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Comedy Isn’t Funny

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Instead of making difficult decisions and narrowing the cast before the start of this season, Michaels added two recognizable faces—Garofalo and Chris Elliott, famous for his often hilarious, twisted cameos on David Letterman’s NBC show—as well as the unknown Kightlinger, and has let the pack battle for scraps of airtime.

On such a rudderless ship, self-interest dominates. Franken, who last summer mounted a relentless and futile campaign to win the “Update” anchorship for himself, continually whines to Downey and Michaels about putting his twelve-step character, Stuart Smalley, on the show.

One Thursday in December, rehearsal is delayed as Sandler uses the studio to videotape a birthday song to Steven Spielberg. Sandler had mentioned Spielberg on the show the week before, in a very funny song; when Spielberg called to praise Sandler on the ditty, Sandler took the opportunity to ingratiate himself further and suggested the birthday greeting. Now several cast members are stewing as they wait for Sandler to clear the stage.

Later, Chris Elliott paces in his smoky dressing room. “You’re going to hang around the show for two more weeks?” Elliott asks me. “How can you stand it?”

Janeane Garofalo wavered before joining Saturday Night. She’d heard all the horror stories, but her memories of the nights she’d spent laughing at the show won out. “There are people who have a blast here,” she says. “Dana Carvey, it looked like he had fun every second he was on the screen. Eddie Murphy, same thing.”

Garofalo was one of the few cast members to show up early for work, arriving in September to act in pretaped commercial parodies. She also made the mistake of being honest with interviewers when asked her opinions, telling the New York Observer she found SNL “unwatchable” last season and, in a Canadian newspaper, describing Sandler’s characters as “childish.”

Neither was an especially earthshaking insight. But when Sandler arrived, he refused to speak to Garofalo, relenting several weeks later only to berate her. As the cast prepared for its first show of the season, hosted by Steve Martin, Garofalo made the mistake of objecting to a sketch as sexist. That brought down the wrath of Fred Wolf, who’d written the piece. Garofalo tripped over another unwritten SNL rule when she conscientiously attempted to memorize lines—so, unlike Farley, Sandler, and Spade, she could actually make eye contact with the other actors in a sketch. During one rehearsal, Garofalo hesitated while trying to recall a phrase and derailed another actor’s cue. This enraged Al Franken.

“Al went shithouse,” says a witness. “‘Read the fucking cue cards!’ And afterward, he goes to Janeane and says, real condescending, ‘Um, Janeane, I appreciate that you want to memorize your lines. But do everyone a favor—just read the cue cards.’ Which is insane! He should be cheering her!”

Two months later, Garofalo chooses her words as if defusing a bomb; she can’t say enough how sorry she is that she offended anyone. “That was one of the best things that ever happened to me, getting lambasted. I’d hurt people’s feelings. Now it feels like I’ve got support. And I think they’ve got a lot of faith in me. I think.”

She blows out some cigarette smoke. Just talking about her first months at SNL seems to shake her. “It’s affected my ego greatly. It’s affected me in ways I never anticipated. A lot of it for the good, and a lot of it has made me gun-shy. Definitely gun-shy. It’s always like you’re kind of wondering, Okay, who’s mad at me today? ” She catches herself being blunt again. “I think the show is better, and I’m not just saying that ’cause I’m here. I truly do. But it doesn’t mean I haven’t cried—a lot—since I’ve been here.”

It’s impossible to work as hard as the cast and writers of SNL do and be completely objective, especially when the show is going poorly. But the insularity of the place creates a kind of echo chamber, where they all tell one another the show is funny, and soon they’re beyond rationalization and long gone into denial. “I remember after the [November] John Turturro show,” a friend of Garofalo’s says, “she said, ‘Hey, man, I think we got this one; this was a really good show!’ I didn’t say anything to her, but it wasn’t a good show. And I remember thinking, Oh, no, it’s happening to her too! The pods have hatched!

Apparently the pods couldn’t grab a secure hold on Garofalo. In December, newly re-demoralized, she tried going to Michaels with her complaints, and in the next show Garofalo appeared in half the sketches. But the parts quickly became scarce; when Bob Newhart hosted in February, Garofalo showed up just once in the first hour, in a weak Baywatch parody, wearing a bathing suit over fake boobs the size of nuclear warheads.


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