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Comedy Isn’t Funny

During the SNL season, the writers don’t need to have much interaction with the outside world. As the rewrite session drifts on, they bark out requests for food, and an assistant. Lori Jo Hoekstra, phones them in. At ten o’clock, it’s ten Quarter Pounders, eight Big Macs, four bacon double cheeseburgers, and heaps of fries; 90 minutes later, there’s an equally hefty delivery of ribs and chicken; at 1 A.M., it’s spaghetti, lasagna, and salads.

Meanwhile, they make grudging progress on a sketch written by Norm MacDonald. It’s a parody of Andy Rooney—not exactly a fresh target. Rooney, played by MacDonald, is cleaning out his desk and finds a bottle of sedatives, empty except for cotton.

“Should I mention cotton more than once?” MacDonald asks, and it’s debated for ten minutes. No—just one cotton reference stays in, but now they can’t decide whether the pills are for the treatment of “hallucinations,” “mood swings,” “dementia,” or “NRA dementia.”

“That’s too much,” Downey says. “It’s his attitude that’s funny, the fact that he’s ignoring something that’s obviously important.”

MacDonald: “So I can say, ‘I don’t know what the pills are for—what I do know is, the bottle is mostly filled with cotton.’”

Franken: “And, ‘I give the pills to Lesley Stahl. Then, when Lesley’s passed out, I take her to the closet and rape her.’ Or, ‘That’s why you never see Lesley until February.’ Or, ‘When she passes out, I put her in various positions and take pictures of her.’”

Downey: “‘Here’s a picture of Ed Bradley.’”

MacDonald: “What if Rooney rapes Mike Wallace? And then says, ‘I guess that makes me bad.’ Is it funnier with a black guy? Or two old white guys?”

Franken: “What about, ‘I drag Mike into my office and rape him. Right here! I guess that makes me bad.’”

The discussion sputters for another ten minutes. Then the writers lose interest and drift over to the newly arrived food. “C’mon!” Downey says plaintively. “Let’s finish this!”

The sketches eventually get tighter and marginally better. Mostly, all this group writing produces a thin comedy mush. “It’s now a much more fey, effete, overthought show,” says Rosie Shuster, who did her third tour on the writing staff during the late eighties. “The cud is so well chewed before it goes on the air.”

“Talent is essential, and hard work is essential, but there isn’t any tight correlation between working your ass off and quality,” a frustrated Downey says later. “It’s so unfair. You’re sitting around, and you just have a great idea—like ‘Fred Garvin, Male Prostitute’ literally took slightly longer to write than it did to read. It was just easy and fun. And you can stay up all night shitting out some other thing phrase by phrase.”

The moments of inspiration have been harder for Downey and everyone else to come by. Lately, the extracurricular action in the writers’ room has been more colorful than a lot of the writing.

The show hosted by Sarah Jessica Parker, in November, included a song contrasting love’s higher and lower impulses. Michael McKean sang chastely to Parker, plunking an acoustic guitar; then Sandler cranked up his electric guitar to underscore sophomoric lines like “I’m gonna give ya the wood!”

During rewrites of the piece, Kightlinger jokingly suggested to the group that the song be made even more explicit—and found herself the target of a crude barrage. “A couple of them turned on her,” says a close friend of Kightlinger’s, “with these really vicious, mean sexual things. . . . She’s one of the strongest people I know. Very tough to faze. And it made her cry.”

Kightlinger, who wrote for Roseanne last year, has been reciprocally shocked by the thin skin of her new colleagues. “I’ve had to pare down my sarcasm big-time,” she says, adding that she now feels “really positive” about SNL. “In the writers’ room at Roseanne, you could shit on each other and everybody would laugh. But here, it’s like, ‘Wait a second—that’s a piece I’ve worked on, dah, dah, dah.’ It gets personal in a hurry.”

In December, Ian Maxtone-Graham, a self-described anti-smoking zealot, complained about Norm MacDonald’s lighting up in the writers’ room. MacDonald shrugged it off. So Maxtone-Graham extinguished the cigarette by squirting MacDonald in the face with a water pistol. MacDonald punched Maxtone-Graham in the head, knocking him to the floor.

Tonight, sprawled on a couch a couple of feet from the table, Chris Farley and Adam Sandler alternately listen to the writers debate and cackle at some private joke. Sandler picks up a phone and makes prank calls, talking in a silly elderly woman’s voice.

Now it’s Farley’s turn. Obese, sweating, dressed in a flannel shirt and a white knit skullcap that makes him look like a grunge Muslim, Farley dials. “Excuse me,” he says into the phone, “did you hear that? Was it a clap of thunder?” Then he holds the receiver against his butt, unleashes a prodigious fart, and quickly hangs up. The writers laugh louder than they have all night. Except Downey, who’s slowly wagging his head.