Comedy is Truth
I WAS sitting on a couch all alone in the writers' room feeling like an idiot.
It was my first day at work on Saturday Night Live and I was told to arrive at 11:00 A.M. for a meeting with Marci Klein and Michael Shoemaker. Marci was the show's talent booker who functioned like a producer at large, and she had basically hired me. "Shoe" was a longtime producer of the show. The previous night I had gone to bed early in mortal terror of being late. Imagine, here is the greatest job you will ever have, and you're the asshole who shows up late. Not me, baby.
My alarm was set for six in the morning. The plan was to get up early, take a steambath, work out, rough out some sketches for the show, and then head uptown to the office. I had a dream that night that all my sketches sucked and I got fired. When my alarm went off at the crack of dawn, I was so grateful to still have the job that I hadn't started that I kneeled next to my bed and thanked God. I spent the rest of my morning racking my brain for better ideas. I went back over my sketches and reassured myself they were fine. Needless to say, the gym and the steam were out. It's probably a bad idea to take a steam while you're hyperventilating anyway.
From the time I left my St. Mark's Place apartment in the East Village, I never touched the ground. Didn't these people on the street know where I was going? If they knew, they would all be looking at me differently. Buying coffee on the way to the subway, I had to fight the urge to blurt out, "I'm on my way to Saturday Night Live! I'm the new guy!" I swear I came really close. I figured there would be some jerk who wouldn't believe me. I would have to stand there and explain everything to him and convince him that I wasn't lying, I really was the luckiest guy on earth. After all that, I would be running a little behind, so I kept my mouth shut.
I bought a newspaper to read on the train but I couldn't even see straight, let alone read the New York Post. I kept checking my watch to make sure I wasn't running late. With each stop along the way, my breath grew a little shorter. This is a joke, right? Who am I kidding? There is absolutely no conceivable way I belong on SNL. They are all going to find me out. I'm a fraud. Someone made a mistake here. Me? "Forty-ninth Street!" Uh-oh. Here we go. I walked up the stairs from the train, and when I reached the top, I first saw it.
Rockefeller Plaza is an impressive piece of architecture. It almost looks like a missile the way it juts defiantly into a menacing skyline. The ice skating rink is directly in front of the main entrance of the building, but it's a story below street level so you can lean over the railing and watch couples skate, which is a nice touch. When you enter the building, the paint on the wall is covered with beautiful yet imposing drawings of Greek gods. These gigantic, muscular men holding entire planets are staring down at you. For some reason, I noticed that they all looked sort of bummed out.
I had arrived at the security desk just before 10:30 A.M. Plenty of time to spare. I gave the security guard my name and told him that I was a new cast member on Saturday Night Live. The guard had a thick Caribbean accent, and it was obvious that he didn't really give a shit who I was. He asked me who my contact was. I had never heard that expression before. I had heard, "Who are you going to see?" -- but never "Who's your contact?" I muttered the unthinkable: "I don't know." That's one way to get yourself to the back of the line. Tell the guard that you don't even know who your contact is. He told me, the dummy with the backpack and no contact, to wait, and he began chatting up a young lady.
Three minutes later, the guard asked me again who my contact was. I told him Lorne Michaels. Why fuck around, right? The guard called the receptionist on the seventeenth floor to tell her that I had arrived. She wasn't there.
The guard cradled the phone against his ear for about ten minutes while he checked in about fifty more people. He put the phone down and walked away to help someone else. He didn't say anything to me. At this point, I was becoming panic-stricken. I couldn't remember a single name to give this guy and it was clear I was going nowhere until this guy connected with somebody upstairs. I looked at my watch: 11:05. Later, pal.
I slinked through "Checkpoint Charlie" with the next group of suits. Damn, why didn't I wear a suit? I tried to blend in as best I could, walk-strolling onto the elevator. My backpack was sticking out about a foot behind me, so I leaned up against the railing. I was still about two feet from the door. I was officially in everyone's way. I prayed for the doors to close before the guard arrested me.
The elevator doors whooshed closed, and we began our ascent -- the eight suits and the jackass in the back with a two-foot backpack taking up all the room. All the suits were blue. They would stay blue the remainder of my stay on the show. I felt really cool pushing the elevator button for seventeen. I figured they all knew what floor that was and would wonder why I was going there. No one even flinched. I stepped off the elevator at 11:07 A.M. The carpet on the seventeenth floor was also blue. This was where the writers' offices, the writers' room, reception, and executive producer Lorne Michaels's office were located.
After getting my bearings, I noticed what looked like a reception desk to my right. I walked over to introduce myself to everyone, but found that everyone was no one. I was hit with the funny feeling that I was the only person on the floor. To the best of my knowledge, I was right. So I took a seat on a flower-print couch that looked like it had been flown in from Miami and waited.
At one o'clock, the receptionist arrived. She began setting up her desk and checking her voice mails. I had to pee. I asked her where the bathrooms were and prayed she didn't ask me who my contact was.
Walking down the hallways of the seventeenth floor is impressive and intimidating. The walls are lined with photos from past episodes of the show. Every photo, no matter how tall you are, is at eye level. As I walked toward the bathroom I passed Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Mick Jagger, Bill Murray, Martin Short, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Dennis Miller -- everyone. They were all frozen in time, each a piece of history, a part of the heritage of the show. I walked too far and found myself in an office covered in Christmas decorations -- in August. Very decorated and very empty. Good God, I had to pee!
On my way back from the toilet, I backtracked through John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Paul McCartney, and Madonna. I reached the reception area and sat alone on the flowery couch for another half hour. When the receptionist returned, I told her who I was and that I was supposed to meet with Marci Klein and Michael Shoemaker. She told me that neither one of them would be in until at least three o'clock.
Three?! It's one-thirty, for Christ's sake! I was told that if I liked, I could wait for them on the couch. So I waited.
At around two-thirty, people started trickling in. I recognized a few. Adam Sandler came over and said hi and then went somewhere. Marci Klein never came in that day. Michael Shoemaker came in around four.
Shoemaker introduced himself to me. An Ivy League-looking guy in his forties, he was very pleasant, but as he spoke, I couldn't help but notice that he had a nervous tic. It was really distracting. This guy is giving me the rundown, and I'm staring at his face like an idiot.
As I was talking to Mike Shoemaker, Jim Downey, the show's head writer, walked out of his office. Downey, who had a cherubic Irish look about him, was wearing khakis and a polo shirt, and his toothbrush was in his mouth. Shoemaker attempted to introduce me, but Downey stopped him in midsentence by holding up his index finger and pointing to the toothbrush. He went into the bathroom to brush his teeth. When Downey returned, he said nothing and proceeded to walk back into his office and close the door.
Shoemaker then led me into the writers' room. All the lights were out and there were six cafeteria tables pushed together in a haphazard rectangle to form one big table. Every newspaper in print was lying on this table. That was something I always loved about working at SNL. On any given morning I could walk in and pick up the Dallas Morning News or the Washington Post. I sat on one of the couches at the far end of the writers' room for about twenty minutes, alone with the newspapers.
• • •
I would soon learn that my new job would require lots of waiting. As I sat waiting for Jim Downey, the room began to fill up with people. At one point, Shoemaker walked in with a kid who looked a little like Björk and said: "Jay, this is Lew Morton. He's a new writer. You guys are sharing an office." Uh... hi. The veteran writers came and went while the new ones sat around on couches and tabletops waiting for instructions.
Dave Attell and Sarah Silverman, two comics I knew from the clubs who were also new to the show, had arrived and taken a seat next to me on the couch. Sarah is from New Hampshire, and she is so "one of the guys" that you forget sometimes how beautiful she is. But when you first meet her, wow, you notice! Sarah and I were both hired as featured performers and writers, but Attell was hired as a writer only. Attell not being hired as a cast member, let alone a featured performer, was a crime.
I had always looked up to Dave as a stand-up, so I was glad that we would being sharing an office. But I also felt a little uncomfortable. I thought Attell was fifty times the comic I was and that he deserved to be on camera, too. He might be the funniest living stand-up comic, and he will perform anytime in front of any mike. Sometimes he'll perform at the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village in front of nine people at two-thirty in the morning (his preferred time slot, by the way). Whenever he's onstage, you'll also see other comics, me included, huddled in the back of the room to watch Dave spinning out zingers like "I have this blow-up doll that I fuck all the time, but I fill her up only halfway and I make believe she's a model." Attell was also a chain smoker. He smoked anytime, anyplace. Since I was an utter slob, our office looked like it was under construction in about a week.
We shared the small office meant for one person with Lew Morton and Steve Lookner, two Harvard guys. Whatever the rhythm was on the seventeenth floor, Lookner and Morton picked up on it pretty quickly. They always seemed to know what time to come in, what time to go home, where to hand in sketches, and most important, who to ask for help. All that separated the nonsmoking side from the smoking side was a couch in the middle of the room. Within a couple of weeks, we had smoked them out. I have no idea where they went. One day they were there, the next they were gone. I can't say that I blamed them, but Dave and I were happy for the additional space. Besides, those two Harvard guys were bringing us down with all that goddamn work they were doing.
To complicate matters, Dave and Sarah had dated each other and had only just recently broken up. Regardless, the three of us had a strange bond now. We were new. We were ready. We were clueless. And we were all waiting for Jim Downey.
• • •
Another hour passed and it was early evening. Finally, Downey arrived. "Downer," as Adam Sandler affectionately called him, was actually a great guy. He had a bit of a belly, and he always seemed to have a smile on his face. Downey had written for David Letterman, where, I was told, he had created the Top Ten list, and he had also written for SNL in the 1970s. He was harassing some of the guys as they arrived when suddenly I felt a rumbling in the hallway.
Farley was coming!
When I say I felt a rumbling, it's in no way a reference to Chris's weight. Rather, it's a compliment to his presence. Chris Farley was the most beautiful human being I ever met. When you met Chris, you smiled. You had to. For God's sake, it was involuntary.
From the minute Farley walked into the room, the mood changed. "Ahhh, now we're cookin'," Sandler announced. I stared at Chris and thought about what a dork I would look like if I jumped up from the couch and introduced myself to him. He might have just become my colleague, but I was still a fan. As far as I was concerned, he had reset the bar for funny with the first Motivational Speaker sketch that he and David Spade had done with Christina Applegate, where he hitched up his pants, crossed his eyes, and made her laugh so hard that she had to cover her face with her hair like Cousin It.
Farley and Downey exchanged hugs and then Downey fondly needled Chris. "What have you been doing, Chris? Where have you been? You were supposed to be here." A serious look came across Farley's face and all he could muster was a "huh." "Look at us," Downey prodded. "We're all here. Even the new guy Jay Mohr is here." Downey then pointed at me and said, "Chris, that's Jay Mohr. He's a new writer and featured performer."
Farley looked over at me through a pair of blue-tinted prescription sunglasses. His hair was slicked back and he was wearing a black suit jacket over a starched white shirt. His enormous stomach stretched against an old black belt that held up a pair of blue jeans that hung over a pair of old black combat boots. My first thought was that he looked a little like Jack Nicholson.
He started walking toward me and shouted, "How are ya, young fella?" Then he fake-tripped and landed about a foot in front of me facedown on the floor. Slowly he pulled himself up onto his knees and then buried his face in my crotch and pretended to puke in my lap six or seven times. He sold the puke so hard that even I had to peek to make sure he was just fooling around. Chris looked up at me. His glasses were in my lap. "Oh, man, sorry," he said, wiping his mouth. Not exactly hello.
I looked around and noticed the number of people in the room had doubled. They were all staring at me. No one except for Steve Lookner was laughing. It was very odd. I wasn't sure if they were waiting to see how I would react, or if they were wondering if Chris had actually puked in my lap. I emitted a meek "how ya' doin'," and everyone went back to what they were doing. There was no acknowledgment that a 300-pound guy had just simulated fellatio and vomiting in my lap. Chris rose to his feet and walked away.
Welcome to the big leagues.
• • •
A few days after I arrived at 30 Rock, the SNL cast and writers went on a three-day retreat together. This is something of a tradition, where everyone circles the wagons a week or two before the show starts and heads up into the mountains for some R&R. In the mornings we would play some golf, swim, and shoot some hoops, and in the afternoon we would all meet for writing sessions. The retreat was in upstate New York at a place called Mohonk Mountain House. I had never heard of Mohonk, and I kept thinking everybody was saying Mohawk or My Hunk.
Very early on I noticed that everyone mumbled on the seventeenth floor. No one would look me in the eye or talk to my face either. If someone was walking toward me and I asked him a question, he wouldn't break stride as he answered me. Every conversation I had was with people mumbling something as they blew past me in the hallway. If I asked them what they said, they would shout the same mumble over their shoulder. Everyone seemed to do it to everyone, so I didn't take it personally.
Those who weren't driving their own cars to the retreat were supposed to meet outside the building at noon and ride together on a chartered bus big enough to haul an Alabama church group. At noon, I was still on the N/R subway train. The entire subway ride I knew I was going to miss the bus, miss the trip, and be fired for not having enough class to be on time for my first SNL field trip. Since Sarah Silverman and I were neighbors, we took the subway up together so at least we were both doomed.
At 12:10 P.M., I boarded the bus, panic-stricken about being late. It was empty. Sarah and I were the only ones there. No one else showed up for another hour. For a while we wondered if we were even on the right bus. But one by one people started to wander onto the bus. All of them were writers who I had barely met or not met at all. I didn't even know what half of the writers looked like, so it felt a lot like being on a city bus. People you didn't know were getting on and sitting down. No one really spoke, and I wondered if they thought they were on the wrong bus, too. Finally I saw someone I knew: Norm Macdonald.
Slowly and deliberately, Norm lumbered onto the bus. He looked like a cross between death warmed over and a drug addict who had just woken up. Norm stood at the front of the bus for a while and looked out over all of us. He cleared his throat and announced that he had been sick with food poisoning the night before. He provided the name of the restaurant and positively identified the culprit as an avocado. Then he treated us to a blow-by-blow of the havoc that faulty avocado wrecked on his system.
The first sign of trouble, he explained, came when he was crossing the street after leaving the restaurant and started shitting in his pants. He leaned up against a lamppost and puked and shit in the street until he mustered enough strength to hail a cab. He explained that no cabs would pick him up because they thought he was a crackhead puking and shitting in the street.
After Norm had drained his system, a cab stopped and he told the driver to take him to a hospital. When the cabdriver asked him which hospital, he said he didn't know. Unfortunately, Norm had just moved to New York and didn't know the names of any hospitals, so he told the cabbie to take him to the best possible hospital. Apparently, the cabdriver decided to put his kids through college on Norm's dime and drove him all the way up to Harlem. Norm spent the entire ride telling the cabbie that he wasn't a strung-out druggie, he had just eaten a rotten avocado.
When Norm walked into the emergency room, he was ghostly white and shaking, causing the doctors to immediately put him on a gurney. As they wheeled him down the hall, the doctor kept asking Norm what he was on. Norm said that he kept explaining to everybody that he had food poisoning from an avocado. They pumped his stomach, hydrated him with an IV, and then sent him home.
You could certainly say that Norm was a trouper. He had been up all night vomiting in a hospital in Harlem, and he was still on the bus at one o'clock. I was late, but I didn't almost die from eating an avocado. I merely overslept.
• • •
Mohonk is a huge, stately manor in the Hudson Valley that reminded me of a cruise ship inside a mansion. As I checked in at the registration desk, I looked around and noticed that the average age there was the day before death. It was like a place where Wilford Brimley and Bea Arthur would go to rent a paddleboat -- but then here we came and now Chris Farley was running down the hall with his pants around his ankles and Adam Sandler was whacking his ass with a pool cue from behind while Farley yelled, "Look at me! I'm a horse!"
I was looking forward to becoming one of the guys. I woke up the first morning around 9:00 A.M. and went downstairs to the lobby to hook up with somebody, anybody. It looked like I was the only person in the hotel. I wandered the enormous mansion by myself for an hour, wondering if I was missing an important meeting. It turned out that the people I went up to Mohonk with, specifically the guys I was looking forward to hanging out with, already had their weekends pretty much planned. Spade, Farley, Sandler, and Tim Meadows had gone to play golf. The writers from Harvard went somewhere to do something, and all of the producers had gone somewhere else. Mathematically, it seemed impossible not to at least run into someone from the show that morning, but I didn't.
The next day, I passed Steve Lookner in the mansion and asked him if he wanted to shoot hoops. To my surprise, he accepted. Little did I know, but Lookner was a high school basketball star who had played a lot of intramural hoops at Harvard. The first game we played, he beat me 11-3. The rematch was 11-3. After he schooled me in the third 10-0, I quit. On the final point Lookner threw a move on me and dunked in my face. He wasn't much taller than me, but he could have jumped over the trees if you asked him. I stormed off the court and cursed at him for hustling me. He couldn't believe I was quitting. He offered to spot me some points, which pissed me off even more. I went back to my room and convinced myself I was glad that no one was around and I could be by myself.
Later that night, all the writers and cast members huddled around a television in one of the banquet rooms to watch the premiere of Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Conan had been a writer on SNL for several years, and many of the new guys knew him from Harvard. You could tell from the excitement that Conan was popular when he worked on the show.
After Conan's first episode, everyone in the room broke out into applause and started giving out grades. Someone started out by saying, "I'd give him an A minus." Another person gave him a B plus. Someone generously awarded him an A plus. I have been on Conan's show eight times and have always had a wonderful time. I watch the show often and really enjoy it, but I thought the premiere episode was a disaster. To me, Conan looked really overwhelmed and nervous. I didn't laugh at all the jokes like the other guys. I said to no one in particular, "I give him a C." It was definitely the wrong grade. Everyone in the room looked at me cross-eyed as if to say "Who let this guy in?" and then went back to their conversations. That was the first time I noticed that my sense of humor was very different from that of the other writers.
On the way home from My Hunk, I bummed a ride with Dave Attell. Sarah Silverman, who had gotten the flu, rode along with us. For two hours we drove back to the city in silence. When we reached Manhattan, it was raining. We got out of Dave's car at 30 Rock, but couldn't get up to the offices because none of us had our elevator cards yet. Confused, we all stood in the rain for a while. Then we shrugged our shoulders and went our separate ways.
When I arrived at my apartment, my roommate was sitting on the couch reading a book. He asked me how Mohonk was and I told him it was fantastic. I asked him if he watched Conan. "Yeah," he replied. "I'd give him a C."
Copyright © 2004 Giraffe Productions, Inc. f/s/o Jay Mohr