NYCC Recap: SNL Headwriters

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It was standing room only in room 1A24 on the morning of New York Comic Con’s final day as the assembled con-goers awaited the next panel. Many had waited through previous just be in the room just to get a glimpse of their childhood heroes: the original Blue and Black Power Rangers (David Yost and Walter Jones, respectively). Perhaps unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much overlap between hardcore Mighty Morphin fans and those waiting for the next panel, a conversation with head writers: Bryan Tucker, Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly. The audience that refilled the space was a little smaller and a less enthusiastic, but they weren’t disappointed as the panelists touched on a wide range of from Donald Trump to their approach to writing for each host. Here’s what we learned:

This week’s original cold open was just about the VP Debate

Schneider kicked off the panel saying that if not for NYCC, they’d all be home “dead asleep”—especially after rewriting the cold open until 4 a.m. Saturday morning. The sketch was originally just a riff on last week’s vice presidential debate and though Schneider and Kelly had completed a 2nd or 3rd draft Friday morning, everything was thrown into chaos when recordings of Trump making lewd comments about women to Access Hollywood‘s Billy Bush in 2005 were released. “It’s so cool for us to get first crack at it,” Tucker said, lamenting that the news cycle usually favors comedians like Samantha Bee or Stephen Colbert. However, Kelly also noted that, “especially now during election season, things change so rapidly.” As for the sketch–which featured Alec Baldwin as Trump making more lewd comments and gestures during a TV interview–Kelly said, “it kind of turned into everybody’s sketch,” because writers and actors alike contributed material. As Kelly explained, “It was horrible and disgusting, but also…” “fun!” Schneider finished. “Our standards woman ran to us to say, ‘you can say pussy!'” Schneider added.

They freak out over the hosts too

The writers weren’t the only ones working into the the early morning on Saturday and Schneider noted that she saw host Lin-Manuel Miranda (writer of the Tony-winning Broadway musical, Hamilton) working on his opening monologue at 5 a.m. Kelly added that staff writers Streeter Seidell and Jeremy Beiler worked with Miranda on the sketch, but noted that hosts usually have to be on a few times before they get much say on what happens. Instead, the writers pitch individual sketches that the host veto. “You want to have a couple that are complete curveballs,” Kelly said of the process, explaining that some hosts want to step out of their comfort zones a bit.

Of the hosts they’ve worked with, Schneider said she loved actors Channing Tatum and Christophe Waltz and Kelly loved Larry David. “Former SNL cast members always make great hosts,” Tucker added. As for host’s they’d like to see in the future, while Tucker is still waiting to get a chance to write for childhood hero Eddie Murphy (who appeared on the 40th anniversary episode), Kelly said his dream host appeared last season: Julia Louis Dreyfus. Kelly, who used to tape and give a letter grade to each episode of Seinfeld, said watching Dreyfus as her character from that show, Elaine Benes, ask a question of Larry David as Bernie Sanders during a debate sketch last year was a defining moment. “I should quit after this,” he remembered thinking.

McKinnon is awesome

Recent Emmy winner and breakout star, Kate McKinnon, came up and Schneider and Kelly, who frequently write with and for her, had nothing but praise for her performance as Hillary Clinton. “We wanted it to feel like a person,” Schneider said of their approach to writing the presidential candidate and added that it making comedy out of this election feels like a big responsibility. Tucker compared her work favorably to Amy Poehler’s take on Clinton, saying that McKinnon played up her ambition while Poehler focused on her social awkwardness. “We’re trying to amp up every part of her,” Kelly said. All three writers also complimented McKinnon’s ability to take even the clunkiest lines work, something fellow cast member Kenan Thompson is also really good at doing.

They all have a sketch that got away

Not every sketch makes it to the live show and some losses are more bitter than others. Tucker recalled a time when he was so angry about a sketch getting cut between dress rehearsal and the live show that he literally stormed through the studio’s halls. He eventually ran into Thompson, who starred in the sketch, who responded to the news with characteristic calmness: “They’re just sketches, man.” Still, Tucker hopes to get a version of the sketch, which he called “Action Jack,” on the air one day. For Kelly and Schneider, the hope is much simpler: name a character “Peggy Lunch” for cast member Aidy Bryant. Though they’ve come up with a number of possible characters, Bryant–who heard the name over the loud speaker at an airport and immediately became convinced she needed to play a character with name–has vetoed them all so far.

They were fans of the show long before they wrote for it

Regardless of the occasional disappointments, Tucker, Schneider and Kelly emphasized that writing for SNL fulfilled their childhood dreams. Tucker, for one, said his earliest memory of the she was watching his parents and other adults crack up to Eddie Murphy’s “Buckwheat” character while Schneider said that she knew she wanted to write for the show after watching the very first “Debbie Downer” sketch where the actors–including host Lindsay Lohan–couldn’t keep from laughing. However, Schneider noted that she’s not always a fan of when people “break” (as it’s known in the comedy world) during a sketch In order to get a laugh, which Tucker said could seem, “self-indulgent.” For his part, Kelly couldn’t pinpoint a specific moment when he fell in love with the show, but it was a huge part of his life growing up. “I would leave cast parties and prom to watch SNL,” he admitted shyly while Schneider jokingly pat his back. Still, his love for the show was challenged on his first week as the reality of what it takes to write and produce set in. “Is my dream job a nightmare?” he remembered thinking at the time.

Little kids don’t hold back

As is custom, the panel ended with audience questions and the toughest came from a young boy who asked the writers to name the worst sketch they’d written that made it to air. Tucker pointed to a sketch from 2014 called “Undercover Sharpton” that fell so flat it was the kind of skit that made him wonder if the audience was still there. Schneider and Kelly said a sketch that aired last year featuring Kate McKinnon as murder suspect Robert Durst at an improv show that didn’t so much bomb as get edited within an inch of its life. Regardless of why a sketch fails, Tucker said that sometimes you can’t tell whether a sketch works until you put it in front of an audience and SNL‘s format doesn’t let that happen before the live show. “That’s why things are often maybe a little uneven,” he added.

By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.