Dan Vitale has lived in Manhattan since 1980, right outside Times Square, where he began to cut his teeth on the New York comedy circuit during one of the grittiest periods in the city’s history. After establishing himself as a stand-up at places like the Improv and the Bitter End, Vitale spent several years being mentored by Lorne Michaels, joining Michaels’s short-lived (and now mostly forgotten) NBC variety show The New Show, which aired toward the end of his five-season hiatus from Saturday Night Live. Linking back with Michaels at SNL, Vitale was also a featured player on the show — where he was only credited in three episodes — alongside the likes of Joan Cusack, Robert Downey Jr. and Randy Quaid.
Vitale is a living link to a lot of things: a specific time in comedy, an inflection point in SNL history, and a bygone New York City. Days before the nation began fully self-quarantining and social distancing, I sat down with Vitale inside his Hell’s Kitchen apartment to discuss, among other things, his love of HBO’s The Deuce, which captures the pre-gentrified Times Square he experienced in the mid-’80s during his stint on SNL’s ill-fated 11th season.
“People living history don’t realize they’re living history at the time. Looking back, I realize that was part of history: SNL, the drug culture of the time, the political culture of the time,” he said. “When I watched the last segment [of The Deuce] — where an aged James Franco comes back — I got chills. It’s almost how I feel nowadays at my age, to see what I’ve seen.”
Vitale looked back on his career in comedy and brief tenure at Studio 8H during one of the strangest chapters in SNL history.
You were a part of Lorne Michaels’s The New Show, which barely lasted a season before he rejoined SNL.
The day of my audition, I go and it’s like a stockade. Anyone who had anything to do with comedy ever was somehow called into this place.
I get in the room, and I see Lorne, John Candy, Dave Thomas, Penny Marshall — all these people I’d seen for years. I get up and I didn’t have anything tight prepared because I’d work loose, organic. I start talking, then I get into it, a character. I get no reaction. Absolutely zero. And the arrogance of me in my 20s … At one point, in the middle, I said, “You know, I have a better idea. Why don’t all you guys just go fuck yourselves.” And I walked out.
The weird thing is, Lorne kind of dug it. We had this look between us like, Okay, I get that you’re nuts. I made my thing a mea culpa. They hired me with this great rotating cast of SNL and SCTV people. A good friend of mine at the time, Allan Havey, and me were the featured players. You were doing it in 30 Rock with Lorne Michaels, so even though it wasn’t Saturday Night Live, you still felt like you were on SNL.
Your first SNL appearance was during the season-premiere monologue with Madonna. What was it like working with her during her peak “Material Girl” phase?
I didn’t do anything live with her. She’d married Sean Penn, and Robert Downey Jr. played Sean. It was supposed to be her wedding video. We’d shot it out in Jersey at some big manor. I was her cousin; Madonna has this Italian family. You remember Joan Cusack? They had her as Cyndi Lauper. At some point, I was improvising, and the part that got in was me — this gavone cousin — hitting on Cyndi Lauper. Some waiter walks by, and I hit him with a tip.
Arguably, that season is considered … I don’t know who keeps track of this stuff, but comedy historians might say this is one of the worst seasons. [Laughs.]
What were the next couple of episodes like?
The writers and cast members were asked who should host the third show. We had to make a decision. It was either Pee-wee Herman or George C. Scott. I was sitting there [thinking] This is a no-brainer! George C. Scott! But Pee-wee was so hot; I guess the movie had just come out. That’s what changed since I was an 18- or 19-year-old kid watching SNL, to me being part of it — I had a different ideology about it. Like, Wait a minute! You get the guy who shouldn’t be hosting and build the madness around them.
They had lost that.
I was a young guy with a lot of problems. To be in your 20s, in New York City, in the mid-’80s, feeling really good … for a set, you’d get $15. Then on the weekends, it’d be $50 a show, and if you emceed, a little bit more. And I was living on that. Then, all of a sudden, you’ve got this huge paycheck.
Is it true Anthony Michael Hall was being primed as that season’s star?
People knew who he was; he was like 17 years old. I remember I had a dressing room, and there was a knock on the door and it was Anthony. I invited him in, and maybe he was sitting there smoking a joint or something, [because] then his manager came in and absconded him. [Laughs.] Somebody must’ve said, “That’s the last guy you want this kid hanging around with!”
[Robert Downey Jr.] felt like a kid brother to me — he was 20 and I was in my 20s, already in trouble, but I had no clue about the trouble that would come for him. We’d hang out and go to an after-hours bar. I’d bring him but wonder, Am I being a bad influence? But if you know anything about addiction, there is no bad influence. That monster is going to find you.
Any anecdotes from Chevy Chase’s episode?
In the writers’ room … There was a gay cast member named Terry Sweeney. We’re all sitting around the room, bouncing ideas. All of a sudden, Chevy started riffing on Terry. It wasn’t particularly funny … It was this big disruption because [Terry] stormed out, then all the writers supporting Terry stormed out. And it was like, If I stay in the room, am I an asshole?
It was a joke that was so shocking, when he said it, you laughed. But looking back, this is 1985 — people still weren’t completely clear what AIDS was. The line was, from Chevy, “Hey, I got an idea. Let’s take Terry and put him on a scale every week and see how his weight is doing.” That’s what cleared the room.
I had this beautiful cashmere coat, one of the few things I did with my money then, that I’d bought. I was heading down the hallway, and I hadn’t formally met Chevy, and he goes, “Vitale, right?” Yeah. “Heard you’re the guy that’s holding.” And he starts going into my pockets. And I’m like, “Are you crazy? Get your hands out of my pockets, man.” [Laughs.] He thought I was just walking around and he’d reach in, see if I had any coke.
I don’t know if all performers or comedians have it, but I had a certain reverence for comedy. Especially the original SNL was one of the reasons I became a comedian. Then you’re hanging with these people. It’s weird.
Were you friends with Randy Quaid around this time?
I guess in recent years, he’s gone full crazy, right? He’s not in the country?
Even now I always wonder why he signed on.
He had an Oscar nomination already.
Exactly. Believe it or not, Anjelica Huston was actually almost a cast member. Lorne and her were friendly; I met her at his apartment, so she was a part of the circle. Like Randy, the idea was, “Oh, I can do this for a year before I go win an Oscar.” Then at the last minute, for some reason she didn’t come on.
So Randy, when I was in trouble, I would go to his office and he’d say, “Sit down, lets talk it out.” I think he had a bottle in his desk like a ’40s movie. I ended up going to rehab for months, because besides drinking I was doing incredible amounts of cocaine. When I came back, I didn’t have much; maybe one line. I felt naked and vulnerable. I knew I couldn’t show up there drinking. Like, I have to do this without all my toys.
At the end of the show, the cast comes out to do the wave, and I didn’t want to do it. But someone says, “No, you’re here, you’ve got to do the wave!” So we go out and I’m standing in the back, and Randy looks at me: “Six weeks in rehab to come back to this shit?” And he kept waving. [Laughs.]
Also during the Pee-wee episode, you’re the guard in an early “Pathological Liar” sketch.
I’m totally bombed out of my mind. [I] did the dress rehearsal, and I had too much. Joe Dicso, the [long-tenured] stage manager, was one of the sweetest guys in the world. I was in my dressing room, drinking, Woe is me. Joe’s banging on the door: “Dan, you’ve got to be onstage in 20 seconds!” He drags me to the stage. I guess I got the line out, because it made it on.
You can’t look back with too much remorse or regret, because everything that happened led to what came later … But when I remember stuff like that, it’s like, That was a waste. Right after, once my contract was up, I was done.
Artie Lange recently told a story about you on his podcast, specifically that your departure from the show involved throwing up on Art Garfunkel. Is it true?
What he did was, like any good writer or storyteller, [he] put together a couple different instances in one concise story. Which I’m sure worked for everybody. But I didn’t vomit on Art Garfunkel. I did go to a Yankee game with [him and Lorne.] Artie’s version is, I threw up on Garfunkel and the next day I got fired. But I never threw up on him, and I was going to be fired anyway.
So you only appeared in a couple of episodes, but they kept you the whole season? Your last appearance is midway through.
I wound up spending most of that year in rehab. I am totally at peace with every success I did not have. Because at the time, if I had any more success or access to money, there’s too many guys that are dead, and it would have been a death sentence.
Where I am in my life, I’m good, but … It’s a blessing and a curse. If you think about it, though, the show’s been on 40-something years and gone through so many cast changes, if you add everybody up, it’s still a relatively small fraternity in terms of show business and comedy. The weird thing is, even the people that season who showed up and worked hard …
It still didn’t work.
A lot of people who didn’t have close to the problems of me, and probably more talent, didn’t make it through that season. Joan Cusack is just a sweetheart and a terrifically talented actress, and she didn’t make it through.
Do you still watch the show?
Rarely now. I’ve probably watched it on and off. There was probably a phase where, like, Do I need to be reminded of this? Don’t ask me the exact chronology, but that crew that came together with Tina [Fey], Seth Meyers, and their political stuff was real sharp. I went, This crew I can dig. I liked them a lot.
And I’ve got to be honest: I’m not knocking the guy or being critical, but that cold-open stuff with Alec Baldwin as Trump? I’m not a Trump supporter, but it’s kind of cartoonish. And being on TV should be really special. It became this thing — and I don’t know when it changed — but all of a sudden, during the cold open and other sketches, there’s all these celebrities. Cameofest.
Pete Davidson has been pretty open about his own experiences with rehab. Do you have any advice for him as he navigates SNL?
I wouldn’t presume to be able to give him advice because I hadn’t followed him until the Ariana Grande thing, which I thought was pretty cool. I saw him on The Tonight Show; he’s giving guys hope! [Laughs.] I have limited knowledge, but it seemed like it was less substance abuse and more bipolar. I’m not an expert on that behavior.
But sometimes the darkness is there, and you just have got to get through it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.