Talking to Bill Hader About Writing for ‘South Park’ Full-Time and Life After ‘SNL’

After an impressive eight year run on the show, Bill Hader left Saturday Night Live in May and moved to the west coast. Since then, he’s been keeping busy with various movie and TV projects, most notably working behind the scenes alongside Trey Parker and Matt Stone on South Park. Hader has been serving as a creative consultant and producer on the Comedy Central animated series for years now. This season, since he’s now living in LA where South Park is produced, he’s been bumped up to a full-time writer on the show, starting with the season premiere, which airs tonight at 10.

I recently had the chance to talk to Hader about his role in South Park’s writers’ room, Stefon’s goodbye sketch on Saturday Night Live, and the similarities between the two shows.

So how’d you get involved working on South Park originally?

I met Matt Stone. I was shooting Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and I spent the whole summer that I shot that in LA and met him through Edgar Wright. We just hung out and got along really well. Our wives really like each other. So we became friends first. Then, I met Trey [Parker] and [South Park writer/producer] Vernon Chatman and [producer] Anne Garefino. They hung out with me, and then a year later, I was working on a movie in Vancouver. I was telling Matt, “I’m in Vancouver” and he says, “We’re gonna be in Seattle for a South Park retreat, where we just hang out for a week in a cool hotel and in the morning, we talk out South Park episodes and then take lunch and might go on a little field trip or something — go to a museum, walk around, see the city — and then, we meet again later in the afternoon and then we have dinner.” I was like, “Wow, that sounds great.” He says, “Yeah, do you wanna come?” So, it worked out, and I got to go and be a part of that.

Do you have a favorite episode of the show ever?

Man, there’s too many of them. One that came out a couple years ago really made me laugh was the one where Butters’s parents think he’s gay and they send him to the Christian camp. The whole opening with Cartman saying, “Oh, you guys, you guys, I took a picture of Butters’s dick in my mouth! He’s totally gay!” And they’re like, “No, dude, that makes you gay.” [Laughs] That open made me laugh. There are so many of ‘em. I love how they did “About Last Night…” for the [2008] election. Everybody wanted them to do the political thing, and it was more like an Ocean’s Eleven [parody]. I thought that was really great. I’ve always appreciated they kind of go after everybody, and it wasn’t just jokes. It was always a really strong point of view, just really good satire.

You’ve been contributing to South Park for a few years now, but was working for the show full-time always something you wanted to do when you eventually moved to the west coast?

Yeah, I would do the retreats mostly, and then they would say, “Oh, you’re gonna be in town for two weeks. Do you wanna come work here?” And I would say, “Absolutely.” So it did work out that way. Yeah, when I knew I was leaving SNL, I was moving to LA, Matt said, “If you want to come and work for a full season, we’d love to have you.” I think one of their writers went to another show or something, so it was just Matt and Trey and Vernon. It’d be the four of us. I went, “Oh my gosh, that’d be a blast.”

So it’s just the four of you writing on the current season?

Yeah, yeah. Before, Erica Rivinoja was in there and other people. This season, because I moved to LA, it’s like, “Hey, it’s the perfect kind of job to have when I move to LA just to get acclimated.” It’s really great. You get there at 9 AM, and we’re usually done by noon. I don’t actually physically write any episodes. You sit in a writers’ room with Trey and Matt, hashing out an idea, and then Trey goes and writes. He’ll come in the next day and say, “Okay, you guys wanna see what we wrote?” And it’s all animated and all done.

So you guys are just there to riff on ideas and pitch stuff?

Yeah, you just kinda pitch stuff. And then, in the end, their turnaround is so insanely fast.

Is writing for the show something you’d like to do for years to come?

Yeah, I mean, if they’ll have me. [Laughs] Yeah, I’d love to. I learn so much by working there. You just learn how to break story, and I just think they’re the best — at writing a story that is funny, they are the best in the business right now. And it’s really hard. That’s what I’ve learned. You’re banging your head against the wall. They never just settle for something. They’re always challenging their own ideas and saying, “Should we do this? Should we try that?” They’re constantly challenging their own ideas. It really is Trey throwing out ideas and Matt challenges those ideas by saying, “Wait, what is the point of that? In the world, politically, socially, philisophically, this is what I think we should be kind of be about. And that’s not about that; that’s just, like, a dumb joke.” He’s kind of pushing Trey, and then, Vernon is really good at doing both those things. And I just sit there and laugh.

So you don’t have a huge contribution to the show yet?

I think, if anything, I’m probably the energy. We’ll talk about story, and then I’ll start doing a character that they might include in the show. I’ll do a voice, or I’ll say, “Well, what if Cartman was doing this?” There’s one where we did this thing where it was NCAA basketball. Cartman wanted slaves, so he went to the NCAA because they don’t pay those basketball players but they make a ton of money off them. It’s just Matt saying, “I was reading this article about the NCAA and how they don’t pay anybody but they have these video games.” They make a shitload of money off these kids, and they don’t pay them at all. They won’t even pay for their families to fly out and see them. He’s like, “It’s slavery!” He gets mad. Then, Trey’ll say, “Well, what if we did an episode where Cartman wanted slaves, so he goes to the NCAA to get slaves?” And then I said, “Oh, so he should come in like an old school plantation owner. [doing the voice] ‘Hello there, sir.’” [back to normal voice] And then, Trey will go, “Oh yeah, that’s good.” So he comes in, looking like a plantation owner in a white suit, and me and Trey will just do that voice in the room and everyone will start doing that voice in the room for, like, five minutes. And then I’ll go, “Oh, good. I’ve contributed today.”

And then, Vernon will come up with the joke that just… One of the first episodes I ever worked on was the Kanye West episode, the one where he’s a gay fish. That was one of the first ones; might even be the first one I worked on. There was a part in the writers’ room where we’re going, “Okay, so Cartman has made up this joke about Kanye West about fish sticks. Kanye West doesn’t get the joke; he thinks people are calling him a gay fish and he’s like, ‘I’m not a gay fish.’ He doesn’t understand it’s a joke, so Kanye West wants to kill the person who came up with the joke. And then, a guy comes in and says, ‘Hey Kanye, we’ve got the guy who invented the joke.’” We’re all going, “So oh my gosh, Kanye caught Cartman.” That’s the way the whole room’s going, and then Vernon’ll say, “And it’s Carlos Mencia.” And the whole room just loses it. We all start laughing. It’s just a perfect… like, “Oh gosh, that is funny. Of course it’s Carlos Mencia.” That’s what Vernon Chatman does. He says a joke that’s three levels of funny.

With that system of constantly trying to beat your ideas and come up with better ones, does that always yield better material?

Sometimes. And sometimes, you go in a big circle and go, “No, the thing we initially had was great.” I hear Trey say that a lot. “Wait, what was the first idea? What was the thing we talked about at the retreat?” We’ll talk about an idea at the retreat, and then, months later, you’re writing it in the writers’ room and then, you kind of lose it a little bit and go wait, “Wait, what was funny about this?” It gets off-topic, and sometimes, it’ll get off-topic in a great way.

But mostly, it’s trying to make a point about something. It’s trying to tell an emotional story. That’s another thing I’ve learned at the show is it’s gotta be an emotional story. You hear Trey say that a lot. If we’re telling a story that has to do with Cartman and we’re telling another story that’s about Kyle, he’s always saying, “What’s Cartman’s emotional story here? He goes from this emotion to that emotion. What’s Kyle’s emotional story?” That’s really what drives the thing. And then, it’s going, “Okay, what is emotional? What is our point, if there is one? There doesn’t always have to be one, but what’s the satirical point that we’re hitting, and is it funny?” You’ll write it and record it and you animate it and then you’ll just throw a bunch of it away sometimes. Trey is really good at coming up with a really inspired idea. Like, an inspired joke. A lot of times, the room will be going one way, and Trey will just come up with something that is out of left field. And you’re like, “Oh God, that’s what the scene needs to be.” Something inspiring and silly.

Coming from a sketch background, do you think putting that emotion into comedy is something that can be done in sketch?

Sometimes. Sometimes. I mean, that last Stefon we did with Seth [Meyers] and Stefon was one of those times. John Mulaney and I were like, “You know what? This is really an interesting opportunity because it’s a sketch about these two people, and one of them realizes that he loves the other one.” And you do that joke of Amy Poehler saying, “Seth, go to him,” and everyone laughs. But then, it’s like, “Oh, you know. We’ve been invested in this for a couple years. Let’s not totally sell it out. Let’s make it a sweet thing, that they actually love each other.” The Stefon wedding itself was funny, but then on top of it, Seth felt the same way too. Seth’s like, “Let’s play it very real, and it’ll be funnier.” It’s not selling it out. It’s about those two guys.

What was production like on that sketch? That must have been a pretty fun shoot with all those characters and costumes.

Oh yeah. It was a blast. I thought Rhys Thomas, the guy who directed it, did a phenomenal job. It was a lot of fun. It was very surreal showing up and seeing all these people there, dressed up as the characters that we talked about over the years. The thing I’ll remember the most about it is when I wrapped — they still shot more, but I had to wrap to go back to SNL to do more work. It was my last pre-tape. That’s when I realized, “Oh, that was my last pre-tape” and all those characters, everyone, clapped. [They announced] “That is a wrap on Bill Hader.” Just seeing all the wedding guests clapping was very sweet.

Did you debate whether or not to do a goodbye sketch for yourself? Some performers have them and others are just gone the next season.

You know what it was? Kristen [Wiig] had done a thing where she danced with everybody, her send-off sketch. It was like, “Oh, that was very sweet. That was nice.” John Mulaney was like, “Do you want to do something kind of saying to the audience ‘This is his last sketch?’” And I said, “Remember, we came up with, a year earlier, this Graduate thing where Stefon is getting married and Seth interrupts it?” And then, he went, “Oh, that’s great. Why don’t we just do that?” We just talked it out in a restaurant. It worked out great. It was all very organic, which is why I was happy about it. It was just an organic thing.

Are you looking forward to watching the new season?

Yeah, yeah. Now, it’s like I’ve just gone back to being a fan again, you know? [Laughs] I saw everybody at Seth Meyers’s wedding, and I was going, “So, what are you guys gonna do about this and that? Ah, so Cecily [Strong]’s doing Update. That’s cool.” I’m now back to being a fanboy again.

Were you familiar with any of the new cast members beforehand? Had you seen any of their web videos or anything?

Those Good Neighbor guys, I knew from Andy Samberg and Jorma [Taccone]. Those guys were big fans, so they told me about those Good Neighbor dudes. I’d seen a couple of their videos.

You started on the show during kind of a transitional time like this where you were coming into the cast with a new group of performers while older ones were fading out. What was that process like?

It was nervewracking, but you just don’t know that much, so I didn’t realize. Now, looking back, it’s like, “That’d be really freaky.” But I didn’t really know that much. It wasn’t that big of a deal.

It was more just getting on the show itself was the big thing?

Yeah. You know what it was? It was kinda like, “Yeah, we’re just trying to figure out your thing.” And I was totally freaked out, but I was never thinking, ‘Oh man, we’ve gotta really perform because we’re the new guys.’ It’s more just like, ‘I hope I don’t get fired’. That’s all I was thinking. To be honest, “Lazy Sunday” is the thing that probably helped me out more than anything because that was such a big deal, and I think our whole group was all associated with Andy. When Kristen would hit, it was a big thing. We were kind of our own cast. It might have helped; maybe it didn’t. I don’t know. All I know is that I never felt comfortable at the show probably until my fourth season. [That’s] when I felt like, ‘Oh, I have a job here.’

Do you feel like there was a distinct moment when you established yourself on the show?

I think the Julia Louis-Dreyfus show [in 2007] where I did Vinny Vedecci for the first time, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus. That was a big deal. That was one where, after it ended, I felt really happy and was like, “That went really well and that was mine.”

Do you have a favorite sketch that you ever did on the show, whether it got on the air or not?

Too many. We did a sketch once that never got on. Dana Carvey played Casey Kasem, and I played his son, Jacey Kasem. I was coming to his house in the middle of the night, asking for money. It was a very sad scene between father and son, but we were just doing [Casey Kasem voice] “Dad, it’s me, your son, Jacey Kasem.” “Son, I want nothing to do with you. I ask all the time, when are you gonna get a job? When are you gonna move out of the house? What recording artist has more number one hits than any other? That’s Mariah Carey with 17.” “But seriously, Dad, I’m homeless.” [back to normal voice] It was really funny. Our dress rehearsal audience hated it.

Do you have a guess as to why the audience didn’t like it?

I don’t know. I have no idea. You do something on Wednesday that you’re like “This is gonna kill” and then you do it on the show and people are just not having it. You never know why things work or don’t work. That’s why you just keep creating things. If you went by the numbers, Stefon should not work as a character on SNL. It’s low energy. It’s weird. It’s more watching me behaving rather than having strong jokes. There’s no real jokes in a Stefon sketch. It’s just him listing things. It shouldn’t really work, [but] it’s the one thing I’ll be the most known for on the show.

When did that set in, that Stefon would be the thing you’re most known for on the show?

Well, my last season. Yeah. I think they put me on an SNL Christmas card as Stefon.

SNL and South Park are similar in a sense that they’re both fast-paced shows that deal with current events. Do you feel like those shows have a lot in common?

Yeah, ‘cause they’re both done in a week. You’ve gotta kinda have your shit together. That’s been the difference, post-SNL or outside of SNL when I’ve written something with somebody — a movie or talking about a show or a video that we’re gonna shoot — I tend to work incredibly fast and make decisions and move forward because there’s just no time to fuck around. Working on other things, people go, “Hey, we have a couple of months to figure this thing out.” I’m like, “Why? We know what it is. I know exactly what this should be. Let’s go. What are we waiting on?”

Did SNL train you that way, or were you always like that?

SNL totally trained me that way. When I got SNL, I’d only been performing comedy for, like, a year and a half, so I had no fucking idea what I was doing. It was really like going from kindergarten to Harvard, and then I was just learning as much as I could from everybody.

Talking to Bill Hader About Writing for ‘South Park’ […]