'SNL': 20 Personal, Funny Tales From Kristen Wiig, Dana Carvey, Laraine Newman and More
Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk are also among the former hosts, writers, producers, castmembers and musical guests who share their favorite moments from the past 40 years of the NBC comedy.
As Lorne Michaels prepares to fill Studio 8H with a few hundred former Saturday Night Live castmembers, writers and hosts for the show's 40th anniversary special on Feb. 15, The Hollywood Reporter has been busy reuniting past talent, photographing the five-time hosts and gathering memories from so many involved.
From former NBC executive Dick Ebersol recruiting a then-30-year-old Michaels back in the mid-1970s to Michael Cera agreeing to host the episode that viewers will never see some three-plus decades later, here are 19 stories that helped shape SNL.
Executive Dick Ebersol on Bringing Lorne Michaels to NBC, 1974:
Lorne took me to see [the Los Angeles comedy troupe] Kentucky Fried Theater, and afterwards we stuffed into his little Volkswagen and went back to the Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge for a late Friday night drink. He had a great mind and he threw out a couple of lose ideas. I met with him several times in the weeks that followed and went back to NBC and said, "I'd really like to hire this guy and have him build the show with me." He had an extensive comedy background, and he was bright as hell. So the NBC powers that be suggested I bring him to a breakfast two days later in the Polo Lounge. Well, even I knew at that point that Lorne was not a day person. I tried every which way to make it a lunch, but these two old [NBC executives] insisted that this breakfast meeting at the Polo Lounge be at 7:30 in the morning. I think he was up all night, and came directly to the meeting. But I should have never been worried because he was utterly charming. The old guys didn't have a clue what he was talking about. We laid out the show for [NBC president] Herb Schlosser. Herb got the idea all the way — repertory comedy, a guest host, guest musician. Then we met with [the other NBC executives] and for most of the meeting Lorne wasn't in the room because his contract wasn't signed yet and they wouldn't let him stay in the room — that shows you how preposterously old-fashioned television management was at that time! So toward the end of that meeting Schlosser arrives, and he asked them what they thought of the idea and there was utter silence. He turned to the head of research and said, "Well, what do you think this thing will do?" And the guy said, "It doesn't have a chance in the world because the audience that it's designed for will never come home that early on a Saturday night."
Music director Howard Shore on the Early Years, 1975:
I was 29 when the show started. The first year was really pure, and a little chaotic. It was a very small group in the beginning, 12 or 15 of us, and there was no formula. You were making it up all the time: how to fill 90 minutes of live television. In those first years you had no idea of the impact of the show. The ratings weren't high because that was a time slot that not many people watched television. It took a year or so before you started to get a feel that people were really watching. Once the Chevy thing happened [Chevy Chase's breakout stardom], that affected everyone. Things started to change — and not for the better. People were looking left and right, what might be good for them and not for the show. The team spirit started to dissolve.
Janis Ian on Being SNL's First-Ever Musical Guest, 1975:
I flew in on the red-eye the day of the show because my single "At 17" was a hit and I was touring. Billy Preston and I were the first SNL musical guests. It was crazy! People were barking out commands, trying not to trip over each other, people in bee costumes. Billy and I were trying to get into our clothes and not freak out over how freaked out everybody else was. I remember seeing a couple of hand puppets [Muppets] talking to each other and thinking, "Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?" Everyone was absolutely terrified. It's scary to know if you hit a wrong button the show's over. No one had done live TV since Ed Sullivan. They picked us because we were used to live TV. I'd done Mike Douglas, Joey Bishop, Johnny Carson since I was 15. I'd never seen myself on TV, it was live. I remember how amazing Billy was, how cutting-edge George Carlin was, how nice Andy Kaufman was — very nice but very weird. It made no sense, but nothing made sense in those days. So the show hit on a lot of levels, especially for people like me who were bored by TV, couldn't stand most music shows, and had nothing to do at 11 p.m. It was historic. But nobody knew about it. It was the second show with Paul Simon that got all the ratings.
Castmember Laraine Newman on Performing During an Allergic Reaction, 1976:
One time Lorne had me and Gilda Radner show up for something that was a dedication to the Brooklyn Academy being renamed the Helen Owen Carey Academy. It was a day after a show, so of course we were not feeling great. I was sick to my stomach, so someone said, "Here, take this as a medication." I don't know if I can say the brand name, but there is allergic reaction that is on the [list of possible adverse effects]. I didn't know 'cause I'd never taken it before that I would have it. So Gilda and I are backstage figuring out what we're going do and she says, "So, I'll say my name, 'This is Gilda and this is Laraine Newman.' " I said, "Gilda, I can say my own name." All of the sudden, my tongue went rigid in my mouth and my back had this kind of weird feeling, like it didn't have any support in it. And I said "Gilda, maybe you better say my name." She said, "That's a joke right? You're kidding." I said, "No, I don't know what's going on but my tongue. It's messed up. I cannot talk." She immediately went into her character Colleen, who is autistic. … And we figured out a routine for me to do that didn't require me to speak. I did all these sound effects. Then Alan King was the emcee, and he introduced us as here's two girls that he never would've hired. It was never on [SNL].
Head writer Mason Williams on Working Under Producer Jean Doumanian, 1980:
I was the head writer on The Smothers Brothers, so I knew how to put the pieces together. I was supposed to be head writer on SNL, but man, I didn't get to head write anything except the onscreen "bumpers" before commercials, like, "There's no abyssness like show abyssness." They wouldn't even type mine up. I was on the shit list because I was mouthing off about what I thought was wrong. I kept telling Jean Doumanian [who took over for Michaels when he and his cast left the show in 1980], "You've got this black guy Eddie Murphy who's really talented." She said, "No, I want to make stars of Charles Rocket and Denny Dillon." Brandon Tartikoff and Peter Calabrese asked me what would fix the show. I said, "You don't have Lorne Michaels or Mike Nichols or even Tom Smothers, somebody with a creative vision everybody can get behind." The writers were all frustrated, they broke out in pimples and got sick. She'd meddle with them in weird ways, and she isn't funny.
Ebersol on Taking Over SNL from Doumanian, 1981:
By New Year's week of 1981, Brandon Tartikoff approached Lorne and asked if there were any circumstances under which he would come back, and Lorne said no. Then he tried again. Lorne said no, he was still exhausted and he didn't want to work [at NBC] as long as [then chief] Fred Silverman was there. Brandon said, "What do you think about Dick?" And Lorne said, "I don't think he'll come back from California." Well, by then I was separated from my wife and on my way to getting divorced. Brandon worked on me for a month and I finally agreed. I said I would come back to New York if he would find me a room on a different floor from Saturday Night Live where I could watch those rehearsals [on a closed circuit feed]. I wanted to see the process without letting anybody know I was there. So all day on a Friday, I think it was 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., I sat in that room and watched. The next day, I met Brandon late at night and I said, "You know, there's not a lot there. But I'm really crazy about that one guy who's not a castmember but who is obviously funnier than anybody else on the show." And that was Eddie [Murphy].
Anthony Michael Hall on Being the Youngest Castmember in SNL's History, 1985:
The experience for me was like going to comedy college. Suddenly I was immersed in this world as a kid. It certainly wasn't one of the better seasons. It was Lorne's first year back, and he was trying to reconfigure the show that he had created. I wish I could have done more to make Lorne proud and break out on the show. I think a lot of the writers didn't really know how to write for me because I was such a young kid at the time. I had grown up just idolizing all these people, like Chevy and Bill [Murray]. I remember before the season started meeting Dan Aykroyd. He gave me a real visceral feel of what it would be like. He said, "It's going to be like three cameras in a sitcom and then when that red light hits the camera and you realize that you're beaming out not only to the 300-plus people in the audience but to 30 million, it's a thrill." It was very competitive and at the same time I was just this little scrawny kid trying to figure out my way in this world. All these years later, I've always wanted to go back to Lorne and apologize.
Castmember Dana Carvey on Adding Fake Stage Directions, 1986:
[I created] an intentionally ridiculous sketch with ridiculous stage directions because Lorne would always read the stage directions. "A Funny Little Poop" he had with my character. And Jan [Hooks] was "Funny Little Poopy Head." And then there'd be just massive amounts of stage directions: "Funny Little Poopy Head sits down. Funny Little Poopy Head crosses the room."
Writer Bob Odenkirk on Being Young and Selfish on SNL, 1987:
I was a difficult young man with a chip on his shoulder. I had a hard time serving the needs of the show, even just ascertaining what those needs were. I thought it was a place for me and my friends to do comedy. I was headstrong and a bit too silly for the platform that SNL is. It's a national institution for Christ's sake! Have some respect, Young Me! I could bitch about it more, sure, but where my career has gone to since that great and challenging beginning I should only be thankful.
Writer Greg Daniels on Meeting Michaels for the First Time, 1987:
I remember the first meeting being in Lorne's office. He asked [Conan O'Brien and me] if we wanted wine. It's like, during work hours. We're not going to drink! He also said something like, "Can you guys guarantee that you'll do great on our show?" No, we actually can't. It's like 50-50.
Writer Conan O'Brien on Pitching a Monologue Idea to George Steinbrenner, 1988:
There was some [monologue] idea that wasn't that great and Lorne wanted George Steinbrenner to do. Apparently Steinbrenner had already said three times, "I'm not going to do it." And it's George Steinbrenner, a guy who's famous for not screwing around. I remember Lorne literally saw Bob [Odenkirk] and I in a hallway and he's like, "Conan and Bob, come here." He said, "Go pitch that idea again to George Steinbrenner." I forget what the idea was, but it was something where he puts a toilet seat over his head. So all I remember is Bob and I going knock, knock, knock. "Yeah, who is it?!" And it was sort of like Larry David's impression of George Steinbrenner. "Who is it?!" We went in and he's there. He has the giant World Series ring on. He's like, "Fellas, what's up?" We're both, like, 26. I have a very clear memory of this. We just went, "There's this thing. We just thought it'd be kind of funny if you had a toilet seat …" And he was like, "What? WHAT? I said I'm not doing that! I'm not screwing around. This is bullshit." Then one of us started to say something and he's like, "Get the f— out of here!" and we just scrambled away. Lorne was literally like Gallipoli. He sent two people over the bridge to get shot.
"It's Pat!" Co-writer Jim Emerson on Why Pat Was Beloved, 1992:
Judy Toll at the Groundlings lent Julia [Sweeney] her "fat suit," and the idea of Pat as a person of indeterminate gender evolved from there. Pat was beloved by many. One, by LGBT folks: Pat was Grand Marshall of the L.A. Gay Pride Parade and co-emcee with Harvey Fierstein and Judy Gold for the Stonewall 25/Gay Games at Yankee Stadium. Two, kids: They loved a character who didn't "play by the rules" about sex and gender that they were just learning. And three: Rock musicians, for reasons nobody is sure of. Pat was not gay or transgender, though. Pat was Pat, always claiming to be very sure about Pat's own sexual identity and sexual orientation. Pat was way ahead of Pat's time when it came to issues of gender as a social construction, but Julia and Christine Zander [her SNL writing partner] and I were totally aware of what we were doing at the time. "A ma'am or a sir / Accept him or her / For whatever it might be … " That's why people who want to know if Pat is a man or a woman are totally missing the point. There is no answer.
Writer Sarah Silverman on Being Mistaken for a Typist, 1993:
When I started as a writer on SNL, I was introduced to the three other new kids that were also my age. We were all 22 and they were Harvard kids — Dave Mandel, Lew Morton, and Steve Lookner. We all had lunch together and they thought I was a typist. I'm a f—king writer! … Like, that's how long ago it was: There weren't computers! We wrote on legal pads and gave them to a room of typists. People don't even believe it but there were computers when I was there but not at SNL — like, nobody had one.
Castmember Molly Shannon on Leaving Mary Katherine Gallagher Behind at First, 1995:
I had developed "Mary Katherine Gallagher" while at NYU, and then I'd done the character in this stage show that I did for years in L.A. called The Rob and Molly Show. And when I got to SNL, I remember all of these Groundling people came in and they all had characters. But I didn't do mine during my audition because I was told by this woman who was the recruiter for SNL at the time: "Whatever you do, do not do that disgusting little schoolgirl character. Lorne will hate it. You'll never get hired."
Castmember Maya Rudolph on Gagging During her Audition, 2000:
I sent in a tape of me in all my stupid wigs and all that, and then I came out to meet with Lorne. I had a terrible interview with him; I ate some popcorn in his office and I gagged. There was no water! And then he asked me, "Why do you think you should be on the show?" And I said, "Because I like to wear bangs." It was terrible — a horrible, horrible interview. And I remember walking on the street afterwards and I said, "I'm never going to be able to enter that building again." I'm a terrible auditioner, but then they did this really amazing thing with me where they said, "We're going to have you come for the last three shows of what was then the 25th season." They were basically testing me on air, and that I can do.
"Weekend Update" head writer Charles Grandy on "Update's" Past and Making Michaels Laugh, 2001:
There's a huge desk in the room, and people you would of known had all written their name on their desks — "So and so was here." And there's a cool call sheet that had everyone's extension on it — it's like you're in Congress. Conan's personal cellphone was still on there. You'd never call, but it's like, "Oh, OK. If I need to get in touch with Chevy Chase, I can call him right now if I want." One of the greatest achievements you have on that show is making Lorne laugh. Everyone remembers when you make him laugh. He's heard it all and he's seen it all. When I started really producing "Update," I had to sit with Lorne under the bleachers during dress rehearsal. He basically would look at the screen monitor and then look at me after a joke. Wouldn't laugh. Then occasionally a joke would come up and you'd get him. The worst is that you do the whole thing. He wouldn't look at you. And afterward, and even sometimes halfway through, he'd just get up and walk out to the side.
Writer J.B. Smoove on Learning the History of the Show From the Crew, 2003:
Some of the guys [on the crew] have been there forever. Once the shades broke in my office and one of the old guys came upstairs to fix it. I'm very much a neat freak, and he said, "I'm surprised this room is so neat because when [John] Belushi and the whole crew had the room, you couldn't see the floor. That's how crazy it was up in there." I asked him about all the stories that went down. He said, "You want to see something?" We walk into the hallway, turn, made a right, just kept walking, kept walking and stopped. "See those three stairs? Walk down those three steps and I'll tell you when to stop." And I walked one step, two step, then stop. I looked up and saw an exit sign and next to the exit sign there's "Farley" carved into the wall. He said, "See that? It's never coming down."
Castmember Kristen Wiig on Creating Her "Penelope" Character, 2007:
The Penelope [character] was inspired by someone that I actually know. It's just such a weird personality trait to one-up things that aren't really that important. It [happened over] something dumb, like "I'm getting a massage" or something, and she's like, "Oh, I'm getting a massage on Monday and I just had one," and I was like, "OK, you win. I guess?" When I'm on the show, I'm always fascinated by people's behaviors socially, just watching people even when they don't think anyone is looking at them. I find it to be such a great place to get character from, too.
Michael Cera on Hosting SNL during the Writers Strike, 2007:
I was working in New York at the time and got a text from Amy Poehler telling me about the show and asking if I'd want to host. I thought it was a really cool idea and I was completely flattered that they wanted me to be a part of it. UCB was doing a lot of this type of thing at the time of the writers strike. I think they did a live 30 Rock and Daily Show there, too. It was a really fun, really energetic night. It's a kind of a silent honor, sort of what I imagine it'd be like to be appreciated posthumously.
Host Betty White on Getting Over Her Stage Fright to become the Show's Oldest Host, 2010:
I was panic-stricken going in. I'm in California, which feels miles away from the New York-ness of SNL. I just thought, "I can't do this." But for the episode Lorne brought back Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Maya Rudolph and Molly Shannon, so I had a lot of support that way. You have to be fans of those girls because they are so sharp and so on top of everything. To actually be there in the same room and talking with them like we were all human beings, it was lovely. Plus, Lorne knew I was nervous so he came in my dressing room, sat down and we got to talking about old-time television. He took up the time [before the show] where you tend to get tenser and tenser with our conversation. They all put me so at ease and I wound up having a very good time. And the best news of all, when it was all said and done, I got an Emmy for it!