Everyone from Kate McKinnon to Chris Rock gives THR backstage access to a historic season as they reveal how Melissa McCarthy became Sean Spicer (with help from Kristen Stewart), the joke Aziz Ansari had to cut, and how D.C. chaos is fueling the highest ratings in decades: "You almost feel like a war profiteer."
Outside of a cadre of furious tweets, Alec Baldwin hasn't heard a peep from the man he's been portraying for the past eight months on Saturday Night Live.
But Baldwin, who's enjoying another career renaissance thanks to his casting as Donald Trump on NBC's late-night staple, has heard from one member of the president's inner circle. "I'm not going to name names, but a cabinet member walked up to me at a restaurant in Manhattan — Manhattan, that's a hint — and he goes, 'I gotta tell you something. This thing you're doing is good, it's really good,' " says the 59-year-old actor. "He goes, 'I'll get fired if anybody quoted me saying this, but that's exactly what he's like when you do it.' "
When Baldwin hosted the show for the 17th time this season, he had urged SNL creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels and his staff to invite the president to join them in Studio 8H. "I would have loved to have had him," says Baldwin, seated now in an SNL dressing room. A show spokesperson says the request was never made.
Instead, 11 million weekly viewers have feasted on a growing coterie of impersonators — Kate McKinnon as Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Beck Bennett as Vice President Mike Pence and Russian President Vladimir Putin and breakout Melissa McCarthy as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer — that has made this season's SNL the most watched in 23 years. Sure, having Baldwin and McCarthy on the program regularly has added logistical complexity — both come subject to their schedules, and neither shows up until Friday at the earliest — but the additions have earned SNL heaps of critical praise, a steady stream of viral hits and its best shot at a variety series Emmy in two decades.
Now, with SNL's 42nd season set to wrap May 20, 20 of those involved with the show's wild year share what happened behind the scenes when Dave Chappelle agreed to host, when McCarthy pitched Kristen Stewart on a flight from L.A. and how the cast and crew reacted when the man many at SNL believed was a national punch line actually became president of the United States.
••• 'I CALL UP LORNE: "I'M TRUMP" '
LORNE MICHAELS, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER The idea came out of a conversation with Tina Fey at some point during the summer. She said, "Well, the person that should really play [Trump] is Alec." And I went, "Yeah!" A light went on.
CECILY STRONG, CASTMEMBER Lorne was being very coy about how he had some plans. There was going to be a "shake-up" is how he put it. We didn't know what that meant. I remember trying to text producer friends to find out what he was talking about.
ALEC BALDWIN, GUEST STAR I was all booked to do a film. The people involved were supposed to escrow money and the money didn't hit on the agreed-upon date, so we gave them an extension. During that time, Lorne was calling me, going (in Michaels' voice), "I think you should play Trump. I think you would be fantastic. And what would you rather do than come here every weekend for the next 18 weekends?" Then the money for the movie didn't hit again. We gave another extension, and I said to Lorne again, "I can't. I'm going to make this movie." And he was like, "Well, when you finish shooting, we'll fly you here on a private plane on Saturdays." I said, "I'm going to be doing the movie Friday nights. I'll work till one, two in the morning, then I'm going to get on a plane?" He's like, "That's right. That's what I said. You'll work till two in the morning, then get on a plane and come here to be with us and do the show where you belong." Then the movie dies and I call up Lorne: "I'm Trump."
MICHAELS I just thought he'd be brilliant.
ERIK KENWARD, PRODUCER Tina as Sarah Palin or Larry David as Bernie Sanders were situations where the audience almost cast the person — you had everyone coming up to you going, "You know who needs to play this person?" It wasn't the same with Alec, but the first time you laid eyes on him as Trump, you thought, "Oh, that's genius."
STEVE HIGGINS, PRODUCER I remember thinking, "Poor Darrell [Hammond]," who had played Trump for us [in seasons prior along with former castmember Taran Killam.] But nobody thought Trump was going to win. Alec was going to do it for four or five shows, and then he could be on his way.
KATE MCKINNON, CASTMEMBER I'm a lifelong Alec Baldwin fan, so I was really intimidated and excited [to play Hillary Clinton opposite him]. We didn't sit down together beforehand or try to develop a dynamic. He came in to rehearse the day before, and that was it.
BALDWIN They give you all the resources you need to watch and look at Trump in different tableaux: Trump somewhat off the record, Trump caught by a camera, not just Trump making a speech. But I watch and watch and I still don't know what I'm going to do. Then I get out and all I remember is, "Just try to make him unhappy." There are many people who do Trump now, and they have different Trumps. They have kind of a "balls-of-his-feet-light Trump" or what I like to call "Gene Kelly Trump." But my Trump is "Miserable Trump." No matter what. He wins, he loses, he's miserable.
MICHAEL CHE, CASTMEMBER I remember the producers telling me I'm going to be Lester Holt in that first debate. Jay Pharoah had just left the show, and he used to do all of those impressions, so it was a little nerve-racking but also cool because the season was starting and I got the first line. Immediately, people were writing about it, and it felt like this was going to be a crazy ride for a few weeks and then the world would go back to normal.
BRYAN TUCKER, WRITER We started to do politically adjacent sketches, too, where we take what's going on and put it into the body of the show. On that first show, we did Celebrity Family Feud: Politics Edition. At first, we thought maybe we'd do Trump supporters versus Hillary supporters because of the Republican convention, but then we decided to include some people involved in the campaign. That was the first time we did Putin, Kellyanne Conway …
BECK BENNETT, CASTMEMBER When I was put in that sketch, it was like, "Oh, Beck can play Putin. It's, like, two lines." I don't think anybody thought Putin was going to play the part that he did in the election then. What I remember is that when we first did it, I had a suit on. Then the second time they cut to me in that sketch, the suit was miraculously off, and that got a big reaction. That's how we found the take on that impression: [Putin's] very comfortable, literally, in his own skin, and he loves just having fun playing with these American politicians. I also remember being concerned about taking my shirt off. (Laughs.)
MCKINNON I had wanted to play Ann Coulter because I've been trying to play her, but Lorne said, "She's not in the news right now, but you know who is everywhere? Kellyanne Conway." I was like, "Eh, all right, I'll try it.'' And then she just grew and grew in the national consciousness and I became more and more fascinated by her and there was more and more to say.
CHRIS KELLY, WRITER Sarah [Schneider] and I have written most of the cold opens this season, and usually Lorne will give us a heads-up: "Alec is available if we want him this week." Or sometimes we'll hear early in the week that Alec isn't available because he has to be in L.A. or wherever. So the week is always shifting and changing. We'll write something on Tuesday that you have to throw out on Friday, and a lot of the cold opens are written for the first time on Friday because Alec is suddenly available.
SARAH SCHNEIDER, WRITER The cold open the week of the election, we were rewriting against a dumpster at one in the morning on Friday night. And we were writing the one about the Access Hollywood tape on the floor of the theater at 4 a.m.
HIGGINS When Bill Clinton was president, we got to say "blow job" on the show. When Trump is president, we get to say "pussy." We try to be cleaner than we need to be, but extraordinary time... (Laughs.)
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA, HOST The Access Hollywood story had broken that Friday afternoon, so Saturday Night Live had the first crack at it from a late-night-comedy perspective. And we had to reference it somehow in the monologue because I was walking past a picture of Donald Trump. [Miranda lands on Trump's picture and repeats the Hamilton lyric "Never gon' be president, now" multiple times.] I thought we were pretty safe by making that joke. In any previous election cycle, that's a clear presidency run-ending moment. Just not in this one.
MCKINNON By the third debate, it had become so blech and toxic, there was nothing more we could say. [McKinnon and Baldwin broke character and ran into Times Square hugging strangers of all shapes and colors, before returning to Studio 8H and urging viewers to vote.] We just wanted to remind everyone that we all live in the same country and that there still is goodness in the world because I think we had all lost sight of it.
••• 'NO ONE WAS FEELING VERY FUNNY'
LINDSAY SHOOKUS, PRODUCER When we talked about the post-election show, there was a lot of pressure to find the right host. Lorne really felt Dave Chappelle was the perfect voice, and because no one had seen him in a while, what he had to say would be that much more powerful. Of course, we'd been trying to get Chappelle to host for a decade. When he came and shadowed the entire Tom Hanks week [two shows before his], I knew he was serious about it. He told me, "I know what will scare me, and it's showing up here on show week and not knowing the environment and how it all works." He came back a bit for the Benedict Cumberbatch week, which was the week before his. We all got to know him, and he got to know us.
TUCKER I had written for Dave 12 years ago, so I had a personal stake in trying to make that show go well because I had promised Dave that it would. The night of the election was crazy. Like most of America, I expected Hillary to win. Dave and I had even talked through some sketches with that assumption. There was a lot of talk about Trump starting his own TV network if he lost, and so one of them was a preview of what that might be like. Dave was going to play Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke, who had his own show. But by 1 a.m., it looked like Trump had won. I was watching with Leslie Jones and Dave. A lot of people in the office were shocked, many were upset, but Dave and Leslie just kind of shrugged. They were like, "That's what happens." That attitude was the inspiration for the election night sketch. [Poking fun at overconfident Hillary supporters, surprise guest Chris Rock cautioned white liberals against celebrating too early.]
LESLIE JONES, CASTMEMBER The sketch was just so real and honest because that's pretty much how I am when I'm around my white friends. It's like we've been living in this world forever, and you all just woke up to it.
NEAL BRENNAN, GUEST WRITER The first draft of that election night sketch was less racial. Dave was just at the party. We did a read-through, and he was like, "Just make this blacker." On Thursday or Friday, he asked Chris to come by, so we wrote Chris into it.
CHRIS ROCK, GUEST STAR Honestly, I'm always there for Dave and for Lorne. I met Lorne Michaels in '91, and I haven't been broke since. But I thought it was important for me and Dave to be seen together. When I was a kid, outside of Harlem Nights, I never saw Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor together or Richard and [Bill] Cosby together. When people get together and team up, it's usually when their power has diminished.
COLIN JOST, CASTMEMBER The day after the election got extremely sad and very disorienting. People didn't know what to write. No one was feeling very funny.
STRONG I saw Kate in the hallway, and we hugged and sobbed.
KENT SUBLETTE, WRITER Before the read-through [on Wednesday afternoon], Lorne gave us this pep talk: "The world's not going to end tomorrow." As crazy as things are, he's right. "Half the country voted for Trump, and our show's for those people as well. It's not just for people who didn't want him to be president." Lorne also reminded us that "we're professionals and we have to do our job, and that's what we're going to do."
BRENNAN Then Dave read a poem that someone had texted him — I think it was [written by] Maya Angelou. Kate got emotional. It was a pretty charged environment. Higgins told me that in all of his years at the show, he had never seen Lorne give a preamble like that.
JOST He'll talk to us as a group every week in some way, but usually it's a very short: "Go out there and get them." He was just reassuring people on a broader historical level that America had been through things like this, that the show had been through things like this. It was also really good having Chappelle there that week because he's so comedy-minded that his perspective was, "Why wouldn't you want to use this opportunity for comedy? Isn't that why we are doing comedy?"
KENWARD Kate was always going to sing a song [for the cold open as Hillary]. One of the ideas was having her sing "Imagine," but then Lorne suggested "Hallelujah." Leonard Cohen had just died, and he'd been a big thing for Lorne growing up in Canada.
SCHNEIDER Kate went down to the floor at one or two in the morning on Friday night. They were still building sets, and she was like, "Let me just go play it for you guys and see if it feels right." We all got choked up, and we thought there was no way she's going to get through it without crying.
MCKINNON It was very emotional. On an extremely personal level, I had been playing this person for a year and a half, and I grew so attached to her as a person. That song so perfectly encapsulated what I wanted to say.
BRENNAN Dave's monologue wasn't that good at dress. I remember we were in his dressing room at 10:30, 10:45 p.m., and I could see he wasn't especially happy. Then Lorne comes in, and Dave goes, "All I can tell you is, I promise I'll give you two minutes of magical TV." In my head I'm like, "What is he talking about?" Then he goes out onstage. … Chris Rock and Lorne and I are all watching underneath the bleachers, and Dave is such a good orator that he spun that yarn about Frederick Douglass and Bradley Cooper. [Chappelle shared a story about Douglass being the first black man invited to the White House, then recalled how he'd recently been a guest in the West Wing for a party where all the attendees — except Cooper — were black.] He'd never said any of it before in his life. It was off-the-cuff. He's just playing a different game than the rest of us.
SHOOKUS It landed on such a hopeful note, which I don't think anyone really expected from him for the show. I think it was healing for people. We'd really thought a lot more about timing and what was on the calendar — the debates, the election — than we would in a normal year. The next one was Trump's [swearing in].
AZIZ ANSARI, HOST Right before Christmas, I ran into Lindsay Shookus at a party. She said she'd been trying to call me; they wanted me to host. I'd never done it, and it's always been a dream [of mine]. Then they said they wanted me for the post-inauguration episode. I knew it was a huge megaphone and that my monologue had to be some take about America at this moment. No one was going to want to hear me talking about a bad date I went on the week before.
SHOOKUS We knew we wanted someone who has a voice, and Aziz clearly does.
ANSARI The inauguration was that Friday, and the mood was so dark, like a national tragedy had happened. All I could think was, "How are we going to do this tomorrow?" Then the next day the Women's March happened, and it changed everything. I had to change my monologue because I'd opened the whole thing with this joke that no longer made sense. It was something like, "I know everyone's upset but let's look at the bright side: There's a huge group of people who are motivated to take action, they're ready to do something. Well, to an extent." Have you ever been to these brunches where people are like, "Guys, we've got to get out there and do something. What should we do?" And you go, "Well, you can get involved with state and local government, you can start working with organizations like the ACLU …" "Whoa, whoa, whoa, I'm not doing any of that. Is there any way I can make a difference just by complaining at bunch?" But on that Saturday, we couldn't do that joke anymore because people were out there doing something.
••• 'MELISSA SHOULD PLAY SPICER'
MELISSA MCCARTHY, GUEST STAR Back in February, I was on a plane with Kristen [Stewart] — she was coming out to host SNL; I was coming out to shoot a movie. She has a reputation for not loving to be interviewed, which I think becomes very funny, so I shamelessly pitched her [this monologue idea where she's] doing the worst opening ever.
SUBLETTE That was around the time of Sean Spicer's first couple of press briefings, and they were just so insane. It was a Tuesday, and one of our producers, Erik Kenward, told me that Melissa had flown out with our host and had a monologue idea. That's when I just blurted out, "Melissa should play Spicer."
KENWARD People had been saying over those past few weeks, "Man, I wish [Chris] Farley was around to play Spicer." And in a lot of ways, Melissa is the closest thing just in terms of sheer power and comedy physicality that we have to Chris Farley, and I knew Lorne felt the same way. I called him and he immediately was like, "Absolutely. Let's make it happen."
SUBLETTE We're friends from The Groundlings, so I just called her up: "I have this crazy idea." She'd played Farley's character Matt Foley on the show before, so I knew she wouldn't be uncomfortable playing a man or being ridiculous. She asked some questions like, "How would that work? What would be the impression?" I told her it was more about the attitude — the bombast and the anger.
MCCARTHY I don't do impressions. I don't have the ear for it. But when I read the script, I was like, "Oh, God, that is juicy, but I don't understand how we're going to physically make it work." To which the amazing special effects person at SNL was like, "Oh, yeah, that's not that big of a deal. That's gonna take me, like, 15 minutes." I was like, "Hey!"
SUBLETTE If it hadn't been Melissa, it would have gone to Beck. He has an amazing impression. In fact, he reads Spicer for the read-through because Melissa's not usually there.
MCCARTHY I was so nervous that first time. It was very quiet at first, and I'm thinking, "The audience is already turning before they even know what's going on." There was this weird, great delay, and first people figure out it's Spicer and then they figure out it's me. You could just feel it in the room. And then I get off, and I have all of these texts, like "Oh, my God, are you looking at what's happening?" I didn't quite know what to do with the reaction.
SUBLETTE I'll admit we were nervous to bring her back the next week. Like, are we doing this too soon? Is it going to be as fun? But it was just as great because there was all this fresh stuff about Ivanka's clothing line being dropped by Nordstrom. It was Melissa's idea to hike up her leg to show off the high-heel Ivanka shoe.
MCCARTHY Well, once I heard "motorized podium" and "jewelry," I said, "Can he also be wearing a shoe?"
SUBLETTE Then after Spicer said that thing about the Holocaust, there was speculation that he'd be gone by the end of the week. Melissa was slated to host in May, but we were like, "Let's get Spicer back one more time in case he does get fired or in case there's a writers strike." But Melissa couldn't get to New York, so I said, "Well, what if we shot it live remotely in L.A.?" Of course, I said it not knowing anything about how difficult that would be to pull off. [They shot the sketch on the Access Hollywood set in Burbank.] It was awesome, but logistically I don't think we'd do it again.
SHOOKUS We decided Thursday night that someone from the senior staff had to be out there because it's just not something we do. We were going to courier the prosthetics, but then we figured, if I'm going, I should have the important things with me. So there I was, getting on the plane carrying the forehead, the under-eyes and the wig.
••• 'LET'S SEE THE SILLY SIDE OF PUTIN'
SCHNEIDER As writers, we've found ourselves asking, "What else can we talk about that's not just Donald Trump?" We do have him in cold opens most weeks, but then we want to branch out and talk about this administration and come at it from other directions. That's how we dipped into Kellyanne. That's how we dipped into Ivanka. More recently, that's how we dipped into Jared [Kushner].
STRONG I'd started playing Melania last season. I often end up playing those glamorous types of women, and I love accents, so it was a fun fit. It was really important to us, especially when we did it the year before, to play her respectfully, because it was very evident that it wasn't her choice to be a part of it. She came to the show when he hosted and she kind of pointed her finger at me at the dinner, but she said she liked the impression. I don't know if she actually did, or he wanted her to and so she did.
KELLY We'd spend hours and hours trying to come up with an Ivanka sketch and then bail on it because it just didn't seem right. We had this Titanic idea when all the companies were dropping her products. We wanted to make it be like Ivanka was in one of her stores and then the Titanic music starts playing and suddenly the walls fall in and water rushes into the store and all of her shoes and purses fall off the shelves into the water.
SCHNEIDER While she lovingly says goodbye to all of them.
KELLY We really liked the image of everything just in slow motion falling down around her, and then we called one of the directors, and we were like, "Could we shoot on a soundstage and make it flood?" And he was like, "No, we can't." We really tried to jam through some Titanic-y idea for weeks, and then eventually we thought of this perfume angle [Complicit perfume, with Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka].
MCKINNON It just sort of happened that we don't have anyone playing Ivanka. [Hosts Emily Blunt, Margot Robbie and Johansson have all played the first daughter.] I guess no one felt like they had a compelling take. Someone suggested I play [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions as a joke, and I said, "Oh, I could do that, I've got something for that." And it's evolved as I continued to try to imagine his inner life. It starts with what you read in articles and what you watch on YouTube, and then the character takes on a life and persona of its own.
JONES Most political stuff I try to stay away from, but the black Trump sketch was [an exception]. One night I was imitating Trump with Kenan [Thompson] and I was like, "I think I want to be Trump." He said I should write it. It was really about getting the look down — they made me my own Trump wig and eyebrows — and then a couple of his phrases. I just thought it'd be funny because it's like everybody else was playing him, but I'd never seen anyone play him who's black. And a black woman playing him would be hilarious and probably just piss him off really bad.
BENNETT When I did the cold open with John Goodman [as Rex Tillerson] and Alec [in December], Lorne wanted to make sure that my Putin impression was entertaining throughout the scene as opposed to just one silly beat, which is what it had been before. He said, "Let him be that sort of Bond villain — he enjoys his power, he's having fun with everybody. People want to laugh with him, so let's see the silly side of Putin." Then when we were rehearsing it, he came by and said (in Michaels' voice), "And with the shirt off."
SHOOKUS We've gotten a lot of pitches from people, big people, like, "I can play this person on the Cabinet, or I can play this person." It's in the vein of Melissa and Alec and Larry David, and it's never happened before. We got a lot of Kellyanne and [Steve] Bannon pitches. But the casting has to make sense. You don't want to make a splash to make a splash. That's not what we do.
JONES I asked Lorne, "How come y'all aren't bringing Rosie O'Donnell in [to play Bannon, per her plea on Twitter] or any of them to do it?" And he was like, "When you're playing a character, you can't play it from hate. You have to play it from funny, because when you play it from hate, it looks like you're just being mean." I love Rosie to death, but he might have been right on that one.
••• 'YOU ALMOST FEEL LIKE A WAR PROFITEER'
CHE People will say, "Why are you guys still talking about Trump?" But how do you ignore him? Trump has never stopped being the story. I think there might have been two episodes where he didn't do anything absolutely batshit crazy [that week].
JOST I always think it's so funny when people talk about the idea that we somehow introduced him to America or that our show or Jimmy Fallon has humanized him. He's been on the cover of every tabloid consistently for 30 years. When he hosted last season, the worry was, "Would he have burned out by the time he even came to host?" That was Lorne's concern more than the concern of, "How will this help him?"
TUCKER People had different opinions about him being there at that time, but during that week, he was in second place in Iowa, behind Ben Carson. He was definitely a national phenomenon, but he was not imminently going to be president. The thing I found most surprising about that week was that normally when a politician comes to the show, they bring four or five people with them. When we bring a sketch to Hillary Clinton or even John McCain, there are two or three other people there to talk it through and give us thoughts about what might be acceptable. He came alone with his BlackBerry. He made all the decisions on what he wanted to do and what he didn't. He was just going with his gut the whole week. Turns out, that's also how he governs.
KENWARD The life cycle of the show is very much tied to the election cycle. We're very used to having these seasons where you start with this big bump of interest where everyone is hanging on what the show is doing until the election and then it spirals down. Same thing every four years, and people who've worked at the show for a long time are used to that rhythm. This one is not only not following that pattern, but following the exact opposite pattern.
JOST It's been harder in the past couple of years at SNL because the culture's so fragmented. If you do a parody even of a huge show like Game of Thrones, it doesn't have the full cultural resonance of a Cheers or Friends. Whereas politics right now is probably the closest we've come to a full-blown national phenomenon as anything in a long time, and anytime people are paying more attention to politics, it's good for our show. But you almost feel like a war profiteer at times because we've benefited from a situation that's so tough.
TUCKER And Trump tweeting about us and Alec's performance only seemed to give the show a whole new level of the country caring.
BALDWIN Everywhere I go now, it’s, "Great Job, Alec!" It's every cop on a horse, every hot dog vendor, every squirrel in the park, "Thank you." Then there's a smaller band of people, who you can tell are Trump supporters. You get this look and you can just feel the hatred. There were these two construction workers smoking a cigarette on Broadway, and as I walk by, they go: "There he is, that f—ing asshole, Alec Baldwin. Doesn't support our president. Don't fall in the hole over there, Alec."
HIGGINS The Sarah Palin season felt like less pressure than this. When Tina walked down the street, people were just happy to see her. With Alec, sometimes it feels like people think he's the only hope there is, which is an odd place to put a comedian. I hope the world gets back to normal soon.
BALDWIN People talk now about getting Trump removed or impeached. It's going to be impossible with the Republican Congress in place. Maybe that will ramp up if they lose the midterms? Look, I'd love to keep doing this per my availability, but I have other things I'm going to do, so I guess we'll figure it out. If I'm doing a film [a Lamborghini biopic opposite Antonio Banderas] in Rome in the fall, you can bet I'm going to be on a satellite from Rome doing Trump. (In Trump's voice) "We're going to tear down the Pantheon. These paintings all gotta go. They're disgusting. By the way, this place is filled with Italians. Italy is wall to wall Italians." I have a lot of things I'm supposed to do. I'm sure Lorne will find ways to kill them. He'll call the producer: "You know he can't kiss his wife in the scene because of that disease he has." (Laughs.)
Additional reporting by Lesley Goldberg and Seth Abramovitch.
This story first appeared in the May 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.