Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
Most of SNL’s best known impressionists aren’t lauded for their numbers or accuracy, but their flavor, or what Darrell Hammond calls in Live from New York the “bastardization” they bring to their subjects – think Eddie Murphy’s hot tubbin’ James Brown, Dana Carvey’s “Notgonnadoit” George H. W. Bush, and Hammond’s skeevy Sean Connery in the “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketches, none of which necessarily capture their subjects in any realistic way. Unfortunately for Jeff Richards – a wide-ranged stand-up and impressionist fresh off the MADtv boat – the lack of audience connection, or lack of a real hook for any of his celeb targets, became the crux of his mostly forgettable three-year SNL stint, save for the funny-the-first-time but progressively more annoying Update frequenter Drunk Girl.
At 17, Richards made an early start in comedy when he convinced his local public access channel near his Walnut Creek, California hometown to let him create and host his own sketch comedy show Hansen Live, having been inspired by watching Kids in the Hall. After high school, he left California to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he joined the improv team CHiPs (AKA the Chapel Hill Players) and befriended fellow performer Zack Ward, who introduced him to the Raleigh comedy club Charlie Goodnights, where he would go on to regularly host open mics before returning to California to pursue a stand-up career.
After developing his act in Los Angeles for several years, Richards finally hit it big when he was hired as a MADtv cast member for three episodes in 2000. The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn had him on a year later, which led to an SNL audition and ultimately a featured player spot alongside newcomers Dean Edwards and Amy Poehler, making him the first cast member to have been both on MADtv and SNL (more recent hire Taran Killam also shares this distinction). While Poehler went on to indisputable success on SNL and beyond and Edwards was left underused, Richards occupied the weird middle ground of oily frat guys and burly dopers. He had plenty of screen time and impersonations, but not enough charm emerged through his trademark preference for the gross and juvenile – though it did work perfectly for some of his impressions such as Gary Busey.
In addition to Busey, Richards impersonated over twenty celebrities including Dustin Hoffman, Louie Anderson, David Letterman, Al Franken, Dr. Phil, Steve Irwin, Michael Moore, Kevin Spacey, Bill O’Reilly, Garry Shandling, Lance Bass, Howard Dean, and Willy Wonka (the Gene Wilder version). He also created three recurring characters – the fratty roommate Jeff in the “Jarret’s Room” sketches, infant rapper Baby K, and frequent Weekend Update guest Drunk Girl with her tipsy catchphrase “D’yawannn’ know?” While Drunk Girl is a pretty dead-on caricature of a wasted and less than attractive college girl (based on a heckler Richards dealt with at the Comedy Store in La Jolla), she was used a little too much for easy Update laughs (nine appearances over two years) and lost her luster shortly after her premiere. Here’s hoping that Cecily Strong’s Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party keeps the SNL drunk girl tradition going for a little while longer.
Halfway through SNL’s 29th season, Richards decided to leave the show on his own terms. “There were too many good things happening, and it was just time to go,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I had a blast on the show – it was the best time ever – but I felt it was time to do other things. To be on SNL requires all of your time; you have no time to do anything else. And I wanted to get back to California.” So he returned to his LA stand-up stomping grounds and appeared in films like 2005’s The Hand Job (costarring Gary Busey) and The Burr Effect (2009) as well as Mind of Mencia, the MTV cartoon Where My Dogs At?, FlashForward, and Nick Swardson’s Pretend Time in 2011. He hosted a podcast with Matt Raiston called Def Wanna F from March to June of this year, and he’s also released three comedy song albums – Movies for Rent (2004), A$$WAX (2009), and most recently Rain Makes Me Wet (2011). He also has a website TastyJeff.com and loves to get “letters and pictures (unless they are penises),” so definitely check it out (but whatever you do, definitely don’t send him a photo of your penis). While Richards may not have gained much fame from SNL, he stands as proof that no matter how much talent a performer possesses, sometimes the cards just don’t fall in their favor on the show. On the bright side, though, he’ll always have enough impressions in his arsenal for steady work as both a voice-over actor and last minute Busey/Letterman/O’Reilly/Hoffman stand-in.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.