The ‘SNL’ Writer Who No Longer Fears for His Job

My first year on SNL was probably the hardest year of my life. I had a 2-year-old daughter and a 1-month-old infant. My wife would call me at three in the morning crying, and I’d still have another four hours of work to do. I’m one of the few writers who has kids. There are times even now when, on a Tuesday, I’ll finish writing all night and go take my kids to school, then I’ll come home and go to sleep for a whole day.

You go through several stages when you work at SNL. The first stage, you’re just wondering if you’re going to get fired. Then you enter the second stage, where you start to feel a part of things and you’re regularly getting sketches on the air. Then the third stage is where you’re having conversations with Lorne Michaels and you’re at least peripherally involved in some of the decisions they’re making. But it can take a long time. There are some people who have been there for a year or two and have only had a couple of conversations with Lorne.

SNL is one of the few jobs in TV that’s got some stability. I worked on Chris Rock’s show for two seasons, and then that abruptly ended when Chris Rock decided he didn’t want to do it anymore. He told us all on the very last day of the season, during our group picture. I worked at Chappelle’s Show, and I guess it’s widely known how all that went to shit quickly. This is the first job that I’ve had where I know at least the show is coming back next year.

SNL is a very respectful environment, although I don’t think it’s super-nurturing. You kind of get thrown in, and you’re expected to swim a little bit. I think in other times in SNL history there was a bit more cliquishness. But Seth Meyers tries to set that tone by leading through positivity. With other head writers, it hasn’t quite been that way. There’s still incredible competition. I mean, there are 40 sketches written for the show each week, and only seven to nine make the cut. I usually write between two and four every week, which are mostly written Tuesday night. There’s a little jostling to write with certain cast members. If a new writer comes in, they’re probably not going to write with Kristen Wiig because she’s already been writing with people for many years.

I did a sketch called “Wii Guys” for Alec Baldwin where guys are playing Wii and they have to shake the Wii controller, and it looks like they’re kind of jerking themselves off. We did it at the Wednesday read-through, and everyone laughed. Immediately the NBC standards person said, “I’m sorry, we just can’t do that sketch.” But Alec liked it, Lorne liked it, they picked it anyway. (When Alec Baldwin comes, he’s got a very big say on everything that gets on, because he knows how it works.) And they said, “We’ll at least try it and see how it looks on-­camera, and we won’t even shoot it with their hands by their crotches.” It looked even dirtier. The NBC censor again said that we couldn’t do the sketch, but it just stayed in the lineup and aired at like 12:53 a.m.

I co-wrote a sketch called “What Up With That?” We’ve done it a couple times on the show. And the third time we did it, we wanted to have Mike Tyson on it. They flew him in on Friday, and the show was on Saturday. I shook hands with him, and it was like shaking hands with a warm rock. He said, “I wanna dance.” And I said, “Okay, well, I guess maybe you can dance at the end, if you want.” During dress rehearsal, somewhere around three quarters of the way into the sketch, he just got up and danced a little crazy, and everyone applauded and enjoyed it. Afterward, I told him, “That was great! When we do it on the regular show, wait for Kenan to cue you and then get up and dance.” He said, “There’s another show? I did all that for nothing? Man! I can’t believe I smoked all that pot and got up and did that and no one even saw it!”

As told to Willa Paskin

The ‘SNL’ Writer Who No Longer Fears for His Job