'SNL' at 40: Maya Rudolph Tells Garrett Morris About "Terrible" First Meeting With Lorne Michaels
"I gagged on some popcorn," the actress says in THR's special issue, while Morris reveals that "my duty was bring in the black people for the big night."
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Twenty-five years separate the year that original castmember Garrett Morris joined SNL — 1975 — and when Groundlings alum Maya Rudolph was hired. But theirs is a mutual warmth that Rudolph likens to "family." The friends reconnected recently in West Hollywood on the occasion of the series' impending 40th anniversary and revisited their humble beginnings, the jokes that still make them laugh and the gift of the perfect sketch.
MAYA RUDOLPH: Garrett, this is really cool.
GARRETT MORRIS: It's very cool.
RUDOLPH: SNL formed my life and your cast was everything to me. My parents were young and hip and watched the show, so I'd pretend I had a stomach ache and crawl in bed with them and watch it. It looked like the coolest, like most fun place to hang out, let alone be your job. You know?
MORRIS: I had the same feeling with you on the show.
MORRIS: Yes. I was so proud every time I looked at you, and you can really improv. I can't! I learned improv with Imamu Amiri Baraka, not at Second City. And the workshops were more about talking about problems in the ghetto — the aim wasn't necessarily comedy. So, when John [Belushi] and Gilda [Radner] got into Saturday Night Live, they had a comedy range from one to a hundred. My range was from "Hate Whitey" to "Kill Whitey."
RUDOLPH: That worked, by the way. Tell me about your SNL audition?
MORRIS: My first audition came after being a writer on the show.
RUDOLPH: You were a playwright first.
MORRIS: Yes. So my duty was bring in the black people for the big night.
RUDOLPH: That was your duty, of course.
MORRIS: So John and Gilda had seen a movie I'd done called Cooley High and asked [Lorne Michaels] to audition me. So first I auditioned with a tape. One of my first bits was "White Guilt Relief Fund," in which I appeal to the community nationwide and tell them, "My grandmother was a slave, my grandfather was a slave and I know y'all are guilty. So here's your remedy. Send me some money." You know? "And if you send it before July the Fourth, I will send you a certificate making you an honorary Negro."
RUDOLPH: Wow. I was at SNL at such a different time. It was generally so tame. It wasn't a brand-new show when I worked there. You were part of something completely brand-new — like you guys did everything for us. We didn't have to do anything!
MORRIS: By the end of the '70s, that whole right-wing thing was coming.
RUDOLPH: Yeah, there's always a battle. It's not like I'm a tall white man! But you guys were saying things that people were not saying publicly. Even about your own network, on the network.
MORRIS: But some things you couldn't do. You couldn't do [anything] with Jesus.
RUDOLPH: Yeah, Jesus, you kinda gotta leave him alone.
MORRIS: I had an idea for one about Jesus being a junkie.
RUDOLPH: Did you really?
MORRIS: It took me three or four years to learn that when you go in there [to pitch], you have to go in with guys who are gonna laugh at your shit.
RUDOLPH: Did you audition on the host stage in 8H? Did it exist yet?
MORRIS: No, I auditioned in the old studios, across on 57th Street.
RUDOLPH: I didn't audition.
MORRIS: Excuse me?
RUDOLPH: Well, that is not to say that it was easy. I had a really stupid, strange experience. I got really shitty advice: "Oh, don't audition this year, there's some contractual thing, and it'll be blah, blah, blah." I was performing down the street here in L.A., doing improv at The Groundlings. … I sent in a tape. Then I came out to meet with Lorne and I had a terrible interview; I ate some popcorn in his office and gagged because there was no water. He asked, "Why do you think you should be on the show?" And I said, "Because I like to wear bangs." It was terrible. And I remember walking down the street thinking, "I'm never going to be able to enter that building again." Then they did this amazing thing — they said, "We're gonna have you come for the last three shows of the season." They were basically testing me on air. That I can do! So they threw me in. It felt like starting school and everybody knew where they sat in the cafeteria. Like everyone knew each other and the girls heard I was coming. No one was happy to see me. I got there on a writing night on a Tuesday and I said, "What do we do all night?" And Chris Parnell said, "We write." And I said, "Till when?" He goes, "Seven, eight in the morning." And I remember all the doors closed and I was like, "What the f— do I do?" And you just do it. It was terrifying.
MORRIS: I remember that Chevy [Chase] used to write until four, on a napkin or something like that.
RUDOLPH: There really is no specific system that's taught. And if you can swim, you survive. But if you can't, you're in trouble. And Lorne has always said he hires people based on, if you run into that person at 4 o'clock in the morning are you gonna want to talk to them or not?
MORRIS: Really? Wow. I was "discovered" after being in New York 17 years, right? I'd already written a couple plays, been in about 30 off-Broadway and Broadway shows. I was 38.
RUDOLPH: The young age of 38. That's amazing. One of the sketches of yours I used to quote was "News for the Hard of Hearing."
MORRIS: [Shouting] "THE TOP STORY TONIGHT!" Chevy came to me one time and said, "I got this idea for as sketch about the deaf."
RUDOLPH: Isn't that the greatest feeling in the world when a someone's like, "I got something for you." And you're like, "Well thank you. Cause I didn't want to come up with this shit myself." Yeah, it's the greatest gift.
MORRIS: I liked the Versace one you did.
RUDOLPH: "Donatella Versace." That's a perfect example, my girlfriend Emily [Spivey] wrote that. Donatella did send me flowers once.
MORRIS: You're kidding. Really?
RUDOLPH: Yes. She was very nice about the sketch, actually. I did an interview with her for Interview magazine. But over the phone and it was very difficult to understand her. She has a very thick accent. She says [of the impersonation], "Very, very, very good — but you don't wear real diamonds. You need real diamonds." She kept telling me I needed real diamonds. And you know what? She's not wrong.
MORRIS: Maya, I looked at you on SNL and felt very proud.
RUDOLPH: You are the sweetest human alive. I love you, Garrett. You mean so much to me, thank you so much. You totally shaped my life. I'm very honored to be a part of your family.