Anthony D’Alessandro is Managing Editor of AwardsLine.
If there are large shoes being left behind on Saturday Night Live this coming season, they belong to Bill Hader. For seven seasons, he’s been the impersonator extraordinaire, hitting high notes with his take on Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood and Vincent Price to name a few, but also with his non-celeb eccentrics such as Italian TV host/motor mouth Vinny Vedecci and, of course, effeminate “Weekend Update” New York City correspondent Stefon (whose Anderson Cooper wedding send-off was actually planned a year in advance by Hader). Unlike some SNL alums who overstay their tenure on the show and segue to limited opportunities, Hader is departing in his prime and looking at blue skies. Similar to Steve Carell in the wake of The Daily Show, Hader is delicately balancing the comedic persona he carved on SNL with dramatic feature roles in The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: His And Her and with Kristen Wiig in The Skeleton Twins as well as voice-over fare in the Hulu series The Awesomes and Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2. He already has a 2009 Emmy win for best animated program (under 30 minutes) under his belt as a producer on South Park; however, his recent Emmy nomination for best supporting comedy actor comes as his second in a row for SNL. Hader spoke with us about his departure from the show, its comedic mechanics and what lies ahead.
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AwardsLine: What were the biggest takeaways from working on SNL after eight years?
Bill Hader: It taught me how to deal with show business. One has huge successes, huge failures, and middle-of-the-road sketches that some people liked and others didn’t. It taught me that no one knows anything, but you keep working and creating. Anytime I would strategize the show, I would just fall flat on my face. Anytime, I would say “Ah, let’s just do this thing” it would turn into Stefon. It would turn into a sketch people liked.
AwardsLine: What was your agenda for pushing your characters? Was it simply just pitching the table on the personalities you wrote?
Hader: After a while, I didn’t know where I fit in. Andy (Samberg) had the shorts. Kristen (Wiig) and Jason (Sudeikis) were just geniuses. So, I was like “Where the heck do I fit in on this thing?” So I figured out on this A-Team ensemble, I would do impressions. That was a strategic thing. I’ll write impression pieces: The Vincent Price Show or I’ll do Vinny Vedecci, but he’ll do impressions within that. I would write a ton of impression sketches that never went on the air, but what happened out of that is a writer would announce to the room that I have a John Malkovich or an Al Pacino impression. And the writers would say, “good to know.” SNL also taught me to be a quick study. My James Carville impression came about the night before when (writer) Steve Higgins told me I was playing him since he was in the news with the Tea Party. I was like “Great, I’ll figure it out.” And it worked, and I figured (impressions) out over and over. Then I would get confidence in that, but not the original characters. The objective was setting small goals for myself. I never set out to be the star of the show. I was always like “We’re an ensemble.” The whole show lives and dies by the ensemble. (The question always was), “Where do I fit in this ensemble and where do I strengthen it?”
AwardsLine: Heading into the 2012-13 season, did you know it was your last?
Hader: I had a feeling because my contract was up and I was undecided at the beginning. Then over Christmas I decided I wanted to move to LA. My wife (SNL writer Maggie Carey) and I talked about it and decided to chill for a month. I told Lorne (Michaels) way early. A lot of people wait until the end of the season. I told him in February and we had a chance to wear the season for a while.
AwardsLine: It’s rare for a sketch actor to propel from the Second City outpost here in LA to SNL. Typically, SNL cast members come from the Chicago Second City main stage, New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade and LA’s The Groundlings.
Hader: I was at Second City LA, going through the conservatory, and I graduated in 2004 and I got SNL in 2005. Megan Mullaly’s brother-in-law was in my group. They came to see him and then she saw me. She said, “You’re really funny and I just met with Lorne Michaels and I know they’re looking for people.” I had no manager at the time. It was literally a moment of Megan seeing me and exclaiming, ‘”like you. You’re funny.” I’m crazy lucky. I was trying to be a filmmaker. I was doing Second City classes as a way to be creative. I was a PA for a long time. I was working as an assistant editor on Iron Chef America when I got SNL. It was one of those situations where you’re concentrating in one thing and the peripheral thing popped.
AwardsLine: What episode did you select as your Emmy submission this year?
Hader: This year I selected it, while last year I let my talent coordinator handle it. Oddly I selected one that Stefon wasn’t in. I selected the season premiere with Seth MacFarlane and the puppet show. The guy I played was a Grenada invasion vet. After that show, Lorne said, ‘I think you had a perfect show.’ And he rarely says that. That was nice and I decided to submit the episode.
AwardsLine: The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby which is going to Toronto — talk about this.
Hader: It’s two movies. This guy Ned Benson wrote and directed it. James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain have this tragedy happen, so in the His version, it’s from McAvoy’s point of view, and you see how he’s dealing with this tragedy. It’s all shot in steadicam and cold colors and stylistically and Her is stylistically much warmer. But you’ll see scenes in both movies, but we would shoot the His version one way, and the Her version another. We would change wardrobe and shoot the same exact scene and approximate dialogue so she remembered it in a different way, but the same information is put across (to the audience). Skeleton Twins is the one I did with Kristen Wiig. That’s probably the biggest role I’ve ever had in a movie. We’re the co-leads of it. It’s much more of a drama. We play twins and I’m her gay twin brother and I end up moving back with her. It’s similar to You Can Count On Me.
AwardsLine: Are you in talks to mount SNL character spinoff films? Do you want to straddle comedy and drama?
Hader: My decisions on projects are typically based on, “Yeah, I would go see that movie.” It’s that simple. I gravitate to those parts that aren’t necessarily the lead, but that’s a newer thing, making more of a leap to the lead. I would like to direct. There won’t be a Stefon movie. I’ve always admired Jeff Bridges. I really like how one can never get a handle on what he’s doing. And that’s a thing that comes from being at SNL: You just work and keep going at it. The reason I would like to write things and do it myself; I always felt better co-writing something – always co-writing. Because if I was the lead of it and it failed, then it failed on my own accord. I would say, “Well, I liked it or I screwed up. I take the hit on this one.” I know how the script sounds in my head. You know what the tone is and want to have as much control as you can.
AwardsLine: At Second City they teach certain comedy sketch models, but Upright Citizens Brigade focuses on game theory in sketch. Are the alums from those schools obsessing over styles in the SNL writers’ room?
Hader: Not really. You hear people asking “What’s the game of the scene?” or “I don’t know what the game is of the scene.” I also worked at South Park. Right there, too — it’s just what the inspiring choice is and then everybody gets inspired by that thing. The bigger thing is that the sketch has to have some sort of logic. That’s the bigger thing at SNL more than game or any sort of theory is that Seth Meyers as head writer will ask, “What’s the logic here? Why is he doing this?” I would do these Vincent Price sketches, “The Vincent Price Show.” First time we wrote them, we mimicked Vincent Price in the movies: He would yell and scream and then throw guests into a pit. The night before we did it, it was my sixth show, and Lorne called me and the writer Matt Murray into his office at 1 AM. and said, “Um, I don’t understand why anybody would go on ‘The Vincent Price Show.’ What? Guests know to go there and get maimed?” We said, “It’s just funny!” That wasn’t the answer Lorne wanted. Lorne said, “I think what he needs is that the show needs to go well and realizes people are ruining it.” Then we have a game and they have a game. Sometimes we would do a hard satire, for example I co-wrote a sketch about Jeremy Lin as a cold open and it was a very straight thing. In the news we’re seeing things like “He’s New York’s good fortune.” Then someone would say something similar about a black basketball player and the response would be “Whoa, that’s really racist.” We wrote that, it would get off topic with the writing and then someone would come up with a new joke, and you would keep repeating the theme. That was a very South Park thing. “This is what we’re saying; this joke doesn’t fit in the road we’re going. Stop going that way.”
AwardsLine: There are many sketches on SNL where the jokes veer off topic.
Hader: Yeah, there are a lot of character sketches that will do that or sketches like, there’s a really funny guy James Anderson, a writer on the show who Kristen (Wiig) worked with a lot. His sketches were a burst of whatever: We don’t where anything comes from. It was all intuitive. Will Forte’s stuff was that way. It was so inspired and intuitive the way his writing was. That’s the other thing with SNL, there’s never anyone who is 100% happy with the show. The audience will like one sketch and hate another. But that’s the idea: it’s a variety show throwing different comic sensibilities out at you. Unless Justin Timberlake was hosting and then everyone is happy.
AwardsLine: Do you think you’ll play around the stages here in LA now that you’re here, i.e. at Largo, UCB? Many established comedians like to return to a black box theater to try material out.
Hader: I was never that good on stage with live improv. I was much better on film or writing something and then thinking about it. I was too in my head when I was on stage.
AwardsLine: A lot of performers get nervous when they graduate from SNL into the next chapter of their career.
Hader: Anytime I get nervous or uptight about the direction something is going, I stifle it and make dumb decisions. And, so, it’s kind of like “relax and see where it goes”. No one knows anything. You’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to do things that people think are stupid. You can’t sit there and go, “I never want to make a mistake.” That’s one of the bigger things, doing something and asking why it didn’t work. For me, it was I jumped the gun or I’m moving too fast and I need to slow down. For a full season before every sketch, I would always say to myself, “Slow down.” Even on my last show, my wife reminded that it was like any show; I was obsessing, “Was that thing with Kate McKinnon funny? I felt we lost the audience. When I did the cop thing at a barbeque doing a toast, did my guy sound alright?” And my wife Maggie reminded me, “It was your last show!”