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Fifteen showbiz luminaries can proudly call themselves members of SNL‘s esteemed and star-studded Five-Timers Club — or, hosts who’ve braved the weekly task of emceeing the sketch show five times or more. When THR gathered 13 of them for the covers of its SNL 40th anniversary issue (writer-actor Buck Henry was ill and Bill Murray doesn’t answer his cellphone), stories and laughs flew with abandon as these A-list actor and musicians revealed their scariest moments, favorite sketches and insights on why the Empire that Lorne Built matters now more than ever.
Listen in as SNL creator Lorne Michaels chats with Tom Hanks (eight-time host), Danny DeVito (six), Candice Bergen (five), Paul Simon (four as host, eight as musical guest), John Goodman (13), Drew Barrymore (six), Alec Baldwin (16), Elliot Gould (six), Christopher Walken (seven), Chevy Chase (eight), Justin Timberlake (five) and Ben Affleck (five) about their wild-and-craziest tales from braving TV’s toughest gig. (Note: Five-timer Steve Martin opted out of sharing his memories and insights for our story. Perhaps they were too wild and crazy?)
What makes the perfect SNL host:
LORNE MICHAELS: When you first do it, you’re already worried starting on Monday. There’s nothing written, then there’s too much written, and then there’s fixing it, and then there’s rehearsing. The most stressful part for a host is the first two days, so the perfect host learns when to worry.
TOM HANKS: Alec Baldwin, God damn it, he’s got the technique. All he does is stand there and look out right to the cue cards, and he might lean toward the person he’s talking to but he doesn’t look at them. And he’s got that deep voice. “Let me tell you something, Catholic Boy.” He just looks straight ahead. And he’s not even really working, it’s all attitude!
DANNY DEVITO: What’s the stressful part for you, Lorne? You’ve done this for quite a while.
MICHAELS: Dress rehearsal, because up to that point, anything could be good.
DEVITO: No matter what schmuck is on that mark, dress rehearsal is the test.
MICHAELS: Every week, dress [rehearsal] is a mess. You kind of go, how is this going to turn into something? I think in our world, things have to be bad before they’re good, that’s just it. Probably somewhere, I think around Candice’s show, which was the fourth show?
CANDICE BERGEN: I thought it was the third! It was definitely when no one knew the show yet back when Lorne wore a duck pin on his lapel — he was not as elegant as he is today. I didn’t know what the show was yet, but I was thrilled to do it.
MICHAELS: … we started to go, “This can’t play that early.” You get to know the room. And the best hosts for me are the ones who have figured out that we know the room better than they do.
HANKS: If the monologue is not funny, it’s not a good show. If you have a hot monologue and then a horrible show, everybody still remembers it as being a great show because the monologue was good.
MICHAELS: Which sets have to be built is the first decision we make on Wednesday, so the monologue gets moved to Thursday. Paul, remember when you had that turkey costume where you were outside playing the guitar and singling “Do you Know the Way to San Jose”?
PAUL SIMON: I thought I was singing a Dylan song? I can’t remember. I’m sure your memory is better than mine!
Doing it for the first time:
ALEC BALDWIN: It was like being shot out of a cannon. And the whole thing seemed to go by in 15 minutes.
JOHN GOODMAN: I was still drunk when I was flying back home to Los Angeles the next day, and singing the Toonces the Cat theme at the top of my lungs. And then I was finally having fun! I was definitely petrified, but there’s a huge adrenaline rush, and I was hooked
BERGEN: On that Friday I was like, “What the f— am I doing?” But it was such a long time ago, I don’t think I knew how terrifying it was. I do think certain members of the cast realized that certain drugs were more or less compatible with the tempo of the show. Grass did not work well. It was much more cocaine. (Laughs.)
GOODMAN: The first show I ever saw was one Candice hosted. It was love at first sight!
ELLIOTT GOULD: I found coming in to start rehearsals on a Wednesday that I didn’t understand what anything was about. All of the original Not Ready for Primetime Players had collaborated on writing, so you all knew what it was about and I had to be able to discover what it was about so I could act it and play it. And eventually it always worked out, but thank goodness for cue cards!
DREW BARRYMORE: I hosted for the first time in 1982 when I was 7 and they surprised me in the monologue. I don’t know what the motivation was behind it but [writer] Tim Kazurinsky ended up bringing out a live monkey on stage for me. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing that I experienced that at such a young age. I’m so much less precocious now as a 40-year-old woman. I had audacity as a 7-year-old, serious cojones.
BEN AFFLECK: I had come a few times with [ex-girlfriend] Gwyneth Paltrow — I had a good warm-up because I had done a couple of those bits where I was a guy in the audience asking questions. So when they asked me to host, I wasn’t afraid enough. I only got afraid when I was standing behind the door to the stage. All of the sudden I thought, “OK, this is actually live. Not like a play live but like millions of people live. If I have a nervous breakdown, that’s it.” I was like thank God they have the idiot-proof cue card. What I remember though was that it did feel like it went by in 15 minutes. The blessing of it was that I didn’t have any time to think because if I did, it would have been a complete disaster. Someone’s pulling you by the arm, you’ve got your mustache on and you’re supposed to be playing a duck hunter and it’s like, “Action!”
HANKS: I remember actually the second time I did the show I was kind of full of myself, and blew myself out goofing around in between dress rehearsal and the show. I had so much energy, I got rid of all my adrenaline. When the show started I wasn’t necessarily crashing but I wasn’t as sharp as I could’ve been. My best advice for a host is stay in your dressing room and go over your lines because the more comfortable you are to stay off the cue cards, the better.
GOULD: I also remember having so much energy and great costumes. I had a costume with spats and another that was an Indian blanket jacket. And Lorne made me head of the killer bees in that sketch with John Belushi and Danny Aykroyd. We all became friends.
The toughest part of hosting:
GOODMAN: The costume changes.
MICHAELS: For a lot of people, it’s speaking as themselves in the monologue. Particularly for people who only act, it’s a hard one.
GOODMAN: Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever had a good monologue.
MICHAELS: No, you haven’t! Most people who’ve never come out on a stage except to accept an award or to do an interview, the idea that you’re coming out and being yourself, for show business people, that’s scary.
BARRYMORE: I love learning lines, but on SNL they keep changing! That gets my mind tripped up. I study all week and learn and learn, and then every single day, the lines are just changing.
AFFLECK: That’s funny, because the first thing they told me was, “Look, don’t learn the lines.”
BARRYMORE: Well, and it’s true, and everyone does say that. But it’s like, I don’t want to be stuck reading cue cards because I won’t be able to free-flow or be spontaneous and throw it all away. You can’t throw shit away when you don’t know what it is!
MICHAELS: One of the groups of people most comfortable doing the show are professional athletes. They’re used to being in front of large groups of people and not knowing.
BERGEN: Eli Manning was great.
MICHAELS: As was Payton Manning.
AFFLECK: I liked Tom Brady, but yeah. (Laughs.)
MICHAELS: They’re used to not knowing how it’s going to turn out. And they’re used to playing in front of 80,000 people.
AFFLECK: One thing that really shocked me about hosting the show was I thought, “Oh, it’s funny, everybody’s great!” But there is such a degree of competition. The underbelly of writers and comics. Like, “Hey, nice to meet you.” “Yeah, nice to meet you, f—er! Now look at this thing, you’re going to rehearse this.” You go, “Whoa, these guys are shooting each other to get on the air.”
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: But then when you go into the individual writer’s rooms after that, and you get that thing: “Yeah, yeah, good to see you, man. Shut the door, shut the door.” So, and they wait for you to shut the door. As they’re building the sketch, at a volume that is like, “I’m not going to let anyone else in this building know what I’m thinking.” You’re looking around the room going, “This is a sick motherf—er.”
AFFLECK: Also, coming from filmmaking you go, “Uh guys, it’s Friday. We don’t know what we’re doing, the sets aren’t built, no one knows where they’re going with the shots.” That’s, to me, always that moment of, like, “Should I pretend to be sick?” … Strangely enough, it all works out well. There’s an element of that where you just free yourself and kind of go, “It’s going to work or it won’t.”
MICHAELS: It’s because no one’s in control. You know, I technically am, but …
AFFLECK: Lorne has the thing that great directors have, which is you have the illusion of control.
Breaking during a sketch:
GOODMAN: Fallon usually took care of that for everybody. (Laughs.) And Sandler.
TIMBERLAKE: I have so many takes that are Fallon-heavy. I mean it’s literally his mission between dress and air …
DEVITO: To get you?
DEVITO: I couldn’t get through this one scene I did with Jon Lovitz. I came in with a gun — it was like a Western or something — and I shot him and he says (doing a nasally Lovitz impression), “You shot me! You shot me!” And he kept saying it, just kept getting longer and longer. I was like, “F—ing die already!” (Laughs.) I gave up. I just laid down. I couldn’t stop laughing.
On hearing from the real-live people they’ve so lovingly spoofed on the show:
GOODMAN: I never have, but after a while, I kind of felt like we were stomping on Linda Tripp’s dead corpse. I wanted to pull the plug on a couple of [the sketches where I played her], but I was getting big laughs.
TIMBERLAKE: The last time Jimmy [Fallon] hosted and I was musical guest, which was a year ago, we got Barry Gibb to come on. I remember him being pretty game. He got the joke that it was over the top.
MICHAELS: You wonder what it was like for him sitting at home watching the show all those years, and then suddenly he’s in a sketch!
BARRYMORE: It was definitely weird for me to see Kristen Wiig do an impression of me, especially too since she’s a good friend of mine. Was she taking the total piss out of me or is she like, is there a goodness behind it? She really nails it. I do sound like a Valley girl. Jimmy Fallon said once, “You’re like a cute stroke victim.” I think Kristen really captured and encapsulated that.
AFFLECK: I did Keith Olbermann once. [Writer] Jim Downey was really helpful in that. So I’m doing it, and it’s hard, and I’m spinning, and it’s a long thing, so I’m having to memorize it. And I hear somebody comes over to me and says, “Yeah, Keith Olbermann is here.” I’m kind of like, “Yeah.” He’s like, “No, dude, that’s actually Keith Olbermann.” I look out, trying to be casual, and there’s the real Keith just kind of watching me while we’re rehearsing. And I guess because he was at NBC, there was a feed of what was happening at SNL. So he was able to see that we were rehearsing this bit. And I was like, “Do I go over there?”
TIMBERLAKE: What did you do?
AFFLECK: I kind of said, “Hi …” but it made me uncomfortable, you know what I mean? ‘Cause you don’t want to like hurt somebody’s feelings even though it’s all in good fun.
DEVITO: By the way, what’s good to do, if you host the show is, before you go on, you walk in the back, and backstage there’s this room that’s about the size of where we are in this sofa area. And there are all these people in there with the black magic markers writing. So if you just walk in there for like eight, 10 seconds and then go on? Man, you’re high as a kite. (Laughs.)
GOODMAN: Note to self!
BARRYMORE: I think that that is the great thing about it for me, as someone who’s such a people-pleaser. I love when people are happy. Also, as someone who’s always nervous about jokes I make, I think “Oh, why did I make that joke? That person hates me now!”
GOODMAN: Chris Farley did me one time, but the next time he saw me, he seemed really defensive!
TIMBERLAKE: I find too, it’s the one place to go to be self-deprecating. I think that goes miles with the audience and with the people at home. That’s what people want to see.
MICHAELS: Like the Irish immigrant sketch you did.
TIMBERLAKE: Yeah! That may be my favorite sketch that I’ve ever done. And it’s mostly, if you count up the jokes, it’s 20 to one me making jokes about myself versus anybody else who was included in that sketch.
BARRYMORE: Yeah. Make fun of yourself, be prepared to make fun of others, but the key word is “fun.”
GOODMAN: I remember reading something Tom Hanks had said— if you have a really good monologue, the show is really going to fall in to place.
AFFLECK: There’s so much just kind of flotsam and jetsam around celebrities, what they do, what they wore today, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So people have this set of expectations about you when you [host SNL]. So it actually gives you a chance to play off that in a kind of fun and satisfying way, instead of having it be a one-way conversation.
BARRYMORE: The T-shirt bit you did? Amazing.
AFFLECK: The best monologue I did, yeah. It was about pairing my name with other girls: Benyonce, Boprah. (Laughs.) Once they realized, “This is awesome,” it’s like, let’s take it further. I think there’s a certain gingerness around the writers with hosts. Like, “Is he going to be an asshole, or cool?” And once they get the sense that you’re committed to their stuff, they work really hard for you to go the extra mile. That’s when the energy of the show really picks up.
BARRYMORE: And each castmember has a special forte. My favorite material is the stuff you hear in that Monday meeting that’s the strangest idea. It’s usually like the 1:25 in the morning sketch that ends up being so great.
BALDWIN: Make an ass of yourself and you’ll end up winning.
BERGEN: I was nothing when I first hosted. I never asked Lorne why he chose me, but I was just so comfortable in the context!
MICHAELS: Her father was a comedian.
BERGEN: He was a Swedish comedian. (Laughter.)
GOODMAN: You did my favorite Christmas show, too.
BERGEN: Oh, the Bee Capades? I loved the Bee Capades, it was the first Christmas show. And we were all dressed up. They were dressed up like bees, and had on their ice skates.
GOODMAN: F—ing bees.
BERGEN: I had on this Sonja Henie skating outfit, red velvet with ermine, and we went down in the elevators, and the elevator guy never looked at us. (Laughter.)
AFFLECK: Yeah, they don’t blink.
DEVITO: I believe my first line on my first show as a host was, “So ABC canceled Taxi.” (Laughter.)
GOODMAN: And you blew up the building.
BERGEN: Can I just say that when we did the Five-Timer sketch, I had six lines and forgot four of them, and Justin, who was hosting the show, and was also the musical guest, knew my lines, and I was so staggered and humiliated by the fact that you not only knew all of your lines …
AFFLECK: Justin is always angling to replace whomever he works with. (Laughter.)
Favorite sketches or moments of all time (whether they were in them or not):
HANKS: I can’t remember what show it was for me but Robert Smigel wrote it, “Mr. Short Term Memory.” It had a kooky theme song, it was perfectly written and the dress rehearsal was absolutely a perfect performance. Everything clicked.
CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: I think I did the Continental sketch the first time I hosted. The Continental was a show I watched when I was 12 years old. The famous Cowbell sketch was much later. I never imagined that would become such a huge hit! But my favorite was one I did called “Googly Eyes Gardener,” which was about a guy who had all these plants and he had eyeballs on them. It doesn’t make sense to explain it now, but it made me laugh. If I ever [host] again, I wanna do “Googly Eyes.”
BALDWIN: I could never name just one, but the soap opera sketch, where I pronounce it “EEE-SO-FAY-GUS” cracked me up. Also doing “The Tony Bennett Show” sketch led me to meet the real Tony Bennett
GOULD: The Star Trek one was an amazing sketch.
HANKS: Oh, I think that’s got to be one of the top five of all.
GOULD: Chevy [Chase] was Mr. Spock. [John] Belushi was Captain Kirk. [Star Trek creator] Gene Rodenberry said later that that sketch was what encouraged him to make Star Trek for the big screen.
SIMON: I loved when George Harrison and I did the show. We did like a half an hour sitting in front of the audience. We actually can’t find the footage. It’s sort of gone except for the audio. It’s the mystery half-hour of the two of us. That was special.
BERGEN: I remember doing a sketch early on with Gilda [Radner], and I accidentally started reading her lines off the cue cards. I just went out of character completely. I called her the wrong name. She was just so witty and so gracious and funny about it — but it was not good.
HANKS: See, these guys invented all of this. I was just at home watching at that point, but you guys were actually on the show when it was this religious thing. We would gather 30 people in a room to watch it on a Panasonic black-and-white TV with a coat hanger for an aerial.
SIMON: People always mention the one in the turkey costume. But the skit that most people remember is the one where I’m standing in line for a movie theater or something, and people were coming up to me and saying, “I saw your concert in Central Park.” And I say “Oh yeah, you were wearing like a spangled sweater and sitting in the tree, right? How is your mother?” That skit is one that people seem to remember. My experience is different from everybody’s here in that I had to the music as well. (Laughs.)
BALDWIN: My craziest moment was mistaking the real Sarah Palin for Tina.
Why SNL still matters after 40 years:
MICHAELS: No idea. (Laughs.)
BALDWIN: The show started before the Internet, but it has been, with regularity, as timely as a blog post. Meanwhile, its roots are vaudeville: jokes and music, followed by more jokes and music. The show became an institution by emulating other institutions and doing it well.
TIMBERLAKE: Some of my favorite sketches are the ones that turn a mirror on what happened this week that’s so ridiculous. And when it gets nailed, like, really well, you know, I almost think it’s like responsibility, in a way.
WALKEN: It’s a national institution. It’s a national treasure. It’s really something. I was here for the 25th [anniversary] special 15 years ago, which really does not seem like that long ago. Also, I did some movies a few years ago — literally went around the world from Los Angeles to Australia and Asia and Europe — and no matter where I was, Saturday Night Live was on. They really owe us some money. (Laughs.)
CHEVY CHASE: Also, it’s on TV on Saturday at 11:30 p.m. What else is there?
HANKS: New York 1? I think the show holds the same cache as it did when it first began, is that it was a cultural touchstone for that week. The musical acts alone have also been the signposts for where we were as a culture. Also, how many many times has something happened during the week in the news and you thought, “Oh, I can’t wait to see what SNL’s going to do with this.”
CHASE: There’s that wonderful little thing called “Weekend Update.” I loved writing those jokes. There was one thing that I loved: You could improvise a little. One point I remember saying, “Let’s take a look back at 1975.” And I turn to this thing that said “1975,” and just looked at it for a while. (Laughs.) Also, the SNL cast has always reflected the audience’s age. Last year I asked Lorne if I could host and he said no. “Why not?” He said, “You’re too old.” I said, “Jeez!”
HANKS: Finger on the pulse of a generation!
CHASE: But I knew what he meant when I came and watched and realized everyone is in their 30s like we were when I was doing the show.
GOODMAN: A really good cold open and “Weekend Update” still matter.
BARRYMORE: You also have a personal relationship with the cast, so when someone graduates out of there, you’re like, “Well, now how am I going to feel about the show, because I got so attached to those people?”
AFFLECK: It’s like your girlfriend going to college. “I’ll call you!” (Laughs.)
BARRYMORE: Then a new crop comes in, and you get really excited, like, “Who’s the new batch?” and “How’s this new decade going to feel?” Also I think by Saturday night each week, everybody has had enough of their life. They need to laugh, they need to escape, they need that goodness. Also, the closing song for me, when everyone is onstage at the end, is very tear-jerking.
AFFLECK: But the biggest thing? It’s the only thing left on TV that is live. Everything is pretaped. Even when you watch something on YouTube, they took their time and uploaded it when they thought it was right. Other than theater, which is a whole different experience, you’ve got millions of people that can watch something live. And then you bring in people like Justin, and every once in a while, you get “Dick in a Box.” And everybody, I would not be the same man were it not for “Dick in a Box.” (Laughs.)
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