Gary Kroeger and Jim Belushi at 30 Rock, with their cast photo from the 1984-85 season of "SNL" (GaryHasIssues.com)

My amazing "SNL 40" backstage: Reuniting with Eddie, Billy, Marty Short, Odenkirk and more -- with cameos from Paul McCartney and Sarah Palin

I spent three seasons on "SNL," so reunions are fun but anxiety-producing. This one, I saw through my son's eyes


Gary Kroeger
February 22, 2015 10:30PM (UTC)
Originally published on Gary Kroeger's blog, Gary Has Issues

Last weekend I went to the "SNL" 40th reunion.  I had two Willy Wonka Golden Tickets to the biggest event on earth (that weekend, at least) and I took my 15-year-old son, Chris.  To summarize what I will soon detail, it was the time of our lives.

This wasn’t my first "Saturday Night Live" reunion.  I went to a 15th anniversary show and the 25th, and they were big deals, to be sure, but nothing like this one.  I’ve never been given any attention on any of them and nothing I did on the show ever gets shown, but I go to see old friends and admittedly I get misty seeing the hallways which were once a crucible for my career dreams, and so I go.

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I have a very clear perspective of my "SNL" career and I harbor no ill will toward the experience; in fact, if anything, I am critical of myself for not figuring out how to emerge from a show that is a one-way ticket to stardom.

But, I can also forgive my friendly Iowa nature for not being able to navigate those sometimes dangerous waters. The shadow of Eddie Murphy loomed large and there wasn’t enough wattage in the universe to support another star like him, and truth be told, the entire Ebersol era was not a time to nurture a neophyte like me.

I credit Dick Ebersol for identifying the talent of Murphy and also Joe Piscopo (the hardest working talent there) and for keeping the show alive.  Later he hired Billy Crystal and Marty Short to achieve that same end.  And in retrospect (and at the time, as well) I was thrilled to be in their company.

Even after a show where I had nothing to do I could say, “I’m being paid nicely to live in New York City and now and again I get to be on TV.”

That, in the scheme of things, doesn’t suck.

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And now here I am back at 30 Rock with my teenage son and about to walk down the Red Carpet….

The Red Carpet was like nothing I’d ever seen before.  Except for glimpses on "Entertainment Tonight," I had no idea what to expect.  I handed a nice young woman our “special” credentials, she whispered my name to a guy with a dry erase board who then proceeded to write “Gary Kroeger” and show it to the row of photographers.

I was given, with my son, a cue to start walking the carpet.  In front of me was Tom Hanks and Billy Crystal and so I was surprised when I heard, “Gary!  Over here!  Up here!” and rows of flashes went off.

What happens is that you hit a small mark on the carpet and when that gallery of photographers have their shot, you move about three feet to the next marker and repeat the process.  There are about five marks to hit before you are finally through the venue.  I felt a little embarrassed actually, but I looked over at my son and saw the coolest 15-year-old kid on the planet soaking it in.

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Once through, we proceeded to the pre-show party.  If I had to choose one event alone on this evening, this would have been it.  As soon as we walked up the stairs, we saw Mike Myers.  I extended my hand and said, “Hi, Mike, Gary Kroeger” and he beamed and said, “Yes, of course, we met at the last one of these.”

I was flattered to say the least.  I introduced my son, who shook his hand, and as we walked away, Chris, said to me, “Dad!  I just met Shrek!”

“And Austin Powers and Dr. Evil,” I reminded him.

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No sooner had we walked into the main bar area when we noticed the Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli, standing alone in a corner.  I thought to myself, “This is never going to happen again” and so I pulled my son by his lapel and walked right up to them.

I extended my hand.  “Gary Kroeger and this is my son, Chris.”

Peyton Manning gave me a firm shake and said, “I’m Peyton Manning and this is my brother, Eli.”

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Really?

The humility of their nature was apparent.  Two southern gentlemen who never assume that they are special.  Of course I wanted to ask Payton about next season, but this is one where everyone feels safe from the scrutiny of media and adoring fans and I wisely chose not to.

No sooner did we say our farewell to the Mannings when Bob Odenkirk appeared.

“Bob, Gary Kroeger” as my hand thrust forward again.  I have a reflex where I always do that in order to avoid an awkward ”and….you are….?” moment.

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“Gary!  Yes!  How are you?”

I looked at my son, a huge "Breaking Bad" fan, and saw his appreciation of the moment.  Bob was genuinely thrilled when I told him how much I love “Better Call Saul” and we even exchanged emails.  A nicer guy there has never been.

An announcement was made that it was time to head toward Studio 8-H because seating was about to begin.  Chris and I headed toward the elevators when emerging from a small coterie was Eddie Murphy.

Again, the hand thrusts forward.

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“Eddie, Gary Kroeger.”

“Kroegs!  How’ve you been!  It’s been like 30 years!”

“Eddie, I’ve been great.  This is my son, Chris.”

“How ya doin’, Chris?  Nice to meet you.”

A few more pleasantries and Chris and I moved toward the elevators.

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“Dad!  I just met Donkey!”

“And all of the Klumps,” I reminded him.

We turned to the elevators and Paul Rudd was right on top of us.

“Paul.  You went to college with my ex-wife’s brother.  Matthew Bailey.”

“Matty!  Oh my God!”

I glanced over at my son to be sure if he was connected to this moment, and his smile said it all.  He had the “It’s Paul Rudd and we’re talking to him” look on his face.

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Paul Rudd is one of the most down to earth celebrities you will ever meet.  Chris said to me as we exited toward the elevators, “He is exactly the guy I hoped he would be.”

Once on the studio floor, we stepped out into what was an all-too-familiar hallway for three years of my life, and Jim Belushi seemed to appear from nowhere.

“Kroeger!”

“Hey, Jim!”

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Years ago, Jim had approached me in a restaurant in L.A. and said, “Hey, I’m sorry I was such a dick at 'SNL.'”

Well…he was kind of a dick, but I knew that he was being sincere and any resentment I may have felt toward him and his…ever-present ambition….melted away.  Now it was just two old friends looking for the cast pictures in the hallway for our years.  We found one and posed together.

Just before the entrance to Studio 8-H is a hallway to the right where the dressing rooms are located.  I decided that I wanted to see mine.  I had inherited it from Garrett Morris, and Chris Farley from me.  The 30 Rock from my era was the same 30 Rock that was built in the 1930s, but now everything was remodeled and very contemporary.  Nevertheless, I knew the space and peeked inside.  I saw the wall where I once threw a chair out of frustration after all my sketches were cut.

I kept that remembrance to myself.

Chris and I turned back to go to the stage and in front of us was Fred Armisen.  Out came the hand, but before I could say, “Fred, Gar-” he cut me off.

“It’s so great for you to be here,” he said.  “That really means a lot.”

I looked at him quizzically.

“You were my cast,” he continued.  “You were the cast I grew up watching, wanting to be part of this.  It means so much to me that you are here.”

Boom.  This moment was indelibly imprinted onto my consciousness.  It had never occurred to me that I was noticed by people that I admire today.

Once inside, we were shown our seats.  To get there we walked by Jack Nicholson. Christopher Walken, Donald Trump, Taylor Swift, Kristen Wiig, Paul Simon.  We were seated next to David Koechner of “Anchorman” fame who gave us a big (Whammy!) hello.

I whispered into David’s ear that my son was a big fan and David, without missing a beat, launched into a tirade about how he could only get one ticket and now “You are in my wife’s seat!”

He proceeded to try and occupy my son’s space in order to feel more included.  Chris was keen to the bit and grinned ear to ear.

Another one of life’s truly nice people.

The show…was the show.  Some parts were good, some were great.  Some were….why?  Three and a half hours is a long time even if you’re getting a foot massage and I could have left after “Celebrity Jeopardy,” but my son was enjoying every second.  I mean, Larry David was just in front of him, Matt Lauer was to his right.  Bill Murray was singing the theme from “Jaws,” so what’s not to enjoy?

For me, there is one thing that’s a little difficult at these anniversary shows and that’s the fact that I want to be part of it.  I want to be on that stage making this crowd laugh.  There is a tinge of jealousy toward those who earned that privilege, and it is then, and only then, that I wish I’d been more aggressive back in the day.

For the last two minutes of the show, though, every cast member was asked to come to the stage for the goodnights.  I hesitated…and then I ran onto the stage.  I was suddenly with a swarm of the most famous people on earth.  Billy Crystal was the first that I saw and he said, “Kroeger, I hear you’re running for office!”

Wow.  News spreads fast.

Then came Marty Short who said the same thing.

I looked to my right as the familiar goodnight music began and was face to face with Sir Paul McCartney.

I thrust out my hand….

“Sir, I’ve waited 50 years to shake your hand.

He smiled and replied, “Well, it’s about time, then” and he took my hand.

What a great, glib, Beatle-esque thing to say, I thought to myself.  I could tell that he was willing to engage in a conversation, but my edit function kicked in. “What hasn’t he heard?” I thought.

I considered for a second doing my Ed Sullivan impression of their first introduction in 1964 (which I have done since that first introduction in 1964), but the moment passed, Dana Carvey moved in and the two of them started playing air guitar.

I worked with Ringo on the show in 1985 and I was perfectly satisfied with having met two of four Beatles.  Not bad for a kid from Iowa.

At the coat check was Jim Breuer and his wife and they graciously offered that we share their limo to the after-party at the Plaza Hotel.  My son has now flown first class to New York, been to the biggest "SNL" show ever, and is going in a limousine to the Plaza where McCartney, Taylor Swift and Jimmy Fallon will eventually get onstage to sing.

Not bad for a kid from Iowa.

We get inside to the most opulent event I could ever imagine and worked our way into the main room.  There was Joe Piscopo and Don Novello at the bar.

“Kroeger!  I hear you’re running for office!  You should come do my radio show!” said Joe.

Joe was great on "SNL" and I loved him.  He always included me and here he was, 30 years later, including me again.

But here’s the defining moment of the evening for me.  My son and I are talking to Andy Breckman, one of the great SNL writers, when in walks Sarah Palin.

Andy said, “I know Governor Palin, let me introduce you!”

“No!” I said.  “Absolutely not.  What would I say to her?”

“C’mon, I want you to meet her, ” Andy insisted.

“No! I have said and written terribly critical things about her. This is a party and there is no reason for–”

“Governor Palin, this is Gary Kroeger from "SNL."  He’s a Democrat who might run for Congress.”

(Thanks a lot, Andy)

“A Democrat, huh?” came the familiar Alaskan/twangy accent. “They’re not all bad.”

She smiled a very warm smile and we shook hands.

“Governor, it is very nice to meet you.”

“And who is this fine looking young man?” she inquired, reaching for my son’s hand.

Chris didn’t need dad to do his introductions anymore and he returned the greeting.

“I’m Chris Kroeger and I’m here with my dad.  A real pleasure to meet you.”

Governor Palin introduced us to the people she was with and at no time looked around to see who else might be in the room; she was 100 percent committed to this conversation.

We talked about our kids.  She asked me about my consideration for Congress and I offered this:  “Governor, we may disagree on several issues, but I’ll bet there are a lot of things we have in common.”

She chimed right in:  “We love our families, don’t we?”

“And we love America and our home states, too,” I replied.

“We sure do.  I wish more people could see things that way.”

“Governor, I think we’re all a bit lazy.  I think that government, and the electorate, are afraid of the hard work and like to rely on shortcuts to find answers.  I think we could sit down and talk about what we agree on, what we disagree on, and stay in the room until we solve some issues. I’ll bet we could all try harder to find common ground.”

Governor Palin looked at me and I sensed that she wished she had said that first.  I saw her eyes log the idea into the back of her brain.  She then looked at my son.

“Chris, you’ll do well.  You have a good father.”

We said our goodbyes.

When we decided the evening should end, we worked our way out, running into Tim Kazurinsky and writers from our day, Barry Blaustein, David Sheffield and Pam Norris.  Jim Carrey was just coming in and as he posed with my son for a picture there was a tap on my shoulder.  It was Ellen and Steve Higgins.

Steve, of course, is an SNL writer and Jimmy Fallon’s side kick on the "Tonight Show."

“Gary!  Hi!,” said Ellen, “Isn’t this an amazing Iowa connection out here?”

“Yes, it is.  How great to see you guys.  Steve, I am thrilled at what you’re doing at 'SNL' and the 'Tonight Show.'”

“Yeah, it’s quite a ride.  Hey, I’d love to get together next time we’re in Waterloo.”

(Ellen is from Waterloo)

Yeah…being from Iowa is okay.

As my recollection of this adventure comes to an end, the epilogue to this story is actually the prologue.  I had been asked to appear on “Up With Steve Kornacki” on MSNBC that morning, before any of the SNL festivities.  The story of another SNL alum-turned politician (on the heels of Senator Al Franken) was a pretty decent angle that had been getting some press.  In fact, Senator Franken was on the show the week before.

The interview with Steve was short and sweet, but it was fun and I enjoyed it.  My son sat behind me in the studio and apparently he was tweeting about the experience.

I only saw the tweet the other day.  It read: “Proud, inspired, awestruck.  These are all words that describe me watching my dad this morning.”

No, son.  It is your father who is so proud of you.  Finally, I became the biggest star of the biggest show, because you were there to see it with me.


Gary Kroeger

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