'SNL' at 40: Molly Shannon Tells Andy Samberg Why Mary Katherine Gallagher Almost Didn't Happen

The comedy duo interviewed each other for The Hollywood Reporter's special issue.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Andy Samberg was just 17 years old when Molly Shannon joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1995. But theirs is a mutual adoration that, according to a recent meeting in Hollywood, seemed destined to collide. Listen in as the Golden Globe-winning actor, 36 (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and busy indie actress, 50 (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) chat about their SNL auditions, the characters and sketches that became their signatures and why it's OK that one of them "totally blew it" when they first met. ("I totally geeked out.")

Molly Shannon: So what kind of a kid were you? A funny kid?

Andy Samberg: I was a spaz. My mom let me kind of run free and be rowdy. She encouraged it. I'm a youngest child. So I was spazzy and trying to be funny to my older sisters. It's kind of my role in the family — tension reliever. I was funny or annoying, depending on your perspective, which holds true to this day. What about you?

Shannon: Let me see. I was very serious about playing. I loved playing house and Barbies. There would be intense storylines with the Barbies. Also I had a best friend and we used to do characters. Sometimes we couldn't stop doing it. We'd speak in a Southern accent and say, "Get your butt back here right now, before I spank you!" We couldn't stop doing it. So it was more like playing house, but in a very serious way.

Samberg: That's interesting. When did you start applying that to comedy?

Shannon: I don't think we were trying to be funny. We were just entertaining one another. But then I remember getting attention when I used to sleep at my friend Amy Wahl's house. She came from a large family. I was like 9 or 10. And I slept over and her mother was like, "I'm making chicken cacciatore for everybody for dinner," and I thought of a little joke: "I'll have the chicken but I don't want any cacciatore." The whole family was like, "Ah-ha-ha!" And I remember being like, "It's such a dumb joke, but I like this! I liked making people laugh." So about you, did you always know that you wanted to be a performer or when did you start realizing that?

Samberg: From really young, I knew I wanted to do comedy in some form. I thought for a long time I would be a cartoonist, but I'm not good at drawing. My parents tell me I would do jokes about something called Super Puppy, which I don't know is a real thing or not. But it would be like, "Why did Super Puppy fall asleep under the tree? Because he was tired!" Ha ha ha ha! Like that was funny.

Shannon: So you started watching Saturday Night Live when you were a kid, but specifically did you think, "I want to be a stand-up," or were you like, "I like what they were doing on Saturday Night Live"?

Samberg: By the way, your pronunciation of "Saturday Night Live" is very good. It's really hard to say fast, but you can do it. When we'd be doing promos with most hosts when I was there, we had to switch it for them to just say "SNL."

Shannon: Why thank you for complimenting my elocution! I used to watch SNL when I was babysitting, after I put the kids to bed. It was the Gilda Radner and Bill Murray era. I loved it. But did I know I wanted to be on Saturday Night Live? Actually I went to NYU Drama School and …

Samberg: NYU Violets! That's our mascot, I think?

Shannon: Yes! I was a "very serious actress" doing dramatic monologues. For some reason I was attracted to intense monologues with Southern accents that were usually like, "Mama, don't burn me, Mama!" But I lived in New York and I would audition for like teenage runaway roles on soap operas. Then I auditioned for the Comedy Revue show my third or fourth year and I did Mary Katherine Gallagher in that show. I created it, so they kind of built the whole comedy show around that character. Adam Sandler was also in the show.

Samberg: Wow, I didn't know that.

Shannon: Yeah, and people started telling me on the streets after that, "You should be on Saturday Night Live" and I was like, "Really?" Wait, so how did you get cast on SNL?

Samberg: So Akiva [Schaffer], Jorma [Taccone] and I all grew up together and moved to L.A. to do comedy stuff. We were writing for the MTV Movie Awards for a second time and [Jimmy] Fallon was the host and brought all these SNL writers to help out. And we got along really great with everybody, so they recommended us to Lorne [Michaels]. I'd done stand-up on and off — I started when I was at NYU — and spent a lot of time doing videos with Akiva and Jorma. But when SNL called and said they wanted me audition, I was like, "With what?" So Akiva and Jorma and I locked ourselves in a room and thought up a bunch of dumb bits for me to try.

Shannon: So what did you do?

Samberg: I did some stand-up peppered with impressions and characters — just enough to fool them into thinking maybe I can do more of this.

Shannon: It's funny, I didn't do Mary Katherine Gallagher at my audition. I was told by this woman who was the town recruiter at the time: "Whatever you do, do not do that disgusting little schoolgirl character. Lorne will hate it, you'll never get hired, so don't do that for your audition." I came in midseason when there was a whole new group — Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri

Samberg: Wait, this is very fascinating to me. So you were told not to do it in your audition. You got the job then said, "I'm gonna try Mary Katherine Gallagher at the table"? Did it just destroy?

Shannon: Sort of. When I got there, I remember the Groundlings people all had characters. They'd be like typing and laughing with their doors closed and I was like, "I have characters, too!" I got so mad, so I went to [writer] Steve Koren, and was like, "I do this character." So we wrote up our first sketch and I read it at the read-through. It went great. Lorne I think really knew the potential of it. And he was like, "Why we don't we wait and save it next week for when Gabriel Byrne hosts?" Because he was Irish and he would play the priest. So I did it during the dress rehearsal and it went great. And I remember going to the room after that to see what got picked for the live show, and it got moved from the bottom of the show to the top. Nice! It was definitely a turning point.

Samberg: "Lazy Sunday" was like that for me. It was essentially inspired by agro rapping about really mundane middle?class privileged things. We had seen [Chris] Parnell's raps on "Update" and loved them. I claim that I had an idea to do on "Update" a review of The Chronicles of Narnia movie. Then they were talking to Parnell about doing a rap thing as a pretape. So we started recording it in our office. I wanna say we recorded it either Monday or Tuesday night, which means we either shot it a Tuesday morning or a Thursday morning. And then they edited it in our office.

Shannon: I just wanna say, when I hosted the show I worked with you, Akiva and Jorma, I remember being like, "Oh my God." I was so excited to work with you guys! I was such a fan of all of yours. I remember feeling so lucky to work with these incredible filmmakers. I'm like old school, but you were making me cool.

Samberg: Do you remember how much I geeked out when I met you? Afterward I was like, "That was too much. I shouldn't have told her how much her work meant to me." I blew it!

Shannon: That's so sweet.