Being a Saturday Night Live cast member is the best possible survey course about how to be a Saturday Night Live cast member.
As Bill Hader recalled during his recent interview with Co.Create, Dan Aykroyd once predicted the Saturday Night Live standout’s entire career on the show. Aykroyd cornered him at an after-show party and told him how he would start off unsurely for a couple seasons, then win over the audience and be able to breath easy, that he’d gradually begin to sort of just ‘clock in’ and do the job well, but that he should finally start to consider leaving at that point. Considering that Hader ended up sticking around for eight seasons, from 2005 to 2013, and leaving to shake things up with projects like the dramatic-yet-funny Skeleton Twins and a possible HBO series, Aykroyd’s words seem rather prescient. However, the once and future (?) ghostbuster wasn’t the only member of SNL’s old guard from whom Hader took advice during his tenure. Here are a selection of lessons learned from professors like Seth Meyers, Steve Martin, and Amy Poehler that Hader also mentioned during his recent interview.
“Lorne Michaels said to me once, ‘You gotta play Love Me Do before you do The White Album.’ Don’t show up your first season trying to do crazy weird sketches while people are still going, ‘Who is this guy?’ Once they know you, they’ll go with you.”
“We did this thing at SNL about Jeremy Lin. It was about how during the whole Linsanity thing, there was so much racism in the press coverage. ‘The Knicks Have Yellow Fever’ and ‘Chink In the Armor.’ So in the sketch, we’re ESPN commentators, and the idea is that if we said any of the stuff they did about African-Americans, we’d get kicked off the air. For some reason, it was totally fine to say it about Asian people. [SNL writer] Marika Sawyer is Asian and she found it really funny. We were at the rewrite table and all these jokes came in that were hilarious, but Seth Meyers said, ‘Here’s the point we’re making, and these jokes don’t fall into that–they’re just orbiting it. They’ve gotta fall in line with what our point is.’ And that can be hard. Especially in a room full of people who have varying comic ideologies. Some people just want to be funny. ‘I don’t give a fuck about the message, I just want people laughing.’ Then there’s some people who want too much of a message, which is like the cart leading the horse. It’s just finding that balance, so it’s always good to have that voice in the room, saying ‘This is the joke. These are the parameters.’”
“There were some people I took cues from. Amy Poehler, the way she would laugh. She and Seth Meyers, they had this attitude of ‘Yeah, this place is competitive, it’s in the DNA of SNL to be competitive, but we don’t have to be competitive with each other. It’s okay to be fans of each other,’ which, everything I’d read said that was never the case. I kind of came in thinking people were out to get me, but it wasn’t that way. I remember being at the table reads, and Amy and Tina [Fey] being big laughers and really giving it up for sketches. I remember doing the first Vincent Price sketch and them all laughing. They were trying to make me feel comfortable. Also, Amy, when she performs . . . her confidence. And Kenan [Thompson] was another person. How confident he was, performing on live television. I just thought, ‘If I can get to that place.’ I had a lot of anxiety. I felt very rigid those first four years. Every season, I was working on just trying to relax and have fun. Amy performed in a way that you could tell she was having fun and just didn’t give a shit–pure confidence and joy.”
“I learned from Darrell Hammond how to figure out an impression. He had a tape recorder and he’d just listen to the person’s voice over and over again. I never used a tape recorder, but I would play it in my dressing room. The same phrase. I had to do Daniel Day-Lewis’s character from There Will Be Blood, and I would just watch the first couple sentences of his opening speech in the movie. ‘I’m an oilman,’ and all that. I’d watch it, rewind it, watch it and rewind it. And then I’d just talk along with it. I’d try to hit the right pitch, and then one day, it would just click. Or it wouldn’t, and you’d have a half-assed impression. And another thing I learned, [longtime SNL writer] Jim Downey was talking about handles, old actors had great handles for impressions. Something you could latch onto. When I found out I had to do Robert Pattinson, I thought, ‘Well, I hope they have a good wig for me.’ Because he’s just, British, and that’s about it. That’s why Jay Pharoah’s Obama is so impressive, because there’s not a lot there, and Jay was still able to find all this stuff that was very Obama-like. He’s done a great job with it.”
“Bill Murray told me just to get with writers. He said it was okay to lean on writers. You come on and feel like you should be writing your own stuff, but it’s okay to use the writers. [Using the writers is what lead to the collaboration with John Mulaney that produced the character, Stefon.] I learned a lot just watching people perform. But what’s really helpful, though, is actually watching people mess up. Tina Fey is one of the best, if not the best, sketch writers, I’ve ever worked with, and I watched her in her last season go, ‘Ughhh, that didn’t work.’ And I watched Steve Martin do a monologue and afterwards go, ‘Well, that wasn’t good.’ The important thing is, I also watched how they just shook it off and kept moving. They worked really hard at it and had failures, and it made me realize that’s always going to be there, so you just have to learn to accept it.”