It was late summer, 1982, and I was driving down Lake Shore Drive in Chicago with Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I turned to her and said, “This must be what winning the lottery feels like.” We had just been asked to join the cast of Saturday Night Live along with Brad Hall (and Paul Barrosse, who would become a writer) and were on our way to our last performance of “The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee.”
The show was a collection of our best Practical Theatre sketches over a three-year period and it was a local hit that caught the attention of Tim Kazurinsky. Tim brought in Dick Ebersol and Bob Tischler who decided on the spot to make us the new cast. We were so excited we couldn’t contain ourselves. I even did something stupid like announce “Live from the Practical Theatre it’s Saturday Night!” before our finale started.
That’s the good part of the story. The less good part is…we were hired to light a fire under Eddie Murphy, who was already emerging as a superstar. We were introduced to the existing cast and writers, not as an addition, per se, but as competition. We’d do our thing, they’d do their thing.
Problem was, our thing had no credibility yet and we were more or less left by Dick and Bob to fend for ourselves. Perhaps they thought that was the best environment to bring out our best.
Brad landed Weekend Update on the strength of his natural silliness (think Python) and Julia…well, her talent transcends most mortals and she found a niche. She was under-utilized and I don’t believe she looks back on those years particularly fondly, but I know that everyone recognized her gifts. I on the other hand felt like the last heel of white bread left untouched.
I was liked; people even gave me credit for being a real actor because of how I committed to scenes, but I never gained any momentum. One week I’d have a few good sketches, feel that I was on my way, and then be completely out of the show for the next two weeks. I didn’t know how to create characters with “hooks” and the writers didn’t know how to develop me.
If this all seems like “poor me” and “sour grapes” then I am not being honest. I loved every minute of it, even when I wept for my foundering career. I lived in New York and I got paid! And now and again, I was on television!
After the 82-83 season wrapped, we were told that we’d be notified as to whether or not our contracts would be picked up. My last show was dismal and I had a bad feeling, but I was confident because I was called “No Problem Kroeger” by Dick Ebersol that I stood a good chance. So I went back home to Cedar Falls, Iowa to await the call.
The call came. It was from Dick Ebersol and it was to tell me that my contract would not be picked up. They had, however, picked up Brad and Julia. Paul, the writer, had been dropped too. I was heartbroken. I was about to deliver a commencement address to my alma mater and had to suck up the feeling of failure to give a positive message about “discovering your dreams.”
Then came another call about three days later. It was from Bob Tischler who asked if I would consider coming back for less money.
“You don’t have to pay me at all” was my insincere, yet sincere reply.
Moments later Dick called again and said, “You have a friend in Brad Hall. He came into my office and told me how you were not used correctly. That you had talents that were yet unseen. He even said that he and Julia aren’t sure they want to continue on the show without you.”
He asked me to come back to New York and we attended a Yankees game together. Dick offered me my job back, at less pay, so as to fit into the budget NBC had given them. I accepted and I was back for the 1983-1984 season.
The first thing I did was call Brad Hall to thank him. It was awkward because such cuddliness was not our relationship and I probably fumbled my humility, but I was deeply touched and have loved him before, during and after SNL.
That season was slightly better. The biggest difference was that I ended on a very high note with a thing called “Needleman” where I sang and danced as a nerdy dentist. It gave me the momentum that I needed and I was asked back. Brad was not.
I went into Dick’s office and he said, “If this is about Brad, turn around, it isn’t going to happen.”
Brad is an intensely honest man and he pulled no punches with producers regarding how he felt about certain things; especially being lied to himself. As a result, a relationship with Ebersol and Tischler developed that would not be mended.
My third season in 1984-85 was a re-cast where Brad, Tim and Robin Duke were gone. Added to the cast were Martin Short, Billy Crystal, Harry Shearer, Chris Guest, Pamela Stephenson and Rich Hall. Mary Gross, Jim Belushi, Julia and I remained.
The season was a smash. The likes of Martin, Billy and Chris, in particular, were creative genius, but everyone was elevated. The “Big Boys” included me in their talent pool and even though I still didn’t break out, I held my own with superstars (at least they were in my book).
I had learned over three years to face bitter disappointment, heartbreak, and frustration (even anger), but also to find resilience, fortitude, confidence, and joy. SNL was a graduate school for comedy but also for life itself. The skills and knowledge have helped me to build a successful and creative life.
Often I wish that I could go back, knowing what I know now, to find my way to becoming the “Break Out” that eluded me then.