Friday, August 20, 2010

SNL writer Michael Patrick O'Brien Interview

So firstly, I want to extend my thanks to Michael O'Brien for taking the time out of his super-busy schedule to do this interview and responding with such detailed and insightful answers. He went far and beyond what I expected and I'm enormously grateful. Let's all give a hand for Michael! 

You can visit Michael on the interweb here and check out his videos/upcoming gigs etc.
You can also check out his comedy shorts at

Now, without further ado, I present the Michael Patrick O'Brien Q&A. (Rest of answers after the jump!)


1. Firstly, how did you originally get into comedy? (What led you into
it? What drew you to improv?)

 I was a fan of lots of the same comedy movies growing up that most people were.  Anything with Bill Murray in it. I also loved Farley, Sandler, Kids in the Hall, all the same ones. One early thing that was unique was that my mom let us watch "I Love Lucy" and "The Andy Griffith Show" every day at lunch during the summers and that was some of the only tv we could watch.  My older siblings and I were probably some of the only 9-14 year olds debating the pros and cons of the episodes where Lucy and Ricky live in California.
In college I majored in film/TV and got real into a whole new realm of people. I hadn't really known about Buster Keaton, Jackie Gleason, etc.

I'd always loved laughing with my high school and college buddies, so, I started a comedy newspaper at the University of Michigan and then moved to Chicago to take classes at Second City.

2. Two part question - a) You were a performer for many years with Second City and iO - how did you come to be hired as  a writer for SNL?
b) A lot of readers were curious about your writing packet - if you submitted one, what it consisted of, how many sketches there were etc. Could you talk a little about that?

a- Lorne Michaels, Seth Meyers, and a group of producers and writers from SNL came out and watched me do showcases at iO and shows at Second City over the years.  I was flown out to NYC to do a 5-minute audition at SNL in both 2005 and 2009.  The latter resulted in this writing job.
b - I did submit a writing packet. Several over the years, actually.  I don't remember what they consisted of, but I'm sure they had 4-5 sketches in them that I thought could be used on the show.  I would take the pieces that had been working best in my two person sketch shows with Peter Grosz (our show was called "Misled"), solo show pieces, and Second City scenes and adjust a part here or there to make them work on paper and not just in performance.

 To be honest, I have no idea what worked or didn't as far as those packets went.  It's not like they sit you down once you're here and tell you what parts of your packet or auditions made them think you were a good writer.  We're all too busy diving into the first show.

3.  What was your first week at SNL like? Daunting/exciting/surreal?
The first week was all of those things.  I probably didn't feel ownership over the job for several months (and still not totally in some ways).  So, it was like an extended tour of 30 Rock.  I got lost in the
elevators a lot and still do.
I had scrambled to come in with about 40 ideas for scenes but to be honest, I don't know if I ended up pitching more than 1 or 2 of those. You learn quickly what doesn't work on the show and more slowly what should instead be pitched.  Soon, I could just look at my notes and be like, that's an idea that might work if I performed it alone in Chicago, but just doesn't fit what we do here.

4. A lot of great people hosted last season - who were some of your favorites and is there anyone in particular you would like to see host next season?
I loved a lot of the hosts.  Being from Chicago comedy scene, I was especially excited about Tina Fey.  Jude Law, Gerard Butler and Jon Hamm were all really fun to work with because they're extremely nice and laid back off stage and so versatile onstage.  Over the course of the hectic week you usually have one moment where you bond with them at least tiny bit, so I came out liking all of the hosts on some level.  I'd love to have any of the Chicago comedy alumni working in film and TV right now host.  It's just really cool to have worked at Second City in 5
different jobs and therefore have studied so many tapes of Carrell, Colbert, Adsit, McBrayer, etc so the idea of sitting down with them and batting around comedy ideas is a dream.  That's why Tina's week had that second level of fun for me.  And why it was so exciting in general to work with Seth Meyers, Jason Sudeikis and John Lutz every day (all people I admired in Chicago's comedy scene when I was a student).

You, along with Colin Jost, were responsible for writing one of the best-received sketches of the season, Kickspit Underground Rock Festival and you were even interviewed by The New York Times about it.
Could you talk about writing that sketch, where the idea to parody that infomercial came from and what it was like to see the sketch become a pop culture phenomenon of sorts?
Also, could you talk about Ass Dan - who came up with that character?

My officemate Jason Sudeikis and I were shown the 14-minute 2009 infomercial for the Gathering of the Juggalos.  I was actually sent it a few times by friends while I was at Second City, but didn't really watch it until I was hanging out with Jason one writing night.  We showed it to Colin and were all just fascinated by it on several levels.  I grew up in southeast Michigan so I was familiar with ICP and some of the
ideas of the fan base (I'm no stranger to Faygo soda).  So, Colin and I decided to write a parody.  It was an interesting challenge right off the bat because we were parodying something that was not known by many of our viewers, so we tried to make it funny on its own.  

The fact is, in the past 10 years I've become way less into all-day outdoor concert events and the video is making that statement as much as it's parodying the ICP infomercial.  There's never any bathrooms, you're sunburned, you haven't heard of half the bands...  Hopefully anyone who's been to Lollapalooza, Warped, etc will relate to this fictional festival that is the worst of all those things.  In some ways, the Juggalos infomercial became the style and vehicle to make that message.

Colin and I were also excited about how Jason played DJ Supersoak.  His look was loosely based on DJ Clay, but he's really just doing an original, energetic Sudeikis character that cracked us up.  Same with Nasim.  Lil Blaster was a different vibe from other stuff she did on the show and she was absolutely hilarious at it.

Another tricky thing was that the original videos (Gathering of the Juggalos infomercial and ICP's Miracles music video) are funny on their own. I wouldn't say they're completely made for comedic purposes, but ICP is of course aware that people enjoy their stuff on several levels. As they like to say, how seriously can you take this stuff: we're wearing clown make-up.  So, you have to try to make it even crazier than a pretty wild source video.

I didn't really know it was a "cultural phenomenon."  It's hard to get a gauge of what real people are talking about when you're here all the time.  Bobby Moynihan said people were yelling "we love you, Ass Dan" to him on the street and I was really shocked.  Ass Dan, along with the whole first parody, was created collaboratively by me and Colin from something like 3-7am one writing night.  Colin would mumble fictional band names as he went in and out of light sleep on the couch in my office.

As a side note, the reason I was not able to do this interview for awhile is that I was down at the 2010 Gathering of the Juggalos!  ICP and Psychopathic Records have been extremely generous towards us and they brought me and a friend down to check out the event we'd parodied. I thought that was pretty awesome.  My friend, Brad Morris, and I shot some bits for a side project we do called Almost Pimps, and then put the camera away and just enjoyed walking around the festival talking to some really unique people.  They were welcoming, even when they heard I'd written the SNL parodies.  The roughest thing that happened was that Brad got "bag tagged" (backhand slap to the crotch) by a guy for asking him when Dave Matthews was playing.

6. In the Q&A I did with Bobby Moynihan, he mentioned that you wrote Smashmouth In The Closet. That was one of my favorite sketches of last season and I was wondering if you could talk about the conception/writing of that sketch?

 I did a solo show in Chicago in 2001 where I played with the over-exposure of Smashmouth's song, All Star, by having it be the soundtrack for moments in life where it doesn't quite fit.  There's one or two songs a year that the media decides they're going to make us hate, and All Star was that for its year.  So, this year I was trying to write something one night and thinking of the weirdest things that could come out of a little girl's closet (little girl afraid of the monster in the closet is obviously one of the most recognizable archetypes and therefore a good jumping off point for comedy (there's even been other great SNL sketches involving people in kids' closets (Once I get started
with parentheticals I can't stop))).

So, Nasim and I started writing the scene and we almost had other similar bands come out, but we decided to just stick with Smashmouth and to heighten by changing where they enter.  The next challenges were making sure we don't unfairly attack Smashmouth who I don't know personally, but all our research pointed to them being really good guys. So, we had fun with making J. Lo say things like, "they're just chill bros from San Jose."  We believe that, too.  Nothing wrong with putting a song out that's not Mozart.  It was just the overplaying of it that caused it to be terrifying to the girl.  And I actually liked that it's now 10-years old, so it lands perfectly in that reference point where people may not have thought about it for a little bit but everyone remembers still.  The final touches that helped get it to air were Seth coming in with the line that defines our thesis statement: "I would sing
it for you, but I don't want it to get stuck in your head, too" or whatever it was.  Probably the biggest laugh in the scene.  Bobby, Bill and Fred risking injury by breaking through walls.  And SNL producer Steve Higgins helping us figure out the best way to keep startling the audience by teaching the camera techniques we could use to mislead the viewer and surprise them with another Smashmouth entrance.

7.  Everyone has a bad pitch story. Would you care to relive some of your less successful pitches?
 I don't remember what the pitch was, but I remember that I got to the "funny" part and no one laughed.  So, I said, "but at this point it's completely serious and the comedy will be added later."

8.  I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Betty White/Jay-Z show. It was such a wonderful and hilarious show and I'm glad that it received so much recognition when it came to Emmy nominations.  What was the atmosphere around SNL like that week and what was it like to work with Betty White and the female alumni of SNL?
 The table read was probably my favorite part of that week because Ms. White has obviously been a part of so many table reads in her life that she put on a clinic in timing and delivery.  Then, to add to it, you have 6 of my favorite female alumni, also with hundreds of table reads under their belt, bringing back characters from years ago.  Then, to mix all that in with the current cast's characters who already crack me up, it was a hilarious 4-hours.

9.  What have you learned from working at SNL?
 Too many things to list.  But, let's try for a couple.  I've learned to keep an even keel during really good and really bad weeks, because the other kind is coming soon.  From watching Seth I've learned that you get better production out of your fellow comedians through confident kindness than through any intimidation or punishments.  I've learned the value of laying off the cheap shot.  The size of our audience holds you accountable for what you say, so if you're looking to take someone down, make sure it's not someone who is just doing their own thing and not hurting anyone.  And I'd say I've learned a lot about the rhythm of comedy scenes and when you can feel that one has just lost its audience. Harder to quantify, but you start to get a gut feeling after tons of table read scenes.  I still have a ton to learn.  Probably the biggest challenge personally is finding a way to write things that are truly in my voice and have something about them that feels like my favorite scenes I saw or did in Chicago (always shooting for funny but sometimes also sad, weird, etc) and to make those work on a nationally televised
TV show.

. What advice, if any, do you have for aspiring comedy

Everything I've ever gotten has come to me when I stopped trying to get things, and focused on finding and performing in my own voice.  So, make sure the bulk of your time is spent on projects that are truly unique to you and keep you up at night with excitement, not projects that showcase your cast ability.  I'd also say don't get married to one path.  I see a lot of people who let the fact that Second City or SNL has not hired them cause them to become bitter and/or quit comedy.  I think it's healthier to set goals like, "I want to be working with friends and
producing interesting comedy for a living some time soon," than "I need to get Second City main stage by 2012 and SNL by 2015 or I've failed." 

Lastly, don't spend any energy worrying about what other comedians have been hired for, whether they deserve it, whether their last joke was good or not... Just worry about your own stuff and do your best to enjoy all the hilarious people out there without judgment.  All easier said than done.

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