25 days of cats

‘What the Hell Is Skimbleshanks?’ The Oral History of Saturday Night Live’s Cats Sketch

James Van Der Beek and Chris Parnell in SNL’s Cats sketch. You remember it, right? Photo-Illustration: Vulture and NBC

How soul-sucking would your job be if you had to do the same thing 11,000 times in a row with no variation? How much worse would it be if that job involved singing and dancing in full cat makeup?

That was the premise of a 1999 Saturday Night Live sketch that took viewers behind the scenes of the record-setting 11,000th performance of Cats. In it, Chris Parnell plays a jaded member of the cast giving the backstage tour, with all the joy in his life eroded by years of starring as Skimbleshanks. Dawson’s Creek star James Van Der Beek, hosting the day after Varsity Blues hit theaters, played Freddy, an eager young actor who just joined the ensemble as Rum Tum Tugger. (His enthusiasm is not infectious — when he invites some cast mates over for board games and a viewing of his new Legends of the Fall DVD, one of them attempts to strangle him.) The sketch, which was pretaped on location at the real Broadway home of Cats, the Winter Garden Theatre, included Darrell Hammond as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ana Gasteyer screaming “Go fuck yourself!” when asked to share any anecdotes about being the stage manager, and Will Ferrell as a weeping Macavity who’s “rotting from the inside.”

If you don’t remember the sketch, it’s not because it wasn’t any good — it’s that it’s been effectively scrubbed from the internet because it contained a copyrighted song, the hit “Memory,” that SNL doesn’t have the rights to rebroadcast. In fact, the sketch holds a special place in the hearts of Van Der Beek and the sketch’s writers, Parnell and Mike Schur, now of Parks and Recreation and The Good Place renown. For Van Der Beek, then just 21 years old, the day of filming it eased him into the pressure that would come with hosting. The writers, meanwhile, were SNL newbies — Parnell just months into his first season as a featured player, Schur in his first full year as a writer — collaborating for the first time, with varying levels of enthusiasm about Cats. With the movie adaptation imminent, we caught up with all three of them to hear the story of how the sketch — now only available in online-bootleg form — came to be. As Schur says, “Of all of the things I have been interviewed about, I never expected this to be one of them.”

The “Simple, Obvious, Fun Premise”

Mike Schur: The premise is so clear because that was a news story that week. At SNL, you get these packets at the beginning of the week of what’s happening in the world. It’s a lot of political stuff, then cultural stuff, and I remember that Cats reaching 11,000 performances was one of those little details, and I guess Parnell had that idea.

Chris Parnell: I tried to imagine what it would be like for somebody who had been in the show for a particularly long time. Like any actor, I’m sure anybody’s happy to have a gig in a Broadway show, but I thought, after all these years, a funny take might be that it was really tiring people out, really wearing on them to keep doing it. We have the pitch meeting in Lorne Michaels’s office, and I’m not sure exactly how I put it out there, but it was something everybody sort of got and thought was funny, hence Mike Schur volunteering to work on it with me. Had I had to write it by myself, I don’t think it would have ever made it on the air. Mike already knew what he was doing quite well, so he was quick to sign on.

Schur: It was just a very clear, simple, obvious, fun premise. I remember it not taking very long to write.

“What the Hell Is Skimbleshanks?”

Parnell: Truthfully, it was almost all Michael. I was still pretty new to the show and wasn’t particularly confident, so although I had the concept, he did 95 percent of it, probably, which I’m not proud of. I wish I had been able to contribute more, but he’s a pretty great writer. Obviously, he’s done fairly well for himself.

Schur: If that’s true, I have zero memory of it. At SNL, the idea is 75 percent of any sketch. They’re like one idea that you just execute and get the hell out. Even if I wrote 95 percent of it, he should get the lion’s share of the credit, because the premise is way more important. You write it, it goes to the read through, everybody else pitches jokes. It ends up being a kind of group exercise, unless you’re Adam McKay or Tina Fey and you’re a virtuosic sketch writer who doesn’t need to be rewritten. Everybody else benefits from the work of the collective.

Parnell: I had seen Cats in my senior year of high school. We’d taken a big theater trip, and that was one of the shows we’d seen. It was still relatively new then, in ’84, ’85. The slogan was, “Now and forever, Cats,” so “Now and freaking forever” was one of my little contributions [to the sketch].

Schur: I had never seen Cats when I wrote that. Like, what is the story? They mill around and introduce themselves for two and a half hours and then one of them goes to heaven?

James Van Der Beek: That’s pretty much it! When you break it down from a dramaturg standpoint, it’s one of the most hilarious outlines you’ll ever read. It makes no sense at all.

Schur: Parnell was a theater kid, so he knew a lot about it. He knew some of the character names, if not all of them. I don’t know if he’d ever been in it, but I have a vague memory of him saying like, “Oh, I should play Skimbleshanks,” and I was like, “What? What the hell is Skimbleshanks?”

Photo: NBC

A Long, Drowsy Day at the Theater

Van Der Beek: I was shooting Dawson’s Creek. I had just gone to the premiere of Varsity Blues. I had not had any time off. I came back from shooting, like, a 14-hour day to 12 messages on my answering machine — that’s how long ago it was — saying, “We have an offer to host Saturday Night Live.” My first thought was, I can’t do that. I’m not funny. I have never done anything like this before. Like, when I was a kid, my friends put on a Saturday Night Live show at the local high school and didn’t ask me to be in it because I wasn’t considered funny. Now I’m hosting the real thing. I had to miss one day that the hosts normally have because I was shooting in North Carolina, and they flew me out, and the first thing they did was fit my wig and hand me a three-inch stack of skits. There’s Saran Wrap on my head, and I’m about a quarter of the way through reading, and they say, “Okay, table read.” I get to the head of this boardroom table, and it’s Will Ferrell, Molly Shannon, Chris Parnell, Chris Kattan, Jimmy Fallon, Tracy, [Morgan] Horatio [Sanz], and of course the grand pooh-bah himself, Lorne [Michaels]. I’m just like, Holy shit, I don’t know what to do except to commit 1,000 percent. The Cats skit I remember being very, very funny at the table, and then it was filmed the next day.

Schur: It was the first time I’d ever been on what you would consider a proper shoot with hair and makeup and fancy lenses. It was always fun when you had a shoot like that, but it was also incredibly painful because you were really not used to waking up that early. It started at seven in the morning, and the entire schedule of SNL is geared so that everyone is at his or her maximum abilities between 11:30 p.m. and one. Now, of course, I’m very used to the pace of actual television, but at the time I was like, Good God, this is taking so long. There’s also a certain amount of embarrassment that you feel — or at least I did — like, Don’t go to all this trouble. This is just a dumb sketch.

Van Der Beek: They’re putting makeup on me, I put on a costume, I was super-tired, and then I look in the mirror and I realized I was in a Rum Tum Tugger suit. I suddenly kind of gained consciousness from my morning fog and realized I was in a full-on cat suit at the Winter Garden Theatre. I remember it, to this day, as being one of the biggest How the fuck did I get here? moments of my life.

Parnell: It’s exciting to stand up there on a Broadway stage and look out, especially when you’re in costume and makeup for it, even if you can’t dance or sing particularly well. We got to move around up there like cats onstage, and it was fun.

Schur: I personally find Cats humiliating. The actual thing itself is extremely embarrassing, the way they move around and pretend to be sexy. It’s been very interesting to watch how the country is reacting as these trailers come out, because it’s confirming what I’ve always personally felt about Cats, which is: Why do people like this? What are you doing? Why have we as a nation agreed that this is the show that should run for 20 years on Broadway? I mean, good gravy.

Parnell: I remember Van Der Beek being a perfectly lovely fellow, very game and excited to be a part of it. Totally onboard and committed.

Van Der Beek: I was a kid who grew up wanting to be an actor on Broadway. I remember choosing for that character to be super-excited that he was there and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, which is kind of how I was. I was also terrified, but I was very used to shooting single-camera, so it was like a comfort zone for me. The moment when I thought I could actually host the show happened in the middle of shooting that. I made the camera operator laugh to the point where it ruined the shot, and it was the biggest boost of confidence I could have possibly gotten.

Schur: He was so funny and charming. If the host was an older actor, Kelsey Grammer or someone, he would’ve played Parnell’s role and Parnell would’ve played the young guy, but Van Der Beek was the perfect person to play that particular part.

Van Der Beek: I think I was a replacement host. It was supposed to be like Woody Harrelson, then it was going to be Whitney Houston, and at the last minute it was me. I think all the ideas they came to me with were just like, Well, fuck it. I had no time to prepare for a 20-year-old teen-idol kid to be on the show, so let’s throw the same suggestions I wrote for Woody Harrelson and see if it works. It gave me a chance to just really go wild, and that was probably the best thing that could have happened, because I’m secretly a crazy person. I come off very normal, but when it comes to creativity, I’m closet crazy. The best compliment anybody’s ever given me is when an agent called me “a clown trapped in a leading man’s body,” which I think is pretty accurate.

Parnell: [The Cats cast] was very welcoming and happy to be a part of it, while I thought, You know, we’re kind of crapping on your show here. I think they thought it was fun and it was getting the show out there in sort of a different medium — although I felt a bit guilty because I think the show closed not that long after we did that bit. I’m not giving our bit any credit, but I don’t know, somebody might’ve realized, Oh yeah, this thing’s been on too long.

Schur: I didn’t feel any shame, remorse, or embarrassment by making fun of it because it was the longest-running Broadway show in history. The fun of SNL is punching up — the show gets in trouble when it punches down. Cats was the perfect target because it was this institution that was so ingrained in our culture. The first level is if you do anything 11,000 times, it’s going to drain all of the joy and fun out of your life. Then there’s the second layer, which is, it’s Cats. It baffles me. But it did mean something for Parnell. There was a reverence. I think if it had been purely sour and bitter and angry, it probably wouldn’t have been that entertaining.

Photo: NBC

Not the Greatest Sketch Ever, But …

Parnell: My sense at the time was that the cast that was in it got a kick out of doing it. I think most people had fun dressing up in the actual costumes with Cats makeup and getting to go on the stage. That’s not something you get to do every day, even in a cool job like SNL. I think the audience reaction was fairly good.

Van Der Beek: I remember watching the skit play on playback while I was being changed and, in the middle of that swirl of activity, hearing the audience laugh. I also remember thinking how much I looked like my mother in the Cats makeup. I thought it might be one of those ones they put on a special, like, Oh wow, this might have some legs. It’s interesting to find out they can’t because they’d have to pay Andrew Lloyd Webber. I was super-proud to be a part of it.

Schur: I saw James Van Der Beek at a charity thing a couple of years ago, and I hadn’t seen him since that episode. I said, “Hey man, I was a writer at SNL. We did that Cats thing?” and he was like, “Oh my God!” and we shared our memories of it. I wrote another sketch for him that same week where he was in a spelling bee, and Will Ferrell was the moderator and he lost his cards, so he had to make up words for them to spell. It was a really big deal for me because I had two sketches on this episode at the same time. It’s a very meaningful week in my SNL career, because I was pretty new and Parnell was new. That Cats sketch was definitely, by leaps and bounds, the biggest thing that I had ever written and produced at the show. It has a very fond place in my heart.

Van Der Beek: When he told me who he was and that he’d written that skit, it was really cool because it was a big moment for me. I had tried something new that I wasn’t used to doing, which is comedy, and it worked and clicked because it was really well written. And, as a wrap gift at the end of my hosting gig, Schur got me a copy of Legends of the Fall on DVD!

Parnell: I think that was the first and last time [Mike and I wrote together]. Really, I felt like I let Mike down during the writing session for that, because I think he was earnestly and sincerely going, Hey, this new guy has this idea and I wanna work with him. It’s the ideal spirit of what SNL is about. I just was kind of too shy and lacking in confidence to really bring a lot to the table. I don’t think he was too eager to write with me after, which I do not blame him for one bit.

Schur: I don’t remember that to be true. Everyone always wanted to use Parnell for things. His nickname was “The Ice Man” because he never broke character. If you watch those old hot-tub sketches or the crazier McKay sketches where Will Ferrell plays this bad OB/GYN and it’s just insane nonsense, Will breaks, Molly breaks, everybody’s giggling the entire way, and Parnell is just absolutely ice-cold. It was always “Parnell has to be something here,” because he was just Mr. Reliable when it came to knowing his lines and being funny and nailing everything. If we never wrote together in the same room, that certainly wasn’t because he lacked an acumen.

Parnell: If you talk to Mike, you’re welcome to express my remorse at not contributing more to the piece.

Schur: That sounds like Parnell, yeah. Look, I don’t think that sketch was like the greatest thing that’s ever been on the show, but it was a sort of rare event because the story was in the news, the idea was really great, Parnell was really great, we got to actually shoot it at the Winter Garden Theatre, and the host fit perfectly. That’s the best that it ever gets for a writer at that show.

More From This Series

See All
The Oral History of Saturday Night Live’s Cats Sketch