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Horatio Sanz Had a Good Reason for Breaking All the Time on SNL

Horatio Sanz laughs. Beyond anything else, this fact defined his eight seasons on Saturday Night Live to many people. There’s Horatio, breaking again with Jimmy Fallon. But there was more to it. Breaking, for Sanz, was not haphazard; it was deeply rooted in his comedic philosophy and his deliberate objective for his time on SNL. A lifelong fan of the show, Sanz came to the show wanting to bring back the feeling that the cast was having fun and that anything can happen. So, if something funny happens in a scene, Sanz sometimes laughed.

This was the case for “Don’s Apothecary,” Sanz’s sketch from his fifth season on the show, in which Sanz plays the owner of a local pharmacy in a changing neighborhood. On its surface, it’s a very silly sketch, with one of the loudest fart jokes, but at its core is something deeper and darker. And it is the subject of this week’s episode of Vulture’s comedy podcast Good One.

Listen to the episode and read an excerpt of our discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

You first did “Don’s Apothecary,” your sketch about a pharmacy in a changing neighborhood, in your fifth season on SNL. And before the interview you mentioned you haven’t watched it back since, well, until now. What was your reaction?
In the old days, I’d do a sketch, watch it and would feel like, Ah, it’s too soon. I need to wait, or else I’ll critique it. But now, I see them and I’m like, That’s pretty great. I don’t look like that anymore, exactly, so I just watch it as a fan.

The sketch aired midway through your fifth season on SNL. At that point, how are you feeling about your place in the show?
After four years, you’re figuring you’re not gonna get fired. Before those four years, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. But Jimmy Fallon and I had done a bunch of scenes together, so I felt that the show could use us. I was feeling pretty good about the kind of material I was trying to push. If you notice, there are barely any laughs at the beginning of that scene because people are like, What the hell is this? It’s from my neighborhood. It was changing when we moved there, and by the time I left, it was very different.

Growing up in Chicago?
In Chicago. “Don’s Apothecary” is just like these old businesses that stayed forever. Even though the neighborhood got more dangerous, they’re still there. I wanted my character to be a victim of a robbery; that’s why he’s in the wheelchair. Some people find that really depressing, but he’s happy and jovial. I felt, with his personality, I could get away with it.

How did you first pitch the sketch?
Ever since people have ordered personal medication, someone calls it out over the P.A. It’s a joke that’s permeated history. But at that time, it was more about the neighborhood than that joke — even though we relied on those jokes heavily.

It’s interesting that your focus is still the changing neighborhood, because I think most people watching the sketch are like, There’s a giant fart joke. There’s a joke where Queen Latifah says, “Mushroom growing out of my butt.”
There is that thing of young, inner-city kids working at a place for the first time, and they don’t quite understand it. And then it’s just a bunch of weirdos. Don’s the main weirdo. It’s not on purpose, though — I never like to play things where I’m being an asshole. So when I’m saying, “Those two [customers] should get together,” it’s ignorance instead of just being a smart-ass.

Cast members are expected to generate material on SNL, but from the sense I get, each has a different appetite for writing. What was your process, in terms of first draft writing on Tuesday night?
At that time, I’d probably walk in around 5 because I knew I was going to stay all night. Coming in earlier would just make the day too long. You get an idea, then the writers and actors gather in Lorne’s office and pitch these ideas and hope someone laughs in the room. I would write with Erik Kenward, one of the writers who’s now one of the producers. He always loved my dark ideas, so we made a good team.

There’s a tremendous contrast between the big-picture idea of what the sketch is and the content. Is that something you strived for?
I did get a kick out of getting that on the air — the darkness of it, the weirdness, the racial overtones, the changing neighborhood, a guy who loves eating pussy because he’s paralyzed. It’s a beautiful thing. I like to get out a weird, dark joke, so it’s a sneak attack through regular jokes.

Every customer is white, but the employees are not. Is that that mix intentional?
It is because there’s a payoff of black people being chill at a job, and then dealing with the uptight white person, who has to come in to buy stuff for herpes. I love their joviality about it. They’re like, “What? Damn. That’s nasty.”

You don’t necessarily say they’re behavior is wrong.
Right. I’m just like, “Okay, guys. We’re professionals here.” But obviously, I’m the least professional. I try to make my dick jokes a little smarter than your average dick joke. And if you don’t see the rich history behind it, as an audience member, that’s okay, but just know that that was my intention. Because I’m Latino, I can get away with racial humor in a way that other people can’t, and I’m very grateful for that. I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood, went to very diverse school, so these kinds of behaviors are from a place of reality.

There were months at a time I wasn’t on the show, or I didn’t feel it was going well. I would get compliments from the other writers, but that wasn’t getting me anywhere. I wanted to prove to them that I was also a writer, so I would write on my own, and then the sketches wouldn’t get on. So you just go back to playing the game. This game, in this case, is black people saying funny sex jokes. Then you kinda cushion that.

Was this setting directly inspired by that childhood?
Yeah, I remember when I was a little kid, there was this old Polish butcher and that was like a little store, Don Oskin. I think that’s where I got the name Don. So, Don Oskin was this very nice, sweet white guy. It was like Mayberry a little bit. That’s when I was I was five. When I was 13, it was a completely different place. There’s a sweetness and a sadness about it that I loved swimming around in.

After the table read, Lorne and the producers pick which sketches go to dress rehearsal, and then the writers rewrite it. In interviews, you said that at some point you’d stop going to the rewrite table.
Well, you have to come in earlier, and I didn’t like doing that. There’s a little bit of that, but the honest truth is that when writers are at a writing table, they mess around and do bits. Sometimes they’re making fun of what you’re writing, or someone you think is not great is suggesting you do some other thing and you’re like, “No.” I end up protecting too much and not letting them do their job. So I took myself out of it. You guys rewrite it the best way you think, and I won’t be there to be pissed off or insulted or bored. Then, when I got to the floor in dress rehearsal, if I saw some fun jokes were missing, I’d argue for them and probably get most of them back.

In the last two years, there seem to be more nonwhite cast members than normal. It’s a contentious issue with SNL, and obviously it’s very complicated, but in what way do you feel it’s beneficial to have a more diverse cast?
Yeah, like most things it should be reflective of the population. I grew up watching the show when I was little. By the time I was 10, I knew so much about it. I knew the style, the way they made jokes. I loved [John] Belushi and [Dan] Aykroyd and Bill Murray and Steve Martin. By the time that I got into Second City, I’d had this encyclopedic knowledge of SNL. When you get to SNL, you’re like, I speak your language. Not everyone has that. You get very talented people thrown onto a show they’ve watched, but they don’t the know the language of it, the tone of it.

It’s a specific type of comedy. It’s not just, Oh, the show needs the funniest people, it needs people that can be put into it.
Yeah, and it happens to be the biggest comedy show ever, but it certainly wasn’t started that way. It was a small, cool thing, an alternative to shows and like Laugh In or Carol Burnett. Much like National Lampoon, it was just for those that would get it. Now it’s the biggest show on television, especially now during the political season.

So Latinos and black people and even Asian — which I imagine will happen soon, hopefully — they have to adapt to the style of the show, as opposed to the other way around. If you’re a big fan of the show and you know how it’s done, it’s an easier trip. I could argue that black people didn’t watch SNL a while ago because there weren’t many black people on it or, if there was, it was one guy. Maybe opening it up raises viewership, and it also increases what you can make fun of. I’m making a joke about the urban blight in the old times, but if I wasn’t of color, or if I didn’t come from there, it would be a different joke. As the show gets more popular, diversity should be a part of it — but when you go in there, it’s not, Let’s just throw someone in there because we need another voice. The voice should be in tune with what the show is.

It’s the same thing almost every cast member goes through when they get cast: figuring out to how to be themselves on that show. If you haven’t watched the show, it ends up being more complicated.
Lorne says, “You have to make a connection with the lens of the camera,” because ultimately it’s just you and the person watching, and that connection has to be made. If your true essence isn’t a part of it, it’s a little more difficult. Then you have to be more of a craftsman and do impressions, whereas what I bring to the table is a little bit of unpredictability.

Were there times that you tried to do this sketch in between Queen Latifah and Christina Aguilera? The second sketch was almost a full year after the first.
I knew I was getting away with something, so I didn’t push to do it all the time. I don’t know how well it did the second time, but it didn’t matter. In my mind, I’m like, This is really funny and strange and cool and I’m glad you’re letting me do it and paying me money to do it.

Watching it now, can you believe it got on the air?
Yeah, because the last ten minutes of the show are usually insane.

Looks like it was the last sketch of the night, you’re right. The last thing was a Mr. Rogers tribute. He must have died that week.
I did the tribute! I got in a red sweater, and I was like, “We lost a really great guy and I grew up watching him and loving him and so I want to sing a little song for him.” And I sing this super sad “Friends” song, no laughs. Then a trolley comes up and it goes, “Doot doot,” and it rolls away. It was a very schmaltzy, sweet, loving thing. Lorne loves that stuff and then I guess I do, too.

It’s interesting, those sketches back-to-back, it was your show for like ten minutes. And it perfectly indicates the kind of work I like. Playing a 50-year-old guy is fun, and doing this thing where I’m myself and being genuine — the whole experience is super cool that way.

When you go to SNL, I imagine that’s the hope — that you can bring your brand of humor and have a wide array of things you’re doing.
And after a while, you go make movies. Either you can make your sense of humor into a national phenomenon or just stay true to your voice, get through it, and not be as famous as you’d like — which is kind of what happened to me. It’s helped me in my career, years later, that I wasn’t a movie star that went away. I was just a TV guy and, now, I don’t have to play off any other kind of thing.

Do you remember being in the moment, during the performance of “Don’s Apothecary”?
I remember [Steve] Higgins was the one who showed me how to do it when the claw goes over my arms and extends and perfectly hands the person the Monistat. That bit was his. I don’t know. All the scenes, I remember this little excitement and a little fear, but then you start. I think I was particularly good at not letting my performance get dictated by an audience’s acceptance of the sketch. I’ve always felt that if people are laughing, that’s a bonus. I love it, that’s why we’re here, but it’s too easy just to get a laugh. There needs to be more about it. I need to put something in front of myself, some kind of obstacle, before I just get a laugh. Because, if not, then what the hell are we doing? We’re doing America’s Funniest Home Videos.

The other side of that is you laugh when Queen Latifah says, “I had a mushroom growing out of my butt.” This is before the first “Debbie Downer,” but you already did the stuff with Jimmy Fallon where you broke. Do you remember how you felt breaking here?
I would’ve rather not have broken here. I don’t want you to laugh with me because I’m having a good time. I want you to laugh at the premise and the weirdness that’s going on. Still, there is an acting thing that I would do which is, “Why wouldn’t people laugh for real when they hear something ridiculous? It’s not laughing like, ‘Oh my god, I shouldn’t laugh.’” It’s like, “Ha ha, yeah, you’re saying something funny.” The mushroom is funny that you would say such a thing.

If that happened in real life, a real person would laugh. Following your career, and watching you perform, you have a way of being in and out of the character at the same time that’s really interesting. How did you kind of calibrate that balance? That’s part of what I felt Lorne meant when he said I have the ability to be liked onstage when I come out before saying anything. Or at least I did. I could say shitty, weird things, but I was such a nice guy so I got away with it. Also, I was disillusioned by the staleness of certain things and how they would be done again in the same way, the same way. So me going on SNL, I was trying to break it down. I literally tried to break down a set so that people could see the set break down for the first time. They could see the paint buckets behind it. The laughing thing was me saying, “I’m genuinely enjoying this person.” Jimmy’s really trying hard not to laugh, so then I’m really trying to make him laugh. Then the audience is digging it. I’m like, Well, you know what, the sketch of two kids in college, that’s not gonna be in the Library of Congress, so we can have fun with it. It was never interested in, “What is an example of the perfect sketch?” I was more interested in a moment — a fun time, saying some weird stuff, getting some interesting jokes out.

I was wondering in a sort of chicken-and-egg way, did you start breaking and in turn become the sort of performer that wants to make it evident that you’re having fun, or was it because you wanted it to be evident that you’re having fun that you were okay with breaking?
I don’t think it’s an accidental thing. Once something starts working, you go back to it. When an audience is uptight or they’re not having fun, show people we were having fun will loosen them up too. And for people at home, they always got a kick of things going wrong. Whenever I was on the show, it was impactful and it was weird or it was like bombastic. I wanted people to be unsure what would happen and I think people — and maybe incorrectly, I thought — that should be my contribution to the show. The show has had its perfect sketch players and its perfect sketch writers, you could argue, but why try to do the same thing? I’d rather contribute what I feel comfortable with and that was what it was. Laughing’s been a problem for my whole life.

Exactly, you are a person who laughs and, as a result, you do the comedy that reflects the person who is a laughing person.
Yeah, and I understood the criticism too, but I always defended it as saying, “Eh, it’s important to see people having fun on a live show.” But there were certain sketches that I was like, “I’m really proud of this sketch. It’s not a recurring sketch. It’s probably only gonna happen once, so let’s do it really well.” “Cork-soakers” is that sketch. Jimmy and I both wrote it with Steve Higgins and I really loved the jokes. I really loved the sketch and I was like, “Jimmy, let’s not laugh. Because it will be dismissed. Let’s just keep it real and try not to laugh.” And we did. There’s a moment where we almost laughed, but we don’t. And I’m very proud of that scene because of it. I can do that if I’m pressed. But what I’m gonna do mostly is what you’re used to.

How has your comedy changed since leaving the show? Specifically, after you left the show, you stopped drinking, you lost weight, you grew a very nice beard. Did that affect how you saw yourself as a performer and how audiences saw you as a performer?
I became a lot more serious about myself and I became less — this is going to sound fake — but I became less big, as I became less big. I lost weight and I started wearing glasses and I started not going for the same joke. I was being invited to audition for stuff that was the “dumb fat guy” stuff and I was like, Well, I don’t want to be the dumb fat guy. In life I’m not trying to be the dumb fat guy, so why am I trying to do it onstage? When I lost the weight, I kept improvising. I was still doing shows every week at UCB. And my comedy was probably getting a little less physical and getting a little less big. I can do the big stuff, but let me try to get words. Let me try to get laughs with words and thoughts.

How you feel about yourself as a performer now?
I don’t feel like I’m a master of anything. I’m best at improv, and it’s usually at UCB. Acting, I can be good, but it’s not my go-to comfort zone. Stand-up, I’m terrified of. When I do it, I do it as a character so I can be bad and it’s okay. I don’t look the same and I’m older, but luckily, powerful friends out there still like me, so I get to do shows like Love and the upcoming Great News, where I’m reteamed with the creative power force of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. I think you’ll see a different Horatio, but the goofball is always there.

Why Horatio Sanz Broke So Much on Saturday Night Live