When you're "SNL’s" "weird" end-of-the-show guy, "You’re counting how many [sketches] you got on that year, hoping not to get let go"

Salon talks to alum Mike O'Brien about lost SNL sketches, writing for the "5 to 1" and how Lorne still has his back

Published October 24, 2015 10:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Charles Sykes)
(AP/Charles Sykes)

There are a lot of types of comedy found on “Saturday Night Live.” There’s the acerbic cultural commentary of Weekend Update and the ripped-from-the-headlines political satire that often dominates the show's cold opening. There are the more broad, character-driven sketches that tend to take up the bulk of the show. And then there are what’s known as the “five to one” sketches — those surreal, high-concept ideas that air in the show's final minutes, where the biggest risks are taken, and where the most bizarre and bold comedic ideas get their chance to come to fruition.

Mike O’Brien is a five-to-one type of guy. During his time at “SNL” — where he spent five years as a writer and one as a featured player — he produced some of the most memorable and unusual segments in recent memory: absurdist, avant-garde digital shorts from “Bugs" to “Grow a Guy,” to his beautifully bizarre Jay Z biopic which earned him many devoted fans (Lorne Michaels included) and a couple of people who just didn't get it (hey, there's always a few).

As he tells Salon: "I remember a couple of times I tried to write a CNN cold opener to the show. Like, 'I should be able to do this too, I’m not just the weird end-of-the-show guy.' They didn’t go well. I am just the weird end-of-the show guy."

Of course, O'Brien is much more than that. The comic left the show at the beginning of this season — although he says he may return to do some videos — but he already has some stuff in the works that we're pretty excited about. First up on his roster is a comedy album called "Tasty Radio," an old-school compilation of audio sketches in the vein of early Adam Sandler and Nichols and May, featuring high-profile contributors like Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen and Scarlett Johansson (you can listen to the first one below). He's also planning on more “7 Minutes in Heaven” videos, the viral series that built him a massive following even before he took the “SNL” stage, where he spends seven minutes cramped in a closet with various celebrities and seals the encounter with a kiss.

We caught up with O’Brien via phone from L.A., where he is working on developing comedy pilots with the ongoing support of Lorne Michaels, to talk about "Tasty Radio," comedy writing and life beyond Studio 8H.

Can you tell me a little bit about how the concept for "Tasty Radio" came about?

I grew up listening to Adam Sandler albums and then later I found out about Nichols and May and all those, so it was in the back of my mind as something that would be cool to do. Then, my first year of writing for "SNL" in 2009 and 2010, I had all these leftover sketches, and other friends I’d made them with and I were all hanging out in New York that summer, so I asked Lorne if I could round up these people and make a comedy album. And he said yes.

We both admitted we don’t quite know what [a comedy album] is now, if it’s going to be online or in an actual physical album. I wasn’t even positive when I started if they were going to be physical  vinyl records and stuff. I wasn’t quite sure of what I was getting into, so [it was] just a fun side thing. It was an excuse to do some performing and to use some things that hadn't found a home at "SNL" or Second City in Chicago.

Do you and Lorne have a good relationship?

Yeah, we do have a good relationship, and he’s great about supporting side things. If you’ve got a specific vision and if you know what you’re doing with it and all that, then I think he likes that, he certainly supports it. So it’s very cool.

You have a bunch of "SNL" alums on “Tasty Radio” – Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader — as well as more high-profile names like Scarlett Johansson. Can you talk about how you got those people involved?

The "SNL" friends were all just because we’re around each other at work all day and I generally tried to ask people who I’d collaborated with in writing the sketches or who the writers had in mind to perform, so I asked those people first. Scarlett was more because she knows all those other cast members. She’s hosted enough that now she’s friends with those older "SNL" casts and writers that have been around for a while. I asked her through that circle of friends.

So it’s a lot of sketches that were written for "SNL" originally and just didn’t make the cut?

At least a third of the album is that. A lot of it is just kind of side, random things that I’ve had a long time or things that are just a bit more audio-based. Once I started thinking of ideas and eliminating the visual aspect of being able to see a sketch, some just popped out as perfect for the album and others were immediately eliminated.

This idea of a comedy album isn’t done much anymore. Why did you choose this route instead of, say, a series of viral videos?

One thing was my love of the tradition of it, and another was that I find viral videos really hard to make outside of "SNL." This was so much faster and easier and cheaper. Yet in my mind, a lot of these sketches came just as much to fruition as if they had been on video. There wasn’t a downgrade in having audio only.

What was behind the decision to leave the “SNL” writing staff this season?

Mostly trying to work on and hopefully sell a cable show or something out in L.A., still with Broadway [Video] and Lorne.

It seems Lorne is really still continuing to support your career.

Absolutely, yeah. There’s a chance that I may go back and make some more of the videos that I was making [for “SNL”] if we can find the right timing and the right host for the ideas and so on. He’s supportive and is continuing [to be] so.

Are we going to get any more “7 Minutes in Heaven?”

I think so, yeah. I’m just starting to get back to asking people. I like how [Zach] Galifianakis has his occasional “Between Two Ferns” [episode], and it’s kind of a fun thing to get excited for when it comes out. I’d love to do like that once in a while. Forever, maybe! I don’t know if it would get weird if I’m a 90-year-old in a closet, but I guess it started out a little weird.

As a shorter answer, I’m hoping to do some more soon.

That’s awesome. Do you have a dream guest?

Will Ferrell is someone I admire so much, and I think would be so much fun in it. And it would be so much fun having someone taller than me in such a squashed space, where I’m usually lurking over someone.

I read this quote from Bill Hader about how “SNL” writers are given this piece of advice that there’s a Venn diagram of what you find funny as a writer versus what the “SNL” audience finds funny, and your job is to hit that space in between. And he was saying he really admired you as a writer because you didn’t pander to what you thought audiences would find funny. You just ran with your own sense of humor. Do you think that that’s a fair assessment?

[Laughs.] Well, it’s flattering. Bill has always been so nice to me. I would say it was initially because I couldn’t. It wasn’t a choice, I didn’t have the mainstream hard joke-writing skills coming out of the slightly more artistic-leaning Chicago improv scene. I didn’t have a lot of background in stand-up. I couldn’t have written a good joke for, say, Weekend Update, when I first arrived. And so I just kind of did what I do, which was writing scenes that were a little weirder. Then it has become more of a choice, even though I’ve developed those skills.

I do like hearing people laugh. The goal is not awkward silence forever. But I don’t mind it a little bit.

You had a year where you were a featured player in addition to being a writer. Can you talk a little bit about that experience?

It had probably less of the emotional swings that people have in their first year as a featured player at “SNL” because I’d had four years of writing, knew the building, knew the people. So it wasn’t as overwhelming as it must be for some people. But I’d still say it was a lot. It was a whole new type of uncomfortableness and tension building on Friday and Saturday that you don’t quite get if you’re standing off-set outside the camera.

It was extremely fun. It was a lot of things, but mostly really fun. It was cool to really get to live on the inside of that, see what it’s like to do weird 5 a.m. video shoots an hour outside of the city and all the little things you’re not involved in sometimes as a writer.

Your comedy has a more absurd, avant-garde vein to it, which some people love but others find less accessible. Do you think that there is a certain kind of comedy that just doesn’t work on “SNL”?

I don’t think so. It is an interesting question that I feel like we could debate or discuss for hours. Because it is harder to get things [on air] that are a little bit more odd. But the examples throughout the years would say that you can. Certainly Fred Armisen and a lot of people, have accomplished some of the weirdest stuff ever. And the Mr. Bill claymation. There are many recent examples, too.

What we used to call the five-to-one sketches -- 12:55 a.m. is when they would be airing. Those are still very present every week; on Wednesday’s table reads there’s a whole bunch of them. Because there are a ton of writers there with very weird sensibilities and other staff support it and will laugh if it’s working. It does have a little bit of a hard time with that 8 o’clock dress rehearsal audience, but they get through still.

So I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule where you have to go more mainstream. Lorne probably appreciates people doing what he hired them to do; the reason they stood out in their own hometown was not because they were doing something for the mainstream. So you don’t want to lose whatever that was. But it can also be hard because you’re counting how many [sketches] you got on that year, hoping not to get let go. It’s hard not to give into the temptation a bit.

I remember a couple of times I tried to write a CNN cold opener to the show. Like “I should be able to do this too, I’m not just the weird end-of-the-show guy.” They didn’t go well. I am just the weird end-of-the show guy.

Is there any part of you that wishes you were going to be there for election season?

No. [Laughs.] I got to be there for an election and I felt like that aspect of the show I was watching from the outside, because my brain just doesn’t work like that.

Seth Meyers, my old boss, can crank out a hilarious take on the debate right after the debate ends, but I could be at it for weeks, and be like, “I don’t know, should we have the podium catch fire?” And they’d be like no, that’s not a take on what happened, you’ve got to read about immigration stuff. And I’d go “I’m not going to read about that!”

What do you think about Trump hosting?

Well, he hosted before. It would be interesting to go back and watch. It was before I worked there. I just remember one sketch, I think John Lutz had him in a big pizza costume. But will he be good? I don’t know. My favorite hosts are always comedians, I’ll say that. And when people are hosting a comedy show and they’re not a comedian -- I think it is cool that "SNL" does that and should always have that -- but as a comedy nerd, I’m always excited for the next upcoming comedian or famous actor, and excited to put them in these comedic scenarios, [especially if] they’ve also played these famous straight roles like Robert De Niro or Jude Law. So yeah, I think Trump will be fine, but not as good as Will Ferrell.

During your time on “SNL,” you were really known for your videos, and nowadays it seems like a lot of the most memorable segments are pre-taped. Do you think that the nature of “SNL” fundamentally changed in the post-Lonely Island era, now that the live sketches are increasingly competing with pre-taped footage? Is the live stuff being crowded out?

That’s an interesting one. I’m not sure. Election years definitely bring it more back to the live show. But, yes, the Lonely Island guys definitely changed the ways that Lorne and the producers look at the running order and say, “We definitely want some video pieces in this.” Or “every episode, do we have a couple of good video pieces we’re excited about,” whereas before I assume that was less mandatory. Now, there’s got to be some of that. And they have great directors and crew standing by.

But I think of course it’s always got to be a live show and that’s what makes it unique from other great shows, like “Portlandia” or “Key and Peele,” it’s that liveness that is so important. It’s been neat watching it from L.A. after six years of not missing a show in the building. I’m watching it here and it feels like an exciting night is happening, with all my friends back in New York, and that’s the feeling I probably had when I was 15 watching it too. The excitement vibe of "SNL" is more important than videos.

Do you have any particularly memorable stories or moments from your time on the show?

I’ve got a ton. Hmm... don’t want to do that one. I’ll come out with another round of them when I’m for sure never going to see anyone again. So I guess on my deathbed? [Laughs].

But just being at the show, running around, is so fun. Quick-change is when an actor has to go fully from one moment to the next with just a commercial break, so like two minutes. And there’s hair and makeup that just surround you and your clothes are being ripped off and new ones put on and your wig is being ripped off and a new one glued on, so it’s just like 10 hands around. So it’s very cool. That’s just an adrenaline rush that I think you can get addicted to, it’s so exciting from every department. A million of those types of moments, I’ll have those forever.

Any specific "SNL 40" recollections?

It was a great night. Everything was just surreal and it was too much. There were too many famous people in one room. I did get to go up to Jay Z and tell him I played him in a biopic we made. And it was definitely clear that he hadn’t seen it yet and had no idea what I could mean by that. But I assumed he had seen it because it had been a couple of weeks and I figured some assistant had shown it to him or something. But he just kind of smiled and nodded and I kept going, “I played you, man! I’m Mike! I played you! I was you!” And he was like, “Okay, alright.”

He was like, "what are you talking about?"

Yeah, like: “What? How?!”

By Anna Silman

MORE FROM Anna Silman

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Comedy Editor's Picks Lorne Michaels Mike O'brien Saturday Night Live Snl Tasty Radio Video