It's nearly 1 a.m. and Norm Macdonald is in the hallway backstage at NBC Studio 8H, where the Matthew Perry-hosted second show of the season is drawing to a close. Technically, Macdonald should be joining all his colleagues – Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri, Ana Gasteyer, Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, Tim Meadows, Tracy Morgan, Jim Breuer, Darrell Hammond and Colin Quinn – as well as Perry and musical guests Oasis for the curtain call. But Macdonald – a true believer in the Church of Not Giving a Fuck, where he worships forefathers like Dean Martin and, yes, Burt Reynolds – doesn't do curtain calls. Nobody's cheerleader, he prefers to deliver the "fake news" and flee.
Macdonald doesn't generally attend the traditional Saturday Night Live after-party, either. "I never see the point," he explains. "There's all these people you know, and who wants to be with them? Then there's all these people you don't know – and I don't like them, either." Tonight, though, he's thinking of going. He even appears to be in a good mood. This is not because his "Weekend Update" segment went well – much better than last week, when he endured the indignity of sharing his desk with Richard Jewell. ("I fuckin' hated him," Macdonald says. "He was creepy. What the hell did he ever do? Not bomb something?") No, Macdonald is feeling "hot" tonight because his bookie is in the audience and Norm is up $15,000.
As befits a man who loves saying the word 'whore' – as in 'crack whore', 'truck-stop whore' and 'Chinese whore' – Macdonald engages in a little soliciting himself. Of praise, that is.
Macdonald spots Steve Martin – the former Wild and Crazy Guy himself and arguably the greatest SNL guest host ever – making his way toward the elevator after dropping by his old haunt. "Steve, this guy's from Rolling Stone," Macdonald calls over to Martin. "Can you tell him how much you think of me?"
"I really enjoy Norm's subtlety and wit," Martin says with a tried look.
"That sounds like ... nothing," Norm says.
"It's all I can get up right now, Norm," Martin explains.
"What if I just make something up for you?" Macdonald offers.
"Please," Martin says, exasperated. "Tell me what to say and I'll say it."
"How's, 'He's the funniest man alive'?"
"He's the funniest man alive," Martin says and quickly moves on.
Macdonald seems thrilled. "He said it! Steve Martin said that I'm the funniest man alive. You can put quotes around it now!" Next, Macdonald spots former cast member Jon Lovitz.
"Jon, can you tell this guy what you think of me?" Macdonald begs.
"I think Norm Macdonald is hilarious on 'Weekend Update,'" Lovitz says.
"Not good enough," Macdonald responds flatly. "Steve Martin just said I'm the funniest man alive."
"Steve Martin said the same thing to me three years ago," says Lovitz, breaking into Master Thespian speak.
"Wow – Steve Martin told Jon Lovitz I'm the funniest man alive, too," says Macdonald.
The one-time Liar searches for words he can get behind. "Norm Macdonald is not only one of the funnier comedians," Lovitz says, "he's one of the most well-hung. He puts Milton Berle to shame."
Backstage, cast member Jim Breuer has a different comparison: "Norm's so brave and fearless – he's like the John Wayne of comedy."
"I'd like to add one word to that John Wayne thing," says Colin Quinn. "Gacy."
For better or worse, we live in a world that SNL helped create. SNL is no longer counterculture – it is the freakin' culture. For the past 22 years it has been comedy's most notable turnstile, through which have passed the good, the bad and the ugly of funny on the way to fame and less-desirable destinations. Still, the American media have a curious relationship with SNL, a passive-aggressive game of Make Me Laugh, daring each new cast to amuse us, all the while judging it against upgraded images of the show's past. On any given Sunday morning ever since Chevy Chase left, a frustrated TV critic somewhere is penning a review to run under a 'Saturday Night Dead' headline. But SNL is by design a living thing, created anew for each generation, and for the few years since the disastrous 1994-95 season, it's been living fairly large.
Though it may lack the edge it once had, SNL remains for a reason. Every once in a while something happens, and happens live. Even in the SNL equivalent of the Dark Ages – the 1980-81 season – Eddie Murphy made his first appearance. If the show's no longer the only game in town, it can still be a weekly event. In the past few seasons, the show has rebuilt, rallied in spurts and nurtured a new, gifted, more ensemble-oriented cast, one in sync with the writing staff (headed by producers Steve Higgins and Tim Herlihy) and director Beth McCarthy. From Los Angeles's Groundlings and Chicago's Second City –comedy improv troupes of long standing – as well as the oh-so-glamorous world of comedy clubs, this cast has gathered its fortunes together to pump you up on Saturday nights. Whatever it lacks in star power, it makes up for with talent and boundless "I have a time slot, let's put on a sketch show!" energy.
Still, in our comedy-cluttered culture, it's difficult for any show to strike the chord as clearly as Saturday Night Live once did. "Now it's so much harder for any show to be the cool show for any length of time, because there are all these other outlets that can generate shows doing an ironic take on the previous show," says one-time SNL writer Conan O'Brien. "We're moving toward a future where most Americans will have their own show, ironically commenting on their neighbor's show. But very few people who have a chance to be associated with SNL say no. This was ground zero for the whole comedy boom of the '70s."
If Saturday Night Live doesn't have the pure inventiveness of a program like HBO's Mr. Show, it can still be a worthwhile reason to stay home on Saturday night. "This is a born-again show," says NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield, and that doesn't mean he's moving it to Sunday morning. If the show is born-again, the current cast members – and their standout characters – are its righteous Promise Keepers.
Molly Shannon is like a big Broadway show," says cast mate Chris Kattan. He's right – except, unlike most big Broadway shows, she doesn't suck. It's only fitting, then, that tonight Shannon is at a prime back table at Manhattan's Joe Allen, a legendary theater-crowd hangout, sitting across the aisle from Al Pacino. As Mary Katherine Gallagher, Shannon has been known to stick her fingers in her armpits and take the occasional injury-defying pratfall, but over dinner, the brassy but warm brunette is a charming, non-armpit-sniffing grown-up.
"Molly has this intensity," says SNL producer Lone Michaels. "When she first got here, the audience didn't know whether to laugh or be a little frightened. Now, she's one of those people – I'm never worried when she's out there. She reminds me of Bill Murray." Shannon is SNL's best pratfaller since Chevy Chase, her tumble during Mary Katherine's encounter with Aerosmith looking especially scary. "Oh, that's nice," she says. "But Chevy's a different kind of faller. He used to fall forward. I do backward falls."
The first time Shannon really knew she was funny was at New York University's drama school. "We were doing all these exercises – all that stuff about color coming from your pelvis, all this emotional work," she recalls. "Then I did a revue show where we just did characters. I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is great.' I'd never thought of comedy."
Certainly, Shannon has already experienced more than her share of tragedy. In 1969, a 4-year-old Shannon was driving with her father, James, and mother, Peg, as well as her two sisters and her 25-year-old cousin when a horrific accident occurred. Shannon's mother, little sister and cousin were all killed. She believes her need to perform has something to do with the pain of her childhood. "Most performers have this hunger to keep going out there and doing it," she says. "There's got to be something sick about it."
For the record, Shannon wasn't exactly a Mary Katherine Gallagher clone when she was growing up in the Cleveland suburbs. She sang a lot but was otherwise quiet. "I was sort of high-strung and pretty spastic," she says. "I did knock things over a lot. I was raised by my dad, so I'd do things like go to basketball practice with plaid bell-bottoms and a vest."
After finishing up at NYU, Shannon headed west, working as a temp and a waitress ("Meg Ryan got takeout and was a great tipper"). Soon she turned up in commercials and in small TV parts like the Happy Helping Hand Lady on Twin Peaks. She hooked up at SNL for the last six shows of the 1994-95 season, a particularly dark time in SNL history. "It was hard," she recalls. "You really felt people were against us."
As for Mary Katherine, Shannon predicts things will turn out fine for her: "Yeah, she'll be Little Mary Katherine, Happy at Last! Her anger will get her through – she's a raging little girl."
Ana Gasteyer – the gifted, subtle comedian seen on SNL as the frantic MTV VJ Kincaid and as the NPR Delicious Dish co-host Margaret Joe – is the funniest woman ever to play the Camp David peace accords.
Gasteyer – the daughter of a Washington lobbyist father and an artist mother – was a childhood pal of first daughter Amy Carter, who was, lest we forget, the Chelsea Clinton of her day. Gasteyer remembers being in the White House for a sleepover and walking into the living room to see Jimmy Carter watching Dan Aykroyd play him on SNL.
When she was in sixth grade, Gasteyer was, she says, "a real little hotshot violinist." One weekend, Roslyn Carter's secretary called up, invited Gasteyer over to Camp David for the weekend and asked her to bring her violin. Young Ana and Amy practiced some duets; then they were told they were going to play for the president. "It was real low-key," Gasteyer recalls. "We walk into this little bungalow, and basically there's the president and some guy, and another guy in a turban." Those other guys were, of course, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. Later that evening, Gasteyer recalls, Roslyn Carter came in and said, "Brush your hair; the Sadats are coming over to watch Star Wars."
Next time you see Muscle Beach Party, look for the sax player in surf legend Dick Dale's band and say hello to Will Ferrell's dad. The tall but far from imposing Ferrell – Saturday Night Live's current Everyman and, in the case of his buffoonish Janet Reno, Everywoman – seems like something out of a beach movie himself. To hear his colleagues tell it, this amiable son of California's conservative Orange County is far too well-adjusted to be so funny.
"Will's like a father from the '50s: wholesome and competent," says his Cheerleaders partner, Cheri Oteri.
You've seen him as Craig, the male cheerleader to Oteri's Arianna, as well as one of those hard-partying Roxbury Guys. He's played everyone from Harry Carey to the Unabomber. "Will's kind of like an all-American guy – but a little subversive because he looks like that, the same way Chevy was," says Macdonald.
Lorne Michaels also invokes Chevy Chase: "We used to say that Chris Farley was the child Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi never had. I think Will has Chevy's poise as well as that ability Aykroyd and Phil Hartman had to serve as utility men."
Ferrell's father, Lee, came out to California in the '60s to play with Dick Dale before moving on to the Righteous Brothers, with whom he still tours as a saxophonist, keyboard player and backing vocalist. His parents split, and Ferrell, 30, grew up living in the Park West Apartments, which he says was one of only two apartment buildings in ritzy Irvine. "People used to call it Park Watts," he says. "We really sweated it out – we had to take the bus to the beach."
Ferrell felt like an odd man out – there weren't a lot of single parents then, and the profession of his dad, who lived nearby, was considered weird. "I was pretty cognizant of living check to check and the ups and downs of the entertainment thing," he recalls. "Even as a little kid, I was like, 'I'm going to have a stable job and buy a house.' "
In 1991, Ferrell joined the Groundlings, where he worked with, among others, Cheri Oteri and Chris Kattan. In May 1995, after six months in the main company, he was spotted by a team of SNL scouts that included co-producer Marci Klein and was brought to New York for an audition. Ferrell accepts the differences between the show he worshiped as a kid and the one he's on now. "The show used to be alternative – now it's pop," he says matter-of-factly. "Yet there are still things we can do to keep it interesting."
Next year, it will be interesting to see how the relatively sketchy Roxbury Guys gets fleshed out to sustain a feature film, A Night at the Roxbury, which also stars Kattan, Shannon, Quinn, former SNL cast member Mark McKinney, Dan Hedaya, Chazz Palminteri and Loni Anderson. The film came about when director Amy Heckerling (Clueless) called Michaels to express interest. "The worst thing is, these characters really hadn't talked, so it was a blank page when we started," Ferrell admits. "Either people are going to love it or they'll say, 'Why don't they shut up?'"
The clean-cut Ferrell is asked for one perverse tidbit about himself. He struggles pitifully to help and offers up his favorite drug: Claritin.
Darrell Hammond – SNL's consistently impressive impressionist – doesn't take his work lightly. "Darrell is like a comedy scientist," says Jim Breuer of the Florida native. To do those dead-on impressions, he watches old videos like some crazed comedy conspiracy theorist. For this week's "Celebrity Jeopardy" sketch, he spent hours in a heated inner debate about the fine distinctions between the Vinnie Barbarino-era John Travolta and the latter-day Travolta.
Hammond is better known for his impression of Bill Clinton, who just happens to be his First Fan. This spring, Hammond traveled to Washington, where he gave a command Oval Office performance for the big guy himself. "He does a good Clinton," Hammond says in praise of the president. "I think he does a better one than me.
"There are three reasons Clinton is weird to do," Hammond continues. "One, he's had some [dental] work done – I would bet my life on it. Two, he's from Arkansas, which is a Southern dialect, but it's also right above Louisiana, which gives it a little French thing. The third problem is, he's doing John Kennedy."
In general, Hammond tries not to perform offstage. "It leads you into some strange relationships," he says. Indeed, once, at the peak of intimacy, a girl he was with wanted him to speak like Clinton.
Darrell, we feel your pain.
As a boy, Chris Kattan used to take walks with visionary mushroom novelist Carlos Castaneda. No wonder that, all these years later as a Roxbury Guy, his head is still shaking.
Kattan, 27, is a second-generation Groundling. His father, Kip King, was with the troupe, which over the years has also featured Laraine Newman and Pee-wee Herman, among many others. His parents divorced when he was around 3; his Hungarian mother, who "hated show business," and his stepfather fled Los Angeles for a "strange cabin" in the famed Zen community of Mount Baldy, a spiritual retreat an hour and worlds away from Hollywood.
"I myself am not very Zen," explains the small, wiry Kattan. "Although I do know a little about it, and Buddhism and all that stuff." On the weekends, he'd go into the city to stay with his father. Kattan was a loner, though once he came down from the mountain, he was soon cracking up classmates with impressions of teachers. In L.A., he'd check out his father rehearsing with the Groundlings and was drawn into the showbiz muck and mire. "It was just such a contrast from Mount Baldy," he recalls. Since Kattan is widely praised as a physical comedian, it's no surprise that Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Peter Sellers were formative influences.
By high school, he was living in Seattle and was a school-play regular. Afterward, he joined the Groundlings while studying directing at California State University, Northridge.
The Roxbury Guys were born during Kattan and Ferrell's Groundlings days. "Will and I were at this bar in Santa Monica, and there was a guy who was just kind of lightly bopping, but not to the degree we exaggerate it," Kattan remembers. "He was definitely looking for somebody. It wasn't specific – kind of a desperate 'anybody.' Like, 'Please look at me, please dance with me.' But he wasn't actually asking anyone to dance – it was more like, 'Would somebody notice me, please?'"
That fellow in the bar may still be waiting, but Kattan was noticed by Saturday Night Live. Michaels says that once Kattan came into the cast, "he just exploded. He's got that same sort of feeling I felt from Mike Myers – total commitment to his work."
For the record, not everyone loves Kattan's work. When he went to Los Angeles for the Emmys recently, he ran into actress Anne Heche, whom he'd parodied on the show. "The first thing I did was kind of smile hello," Kattan recalls. "She gave me this 'I'm going to kill you, you little ass' look. Then she said to Ellen [DeGeneres] something like, 'That's the culprit!'"
Then there's Norm Macdonald, who seems intent on having a comedy blood feud with Kattan. "I don't know, but to me he seems gay," Macdonald says. "He claims he's not, but I've never seen, like, a guy who's not gay seem so gay. I don't find him funny. What can I say? Never made me laugh."
Kattan – who happens not to be gay – has heard it before. "Norm gives me a hard time," he says. "My hair got longer over the summer and he will not stop talking about what a gay little man I am." Kattan guesses that Macdonald may have gotten stuck in a character last season and never come back. "If Norm says I'm gay," he says, "then put in that I say he's an asshole."
Tracy Morgan – who's played Dominican Lou on "Weekend Update" as well as Mike Tyson and Tiger Woods' dad, Earl – says that when he got the call to audition for Saturday Night Live from his manager, he'd never performed "in front of a white audience, per se." He recalls his early days at SNL as "culture shock." Morgan, 28, grew up in the projects of New York and at the time of the call was making a living doing stand-up on "the chitlin circuit."
So there's still a chitlin circuit?
"Yeah," he says. "Just different chitlins."
Morgan is widely viewed as a rough-but-real talent who hasn't had his best moment quite yet. "Tracy's amazing," says Norm Macdonald approvingly. "He's, like, a real black guy. He comes from, like, poverty and a real ghetto. You know, he's been shot in the leg and stuff."
"I didn't have any school spirit," says Cheri Oteri, making a shocking confession as she sits in the empty audience area. "Like, I never even knew what team we were playing."
Yes, the diminutive, lively Cheri Oteri was a cheerleader while growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and going to an all-girls school, but she could never take that gig too seriously. "When I was a kid, I used to just study people. Now, as an adult, I'm being everybody I ever watched."
None of the SNL cast members throw themselves into their characters with more conviction than Oteri, a woman who even made a believable Ross Perot. "Cheri's characters are brilliant," says Michaels. "Her delivery and ability to find the moment are impressive to me."
From 1990 to 1994, Oteri worked as a coordinator in the promotion department of A&M Records. Her boss was Charlie Minor, the legendary hype master who was murdered in 1995. Oteri spent her days helping the careers of Sheryl Crow, Blues Traveler and the Gin Blossoms, and her nights trying to kick-start her own career with the Groundlings. Oteri says Minor was supportive: "Charlie used to say, 'How's your little Gremlins thing goin', little lady?' or 'How's the Groundhogs?'"
When Oteri found herself thinking of sketches all day at work, she realized it was time to make a choice. "It's not like I lived to see what number Sting went to on the charts the next week," she recalls.
As for those endlessly upbeat Cheerleaders, Oteri reckons that their boundless Spartan spirit comes from deep within. "One thing I like about them is, they're losers, but they don't know it," she explains. "I would feel sorry for them if they knew they were outcasts. They have no clue, thank God."
Since Oteri, like Gilda Radner before her, has played Barbara Walters, she's asked a final Baba Wawa-ish query: Apart from all her wonderful, wacky characters, who is Cheri Oteri? "Let me see," she says with great seriousness. "I'm hopeful. Very hopeful. And I think I'm very loyal."
The next morning, worried that she comes off as too much the Girl Scout, Oteri calls to clarify: "Say I'm hopeful and loyal ... and on heroin."
What, you ask, drives the man beneath the Goat Boy?
Jim Breuer – the force of nature responsible for that character's distinctive song stylings and the star of the "Joe Pesci Show" sketch – brings SNL "a frat boy kind of energy, the New York-New Jersey sensibility, a GoodFellas thing," according to Tim Meadows.
Everything might have been different were it not for one pivotal day back in sixth grade at the Clear Stream Avenue School, in Valley Stream, N.Y. Until that point, the then chubby Breuer had little to no interest in drama: "It was too faggy for me, or whatever."
Then one day, for reasons still unclear to him, the highly demonstrative Breuer – who stars in the upcoming film Half Baked – found himself putting his hand up to audition for the small role of a doctor in a school play. "I swear on my mother, I don't know why, but I was watching and I went, 'I can blow this scene up if I talk in a German accent,'" he says. "Don't ask me why. Maybe I was watching a Bugs Bunny or something." Of course, Breuer blew things up, won the role and then, newly emboldened, won a school talent show with a comedy sketch, defeating even the group that dressed up like Kiss and lip-synced.
"From that moment on," Breuer says, still sounding a little surprised, "I was addicted."
On the walls of Norm Macdonald's lived-in office – along with the portrait of Richard Nixon and a photo of Macdonald with Howard Stern – there's a bulletin board. On that board is a cute snapshot of Macdonald's young son, Dylan, and two tacked-up letters.
One is a note from Bob Dole, written in the fall of 1995: "If you're ever in Washington and want to see the real article," Dole writes, "please feel free to stop by my office. With two terms of a Dole presidency, I can keep you employed until the year 2004!"
The other letter comes from Rick Klatt, assistant athletic director for external affairs for the University of Iowa, and was apparently written on June 23, 1997: "This letter is to inform you that the invitation to you and a guest to participate in the golf event on the University of Iowa campus later today has been formally withdrawn. Your performance last night at the Hancher Auditorium was inconsistent with values and morals of the staff of the University of Iowa Men's Athletic Department and the University of Iowa and Iowa City community as a whole. You insulted the intelligence and decency of a great many people with a monologue which was, at minimum, irresponsible."
Irresponsibility, even immaturity, has served the Quebec native well. Asked what he was like as a child, Macdonald offers this: "You know those kids who seem much older than their years? I was the opposite of that. When I was three, people would always go, 'You seem like you're one, or zero.' " In the mid-'80s, Macdonald started hitting the Great White North comedy clubs. "Whenever I did stand-up, I never had any, like, rapport with the audience," he recalls. "I'd just stare up into the lights and talk, say stuff that would make me laugh. Then I'd laugh a lot, which annoys people. You're not supposed to do that. You're supposed to act like the whole thing is just a mistake."
Wisely, then, Macdonald moved to L.A. and became a writer for Roseanne. "I think Roseanne's the funniest woman in the world," he says. "Or, as I like to put it, the only funny woman ever."
Macdonald has no time for women who've complained over the years about having a tough time in the male-dominated world of SNL. "Untalented women complain," he says. "Anyone who's ever complained about SNL is untalented. Janeane Garofalo is fine in movies and stuff, but she was horrible at this."
Macdonald remains a staunch defender of the previous SNL regime. "That was a great time," he says. "Sandler, Farley and Spade were the funniest guys." And what of this new regime? "They're very talented. More talented than funny, to me."
The censors were damned last season when Macdonald said a quiet but audible "fuck" on air. The last time that happened on SNL, the guilty party, Charles Rocket, was fired. This time, Macdonald kept his job. According to one source, there was a grand total of five calls to the NBC switchboard, and three of them were in support of the "fuck."
"It was a relief," says Macdonald. "I was surprised I never said it before. Now, NBC says I can say it any time I want."
Colin Quinn – the former standup who bravely played Robert De Niro in front of the real deal last season – is an accommodating fella, more than willing to be interviewed while otherwise engaged at an SNL urinal, where so many comedy greats before him have sought relief.
So, Colin, who are your comedic influences? "Oh, Virginia Woolf," he says in his thick Brooklyn accent.
Really, because she's such a funny lady?"Yes, yes," Quinn says as he finishes taking care of more pressing matters.
"But she wasn't a stand-up influence. Alice B. Toklas was."
Quinn looks at the sink as if to decide whether he will wash his hands. "Is this on the record?" he asks.
The senior SNL player, Tim Meadows, is, according to golf buddy Norm Macdonald, "the funniest guy in the cast." So why did it take the rise of O.J. Simpson to get this calm, gifted comedian, who joined the troupe back in 1991, some real serious air time? "Because he's black," Macdonald explains.
"It's all about perseverance, really," says Meadows, who's played Michael Jackson, Clarence Thomas and Ike Turner, among others. "Just because I've been here the longest doesn't mean I'm going to get my sketch on." Having seen casts come and go, Meadows says, "People now are more willing to play smaller roles in somebody else's sketch, whereas before it was a group of individual performers who were strong on their own."
Meadows was no class clown back at Pershing High, in Detroit. "I was funny around my friends," he says, "but if you saw me in high school, you'd think I was a stoner." He came to the show via Chicago's famed Second City company. "They were coming to see Chris Farley, and they saw me," Meadows remembers. "For a while it was between me and Chris Rock, then they brought me in at the end of the 1991 season."
So when did Meadows first feel he could relax and unpack at SNL?
"It hasn't happened yet," he answers convincingly.
In the end, Norm Macdonald – the funniest man alive – has decided to grace the SNL after-party, this week held in downtown Manhattan at a groovy spot called Clementine. It turns out to be a good party if you don't mind the people you do know and the people you don't know – the sort of semiglitzy affair where TV deals and partnerships of an even more transitory nature are made.
Macdonald is in fine form as he holds court from a back table, where he's accompanied by Artie Lange, a former Mad TV cast member and Macdonald's co-star in the upcoming Bob Saget-directed film Dirty Work. Macdonald proceeds to get into an argument with one party guest, whom he later calls a "comedy corpse," and debates whether there's enough booze here to make him fuck another.
Around 3 in the morning, Warren Littlefield, perhaps the only totally coherent person left in the room, swings by Macdonald's table to chat. A few minutes later, the bill comes, and Macdonald groans a bit as he picks it up and pulls out a wad of bills.
"Jeez, Norm," Littlefield warns him sweetly. "Save some cash for crack and whores."