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Dispatches From The New Yorker Festival

Live from New York: The Cast of SNL
Seth Meyers, Kenan Thompson, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Andy Samberg, and Fred Armisen. Moderated by David Remnick.

Those who were lucky enough to score tickets to this sold-out event were rewarded with lots of witty banter between the cast members of the American institution, Saturday Night Live. The first thing you notice is Kenan Thompson’s infectious giggle. Any worries that each other’s jokes get old are put to rest when you hear them laugh so  much at, and with, each other.

David Remnick, acknowledging they all showed up looking pretty hungover (which was most apparent with Andy Samberg who said little except for strange, intermittent, nonsensical outbursts), started by asking them all about the audition process. The one constant is that it requires doing a standup routine. This doesn’t sound strange at first, until you hear that none of the cast had ever done standup before. Most of the cast had been doing improv and creating sketch characters, neither of which are conducive to a standup routine.Kristen Wiig, after joking that she got the job because, “Lorne [Michaels] and I made love. For three days,” admitted she’d bought a stopwatch to make sure that her practice didn’t run over Lorne’s five minute limit. There are two rounds of auditions and many of them had an audition together, and had watched each other audition on the television kept in the waiting room, which was screening them live. No pressure or anything. Wiig to Fred Armisen, “You had a really good Sam Waterston impression.” Jason Sudeikis‘s standup followed an impromptu set at a comedy club by Chris Rock (tough act to follow), after which he was offered a position as a writer which felt like, “winning a gold medal in an event you’ve never competed in.” Head writer Seth Meyers was called out, appropriately, for being the best dressed (he wore a suit) and explained it thusly, “being a New Yorker is a brand that I’m trying to uphold.” When Meyers auditioned, many people had been flown out to audition at the same time: “You’d walk down the hall at the hotel and you could hear all the other people’s impressions and they were all better than yours. Toward the end of my interview Lorne asked me, ‘So, do you think you could live in New York?’ and I wondered, does anyone blow it here? Do they say, ‘Well, does it absolutely have to take place in New York?'” Wiig recalled watching the season premiere and thinking, “Well, guess I didn’t get the job!” but she was wrong. She was called to New York five episodes into the season.

When asked whether they ever feel guilty about hurting people’s feelings when they’re caricatured on the show (Remnick mentioning their portrayal of New York Governor David Paterson), Meyers said, “We were aware that there are certain parts of that are indefensible. We have to make the characters likable, and when we do, we seem less mean.” They all agreed that it was strange to have McCain on the show the Saturday before the election. “He just seemed so happy it was almost over,” Meyers said, and continued, “He had a skit with Tina as Palin and it was like, ‘Do you even see her anymore?!’ He seemed so relaxed, we all thought it was crazy he was even here with us.”

The schedule for putting together a show is strenuous. On Monday some forty people sit in Lorne’s office to each pitch a couple ideas to the host. “Andy pretends like he’s thought about it but makes them up on the spot,” Seth said. “Jason has this little book, do you have it?” Kristen starts, and Jason pulls out a teeny book, no bigger than three inches on a side, “He sits directly behind the host so they have to turn around awkwardly to see him, and he flips through this little book which gives him time to make up some ideas.” “Jane Lynch, how about we have Elmer Fudd try to sell you a purse,” Jason says, presumably pulling an idea out on the spot. Tuesday is writing day where, in teams, they write out 40 full skits, which usually entails them pulling all nighters. “I think it’s a vestige of the cocaine-fueled days,” says Jason. “What’s it fueled by now?” asks Remnick. “Cocaine,” responds Kristen. “It’s hard because sometimes you’ll think of something at 4am and you’ll think it’s hilarious,” Kenan starts, “but when you wake up, you realize it’s not really funny. Occasionally it happens in reverse, but not often.” Wednesday the 40 skits get ranked by producers and then culled down to ten, eight of which will be used on the show. “You’ll see your skit ranked 38 and think, ‘I thought that was funny!'” Kenan says of the rankings, which they all called “Shitcan Alley.”

They all agree that having actors on is easier and more fun than the others. Though there are exceptions (Justin Timberlake) they all agree that having Paris Hilton on went exactly as they thought it would (not well). Politicians are the only hosts who have restrictions on topics that can be used in skits. Paris Hilton did object to a skit involving a restaurant called, “Paris Hilton’s Crab Shack.” And there was that time that Liam Neeson killed a skit in which “Schindler’s List” was running while the NBC promo for The Apprentice with theme song, “For the Love of Money” played in the lower right corner of the screen. Neeson had met a lot of Holocaust survivors and felt the skit wasn’t appropriate for him to do, it got scrapped.

he show has a censor, Betsey Torres, who will issue memos detailing the problematic parts of each show. The famous short Dick in a Box got censored, but still ran because, in Seth’s words, “It was at the height of intelligence, for what it was. It was art.” But they all point out that Lorne Michaels has established himself as a censor and the network trusts him. “I don’t think this show could survive without Lorne,” said Seth, who can’t see anyone else having the same control, insight or judgment, which is how the show is able to carry on. “Lorne is a really good person,” Kenan says, “We walked home one day after a dinner, he could have taken a car but he chose to walk. And some homeless man comes up to us and tells us his story and Lorne hands him a $100 bill.” “He was hired to do that, Lorne does that to all the new cast members to try to make them think he’s kind,” Seth deadpans. “One-hundred dollar bills were all Lorne had in his wallet,” Kenan counters.

They all agree that watching their bombed moments is the best part, it what they find funniest when they an say, “I swear, that killed 3 hours ago in rehearsal!” “Even bombing isn’t that bad, because you’re still up there having fun with your friends,” Fred says to a collective audience, “Awwww!”

Jasmine Moy is a New York-based lawyer, writer and avid traveler. Originally from Chicago, she is a contributing writer at Esquire, The Awl and Eater.com. She rants here about politics, bad dates and cute animal videos.

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