Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 37 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.
While his time on SNL is often overshadowed by cast mates like Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, and Billy Crystal, a closer look at Gary Kroeger’s sketches reveals an engaged supporting player of charm and versatility who buzzed steadily – though very quietly – until the end of his three-season stint. While he’s since faded from steady onscreen work to focus on a career in advertising, Kroeger occupied a rare spot on early-80s SNL as the guy who lasted through Dick Ebersol’s entire run by laying low from the firing line.
Kroeger got his start when he moved to Evanston, Illinois in 1977 to attend Northwestern University, where he met fellow theater students Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Brad Hall, and writer Paul Barrosse and cofounded The Practical Theatre Company. After graduating in 1981, the group moved to Chicago to write, produce, and perform plays and improv revues just next door to the Second City theater, and after Dick Ebersol took over producing SNL in 1982, he hired all four – Barrosse as a writer and the other three as cast replacing some of Doumanian’s players from the previous season.
While Ebersol’s era was a tumultuous one, Kroeger survived until the return of Lorne Michaels in 1985 not due to star power or popular recurring characters; to the contrary, Kroeger served as a beamy and enthusiastic supporting player to powerhouse performers Piscopo, Murphy, and later Crystal and Short and was often cast in teenager roles, including a 1982 sketch as a young heterosexual “coming out” to his disappointed gay father (it may sound trite now, but this was just a year after New York City’s first known AIDS death). Kroeger meshed best with his fellow Practical Theatre founders and appeared with them frequently, including the titular character Rory in the “El Dorko” sketches. He only had two other recurring characters – the old-timer Walter (who stubbornly keeps up with dumb, profitless jobs like shoe tier and nose hair trimmer) and the onomatopoeic educational film strip narrator Dwight MacNamara.
Kroeger’s impersonations included Charlie Chaplin, Alan Alda, Dustin Hoffman (as Tootsie), and SNL’s own Paul Shaffer; musicians Bruce Springsteen and Julio Iglesias; political figures Ted and Bobby Kennedy, Miguel de la Madrid, Yasser Arafat, and Joseph Goebbels; Carl Sagan, Entertainment Tonight host Robb Weller, and Samuel Clemens. His takes on Vice President Walter Mondale and Donny Osmond proved to be his most critically successful; though he appeared as Mondale only three times, his performance as Donny Osmond alongside Louis-Dreyfus as Marie during the 1982 Christmas episode – in which the two lovingly sing Christmas carols until they fall into a passionate kiss with each other – remains one of his strongest moments on his three-season stint. In a 2010 interview, Kroeger described his main takeaway from the SNL experience, which probably kept him from gaining much momentum on the show:
SNL was like graduate school for show business. I learned a lot and it was a lot of fun, but one of the things I learned, I didn’t like. I didn’t like the ruthlessness of the competition. Everyone was kind off set, but it was a competitive and gut wrenching experience to get on the air. I didn’t have the steely resolve to do battle week after week.
Lorne Michaels’ return to SNL in 1985 meant cleaning house of the Ebersol-era writers and cast members, and Kroeger moved to Los Angeles and found work starring opposite George Hamilton in the short-lived CBS sitcom Spies, which was canceled in April 1987 after only six episodes. While he’s since shown up in a handful of films (The Big Picture, Deadly Weapon, A Man Called Sarge) and television shows (Night Court, Columbo, Murder, She Wrote, L.A. Law, Dilbert, hosting duties on Fox’s Comic Strip Live, and as the weatherman on Curb Your Enthusiasm), Kroeger capitalized on his showbiz-voice delivery and worked as a game show announcer on Card Sharks, Beat the Clock, Whammy! The All New Press Your Luck, and a 2009 episode of The Newlywed Game. Now living back in his Cedar Falls, Iowa hometown, Kroeger works as creative director at Mudd Advertising and writes a personal political blog called Gary Has Issues. It’s been almost 30 years since Kroeger performed on SNL, but his transition is a reminder that even getting some good breaks doesn’t mean you won’t wind up back in advertising – which, when compared to some other SNLers who milked their recurring character humor far beyond their welcome – is more of a compliment than a slight.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.