What I'd Say To The Martians includes both essays and Saturday Night Live scripts. Are either of these formats more difficult than the other?
Both are hard. To me, the best humor pieces are written from the point of view of a specific character. So when you're thinking of ideas, you think about what your character would be interested in, what he could pontificate about. In TV, you're just trying to come up with a funny ideas. Also, in TV you're thinking visually. I do, anyway. I try to think of a funny image, and then what might explain that funny image.
For sheer writing, doing a humor piece is probably more difficult. But physically, TV really wears you out. Saturday Night Live, anyway. There the writers produce their own pieces, so you have to make sure the sets, props, sound effects, etc., are right. By the after-show party, you're ready for that beer.
How do you decide which jokes are better suited for an essay, and which might be more appropriate for television?
For me, I usually get in a groove of thinking one way or the other. Visually, or more narratively. For TV, sometimes you have visual ideas that are hard to put across as a story or essay. When I wrote [Saturday Night Live sketch] "Toonces, the Cat Who Could Drive a Car," it did okay at read-through, not great. It came across much better visually.
Do you come up with "Deep Thoughts" at any given time, walking down the street, for example? Or do you deliberately sit down and come up with them?
I haven't written any for quite a while, although I am considering writing some new ones. They don't just come to you. I lie on the floor and throw a football against the ceiling for hours at a time, getting up to jot something if I get an idea.
How many do you come up with in a given day?
If I come up with seven or eight "Deep Thoughts" in a day, that's a good day. And once I get a stack, I usually throw out nine to every one I keep.
One of the first places "Deep Thoughts" appeared was Army Man, the cult comedy magazine from the 1980s. How did you get involved with that?
Army Man is the brain-child of [former Simpsons writer/producer] George Meyer, a longtime friend of mine and a brilliant comedy writer. He edited the whole thing, and wrote a lot of it. He invited me to contribute. I have tried for years to get George to revive Army Man, but he resists. I don't think he likes to be in the position of rejecting friends' work. Army Man, as you know, only had three editions. And it's legendary from just those three.
You wrote one of my favorite SNL pieces: "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer" with Phil Hartman.
How on Earth did such a strange idea come to you?
I have always favored little-boy subject matter: dinosaurs, Frankenstein, cowboys, etc. I'm not sure exactly how I thought of that sketch. I remember I was thinking of unfrozen cave men. Maybe some scientists blaming each other because the cave man melted into a puddle of mush, something like that. Then came the idea to make him a lawyer.
Phil was an incredible talent. Usually my go-to guy at the show. He picked up on the idea right away and really made it work. Again, it wasn't a huge hit at read-through, and played late in the live show. But it caught on.
What are some of your favorite Saturday Night Live pieces that you didn't write?
Boy, there are so many, it's hard to say. From the old days, I loved Michael Palin in the Miles Copperthwaite sketches, written by my friend Jim Downey. Also loved the medieval barber piece with Steve Martin. I'm a sucker for grandiose historical pieces. I remember really laughing at that Japanese game show piece where Chris Farley couldn't speak Japanese. It was like a dream. That was written by my friend Andy Breckman. He was really good at writing fake game shows. I think he also wrote "You Bet Your Finger," which was great. More recently, another friend of mine, T. Sean Shannon, wrote a piece about people doing push-ups that was hilarious. I really like those "Falconer" sketches. I like things with a pompous, heroic feel.
Your tenure at SNL was a relatively lengthy one. How did the show evolve during your time there?
I don't think it changed a whole lot. SNL is sort of like high school. The students change, but the teachers and the walls stay the same. In the past five or six years, however, it seems like the show has made a conscious effort to be young and hip. Which is sort of sad. A lot of pieces about celebrities and pop culture. George Meyer used to call it "television crawling up its own ass."
Your sketches, like "Toonces" and even, in a way, "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer," always seemed more premise-based than character-based. Was it tougher to get those on the air?
Definitely. The bias has always been toward recurring characters and topical stuff. Premise-based pieces are usually relegated to the last half-hour, if they get on at all. Actors, of course, love recurring characters. They also like playing straight out to camera, instead of to each other, like in a play. The show does a lot more straight-to-camera stuff nowadays, which I'm not a fan of.
What goes through your head when watching new episodes of Saturday Night Live? Do you find yourself thinking how you would or would not write a particular sketch differently?
When I'm a viewer, I'm a fan like everybody else. It makes me happy to see a funny piece.
Additional writing by Dan Gurewitch.