“I never am at a loss for cocktail-party chatter, that’s for sure.” That was one of the last things Anne Beatts, a comedy veteran and one of the original writers for Saturday Night Live, told me just a week before she died on April 7. I’d gotten in touch with the 74-year-old through her email address at Chapman University, the California school where she was teaching sketch-comedy writing, and asked her if she’d be willing to share an anecdote or two about what it was like working in the SNL offices in the late 1970s. When she called a few hours later, it turned out that Beatts had many stories to tell; as she joked more than once, “You’ll never be able to use all of this.”
Throughout the course of the 50-minute conversation, Beatts spoke about her and the other women SNL writers’ tense relationship with John Belushi, working on the “Nerds” sketches with Gilda Radner and Bill Murray, and the show’s stressful, competitive, and convivial atmosphere, where all-night writing sessions were aided by the hospital bed she had installed in her tiny office. In the wake of her death, which was first announced on April 8 in a tweet by original SNL cast member Laraine Newman, below is an edited version of the conversation, in which Beatts was laughing constantly and, on occasion, sighing wistfully, as though she was still amazed she’d experienced it all.
I really appreciate you calling me back. Like I said in the email, we wanted to hear some stories about your time as a writer for Saturday Night Live and what your office there was like.
Of course. There’s lots of stories.
So, of course, it became necessary to spend Tuesday nights at 30 Rock and stay over. Initially, I was sleeping on a two-cushion, green vinyl couch, and I would wake up drooling with green-dye stains around my mouth. That was not the best thing, so when they came to negotiate my contract for my second year, I said that I wanted a hospital bed in my office. They said, “What do you mean? The kind that you crank?” And I said, “No, the kind with buttons that you push.” I made that stipulation in my contract, and I got it. So I used to have my little bed, and, depending on how late we were working, I’d go to bed in my little bed. I’d leave a note for the receptionist, who came in at 9 a.m., to wake me up. I used to bring in clean sheets every week and change the sheets, and I had a different outfit for the next day.
Eventually we got a shower in the office. So I would get up, I would take my shower and get dressed, and I would get coffee and wake up my writing partner, Rosie Shuster, and we would continue working. If we were in very loose form, we could go downstairs and have breakfast, and if it was a real tough week, we would be ordering in. We used to tip the delivery guy in joints.
We would be frantically — you know, pre-computers — typing things up and writing them out in longhand on yellow pads and sort of taping them together and pushing them out under our door. Rosie had a sofa in her office — she didn’t have a bed, but she had a full-size sofa — and we would be pushing them under the door for the PAs to pick up and type, retype. It was the kind of situation where it was like, if your mom called, it’d be like, “Sorry, can’t talk now, bye.” That was just what I did for five years.
My office wasn’t large enough for a desk and a bed, so I had a bed and a wall phone next to the bed, and a tray table with my typewriter. I used to get fresh flowers every week. I gave them to myself, so I had to put them somewhere; there must have been some table or something. I had a window, so that was a good thing. I ultimately got a monitor put in so I could see what was going on in the studio. After that happened, Danny [Aykroyd] and John [Belushi] decided they wanted bunk beds for their office, and they got them. It was always sort of a little smelly in there. We were lucky because it was like school — we had the summer off and we had breaks, spring break, things like that, but when we did four shows in a row, that was just killer. I mean, it wasn’t coal mining, but it was still pretty rough.
I just remembered one moment that was very interesting to me. I’d been there all night and I got up early, and I don’t think anyone else was up, so I was sort of alone in the office. I went and looked out the window, and it was an extremely heavy snowfall. There was, like, a blizzard, and I looked out the window of Lorne’s office — which faced out onto the plaza — and I saw someone cross-country skiing down Fifth Avenue. It was pretty cool, and I thought, You know … When I was a little kid living out in Westchester and coming into the city and always wanting to stay over, if I had seen my future self in that moment, I would have been quite thrilled.
How did it work when you were collaborating with other people? It doesn’t sound like you had room for many people in your office.
Well, we used to go and work in Rosie’s office more often. Also, if we were typing things, you had to be in my office, because I would tend to be the one that was typing more, but we had a pretty equitable arrangement. Then, of course, other people would be up at various times and would drop in. Lorne would always drop in at like 2 in the morning and go, “Do you have anything for Garrett [Morris]?” And we’d go, “No. No, we don’t. Our sketch is set in a convent.” He always wanted us to cover the girls, and then he would try and squeeze Garrett in there somehow, which we had to resist. We also had to resist his coming and settling in and telling us long stories about his experiences in the sweater department in Canada because it was … you know, we only had so much time and energy.
What was the general atmosphere like?
It was very convivial and cooperative. There’s probably no one there that I didn’t collaborate with in some sketch or other, including the performers. I remember once I was writing a thing called “Woman to Woman,” which featured Gilda [Radner] as Connie Carson, “a career woman who had made a career out of talking to women about their careers.” I was working on it and talking to Gilda on the phone, and she was down in the Village in her apartment, and she said she was just gonna come up. So she showed up at the office around midnight, and she was wearing her pajamas — which may have been footie pajamas, I’m not sure. She actually admitted that she had changed into her pajamas in order to come up, for the joke. Just to get a laugh. That was her personality, you know? She would pretty much do anything — she would bang into walls.
It was like a family. It was a dysfunctional family, but it was a family. Most of the fights would be more along the lines of, like, you know, “You pig! I’m going to my room, and I’m never speaking to you again, so there!” Which, you know, didn’t last.
Yeah, in those confines, you’re almost forced to forget and forgive quickly.
It was a lifeboat situation. You were forced to get along. But I mean, everybody kind of did get along and was protective. It was competitive, of course. But if your sketch got cut between dress and air or something, people wouldn’t go, “Nyah, nyah, your sketch was cut!” They’d say, “Oh, too bad. It’ll probably be in next week’s show.” It was competitive, but supportive. Like a family.
We had a sort of rough relationship with John. He would often refuse to be in sketches that we had written, and would tell Lorne to “fire the girls” and things like that. He wasn’t really a sexist kind of person. Away from the show, I had a perfectly good relationship with him. But I don’t know … I was working on a book with his wife, Judy Belushi, who was not his wife at the time, but his girlfriend. We were doing this book Titters, the first collection of humor by women, and that was the first year of the show and it was a massive task. I think he was upset that it took Judy’s attention away from him, even though he kind of wanted her to have her own career. But I just think it made him sort of jealous, and I think that may have been part of the root of his difficulties with Rosie and me.
I don’t know how old you are — if you watched the show in diapers or whatever — but Rosie and I wrote those “Nerds” characters because I had seen Elvis Costello when he was on the show, and I said, “Oh, you know, that’s not really punk rock. It’s more like nerd rock,” because he had those high-water pants and white socks and stuff. I mean, all that was missing was the pocket protector. So out of that, we wrote a piece called “Nerd Rock,” and we wanted John to be in it as one of the nerds. Bill was going to be this sort of DJ character, and then John said he wouldn’t be in it. So Bill ended up in it with Gilda, and Danny did the DJ character. It was just sort of our luck because it clicked into Bill and Gilda’s relationship. He used to leave her messages when he was traveling saying “Todd called.” So the whole noogies thing and everything was symbolic of their slightly sadomasochistic relationship. Then, at one point, [Al] Franken and [Tom] Davis started writing a sketch with those characters, and we were like, “Hey, those are our characters!” So we sort of had to reclaim them. That and Uncle Roy, which you’ll never see. It was the lighter side of child molestation, with Buck Henry. You’ll never see it because they won’t replay them because standards have changed.
So, anyway, it was competitive, but it was competitive in that way of, like, John, he was like a brother to me in many ways: You might not get along with your brother all the time, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not your brother.
Was there a lot of hanging out during work hours? With that crew, I can imagine a lot of times where people weren’t getting much done.
Well, I mean, there was a lot of waiting around. Tom Davis once memorably said that he smoked grass to get through the long, boring periods of waiting around and then did coke to have the energy to stay up to do the work in the other times. I never spent a lot of time hanging around. I just was working. And it’s funny, because when I’m in New York and I walk into the RCA building, I immediately start walking faster, like I’m late, I’m late!
Is there a specific sketch that you remember leading to a stressful all-nighter?
Well, we always pulled all-nighters. It was just customary, like a regular weekly basis of counting on that. I mean, I think it’s pretty hard when you’re trying to think of three more jokes at 3 in the morning, and someone sets out a line of coke on the desk, to refuse it.
That’s funny you mention that, because I’ve seen the show recently where they joke, “Oh, man, they don’t do coke here anymore.”
I was sort of upset, actually, by that representation on the — what’s it called, the sketch that they just did where Tina Fey plays a legendary, fictionally named, but supposedly legendary female writer — and she, you know, obviously had coke around her nose or whatever. It was a great sketch, actually, but I was sort of offended. I just thought, Well, why are you attacking your predecessors? Could you not be more supportive? I mean, the line where she said, “Oh, I was the person who suggested that the women should be able to talk” was a great line. And the way she looked was sort of a combo platter of how Rosie and I had looked in that day because we both had perms — or Rosie had, like, just Jewish hair, and I had a perm and large glasses like that. But I just thought, Couldn’t you have represented them more like in an aesthetic fashion rather than sort of attacking previous women writers? What is that about?
I wanted to say something which is funny, which is that I went back to work on the 25th-anniversary show — not the 40th anniversary, but the 25th. I also did return once to work as a guest writer on the Dick Ebersol incarnation of the show, with Chris Guest and all those people. I found myself alone in the office at like 4 in the morning, and no one else was there. And instead of coke, they had candy, like jelly beans or whatever, on their desks. They kept going with sugar. But when I went back to work on the 25th-anniversary show, there were signs in the hall that said, “This area is under 24-hour surveillance.” Nothing was going on, but in the old days, they would have had something to see. People used to borrow my bed sometimes. Marianne Faithfull had a massage in it. But I don’t think it was borrowed too much for hanky-panky. I think Jim Downey kept it for a while after I was gone. But it’s funny because, I mean, they rented it for four years. I think you could have probably bought, like, a dozen hospital beds for the price of renting a hospital bed for four years.
Were any particular sketches tough for you to write?
Oh God. Ted what-ya-call-it from Mary Tyler Moore. You remember that character of Ted? His real name was Ted, too, but I forget his real last name.
Yes. He was hosting, and I don’t know if the show was short or Lorne wasn’t satisfied with what we had. But he asked Rosie and me, after the readthrough, if we would write a “Nerds” Christmas-pageant sketch where [Knight] was a high-school principal. We wrote what we thought was this cute and innocent parody of a high-school performance, and the censors said, “You absolutely cannot do this. The Virgin Mary cannot receive noogies.” We were like, “You know, in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s not the Virgin Mary. It’s Gilda Radner playing Lisa Loopner playing the Virgin Mary.” They were adamant because they said it “struck at the foundations of Christianity” or something. We had to make changes and get them to the booth, get them to the cue cards, get them to all the actors. We had, like, five minutes or something to do all of this, so the sketch kind of limped along. It went on and we thought, That’s that. Well, for the next month, in January, we got mail like you wouldn’t believe about how terrible it was. They didn’t know who wrote it, but when NBC got that kind of mail, they’d pass it on to the appropriate parties.
Also, I was personally getting a lot of mail because I had done this commercial parody called “Jewess Jeans.” It was at the time of those Brooke Shields ads with tight jeans. So, it was an ad with Gilda: “She’s a Jewess in Jewess Jeans, she’s an American princess and a disco queen. She loves Manhattan, thinks Woody’s a riot. If her building goes co-op, her daddy will buy it. But she owes it all to the Scarsdale Diet. She shops the sales for designer clothes, she has designer nails and a designer nose.” And then at the end it said, “Guaranteed to ride up.” The censors said, “You can’t put a Star of David on her,” so the compromise we reached on that was that you could put it on if it had no lines inside it, just the outside shape.
So that was on and then the “Nerds” [sketch] was on, and I was getting mail from both sides. I thought I should have gotten some kind of special award for equal-opportunity offending. The Christmas pageant, we just thought it was very innocent, childish fun. We never thought that anybody would possibly be offended by it, but they were. People would get offended by such crazy things. I mean, “Super Bass-O-Matic,” where Danny put a dead trout in a blender — people were all “animal cruelty!” and blah, blah, blah. It was a dead fish!
Did a lot of ideas come from the delirium of pulling all-nighters?
I mean, Lorne used to say it was a lifeboat mentality, and I think one of the things about it — which you, as somebody who is used to deadlines, would appreciate — is that it’s easier to work when you have a deadline, or when you have an empty page or an empty stage that’s waiting for you that you need to fill. It pushes you. But it’s not so much delirium — it’s just that there’s a demand. The only other job where you can get the same kind of regular satisfaction is working for a daily newspaper or magazine with short deadlines. Because if we had stuff on the show and we were successful, then we would go out to brunch the next day and hear people in the next booth talking about it. That was very satisfying, you know?
But as far as the nights would go after the show, it would be 1 o’clock in the morning, so everyone would go upstairs to the 17th floor and have some wine, smoke a joint, maybe, and hang out. That would go on for a while, then we would go to the official party, wherever that was, like at One Fifth. Michael O’Donoghue and I kept wanting to make it be at One Fifth because it was downtown and near our house. Then after that, we would go to the Blues Bar, and then we would be going home when the sun was coming up, sleeping, and if you got up in time for 60 Minutes, it’d be great.
I can imagine that once you left the show, it was a big adjustment to get back to a normal lifestyle.
After I’d been working on the show for five years, people would see me and they’d go, “You look great!” It was because I wasn’t doing that anymore. I used to have nightmares during the off weeks, because you weren’t getting real sleep; you were getting airplane-quality sleep. I would sort of push everything off and think, Oh, I can finally get some good sleep. And then I would have weird dreams. Often dreams that involve something about, you know, “Lorne wants you!” and “You’re late!” and this, that, and the other. I still have those dreams, 40 years later.
And, you know, it’s strange, sort of — I’m teaching a sketch-comedy course at Chapman, which is I guess how you found me, and I’ve been looking for examples of various kinds of sketches that people can write, like political, pop-culture, etc. kind of sketches. So I’m showing them examples from old Saturday Nights and Key & Peele and whoever, and it’s a strange experience for me to see a lot of my work up on the internet, just out there in the world. It’s very odd, because when we were doing it, we initially, at least, thought it was pretty ephemeral, right? It was live television — it was there, and then it was gone.
Does seeing those sketches bring back all the sensations you were experiencing while writing them?
Oh, yes, yes, absolutely. It’s weird. Sometimes I enjoy it, and sometimes it makes me sad. And sometimes I see something and I go, “Oh my God, we wrote that? I forgot about that one.”
Does that include the sounds and smells?
Yeah, absolutely. It brings me right back. Oh, the Muppets. I must say, I’m proud of never having written for the Muppets. When we had the Muppets on the show, they had this set where they had a volcano, and they used to burn incense or something, and it just had this awful smell. I remember that Muppets-set smell forever.
The other thing is that I cannot eat Famous Amos cookies. Because Famous Amos, I think in an attempt to get on the show or something, gave us boxes of it, and often it was the only thing to eat in the office. My quota on Famous Amos is done.
Also — and Tina Fey commented on this to me once, too — a lot of people associate the smell of popcorn with fun and movies and stuff. Well, since Lorne liked to snack on popcorn, he wanted to have popcorn waiting for him when he came into the office. So the smell of popcorn actually triggers an anxiety mechanism in me. That’s not to say that he was a bad boss or anything. In many ways, he was a really great boss, because he gave people their space to do what they wanted. He would say things between dress and air, like, “Okay, can you take five minutes out of this sketch?” And we would be like, “Yes, absolutely, of course.” But I mean, could we? In ten minutes?
I remember one sketch, Christina Crawford’s Christmas sketch. It was a pretty long sketch. We were supposed to cut it down, and we went to give cuts to Jane [Curtin] when she was in her dressing room with hot rollers in her hair. And Mick Jagger was giving her a neck massage, and we started showing her what the cuts were. And Mick was like, “Oh, no, don’t take that out. That’s the best line!” So we were like, “Oh, Mick likes it. We should leave it in.” And of course, you know … I mean, he’s not an expert on comedy, so he actually was wrong. But we were like, “Oh, if Mick thinks it’s good, we should keep it in.”
People always say, “Well, what was it like, what was it like?” And I say, well, it was everything in a way. Run your finger randomly through the dictionary and pick an adjective, because it was thrilling, it was exciting, it was satisfying, it was terrifying, it was boring, it was horrible. It was everything. It was five years of my life, so it was kind of everything. It was great. And it certainly gave me a career, you know?