Secrets of "Saturday Night Live's" writers room: "The pressure was intense, but it was incredible"

The brilliant, funny Christine Zander shares stories of "SNL's" funniest sketches -- and seven years at 30 Rock

Published September 29, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Nearly 30 years ago, Second City alum Christine Zander was asked to audition for “SNL.” Her friend and frequent performing partner Nora Dunn was already on the cast and being kept on for the 1986-87 season, but Lorne Michaels was letting nearly everyone else go, and looking for new talent. Zander flew out to Burbank, did her bit, and … then ended up finding a job bartending.

But a few months later, “SNL” called to offer her a seat in the writers room, headed by Jim Downey. Zander tells Salon that taking that job was one of the great decisions of her life. Though the schedule there was brutal—the work week began Monday afternoon and ran until late Saturday night—and Zander was often one of two women in a roomful of men, she says her seven years at “SNL” were some of her funniest, most creative, artistically liberated of her writing career.

And they’d have to be: She was in a room with writers Al Franken, Rosie Shuster, Bonnie and Terry Turner, Marc Shaiman and Robert Smigel, and writing for cast members like her old pal Dunn, as well as Jan Hooks, Julia Sweeney and Mike Myers, among many others.

Since leaving, Zander has worked consistently for nearly three decades, producing and writing on comedies such as “3rd Rock From the Sun,” “Samantha Who?,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Raising Hope” and, most recently, ABC Family’s “Kevin From Work.”

She spoke with Salon about the first sketch she ever wrote for “SNL,” as well as some of her favorites; recounts her experience being a pregnant woman in a predominantly male writers room; reflects on the possible limitations of being on the cast for too long; and gives us a glimpse into the “SNL” writing process.

Julia Sweeney had the most wonderful things to say about you. You two worked closely together at “SNL,” is that right?

Yes. Julia came in and I was at “SNL” for seven seasons and I think she came in maybe the sixth season? We wrote together. It was so wonderful, so easy and fun. We bonded instantly. She’s just a great person and a great, great writer. And I worked with Nora. In 1986, Al [Franken] and Tom [Davis] came to Chicago looking to audition people [for “SNL”] because that show was such a disaster, with the cast. I didn’t get an audition. I was doing performance and stuff in Chicago.

Were you at Second City?

I studied at Second City and then I was just doing whatever I wanted to. Nora and I used to perform together on different stages in Chicago, different bars and things, doing kind of our own comedy characters. In the 1980s and ’90s in Chicago, you could perform anywhere. I think you still can, too. It’s such a great place to wet your toes and learn a lot. Then “SNL” hired Nora, and in ’87, they needed more people, so I got to audition for the show. They flew me to Burbank and I did eight minutes of original material. Other people were there, like Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks. Probably Lovitz. And I had dinner with Nora and Lorne after the whole deal and Jan got hired. They really made the right choice.

They had you go to Burbank?

Yeah. It was at NBC in Burbank, on the Johnny Carson set. They had people audition there. So I didn’t make it, but they were nice to me. Nora kind of kept the bug in their ear that I existed. Six months later, they called and said, “Do you want to come write?” And I was bartending, so I said, “Yes, yes I DO want to write!” Then that was it. I got there and I learned how to do it. I think Lorne would have been OK with me trying to be on-camera, but for some reason, I just decided that I preferred to cultivate relationships with the cast and write. And I’m glad I did because now it’s my 28th year of being in the Writers Guild and working constantly.

Were there other women in the writers room at that time?

When I got there, the only other female writer was Rosie Shuster. She was lovely, and took me under her wing. But it was mostly all guys. It was smaller when I was there—about 12 writers—and it was the greats: Jim Downey was our head writer and Jack Handey was there. George Meyer and Robert Smigel, Al Franken, Tom Davis, and A. Whitney Brown. And of course the cast wrote—they all collaborated. Shortly after I arrived, Bonnie and Terry Turner came. I became close friends with Jack and Al and Bonnie and Terry, so I wasn’t lonely. We’d all wander into each other’s offices late at night if we needed help or didn’t have any ideas and kind of hopped onto other people’s things. I mean, it was terrifying. It was really emotionally hard and physically hard. It is a young man/woman’s game. I think I ate one meal a day. The pressure was intense, but it was incredible. Now that I look back at it, there’s no anger. There’s no bad feelings. It’s just warm and fuzzy, wonderful. That feeling of how lucky I was to go to what to me was the best university in the world.

That is a grueling schedule, I imagine, going non-stop from Monday afternoon to late Saturday night.

Yeah. I think it might have gotten a little bit more structured now over the last 10 or 15 years, but it was a self-imposed terrible schedule. You didn’t have to start work at 5 on Monday. You didn’t have to come in at 4 on Tuesday. Everything was just on tradition from ’75—this procrastination, and start working late at night and work all night long and it all goes toward the Wednesday table read that you stay up all night for. Three years in, I had a baby, so I think I might have come in a little earlier, but I still stayed up late. It was hard.

I can imagine. I can’t see a place like that being especially family-friendly.

At that point, most of the guys in the cast had children. Al was a big family guy. He had a couple of kids and had been through a lot. I remember when I got pregnant, I waited to tell people until it was safe. Andy Breckman didn’t know yet, and he started to say, “Zander, you shouldn’t get pregnant now. It’s too hard.” We were talking about it somehow, maybe I was talking to Al and then Breckman came in and said, “What are you guys talking about?” “Oh, Zander was talking about getting pregnant.” My terrific memory from that was it spread around the office and everyone was happy, and then a lot of the guys put my name on all of their sketches so it was as if I had written on all of them. So, my experience being pregnant and being a woman on that show was it was pretty great because they had no idea what I was going through so they coddled me. Nobody was mad that I was pregnant. It was just, We don’t know what’s going on with her body so just be really nice to her. [Laughs.] Because they’re all young, except the older guys like Al and Jack. The thing that I did miss was there were a lot of great women that worked behind the scenes too who were very helpful and very considerate. You weren’t working with a lot of women. It was just Rosie and then when Rosie left, it was just Bonnie Turner. And then Marilyn Miller would come and go, but that was it for female writers.

Were there cast members that you would pretty much work with exclusively?

I was really close to Nora because we had been close friends in Chicago so we did a lot of stuff together. And then when we’d get something finished, I’d end up writing with other actors or other writers. I’d wander into Mike Myers’ office. He’d be writing something for himself and I’d help or co-write it with him. Or I’d go just totally conceptual with Jack Handey. It was really kind of collaborative but I did always feel like I needed to work on women’s things because you had to, you should, otherwise not a lot of people would. I’m not saying that men didn’t write for women because they did.

What was your first sketch that you got to air?

It was for Bill Murray and it was about a guy that Jan Hooks had met in a bar and she got totally drunk and slept with him. Basically, she just wakes up and he’s taken over her apartment and her life. He’s spoken to her mother. He set her cat free. He has plans for the future and he’s a nightmare. He’s this freeloading guy. [They’d hooked up] after she’d had one too many margaritas. I might add too that it was 1987, so we could still do fucking in bars. AIDS was there, but we straight people weren’t worrying about it. I always think of that too, because now you can do it, but everyone knows what you have to do to have that kind of sex.

So how do you come to the table on Monday with fresh material, after having just finished late on Saturday night?

You are exhausted, since you’re up late and you only have Sunday off. So at the Monday meeting, everybody’s going, “I have nothing.” Then you go in and you think on your feet and pitch something that just enters your mind that minute and try to get a big laugh. Whether or not you write, it doesn’t matter. A lot of times, people would have some concepts they’d thought about before or if they thought enough about the host and the host was cool or flexible, you could always pitch them doing some impression or something. It was always pretty lame but so ridiculous that you usually laughed. And we all laughed at each other because we wanted to get out of there. We wanted the host to feel comfortable. We never wanted them to feel bad. You try to be as entertaining as possible. Most of the time, I think the hosts were terrified. It wasn’t as if we’d worked on something for 48 hours and pitched an entire sketch. Jack Handey would pitch something like, “There’s a zoo and there’s a really unhappy leopard so he gets an ant to call in his colony to help him escape the zoo.” Everyone would say, “Am I in that?”

Do hosts ever weigh in or want to participate in creating a sketch?

After they have dinner with Lorne—they must still do this—they come back to the office and walk around into each office and check in. And that’s our opportunity to run ideas past them that we’re actually working on. They usually play along and say, “Oh, I’d love to be a riverboat captain and what would I do?” Sometimes they improvise and they’re funny. Other times, they’re just polite. It’s so awkward for them and so hard to do. I gotta say, I think I did 138 shows so I don’t remember anybody being an asshole in those moments when they’re visiting all of us. Nora and I did a sketch called “Attitudes.” That was a great one, if I do say so myself, but we had John Malkovich as our host and he was wonderful. He came in and we told him what we were working on and he was a driftwood artist and he improvised a great deal. He got the character immediately and that was really exciting—it turned out to be a really funny sketch. People put themselves in your hands because Lorne makes them feel comfortable. They know they have to behave because they’re at our mercy.

Did you work with Jan and Nora on the Sweeney Sisters?

When I first got there I would kind of help them. They would write those pretty quickly with Marc Shaiman because it was such a loose setup and mostly about the medley. Mostly the premise, like where were they? A banquet hall. Or a ski lodge. An elevator. So I would only help them out on that.

Who were other people that you worked with? Did you work with Victoria Jackson?

I put Victoria in things. I didn’t really put her as the lead in many things. She’d be in group things. But she has said in different magazines that I had given her the idea for the song “I’m Not a Bimbo,” which I’m very grateful for, it was very sweet. I did go up to her because everyone was complaining about her being a bimbo and I said why don’t you write a song called I’m not a bimbo? “Thank you Christine! That’s great!” [Said in a perfect Victoria Jackson voice.]

You sound just like her! She’s astonishing.

[Laughs] When she was on the show she was just a born-again and there really was nothing political she would speak on.

Well, we didn’t have a black president then.

Yeah, right. She didn’t care about that stuff at that point, except she did care about God. But she wasn’t that preachy when I was there. Frankly, since I didn’t feel like I had a handle on what I could do for her professionally or for her comedy, I wouldn’t engage. She would occasionally give us tapes that had some kind of born-again Christian speaker on it, but she was so jealous of Jan and Nora, there would be really ridiculous, hilarious fights where she would just accuse them of being the devil and stuff. I just kind of stayed out of that. I mean, she wasn’t abusive and she wasn’t insane at that point. It’s just so weird. God, seeing her at the 40th reunion was just awkward because the hate people have for her is palpable. She just looks crushed and weird when she’s in that crowd, she doesn’t look happy—it’s just not good.

You’d left by the time Sarah Silverman came on the cast, yes?

We were just ships passing in the night. I just remember that she was really young and she always wanted to do an Update piece about her vagina and nobody would let her.

Gee, what a surprise.

I think she’s a genius. It was the wrong place for her to be. She was great.

People like her and Jenny Slate, who famously got fired from “SNL,” then went on to do just fine.

Yeah, it doesn’t mean death anymore when you’re fired from there. I think more people become more successful and that’s because there are people who are wrong for the show but are really right for something else, they’re just so talented. Ben Stiller was there a short amount of time. It is a strange structure and it’s a strange place politically, so if you’re not right for that, you just can’t stay there. Michaela Watkins—brilliant and a great writer, and it just didn’t work out. For me, it just taught me a great deal. I think it’s harder for actors. I just think that that’s where true competition is. It’s stressful, week after week, wanting to get your stuff to air, seeing how many of your sketches get to air. As a performer, that’s what you do. Whereas as a writer, if you find yourself getting shafted every week, it would be extremely difficult and just crushing to your ego and you just feel like, “OK, well I guess my sense of humor does not really gel with the voice of the show.” That’s the message being sent.

But also, for a couple seasons they overbooked the plane. There were just too many people in the cast clamoring for airtime. I would think it was like, not to mix metaphors here, survival of the fittest.

Yeah, and the thing is too, I’ve always felt that being in the cast can be damaging if you want a career in movies. Not if you’re a guy, that usually works out, because you’ll do your silly guy movies if you’re funny enough. But because, it seems like it’s important that you have a persona that is relatable and real. What’s so genius about how Tina Fey managed her career was she did very few sketches and did the news, and then used it as a springboard to be a comedic actress and create her own roles where she isn’t a big broad character. Do you know what I mean? Like Phil Hartman, the genius that he was, was always in character, so he never was going to get a dramatic role or even a straight role in a comedy because he was never Phil Hartman in any of those things. Bill Murray—the most genius guy—there was always a Bill Murray persona that people fell in love with, that he was able to pick and choose after Ghostbusters, because financially he was doing so well, and do independent films where he’s cast in things nobody would think of him for.

Like when he did “Razor’s Edge,” he demonstrated that he had dramatic acting chops and people saw how versatile he was.

Right and then he goes away and then he comes back and he does “Rushmore.”

And Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.”

So they’re tiny and they don’t pay, but that doesn’t matter. They’re not Adam Sandler box office. When I was there, I think a lot of cast members felt like if they stayed longer than five years, they were a failure because it was supposed to be a springboard after five to greater things. But then people like Phil Hartman, who was such a utilitarian player, so necessary, and the king of the show, knew it was a great gig, and was paid well. But a lot of people felt like they had to get out after five. They knew they were ready or they knew they had some opportunities. As writers, it seemed like a lot of people stuck around. We all stuck around about seven or so years.

That’s a brutal schedule to endure for so long, but I can also see how infectious it would be, like how hard it would be to give up. You’d get a kind of Stockholm Syndrome maybe.

Well I was from Chicago. I’d visited L.A. once. I never watched sitcoms, I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. I moved because, I had a child and then my husband got a job in L.A. He was a writer too. I’m divorced now, but he’s a writer. So just thought well I’m going to move to California and I have to, because that’s where the writing jobs are for him. And I thought well what am I going to do now, I don’t think I’m going to write sitcoms. Then I ended up getting involved in those and the rest is history. And now looking back, “SNL” was the most artistically free place I’ve ever been. You wrote what you wanted and it got on or it didn’t. You didn’t get notes that said “You can’t say this, you can’t say that.” We had a head writer who would actually make your thing funnier. Jim was great with recognizing different voices, he would know what you were trying to attempt. Not every head writer has that kind of gift. You’re lucky if you have that, because a lot of people want it to sound the way they sound. And Lorne would just be “I don’t like that joke or you really think that works, too long, take that out.” He’d give those notes in between dress and air. Or he just wouldn’t like your sketch and then it wouldn’t get on. He’s not going to explain everything to you about why he doesn’t like it. So then you just go into your room and cry.

That would be hard.

Out here [in L.A.], from the very inception, people are telling you what to do. There [at “SNL”], you say I want to do a sketch about a woman who married her cat, everybody laughs and they expect to see it. They don’t tell you, how you gonna do that? Why is she going to marry a cat? There’s no question.

Once you’ve been in the trenches there, you gotta be such a fast-thinking deft writer. I mean anything would seem like a walk in the park after that. You’re ready for anything.

Yeah. You are and as far as the adrenaline and the nerves and the lack of sleep and the emotional rollercoaster of a week of live television, you come out here and it’s like, When am I going to get nervous, excited, or when am I going to feel horrible? And you do, I mean it’s kind of a rollercoaster in half-hour TV too, but it’s only about 30 percent of what you get there. And then if you’re doing the single-camera stuff, which most of us have been doing now for the last six or seven years, not exciting, it’s like a movie, slow and tedious. But it’s funny, not live TV with lots of jokes.

What are your favorite sketches that you worked on?

My favorites? Well, “Attitudes” was a favorite. And I always loved working on the “Pat” sketches with Julia. She created that, but we wrote a lot of those together. There was one I did with Julia that was a parody of a 1960s movie, that we called “Their Eyes Evolved to Be on Their Breasts.” Do you remember that?

Yes, I do. It was really brilliant. You guys managed to do a lot of really great feminist sketches during a particularly dude-bro era of Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider. So to have the counter-balance of Nora and Jan and Julia ....

Yeah, well Nora’s stuff was always so smart and her characters are so different than characters that people do. They are very feminist and they’re very smart, and her joke writing for her characters is really brilliant, it’s not stuff you see very often. I did a sketch, one of the first things I did the first couple of years I was there, Jack and I wrote a sketch called “Bean Cafe,” it was just set ups to fart jokes that were never paid off, and Tom Hanks did it. So it was things like “You know what is silent, but deadly,’ and it was about a spider, it wasn’t about a fart. It was just eight fart jokes never realized. We loved it. There was another sketch that I did with Bonnie and Terry Turner and what I love about this was we laughed so hard writing it and we started writing it at 4 a.m. It was with Christina Applegate where she played Cher. It was an infomercial called “Focus on Beauty,” hawking Lori Davis’s shampoo and conditioner. Remember when they’d do those infomercials about that kind of stuff and it’d may be be about 15 minutes long?

Yes, really late at night, right?

Yeah, after midnight and Cher did one, it was with her and her sister, her best friend and this Lori Davis—Chris Farley played her. She was a large blond lady. I just watched it recently son loves it, and the hook for it was there is no alcohol in the product and it’s so exciting. I walked into their office and asked, “Hey, do you want to do this?” And we were immediately on the same page. We start laughing and then we just wrote it down. And it was so funny because when I knew Christina was coming, I always thought she could do it and everybody thought I was crazy. She thought I was crazy, but she did a really fine job. I later worked with her on “Samantha Who?” and when I first saw her on set, she said, “You made me do Cher!’

It must be really fun, as the hours tick on and you enter that punchy phase.

The punchy phase was fantastic. It worked for all of us. I don’t think I wrote anything incredibly funny unless it was after 3 a.m. And now I can’t stay up past midnight working, I want to cry.

So many of these jokes and sketches are part of the culture, the lexicon, really.

I’ve always been blown away by people that know really obscure sketches. Because everybody responds to the recurring characters. I can think of things that Robert Smigel wrote that are really history-making, like “Get a Life with Shatner,” “Talking to the Nerds,” and things like that. When I’ve met somebody that remembers a sketch like “Green Hilly,” something I did with Jack Handey with Alec Baldwin and it was the ’40s and they’re playing tennis and he and Jan run in and he kisses everything and then finally kisses her, like he kisses a dog, he kisses a butler, and it’s just ridiculous, but then you think Oh my God, you like that specific sense of humor, that specific weird ass thing that we did, that’s incredible. That gives you the will to live. When we realize that it’s making somebody else feel really good, that’s so powerful.

By Kera Bolonik

Kera Bolonik, a writer, critic, and editor, is the executive editor of DAME Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Elle, Glamour, New York magazine, Salon, Slate, and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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