You originally wrote The Brothers Solomon as a TV pilot, right? Was it difficult changing it to a feature film?
It was very time-consuming, but I would have a hard time calling it difficult because I had so much fun doing it. Because I had already written the pilot, I knew the characters really well and so it was a lot of fun figuring out how to turn it into a movie. I was also going through a break-up at the time, so it was a great distraction from that. Ah hell, who am I kidding, it was really hard.
Solomon is also the last name of the clueless extraterrestrial family on Third Rock from the Sun, for which you wrote. What draws you to characters who are so socially awkward?
I guess it's my own social awkwardness. That's my dirty little secret. I have a lot of friends that would be surprised to hear me say that because I'm a generally friendly person who seems to get along with people in social settings. But my close friends know that I'm kind of a crazy person. I over think everything. I need assurance all the time that everything's all right. And so inside, I'd say I'm a lot more close to the awkward characters I play than the person you might think I am if you were to meet me at a party or date me for a few years or something.
When did you first get into comedy?
I started writing like a year out of college. I had been working at a brokerage firm and just hating it no offense to people who enjoy brokerage firms but it just wasn't for me. So I was severely depressed every day. It was like I was lugging around an anvil inside my stomach. And then I finally decided to try doing comedy and I went to The Groundlings.
Was it hard switching careers like that?
The hardest part was not actually doing it, but admitting to everyone that I wanted to do it. I felt like, Who am I to think I'm funny enough to make it in comedy? But once I got over that fear and started telling everyone, it was awesome. All of my family and friends were super supportive.
You once said that improvisation isn't your favorite type of comedy to do. Do you feel this has made your job more difficult?
It's not that I don't like improv, I'm just shitty at it. Okay, I'm not always shitty. I can have moments where I luck out and look like I know what I'm doing. But I'm shitty enough, often enough, to consider myself in the mediocre-to-shitty range. Thank God that most of the shows I did at The Groundlings were sketch shows with improvs sprinkled in or I never would have made it into the group.
Would you mind describing your audition for Saturday Night Live?
I was crazy with nerves. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat, and I probably lost like 10 pounds from fear-based diarrhea. You're supposed to do three characters and three impersonations. I don't really do impersonations, so I only did two: Michael McDonald singing a very poor medley of "Yah Mo Be There" and "Taking It To The Streets," and Martin Sheen with a cold. As far as characters, I did ["Weekend Update" character] Tim Calhoun and a speed reader. I also did one of those guys you see on the streets who are dressed all in gold and do robotic movements for money. That was a pretty crazy one the guy breaks into song about his tough life on the streets and at the end of this feel-good song, we find out that the guy sucks cock for his face paint. And from that point on in the song, I basically go on a vocal riff for like a minute and a half in which the only words I'm saying are "cock" and "face paint." The whole thing was kind of a blur, but the main thing I remember was walking off the stage and seeing Lorne [Michaels] and saying, "Sorry for all the cocks." And he gave me a cordial nod and then I took off thinking I didn't get the job. But I guess all the cocks paid off because here I am.
The cast of SNL has changed significantly since you joined. What differences do you notice between the work of the cast you originally entered into and the current one?
I feel like the cast is a bit more cohesive now. And I think the main reason is because it's a smaller group. So you all get to know each other a little better because you work together more.
You took over the role of George W. Bush on the show after Will Ferrell left. Did you have to make a conscious effort to differentiate your version from his?
I watched some tape of Bush and I got a bunch of pointers from the master, Darrell Hammond. But as hard as I was working, I never really sounded that much like Bush. And there came a point when I realized, Oh, this is as good as my Bush voice is gonna get and it's not very good. And that was a very scary realization. But I gradually got kind of comfortable doing it and eventually started actually having fun.
How do you write? Do you find you come up with more ideas working at your computer, or walking down the street.
I used to get ideas all the time walking down the street or driving, and I would write them down on little pieces of paper or napkins or any writing surface that was around and then stick them in my pocket. And then I splurged and bought myself a notebook and started carrying that around and writing down ideas when they would hit me. And I filled up a bunch of those. Then one day, I just stopped doing it, and I thought I had run out of good ideas. So I looked back at all my old napkins and notebook pages to try to get inspired by all the good stuff, and I discovered something: I never had any good ideas in the first place! All of those notebooks and napkins had these completely idiotic ideas. Sometimes there would be two words, like one napkin just said "punish fuck." What the hell am I supposed to do with that?
You've listed The Beatles as one of your all-time favorite bands. Did you get a chance to meet Paul McCartney when he appeared on SNL last February?
[Paul]'s buddies with Lorne so he just showed up one night and surprised everybody by doing a little cameo in a scene with Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. So I never even knew he was in the building until I saw him on the monitors. And I about shit my pants! But I didn't know what to do. I get very shy around famous people, especially the ones that I love. Basically, the more respect I have for someone, the less I'll talk to them. Like when Steve Martin hosted a few years ago, I could barely talk when I was around him. And he was totally cool and receptive to talking, which made it a huge bummer. So that's what happened with Paul McCartney. But I shook his hand on stage at the end of the night and that was enough for me. That handshake was like getting married to a supermodel for a year.
Is it true that you owe your SNL co-star Amy Poehler 15 thousand dollars?
I really learned a lot with that one. She was going out to LA to do a bunch of talk shows when Blades of Glory came out, so I told her I'd give her 300 bucks for each talk show she said my name on I thought that would be a good way to get the Forte name out there. Also, since it was Amy Poehler saying it, it would be a positive association too. "Hey, Forte's in with the cool crowd! I'm gonna pay attention to this guy." But the way I phrased the proposition made it seem like I would give her 300 bucks for every time she said my name. So she went on Jimmy Kimmel and said my name all over the place. And now I owe her $15,600. And no, I haven't paid her yet, so hopefully interest isn't part of the deal.
A lot of your comedy tends to lean toward the absurd; you've worked on Adult Swim and play the bizarre "Falconer" character on SNL. Do you see absurd comedy becoming more mainstream in the future, or will it remain in the kind of cult sub-genre it's in now?
I don't know. I'd argue that it's always been mainstream and cult-like at the same time, depending on who's doing it. Some people are able to do absurd stuff in a way that mainstream audiences get. Like Will Ferrell. He has a bunch of crazy stuff in his movies and people love him. But Monty Python was totally absurd too. And the Marx Brothers were way out there. And mainstream audiences totally got them. So I don't think I'd say it's a new thing. It's just not everyone can harness that absurdity and put it out there in a way that mainstream audiences will enjoy. I hope I can do it someday.
Photo credit: Claudio Papapietro for //ontheinside.info