C.K. and ‘SNL’: Louie’s 19-Year Backstory with the NBC Sketch Show

NBC just announced that Louis C.K. will be hosting Saturday Night Live on November 3rd. It’ll mark C.K.’s first appearance on the long-running sketch show, but he’s had a history with SNL dating all the way back to auditioning for a spot as a cast member in 1993. Louis C.K. has also worked closely with a number of key players in the show’s history, including Amy Poehler, Conan O’Brien, Dana Carvey, Chris Rock, Adam McKay, and Robert Smigel, and he’s written for the SNL’s animated segment “TV Funhouse” and for SNL-adjacent comedies like Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Dana Carvey Show. Let’s take a look back at the various times Louis C.K. and SNL have crossed paths over the last two decades and a look forward at what to expect from his hosting stint next month.

Throughout Saturday Night Live’s history, the bulk of the show’s performers have been improvisers and sketch comedians, rather than stand-ups. “Weekend Update” has traditionally been SNL’s only segment that lends itself to stand-ups-turned-castmembers. Most stand-ups (like C.K.) skew pretty close to themselves in acting roles and don’t adapt so easily to playing characters or doing impressions. Although exceptions like Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, and recently, Jay Pharoah have crossed over, they’re still vastly outnumbered by sketch and improv types from Second City, Groundlings, iO, and UCB.

The early 90s, however, were an era when Lorne Michaels and company built a large portion of the show’s cast from the stand-up world. In 1993, SNL held a big showcase audition at the club Catch a Rising Star in New York. It was the tail end of the comedy boom and the last time that SNL producers were buying up stand-ups in bulk. Louis C.K. spoke about the audition and the state of the NYC comedy scene in an interview with Matt Belknap at AST in 2006, recalling:

“At the time, every club in the city was closing. The Improv closed, and there was no work anymore, anywhere… the ‘80s comedy surge was gone. At the Comedy Cellar, there would literally be nobody in the audience, and they’d make you do the show, because if somebody happened to wander in, there couldn’t be no show, so you’d literally be on stage in an empty room and you had to do the jokes. I mean, it was fuckin’ awful.”

With recent SNL hires like Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, Adam Sandler, and David Spade transitioning from stand-up to sketch comedy gracefully, the producers were looking to find the show’s next stars at the Catch showcase. Louis C.K. went up at the audition, along with many of his peers who would be hired as writers or cast members:

“I was going broke, and SNL was like the last chance, the last boat leaving, so Dave Attell, Laura Kightlinger, Sarah Silverman, Jay Mohr and me and a bunch of other people all auditioned. I remember that I was put first on the show, and the SNL people hadn’t shown up, and the guy that ran Catch, Louis Faranda, was trying to put me on anyway. He was like, ‘Go on.”But they’re not gonna see me.’He said, ‘I don’t care.’It was cruel as shit. And… Jon Stewart was there and he offered to go on and stall for me, which he did. But finally I had to go on, and as I went on stage they all filed in, and I remember that David Spade was with them, and he had seen me, so he made them sit down, [head writer] Jim Downey and them, and said, ‘Watch this guy,’ which I’m forever indebted to him for even though I didn’t get on SNL.It made a difference, because I went on and I had a really solid, good set, and then over the following week, Laura Kightlinger got cast, Dave Attell, Sarah, Jay, everybody but me [got cast], like everybody that was on that [showcase] but me.”

Despite the SNL audition not going in Louis C.K.’s favor, it led him to his first TV writing job. Jim Downey, SNL’s head writer, recommended C.K. to Robert Smigel, a former SNL writer who was helping Conan O’Brien create his late night show. Although Late Night with Conan O’Brien wasn’t SNL, it was pretty closely tied to the show. Both were produced by Lorne Michaels, and Smigel, O’Brien and other early staffers like Bob Odenkirk had all written for Michaels’ other program. Louis C.K. appeared on camera occasionally on Conan, and it’s the most sketch acting he’s ever done. While he’s tended to always play himself or pretty close to himself in acting roles, C.K. would play characters on Conan, something that’ll be expected of him — at least a little bit — on SNL.

Following the Carvey show’s demise, Robert Smigel returned to Conan and was given his own regular animated segment, “TV Funhouse,” on Saturday Night Live. Smigel began pulling in his friends and favorite collaborators, like Louis C.K. and Stephen Colbert, to help him write “Funhouse” segments. “TV Funhouse” existed as its separate world within SNL (it began each week with a cartoon dog stealing SNL away from a cartoon Lorne Michaels while he screamed “Get back here with my shoooww!”), with Smigel presiding over his own writers and actors, some of them borrowed from SNL’s staff and others pulled from elsewhere in New York’s comedy scene. From 1997 until 2007, Louis C.K. popped in and out of Smigel’s office to co-write animated sketches in between other writing and stand-up gigs. C.K. wasn’t a writer on SNL, instead working just in Smigel’s microcosm, but it’s been his biggest contribution to the seminal NBC sketch show up until now.

Louis C.K. occasionally co-wrote recurring “TV Funhouse” segments like “Fun with Real Audio” (with Smigel) and “The X-Presidents” (with Smigel and Adam McKay):

In the late 90s and early 2000s, Louis C.K. would make time to write “TV Funhouse” segments when he wasn’t busy working on The Chris Rock Show and Cedric the Entertainer Presents. When his stand-up career started to blow up, and he was able to sell projects based around himself to ABC and HBO, his “Funhouse” contributions became less frequent, but his name popped up in the credits every now and then until Robert Smigel stopped making the segment regularly in 2007.

In addition to these well-known regular “Funhouse” segments, C.K. also co-wrote the following sketches:

“Shazzang” (2005, co-written with Smigel and Dino Stamatopoulos)

“Saddam and Osama” (2003, co-written with Smigel and Dan Powell)

“Bambi 2002” (co-written with Smigel, Tina Fey, and David Wachtenheim)

“The Narrator Who Ruined Christmas” (2001, co-written by Smigel, Stephen Colbert, and Michael Gordon)

So, what can we expect from Louis C.K.’s hosting stint on November 3rd? Just like stand-ups aren’t a great fit to be cast members, they also aren’t a great fit to be hosts, unless their acts are character-heavy (like Richard Pryor and Steve Martin, who both found success as comics-turned-hosts). The first SNL host ever was George Carlin, but even that was kind of an awkward stint, with the legendary comic spending his 90 minutes staying away from sketches and doing his act in between them. A stand-up hasn’t hosted the show in two seasons, the most recent being Zach Galifianakis, who does a lot more character work than C.K. (i.e. any) in his act.

Louis C.K. always plays pretty close to himself (if he’s not flat-out playing himself) in acting roles, so it should be odd to see him give characters and impressions a shot. Don’t expect the show to lean to heavily on his acting abilities, though. C.K. is a fine actor when playing himself, which is probably what he’ll be doing in most sketches of the sketches he appears in. The writers tend to amp up the cast’s presence at the expense of the host’s screentime with most first-time hosts, and this probably won’t be an exception, especially considering that this is the show’s Election Week episode and C.K. doesn’t have a lot of business being in Obama/Romney sketches. The opening monologue is really his time to shine (after a lengthy applause break from the hometown crowd), as he’ll hopefully debut some new material from his current tour and use the opening as a chance to just do stand-up without any intrusions from the cast. A “Weekend Update” desk piece by C.K. as himself also wouldn’t be surprising since it’s a natural way to give a stand-up another chance to do work their act into the show.

Another interesting element of Louis C.K. hosting SNL is that he tends to write most of his comedy all by himself lately. His stand-up act is obviously 100% written by him, and he scripts the bulk of Louie solo (with a little help from Pamela Adlon). Although he’s done a significant amount of movie and TV acting in the past, C.K. performing material by other writers is a rarity these days. Hopefully, he’ll get to write a sketch or two of his own (or even direct a short film), but hosting SNL is an exhausting process. C.K. may be too busy polishing his monologue, rehearsing sketches, and approving which sketches make it to air, in addition to just trying to shake everybody on the cast and crew’s hands and learn all of their names.

Merging his own dark, brutally honest sensibility with Saturday Night Live’s lighter tone is a daunting task for Louis C.K., as is giving the whole “doing characters and impressions” thing a shot for the first time on national television, and it’s crazy to expect all that of him. But as long as he’s able to pull off a great stand-up set during his monologue and is game for whatever silly sketches and characters the writers throw at him, it’ll go down as a big win for the show and the host, and it’ll be the end of Louis C.K.’s long, long journey to appear on Saturday Night Live.

For more on Louis C.K., check out some other pieces we’ve run on the comedian/writer/director/middle-aged bald guy:

The Short Films of Louis C.K.

Louis C.K., TJ and Dave, and the Power of Slow Comedy

The Lost Projects of Louis C.K.

The ‘Louie’ Map of New York

The Philosophy of Louis C.K.

C.K. and ‘SNL’: Louie’s 19-Year Backstory with the NBC […]