In 2002, James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales released Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. For fans of the show both devoted and casual, the oral history was an incredible read — full of great stories from the show’s raucous early years and beyond. Miller has updated the book, a new version of which comes out on September 9, with interviews from more recent cast members. In this excerpt, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, and Lorne Michaels discuss Wiig’s emotional, Rolling Stones–soundtracked farewell.
Considering all the dozens of cast members who’ve left Saturday Night Live since the first group packed up and followed Lorne Michaels out the door in 1980, it would have been virtually impossible to make a fuss every time somebody split. How did it happen, then, that in May of 2012, cast and crew said elaborate and tearful good-byes to Kristen Wiig in an on-air party disguised as a sketch, with His Lordship Michaels coming out from the wings to dance with Wiig and give her a sweet send-off?
There were many reasons — at least as many as the number of characters that Wiig had played and helped invent in her seven awe-inspiring seasons on the show. After a period in which SNL was commended for the number of smart women in key positions both on- and off-camera, such stars as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler had flown the proverbial coop, depleting the female population. To lose Wiig was to lose an entire chorus of recurring characters, a major blow at any time but especially then.
And that’s one of the reasons why she got a party — or, really, an observance, a moment for the show to stop and register an unusually fond farewell. Before the sketch was over, Wiig danced with everybody — all the men (including Andy Samberg, who literally swept her off her feet and briefly held her in the air) and the remaining women and then, finally, Michaels, who normally dislikes public displays of emotion. But the event met his principal criterion for material on the show: It was funny. Also, it was bittersweet and even poignant.
Bill Hader: It’s a testament to Kristen that she came back after Bridesmaids was such a big hit. I’m not going to name names, but some people who were working at the show said, “If that happened to me, I would not come back.” She was at the table read, writing sketches, doing everything, and we were like, “You’re one of the biggest comedy stars in the world right now and it’s so awesome that you’re here.” That’s the funny thing, though, too: The people who came up with Kristen weren’t thinking she’d just become a star, because we had already seen what a big star she was. By her first season she would come out on her mark and the audience would just start cheering. I remember I was doing all these impressions and stuff like that and trying so hard to get just one character on the show. And Kristen would so easily get out there and just, boom, boom, boom — like Penelope and this and that. And these things are destroying, they’re so good.
Kristen Wiig: Honestly it never crossed my mind to leave the show early. For so many reasons — A, I had a contract for seven years and I wanted to fulfill it. To me it wasn’t like, “I’m going to be on this show and then better things are going to come.” I wanted to be on the show. It was really hard for me to leave even when I did, and just because Bridesmaids made a lot of money didn’t affect how I felt being on the show or change my life in that way. I had known pretty much from the beginning that I was going to do seven years and that would be it. Not because I wanted to leave, but seven years is a good chunk of time, and I was excited to try other things and also make way for new people to come in.
I know that Lorne knew I was leaving just from being around the show; we can’t really keep any secrets around there. Plus my contract was up and I didn’t renegotiate for another year, so he knew. But of course I knew that I still had to sit down with him and talk. I believe we were at dinner and I just said, “Well, are we going to talk about this?” And it was really hard and emotional. The last show of my first season I went up to Lorne and just thanked him; I was just overwhelmed from the year and I got a little choked up, and then when I left, I got really choked up. So I started and ended my experience there crying in front of Lorne. It was really, really, really difficult and it’s hard for people in the outside world to understand, I think, about leaving that show, because it really is your family. Even the hosts come in and after just spending one week with us it’s like we’re friends and we know each other and we go through this crazy experience, and that’s just one week. So you do that twenty-two times a season for seven years — it becomes your life, and when you leave it’s very, very strange.
Lorne Michaels: Colin Jost wrote the Kristen good-bye sketch as a graduation ceremony. At that point, I don’t think Andy [Samberg] was 100 percent sure he was leaving; Jason [Sudeikis] was agonizing about it. This was the last show of the season, and Mick [Jagger] was hosting. It was too long at dress, and we just didn’t know whether we’d be doing it — whether there would be time, especially since it was going to be at the end of the show. And so because of that I don’t think there was a lot of thought given to how emotional it would be until suddenly there it was and we were doing it. “Ruby Tuesday” was playing, each cast member danced with her — it was just a magical thing. People in the audience from the old cast even came up onstage. Kristen gave everything to this show her entire time here.
Wiig: Usually when someone leaves the show, at the table read people write a good-bye sketch. It gets slipped into the pile so people don’t read it ahead of time, and it’s the last sketch of the day, and usually there are a lot of tears. Colin Jost wrote that sketch and I thought it was just for the table read, and when it got into the show, I was completely shocked. I was happy because he wrote such a beautiful, sweet, simple thing and also I knew I wanted to somehow say good-bye but didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know if I should go on “Update”; I had never been on “Update” as myself, and I didn’t want to get up there and just start bawling my eyes out. We tried thinking of characters leaving, but I couldn’t think of anything. It was almost one a.m. and it was my last show and there wasn’t a lot of time left, and there was an issue of it even making it into the show. So I didn’t know if I was going to be able to say good-bye. I changed clothes quickly, so that when Mick Jagger’s talking I’m putting on my cap and gown and running out to the stage to sit down. It ended up making the show and it was just one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had. I can’t even really put it into words. When Lorne came onstage, that really got me. I mean, he was there during rehearsal, but it just seemed so final on-air. He was out there in his suit, and it was just — oh my God, I could get emotional thinking about it right now.
From the book Live From New York (Newly Updated and Expanded for SNL’s 40th Season) by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. Copyright 2002 by Thomas W. Shales and Jimmy the Writer, Inc. Excerpted material Copyright 2014 by Jimmy the Writer, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.