All week long, Vulture is taking a close look at Saturday Night Live’s biggest season in years.
In an upcoming episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them, Jesse David Fox sits down with Julio Torres and Jeremy Beiler, the writers behind the SNL sketch “Wells for Boys,” his pick for the best sketch of the season.
The audio of this episode will be available for download soon, and you can read an edited transcript of Vulture’s discussion with Torres and Beiler below. Tune in to Good One on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.
Let’s start from the very beginning. What were you like as children?
Jeremy Beiler: I deeply craved attention. That’s the tentpole takeaway from my childhood. Any footage of me as a little boy at any family gathering, I’m following my uncle with the camera and just shoving myself into every shot of every other family member.
Julio Torres: I was very quiet. I was very reserved. I never got in trouble. I don’t think I did anything that warranted discipline. And I would just wait for recess to be over so I could go back to class and sit inside.
JB: Is this painful for you to excavate?
JT: Well, it was going to come out at some time.
What toys did you guys play with?
JT: A lot of Barbies. My favorite was Cinderella Barbie. I had this little Barbie wedding dress that I really liked, and because I used it so much, it was raggedy. I loved how torn it was, and I would put a Barbie with no shoes in it and have her wander about the garden, just thinking about what happened to her and how she got to this point. Also, my mother’s an architect and we would design houses out of cardboard. I loved like circular windows and little French doors.
JB: I was somewhat more boilerplate. I had a little cars and fire truck I really liked.
JT: I didn’t play a lot with cars, but I did have those tiny little cars that you could get at like gas stations for very cheap. I would put them all in a row and I would play “traffic.” I would move them centimeters or like millimeters at a time and they were stuck in traffic.
JB: I had like a doctor’s stethoscope and a doctor’s headlamp that I remember really liking.
JT: Like a Bugs Bunny doctor. You like things about pilots, things about doctors. Jeremy loves writing things that in airplanes, hospitals, and funerals.
JB: I write a lot of sketches in sterile environments. I don’t know what those have in common exactly.
JT: Risk. Death.
JB: I do love writing about death. And I loved playing with death as a child.
Julio, you also had a makeshift well, if you want to explain what that is.
JT: There was one small house we had when I was growing up, with this little backyard and an empty pot that collected water. I would gently caress it when I needed it, I guess.
What moved it from a thing in your life to a thing on television?
JT: I had never tried a commercial parody before, because if left to my own devices, I would always make little movies that aren’t necessarily parodies of anything. Then I remember where we are.
JB: We toyed with versions of it that were basically short films. Unfortunately this one had to be on SNL, so.
JT: I don’t know how the idea popped into my head, but I know it was there for awhile. The seed of it was some stand-up joke that never worked about a kid with a well, and then it’s like, “Oh, it’s funny if it’s a product for sale at Toys ‘R’ Us.”
JB: In that big bubbly plastic. And the idea that there’s an actual missed market. Because we found a new corner of a market, thousands of these boys, that we can make money off of.
Had you written anything together before this? Did you know one another before SNL?
JT: It wasn’t even the first water-based sketch that we wrote together.
JB: Wait, what are you thinking of?
JT: “The Sink.”
JB: Oh, yes, of course. Before SNL, we met in passing.
JT: Around, you know, downtown. It was downtown, the night was young.
JB: Picture it.
JT: But professionally, we just got to talking at a work function but not work proper, and then we talked a lot during the summer.
JB: Julio’s ideas were all super fun. And he was available. We also have collaborated on many things that have gone swiftly into the garbage.
JT: Many, many, many.
Is the nature of the partnership Jeremy making Julio expand on something?
JT: In a lot of cases it is like that, but it’s always finding ideas that no one else would find feasible or funny. I’ve certainly written things with you that no one else was remotely interested in.
JB: We do that pretty well, too. It’s different with each one, but Julio will bring a brilliant idea for a short film, and one of my only contributions to the well is, “Let’s make it a little more commercially.”
So it’s Tuesday, you’re going to write “Wells for Boys.” Does Julio do a pass and then you have a conversation about how to expand upon it?
JT: For this one, I made a pass, you made it better, I looked for commas that weren’t supposed to be there, and then we turned it in.
JB: Often, we begin by just talking about the idea without scripting anything. Just finding a few things that make us laugh a lot. If we find enough of those easily, it feels okay to begin writing.
Before writing out the language of a commercial parody, do you watch commercials?
JT: There were no Fisher-Price commercials. We looked for some, but they don’t look like that anymore. They’re cooler and they want to make the child buy the toy.
JB: They want to make the child, like, tug on mommy’s skirt.
JT: Because we read so many commercial parodies every week written by our peers, the language of commercial voice-over is pretty second nature.
The voice-over says, “Wells for sensitive little boys,” which is a specific distinction. What it’s really setting up is, “Oh, this sketch is a commercial parody, but it’s really a short movie about a little boy.”
JT: Yes, I feel like the commercial parody is a way in and then we’re seeing the life of this boy and these two parents.
You cut to the kid to do his testimonial, but then he whispers to his mom. It wouldn’t be out of place necessarily if it was like, “Yeah, I love this well,” but what is out of place is hypothetically if he is the actor or the person. Then it’s not a commercial parody anymore.
JT: Because that’s his real mother acting in that commercial.
JB: We had a couple alts for that take, too. We went with Y Tu Mamá También.
JT: We had a lot of different movie titles I think. Chocolat?
JB: That one just didn’t sound quite right.
JT: I think I was hung up on it sounding like candy.
Half the joke is, “Wait, is this still a commercial?” Because then you go back to it.
JB: Dave McCary, who directed it, deserves a lot of credit for this part of it, too.
JT: He is one of the most tender, beautiful hands when it comes to directing.
JB: As it goes on, the perspective of the boy starts to control the commercial.
JT: We’re seeing what the boy allows us to see because the way Dave framed those shots with the well. We’re spying on him, and I think that’s something that Dave kept saying.
JB: And you gave the kid that note once, “On this next take, look right into the lens.”
JT: Just suddenly realize that you’re being observed, realize the magnitude of what you’re doing. I mean, Dave made so many amazing choices with this one, but the top one was definitely casting that kid.
There’s a line about the boy having a passionate creative life, but obviously that’s in the future. What made you think, “Oh, it needs that because otherwise it would be a very sad sketch?”
JT: I think that came from me reassuring my parents in the past, because I know that my father was so very worried that I would never come out of my mother’s skirt and never be a functional person. So this was sort of like, “It’ll be fine but not for awhile. You have to just wait.”
JB: Didn’t it say, “You have to wait for adulthood?”
JT: Yes, and that is something that I always felt that I did.
Other than a balcony and broken mirror, were there other possible toys?
JT: I can’t remember if there was another line, but I do remember there was a Philip Glass button on the well that didn’t make it.
JB: There was a little plastic button on the side of the well with a little music note on it and it just played a little toy piano version of Philip Glass. We cut it because it looked a little awkward and sounded weird.
Emma Stone was the host that weekend. Do you remember telling her about the idea and her reaction to it?
JT: I remember being wary that we had such a good actor and asking her to be a parent in a commercial, or Emma thinking how underwhelming that was going to be. But she responded very well to the idea and she loved the sketch.
That “everything is for you but this” part is such a powerfully performed speech. Do you remember shooting it that day?
JB: We did a few takes that were a little softer. Once we got that, we told her just blast it.
JT: She understood 100 percent what it needed to be and then made it even better. She’s like a lioness of a mother, defending her young.
Bobby’s performance is so good and so small. What was the conversation about what this role was, what the family dynamic is?
JB: There was none.
JT: At that point, Bobby already knew and appreciated what made us laugh. There’s something so beautiful about seeing a really funny, very silly comedic actor be so small and so tender, which is so close to what he is in real life.
It’s famously hard to end sketches, and the last line is perfect in being funny and maintaining the story. What was your hope with that last joke?
JT: It was very important to have that line because it’s not a sketch about gayness. So it’s not like, “Oh, just give him a Barbie and let him play with dresses and he’ll be fine.” It’s about being different and isolated in a bigger sense. It’s isn’t just that.
JB: It could be that, it doesn’t necessarily have to be.
JT: That little boy could be an atheist.
How was it for you guys when it played in the studio?
JB: It was quiet very early. There was one person laughing — which is great about SNL, you can hear that one person laughing — but just at, “Some boys need something else,” that one person’s like, “Wooo!” and it didn’t even matter what the premise was. As it kept on going, people started getting it.
JT: I think it’s a very accessible piece once people identify themselves in it, or the kind of person that is being described.
It struck a chord with people. There was a headline, “Wells for Boys Nails the Loneliness of Queer Kids.”
JB: That’s why we set out to write this. We were hoping for an Advocate piece and we got it.
JT: We’ve gotten so many dates out of it.
How do you feel when people ascribe an agenda to the sketch?
JT: Well, it was written by two gay writers whose otherness is linked to their sexuality — but I don’t think it’s exclusively for that agenda or that purpose. Obviously, it’s connected to it.
JB: It’s nice to see any response to any sketch, let alone someone who you feel gets it in that way.
People who lived that childhood were like, “This is a piece of art that expresses something in a medium in which you don’t usually see it expressed.”
JB: Someone on set, I don’t remember who it was, but she just grabbed out arm and said, “Thank you. I have a sensitive boy.”
How did you feel producing this sketch in a moment when people expect only topical satire from SNL? Do you feel pressure to respond to whatever these times are?
JT: If you look at a breakdown of the show, SNL had a lot of strong political pieces that were very memorable, but a lot of it wasn’t political. So no, I don’t think I felt pressure to be political, especially when there were so many great people doing that very well.
JB: I felt fortunate to be at SNL because if you have something that you’re personally struggling with, you can turn it to a sketch that’s actually funny. It’s a special place. It feels therapeutic to process the world through writing a sketch. I looked for opportunities for that, but I didn’t always find them. I’m also just always looking for what’s fun and what floats my boat.
Where is the well now?
JT: That’s a good question, I was wondering that this morning.
JB: You should own that.
JT: I’m looking for a studio apartment so probably not. I’d like to think that it’s safe somewhere.
JB: I wonder if they just put it in a dumpster.
JT: No, no they wouldn’t. Not the well from “Wells for Boys.” We keep every goddamn wig that anyone’s ever used.
What’s your favorite SNL thing this season, or ever, not written by you?
JB: One of my favorite sketches is a pretty obscure one. It’s an old Phil Hartman sketch called “Robot Repair.” I think it was written by Jon Lovitz. He is a robot and he’s doing a home-repair show and he keeps having a dispute with his off-camera producer about the title of the show because the title suggests that it’s how to repair robots, but actually the show is a robot doing household repairs. It’s very bizarre.
If you could write for one SNL cast member, living or dead, who would it be?
JB: For me, it’s Phil Hartman.
JT: I know and really love and have always admired Laraine Newman.
Do you have a sketch that didn’t air, wasn’t put online, or didn’t go at table or dress that you won’t try again, but you will go to your grave thinking it’s funny?
JT: Oh, I am trying again. I am trying all of them again. There’s this one that wasn’t filmed but almost made it. I won’t give away what it is, but I’ll just give you the title of it. It’s called “Tiny Little Stairs.”
JB: I wrote a sketch, it’s not very good and it didn’t do well, but it went to dress. Vanessa Bayer is a widow and she’s going to meet the man who received her husband’s heart donation. I heard this story on This American Life when that happened and this woman met the heart recipient and they had this otherworldly, deep connection. It was like very beautiful, but Vanessa goes to meet the man who received her husband’s heart and he’s just a full piece of shit. He’s just smoking and playing his music and shit.
Who was supposed to play the piece of shit?
JB: It went to dress for Casey Affleck. And then I tried many times again, but I think it’s meant to go to rest.
If you could hide Lorne’s popcorn anywhere in the office, where would you hide it?
JB: Oh, I would never presume to hide that. I enjoy it. It’s delicious. People would be very mad if I did that.