The Learning Curve
Bill Hader relates his schooling in comedy at 'SNL'
Try this for a day job: You start each week trying to come up with something new and funny that will make millions of Americans from coast to coast crack up in hysterics. On hump day, you try it out in front of your colleagues at a table read. If it flies, a day later, you're blocking it. Friday, you polish it up in rehearsal. Saturday night, you sell it to the country in a live television broadcast, where you're expected to measure up not only to the work you did the week before, but to the greatest comedic achievements in all 38 seasons of this cathode-ray institution. And then two days later, it's rinse and repeat.
No wonder Bill Hader occasionally gets a case of nerves when it's showtime. That's been the working routine for this Tulsa homeboy since the fall of 2005, when he joined Saturday Night Live as a regular cast member. Life in that laugh-producing pressure cooker has broken more than a few, but in his eight seasons on the show, Hader has thrived. His facility with impressions – Vincent Price, Al Pacino, James Carville – and skill at creating magnetic, out-of-left-field characters – Italian talk-show host Vinny Vedecci; ancient, ill-tempered TV reporter Herb Welch; and everyone's favorite NYC club kid, Stefon – have earned him the adulation of SNL fans everywhere and one of the few Emmy nominations ever bestowed on an individual performer. Hader has rarely made any stage appearances away from SNL, but for the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival last July, he hosted a showcase of stand-up comics and portrayed several of his signature characters. He'll do the same as the first headliner for the second Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival, which gave the Chronicle a chance to ask him about his day job.
Austin Chronicle: How has this season of SNL been for you? With the cast changes – Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg leaving – has it been different from previous seasons?
Bill Hader: Oh yeah. Coming back and not having them there was definitely different, because we all came in together. I feel like I was really part of an era at the show, with the Digital Shorts and Wiig and all the stuff with Tina [Fey] playing Palin. You know, I've been there for eight years and all of these big milestones happened. Now with all the new people who have been there for a couple of seasons – Vanessa Bayer and Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan and Jay Pharoah and Kate McKinnon and Cecily [Strong] and Aidy [Bryant] and Tim [Robbins] – I'm like suddenly the elder statesman. I'm excited to be working with these guys and also letting this be their time. They're so funny; they're so good. And it's a different voice. The time before we showed up was another voice, and that's what's so cool about the show.
AC: Each era of SNL seems to develop its own rhythm based on the cast members' characters and skills. Has the rhythm from the era with Kristen and Andy and the rest of you shifted this season? With these new voices coming forward, are the writers looking for ways to change the rhythm?
BH: No, it's never a conscious thing. At least, I don't see it that way. It's like, here's what these people bring to the table. What are their strengths? And you write to that, and then it just changes. It's like a recipe: You put the same stuff in it, and the specific [taste], that's the properties of that food; you take that out and put in new ingredients, and it becomes a different thing. That's all it is. It's exciting, you know. It's cool to see stuff like Vanessa Bayer play Jacob, a little Jewish boy, on the Christmas episode of "[Weekend] Update." I loved watching that. Her confidence in letting things just sit there for a while. I really dug that. And Cecily and Aidy, their character stuff. Kate McKinnon, the voices and stuff that she does – it's just cool seeing these people come in and immediately get it.
AC: Did you have that experience, or was there more of a learning curve?
BH: Oh, way more of a learning curve. I don't think I felt comfortable in what I brought to the table, so to speak, until my third or fourth season. I tried a lot of things at the table on Wednesday that didn't work, and it was just finding your groove – and learning. I was learning how to write sketch comedy. You have what you find funny and you naturally gravitate to, and then there's SNL, and SNL has its thing, what it finds funny as a show. It always has its own voice. It took me three or four seasons to find that Venn diagram where they overlapped. The big thing for me was "The Vinny Vedecci Show." I was like, "Okay, it's a talk show, it's presentational, it lets the audience in, but it's also very strange." Everyone's smoking cigarettes, and there's an ostrich, but there are jokes in it, hard jokes. The first couple of Vincent Price [sketches], I don't think there were any jokes, just me saying weird phrases, and it was all kind of bonkers. I was just trying to figure it out.
AC: Was the Vincent Price sketch something that got closer to what SNL does that works?
BH: Yeah. [SNL Producer] Lorne [Michaels] taught me a big thing with that one, 'cause the first time we wrote it – me and Matt Murray wrote it – we had Vincent Price like Vincent Price is in all those great movies. He's mean to people. He might have tortured somebody. It was him having his own Thanksgiving Day special and going, "You're going to the pit" and stuff, and we did it at the table and everyone laughed and thought it was great. So we blocked it on Thursday, and I remember Friday night, the night before the show, at midnight, I get a call saying, "Lorne wants to see you and Matt." Lorne brought us into his office, and he had the sketch in front of him, and he went, "This makes no sense. Why would anyone go on this show if he's just going to torture and beat the shit out of them and be terrible to them?" And I'm like, "It's comedy. It's weird. Because we find it funny." And he was like, "No, there has to be logic behind this thing. I think what this needs to be is, he wants to have a nice show, and all the guests are ruining it for him. He wants people to come on and have a good time, and then they come in and they're drunk and they're assholes and they're insane. That way you're funny, you're driving it, but everyone else gets to be funny instead of just being yelled at, and it has a logic to it." And I went, "Oh, okay. I get that." The first two or three seasons was learning lessons like that. People think, "Oh, I can just come in and write SNL and be fine," and you're like, "Nah nah nah, it's its own beast." The new people coming in are getting that way quicker than I did. I'm so impressed with all of them. They just understand immediately how to make it work.
AC: Are show nights still nerve-racking?
BH: Oh yeah. It's nerve-racking now in a more excited way as opposed to "I can't sleep Friday night." I sleep fine now, but like the Justin Timberlake episode, I was the game show host in that one sketch, and I just ran my lines a lot because I go, "Man, this is a really big sketch. We have the Dick in a Box guys, we have the Wild and Crazy Guys," so I put pressure on myself to be steady.
One of our stage managers, Chris Kelly, was like, "I was backstage before a sketch, and you were muttering to yourself, 'Why do I keep putting myself through this?' then you went out and it went great." I do get nervous, 'cause it's a little of that rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time thing. I'm trying to maintain a voice and a character but at the same time not just deliver jokes but sell them, so it has to have a very specific rhythm to it. In my mind I'm doing these two things at the same time. So I tend to run my lines a lot, 'cause I've got to know what the hell I'm gonna do, and also [know] the thing that [I'm] just gonna throw out when [I] get out there and be like, "Yeah, you planned this, but fuck it. See what happens now. You know this. You're fine. You can do whatever the hell you want." To get myself out of my head, I'll do things that I haven't planned or thought of – just little things that maybe no one even notices. To go, "Don't be too rigid," which was always a problem I had. I was very rigid and would work on every little move. Doing "Update" features really helped loosen me up. It's just you behind a desk, you're looking right down the barrel, everyone's seeing you, so there's nothing you can do about it. [Laughs] Like we were doing the James Carville thing, and I started doing all these weird things with my hands, and I was like, "None of this was planned. I'm just doing this now, in the moment." And that was – it sounds corny to say the word "breakthrough," but it was. It was like, "Oh yeah, I can do that."
AC: Would you rather be in a sketch with people than be alone in the spotlight?
BH: No, I like it now. There was a time when I had a real problem with it, but now I'm fine with it, and I'll go out and do things and have fun and just mess around.
Bill Hader appears Wednesday, April 24, 7pm, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. For more information, visit www.moontowercomedyfestival.com.