Saturday Night Live’s season 44 premiere graced us with a completely relatable and timely character: Adam Driver’s withered oil baron Abraham H. Parnassus. Freshman writer Eli Coyote Mandel delivered the breakout sketch, which touched on the posturing masculinity of our current era without making Matt Damon wear a fake nose about it. Here’s what it’s like to produce your first sketch for SNL, and why Mandel thinks birds are so weird and gross.
What was the genesis of this sketch?
The very beginnings of it were in an improv scene five years ago, in Chicago. I think I was just playing an old, old man. I was doing something with my cane as the old guy — you know, hilarious improv comedy. And then my friend Dan White was like, “Oh my God, he’s crushing bird underneath his cane!” It was kind of funny at the time.
I was thinking, “It would be funny if he were extremely old. What’s a way he could do that and shout in this elevated language?” So at some point, he became an oil baron. I did it like four or five times in Chicago and forgot about it. And then when I heard Adam Driver was going to host … This was my first episode ever, by the way.
Thank you. I got hired like two weeks ago. So when I heard it was going to be Adam Driver I was thinking about things for him. I thought he would probably be very good at my weird oil baron thing. So I had to expand it and make it a five-minute scene instead of a 45-second character.
Why oil baron and not railroad tycoon, or sweatshop owner, or other type of Gilded Age industrialist?
The main thing that I wanted was for it to be completely visceral so that the language lets you feel it. And I feel like oil is such a weird, disgusting substance. That line “mother’s milk” is the thing that comes to mind. “The earth’s milk,” I heard someone say. I thought it was such a disgusting, partially sexual phrase that tickled me for some reason. I also feel like we don’t have oil barons anymore. It’s a thing that we don’t think of, not anymore.
What do you think a day in this guy’s life is like?
He gets up and sits at a giant desk in his home. And then, every so often, an extremely old secretary or assistant will come in and drop off a thing. He’ll eat a bunch of boiled eggs or whatever and go to sleep at 4 p.m.
This was your first episode. How was the process for pitching the sketch, and going through all the steps of production, for the first time?
Yeah, that was insane. Everyone’s been great. Around 10 p.m. [on Tuesday, writing night], I sent it over to one of the head writers. They gave me some good notes – like [Melissa Villaseñor] is maybe more into it. Then the next day is the table read. By the way, before every step of this process I’m thinking, This sucks, I’m a fraud, and they’re gonna find me out. I hate everything about this; it’s not funny. Luckily I came in with two other writers from Chicago, Alison Gates and Alan Linic. They both read it and said it was good. I said, “You’re lying; it’s terrible.” But then it went to table read. And right before table read, you can go around and give the cast a note or two. I had to go into Adam Driver’s dressing room and give him a quick talk. But when I went in there, he’d already read it and already had an idea of what he was going to do. It’s 150 percent Adam Driver doing it and being extremely good at acting. I lucked out so hard with him.
They go into Lorne’s office and choose which sketches are going to be put on. Mine was put on. And then I didn’t know what to do. They assigned Bryan Tucker — a more senior writer there who’s great and a Very Funny Comedy Man — and he took me through the production process. He showed me where I was supposed to go and what I was supposed to do and answered all my questions. He helped me out with literally everything, because I did not know what was happening. From there, I met with the production team, all the designers, and they were great. They truly crushed it.
Did you get to choose the cane and the bird? Did they hold up an owl and a crow, and after much deliberation you chose the crow?
Yes. In the initial production meeting, they wanted to know what kind of props we’d need, and I said we’d need a cane and a bird. They asked what kind of bird I want, and I said, “Um… seagull?” It was cool — they asked me what I wanted the high school to be named, and I went with my high school: Sierra High School. So they put on the sign out front “Sierra High School,” my actual high school in Tollhouse, California. And the class was Ms. Linder’s class, my favorite teacher from high school. That was cool when some friends from high school caught that.
At rehearsal they showed me some cane options, and I picked what I thought was a good cane. They were working on the bird, so they had a stand-in bird at the initial rehearsal. Adam really didn’t want to crush it all that much for that first go. At dress, they showed me this seagull that was full of beans. We used that at the dress rehearsal, and I loved it.
Did you say beans?
It was kind of like a beanie baby with bird wings on it. That’s not what we wound up using live, but I liked it because it fell with a disgusting thud. And when Adam crushed it with his cane, it kind of crunched. But a big note I got after dress was that we had to cut that bird, because it was disgusting. We changed the bird, and I was a little bit nervous about it. But when I saw that cane going through that bird’s heart, oh boy. It warmed mine to no end. That worked out so well.
So you had the idea for the sketch back in Chicago, but just as a character piece you were doing. Was it part of what you did to get hired?
No, it was just a piece I’d done a couple times and had in the back of my head. I was a little worried because I did audition with a different piece that involved crushing a bird. But in a much different context! I don’t want to be known as the bird-crushing comedian.
That’s too bad, because it’s going to be the headline of this interview.
Eli Coyote Mandel, bird-crushing comic?
Cool, great. But there was another thing with a bird involved that I auditioned with. I liked the visceral weirdness of a bird.
May I ask what bird-crushing was in that?
I was a guy in confessional: “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned … I’m just going to get to it: I ate a bird today.” And it turns out that a bird had flown into his mouth and he didn’t know what to do, so he just ate it. And they seemed to enjoy that.
So do you hate birds? Or do you love them? What’s with the birds?
I have no strong opinions on birds! I do think they’re weird. Because they ain’t dogs, and they ain’t cats, so what the hell is they?
It’s the most close-to-nature animal you will see in a city. And you will be reminded that there are other worlds out there when you see a bird in a non-woods setting.
Right, and they’re so otherworldly. I’m from the country originally. I’m from the middle of nowhere, so there were animals all around me, but birds: What are they? In college, I took a dinosaurs class and I found out that they are dinosaurs. They are straight-up dinosaurs. So weird.