'SNL' Writer Alums Reveal Years of Sleep Deprivation and How to Deal With Crazy
The competitive show has spawned the industry's most influential writers — and one U.S. senator.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Ask anyone who survived the rigor of writing for Saturday Night Live for the exact years of his or her tenure and you're likely to get a response like "Sorry, my 2000s are a blur."
Who could fault them for forgetting the details? Sleep deprivation aside (blame years of sketch-creation all-nighters in the office), writers who graduate from SNL have something else in common: They often join the ranks of the business's most prolific content creators.
The show has spawned some of TV's biggest series showrunners and writers (30 Rock's Tina Fey, The Office's Greg Daniels, Seinfeld's Larry David and Carol Leifer, Parks and Recreation's Mike Schur); late-night hosts (Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers); digital empire gurus (Funny or Die's Adam McKay, the Lonely Island trio); sought-after stand-up comedians and actors (Sarah Silverman, JB Smoove, Bob Odenkirk, Andy Samberg); an expletive-spewing rubber dog named Triumph (courtesy of Robert Smigel); and one sitting U.S. senator (Al Franken, who, it turns out, is good enough and smart enough, at least for the people of Minnesota).
What is it that prepares so many to cross over to the big time? A finely honed ability to cope with disappointment — and a whole lot of crazy. "I once played a half lesbian-half dog, or Lesbrador, in a sketch that was supposed to go on before one I wrote, and I'm sitting with Lorne in full dog face and he says, 'Sorry, I don't think the dog bit works,' " laughs writer-actress Liz Cackowski (Funny or Die, Community). Then there's getting used to going uncredited for your work. “I was an NBC tour guide and gave Kevin Nealon an idea for a joke,” says screenwriter Steve Koren (Bruce Almighty, Click). “One night he tells me, ‘Hey, I'm going to do that thing on “Weekend Update.” ’ No one knew it was mine.” O'Brien, who transitioned from SNL to late-night host, says his writers-room friendships with Daniels, Smigel and Odenkirk have helped him stay sane in Hollywood. "Tom Hanks used to call us the Boiler Room Boys," he says. "We were always scrounging for a late-night baked potato at the deli."
But post-SNL fame and fortune has a price, jokes Steve Higgins, its longest-reigning scribe and sidekick to The Tonight Show's Fallon. "I have to walk two flights of stairs [between jobs], wear $1,000 suits and sign autographs. It's horrible."
Tim Herlihy, 1994-1999 (writer, Grown Ups 2)
"Adam Sandler was my college roommate and got me a tryout for the Nancy Kerrigan episode. I did all right enough to come back."
Alex Baze, 2004-2014 (writer, Late Night With Seth Meyers)
"Adam McKay got me an interview, but I didn't make the cut. He suggested I fax in jokes for 'Weekend Update.' I did that for six years."
Robert Smigel, 1985-1993; 1996-2008 (writer, Hotel Transylvania 2)
"Madonna hosted my first show. I wrote a Spanish talk-show parody for her. I was a backup singer."
Jorma Taccone, 2005-2012 (actor, Parks and Recreation)
"My first 'Update' piece was Bill [Hader] and Andy [Samberg] doing an impression-off. Bill is quite good, and Andy is not."
Marika Sawyer, 2006-2014 (writer, Mulaney)
"I was the show receptionist and then got hired to write. My first sketch was John C. Reilly as a racist colonial re-enactor."
Steve Higgins, 1995-present (writer/emcee, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon)
"It's hard to remember my first sketch. I think it was Jim Carrey? I really loved doing 'The Actors Studio' and 'Jeopardy!' "
Seth Meyers, 2001-2014 (host/writer, Late Night With Seth Meyers)
"I was in the cast first but did a lot of writing. My first sketch was 'Little Sleuth' with Amy Poehler. We thought we had a franchise. We did not."
Feb. 10, 4:50 p.m.: An early version incorrectly stated that writer Steve Koren had given cast member Kevin Nealon the idea for his long-running bit “Mr. Subliminal.” The character was in fact created by Nealon and Koren had given him an idea for one of the character’s appearances on Weekend Update. THR regrets the error.