I had just opened my first checking account, still wondered why I couldn’t sleep after eating garlic knots at two a.m., and had exactly one year of staff writing on Saturday Night Live under my belt when the show’s producer, Steve Higgins, told me that Lorne Michaels wanted me to be head writer. There’s no other institution in the country that would let a 28-year-old fill one of its major positions with only a single year of experience, except maybe porn and the post-invasion Iraq reconstruction effort. Fortunately, I had spent the previous five years in Chicago doing nothing but sketch and long-form improv with Second City, the iO Theater and the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. So I was slightly more qualified than Paul Bremer, and slightly less qualified than Jenna Jameson.
During my first two years there, the average work week was around 90 hours. There were times we basically didn’t leave the office except to grab five hours of sleep. You drink coffee, smoke, and write — and write, and write, and write. It’s a grind, and sometimes you can go weeks without getting a sketch on. On Monday, you pitch your ideas to the host in the big meeting in Lorne’s office. Everyone crams in to this tiny space; most people pitch fake ideas so they don’t blow the joke before the read through on Wednesday, where every laugh is critical. On Tuesday, you write all day and all night. I once wrote for 20 straight hours and got dizzy because I had forgotten to eat. It was comedy heaven.
The real truth is that SNL‘s hiring of raw, fresh people like myself and dozens of others is precisely why the show has worked for so long. (I was the one who brought on Tina Fey, who I knew from Chicago. It was an easy hire; she was always hilarious). It became clear there were two keys to putting up a good show: showcasing the cast and smart topical humor. Writers like Andrew Steele, Dennis McNicholas, Rob Carlock and T. Sean Shannon started embracing the cold open — which is where most of the political sketches live. There was one piece we wrote called “Palm Beach Nights” that parodied the vote count in Florida in 2001 as a soap opera — culminating with Ferrell as Bush playing with a ball of yarn like a cat. Word was the real Bush had caught his staff watching it and laughing…and he was pissed.
During my first year as head writer, I was constantly trying to mess with the format. Translation: I was a pain in Lorne’s ass. I brought in animators to create shorts. I fought to get comics and performance artists on the show — Tenacious D performed before they were well known. Another time we had Kenneth Starr subpoena the cast, host and musical act throughout the show. It’s not to say the sketches or ideas we pushed were bad; they just weren’t SNL. In the end, Lorne was right to protect the show’s structure. That format is the reason there’s a 40th anniversary. Saturday Night Live is Lorne’s show. When I realized that midway through my second year as head writer, work got a lot more fun.
The one question I always get from people is “What is Lorne like?” My answer is pretty disappointing: He’s a good guy, not a screamer, and he truly loves the show. Lorne is intimidating as hell, however, because he’s always so unflappable. He yells “fire!” in the same voice that most people use to tell the masseuse to turn down the Enya. (Maybe it’s being from Toronto? In fact, has anyone ever called him “Canada Dry” as a nickname?)
I remember after Will Ferrell and I started writing together, we found an Emmy in [legendary SNL writer] Jim Downey’s office. We grabbed it, slammed it down on Lorne’s desk and said “We want our Emmy, goddamit!” Lorne looked at us and just calmly said “Then go win one.” We silently skulked out of his office and went back to writing.
Another time we called Lorne during the big Wednesday night meeting where the sketches were chosen after the all-day read-through. I wasn’t in the meeting — I was directing shorts at the time — so I picked up the phone and pretended to be Joe Torre, the then-manager of the Yankees. Lorne cleared his office for the conversation. I told him to watch it with the gay humor: I, Joe Torre, have a gay nephew and it’s not cool. He took a beat and then said: “Is this McKay?” And then Lorne laughed.
During my first year as head writer, I was constantly trying to mess with the format. Translation: I was a pain in Lorne’s ass.
The best prize you can get at SNL is to get a snorting laugh from Lorne at a read through. It happened eight, maybe nine times during the six years I was there. I mean, Lorne will laugh. He’s not one of those guys who’s so jaded he gives the cold face to all humor. But the snorting laugh was special. I got him once with a sketch I wrote called “The Hulk Hogan Talk Show.” Ferrell got him a few times; so did Molly Shannon.
One of the other great treats on the show was when a legendary host would come on and be every bit as good as you hoped they’d be. Bill Murray, Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin, Chris Rock — they all fit that mold. And then there’s Christopher Walken. I always had the sense he was reading the words for the first time when he saw it on air on the cue cards. He just accepted that the show is a crazy roller coaster, relaxed and went with it. If you look at his great sketches, you can see him give a little smile at a good line when it gets a big laugh. It’s almost like he’s enjoying the joke with you for the first time.
But my favorite memories of SNL are of racing through the hallways with new pages for the monologue as we were minutes to air, putting the changes into the cards right before they’d be hoisted up for the host to read. Sometimes a story would break on Friday and we’d be up til five a.m. writing a new cold open. The whole week would lead to those 90 minutes with a live audience and live TV feed. It felt massively important. Then it would be over and you’d realize, oh, it was just a sketch show. And then you’d do it again. And again.
During my six years at SNL, I also met my future wife, we had our first child and we bought our first house. I learned to not eat pierogies or cheese fries after 10 p.m. (for the most part), actually bought some stocks and got my first real suit. It’s very tempting to say, “I came to help Saturday Night Live stay relevant — but in the end, the show helped me become a man!”
But I won’t do that to you.