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Photography by Robert Ascroft | March 27, 2015 | People
Over the past four decades, Saturday Night Live has launched the careers of countless A-List comedians and defined the best of modern American humor. To celebrate the landmark show's mega milestone and the 40th anniversary special airing on February 15, Gotham sat down with the current class of SNL-ers to talk legacy, comedy, New York, and favorite SNL moments.
According to NBC lore, Saturday Night Live came about for a very simple reason—Johnny Carson wanted more time off. His Tonight Show reruns played on weekends, but Carson, eager for occasional breaks from the grind of nightly broadcasts, demanded they be available for airing during the week. In 1975 the network, under president Herb Schlosser, decided to develop a new program, NBC’s Saturday Night, to fill one of Carson’s weekend slots. Lorne Michaels, who had made his name as a writer on Laugh-In, and NBC executive Dick Ebersol were tasked with creating the show.
With its topical blend of outlandish, irreverent humor and wicked satire, NBC’s Saturday Night (it became Saturday Night Live in 1977), broadcast live from Studio 8H, rocked the television industry’s rafters from its inception, becoming a runaway hit as well as a pop-culture touchstone. Few programs have launched as many A-list stars—Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Mike Myers, Al Franken (now a senator for Minnesota), Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, and Seth Meyers are among the 130 performers who have called SNL home. As for the famous opening line—Chevy Chase said it on the first show, and cast or guest hosts have repeated it ever since, indelibly rooting the show in a city that has helped define it.
To celebrate SNL’s extraordinary history (it has received 40 Emmys, more than any other TV show in history) and the 40th Anniversary Special airing live from Studio 8H on February 15 (8–11 PM ET), we went to the source—the current cast of Saturday Night Live. We asked them to interview one another about the show and its legacy, the meaning of funny, favorite SNL moments, how they got to 30 Rock, and how they nail those wicked impersonations.
TOP ROW: Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, Aidy Bryant, Colin Jost, Jay Pharoah, Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson, and Michael Che. BOTTOM ROW: Sasheer Zamata, Kenan Thompson, Vanessa Bayer, Bobby Moynihan, Leslie Jones, and Taran Killam.
KM: How do you feel about following in Tina Fey’s and Amy Poehler’s footsteps?
CS: I feel like a jerk that you would even put my name with theirs. A lot of my heroes have been on this show, and I’d say that it’s very humbling.
KM: What does SNL mean to New York and vice versa?
CS: I have to speak for New York?
KM: What do you like most about the city?
CS: I have two favorite things: jaywalking and eavesdropping. That’s real freedom.
CS: Tell us about your Al Sharpton impersonation. Give us the history.
KT: It’s almost like you’re a fool if you don’t have a Sharpton impression because he has a big voice, and it’s always really fun. Plus, he’s such a character.
CS: You’ve turned him into a better character.
KT: Now that he has a TV show, we can really get to know Al. It’s different from just seeing his picture in the paper and in front of a march wearing a suede jumpsuit.
CS: You’ve met him a bunch.
KT: Yeah, he works in the building [30 Rock]. When I run into him, he’ll be like, “Everything all right?” And I’ll say to him [impersonating his voice], “Yeah, everything is fine.” He likes it, you know? It’s all flattery, I guess. We don’t do it with malice, though we poke some hard fun.
CS: You’ve made Al Sharpton an even bigger name.
KT: I hope so; he’s got a sense of humor and very strong opinions. I respect people like that.
Funny girls: Cecily Strong and Sasheer Zamata.
KT: What has been your favorite moment with a host?
KM: I did a sketch with Charlize Theron [in May 2014] where we played cat ladies. I wanted her to do an Aileen Wuornos-type thing [Wuornos was the convicted serial killer Theron played in the 2003 film Monster, for which she won an Oscar] and gosh darn it, she did. She out-weirded me, and I was impressed.
KT: That was an epic moment. I watched it from the sidelines and it was like seeing history happen. What inspired the Russian meteorite expert thing?
KM: It wasn’t my idea at all. There really was a meteor that hit Siberia. The writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider pitched a woman who had wished that it had hit Russia because Russia is so terrible.
KT: You have firsthand knowledge?
KM: I do not. But I can imagine.
KT: What about [impersonating] Penélope Cruz?
KM: That’s a voice you don’t forget.
Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer.
KM: I’m having trouble asking the question because I’m just staring at your face.
TK: Oh, so you’re captivated?
KM: Talk about SNL and New York.
TK: Without New York, SNL would not know how to introduce the show.
KM: Yes, “Live from… it’s Saturday Night!”
TK: That just doesn’t have the same ring. You know, SNL is New York and New York is SNL—it’s chaotic, it’s the city. SNL has helped New York heal, and New York has helped SNL stay relevant and contemporary. It’s the greatest city in the world, and in my opinion, SNL is the greatest show in the world.
KM: Define funny.
TK: An observation on a universal truth that surprises you with a take or insight that you may not have acknowledged or internalized, but it registers with you so it elicits laughter, a spontaneous reaction.
KM: Taran, you do so many unbelievable impressions that inspire me every week. One of my favorites is your Brad Pitt. Where did it come from?
TK: From a desperate need to be like him. I also like to do impressions that not a lot of other people do. I hadn’t seen anyone doing a Brad Pitt impression, so I used that in my audition for this job.
KM: Was there a Brad Pitt moment you latched on to?
TK: Little pieces from Fight Club, Seven, and Twelve Monkeys.
KM: So you took little snippets and you planted them, and they grew into beautiful plants.
TK: Yes, I approach comedy like a botanist.
KM: I approach comedy like an unemployed person.
TK: [Laughs] Gotta get that check, gotta get that paper!
TK: You have been tasked with the very difficult job of impersonating the most powerful man in the country. So what is it like impersonating… Kanye West?
JP: Kanye is such a presence, so the weirder the stuff that is said, the more fun it is. You know, in real life, he’s really chill, but on camera, he just turns up at the wrong moments, and those moments usually turn up on World Style Hip Hop. That’s a black website, if you don’t know. It’s the CNN of the ’hood.
TK: How is your Kanye impression similar and how is it different from doing Obama almost on a weekly basis?
JP: Obama is more straightforward. I feel like this is going to get me in trouble, but I want to say, “Obama, you don’t follow me on Twitter, but I want you to, and Kanye, I’ll text you later, baby.”
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: ON KATE MCKINNON: Dress, Monique Lhuillier ($7,995). Bergdorf Goodman, 754 Fifth Ave., 212-753-7300. 7.56-carat ballroom diamond earrings set in platinum (price on request), large 35.11-carat diamond links bracelet set in platinum (price on request), and 5.42-carat diamond Draperie ring set in platinum ($49,500), Harry Winston. 718 Fifth Ave., 212-399-1000. Sandals, Jimmy Choo ($695). 407 Bleecker St., 212-366-1305. ON MICHAEL CHE: Jacket, Versace ($3,850). 647 Fifth Ave., 212-317-0224. Shirt, Thomas Pink ($195). 520 Madison Ave., 212-838-1928. Wool trousers, Calvin Klein ($400). 654 Madison Ave., 212-292-9000. Bow tie, Hugo Boss ($95). Bloomingdale’s, 1000 Third Ave., 212-705-2000. 6.29-carat diamond cuff links, Graff (price on request). 710 Madison Ave., 212-355-9292. Master Ultra Thin Moon 39 watch, Jaeger LeCoultre ($10,100). 701 Madison Ave., 646-828-4328. ON KENAN THOMPSON: Movado Sapphire watch, Movado ($995). Madison Jewelers, 400 Madison Ave., 212-644-4100. Suit, shirt, tie, and cuff links, Kenan’s own. ON BECK BENNETT: Suit, Givenchy (price on request). Barneys New York, 660 Madison Ave., 212-826-8900. Shirt, Burberry ($295). 9 E. 57th St., 212-407-7100. Tie, John Varvatos ($125). 122 Spring St., 212-965-0700. Hamilton Maestro watch, Hamilton ($1,395). Hour Passion, 112 W. 34th St., 212-904-1002. Oxfords, Christian Louboutin ($945). 967 Madison Ave., 212-396-1884. ON COLIN JOST: Tuxedo ($3,500), shirt ($590), pocket square ($90), and derbies ($910), Dior Homme. 17 E. 57th St., 212-931-2950. Bow tie, Michael Kaye ($125). ON BOBBY MOYNIHAN: MasterGraff Minute Repeater Tourbillon 47mm in rose gold with mother-of-pearl dial, Graff (price on request). 710 Madison Ave., 212-355-9292. Shoes, Jimmy Choo ($750). SEE ABOVE. Suit, shirt, and tie, Bobby’s own. ON LESLIE JONES: Bolero, Adrienne Landau ($496). Bergdorf Goodman, 754 Fifth Ave., 212-753-7300. White diamond Aria earrings set in white gold ($18,800) and white-gold butterfly ring with fancy-cut diamonds (price on request), De Beers. 703 Fifth Ave., 212-906-0001. 64-carat diamond link bracelet set in 18k white gold, Jacob & Co. (price on request). 48 E. 57th St., 212-719-5887. Jumpsuit, Leslie’s own. ON PETE DAVIDSON: Wool jacket, DSquared2 ($2,555). Saks Fifth Avenue, 611 Fifth Ave., 212-753-4000. Shirt ($135) and bow tie ($60), Brooks Brothers. 1180 Madison Ave., 212-289-5027. Pants, Ralph Lauren Black Label ($2,295 for full tuxedo). 867 Madison Ave., 212-606-2100. Cuff links, Thomas Pink ($195). SEE ABOVE. Movado Sapphire watch, Movado ($1,195). SEE ABOVE
JP: I’m going to ask you a question because we are such good black friends.
SZ: Such good black friends.
JP: Name your funniest moments with a guest host on SNL.
SZ: Probably a recent one with Chris Rock. I wanted to tell him that I admire him, but I didn’t want to be a superfan about it. So I just said how one of his jokes really left a mark on my life. It was from one of his specials, about how women will dance to any song no matter what the lyrics are—they just want a good beat—and I started quoting the song to him.
JP: And how did he look at you?
SZ: He was humoring me. And I was doing the dance and everything.
JP: What do you draw on to come up with an impression like Rihanna? Because I don’t find there’s anything about her that’s very impressionable.
SZ: I listen to Rihanna songs. She likes to use a lot of repetitive syllables: “Eh, eh, eh,” and “Oh, na, na.” I just repeat the stuff, and that’s pretty much all you got to do.
JP: Where do you see yourself on the show in the next year?
SZ: Taking over, basically.
SZ: What got you into comedy?
BM: I was kidnapped and forced into it at a very young age.
SZ: I’m so sorry. I’m glad you stuck with it.
BM: It was a harrowing experience, but I made it through.
SZ: You’ve been here a long time. How is your seventh season different from your first?
BM: [Initially] it felt like space camp, ’cause I wanted to do it for so long. Now it’s a job, and it’s crazy. There’s a whole new set of problems and obstacles every week. This is my 138th episode, and it never gets easier.
SZ: I’m still in my first year, and it feels a little like a job, but there are still magical moments. What is the craziest moment you’ve had on the show?
BM: My first “Live from New York.” That whole episode was a good one, and then meeting Pearl Jam. You’re like, “Did I just do an SNL sketch with Pearl Jam?” High school Bobby would have exploded. And then there are the weird moments, where John McCain comes up to you and says, “Always a pleasure, Horatio!” My most fearful moment ever was the last episode of my first season, coming in and thinking, “This could be it, this could be my last episode.” I got on the elevator and Lorne [Michaels] was there, on the phone. I said, “Hey, Lorne.” I stood there in silence, and then he said, “Oh, I’m sorry. How are you, Bobby?” As he was getting out of the elevator, I yelled, “How are you?” He turned around, and said, “I’m great,” as if to say, “Of course, why wouldn’t I be?” I thought I was done, I’m fired. It was so silly, though, he’s such a nice man.
SZ: I still have moments where I’m like, Does he like me?
AB: I grew up in Arizona, so I had no concept of what New York was outside of SNL.
BM: For you what is the highlight moment of SNL’s 40-year run?
AB: Probably all of mine. [Laughs] I mean there’s a ton that I love, but those were my life changers. When I got to say, “Live from New York,” it’s like the coolest. I got to do it on my fourth or fifth show.
Drink on the house: Colin Jost, Jay Pharoah, and Michael Che.
AB: What got you interested in comedy?
MC: Funny you should ask—I think getting paid for being funny.
AB: You’re naturally funny, so that helps.
MC: You think so?
MC: What got you into comedy?
AB: No, I’m interviewing you, you can’t ask me questions.
MC: You’re absolutely right. See, that’s what got me into comedy. I’m not good at interviews.
AB: That’s a good answer, right?
MC: That wasn’t clunky at all; it felt natural.
AB: What’s it like working on “Weekend Update”?
MC: It is so cool; you’re sitting there at a desk breaking real stories with no punch lines, and they pay you for it.
AB: There’s a beautiful long line of people who have done “Weekend Update,” and now you are part of it, which is really cool.
MC: And they’re all rich, which is great.
MC: What was your favorite moment in SNL history?
CJ: Jim Carrey in 1996. Those were the peak Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura years. They were very formational movies for me. When he hosted SNL he did classic sketches like the lifeguard, the hot tub, and the one where he was possessed and riding the snake. They were the big ones.
MC: What got you into comedy?
CJ: Just doing it with friends. Later on, someone gave me money.
MC: I did it for the money as well.
Kyle Mooney and Leslie Jones.
CJ: What is the name of the animal you’re wearing?
LJ: Cricket fur, and I killed approximately 250 to make this. Sometimes they still make music.
CJ: Favorite and least favorite animal?
LJ: You know I hate all animals, Colin.
CJ: There’s no animal that’s a little bit in your sweet spot?
LJ: Fish, because they don’t talk to me, they don’t mess with me, they don’t even expect me to feed them, really.
CJ: Like a great man, you know? They just kind of leave you be. What got you interested in comedy?
LJ: I got tired of people calling me insane.
CJ: The moment you turned?
LJ: I didn’t realize I was a comedian until somebody told me I was funny. All this time, I just thought I was trouble.
CJ: When was that?
LJ: I was 18, and a college friend entered me in a stand-up contest. She made me. I picked up the mic, and I was done. That was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
CJ: And have you thanked her?
LJ: I see her all the time. A shout-out to Danita Abernathy!
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: ON JAY PHAROAH: Tuxedo, DKNY Men ($695). 168 Fifth Ave., 212-223-3569. Shirt ($195) and cuff links ($195), Thomas Pink. 520 Madison Ave., 212-838-1928. Bow tie, Brooks Brothers ($60). 1180 Madison Ave., 212-289-5027. Avion Voyageur Reverso timepiece with three time zones and 1.24 carats of GVS diamonds, Korloff Paris ($7,200). Golden Door, 1726 Sheepshead Bay Road, Brooklyn, 718-615-4050. Oxfords, Christian Louboutin ($945). 967 Madison Ave., 212-396-1884. ON KYLE MOONEY: Brocade tuxedo jacket, David Hart ($1,395). Bloomingdale’s, 1000 Third Ave., 212-705-2000. Shirt, Brooks Brothers ($225). SEE ABOVE. Tuxedo pants ($1,440) and bow tie ($250), Tom Ford. 845 Madison Ave., 212-359-0300. Cuff links, Thomas Pink ($195). SEE ABOVE. Watch, Burberry (price on request). 9 E. 57th St., 212-407-7100. ON TARAN KILLAM: Suit ($795), Hugo Boss. Lord & Taylor, 424 Fifth Ave., 212-391-3344. Shirt ($195) and cuff links ($195), Thomas Pink. SEE ABOVE. Bow tie, Brooks Brothers ($60). SEE ABOVE. Watch, Movado (price on request). Zales, 417 Fifth Ave., 212-679-3626. ON SASHEER ZAMATA: Dress, Bibhu Mohapatra ($3,900). Bergdorf Goodman, 754 Fifth Ave., 212-753-7300. 17.76-carat diamond chandelier earrings set in platinum (price on request) and 82-carat diamond mesh bracelet set in 18k white gold (price on request), Jacob & Co. 48 E. 57th St., 212-719-5887. ON AIDY BRYANT: Feathered capelet, Adrienne Landau ($595). Bergdorf Goodman, SEE ABOVE. 18k white rose-cut diamond chandelier earrings with black rhodium, Sethi Couture ($19,800). Broken English, 56 Crosby St., 212-219-1254. Black diamond Hampton cable bracelet in sterling and darkened sterling silver ($24,000) and black diamond Hampton cable ring in sterling and darkened sterling silver ($6,200), David Yurman. 114 Prince St., 212-343-7918. Sierpes maxi ring in white gold, onyx, and diamonds, Carrera y Carrera ($14,000). Cellini Jewelers, Hotel Waldorf Astoria, 301 Park Ave., 212-751-9824. Dress, Aidy’s own. ON CECILY STRONG: Dress, Giorgio Armani ($8,025). 760 Madison Ave., 212-988-9191. 22.53-carat diamond circle earrings with round diamond tops (price on request) and 11.04-carat round diamond Promise ring with 10.76-carat tapered baguette diamond shoulders (price on request), Graff. 710 Madison Ave., 212-355-9292. ON VANESSA BAYER: Gown, La Petite Robe di Chiara Boni ($885). Saks Fifth Avenue, 611 5th Ave., 212-753-4000. V-shape 26.93-carat Marquises diamond necklace set in platinum, Harry Winston (price on request). 718 Fifth Ave., 212-399-1000. 10-carat-plus diamond ring set in platinum, Jacob & Co (price on request). SEE ABOVE
LJ: How’s your first season on SNL?
PD: It’s the coolest place to be able to learn, and everyone is brilliant.
LJ: What’s your favorite part of the job?
PD: Tuesdays with the comedy writers. It’s a long day, but it’s really fun.
LJ: What got you interested in comedy?
PD: I like that when you laugh at something, it doesn’t really matter anymore.
PD: Hillary Clinton or Miley Cyrus—who did you like impersonating more?
VB: I don’t want to choose, but I will say that I auditioned with my Miley Cyrus impression, and I feel like she’s responsible for a good amount of my career.
PD: Who is your favorite SNL cast member ever?
VB: That’s a hard question, but I love Chris Farley. I do love the sketch where Chris is reading out of Zagat’s and Adam Sandler is playing his husband, and you can tell that Adam Sandler wants to laugh so bad. There’s so much joy in that scene, and those two really make me laugh a lot.
PD: Who is your favorite athlete who has hosted?
VB: LeBron, because I’m from Cleveland. He’s our hero.
Very much ready for prime time: Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, Aidy Bryant, and Jay Pharoah.
VB: Did you watch SNL growing up?
BB: Oh my God, yes. I loved it. It was a haven for me, a place I could go and get my giggles.
VB: What does SNL mean to New York and New York mean to SNL?
BB: Well, it’s basically like cool, late-night, rock ’n’ roll culture. It’s a show that’s up at night, and there’s music and entertainment; it’s a show that never quits.
VB: How does doing SNL compare to doing AT&T commercials?
BB: SNL is a lot more fun. The cast is cooler and there are people I can relate to.
VB: I just want to tell you that I think you’re a little dull.
BB: Thank you so much, Vanessa. I think you’re one of the sweetest and most charming people to be around.
VB: Go on…
BB: You just always make me smile.
VB: Aw, you always make me smile.
BB: I love you.
VB: I love you… and print it!
BB: Print it!
BB: What got you interested in comedy?
KM: People making funny faces, funny noises, and funny videos; and the Sunday funnies. I was the youngest of three boys, and we were always interested in funny things.
BB: I’m sure there was some fun roughhousing.
KM: There was some very nasty roughhousing.
BB: If you could go back, would you do something different?
KM: I’d read more; I was not good about keeping up with class. We did comedy in college and had an improv sketch group. When we graduated, we decided we wanted to keep on doing it and tour the country.
BB: What was your favorite SNL moment?
KM: Probably either the Eddie Murphy video where he’s in whiteface or when Ashlee Simpson was caught lip-synching.
BB: Cool, man. Good luck with the show and congratulations on your career.
Styling by Cannon/Judy Casey; Hair by Luca Blandi for Oscar Blandi Salon; Makeup by Mari Shten for Armani Beauty; Set styling by Sergio Esteves; Video: Brian Russell and Shauna Kauffman; Production: Monique Perreault/Very Rare Productions; Shot on location at Joe’s Pub and The Library at The Public, 425 Lafayette St., 212-967-7555. With its intimate atmosphere and superior acoustics, Joe’s Pub at The Public consistently presents the best in live music and nightly performances. Tucked away on the mezzanine level, The Library is open nightly for dinner and cocktails. Since its debut in 2012, The Library has received rave reviews for chef Andrew Carmellini’s dinner menu and Tiffany Short’s award-winning craft cocktails.