sketch comedy

Saturday Night Live Co–Head Writer Bryan Tucker Picks His 6 Best Sports Sketches

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson

You might not know Bryan Tucker by name, but you definitely know his work. Tucker, who started out as a stand-up, first wrote for The Chris Rock Show. From there, he did a short stint at MADtv and Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn. But he is better known for working on Chappelle’s Show, where he was one of the few writers on staff. He then went on to Saturday Night Live, where he’s been for ten years, becoming co–head writer in the spring of 2014. Last week, Tucker launched The Kicker, a sports-comedy website. In honor of its launch, Vulture asked Tucker to look back on his career and remember his favorite sports sketches and sketches where he worked with athletes, from Tebow meeting Jesus to the Racial Draft.

Even a good idea needs help to make it work, and this sketch was enormously improved by two things: First, Jason Sudeikis, who plays Jesus with such charm and confidence. Yes, this Jesus smirks and lightly insults a few people, but you never think he’s a bad guy. He’s the kind of Jesus you could get a beer with.

Second, it aired at an ideal time in the news cycle: right on the eve of Tebow mania, when he was frequently talked-about but not quite a household name. Luckily, SNL is a show where you can write something and see it fully formed on TV a couple days later. The day after it ran, Seth Meyers sent me a nice text saying it was like a “perfect pass” in that it hit its target at exactly the right moment. A lot of people forget that this appeared on the SNL Christmas show hosted by Jimmy Fallon, but Fallon is not in it at all. This was the last sketch on that show, and Jimmy was putting on his ice skates so he could deliver live “good night”s from Rockefeller Center’s ice rink.

“What Up With That?” with Mike Tyson
This is one of my favorite sketches to do with Kenan Thompson. The great thing about writing these with [other SNL head writer] Rob Klein is we can do almost anything. “Let’s put James Franco in a flat-top and an enormous David Byrne suit!” “Let’s get Andy to dance around in short shorts as John Stockton!”  Yes. Yes, we can do both those things.

This was the fourth or fifth “What Up With That” we did, and by this time, we had liberty to book other celebrities besides the host to be part of it. Rob and I thought Mike Tyson would be great as the guy who has to sit there and look annoyed at Kenan while chaos swirls around them. So we asked for Tyson, and two days later, he was there.

I had never met him. I was worried that he might not be into trying comedy. I was wrong. He loved it. During our 8 p.m. dress rehearsal, Tyson got out of his seat and danced around like crazy. (The video below is from the dress-rehearsal version.) No one asked him to do this. He just felt the spirit, I guess. When rehearsal was done, I came up to Tyson and said, “That was great! When we do it for air —” Tyson stopped me.

“Wait. That wasn’t it?”

“No. It was great,” I said, “But that was just our dress rehearsal. There’s still a live show at 11:30.”

Tyson threw his head back, “Awwww, damn! You mean I have do that again?!”

An hour later, he did it again.

Note: If you watch anything in this, please check out the five small DeAndre Coles (Rob’s idea) at around 1:50 in. If that doesn’t at least make you smile, I can’t help you, man.

“Racial Draft”
This is not an SNL sketch, but I’m including it because it’s one that almost everyone seems to know.

I had been friends with Neal Brennan, co-creator of Chappelle’s Show, even before the show began. When Dave and Neal got a pilot commitment from Comedy Central, Neal asked if I would send them some ideas, and I got a couple on in season one.

At that time, I was writing for Comedy Central’s Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn. During one show, Colin was having one of his frequent arguments about race with comedian Keith Robinson, who was claiming that Jason Kidd was black. Colin was livid. “Jason Kidd’s not black! He’s mixed! Why do you get him? We want Jason Kidd!” This gave me the idea to do a draft to decide once and for all which race could claim which racially ambiguous celebrity.

I sent the idea (and a rough draft of a script) to Dave Chappelle and Neal, and couple weeks later, Neal told me that they were doing it. I was not there for the filming of it because I was still working on Tough Crowd. So the first time I saw it fully edited was when it was on TV. It came out better than I had ever hoped. Neal directed it superbly. Dave added some great lines (“Good-bye, fried rice, hello, fried chicken”), and some great new cast (now Wu-Tang was part of it.) The sketch kicked off season two of Chappelle’s Show and opened the door for me to work full-time there when Tough Crowd ended a few months later.

“NCAA Cold Open”
I’ll be the first to admit this is not one of SNL’s most memorable sketches. But I like it because of this: It was originally written to be about Kentucky and Karl Anthony Towns, but was changed to be about Duke and Jahlil Okafor 12 minutes before it aired.

That Saturday was the day of the NCAA Final Four semifinals. Duke had won the earlier game. In the later game, Kentucky took on underdog Wisconsin. I had expected Kentucky to win, as they were the heavy favorite, so I wrote the sketch using Kentucky players and coaches. I was wrong. The game ended at about 11:18 with Kentucky’s season over, and we had 12 minutes to change everything: rewrite the script, slightly redo the costumes, and tell the cast that they were suddenly different people.

I knew there was a possibility that Kentucky would lose, so I had asked everyone to prepare a backup plan. We just thought we’d have more than 12 minutes to do it. Still, the staff at SNL is very good at dealing with sudden changes. They made it work.

About two minutes before we were live, I pulled Taran Killam aside. He was now playing coach Mike Krzyzewski, and I wanted to make sure he knew how to pronounce the Duke player’s name.

I said, “His name is Ja-leel Oh-ka-for.”

Taran tried to repeat, “Ja-heel Oh-ko-for?”

“Ja-leel Oh-ka-for.”

“Okay. Got it,” said Taran. Thirty seconds later, he went on live TV and did it perfectly.

“New Disney Movie” 
I know Dwayne Johnson is a movie star, but he’s also an athlete, so I’m including him here.

It’s often easier to generate ideas for a host when they’re a “type.” We had a big action star at our disposal, so I wanted to write a parody of a big action movie. I thought about Disney live-action remakes and got excited about redoing “Bambi” as a cold-blooded revenge movie. My friend and fellow writer Mikey Day is great at genre parodies, so I asked him to help. Mikey and I would try to think of jokes and fun one-liners, and if we ever got stuck, Mikey would fill in the silences by whispering menacingly, “I’m Bambi.”

Everything came together. Dwayne Johnson did it perfectly. (Watch how he pauses and slightly cocks his head when saying, “Now it’s time for them to pay … dearly.” He clearly knows what he’s doing.) And it was wonderfully directed by the team of Matt Villines and Oz Rodriguez, who were excited to take on action-movie tropes.

For the next couple weeks, Mikey would walk into my office without warning and yell, “Deer crossing, motherfucker!”

Shaq and Barkley on Weekend Update
We had done lots of sketches with Kenan as Barkley before, but what really helps this segment is Jay Pharoah’s way over-the-top Shaq impression. I knew Jay could probably do Shaq, but when I asked him to do it for the first time and saw him transform into this lumbering, half-blind monster, I knew we had a good start.

I write these with a writer named Sarah Schneider. Sarah is a great comedy writer, but she doesn’t know a damn thing about sports. She just thinks Shaq and Barkley are funny personalities. At first I thought her ignorance was a disadvantage. But I later figured out that it helped these characters enormously because you didn’t have to know anything about the basketball to enjoy them.  So if I get too far into NBA minutia, Sarah pulls me back and reminds me that these segments are about characters. They’re two sports personalities who, luckily, transcend sports.

SNL’s Tucker Picks His Best Sports Sketches