"Everybody wants the picture”: Why Kevin Nealon learned to draw caricatures when comedy clubs closed

The comedian reflects on his "SNL" era and how his drawing hobby became a book of celebrity caricatures

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 10, 2022 3:00PM (EST)

Drawings by Kevin Nealon from his book "I Exaggerate: My Brushes with Fame"  (Abrams Books)
Drawings by Kevin Nealon from his book "I Exaggerate: My Brushes with Fame" (Abrams Books)

"I knew I wouldn't become a star ever," says comedian Kevin Nealon.

That might sound like self-deprecation for someone who spent nine seasons as a "Saturday Night Live" cast member and Weekend Update anchor, who spent seven seasons on "Weeds," who has a brand new season of his YouTube series "Hiking with Kevin" out now and is performing standup all over the country.

But in a nearly 50-year career in comedy and acting, Nealon has nonetheless crafted a durable stardom on his own terms. Along the way, he's also chronicled his adventures through his drawings, sketching everybody from fellow airline travelers to superstars. Now, for his new book, "I Exaggerate: My Brushes with Fame," he's created a visual memoir of caricatures and reminiscences, featuring the likes of Robin Williams, David Letterman, Chris Rock, Steve Martin and Tiffany Haddish

Nealon joined me recently on "Salon Talks" for a conversation about comedy and controversy, why it's never too late to be a beginner, and the "SNL" veterans he thinks were the "most amazing" players. Watch our interview here or read a transcript of the interview below.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Were you mad when other people broke your "SNL" record for most seasons, Kevin?

No, it made me happy that I did the right thing by staying a long time. A lot of people left quickly because they were frustrated and they wanted to become a star overnight. I knew I wouldn't become a star ever. So I stayed there a long time.

You started out as a self-taught artist, but you've actually taken a course so you could create the art in this book. After a lifetime of drawing on napkins, drawing on vomit bags on planes, why did you want to take your art to a different level and do this book?

I've spent my whole life doodling and drawing and I never really focused on it to the point where I would really commit to it and color it in and all that stuff. I've been doing drawings on napkins and airplane barf bags, hopefully empty barf bags, of the passengers next to me, usually when they're sleeping. I never show those people the pictures, but I do put their seat number on there and the flight number. I would also draw pictures of my friends or comics on stage. Everybody wants the picture. No matter how bad it is, they would want the picture. 

"I don't think there's anything more terrifying than getting on stage and looking for laughs."

When I turned 60, I decided I would start really focusing on the things I talked about for a long time, but I never did. One of them was drawing and painting and doing caricatures. The other was learning Spanish. So I take that twice a week now. I would follow these different illustrators and artists on Instagram, and about a year before the pandemic I saw this one guy, Paul Moyse, and I really liked his style. He was giving lessons in England. He was a seasoned artist, so I learned a lot from him. I learned how to do digital art as well, and then I just threw myself into it. Each one was a labor of love. People say, "How long did it take you to do this one and that one?" And literally, because I'm more starting out, it took me maybe two weeks to do each one.

A lot of us reach a certain age and it gets harder to be a beginner. There are a lot of obstacles to having that openness and humility. How do you work past it? Do you feel that? 

We all have to begin somewhere. It was the same with stand-up comedy. I knew I wouldn't be great at it when I started, but I would evolve over the years and find my style, and that's a lot like with art.

I see a lot of illustrators on Instagram and they are amazing. I look at mine and I go, "Oh man, what is this? What am I doing here?" Then I see how much people like it. Apparently, they don't see the other artists. Because it's coming from me and they know me from "SNL" or "Weeds" or stand-up comedy, it's a little more special to them. But yeah, I'm not afraid anymore. Since I started stand-up, I don't think there's anything more terrifying than getting on stage and looking for laughs. So this comes from being acknowledged before I even started that people like my stuff.

Is there a bit of advice you can give to those of us who are thinking "Maybe this is the year I start drawing," or "This is the year I learn Portuguese"? How do we take that first step? 

For me, I heard the clock ticking. I've talked about things all my life that I wanted to do, and this is something I've always wanted to do. Rehearsals are over; it's time to get going. You have to look at your life and think, what would be your regrets if you didn't do it? For me, this would be one of them because I get so much feedback and joy from other people for doing it. 

"It was just amazing. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards — you can't believe they're standing right next to you."

I couldn't do stand-up during the pandemic, so I took to doing caricatures because it was another form of getting laughs. It was more of a visual stand-up style because people would look at the funny pictures and they'd laugh. That's my side of it.

You have crossed paths with countless individuals in your career. You are very open and candid about your encounters with these people — who had garlic breath, who played ping-pong. What was the process of deciding who was going to be in the book? Was it harder to write about somebody like Chris Farley or Gary Shandling, people who are no longer here?

The writing part was easier because I had firsthand experience with most of them. Some of them I didn't, like Freddie Mercury from Queen. I would just reminisce about my first concert or concerts in general or being in garage bands. I think the more difficult thing was actually drawing those people. Some of them took me a long, long time to do. Myself, for example. I'm in the end. I tried all different kinds of variations of styles and finally I settled on the one I have in the book. And then there's some really beautiful people that I had trouble finding caricatures for. 

That's the other thing too, Mary Elizabeth. I'll go through life now and I'm in a big fun house. Everybody I look at seems like a caricature because in my head I'm thinking "How would I paint that person? How would I do that?" Since the book came out, there's a lot more people I want to do. Maybe that's another book. I'm totally sketching you right now. If you just hold still, maybe I'd get a good accurate picture of you.

Were there stories in this book that you felt like you couldn't tell? There are some really candid things in here. You talk about Lorne Michaels, you talk about people who you've worked very closely with. Were there things you were not yet ready to talk about? 

One of the ways I decided to draw people was I would either find a good reference picture of them and I knew them, or they're somebody that really interested me that I wanted to sketch. I did not put a lot in the book as far as some things I knew about some people, but I did put a lot more in there that I shouldn't have. In hindsight, I'm a little nervous because I'm getting feedback now from people in the book that I never thought would even see the book or the pictures or anything. I'm thinking, "What did I do? What did I tell that story for?"

A lot of this book takes place in your time at "SNL." I remember very clearly that being a tumultuous era in the show's history. When you look back on that time, were there cast members or hosts or musical guests who really stand out now in hindsight as the most memorable?

There were so many that stood out to me. I remember when Sting hosted and he was also the musical guest. That was a heavy order right there to do both. I remember just hanging out with these people. It was just amazing. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards — you can't believe they're standing right next to you. I was always a fan of Steve Martin's and Bill Murray's and James Taylor's performances. I actually stood next to James Taylor, who I grew up going to almost every concert on the east coast and learned how to play his songs on the record player. For him to come on that show was just a dream come true for me. That's why I stayed there so long. 

"We were all kind of inappropriate in some ways and undereducated about the sensitivity of different issues."

I was a stand-up comic. I never did sketch comedy; I never did improv. I was just in awe of everything that was happening and those people that were coming on. I saw Steve Martin when he was the wild and crazy guy at the Universal Amphitheater with The Blues Brothers opening up for him. And now here he is. We've become friends and we play the banjo together and we're body surfing somewhere together, playing poker. I'm just living in a dream. 

Because I am old enough, Kevin, I remember that moment on "SNL" when Sinead O'Connor tore up the picture of the Pope. You were there for that.

Yeah, I was sitting in the makeup room.

What was that moment like on live television? We think of it now as the way the world reacted to the slap at the Oscars. It was the story in pop culture for a moment.

It truly was. I wasn't a big fan of hers. I knew that one song, and my wife always kills me because I don't know how many days it's been or how many hours. I didn't know any of the other songs she sang, but I thought she was very interesting with her shaved head and she was attractive. 

When she did that, she didn't do it during the dress rehearsal. She ripped up the picture of whatever she was supposed to rip up. But I was sitting in the makeup chair and we were all watching it. Then she held up the picture of the Pope and ripped it, and everybody went, "Oh, oh." It's live TV, so there's nothing they could do about it. I don't think there could be any place where else that could happen, because it was a live show and it was so popular. And it still is.

As someone who has been in sketches that now you look back and go, "My God, I can't believe they did that on television," how do you reconcile the ways in which you are evolving as a comic and the world we live in right now? 

It was a different period then. We were all in the same boat. It wasn't like I was standing out and doing things that were worth canceling. We were all kind of inappropriate in some ways and undereducated about the sensitivity of different issues. As a stand-up comic, I was never controversial. There's nothing I could look back at and go, "Oh." But on "Saturday Night Live," sure. You look at somebody's sketches that we did, and they were very, for that time period, edgy, but now they're thought of as being inappropriate and insensitive. It's like some of these Mark Twain books like "Huckleberry Finn." They don't take out the N-word because that was the way it was originally written. I don't think they would censor anything on "SNL" either. It's really a lesson to show how we can evolve as people and become more educated and have a better world.

You've said that before you don't want to do comedy that could hurt people or that is controversial. You have stories about your friendships with people like Howard Stern, Dave Chappelle, Norm MacDonald and Chris Rock, people who have spent their entire careers pushing that envelope. How do you feel about that kind of dialogue that we have now around comedy, and what is and is not appropriate?

If you go back to Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, these guys were both very edgy and inappropriate in a lot of ways. It was the style at the time. It was where we were as a society. Now it's changed a lot. But I'll watch somebody like Chappelle, or Howard Stern, or Chris Rock, and I'll appreciate where they're coming from. It's not necessarily what I would do, but when I watch a stand-up, I'm always analyzing it. I'm looking at their approach to their delivery. I'm looking at their craftsmanship of their material and also the risks they're taking. These are the biggest comics that are around now because they're controversial. That's what attracts people to them and makes people watch them and talk about them. They're walking that fine line where they're not quite going over the edge. If they do, they hit some turbulence and people try to cancel them. Someone like Chappelle will survive because of his stature and his delivery, and people love him.

I noticed that a couple of weeks ago on Instagram, you posted that New Yorker cartoon that was, "Are you team old SNL cast or new SNL cast?" What do you think about the show now and where it stands in its legacy? 

I don't really watch it unless I hear there's a good sketch or there's a host that I really like. It's too difficult to relive that Saturday night. I loved doing "Saturday Night Live," but the stress of it, the changing, running under the bleachers and getting dressed and undressed and trying to make it out there in time and trying to see where the cue cards are and not look like you're watching the cue cards. Lorne Michaels said something interesting. He was a creator of the show. He said that everybody's favorite generation of "SNL" was when they were in high school. So if I was in high school in the '80s, then I would like whoever's on the cast in the '80s. That's the way it is I think with every generation. No one's going to say today that their favorite genre was the original cast with John Belushi and all of that. 

"I heard the clock ticking. I've talked about things all my life that I wanted to do, and this is something I've always wanted to do."

My son always watches snippets of "SNL" on YouTube like every kid does. After a while I said, "You should check out my years on 'SNL.'" I've been saying that for years. Finally I sat him down. I said, "Yeah, Kate McKinnon is great," and I do like Kate McKinnon. I think she's one of the most amazing sketch players ever, aside from Jan Hooks and Gilda Radner. Well, there's a lot of them. I showed him the sketches I was in, and I haven't seen them in a long time. And as I was watching with him, I thought, "These are really long sketches," because we're just so used to watching short things now. Back then it was just long.

What else are you working on now?

My hiking show's called "Hiking with Kevin." This is my fourth year of doing it, minus the two pandemic years. It's something I really love doing. I hike with a different celebrity in the canyons, mostly of LA and Malibu, although I just recently did a hike in Ireland with Paul Reiser. And I've done some hikes in New York with Paul Rudd and a few other people. I just love doing that. I film it on my selfie stick with a GoPro on the end, and I have a drone that I add and then I go home and I edit it on Premiere Pro. A lot of times somebody will show up and they'll say, "Where's the crew?" I'm the crew. I got the selfie stick and the camera. I've done over a hundred hikes so far. I'm exhausted. But I love doing it. Between the caricatures and the hiking thing, I stay pretty busy — and the Spanish.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams