“Haunted Elevator” is a Saturday Night Live sketch about confused people trying to figure out what this guy named David S. Pumpkins’s deal is. The now-classic sketch (more commonly referred to as “David Pumpkins”), starring Tom Hanks as Mr. Pumpkins, was written by similarly confused people trying to figure out what his deal is. The character — his signature wardrobe, orange hair-streak, hand motions, voice, name — became clearer with each step in the SNL process. Exactly one year from the debut of “Haunted Elevator,” and a week away from a new David Pumpkins Halloween special, this is the story of how it came together, told by those who wrote it — Bobby Moynihan, Mikey Day, and Streeter Seidell.
On Monday nights, the writers meet with the host in Lorne Michaels’s office and pitch ideas.
Streeter Seidell: Last season was electrifying from the get-go with all the political stuff. All of a sudden, there were so many eyes on the show, and it was being talked about like it hadn’t been.
Mikey Day: We were a little overwhelmed.
SS: But then we were all just pumped Tom Hanks was hosting. If you’re our age, you grew up with Tom Hanks. You’re just praying that he’s cool and nice, and then he is, and you’re like, “Oh, thank God.”
MD: He surpasses your greatest expectations of who he is. Any fatigue washed away.
SS: We were happy to not write a political sketch.
MD: The possibilities were endless. It’s Tom Hanks. I don’t know if we had locked down what we wanted to do yet — we didn’t pitch it on Monday.
The writers work until the break of dawn, and a little more after that, to pen as many sketches as they can.
Bobby Moynihan: [Our first idea was inspired by] that video with the little Indian fellow dancing around.
MD: The little superstar.
BM: Every time the music stopped, he stopped dancing.
MD: I’m obsessed with the song he’s dancing to: “Holiday Rap” by MC Miker and DJ Sven. There’s a breakdown in the middle.
SS: We first pitched Tom the idea on Tuesday afternoon.
MD: The original way to encapsulate that [song and video] in a sketch was what eventually became “SWAT Recon” with Chris Pine. There’s a SWAT team perched at a window doing reconnaissance, and then in the apartment over, Tom and I are dancing. Tom weighed in that, maybe they are like Dutch brothers.
SS: But he also was like, “fellas, I don’t break dance.” I don’t know why we assumed Tom Hanks would know how to break-dance. That put the kibosh on that. So we just dropped it and wrote a few other things. We wrote one where he’s Frankenstein that I was working on for a good chunk of the night. It was just Mikey and I alone first, talking about the one that eventually became “SWAT Recon.” Then it was tabled for a few hours, and Bobby came in and they started talking about it and I joined in, and everything changed.
MD: Late at night, we were writing, trying to crack a sketch where a couple goes into a haunted house. Different ghouls were going to sing a song, but they were supposed to be scary, like, “I live under the stairs.” Then it could go to three coffins, and we were all three going to be skeletons dancing to the “Holiday Rap” breakdown. We were working on it for a while, but we couldn’t quite crack where it goes after that. We had the first beat, and then we were like, “Okay, we each would come out of a coffin.” Then what?
BM: At one point, after the coffins, we tried it where we would pop out of paintings, out of a clock, and other things in the house.
MD: We can’t quite figure this out, and it’s around 3:30, 4 a.m.
SS: We’re starting to get that stress, ’cause 7 a.m. is when the Today show warms up outside. You start hearing them cheer, and it’s a stress trigger for all the cast and writers here, because you’re like, “Oh no, we have to start finishing something.”
MD: You start kicking into high gear. Sometime around then, we have the idea of “Tower of Terror.” I grew up in Orange County near Disneyland. I don’t know if that ride was around when I was a kid, but I’ve been on it a few times. It’s such a good, adaptable ride for a sketch because the doors open and something occurs, then it shuts, and something else happens.
SS: Our idea was that it was real. It wasn’t a ride. It was a real, haunted elevator.
MD: I think names and suits are funny. Normal names in insane situations and dumb suits are funny. So, I just remember thinking, David Pumpkins. He’s got pumpkins on his suit.
BM: I remember Mikey being very tired and exasperated, and after a 30-second silence he just went, “What if we just call him David Pumpkins?”
MD: We did a Google search and find out there’s a suit that fits this stupid image, so we start retrofitting the skeletons into the sketch. “He’s surrounded by two skeletons.” And we put them all on a Tower of Terror setup. And we get to put in “Holiday Rap.” So we start writing.
MD: The door’s open, and there’s David Pumpkins. I remember writing, “I’m David Pumpkins,” and then Bobby added the “S” – “David S. Pumpkins.”
BM: Why not? At four o’clock in the morning, you don’t ask questions. You just go, “What should be his first line?” And Mikey goes, “How’s it hanging?” “Great, write it down.”
MD: In the original version, David Pumpkins talks a lot more.
SS: It really emerged as it went on that the joke was the “Any questions?” stuff.
MD: It was always the two people in the elevator freaked out. And lines like “Any questions?” “Yes, several,” were there from the very first draft. But it was all about [the couple’s question]: “Why are they here?”
BM: We tried to explain it a little more in the original draft. There was more trying to get to the bottom of it. Beck [Bennett, who plays the man in the couple] was like, “So are you like the Canadian Freddy Krueger?” We tried to contextualize it a little bit.
MD: There was way more mystery-solving in the first draft on behalf of them.
SS: Bobby was the one who was saying these lines, like, “Do you scare with pumpkins?” And David Pumpkins would be like, “Get a life!”
MD: “How many pumpkins do you use?” And he goes, “Between 10 and 38 pumpkins.”
SS: And then it was, “If I leave a pumpkin on your doorstep, I hate you,” or something.
MD: And it was a lot of, “Are you a ghost?” “You wish!”
SS: “Grow up!” He had a real attitude.
MD: “Do you haunt with pumpkins?”
SS: “One-thousand percent.”
MD: One line we almost kept, which I think is a good encapsulation of David Pumpkins, is, “He’s not part of the known Halloween universe, but he’s acting like he is.”
SS: It might have been just an exercise for us to figure out what it is, and then once we were comfortable with it, we could get rid of it.
MD: At that point, those lines were set to a beat. It was kind of like an early hip-hop rap.
BM: Eventually we realized it was just, “Nope, this guy’s weird and we’re all here onboard.”
SS: And he’s coming from a place of like, “Everyone gets it. Everyone knows who I am and what my deal is.”
BM: He made no sense, but it was supposed to be maddening, and then actually scare you.
SS: It was a mess.
MD: But the — no pun intended — bones were there.
The host, cast, writers, producers, and production staff run through all the the sketches written the night before, at a long table read.
SS: We knew putting it in [the packet of scripts for the table read], “Oh, this isn’t ready yet.” It was always a work in progress, but there comes a time when it’s like, “Well, we gotta hand it in because we’re outta time.” But hopefully when we hear it, we can hear, Oh, that part didn’t work, that part was boring, and we’ll know exactly where to come in and slice it out.
MD: I was excited.
MD: You meet with the host between the first and second half of the table read to tell them about the sketch, especially since there was a musical component to it. I was like, “This could be fun, you know?” Kind of in jest, being like, “Hopefully if this got picked and it went to air, a couple of people might dress up like David Pumpkins for Halloween.” He was like, “Cool!” He thought it was insane. When you say it out loud, it’s insane. “Hey Tom, so you play a guy. His name’s David Pumpkins. He’s in a haunted elevator. No one knows who he is and you’re just super confident and cool.”
BM: When we read it at the table, the skeletons only danced once.
MD: The response was pretty good. Bobby and I sort of half got up from our chairs. When you stand up at the table, it’s like …
SS: “Big swing coming!”
MD: I remember doing a version of the dance and then pointing to Bobby, he danced, and then we pointed to Tom, and he gave a little something in his chair.
SS: He had not yet cracked the two-finger pointing motion.
BM: Then it was all David Pumpkins trying to explain who he was.
SS: It was still pretty far from what people eventually saw. It was still a lot more talking. I was thinking, This is loooooong. Everyone’s talking too much.
MD: It wasn’t a rock concert by any means, but it was fairly well received.
BM: The tone felt to me like, “There’s something there, but it’s clearly not there yet, so let’s just let these nice boys work on this for a couple of days.”
SS: After “Kevin Roberts” and “Space Pants,” Lorne [Michaels] maybe gave us a little benefit of the doubt with weird sketches like that, where it’s like, “All right, they can land one of these every now and then.” Even if it wasn’t a crusher.
MD: Yeah, I have to give a lot of credit to Lorne to pick it, because by all accounts it’s insane.
SS: After the sketch was picked, we went to wardrobe.
Tom Broecker [SNL wardrobe department]: Bobby and Mikey had a pretty clear vision as to what they thought the look should be. They described what they wanted, which was a suit with pumpkins on it. I thought, Oh boy, we are going to have to have the pumpkin design silk-screened onto fabric and then make the suit after that. But then Eric, the co-costume designer, said he knew of a company, OppoSuits, that actually made suits with all-over Halloween designs. So he hit the internet, found out all the information, and we bought all that were available in the city the following day.
MD: Then we went to meet with the hair department, and Jodi Mancuso, our amazing hair-department person, said, “So just like black and maybe some sort of homage to pumpkins, maybe some orange and yellow in his hair.”
BM: She said something about giving him his Bosom Buddies hair?
MD: Yeah, and then throwing in that yellow-orangey pumpkin streak homage. Everyone in the creative department’s so good at what they do. That dumb little streak is so key to David Pumpkins.
SS: Stupid little streak. It lets you know he’s crazy. Something’s off with this dude.
MD: Then we recorded the music with [SNL musical director] Lenny Pickett.
BM: Well, we didn’t even record it. I just made a bunch of weird sounds into a microphone.
SS: The notes are Bobby’s voice going, “Baw, Bow, Bowb.”
MD: Lenny in turn retrofits it to [sound like the “Holiday Rap” breakdown]. Then we layer in the whip sounds.
The writers work together to rewrite the sketches that were picked the day before.
MD: I remember going to the rewrite table thinking, It’s about the dancing. It’s not about this two-page, offbeat rap.
SS: We all knew. You can just tell which parts aren’t working. It was like, “All right, so the dancing stuff will be fun. Less dialogue.”
MD: The first thing they said when we got to the rewrite table was, “This is a ride, right?” We’re like, “Yep.”
SS: “Yep. Definitely a ride. Always has been a ride.”
MD: All that was done to retrofit it into being on a ride was adding “Welcome to Fright Night” at the beginning.
SS: Kenan got more as we made it a ride and it got slimmed down. His role became more important.
MD: We added Kyle [Mooney] and Melissa [Villaseñor] at the rewrite. In the original version, the doors opened and Leslie [Jones] was a fright and she went, “Ooh, I know that look. You’ve seen David Pumpkins, haven’t you?” Or “You wanna find out more about him and get to the bottom of it?”
BM: Instead, it became us popping in and out, separating it with the other scares. Like Vanessa [Bayer], Leslie, and Kyle.
They run through and block the sketches so the director can figure out things like camera placement.
MD: Originally, Kate [McKinnon] and Vanessa’s roles were switched, but there was an issue with a pre-tape. Vanessa wasn’t going to be on the set, so [the woman in the couple] was Kate just due to scheduling.
SS: And that really is a mold of Kate’s head that our makeup department literally made. It’s a straight-up realistic, creepy-looking, full Kate head.
SS: We cut skeletons’ names between rewrites and Saturday.
MD: Tommy Lee Bones and Oprah. I was Tommy Lee Bones and Bobby was Oprah, but we kept taking her out.
BM: I tried to shoot for those names a couple of times. At one point we were gonna call them “The Skeletones.”
MD: Then the producers came to us.
SS: “Gaga might want to do something.” We were like, “Ooh! Let’s have her be Mrs. David Pumpkins”…
MD: … at the end, instead of David Pumpkins popping up.
BM: When the doors open and it’s just the skeletons, that was originally gonna be us and Lady Gaga.
MD: And Beck and Kate go, “Who’s this?”
BM: Instead of us making sex noises, it would be her.
MD: She’s wearing a jacket with witches on it. You think she’s gonna say “Wanda Witches” or something, but she goes, “I’m Mrs. David Pumpkins.” Of course his wife would be weird.
SS: Sadly, she wanted to focus on her performance for the show.
MD: She read it and liked it, but it was just a matter of time. Her musical set was pretty involved.
SS: I remember being so bummed. I was like, “Oh man. That could have been the thing that put it over the edge.”
Everyone prepares for the dress rehearsal at 8 p.m. After dress, the producers pick which sketches to go with for the show at 11:30 p.m.
SS: Once we found out Lady Gaga wasn’t gonna do it, we came up with the scare at the end. We didn’t block it. It was a very big issue for our director, how to get him behind the couple. I remember having to go before dress to adjust the camera stuff. We were fighting behind-the-scenes battles with the camera angles and stuff the whole week.
MD: But we ended up being really proud of that ending.
SS: When you crack a good ending, it’s a fantastic feeling. We end a lot on photos at the table reads because they’re an easy out, but then they mostly go away. This one just worked pretty well because it’s a ride. It was really a nice little bow on the end.
BM: Then we were like, “Well, we need something weird to distract them, so that he can get out, get around, and go hide behind Beck and Kate.”
MD: We also added in the sensual noises the skeletons make.
BM: We didn’t put them in till really late.
SS: I remember being in Bobby’s dressing room, and there were a number of things on the table for what the sounds should be. And then Mikey just started doing his strange sex noises.
MD: Those are my voice.
BM: You made that sound and I said, “Aye papi,” and then you went and recorded them.
SS: Before dress, I was in Bobby’s dressing room with you two, and the dancing was just so funny.
BM: It was the most I’ve ever rehearsed for anything on the show.
SS: I’ve never seen the cast really rehearse that much.
MD: We’d be like, “dance, pose, dance, butt slap, butt slap, pose.”
SS: Taking it so seriously. “And then I’ll probably do this kind of wave thing with my body and then that’s the butt-slap one. Which hand is he gonna hit you with? Okay, good.”
MD: I remember saying “butt slap” over and over. “Butt slap, butt slap, pose …” Like, our goal was to get it sharp.
BM: I remember being excited because the set was done up. They had done all of the cobwebs and everything and the set looked so cool. I thought, maybe this will actually be okay. It looks pretty cool, at least.
MD: I thought, We’ll see. It could be a complete disaster or it could be really fun.
SS: While these guys are out doing the sketch at dress, I’m sitting next to Lorne under the bleachers. Lorne is giving notes on the composition: “Is that lighting weird?” “Can those doors open a little faster?” “Can’t we just get to it?” I’m looking past him as he’s giving me these very serious notes, and I’m nodding and saying “yes.” Meanwhile I just see Tom Hanks being like, “I’m David Pumpkins!” and these guys dancing and slapping each others’ asses.
MD: After, I was like, “Did Lorne like it? Did Lorne like it?” Streeter was like, “He seemed to … he liked the end.”
SS: When you have a good end joke like that, it always helps out. But I came out of dress thinking, pretty sure [the sketch is] gonna make it in.
MD: Lorne’s good at making things work. Seeing it and being like, “Here’s what you need to do.”
SS: At dress, there was a longer piece before you got on the ride. Lorne was like, “Just get them in the ride, and let’s go.” Otherwise, we just cut a couple lines per David Pumpkins appearance.
MD: In between dress and air, Tom came up to us.
SS: He said, “I don’t quite know who this guy is yet, but I’m gonna get it.”
MD: “Gentlemen, I swear I will figure out who this David Pumpkins is by the time it’s on television.”
Live From New York, It’s Saturday Night
MD: Getting into that skeleton makeup and hanging out with Bobby, I was like, “Here we go.”
BM: It was right before the election, and as far as placement in the show, it came after, like, two or three pretty heavy political sketches. The audience was just like, “What the hell is this? We don’t care. It’s funny and we’re enjoying it because we’re not hearing about Trump right now.”
SS: A nice palate cleanser.
MD: It was an adrenaline shot of silly.
SS: Before the show, we had told Tom that for the voice, he would just be a normal-sounding dude.
MD: Confident, normal dude. High energy, à la Kevin Roberts.
SS: He decided to put that voice on himself. Literally not until air. Because we watched dress the other day and we were like, “Oh, that voice is very different.”
BM: It went well enough at dress that it felt like Tom got the confidence to just go, “Oh, okay. I get it now. I’m just supposed to go out there and have a good time.” And he just went, “I’m gonna just do this,” and he made a decision …
SS: I should also add, the genius of Tom Hanks to do that finger-point. We did not tell him to point two of his fingers and shake his hands in a weird way.
MD: My favorite moment is Tom’s face during the cross in front of Leslie, when she goes, “I’m crazy for David Pumpkins.” This is all just Tom doing it. We didn’t tell him to make the most insane face. You look at it and you go, “That character is truly insane. There is no order in that character’s brain.”
SS: Once that first one hit, it was like, “Okay great,” because I knew it just built from there.
MD: I remember being happy that Bobby and I got the dancing sharp. I was worried we’d launch into a dance when it was only supposed to be Tom. The sharper it is, the stupider it is.
BM: For my time on SNL, it was definitely the most present I’ve been for a sketch. We just had a blast. Right before the elevator doors opened, Tom whispered, “So is this butt slaps?” And we were hysterically laughing. We were like, “No, that’s the next one.” It definitely felt different. It felt memorable while we were doing it, and I just remember thinking, Oh I’m gonna remember this one in particular, forever.
MD: It was very low-tech at the end of the day, with us running off into the wings, waiting, being like, “Slap our butts here, Tom!”
SS: I watched it on the floor, and it was such a small, tight set that was jammed up against the wall. It’s chaos. Just everyone trying to smush in. The smoke guys were going insane smoking the place. I was watching the cast trying to squeeze in. After dress, when I made all dialogue cuts, that gave less time for people to set themselves, so it was even more frenzied.
MD: I remember seeing Leslie hanging out in her straitjacket with her chainsaw being like, “You guys are crazy.”
Broecker: After, Tom took off the suit off and said he wanted to keep the costume and take it home. That is how much he loved it.
MD: I remember walking out with Bobby being like, “Wow, that was fun.” And then seeing Streeter walking from the set through the doors back to the dressing rooms and being like, “People seemed to like it. That was fun!”
BM: At the after-party, Lorne and Tom came over. I don’t remember exactly what they said, but the sentiment of it was like, “Well, it worked!” They were very complimentary and nice. I believe there were some compliments about dance moves.
Sunday and Beyond
BM: The next day, Tom was at the Inferno movie premiere, and every single person on the red carpet was like, “So, tell me about David Pumpkins.”
MD: Then I saw some Halloween costume website being like, “Here’s how you make your own David Pumpkins.” We were like, “This is crazy! This is awesome!”
SS: That suit sold out by Sunday. It was nuts.
BM: A Comic-Con or something happened a week later, and there were like seven David Pumpkins there. I asked to take a picture with them.
MD: My friends began sending me pictures of Halloween parties they were at, being like, “some guy’s dressed as David Pumpkins and the skeletons.” I was like, “woah, if my friends are at parties, I wonder how many are out there.” There were also little things, like someone was at a bar where the drink of the day was the David S. Pumpkins with pumpkin schnapps. Someone sent me a photo from a basketball game, and the sketch was playing on the jumbotron.
SS: Al Roker brought it up in some way or another for five days straight.
MD: He wore the suit. He interviewed Tom’s son, Colin Hanks, and he was like, “I gotta ask …” Colin was like, “You wanna talk about David Pumpkins, don’t you?” Roker loved it.
MD: We hadn’t really talked to Tom about it, but Bobby and I worked with [Hanks’s wife] Rita [Wilson] on Brother Nature, and she texted me, “Love David Pumpkins!” I was like, “Did Tom?” Then on Halloween he tweeted …
BM: Then there was Bill Gates …
BM: And now there’s a wax statue at Madame Tussaud’s.
SS: It was funny to watch the first reaction of people being like, “We don’t know what this is, but we love it,” and then the dissection of it, and then the backlash articles that inevitably come when everyone likes something. It was funny to be like, “Look at all these people putting so much effort and mental time into this dumb, dumb thing.” I remember reading Vulture’s article and going, “Man, I had no idea we were so good.”
MD: There’s nothing funnier to me than reading people analyze David Pumpkins.
SS: Everyone became the Beck of the sketch. But instead of being like, “Why is he in this ride?” they’re like, “Why do people like this? Why do I like this? I don’t understand.” Because there really is nothing there.
MD: The cool thing when people are like, “I don’t get it. What? I don’t get it! Why is this a big deal?” You’re like, “You’re being David Pumpkins’d.”
SS: There was one article that, I don’t remember who wrote it, but it was like, “David S. Pumpkins is a genius takedown of Trump. This orange, loud, crazy person says he’s gonna scare you and no one takes him seriously until the end. He just confuses people and makes them angry but then he scares you in the end.” And I was like, “You are giving us so much more credit than we are due.”
MD: It’s this weird alchemy of Halloween, the best host ever, the time of the country, and just a silly song. It all kind of came together.
SS: My personal theory is that everyone in the country at that point was so divided. The election was so intense. David Pumpkins, this dumb silly thing, was the last thing that everyone could kind of agree on, that they could talk to each other about without it ruining Thanksgiving. Like my aunt, who’s very conservative was like, “Oh, it was so funny. I loved it!” But so did my mom, who’s very liberal. It was great to create this common ground where we’re not going to get in a fight, and it’s not about politics. It’s about this dumb thing that we all saw.
MD: In the finale, we reprised the character for a rap song we did with Dwayne Johnson.
SS: We heard he was in town and we said, “Ooh, we’ve got the perfect end for this one.”
SS: And then one day in November, Mikey came into the office and said, “We should do an animated Halloween special that’s David S. Pumpkins.”
MD: It came from seeing a lot of the kids dressing up and responding to the character.
SS: We brought up the idea and then kind of forgot about it. Then in the spring it was like, “Hey, they’re interested.” “Oh really. Oh my God.”
MD: [SNL producer] Erin Doyle pitched it to Lorne, and Lorne was cool with it. He talked to Tom, and Tom was down. It gradually went up the ladder through the various departments, and around August it was like, “All right. Write the script.” So Streeter and I worked on it for a couple weeks: It’s Halloween night, a boy and his sister encounter David Pumpkins and needless to say, it’s not your typical Halloween night. There’s some scary stuff in there. There’s a song.
SS: We kept the qualities of the sketch that made it fun, without trying to make it feel like a long SNL sketch.
MD: It’s not like David Pumpkins for a half-hour going, “Aaah! I’m David Pumpkins!”
SS: As we were writing it, we realized, “Oh, this guy’s kind of annoying.” If he talks for long enough, you’re just like, “I hate this dude.”
MD: There was talk about David Pumpkins’s universe, but we thought his appeal was in, the less you know about him, the better.
SS: You learn zero about David Pumpkins. By the end of it, you learn one piece of information, and that’s it. He only makes one pronouncement and offers one opinion.
MD: Then we emailed Peter Dinklage, because we had a great time with him doing “Space Pants.”
SS: We told him it was rhyme narration because we wanted it to have a storybook quality to it.
MD: À la The Grinch.
SS: And he wrote back in rhyme agreeing to do it.
MD: We found some great kid actors to do the voices of the kids, and Mark Mothersbaugh is doing the score.
SS: Then we have the animation company Bento Box, who do Bob’s Burgers. Since we had so little time to pull this thing together, I think NBC was like, “Well, we’ll air it, but we don’t have any room to air it.” And Lorne just very coolly gave us the first half-hour of the broadcast on the 28th.
MD: It will be David Pumpkins, and then an hourlong best-of Halloween special.
BM: For me, my last year on the show was super weird, and David Pumpkins was one of the things I’ll remember the most. If I hadn’t had gone back that last year, I wouldn’t have been there for this amazing, iconic year, but I also wouldn’t have sat down with Mikey and Streeter that night and figured this thing out.
MD: I feel like when I’m an old man I’ll be saying, “I was left skeleton. Don’t you see? Left skeleton!”
BM: I still refused to be called “right skeleton.” I wanna be called “fat skeleton.”
SS: In a red-carpet interview, Tom said his headstone will read, “Here lies David S. Pumpkins.”
BM: He told us about the BuzzFeed article that was like, “Which famous Tom Hanks character are you?” It was like all his famous, Oscar-winning performances, and then he got David S. Pumpkins.
MD: I’m thinking this could probably be a Universal ride. It could be right next to the Jimmy Fallon ride.
SS: Perhaps there’s a movie. When we’ve joked with Tom Hanks about a David Pumpkins movie, he said the funniest thing: “The first movie should be called David Pumpkins 2.” Just making the world go, “Was there a first David Pumpkins movie?”
MD: It’s ultimately a testament to how well Tom Hanks knows David Pumpkins.
SS: I think he knows David Pumpkins better than we do at this point.