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I’m taking the kids to my sistah’s! That’s the moment this Vulture writer realized Heidi Gardner was a comedic force to be reckoned with on Saturday Night Live, where she’s been a featured player since last fall. The character was the perpetually suffering Angel, “every boxer’s girlfriend from every movie about boxing ever,” and she just wants to know how many more hits until it’s enough, damn it! Following that shining “Weekend Update” vignette, Gardner had a remarkably busy season for an SNL freshman, weaving in and out of sketches at a frequency arguably not seen since the debut years of Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon. That, and doubled with her virtuosic arsenal of emotive personas, makes us confident that the Era of Gardner will be coined fairly soon. Don’t fight us! Earlier this week, Gardner was nice enough to hop on the phone with Vulture for a morning chat before heading out to work. We discussed everything from the impression she’s dying to break out, to the inspiration behind Angel, to what she remembers from her audition.
Your comedy ascension is so interesting to me, given that you were cutting hair in Los Angeles as your full-time hustle until a few years ago. How’d you make it to Studio 8H?
Long story short, I moved to L.A. from Missouri to work at a salon for about nine years. About halfway through that, I took a class at the Groundlings and fell in love with it. It was a fun hobby! I didn’t really know how the Groundlings worked — pass, fail, all that jazz — but I knew I liked it. So when I got into the Sunday Company, I decided it was time to focus full-time on sketch comedy and made it into the Main Company at the Groundlings. I was there for two years. Then two summers ago, SNL asked to see a showcase of some of the best performers there, so they sent some people and I did a five-minute set. They liked me and flew me out to test that for show in New York.
What did you perform for your audition in New York?
As far as things I’ve done on the show, I did “every boxer’s girlfriend.” The annoying thing about auditioning for SNL is that you have to fill it in within a five-minute span. Everything’s so tiny. I probably did about 15 seconds of her. I did “everybody’s cousin that you haven’t seen in 25 years.” I did a Kristen Schaal impression, an Allison Janney impression. I had to audition two times, and I think I did about 12 characters total. I really packed it in.
Did you get one of those coveted Lorne laughs?
I don’t know! I knew Lorne was there. I just tried to block every possible thing out. I hope I did, but I’m not sure.
For editorial purposes, we’ll say he did.
Looking back at the year and a half that you’ve now spent on the show, what comedic niche do you think you’ve carved out in that time? What makes a quintessential Heidi character that nobody else in the cast can replicate?
Oh jeez! Well, I bet anyone could probably replicate my characters because the people on SNL can do anything. I like to get pretty specific with a character. Not only behavior, but emotional. I go really deep into emotions and get as emotional as a performer as possible. I welcome it. I like to get as specific as possible to a fault. Sometimes I think about it a little too much, and I’m like, Enough!
Angel is such a great example of that, with all of her panicky affectations. What was the genesis for her? I love how she’s an original character of yours.
I grew up seeing all of those boxer movies or fighter movies, and I always enjoyed watching those. A few years ago, I caught a commercial for Southpaw, and Rachel McAdams said something to Jake Gyllenhaal that made me think, Wait, didn’t Amy Adams also say this same exact thing to Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter? That made me realize that all of these women say the exact same thing. They’re all fighting for their families! Even though, quote, unquote, the “boxers” are “fighting.” No, the women are the real fighters, and they always have to say that and make it clear to their husbands, boyfriends, and everyone else in the movie. I was passing through the living room, saw the commercial, and was off and running with that.
The teased-up hair really brings it home, too.
And I always gotta have the gold locket that you know the boxer gave her, which is probably not even real gold.
You’ve established a few memorable “Weekend Update” characters — Angel, Bailey Gismert — which made me wonder, how does the energy change for you when you’re monologuing behind a desk as opposed to being in a sketch with others? Do you find it more difficult?
It’s pretty scary right before I go on, for sure. I originally thought it was going to be a lot more difficult, but I also think because of the fact that you are on your own — and that the “Weekend Update” hosts are always such good supporters of your characters — I actually realized being on your own is cool. Sure, you have to sink in and sit in the uncomfortability of when they’re introducing a new character. There might be 15 or 20 seconds of the audience going, Wait, who the hell is this? I really like it. It’s a true way to see if you’re going to pass or fail.
How much input do you have in crafting these “Weekend Update” characters, given they’re a solo showcase for you?
Quite a bit, which is pretty cool and pretty unexpected. For Bailey, [writers] Fran Gillespie and Sudi Green came to me with an idea that they described as “a teen movie critic who thinks everything’s weird.” The three of us sat together and were all inhabiting the character and what she would say, and taking notes at everything we thought was funny. Thanos, YouTube, prom themes, influencer! It’s fun to work with those two because it always results in a way-too-long list of all these things we want for this character. Then we go back through and say, “Okay, I think these are the really funny things” and do a process of elimination. It’s neat when you can find that comfort level with the writers, when there’s absolutely no filter for everyone. It’s a special creative process. You grow up hearing stories like, “It’s crazy there!” Of course it’s crazy here. You’re making a show in a week. But in a way, it’s very pleasant and cool.
Are there any impressions or characters you’ve been working on that you’d like to have their SNL debut soon?
I’ve done Ann Coulter, and I’d like to do her, but at the same time I’m like, Ugh, usually when she pops up in the news it’s not in a good way. I don’t know if it’s worth it! [Laughs.] But I’m sure she’ll say something soon.
I feel that viewers tend to view SNL in two ways these days: They either want to be immersed in political commentary, or they want those classically silly evergreen sketches. Do you find yourself preferring one of those to the other?
I do. As a performer and writer, the sillier or more charactery sketches come way more naturally to me. But I’m always blown away when I see every episode’s cold open or how the writers take a sketch trope and put a political spin on it — how the show engineers a political sketch I’m always impressed by, because that doesn’t come to me naturally. I don’t think my forte will be political sketches, but I’d like to fine-tune that where maybe someday I could write one.
Is there anyone in the Trump administration you’d like to play?
I’m trying to think of any new and hot political people. [Laughs.] Is it bad that I can’t think of anyone but Ann?
I think you could bring some manic energy to Ivanka. Work out an arrangement with ScarJo.
She kills it as her! More power to her on that one. I dare not interfere.