Saturday Night Live Head Writers on Claims They Normalized Trump, Their Dream Hosts, and the Sketches They’re Shocked Made It to Air

Photo: NBC

The wild ride that was the 2016 election season helped this season of Saturday Night Live get off to an incredibly strong start. But current events aren’t the only reason SNL has been on a roll — much of it has to do with the team of head writers Lorne Michaels has assembled: Bryan Tucker, Sarah Schneider, and Chris Kelly. Tucker, who worked on Chappelle’s Show before getting hired at SNL in 2005, was responsible for much of Kenan Thompson’s best work over the last decade, most notably “What Up With That?” As a duo, Schneider and Kelly have been responsible for the show’s beloved music videos and pop-culture parodies like “Twin Bed,” “Wishin’ Boot,” “Thanksgiving Miracle,” and “Beygency,” to name a few.

At New York Comic Con this October, all three sat down with Vulture’s Jesse David Fox for a panel the day after the Lin-Manuel Miranda episode aired. They discussed specific highlights of that episode, hit back at claims that the show steals jokes from Twitter, and responded to accusations that the show helped normalize Donald Trump by giving him a hosting gig.

Jesse David Fox: Before we start, I think it would be helpful if you guys explain what head writers do on Saturday Night Live.
Bryan Tucker: Eighty percent of it is just writing funny sketches for the show. Part of it is helping new writers. A big part of it is thinking of the show as a whole, thinking about what people might like to see this week, thinking about cast members and trying to have all of them represented, filling in the gaps that maybe other writers did not fill in before. 

Do you divide the work up between the three of you?
Chris Kelly: When we’re rewriting the sketches, there are two halves. There’s a rewrite table on one floor and a rewrite table on the other, so we’ll divide and conquer. Having a huge staff, and especially during election season, things change so rapidly, it’s good having more hands.

Around 5 p.m. on Friday, the “grab her by the pussy” clip came out when you’re already deep into the week. What was your reaction? What do you start doing?
CK: It was very weird. Sarah and I had written a cold open for a table read, which was the vice-presidential debate. Because the vice-presidential debate was so early in the week, we were like, maybe this will stay and be the story all week, but something could happen as something always happens. We kept checking our phones. Then we did a rewrite of it Friday morning to incorporate Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but still a little bit of a vice-presidential debate. We did a third draft Friday morning and we were sort of like, “Woo!” Then at 5 p.m. we all got the same breaking-news alert and we were like, “Oh well!” So we rewrote it again until like 4 in the morning on Saturday morning. It was fun because it turned into everybody’s sketch and everybody was just pitching in jokes right up to the last second. Same thing for Update.

BT: It’s so rare that something happens on Friday. Normally the news is during the week and all these other shows — the Daily Show, Samantha Bee, all the talk shows — already get a crack at it. It’s so cool sometimes for us just to be the first.

Sarah Schneider: You’d be surprised how many of the cold opens are written on Thursday night, Friday night, just because we have the flexibility to be like, this is a new story, we can do something about it.

CK: It was crazy because even when the leaked audio came out 5 p.m., it wasn’t as simple as okay that’s the news story. Every ten minutes, it was like this person is unendorsing … this happened … also this — so one person would be writing and another person would be literally refreshing the news being like, “Okay, now this.” It was very horrible and disgusting situation, but it was fun and alive getting to respond to this right away.

You mentioned that it’s rare that you have something that the other late-night shows don’t have a take on, but it seems like this is the most joked about election ever because of Twitter. Some people think you take jokes from Twitter. In general, how is it writing knowing that all the time people are trying to tweet jokes around the exact same premise?
SS: We’re actually really keyed into that. Chris is always on Twitter, so while we’re writing, he’s scrolling or seeing.

CK: I steal everything from Twitter [laughs]. There’s nothing you can do about it. There’s so much. Everybody can make their own jokes and all you can do is be like, We don’t do that, we would never do that, that’s disgusting. There’s so much that everybody is going to make versions of the same jokes, and you just hope there’s not overlap, but you know oftentimes there is. That’s the world.

Did you guys have to look up if you’re allowed to say pussy?
SS: Actually that’s a great story. Our standards woman, Betsy Torres, basically ran to find us as fast as she could to say “You can say pussy!” And we were like, “Thank you.”

BT: How many times did we say it last night? Three?

SS: Three.

CK: Three.

SS: We filled our quota.

All election, I’ve seen people say stuff like, “This election already is a parody, how do you make fun of it?” It’s a silly argument, but it is true that it’s already very heightened. How do you then even intensify that even more?
BT: It’s tough. Also, it’s very polarizing … especially during the primaries, you would get a sense that you couldn’t just be flippant about it. You would have to have a point. Talking about Trump’s hair or just the kind character he was just is not enough. There had to be something underneath it.

SS: Especially as Donald Trump became more of a serious candidate. We’ve been given more freedom and we’re allowed to go a little harder at him. Where at the beginning, it was the whole sea of Republican candidates, it was like, make fun of how he looks or the shady business. Now it’s like, “Okay, he might be a little more dangerous.”

CK: Comedically, it can be hard because you want to come at it from a different angle. Because, like you said, everybody can tweet jokes about it a thousand times. Like we did a video last night that was like a day off with his campaign manager. Coming at it from the side, you can still get straightforward Donald Trump jokes, but you deliver it from a peppy music video. Or like the “Melania Moments” ones that Julio Torres writes. He’s a new writer, and they are these sort of deep thought, 30-second videos that are Trump jokes, but are done in an interesting, surprising way.

BT: And what we can do that Twitter can’t do, that a lot of other shows can’t do is instead of just saying jokes, we can do it. We can have Alec Baldwin put on a wig and lower his jaw and get into it. The performance is part of it that also makes it funny, rather than just the take on it and the writing.

What does having Alec Baldwin bring?
SS: He’s been great. So much of his stature, his voice embodies a lot of the same things. Also he follows politics as closely as we do, so he’s excited to be a part of this whole conversation. Working with both him and with Kate is a tornado. She’s made Hillary more than an impression, she’s made her a person and a character and we’re just writing character sketches for her now.

CK: We’ve said this about Kate before, but it’s true of Alec, or it’s true of Larry David when he did Bernie Sanders, you can give them jokes and they just know that character so well that they make it come alive. Kate in particular. There are some nights where I feel pretty proud, thinking, These are great jokes, and then there are some shows that we’re like, “I’m not sure if this joke is good enough,” and then Kate will be like, “I’ll make it good enough.” Not that she says that, but that’s just the vibe she exudes. She’s just a force to watch.

BT: I feel like last night was a really good example with Hilary Clinton. We cut to her and she’s partying and she’s dancing. She has not said a thing and already the audience is onboard. They’ve won them over. She’s already done the work. We just have to go from there.

Considering that Hillary has been done so many times, how did you guys and Kate set hers apart?
SS: The main thing is we wanted it to feel like it was a person. Whenever Kate does an impression, she wants to make sure it’s kind to the person even if it’s still a critique. We were trying to make this Hillary multifaceted.

CK: Yeah, we wanted to show her sweetness and that she was incredibly qualified, but also that she has that “I’m so qualified and hardworking, why don’t you just give it to me” side. Compared to Amy [Poehler], it’s just that since then Hillary has been through even more and is more accomplished, so she’s probably even more like, “Ughhhh!” It’s just trying to amp up almost every part of her.

BT: I feel like Amy’s Hillary played on Hillary’s awkwardness with social interactions and Kate’s plays on her ambition.

People talked about SNL and how it helped get George W. Bush elected. Some complain about SNL or other comedy shows normalizing Donald Trump’s behavior. As people who are making the comedy, what is your response to that line of thinking?
BT: I feel like the media has already normalized his behavior. Our job is not to promote one candidate or the other. Our job is to take what’s already happening and make fun of it. I feel like Donald Trump was already very close to the Republican nomination before he was on Saturday Night Live, so I don’t think Saturday Night Live put him over the edge. What we do is take people who are in the news and try our best to parody what everyone is talking about. So if someone is talking about Donald Trump, maybe we want to bring him on.

Let’s talk a bit about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s episode. With someone like Lin and the nature of a writing staff, were so many of the pitches musical parodies? 
CK: There were some, yeah [laughs].

BT: He came wanting to show people he could do other stuff that’s not Hamilton, so we tried to accommodate him. Still, I would say it was a very musical theater-y episode. These two wrote Crucible theater party. Only people who have come from that background and experienced it firsthand will know those details. They did a great job with that.

Yeah, it seemed like it came from a very real place.
SS: Too real. I was the girl dancing against Chris at the party.

CK: Me and Sara and Kate and Aidy wrote it. And we were brainstorming about cast parties and Sarah was like, we could have a verse in there about hooking up in hot tubs and we were like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” I guess her cast parties were a little more adult. We were like, we just drank soda and danced with each other and sang. Anything and everything in the song at least one person experienced, if not all four of us. My favorite was — did Aidy pitch it? — that girl who doesn’t know how to flirt with a guy, so she just steals his hat and then like walks around the party all night. It’s such a stressful energy. You’ve seen that happen and it’s like so sweet.

SS: I haven’t done that in a really long time. It never works.

BT: I have daughters and I have seen that happen.

CK: Oh no! Oh no. It’s so sweet and ugh, oh God.

Chris and Sarah, you’ve done a bunch of music videos, can you walk through how those are written?
CK: God.

SS: It’s a horrible decision every time. They’re always written on Tuesday night in nine hours from start to finish. Usually we take a genre or a type of song or a specific song and are like, this is the vibe we like and we’ll start there and we’ll work backwards and fit in what jokes we want to make.

CK: We’ll know what the joke is. Like for “Twin Bed,” we knew we wanted to do a sexy song about trying to do it in a twin bed and we’ll try to figure out the melody. Kate is really musical and so is Sarah, and they figure out what the melody is and then talk to the musical director. And he’ll make a track for us and then we’ll write to the track and make a new track. It goes throughout the night. Those weeks are a little tricky because they take so long, but you still have to write three or four other things. But some of most fun weeks have been doing the music videos.

Did the Kellyanne Conway sketch start because you felt a little bit bad for her? 
CK: I don’t feel bad for her. I mean, c’mon. It’s like, “God, this woman,” because she’s so good at her job. She can just all of a sudden be like, “Um, actually no, what he meant was …” It’s crazy how many times she can be spun around and have a really good answer. She’s just so impressive to me regardless of what you think about her. I guess I did feel a little sad. It was just imagine what if she thought she had a day off, what it would be like. Because that’s what we feel when our phone buzzes with a CNN alert. We’re like, this could be literally anything now and she has to respond to it.

Bryan, before SNL, you worked on Chappelle’s Show and another comedy show. How is it different writing for a show that hypothetically needs a singular voice to writing for a show that is defined by having different voices?
BT: It’s so much different. When I wrote for Chappelle or Chris Rock, you pitched ideas to them and then they would make it their own. Here, the writer has a lot more of a voice just because there are so many voices and the tone can shift wildly.

The biggest thing for me is just, all those shows, and most shows, Inside Amy Schumer, Kroll Show, whatever, they pitch ideas, they write the script, they go and shoot it, they edit it, they show it in front of an audience, they reedit it, and they make it the very best version possible. Chappelle’s Show would show things to the audience two or three times before they would get on television. Chris Rock as well. At SNL, we write it on Tuesday, it gets picked on Wednesday, it gets rehearsed on Thursday and Friday, and then we do our very best to put it up as best we can. That’s why often things are a little uneven.  

In general, how much does a host dictate the episode?
BT: Depends on the host. If a host has hosted more than twice, their opinion will matter a whole lot.

SS: Yeah. If we really like something, we’ll do it. Or at least be like, “Yeah, that sounds great,” and then be like, “but I don’t know.” But at least we try and listen to what they want to do.

BT: But one of our tasks as writers is that when they come in, we’re supposed to write for them. Kevin Hart one week and Blake Shelton another week results in very different ideas. It’s up to us to come to them rather than them come to us.

CK: It’s a balance because you want to work to their strengths and you want to make sure you’re featuring them in a way that the world wants to see them. You also want to have a couple curveballs where they’re playing against type or doing things that are outside the box. It is a balance.

Do you have a favorite host or a host that surprised you the most?
SS: Oh, yeah. Channing Tatum I loved. He was the first one I truly loved. He’s so nice.

BT: Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. He’s a great host.

SS: Christoph Waltz was great.

CK: Chris Hemsworth.

SS: The hunks.

BT: All the hunks.

CK: Larry David was my favorite host.

BT: And I have to say, former SNL cast members always make great hosts because they come in knowing how it works and what to do.

SS: Yeah, they’re great.

BT: Bill [Hader]. Maya Rudolph. Fred was great.

Do you have any dream hosts you haven’t worked with yet?
SS: You had yours already, Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

CK: Yeah, I was very excited for Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She was always floated as a maybe for years and I loved Seinfeld, so I was always sad when she didn’t make it, so when she was there last year, I was super-excited. And in our cold open that we wrote she played Elaine asking Bernie a question and I was like, “I should quit after this,” I was truly so excited. On the night before, when we were blocking it, we were standing around with Larry and Julia pitching jokes for it as Elaine and it was so funny. There was a reference to yada yada and her and Larry were trying to remember what the wording was. And I was like, “I know what it was!”

BT: Ever since I was a kid, I would want to have Eddie Murphy host. He’s come close a couple times but never has. I got to meet him at the SNL 40th Anniversary but you know he didn’t do too much. A dream, somebody like Obama.

SS: There was like a rumor at some point last year that Beyoncé was going to host and Jay Z was the musical guest and we were all like, “Ahh!”

Chris from the last time I interviewed you, I know that Kate’s performance in the “Close Encounters” sketch was a highlight for you. In general, what are your personal opinions about breaking in a sketch?
SS: If it’s genuine, I don’t mind it. But if it’s purposeful, to get a laugh, then I despise it.

CK: That one was so fun because you could see that they were really trying to keep it together and Aidy was just getting a real kick out of her friend. You never see Aidy break.

BT: That’s when Ryan Gosling hosted and all week he was laughing. At rehearsals, he couldn’t keep it together, so we knew that when he went up there that he was already gonna be enjoying himself. We like that, as long as it doesn’t get in the way too much where it feels self-indulgent.

Game shows have seemed to take the place of talk shows as the go-to sketch staples at Saturday Night Live. What is the value of having that kind of framing for the show?
BT: It’s good because it’s a very easy setup, punch-line format. You can do a Jeopardy question and that’s the setup and then the answer is very conducive to a quick, punchy joke. And with “Celebrity Family Feud,” we can bring in people who are celebrities or personalities and it’s a great way to get a lot of cast out there.

What is a sketch you haven’t gotten on that you’ll either never try again or that you haven’t gotten on that you will still try? 
BT: You guys did have one the first week where it was about people trying to exist in this world and their phone rings and there’s bad news. Then the next week you took a very similar idea and then put it on.

CK: For the first show, we wrote a sketch that was a promo for a fun new fall show. It was about six friends living in the city and it was like, “It’s the best show that captures what it’s like to be alive now.” It would be like, “So I had a date …” and then it was like a CNN alert that was like “hundreds dead in a landslide.” So it was just like a normal Friends-style sitcom but every second someone got a horrifying news alert and they just ignored it. It just didn’t play at the table.

SS: You know a sketch works when Lorne is like, “It was too sad.”

CK: He said it was too sad and so we were like, “We’ll add a fun song to it and resubmit it next week.” It’s so tricky because the longer you’re there, there’s like a few times that you can go back to that well of resubmitting a sketch that didn’t work. Sometimes they’d be better with a different host or they were great but the show was packed, but in general you just don’t want to be one of those people who resubmits every single week because if it didn’t work once, it probably won’t work again. We’ll try to resubmit the one we’re talking about at Christmas.

Are there sketches, conversely, that you’re surprised got on still?
SS: Oh, yeah.

CK: I mean, every sketch every week.

BT: I was surprised about my Sprint thing.

CK: But that’s still good. A surprise one was “Dyke and Fats.”

SS: Oh, yeah.

CK: They had talked about it earlier in the year because it was a joke about how Kate and Aidy refer to each other. Kate said like, “Dyke is tired” and Aidy said, “Fats is too.” And they wanted to do a cop show where they played Dyke and Fats. Aidy was still so new and we were like, “You shouldn’t immediately start on the show and then submit a sketch called ‘Dyke and Fats,’ let’s give it some time.” That was one that we really liked and were proud of it, but putting that to the table we were like, “It’ll either work or perfectly not work.”

Or are there things that you remember just not working?
BT: I remember a sketch I wrote with Kenan as Al Sharpton, where he was going undercover. I’m sure no one remembers this, but I don’t think it got a single laugh. It was one of those things where it was like, “Is the audience still here?” And we all just had look at each other and go, “Oh well.”

SS: We had a couple things that there had to be big changes between dress rehearsal and the show.

CK: Yeah sometimes they’ll say, “You’ll have to take two minutes out of this.”

SS: We did an improv show where Robert Durst was in it and it was really making us laugh. Kate was doing Robert Durst. And then we had to cut a huge chunk out of it and it was only like three minutes long.

CK: The host got cut out of it too.

SS: It still went to the show and people were like, “I know who that is,” but didn’t make any noise for it.

CK: We were begging for it not to be in the show. We were like, “Please cut this out of the show.” But by the time you get to the show, a lot of times what makes it or doesn’t at the end is about what is funniest but also physically time-wise, what fits into the show. If something is three minutes and something is four minutes, and there’s only three minutes left, you go with the three-minute one. Our little three-minute baby fit and we were like, “No!”

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

SNL Head Writers on the Election, Trump, Hillary