'SNL's' Darrell Hammond Reveals Cutting, Abuse In 14 years on Saturday Night Live, Darrell Hammond did many impressions, including Bill Clinton and Al Gore. But few of his cast members knew that Hammond struggled with drugs, alcohol and self-cutting as the result of systematic childhood abuse.
NPR logo

'SNL's' Darrell Hammond Reveals Cutting, Abuse

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/141990958/142093849" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'SNL's' Darrell Hammond Reveals Cutting, Abuse

'SNL's' Darrell Hammond Reveals Cutting, Abuse

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/141990958/142093849" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You might not recognize Darrell Hammond if you ran into him on the street because he's more familiar in character - as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John McCain, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Donald Trump and Sean Connery. Those are just some of the characters Darrell Hammond was famous for on "Saturday Night Live," where he was a cast member for 14 seasons, which set a record for longevity.

He's written a new memoir that really threw me. It's called "God, If You're Not Up There, I'm F-ed," and in the first page, he describes being sent to a psychiatric and rehab facility after getting drunk and trying to cut his arm off with a kitchen knife.

As the book goes on, he describes being the victim of his mother's emotional and physical abuse, and suffering mental health problems. As you can imagine, some of this conversation may be upsetting for some listeners to hear. In a couple of minutes, we'll hear what happened backstage just before this sketch, when Hammond did his now-famous impression of Al Gore in his first debate with George Bush. He's talking about the Bush tax-cut plan.


DARRELL HAMMOND: (As Al Gore) My plan, Jim, is different. Rather than squander the surplus on a risky tax cut for the wealthy, I would put it in what I call a lockbox.

GROSS: Darrell Hammond, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, reading your book, I kept thinking to myself, you know, I've seen you so many times on TV. I had like, no idea that you were going through such agony and that you were having, you know, the mental health problems that you were having, and the alcohol and drug problems that you were having. Why did you decide to let us know about all of this?

HAMMOND: Well, I think I've been fascinated for as long as I've been alive, and that's a few years now, about relationships between perpetrator and victim, and the contract between perpetrator and victim - the agreement between perpetrator and victim in which the victim agrees to remain silent because he's in fear.

And so I wanted to write about it. Maybe I didn't write well about it, but I wrote about it, and that's what's in this book.

GROSS: When you refer to yourself as the victim, do you mean victim of your mother?

HAMMOND: Yes, partially.

GROSS: Do you want to explain the way that she physically hurt you?

HAMMOND: Well, it's in the book's - there was, I guess, systematic - I don't know if it's systematic - hammer, electrical outlet, knife.

GROSS: Sounds pretty horrible.

HAMMOND: It wasn't too good. You know, I've been in treatment since I was 19, and I'm 56. So that's a couple of bucks and a long time.

GROSS: Yet you write: When I was 5, I was overwhelmed with the sense that I was surrounded by evil. When the sun started to go down in the late afternoon, I was filled with foreboding, and everything was scary: the walls, the furniture, the rug. The very air was scary. Do you think that's because you were afraid to be in your own home, you were afraid of your mother?

HAMMOND: I think that it's because I wasn't liked at all.

GROSS: By your parents?

HAMMOND: On any level. And sure, I mean, even as a child - I mean, they say children are intelligent and on some level, they sense things. I mean, certainly I knew that when nighttime came, things could happen there. I think - I would like to point out that I put in what I remember, and I don't remember a lot.

I've received a mix of treatment over the years. I think that it was very helpful and this is, you know, my story and what I remember about it, and I hope readers got something out of it.

GROSS: I think the story I found most surprising in your book is the night that you were preparing to do a Bush-Gore presidential debate with Will Ferrell as Bush. And this is like, a really famous sketch that you did because it's where Will Ferrell first does strategery, and where you first do lockbox, with Gore talking about it - he wanted Social Security safe in a lockbox.

So meanwhile before the sketch, you're backstage in the dressing room, preparing to go on. The floor turns red. You forget what Gore's voice sounds like. You forget what Gore even looks like. Could you describe what you were experiencing?

HAMMOND: I don't know if I can describe it any better than that. I mean, I was disoriented and frightened, and I was feeling every single thing that happened to me - you know, when I was in the kitchen once with my mother. And I'm not a doctor, so I can't describe what flashbacks are as well as, perhaps, they can, but it is like you're living it again.

So if you make a small cut, it creates a new and more manageable crisis than the one that currently has you lying on the...

GROSS: Let me stop there. You're talking about cutting yourself ...


GROSS: ..with a razor.

HAMMOND: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So I interrupted you. You're saying it does what?

HAMMOND: Well, it creates a smaller, more manageable crisis than the one that has you gripping the carpet.

GROSS: So like, the physical pain distracts you from the mental agony?

HAMMOND: I think so. I think that might be a fair assessment of it, yeah.

GROSS: So you take out a razor and start cutting your...

HAMMOND: I don't start. It's just a little (makes noise) - just enough to, you know, draw red and create a crisis that's manageable, you know.

GROSS: So are you concerned at that moment, what if I bleed onstage?

HAMMOND: No, I mean...

GROSS: In the practical realm.

HAMMOND: No, at that point, I've been doing that since I was 19 years old. So I'm pretty good at managing it.

GROSS: So that you don't really show blood?

HAMMOND: Not through my clothes. I mean, it's easily bandaged.

GROSS: Got it. OK. So did that help? Did it help you pull it together before going onstage?

HAMMOND: It did, and then the genius writer, Jim Downey(ph), did the line readings for me in the Gore in which we had discussed, which was sort of an amalgam of the two or three different presentations I'd seen of him. I found that he spoke differently on three different occasions, and we were confounded by that and about - you know, for about a year.

And so we tried to find some amalgam of those three. So people say well, that sounds exactly like him. Well, it doesn't sound like him at all. It seems to, but that's not him. It's an amalgam that I worked out in Greenwich Village in front of the audiences at the Comedy Cellar, which they finally began to respond to.

GROSS: So let me back up a second. So did Jim Downey, who's doing the line readings for you, did he know what was going on with you?

HAMMOND: No, no.

GROSS: Did anybody know?

HAMMOND: I mean, there were only, really, a couple of instances where people did know. I mean, most of the time, it was really manageable. But if you add, you know, a pint of Remy to the occasion, then sometimes it gets a little messy.

GROSS: So you go onstage, and you do the sketch.

HAMMOND: Yes, he says - I forget what he says - what Chris Parnell, who was playing Jim Lehrer, says. And then Downey is standing right in front of me. We'd been doing these line readings for about 90 minutes - 60 minutes, and I say Jim, and I start, you know. And once I pulled that trigger, I was able to do it.

I mean, it wasn't nearly as much pressure as I've been under in my life. It wasn't nearly as much.

GROSS: So did you enjoy it once you were out there?

HAMMOND: It was exhilarating because when I did - I think the line was something like - I was about 15 seconds, 10 seconds into the line, and there was a smattering of applause in the crowd and some laughter, I think; just a little bit of laughter. And I had a sense that wow, yeah, we worked on this for a year. Here it is, and they're responding. And it was exactly what I wanted to happen.

GROSS: So you know, you had been in the dressing room, like, flashing back to your mother abusing you; really upset. You cut yourself to kind of get yourself out of your mental crisis; into like, the physical world and into the moment. You go onstage, you do the Bush-Gore thing with Will Ferrell. That week, you end up in rehab, right?

HAMMOND: I was in - no, I didn't go to rehab that week. I had been in the psych ward at one of New York's hospitals that week, though.

GROSS: And again, do the people on the show know that?

HAMMOND: I don't know how much they knew. I know that some did. I know that the power brokers did. I know they were extremely helpful to me. I know they made considered decisions over whether or not I was going to be able to put the ball over the fence, whether it was jeopardizing my health or actually helping me to have this giant project to pour my life into.

And so that was a delicate balance for them and not one that they deserved to have to go through, but I thought they were very brave about it.

GROSS: It sounds like they were very generous to you.

HAMMOND: Extremely.

GROSS: So you're most famous for doing Clinton on "Saturday Night Live." How did you go about studying Bill Clinton?

HAMMOND: Well, the first time I looked at him, something occurred to me that seemed impossible to me, and yet I've learned a great deal from it since then, in studying other people. And that is that people have people they admire. People, stand-up comics, are influenced by their heroes, baseball players by their heroes. You know, we have a style that we developed that on some level, is a tribute to the people we admired.

I didn't know anything about him and I thought, was this guy into Kennedy or something? I don't why I thought that. I was like, was he - why am I feeling Kennedy? I'm feeling Kennedy. And I - it was an instinctual thing. I mean, it's not like what I do is an exact science. And I'm frequently wrong, I hasten to add that.

But finally - I couldn't get a handle on it. I mean, I couldn't get a handle on it at all. So I thought - I had an audio recording somewhere of JFK's inaugural address. I printed it out by hand. I rehearsed it with a Southern accent, and then I put in this little crackle in my voice that I'd heard him do. And voila, I felt like I had him.

GROSS: Now, you point out that Clinton - that most people have like, four or five hand gestures that they use, whereas Clinton had about 37. So did you catalog his different hand gestures?

HAMMOND: I tried to but then, you know, I realized at that point, no one's going to know that. No one's going to remember all - they're not going to care about - here's this fascinating man, you know; no one will respond to that. So I thought at that point - and this is very early in my career at SNL - I thought to myself: I think I'm going to just pick two or three that I find interesting.

Then I'm going to take them down to Greenwich Village and put them up onstage, and see what they respond to. So one night I was onstage there, and I bit my lower lip, and I held up my thumb like, you know, to give the - I don't know what that sign is where you

like, give the thumbs-up sign at the same time, and people went wild.

They thought that was him. And I thought, again, this is what people are responding to, but I never saw him do them both at the same time. I brought it out there; they responded to it in the Village. I showed it to Lorne; he said: That's it; that's what we want.

I mean, because we were starting out as accurately as we could get, but then we were italicizing, too. I mean, are you familiar with the artist Hirschfeld?

GROSS: The caricaturist.


GROSS: Who had all his famous caricatures in the New York Times.

HAMMOND: Yes. I used to put those pictures in my office and try to absorb them and think about them; like, what was that man doing? - because that's what I want to do. I mean, Bob Hope's nose wasn't that long, was it?


HAMMOND: I mean, really? You know, I mean, you know what I mean? Judy Garland's nose didn't pug that much, did it? Well, we don't know what that means, but we respond to it. Like wow, yeah, that's them. That's really them. So you know, Lorne's formula was always start with the accurate thing and then italicize.

And then it makes it glorious. It shows all the person's colors, and the people respond to it better than a simple print.

GROSS: My guest is Darrell Hammond. He's written a new memoir. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Darrell Hammond. He's written a new memoir about his years on "Saturday Night Live" and the mental health problems he's experienced through his life.

Now, you did John McCain. I think it was like, your last season on "Saturday Night Live," and so you did McCain opposite Tina Fey's Sarah Palin when like, everybody was watching. But you didn't want to do McCain.

HAMMOND: No, I did not after...

GROSS: Would you explain why?

HAMMOND: Well, you know, my father and I had never been close on any level for, you know, 40-something years. He was dying of cancer; he was in a

hospice; and we got a call on a Saturday. I was doing a show that night with Obama, future President Obama. And I called, and I said: Look, I will skip tonight's show, and I'll come straight down there.

And he said: I think that in case this guy's the president, you should have this honor of being onstage with him. I said, OK. So he took himself off his morphine because he was afraid the morphine would stop his liver or his heart or something because, you know, by then he'd had his ear cut off and really, savage pain.

So he takes himself off the morphine. I fly to Florida the following morning with my pal Eddie(ph), who was ex-NYPD and who my father, I think, truly loved, and we get there to the hospice and, you know, there's a few hours left to his life, you know.

And we get there, we walk in the room, and he had arrayed his war medals on his chest. And it was as if to say, you know, I guess I wasn't such a great dad, you know. And I took that as an apology. Sorry.

GROSS: You're saying that he was saying to you: Maybe I wasn't such a great dad, but I was a really good soldier?

HAMMOND: He was saying: It took my life, it took my heart, it took my soul. I went there, I became a warrior, I killed people, and I had a hard time, you know, adjusting to society after that.

GROSS: So getting back to McCain, you didn't want to portray McCain because...

HAMMOND: Well, we had a - we had a military funeral. There were soldiers. They played "Taps." There was a folded flag. And it was, I think, the single most...


HAMMOND: Yeah, just give me a second.

GROSS: Sure, however much time you want.

HAMMOND: It was the single most important thing that had ever happened to me in my whole life, the single most.

GROSS: The funeral?

HAMMOND: Yes because I realized, you know, I had seen him through the years, grappling with these visions of what he called verifiable evil. I mean, maybe not biblical but not of this earth, when he looked into the eyes of one particular Nazi officer who - sorry - he took his gun, you know, which...

GROSS: Your father took the Nazi's gun or his own gun?

HAMMOND: His gun - the Nazi's gun, and brought it home. And I guess I was about 12, and he was sitting in the living room, just hammered, you know, on gin, and staring out, as he was wont to do, into his tomato garden, through the glass doors - I need to take a tranquilizer before I do these interviews.


HAMMOND: And I was like, what in the world, why would you have a German Luger? I mean, it wasn't loaded. There was never - there was never any idea that it was going to be shot at anybody or anything. I was just wow, that's a real gun. And he said - he said that it was particularly humiliating to have your gun taken from you if you were an officer.

He said he looked into this man's eyes, the man looked at him with such joy and triumph of evil that he didn't say - he didn't say, then I killed him. I mean, it's quite obvious that he killed him. I'd heard him talk about people that he killed. And it was like, why now? Why are you looking at it?

He said: I took his gun - I'm stone-cold sober, and I'm sitting here feeling this; this is crazy. He said: I wanted him to see in my eyes my response to what I saw in his eyes when I took his gun. He would say: Look, these aren't normal people. These - they're not going through a phase. This is luscious evil, joy, triumph. They weren't normal people, you know.

Now, having said that, here's a guy who's afraid to go to church. He killed a lot of guys.

GROSS: Is that what you mean when you say in your book that you think that the war like, ruined him?

HAMMOND: Well, to the extent that he couldn't really function that well, except as a warrior. That's what he became. My experience is, you become a warrior, it's pretty tough to convert. You know, it's tough to look into the eyes of an SS officer on Friday, and pump gas in Mississippi on Monday. It's not easy. I mean...

GROSS: I'm thinking about you being a boy in your house and on the one hand, your mother sticking your fingers into electric sockets and coming after you with a knife and, you know, making you think that maybe you were evil or that she was evil, or that there was evil dwelling in the house. You were afraid to be home.

HAMMOND: Yeah, yes.

GROSS: And at the same time, your father's talking to you about this like, evil Nazi who he had to kill, and he still has the gun, and he has like, evidence of that man in your house. So I could see how you'd grow up being scared...

HAMMOND: Do you understand how he was haunted by it?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

HAMMOND: He was haunted every night of his life by what he saw...

GROSS: But I think I also hear how you were haunted by him being haunted.


GROSS: So just to finish where we got into this from, you didn't want to do John McCain because you didn't want to mock someone who'd been a prisoner of war and had come...


GROSS: Yeah.

HAMMOND: Yes, his - it was my - I mean, look it, if you're injured, it changes the way you move. If you're injured, it changes the way you talk. I didn't want to lampoon someone, you know, who had given his life.

GROSS: Someone who had been through that ordeal.


GROSS: You know what really troubled me, reading your book?


GROSS: You know, you're talking about like, how your mother like, physically abused you...


GROSS: ..and otherwise didn't pay a whole lot of attention to you.


GROSS: And that, you know, your father was so obsessed with like, what happened during the war. And you felt that that broke him. And like, you're having all this trouble - like, you're at home; you're cutting yourself; you're having serious psychological problems. And it sounds, from your memoir - unless you left this part out - that they didn't really try to help you. They didn't even try to understand what you were going through.

HAMMOND: No. They never did. They were happy to accept - as I am happy to accept - a sanitized version of reality. If I can get a sanitized version of reality, I'll take it, you know. So I go to this doctor in Sebastian, Florida. The guy interviews me, and he doesn't know what the hell he's dealing with. Him, he doesn't know. I mean, how can he, in one hour? So he says to my mother - I mean, he says: He's a schizophrenic, and he's a manic depressive. And she - I can remember; I saw her face - she said, oh. Like she thought she was about ready to get busted. And instead she's like, really? Is that right? Yeah. Well, what can we do about that? And the doctor says well, I'll just give him these pills, that's what. And then we'll lock him up here for a while, and that'll be just fine. So they were happy to accept that as that's what happened.

Now, my father doesn't know what happened at all. I mean really, he's in his own world. And so years later, when I began trauma therapy, I called her on the phone and I said, I'm being treated for the symptoms that prisoners of war - happened, Mom, but all I did was grow up in your house. Can you talk to me about that? There was a pause, and then in a sort of - that husky-throaty thing she got in when she was about ready to menace, she said: Don't ever call us again. Click - like that. And that - I didn't talk to them until their deathbed.

GROSS: Did you always remember these things about your mother?


GROSS: Or did they come out in...

HAMMOND: I remember her reciting the Little Orphan Annie poem about Little Orphan Annie being butchered; I remembered that. I remember the floor being red and me bleeding in a vague sense - not a lot about it. I remember, I thought it was my fault. I remember my hands slammed in the door - again, my fault. And also, electric socket, I – my fault. All my fault, isn't it? I mean, can you imagine

the desperation of a child who chooses to believe that he did this to himself just so he doesn't have to consider the idea that his mother did it or his parents did it? Because, you know Terry, I'll tell you something. I hope this - I don't know anything about you, but I think it's completely barbaric to shake hands with and seek help from the person who caused your injury. That will make you

sick. That's my idea. And I'm not a doctor, OK? If a doctor comes in here and goes, you know what, you're completely wrong; I'll

go yeah, you're right. I'm a nut.


HAMMOND: I've had 40...

GROSS: You don't have any questions about these memories - like, you're confident that your mother did this, that it's not like...


GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HAMMOND: That's the little bit that I remember, yes.

GROSS: So let me say something that I think you got from your mother that was positive - maybe the only thing, but let's talk about this thing.


GROSS: And that is that she really liked to do impressions of people in the neighborhood.


GROSS: And the way - maybe the only way - that you had to connect with her was doing impressions too, which is how you started doing impressions, yes?


GROSS: So who were those early people who you did impressions of?


HAMMOND: We did - in those days, we were doing Ralph Richardson and Paul Scofield, in a record they had of "A Christmas Carol," in which they played most of the characters. So we would do those words. I mean, I think I put some of that in the book. After that, as I started to get up around the age of 10, I could do a little Popeye scat singing, you know; I knew vowels and consonants then and...


HAMMOND: You know, when he would say...


HAMMOND: You know, I worked that out in my head, you know. I mean, I didn't have a lot to do, you know, so I worked that out in my head. Well, that - I don't want to say delighted her or charmed her or changed our relationship. I can tell you that on a given day it, changed her state. When she got that faraway look in her eyes, when her Southern accent fell, when her voice grew husky, I knew what was happening then. So let's do "A Christmas Carol," Mom. Or let's play - she used to play Tchaikovsky's "Sixth Symphony," you know, wonderful piece, and we would sometimes play that. I couldn't play the whole thing. She could play the whole thing. I could just play like, the first 60 seconds of it. Well, all of a sudden, the afternoon is over and everything is fine.

I could remember, she – I guess she was doing someone from the neighborhood, I just remember doing that voice when she left the room. I was like wow; I think I can do that.

GROSS: How did you start getting serious about your ability to do impressions and think OK, I can make this a real part of my life?

HAMMOND: I was 27. I had done five or six plays - I forget - in New York City, and I got tired of the life. It was too hard. Being a waiter, I mean, and then doing a play at night - really, really hard. So I thought well, I - I'm not fit for anything else. What do I like? And then I thought well, I like talking like other people. That's fun. So I moved to Florida; one thing led to another; bup, bup, bup, I'm in a radio station midnight to 6 punching buttons three times an hour, and I have six hours a night to practice in a recording studio. And I start trying to improve myself. A year later, I got a job at a radio station doing character voices, and then it sort of took off.

GROSS: Did it help you to be able to listen back to yourself, by recording yourself?

HAMMOND: It did, but I never do that now.

GROSS: Why not?

HAMMOND: I just - it's disturbing to me because I noticed - it'd be like if you were a violin player and you listen to a recording of yourself, and you kind of hit the note. I mean, I don't feel like any of them - I don't - I very seldom think any of them are any good. I know it's a trick, you know; it's a vocal trick I'm doing. And I never thought they were any good, most of them.

GROSS: Well, apparently, you're the only one who thought that.


HAMMOND: Well, thank you.

GROSS: So in your book, you describe how like, you go on to do your audition for Lorne Michaels and for Marci - what's her name?


GROSS: Marci Klein, who like, first discovered you at a club...


GROSS: ...and thought like, let's give him an audition. And you're already taking lithium...


GROSS: ...for the problems that you're having. And...

HAMMOND: Right. You can see that bloat in my first White House Correspondents dinner. Yes.

GROSS: From the lithium?


GROSS: Mm-hmm. And so like, when you get the job - when you got the job, did you feel like oh, I'm hiding something from them by not telling them that I'm having these problems; I'm on lithium.

HAMMOND: You know, if you look back in the book, I sat down on the chair and Lorne Michaels, whose eyes don't miss things too often, I would imagine, looked at me in the eyes for a second and knew that he had seen a creature like me before, OK? He looked at me - a look of recognition - and he said, are you OK? Are you all right? I mean, why would he say that? I mean, I'm sure he didn't say that to everyone that auditioned for him. He knew exactly what he was seeing. He'd seen it before. And I think that when I - somewhere when I was doing Ted Koppel in German, or Phil Donahue in Spanish - I forget - I saw him - another look of recognition, and it was pleasing to him. And I did well enough that he called me back to give me a - never hard workout, which - did a second audition. So I was very, very honored.

GROSS: So earlier, when we were talking about how cutting - cutting yourself with a razor or a knife got you out of your emotional pain, out of your head and...

HAMMOND: Well, I think it made me manageable. It got me up off the floor. Yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Does working do that to you? Does like, studying voices, doing impressions get you out of what's happening in your head also?

HAMMOND: So does reading books, taking walks, watching baseball. I love baseball. I've just decided to let the larger issues of life go to the Einsteins and the Billy Grahams. I've failed at so much stuff. I love baseball, again, and that's what I do.

GROSS: So, you know, we've talked about some horrible things in your life - you know, emotional pain, drug problems, cutting yourself. We are you now?

HAMMOND: Well, I was on seven meds when I was on "Saturday Night Live." I'm on one, you know, Wellbutrin, which is, I think - some of the healthiest people I know take Wellbutrin.

GROSS: It's a very commonly used antidepressant.

HAMMOND: Yeah. I mean, that's just on general principle. The point is that due to this - the great doctors I've met and some of the spiritual laws that I find miraculous, and groups. Look, I've been at it a long time. I don't have flashbacks anymore. I don't have nightmares anymore. I don't cut. And I feel good most of the time. I mean, I really have a - I have a nice thing going. It just took a long

time to get here, you know?

GROSS: Well, I wish you well. I wish you good health and...

HAMMOND: And the same to you.

GROSS: Thank you so much.

HAMMOND: Thank you.

GROSS: Darrell Hammond's new memoir is called "God, If You're Not Up There, I'm F-ed." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, the anatomy of skyscrapers. This is FRESH AIR.


Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.