Imagine it’s your job to make funny videos. Imagine trying to satisfy a diverse audience of millions, while staying true to your creative vision, and also working out logistics to make sure the idea is even possible. Now imagine you only have six days to do it. Such was the typical workweek for Mike O’Brien in his tenure at Saturday Night Live, where he has emerged as one of the most original voices in short-form comedy.
You can always tell which SNL offering is by Mike O’Brien–and not just because these digital shorts have lately begun bearing the title card “A Mike O’Brien Picture,” either. There is a cinematic quality, a nuanced shade of absurdism, and often a touch of the poetic, that distinguishes these mini-films as uniquely his. And because of circumstances way out of his control, many of them never ended up getting made.
“It’s a challenging place to work, but one of the things it’s challenging you to do is try and come up with four or five ideas that are great every week,” O’Brien says, “and then really fill them out so you won’t feel embarrassed or be shut out of the show.”
With unforgettable, high-concept videos like The Jay-Z Story and Monster Pals in recent seasons, O’Brien likely hasn’t spent much time being embarrassed lately. However, like everyone else on the venerable show, he still has to deal with the heartache of having ideas he fully believes in die anywhere between Tuesday’s pitch meeting and Saturday’s dress rehearsal. But the writer and performer, who came to SNL from the Chicago improv scene back in 2009, has found a new way to backchannel his rejected gems from the show out to an eventual audience. He’s been quietly working on a sketch comedy album for years.
Tasty Radio, which is available October 30, was partly inspired by O’Brien’s childhood obsession with Nichols and May and Adam Sandler albums. It was also borne out of his frustration with letting go of great ideas that proved not quite right for SNL. After his first season writing for the show, O’Brien began recording some of the unused material for an outside project. Part of the appeal was finding an eventual home for these ideas, but the simplicity of just making an audio recording—as opposed to working with a whole production team—was refreshing as well.
O’Brien recently left his position at SNL to work on longer film and TV projects going forward. He’ll still be contributing the occasional video to the show, just without the crazy deadlines and unnervingly hectic pace he’d never quite grown accustomed to. On the eve of his sketch album’s release, Co.Create caught up with O’Brien to talk about how to make a funny video faster than what seems reasonable by any standard.
“When I need an idea at 4 a.m. or something, I usually go for a mixture of caffeine and headphones with loud punk rock or hip hop—something that’s getting your heart beating a little bit. Then there are various writer tricks like free writing, just making your pen move for 10 minutes without ever stopping, moving away from the thing that you’re stuck on and forcing your brain to get really lost in a whole different thing for an hour and then it’s a treat to come back finally to the thing that was becoming not a treat.”
“I’ll sometimes hit shuffle on my whole iPod, so every single song I’ve ever owned is in the mix, and try to write a two-sentence idea for each song that comes on. Like what is the mood, what do you picture, what would this be the score to, what type of video or short film or whatever. Or I’ll think ‘This song is about to end and I haven’t written my idea, I have to just churn out even a dumb one before it’s over.’ And I’ve found that those type of things don’t always produce the best work but you’ll wake up the next day with a good one or have one in the shower. It’s like it’s got your brain fighting for this. And then once you relax and really sleep a little or do something else, then it just drops in. Sometimes it does, anyway.”
“I literally saw a guy–this will make sense if you watch Sad Mouse–in Times Square, he had taken his patriotic Mickey Mouse head off and was just sitting there, hanging his head. It was like 5 a.m. when I was going home from work, so there weren’t kids and stuff around. But he looked so like he was going through some real crossroads in his life or something, and it made me laugh so I wrote that. And then later on people would be like, ‘Oh that’s kind of like the Albert Brooks ones or something’ and you’re like, ‘Oh that’s awesome.’ I’m a huge fan of those but it didn’t start with me actively try to do one of those, in other words.”
“It’s a big challenge to figure out how big to make the host in a video. Because you want them to be the lead, you’re excited that they’re there and you’re just like ‘I want them in every scene.’ But if they have to be in four different locations for two to three hours each, that’ll be their whole Friday and they can’t do any other videos and also won’t be preparing for the 11 live sketches they have to do and all that. It’s a tricky dance to make them as big a part of it as you can while using up as little time as you can. That’s kind of a fun challenge, to try to figure out how to make it seem like they’re a bigger part of the video when you only need them for three hours or something.”
“I thought of a fragment of the idea for Grow a Guy sometime in the summer and just had it in the back of my head. Then I brought it up to [SNL writer] Tim Robinson and the two of us wrote it on a Tuesday night, read it out loud at the table; on Wednesday it got picked, we shot Friday, edited Friday night and Saturday night and then aired it. So it’s a tight production schedule. They’re finding out Wednesday night at 10 p.m., every department is finding out okay we are gonna do Grow A Guy so let’s figure out what the locations are, how we’re going to get special effects that make it look like people blowing up? All that gets done in less than 24 hours before the cameras are rolling, so the idea has to be clearly articulated.”
“Working at SNL has made me come up with ideas faster. I edit them down faster now, at least. It probably makes all of us that work there a little hard to work with elsewhere in that we’re impatient now. Things in L.A. take an extra week or two, as they probably should, that’s the sane way of doing things. But we’re always like, ‘What are you talking about? Why can’t we just stay up all night, and do it tonight, and have it done by 9 a.m.?’ And everyone else in the world is like, ‘Well, we do this like normal people do it. You work and then you go to bed and sleep a little bit and have a family and a life.'”