left, I thought, If my life ends right now, it's okay. I was in that theater. Lorne Michaels was there. And I performed well, despite my terror. Whether I was any good or not was immaterial. I knew I wasn't going to get called back.
And yet I was. Lorne wanted to see if I had any more impressions, so I came up with Ted Koppel in German and another ten or so and did it all over again a week later.
I guess I did okay, because then Lorne wanted to see me move on my feet. He took me to the Comic Strip. Fuck, that place? Really? I'd been dismissed by a lot of New York clubs, but the Comic Strip held a special place in my pantheon of rejection.
When I auditioned there in 1990, I had as great a set as I'd had up to that point. I totally killed. Afterward, Lucien Hold, the manager of the club, who was renowned for having discovered comic greats like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Adam Sandler, sat me down in a booth up front.
"How old are you?" he asked.
I told him I was thirty-four. He didn't flinch.
He pointed to pictures on the wall of comedians who had worked there. "Look at these faces. They're stars. That's what we're about here. Stars."
Lucien was smiling at me.
"They have it."
Could my luck be changing?
"And I don't think you have it," he said.
Apparently my luck wasn't changing in any way whatsoever.
"I don't see any reason why you should come back here or call here again." He stood up and walked away without so much as a "Good-bye, thanks for coming."
I went home with absolutely no reason to believe that I was ever going to make it. I had only enough money for a subway token. It was one of those horribly cold February New York nights, and I took the train back to my hovel in Brooklyn. I even slipped on the ice on the sidewalk outside my apartment. It was perfect, going home without hope. I sat in the dark, smoking cigarettes. If I'd had any money, I'd have gotten drunk.
It was kismet that, five years later, Lorne would have me go there for part of my audition, unwittingly giving me a dose of cosmic payback. With Lorne watching and Lucien Hold hovering nearby, I got onstage and, once again, I killed, although with so many performances and impressions since then, I no longer remember exactly what I did. As much as I would have liked to tell Lucien what I thought of him, I figured that performance for Lorne was as much of a fuck-you as I needed.
The next challenge was dinner with Lorne and his producer, Marci Klein, Calvin Klein's daughter, who to this day works as a producer on Saturday Night Live as well as with Tina Fey on 30 Rock. Marci had chosen a restaurant over on the West Side near Broadway. It was a casual evening, and we just swapped stories. The problem is, the highlight of one of my stories might be, "And then when we got to the store, they
didn't have any long-handled spoons!" and Lorne's would be something like, "When I was sitting on the Berlin Wall with Paul McCartney ... " I was never going to be able to compete with his material, but somehow I made it through the evening without humiliating myself.
A few weeks later, I was lying on my futon on the uneven floor of my apartment in Hell's Kitchen, where the night before a small furry creature had run up the side of my head, stomped on my face, and then run back down the other side. My wife was with me when the phone rang. I don't know why, but we looked at each in that meaningful way they do in the movies. It was my manager, Barry Katz, and my agent, Ruth Ann Secunda, calling at the same time, which never happened.
I got the job.
My wife and I decided to celebrate by opening a bottle of champagne and dancing in the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel.
Okay, no, we didn't. What we really did was run like crazy from my apartment on Forty-eighth Street and Tenth Avenue down to Forty-fifth Street between Eighth Avenue and Broadway to the Imperial Theatre, where Les Miz was playing. I loved that show. I'd seen it about ten times. I couldn't get enough of it; we bought the most expensive tickets they had left. I reckoned that play is my life story — unjustly treated by life, resolutely angry, but things kind of work out, and along the way there's a little bit of love and light and, not for nothing, a couple of bucks in it too. That's my Tenth Avenue synopsis of one of the great literary works of all time.
A few days later, I was having dinner at Umberto's Clam
House down in Little Italy, and I ran into Colin Quinn, whom I'd met years earlier when I'd been hired, then fired, as his warm-up guy on the MTV game show Remote Control, which he hosted in the late 1980s.
"Hey, what's up?"
"I just got Saturday Night Live!"
On Monday, September 25, 1995, I reported to work for the twenty-first season of Saturday Night Live.
As I walked through those halls and saw those photos on the wall of the greats who had worked there — the late John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Chris Farley; Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, Molly Shannon — I couldn't wrap my lithium-quenched mind around the fact that this was really happening. Two decades of comic genius and me? It was tremendous validation, and yet I was certain it was a cosmic joke of some kind. Maybe the antidepressants were making me hallucinate?
I was assigned an office on the seventeenth floor with, who else, Colin Quinn, who had been hired that year as a writer and featured player. We hung out there until an intern knocked on the door and yelled, "Pitch!"
The pitch meeting in Lorne's office down the hall is a little bit tradition and a little bit meet-and-greet, where whichever legend of stage or screen or music or sports or politics is hosting that week is welcomed by the writers and the cast. Lorne sits behind his desk, the host sits in a chair by the desk, and everyone else sits wherever they can squeeze in, including the floor. Lorne's office was plenty big, but it's a shitload of people who crammed in there.
Lorne's right-hand men in these festivities, alongside Marci Klein, were SNL producers Mike Shoemaker and Steve Higgins. These guys had, and still have, to be able to do all the jobs on the show — like a restaurant manager who can cook, wait tables, and make a nice Caesar dressing. They had to know how to write a joke, manage people, craft a sketch, and above all they had to be fucking funny. Higgins is great with impressions and helped me build almost every impression I would do on the show.
Mariel Hemingway was the host of my first show. I remember thinking at the time, She's had a conversation with Woody Allen, hell, she's kissed Woody Allen, and I'm sitting just a few feet from her. And she's more beautiful than anyone has ever been in the history of people.
Do my socks match?
Even major stars are often a little intimidated when they walk into those offices, but Lorne makes sure the SNL crew around them is very hands-on in the most unintrusive way possible. Everybody is extremely welcoming, and any thought the host might have, the slightest grievance, the slightest knitted brow, is addressed clearly and immediately. And the host has tremendous say in what the show will be that week.
During the pitch meeting, everybody throws out ideas to the host about what they might like to do for that week's show. If you don't have an idea, it's entirely okay to make up something, even if it's hideous. The staff laughs, but often the poor host sits there thinking, What? Grecian Formula 44 on toast? What?
I tossed out a crazy idea for a cold open — that's the sketch at the start of the show that always ends with, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" The show had been receiving a lot of criticism for not being as funny in recent seasons as the nation thought it should be, and Lorne was being battered a little bit in the press for the way the show had gone downhill. So I had this crazy idea of doing a Wizard of Oz sketch in which the bad press was just a dream. It was completely ridiculous, although everyone was very kind about it.
It was the first of nearly three hundred weeks I would spend at SNL, and lithium isn't exactly Ginkgo biloba when it comes to memory, so I'm going to admit the details of that first week are a bit murky all these years later, but here goes.
After the pitch meeting the cast and writers, per custom, spent some time with Mariel, chatting, swapping compliments, and drinking coffee. Some writers started to work on the sketches that got the nod during the pitch meeting, and the rest of us went home.
On Tuesday, people started coming in around noon. Tradition dictates that the host visit with the writers in their offices to talk about proposed sketches. A lot of the writers are Emmy winners, and it's really an honor for the host as much as anything. Meanwhile, the writing began in earnest, so a lot of people would end up staying all night working, including Lorne. The cast members conferred with the writers, and each one participated in putting together anywhere from five to ten sketches.
My role on the show was a little different from the rest of the cast's. I wasn't very good at coming up with sketch ideas, but that's not why I was there. I was a field-goal kicker. You need a voice? I was the guy who could kick that football. I didn't know how to punt, pass, or tackle, but I could kick. So I came in on Wednesday mornings around 10:00 a.m. Sometimes I'd have gotten a call Tuesday night that would be a tip-off: "Can you do this guy?" But lots of times they would simply assign a role to me, and I would walk in having never heard the voice. That first week they gave me Ted Koppel in a Nightline sketch in which Koppel interviews Republican presidential candidates Colin Powell (Tim Meadows) and Bob Dole (Norm Macdonald). I usually had four or five hours to study videotapes I got from the research department and cobble together some semblance of a voice before read-through with all the cast and crew, which happened Wednesday afternoon.
You know how they open the gate at a rodeo and the bull comes out seething with energy and fury? That's the kind of mindset you have to have at read-through, because that's how hard it was. But it was all part of it, and as a performer you wouldn't have it any other way. A tennis player expects Wimbledon to be tough, and it is. Anywhere from thirty-five to fifty sketches were presented, which is three or four times what we'd end up with. It took a few hours to get through them all.
After read-through, Mariel complimented me on my Koppel impression. I thought, This is all pixie dust.
Right after the meeting, Lorne and the head writer and the producers met with Mariel to make the first cut, based chiefly on how many people laughed at each sketch during read-through. Lorne and the host had the last word on what stayed in and what got tossed.
Between read-through and picks, you might find yourself loitering around with hosts like: Robert De Niro, Senator John McCain, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, Sir Ian McKellen, Snoop Dogg, and Derek Jeter. For starters.
Later that night, an intern came by all the offices and yelled, "Picks!" That's when we found out which ten or twelve sketches had survived. It was always a drastic cut that day, and, per usual, a few people took a hit to the solar plexus, but there was no time to nurse hurt feelings. Costume and makeup started getting designed Wednesday night after picks. On Thursday, the writers revised or reworked the sketches that needed it. "Weekend Update" started to get pulled together based on what was in the news that week. On Thursday and Friday we blocked the show — that's figuring out the physical part of the performance, where everybody stands and how they move — while the writers oversaw the costuming and set design of their sketches. The writers also worked on Mariel's monologue.
Saturday afternoon we did a run-through for Lorne, during which the writers made notes for further changes — to dialogue, costume, blocking, and set design. The cast was usually in at least partial costume — wigs and costume, if not full makeup. In the two or three hours between the end of the run-through and the dress rehearsal at 8:00 p.m. (which is done in front of a live studio audience, although not the same one that will be seated for the live show at 11:30), the sketches were tweaked yet again, and new scripts distributed; each version of a script was a different color so everyone knew which was the most current. Sometimes the order of sketches was changed; often, sketches were cut. I went back to my dressing room to refine my Koppel impression and grab some dinner and a nap.
For dress, the cast got into full costume and makeup. The writers paid a lot of attention to how the audience reacted. The show was running at two hours, so when dress was over at ten o'clock, everybody headed up to Lorne's office on the ninth floor and waited for "Meeting!" to be called. This was when Lorne and the writers made the final cuts to get the material down to ninety minutes, as well further tweaks to the surviving sketches.
When the meeting ended, it was nearly eleven o'clock, so the cast hustled back downstairs to get back into hair and makeup (to make sure we didn't ruin the costumes or the handmade hairpieces, we would take them off between performances throughout the day). The writers got to work on making the changes. A posse of interns hits the bank of copy machines to churn out the revised scripts.
It's incredibly confusing, and the frenzy continues all the way until 1:00 a.m. If the show is running long, further sketches might be cut while we're on air. And adding to the stress, for me at least, was the constant presence of seriously famous people who came by to say hello to Lorne and watch the goings-on from a discreet spot on the floor. Over the years, a who's who of boldfaced names stopped by, but the audience can't see that Paul McCartney is standing right in front of you, watching you do your sketch, or that Yankees All-Star A-Rod is there with Kate Hudson, looking at you with an expression that says, Be spectacular. Be like us. The audience also doesn't know that you may not have seen the script before now, that it might have been rewritten on the way downstairs from the ninth-floor meeting to the eighth-floor studio.
Not everyone can take it, but Lorne picks people who can operate in this biosphere. He doesn't just hire talented people, he hires fast people. Some really fabulous players were on for only one year, and some fabulous people didn't make it even that far. The late Bernie Brillstein, who was my manager as well as Lorne's, once told me that Lorne has the greatest mind in comedy. And the truth is, at the heart of the show's greatness is a mystery that really only Lorne understands.
Intimidated as I was, I was deliriously happy to be along for the ride.
During Mariel Hemingway's monologue, she wandered backstage to introduce both new and returning cast members. I was one of several new people that year, along with Jim Breuer, Will Ferrell, David Koechner, Cheri Oteri, and Nancy Walls, plus returning players Norm Macdonald, Mark McKinney, Tim Meadows, Molly Shannon, and David Spade. Mariel had recently had a guest-starring role as a lesbian on The Roseanne Show, so in this bit she breezed by all the men and kissed all the women full on the mouth, even the show's new director, Beth McCarthy. It was pretty hot.
Right after the monologue, there was a pretaped gag commercial for A.M. Ale that had me sucking down a 40 with my breakfast. How fitting for my first day on national television.
Later in the show I debuted my Ted Koppel, which, regardless of Mariel's lovely words after read-through, didn't get a single laugh on air. I got his voice dead right, but it turned out that was exactly the problem: I did it as a straight impression. Most of the voices I'd learned over the years had been in the context of obvious jokes, but I was intimidated by the seeming seriousness of the Nightline sketch. Lorne used to say, "Start accurate, and then exaggerate the impression to make it funny."
By the time we reached the good nights, it felt like I'd been through a year of my life in the last twelve hours. There were hundreds of hurdles and little pitfalls and artistic souls littering the halls like umbrella carcasses along a New York street after a hard rain.
But it didn't matter. This was nirvana. Standing on the stage next to Mariel Hemingway at the end of the show, waving to the studio audience, I thought, This is just as good as playing for the Yankees.
I was so revved up that I went right back in to work Sunday morning, when the offices were empty, and worked on my Koppel. I didn't know if I'd do him again, but I wasn't taking any chances.
The following Saturday, I was in my first cold open. I played sportscaster Bob Costas, although I didn't say "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" I had the flu and it didn't go as well as I wanted, which he needled me about good-naturedly the first time I met him. Mariel Hemingway must have had a great time when she hosted, because she came back for a cameo that week (she served Lorne coffee). When I took the stage with my fellow cast members and original cast member Chevy Chase, who was hosting, for the good-nights at 1:00 a.m., it was my birthday. I was forty years old, older than most people when they left the show; this was just the beginning for me.
A couple of weeks later, I did my first Bill Clinton on air. It was during a sketch about Halloween in New Hampshire during primary season, and all the candidates showed up at someone's door during trick-or-treating hours to pitch themselves. Norm Macdonald did his killer Bob Dole. David Koechner did Phil Graham, and diminutive Cheri Oteri did her hyper Ross Perot. When it was Clinton's turn to ring the bell, I grabbed handfuls of candy and shoved them in my pockets. I had no idea at the time that this was the character that would largely define my time on SNL. All I could think was how I was bloated from the lithium, but I guess that made for a convincing pre–South Beach Diet president.
It's hard to say why that character hit so well. I think part of it is that the guy himself is so endearing in his charm and obvious human frailty — thank you, Paula Jones. Clinton was brought back the next week in the cold open. The sketch, written by the current junior senator from Minnesota, Al Franken — I didn't see that coming either — had me sitting in the White House kitchen in the middle of the night, stuffing my face with whipped cream from a can and hot-fudgecovered hot dogs while calling people to apologize for being a failure. I could relate, and I guess I got a little carried away during dress. Afterward, Lorne said I was taking too much time with the eating. "This needs to pick up. It's not a one-act play."
Clinton's self-esteem was so low, he asked the pizza delivery guy, played by Tim Meadows, to yell "Live from New York" for him.
I finally got to yell that famous line in the seventh episode, in character as Jesse Helms. I would go on to do it more than sixty times over the years, more than any other cast member in the show's history. (Dana Carvey held that title before me.)
But the first season was pretty tough for me. I had to learn how to be on the show. (I wasn't there long before I was given my own office because I had to practice, and Colin had to write.) What I found really unnerving was that sketches could play well at read-through, get a lot of laughs, and still not make the cut. Since I was new to live television, I had no idea there are a million reasons, technical reasons, why something might not be chosen for air. But time went by, I kept showing up, and I watched other cast members to see if I could pick up any pointers for SNL survival.
I was also going to the Comedy Cellar pretty regularly to try out new impressions. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, I'd go downtown to work on Donahue or Clinton or whomever I was expecting to play in upcoming shows. It was at the Cellar that I first tested out Clinton biting his bottom lip and giving the thumbs-up, and it was a hit. The first time I did it on air, the audience loved it. After that, any time I got a Clinton script, it would include a note, "Does the thumb and lip thing." For the record, I never actually saw Clinton do those at the same time. I made it up.
I didn't really start making it on the show until writer Adam McKay, now one of Will Ferrell's partners along with Chris Henchy and Judd Apatow in Funny or Die, the brilliant comedy video website, took an interest in me. When failed presidential candidate Steve Forbes hosted in April 1996, Adam wrote a sketch in which I played Koppel interviewing Forbes, playing himself, about whether he was the author of an anonymous political novel in which the lead character is a handsome ladies' man named Teve Torbes. At one point, after Forbes, in a fit of giggles, denies yet again that he is the author, I ad-libbed, "C'mon!" Ad-libbing was verboten as a rule — as Lorne has said, it's hard enough putting a show together in six days without introducing surprises — but the audience applauded loud enough that I had to pause for a moment before saying my next line. Suddenly I had this half-assed sense: I think I have a hit character.
In total that season, I managed to establish a number of impressions good enough to recur: Phil Donahue, Koppel, Clinton, Richard Dreyfuss. When I did Jesse Jackson on "Weekend Update" the first time, Norm Macdonald, who was anchor then, broke up when I yelled at the end of a largely nonsensical rant, "Say it with me: Yabba Dabba Do!" It was one of the few times something I wrote made it into the script and on air.
I even got a little make-out action that first season. I did one cold open as Jay Leno performing for the troops in a USO show. During the bit, I brought out Tim Meadows dressed in drag as RuPaul. Leno starts to say how beautiful RuPaul is, then goes in for a big lip lock. Tim runs offstage in mock horror (at least I think it was mock), and I turn back to the audience, my face covered in his smeared lipstick. In another episode, I played veteran 20/20 anchor Hugh Downs, who ends up pulling coanchor Barbara Walters, played by Cheri Oteri, behind the desk in a hot clinch.
Veterans and newcomers spent all season trying to figure out how to work together as an ensemble. Toward the end of the year, we started having great shows. It took time to turn it around, but suddenly SNL was happening again.
I got a call from someone at NBC saying, "Great year. We look forward to having you back."
I thought, Impossible. I could not have gotten here from where I started.
From God, If You're Not Up There, I'm F - - - - - -: Tales of Stand-Up, Saturday Night Live, And Other Mind-Altering Mayhem by Darrell Hammond. Copyright 2011 by Darrell Hammond. Excerpted by permission of Harper.