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‘Saturday Night Live’s Momentous Year: An Oral History Of Life Inside The Whirlwind

Deadline logo Deadline 6/9/2017 Greg Evans
© Provided by Deadline

On the Sunday morning in May after Melissa McCarthy hosted Saturday Night Live for the fifth time, one of those dead-serious Beltway chat shows told a joke. Well, repeated a joke. The night before, Weekend Update co-anchor Colin Jost had summed up a claim by Donald Trump’s attorneys that the President of the United States had received no money from Russian sources, ”with a few exceptions.”

No Sunday pundit could have summed it up better than Jost. “That’s like hearing, ‘Don’t worry—all the kids came back from the field trip. With a few exceptions.’”

SNL has had plenty of these peak zeitgeist confluences over the decades—Chevy Chase’s stumblebum Gerald Ford, Tina Fey’s Russia-spotting Sarah Palin, “You look mahvelous” and “More cowbell” and “Schweddy balls.”

But this season, the ratings and the buzz make the case: NBC’s Saturday Night Live, just finishing its 42nd season, is more popular than it’s been in 23 years. An average 10.952 million viewers have been watching this year’s cast in live and delayed viewings, the best figure since an average 11.213 million tuned in each week to watch Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman and a pre-Senate Al Franken.

And has any other season of SNL—any other season of any TV entertainment show, for that matter—worked its way so thoroughly and boisterously into the highest and lowest levels of our national political debate? Armed with the direct-action delivery system of Twitter, the President of the United States took his feud with SNL—and its go-to Trump impersonator, Alec Baldwin—public. Very public. “Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me,” Trump tweeted last October. “Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!”

SNL didn’t back down, unleashing a weekly barrage of can’t-miss impersonations and parodies, from Kate McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway, Hillary Clinton and Jeff Sessions to Mikey Day’s Donald Trump Jr. and Steve Bannon-as-Grim Reaper. By January, Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer was trying to shrug off Melissa McCarthy’s hysterically unhinged Spicey routine, his attempt at good sportsmanship slipping beneath his whine that SNL had “gone from being funny to just bad. Those aren’t jokes. They’re inappropriate…I think for a lot of people, regardless of your political persuasion, that’s not what you’re tuning in for.”

Spicer had it exactly backwards.

Deadline recently spoke to a few of those jesters—Weekend Update co-anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che, and Mikey Day, latest in the Dan Aykroyd/Phil Hartman/Bill Hader tradition of character machine and vital utility player. It was Day who tailored a fondness for tacky suits into last Halloween’s viral Tom Hanks smash “David S. Pumpkins”.

We’ve edited and condensed the interviews into a sort of oral history of life inside this year’s cultural whirlwind, looking for a sense of how it feels when the President of the United States has your number, pundits are nicking your punch lines, and Tom Hanks wears the pumpkin suit you’ve dreamed up.

The talkers: Colin Jost, a Staten Island kid turned Harvard Lampoon president, nabbed an SNL writing gig in 2005, just 22 years old. He replaced Seth Meyers on the Update desk in March 2014, and was joined there the following season by his comedy club pal and fellow New Yorker, Michael Che. Early days were rocky: The Atlantic asked in 2015 whether Update could be saved: “Che and Jost’s struggles show what an incredible pro Meyers was in making it look so easy for so many years.” This season, Jost and Che made it look easy.

California native Mikey Day, a longtime Groundling, had been an SNL writer for three seasons before becoming a featured player last October. His onscreen integration was remarkably swift and unusually expansive: Few SNL players in recent memory became so integral so quickly. On YouTube, his skeleton dance in the David S. Pumpkins sketch has been viewed more than 7 million times, and his Grim Reaper debut as Trump adviser Steve Bannon in February quickly outdid even that.

SNL In The Cultural Whirlwind—And With Better Ratings

Colin Jost: I sensed it in my own life, you know, outside of the show, the kind of response on the streets, or when I traveled to do stand-up. I noticed, like, 50 percent more attention than in past years, you know?

Michael Che: People used to say, “Oh, I like the show, it’s funny.” And this season, people were saying, “Oh, I love the show, I needed it, thank you.” It started towards the end of last year, when the Primary started to heat up. I remember in the summertime people were excited for it, talking about SNL in July and August, you know? When it was announced that Alec was going to be playing Trump, people couldn’t wait for it.

Mikey Day: I was on a plane and this woman came up to me and was just like “Thank you guys for what you’re doing.” It definitely felt like it was reaching people in a different way, certainly with the political stuff. And there was proof that the powers-that-be who were being lampooned were aware of the show. The show was kind of having a direct effect on who we were satirizing, if that makes sense.

Jost: The big thing for us this year was just the cast gelling in a way, and portrayals that really hit, from Alec doing Trump, and Kate [McKinnon], obviously, doing Hillary, Kellyanne, Jeff Sessions. Beck [Bennett] doing Putin. The cast really hit a home run with those figures. Melissa for Spicer. It was all a good mix of luck and foresight from Lorne [Michaels]. Honestly, I never thought ratings would go up ever again, just because of the way people are viewing television. It’s so splintered now, and to have this kind of resurgence ratings-wise, and that people are paying attention in this way, it is frankly shocking. And exhilarating. The President tweets…

Che: Well, it didn’t feel like the president was tweeting, you know? It just felt like Donald Trump. One of the hardest things in the world to say is “President Trump,” and not out of disrespect—just because people have known him just as Donald Trump for so long. It would be like if people said, “He’s a doctor now, call him Doctor Trump.”

Jost: It was surreal, for sure. It’s kind of a sad moment, I don’t know—a sad moment in the sense of, why is this the thing that bothers him, versus so many other issues and problems? I mean, the Kristin Stewart monologue that she did on the show this year, which was fully based on what happened in her real life, when she and Robert Pattinson broke up, and Trump tweeted at her like 20 times to run her down. It was just, who is this guy? On some level, it is his genius. Of course, you have to figure out how to handle it on the show. Do you address it? Do you respond directly to him? I think Lorne smartly didn’t want to have a sketch that was just talking at Trump, because then you’re suddenly engaging in a way that’s not helping you keep some sort of distance. It’s a weird rabbit hole to go down.

Che: Of course there’s a backlash. Of course. Look, half the country voted for him. But I think one of the things that we try to do on Update is we try to hit him on the facts. If Hillary Clinton was President we would be making fun of her just as much. We’re not trying to be right, we’re not trying to be wrong, we’re trying to be funny.

Enter Donald Jr. And “I’m Eric”

Day: Remember that picture that came out with the Trump kids and they were sort of in a stacked triangle? Kind of creepily looking into the camera? I remember seeing that and I went up to Alex [Moffat] and was like, “We should try and write maybe a Weekend Update feature where we’re the Trump brothers.” The whole persona of Eric being just sort of like “I’m Eric” was really based off that picture, because he was just kind of in the background, sort of weirdly stacked in the back, like he didn’t really know what to do. Don Jr. Instagrammed a picture of himself with some Cheerios, like he took Eric’s snack, and then he said something about my hair on the show. I think he said, “He’s got the hair down better than I do.” That slicked back sort of Wall Street look. They have that 1980s, smooth-talking business guy thing. You can see them in an ’80s movie going, “We’re going to tear this community center down and put in a high rise.” But it was cool Don Jr. reached out, cool that he had a sense of humor about it. It’s surreal when people reach out like that. It really reminds you that they’re real people and they’re seeing what you’re doing.

Don’t Fear The Reaper, Or Steve Bannon

Day: That was Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider who wrote that. Originally, it was Darth Vader. I did one blocking in a full Darth Vader suit, with the Darth Vader voice, and then they changed it to the Grim Reaper, the embodiment of death, with a little voice amplifier. A lot of times in the descriptions, [the press] would say, Donald Trump—and then in parentheses, Alec Baldwin—talks to his advisors Kellyanne Conway, parentheses Kate McKinnon, and Steve Bannon, parentheses Grim Reaper. Like, the Grim Reaper had come in to play this role. Then it kind of got out that I was under the mask. Melissa Instagrammed that picture. The first time we did it, I had that black all around my eyes, and it’s kind of hard to get that stuff off, so for the rest of the show I have what’s clearly black eyeliner on in all the other sketches. That Emma Stone episode, it’s like, “Mikey has eyeliner on the entire show.”

Here’s Spicey

Day: I was in the main Groundlings company with Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig and Kent Sublette, who is one of the head writers now. When Melissa did Spicer—it was just a real fun moment to be in 8H and in a sketch with her. In that second episode where she has her podium and it had wheels on it, I mean, I had been in Groundling sketches with her where she’s basically attacked me, so I think she felt pretty comfortable and was just like, “I’m going to go at you with this podium, like, I’m going to try to make contact, and hopefully mess you up a little bit.” It was a lot of fun.

How Weekend Got Its Groove Back

Jost: You sense it from the audience in the studio, and you sense it from people you know, from stray civilians out there, but also friends in comedy. Sometime last year, it felt like we weren’t just gasping, we weren’t just trying to survive. We got comfortable enough at some point last year where we were aiming to make each episode as solid and as interesting as we could, and it felt like less of an existential crisis. Che and I have a great chemistry in life. We hang out all the time. It’s a very natural thing, so it was really just a matter of time, letting both of us get comfortable, sort of naturally develop, instead of trying to figure out an artificial construct. We’re having fun now. It doesn’t have the anxiety that it used to have. Of course, it’s stressful and it’s always a huge challenge every week, but it’s a fun challenge versus an overwhelming one.

Che: When you get this show, you’re really trying to do the show you’ve seen, not the show you want to do, because you’re a little insecure in your place. At least it was for me. I was a little bit more like, well, how would we make this an Update joke, as opposed to how would I tell this joke on stage? But Lorne in particular was saying, “You have the job, stop auditioning,” which meant stop doing what you think it should be, and do what you think is funny. We started trusting our instincts more, and we started just having fun on stage.

Here’s the weird thing about Update: Colin and I are very, very rarely on camera together. We’re not talking to each other. People would say “Where is the chemistry?”, and I’m like, well, where would it be? You have to find moments that let everybody know he and I are in the same room. There are ways to do that. I can respond to his joke, I can laugh, I can look over. We can have moments, find a way to fill up those little gaps where we can acknowledge each other and find that chemistry. Tina [Fey] and Jimmy [Fallon] were really good at it. They knew how to play off of each other.

Other Update anchors had their set formula of the way they liked to write and the way they liked to produce the segment, and it was based on their tastes and their schedules and their processes. Colin and I kind of inherited their processes, as opposed to just blowing it all up and doing it the way we would do it. I think at the second half of last season, we started doing things that were easier for us, picking jokes as if there was no boss, producing the segment as if it was our own 12-minute show outside of SNL. And it started to work.

Mikey Goes Viral

Day: I’d been writing for the show for three seasons, so probably for me [as a new cast member] it was a little less of a jarring change. I was used to putting material up. But it’s definitely interesting having people recognizing you, asking for your picture and stuff. A couple times I’ve been out with my mom and a few people wanted pictures. My mom loves it. She’s definitely very proud of her son now.

After “David Pumpkins,” a lot of people were sending me pictures dressed up like David Pumpkins and the skeletons, and videos of kids reenacting the sketch, doing the skeleton choreography. It was really cool to see yourself out there in the pop culture of the world. I wrote “Pumpkins” with Bobby Moynihan and Streeter Seidell. Originally, there were going to be three dancing skeletons in sort of a haunted house, but then I just kind of, well, I love loud, crazy suits. For some reason, to me, that’s so funny. I just had an image of Tom Hanks in a pumpkin suit saying, “I’m David Pumpkins.” So then we sort of reverse-engineered it from there, based on that Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride at Disneyland, where the doors open and it’s a lot of madness. It was definitely fun explaining it to Tom Hanks—“Okay, this is the guy, his name is David Pumpkins, and he says, well, he says his name. And no one’s sure why he’s there.” Tom was great. He was experimenting with the character, and then on-air, really kind of found the David Pumpkins everyone saw, with the voice and his hand dance thing. That was all Tom. Pretty fantastic.

…Pantless, and Matt Shatt

Day: I feel like the whole season has been a highlight. The premiere was fun, with Margot Robbie, when I played a character named Matt Shatt in a news report, and everyone was just confused how she and I could be together. And we did a Dunkin’ Donuts thing that I wrote with Streeter Seidell, with Casey Affleck.

“The Karate Teen” was great, where John Cena kicked me through four walls, or five walls. It was amazing how the film unit put that together. They literally strapped me to a chair and dragged me through five different set walls. We talked to the film unit and we’re like, “Is this even possible?” And the director, Oz Rodriguez, was like, “Yeah, I think we can pull it off.” In the beginning of the scene, when John Cena kicks me, the stage direction just said, “Mikey is punched out of his pants”, so they hooked me up to a wire and attached my pants to the floor, and yanked the wire, and I’m literally yanked out of my pants. That was a moment where you really take stock of the situation: there’s no other show I can write on a Tuesday that I’m punched out of my pants, and then two days later, we’re shooting it on a sound stage.

Next?

Che: Colin and I are doing the primetime gig this summer, which is pretty exciting. And then unless we blow up the studio, I’m guessing we’ll be back in October, or September, whenever the season starts.

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