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Cheri Oteri knew The Spartans were a big deal when she saw a magnet featuring her and Will Ferrell at Bed, Bath & Beyond.
The Saturday Night Live vet, who spent 1995-2000 on the show, was also known for her numerous impressions, with her speech-impeded Barbara Walters perhaps most notable among them.
Read more Lorne Michaels on 40 Years of ‘SNL’: Being ” ‘Feared’ Was Never My Goal”
When we all first got the job, the new people ran down to the 8H stage, and we just started improvising. I was a cheerleader in high school, and I would stomp my feet and clap and kind of form a beat while waiting for my turn, and then Will started doing it. He started just doing it really seriously. And then we started laughing. We said to each other we should write a cheerleading sketch.
Two weeks later, we were in my office, and I was like, “OK, do you want to write that baby sketch or that cheerleading sketch?” So we started writing the cheerleading sketch. We thought it would be funny if these people had all this team spirit but didn’t make the squad. And they just decided to cheer anyway. They just keep showing up to places where they weren’t wanted to cheer, like the math team and Ping-Pong or chess.
When did you realize this was going to be a hit?
We could tell that it went well. Then we did it again, and it was really catching on. Sometime later, I remember being at Bed Bath & Beyond in line and seeing a refrigerator magnet with our faces on it as cheerleaders. I couldn’t believe it. I was in awe. I was looking at everybody in line with me, and I just wanted to say, “That’s me! On a refrigerator magnet! At Bed Bath & Beyond!”
In an interview a few years ago, you talked about “Morning Latte” maybe being the favorite sketch you did. What made that one so much fun for you?
For two years, I knew I wanted to the do the sketch, because during the summer I used to watch morning shows. I didn’t want to imitate one morning show; I just wanted to take something from all the morning shows I saw and then make it a low-budget morning show and just play these people that were completely ill-informed. And I remember doing it once with Jerry Seinfeld, and [he says], “Did you guys win this show in a bet or something?” I just loved playing a character that was so ill-informed yet so confident.
What was the key to your working relationship with Will? What was working and writing with him like?
I felt like we were like two kids. As hard as the cheerleader was, it’s just the thing of laughing while you’re writing. We laughed a lot while we wrote.
And I would even enjoy writing for him. Once you get to know each other’s voice, I would have such a good time writing something for him. We were at the Groundlings before. I wrote a sketch about us being a prom couple, and we actually did it in the second show. The whole time I was writing it I was picturing him playing this guy, a prom date, and I was just cracking up because I would get just as much of a joy watching him play these characters — whether it’s the cheerleader or “Morning Latte” — as I enjoyed it for myself.
You are very loved for your impersonations. Did you ever get memorable feedback from somebody you impersonated?
Yeah. I remember being in my manager’s office, and he said to me, “Guess who called me today?” And I said, “Who?” He goes, “Judge Judy.” And I was a little nervous. He said, “She said, ‘You tell your client, Cheri, that she’s almost got me.’ “
Read more ‘SNL’: 20 Personal, Funny Tales From Kristen Wiig, Dana Carvey, Laraine Newman and More
She’s intimidating, so were you a little worried when you heard she called?
Oh my gosh, yes! And then one of the biggest thrills for me being on the show too was talking her into coming on and actually busting me doing her.
Was it easy to convince her, or did you have to work on her a little bit?
Yeah, I convinced her. It was during an event that she was at, and she was such a doll. I said to her, “It would be the coolest thing in the world if you would come on as you and bust me.” And she said, “Cheri, I’m so good at being myself. I’m not good at acting.” And I said, “I just want you to be yourself — the way you are on the show.” But I knew what she meant. She killed it, and it was just one of those things where I would never forget.
What was meeting Barbara Walters like after impersonating her?
I was really scared because I admired her so much. But she really liked it. She actually put me on the spot one day on her show and asked me, “How do you do me?” Because I started out doing her specials. I said, “Well, usually you’ll give three very specific compliments, and then you go in for the kill.” Like, “You’re an Academy Award-winning actor, you’re an accomplished concert pianist and you just put out your first hip-hop record. Why the porn?” But she does it slowly. First she seduces them with compliments, and then she goes in for the kill, and I thought that was so interesting. And when I told her, she just looked at me like, “Hmm, do I do that?”
How did it come about that you got to interview her in character last year on The View?
My cousin Mary, from Ocean City, New Jersey, calls me up one day. Barbara Walters had kind of announced that she was going to retire probably a year before she did. I phoned [Mary], and she goes, “Hey Cher, it’s Mary. Listen, I emailed the gang at The View.” And I’m like, “What?” She goes, “Yeah. I called the gang at The View, and I told them that since Barbara’s leaving, they should have you do something on the show.” And I go, “You did what?” She goes, “Yeah, don’t worry. They got right back to me.” And I’m like, “They did?” She says, “Yeah! They said what a great idea and that they would get in touch with you closer to when she was leaving.”
I thought nothing would come from it. But then here it was right before she’s about to leave, and I get a phone call, and they say, “Hey Cheri, we talked to your cousin, Mary, and she had this great idea.” I could not believe it.
What’s your favorite memory from SNL?
Probably doing the cheerleaders with Jim Carrey was a big deal. And the coolest thing was Will and I went to his house for dinner that summer. There were a bunch of people, and I asked Jim if I could look around, and he was like, “Sure,” so I walked into this room. There was a glass-encased outfit from The Riddler [from Batman Forever] and then there was another glass-encased outfit from The Mask. And then another one from Ace Ventura. My eyes are roaming, and then I saw the cheerleading uniform in a glass case. I was like, “Oh my God!” I ran back and got Will, and I go, “Will, come on! You gotta see this! You gotta see this!” And then I said, “Jim, I can’t believe that you have that in a glass case with all the wonderful things that you’ve played!” That was a big deal for me. I was just so flattered. I don’t know. I was just giggling. I couldn’t believe it.
SNL‘s 40th anniversary special airs Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.
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