Before Seth Meyers was taking “A Closer Look” at the Trump administration every night, Meyers had a job where he got to write some of the silliest sketches Saturday Night Live has ever aired. But Meyers is still able to find his moments, namely in the episodes he’s written of Documentary Now!, the documentary-parody series he co-created with Bill Hader and Fred Armisen. In total, Meyers wrote or co-wrote eight episodes, including a version of Grey Gardens and Jiro Dreams of Sushi and, in the new season that premieres tomorrow, parodies of Wild Wild Country and The Artist Is Present. It was in turning Jiro Dreams of Sushi into what became “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken,” a story of a three-Michelin-star chicken-and-rice restaurant on the top of a mountain in Colombia, that Meyers ended up writing the most personal work of his career.
This episode — specifically the moment where Juan’s son Arturo (Fred Armisen) admits to being afraid of chicken — is the subject of this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture Comedy’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them. Listen to the episode and read a short excerpt of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
While thinking about season two of Documentary Now!, what made you realize you wanted to do something with food and Jiro?
Our directors Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono are good at telling us which gaps we haven’t filled yet, and a big part of that for season two was food. We talked about Chef’s Table and Jiro, so it became this natural jumping-off place. The other version we were talking about was a “dumb food” restaurant. The food was like popcorn calzones, but people were very serious about how dumb it was. That kept feeling like someone with Christopher Guest’s skills should do it.
Once you had the premise and reference points, what came next?
Rewatching Jiro a bunch of times. Of the Chef’s Table episodes, the Francis Mallmann one had the most influence because there’s just a lot of burying of food. The difference between most sketch writing and Documentary Now! is characters that have a resolution to their story. So it was figuring out which parts of Jiro were important, how to strip it down enough that you could have an arc to it, and then also have things that were comic.
The most important thing for you was the relationship between Juan, the chicken-and-rice master, and his sons.
Yeah, my takeaway after I saw Jiro was, I want to eat that food and also I think this family dynamic is fascinating.
Both you and your brother pursue the same thing for a living — being funny. Your dad doesn’t, but you describe him as the funniest Meyers. Maybe it wasn’t your intention at first, but how autobiographical do you think this is?
I might not have realized it until I finished writing, but this might be the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written. Ultimately, this story is about the difficulty in pleasing someone in your family. I come from a family where that’s both true and not true. I don’t have an exacting father who shows me no warmth; I have an exacting father who’s incredibly warm. But the part that is the most autobiographical is that idea of people who are perfectionists versus people who are just trying to get better. Juan is gifted, and Arturo is trying to be better. I’ve spent this incredible life in comedy, and I’ve been surrounded by people who are more gifted than me. There are times where you can be resentful of that, but there are also times you realize, Maybe my path is to be around gifted people. You learn you’re never gonna have that gift, but you can work hard and try to be better every day.
As it is in Jiro, one son is responsible for taking over the family restaurant, but unlike Jiro, that son is afraid of the animal he must turn into food. What made this the best way to heighten the given framework?
I can only tell you that when I came up with the concept that Arturo was afraid of chickens, and that was what he had to overcome, I felt a great relief. I thought, Oh, that’s the turn! It’s a natural sketch turn within this larger, slower piece. Also, this episode works because the acting is great. I think it’s one of Fred’s best performances. People say he’s not as good as the chef, but Fred looks scared the whole episode. When Fred talks about when he was 5 years old he got scratched by a chicken, the disease is “Pollos Locos.” That dumb joke only works because it’s been so serious up to that point, and Fred delivers it like it’s a real thing.
You have so much silly work, be it on Documentary Now!, or especially at SNL. As the person who coined the term clapter, do you ever get bummed out how seriously people take you?
Yeah, I don’t know. It doesn’t bum me out. I mean, I worry that people take any comedian too seriously, but I also don’t think you can overlap comedy at this moment with comedy at any other time, because everybody’s making the comedy that’s appropriate for this moment, obviously referring to the political comedy that’s going on right now. But as with every political moment, when this one comes to the end, I’m also obviously very happy that my initial setting is far sillier than the one we’re living in.
What is a sketch you wish you wrote? Like, if you got to live in another dimension that is exactly the same except you wrote this sketch.
Oh, man, I’d be really proud to tell people that I wrote “MacGruber.” As far as sketches from my era that I go back and watch, that’s right up there. Either that, or if I had written one digital short, I wish it was “Two Worlds Collide,” where Kenan is playing Reba McEntire.
Often when I interview you, we find ourselves talking about SNL like you are just a fan. So I wanted to get your opinion about this season. Specifically, there was a host named Seth Meyers. How do you think he did?
I think he did fine. I felt for the writing staff, because before I was a head writer on the show and I got to write for everybody, and before I was on “Weekend Update” and I got to do that every week, one of my main jobs was figuring out how to write for Seth Meyers on SNL, and it was not super easy. Like, things didn’t naturally present themselves as things only Seth Meyers could do. I thought they did a good job, and I thought I did about what could be expected of me.
You didn’t write any of the sketches. Did you plan to just go in as a performer?
I thought, Oh, I’ll write my monologue. And I did foolishly think I’d write one or two other things, and I was deathly ill, and also I forgot how busy a host is. The most hilarious thing about the week for me is how I was caught off guard. I thought, I was there for 12-and-a-half years, there’s no part of this that I don’t know how it is. And I did not know what it was like to be a host.
I feel like we talked before and you were like, “Oh, I’ll never host.”
I fully never thought I’d host. I should say, when Lorne asked me and I said yes, I’m not joking, he said, “Oh, thank God. So many people have backed out.”
Not to be rude, but that’s what I assumed. Just knowing you, I was like, “They needed somebody.”
They broke glass.