I’ve been a fan of Saturday Night Live since the mid 90s. My first experience with SNL was the 1994 cast featuring Chris Farley, which cemented my love affair with SNL and skits ever since. Since then I’ve caught up with the classic seasons and watched each new season. Say what you will about weak casts and so-so seasons throughout the years, there’s nothing else on TV that can be as spontaneous and pop culture-savvy as this show.
That said, there perhaps haven’t been two more influential and upstanding SNL cast members than Tina Fey and Darrell Hammond over the last twenty years. Hammond owned the Bill Clinton impression while on the show for fourteen years, while Tina Fey was head writer for seven years and boosted SNL‘s notoriety with her Sarah Palin impression. Both came out with books last year about their lives and times at SNL. Only one former cast member can win this dueling review.
God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked: Tales Of Stand-Up, Saturday Night Live, And Other Mind-Altering Mayhem
by Darrell Hammond
Hardcover, 273 pages
Published November 8th 2011
The first thing you’ll note when reading this book is that Darrell Hammond is a troubled man. This isn’t a joke book, nor is it a book focused on making the reader laugh. This is a book about mental illness, but at the same time it does an incredible job taking the reader through what it’s like to work at SNL. As he weaves through his battle with antipsychotic treatments, self-mutilation, illegal drugs, and emotional minefields you will laugh and be totally engrossed in his life story.
Most notably known for his impression of Bill Clinton, Hammond breaks down his time at SNL and even goes as far as explaining what it takes to create an adequate impression.
Doing an impression on SNL was a little like painting a picture while dodging bullets. Sometimes the paint gets smeared, sometimes the strokes are too broad, sometimes you don’t ever have time to put the brush to canvas…My challenge was learning to break each set of idiosyncrasies down: Where’s the guy from? How old is he? Does he have a dialect? Is his voice high or low? Where does it originate in the throat, the back or the front? I had to find a way to compress an entire person into a handful of tics and gestures.”
After hearing stories of the drug use in the 70s at SNL and noting the cast members whose lives were taken by drug overdoses it’s not hard to believe Hammond was on drugs. By all accounts it appears being able to be funny and creative enough to create an SNL episode over a handful of 18 hour days requires a type of personality that might be prone to drug abuse. But the fact of the matter is, Hammond was so good at impressions on a consistent basis you wouldn’t know it from his ability on stage. Chris Farley had his moments on SNL where you just knew something wasn’t right emotionally with him. Not so with Hammond, but this might be because instead of recreational drugs Hammond was on prescribed drugs like lithium. This book paints a very different picture with brutal honesty as Hammond guides the reader through his years at SNL and the emotional turmoil he was in.
The book is fascinating because Hammond does a good job bringing the reader into his mental state throughout the years. You learn he was dealing with extreme fear due to deep-seeded issues with his mother and her abuse, and he very vividly describes why he’d cut his wrists mere minutes before appearing live in a skit. It’s clear Hammond is incredibly hard working, and to manage work along with his substance abuse and emotional problems is a testament to his work ethic. At one point, after explaining the amount of last minute changes and stress of preparing the show, Hammond writes about working on the show:
Not everyone can take it, but Lorne picks people who can operate in this biosphere. He doesn’t just hire talented people, he hires fast people. Some really fabulous players were on for only a year, and some fabulous people didn’t make it even that far.”
For those SNL fanatics who want insight into the show, you will be overjoyed to read this book. In extremely detailed fashion Hammond lays out the day-to-day and hour-by-hour operations of working at SNL.
There’s a layer to this book that I’m unsure was intended. Much of this book reads as if there is a fog, or he was in a fog when the moments happened. The way the book states things with finality gives the reader a sense of dread and loss of control that Hammond may have been feeling at the time. For instance, after explaining he broke up with his girlfriend Hammond writes:
The next day, she was swinging from a rope in her apartment on Fifty-Seventh Street. God might have been telling me, ‘not so fast, Mr. Hammond.’ But the show must go on.”
End of paragraph. Hammond then goes on to explain his work as Clinton in his second season on SNL. No explanation, further details or feelings. He does this a few times in the book and it definitely leaves an impression. Later, when he explains how he reacted to the report that anthrax was found in the 30 Rock building in 2001, while everyone was upset and scared, Hammond explains:
I felt strangely calm. I guess I had become somewhat inured to the presence of danger, to the sense that something bad would probably happen. I already understood the notion that the danger you’re guarding against is already inside.”
The book is a success largely because of moments like this. You really get inside his head and can get a feel for what it was like to be him.
Hammond goes on to explain the plethora of relationships he held with Presidents, Vice Presidents, celebrities and highlights throughout his years at SNL. The book even ends with a bit of a happy ending, albeit after going through multiple insane asylums and facing his inner demons.
This isn’t the happiest read, but it’s clearly written with very interesting details of an artist trying to cope with a dark childhood. There are times he repeats himself on accounts of Clinton or his feelings towards the impression, and the writing feels a bit wishy-washy, but can you blame him when his life was lived in such a way? What makes this book so enjoyable is the honesty it delivers, the thoughts and feelings of being in his shoes.
by Tina Fey
Hardcover, 277 pages
Published April 5th 2011 by Little, Brown & Company
Enter: Tina Fey, the SNL hit girl of the past ten years who was the first woman to become head writer at SNL, and went on to create a 30 Rock, a comedic version of working at SNL behind the scenes. Bossypants is the opposite in style and tone from Darrell Hammond’s autobiography. Where his book was dark, honest and disturbing, Tina Fey imbues a sense of adventure, lightheartedness and delves into being a woman, but not necessarily deep enough to understand who she is on a day-to-day basis. The book is less focused on SNL, probably because Fey is much more successful than Hammond (he was more of a bit player than writer/boss/actor as Fey is), but it also takes a more meaningful look at being a woman in the workplace.
Right out of the gate, Fey informs the reader what the book is about, summarizing points she’ll make in the following pages. The three page intro brings up the fact that, as executive producer of 30 Rock, she gets asked if it’s hard to be boss. She infers people like Donald Trump don’t get this question since they are men. Also delivers some short tips on being a woman in the workplace:
No pigtails, no tube tops. Cry sparingly. (Some people say ‘Never let them see you cry.’ I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.)”
Then later she explains the problem with being a female in today’s society:
You were either blessed with a beautiful body or not. And if you were not, you could just chill out and learn a trade. Now if you are not ‘hot,’ you are expected to work on it until you are.”
One might think there’s too much seriousness in the book for a comedic writer, and there is, but she usually follows these statements up with jokes. Hammond’s book is more straight-laced, explaining how it was and his mental issues behind it. Here, Fey explains how it is, wrapped in a joke, but never strays from what makes up her identity.
They say comedy comes from a place of pain, and for Fey it’s no different. No, she wasn’t beaten, nor did she have awful parents who chained her up in the basement, but she was always a little awkward, and many of the opening chapters outline the impossible expectations girls face. In between discussing her father and growing up in New Jersey, Fey drops a chapter titled “The Secrets of Mommy’s Beauty” where she outlines how to stay good looking culminating to the final rule which is, “who cares.” Another chapter, titled “All Girls Must Be Everything,” lists off what perfect beauty is, what she actually was and all the “deficiencies” of an ugly girl. It’s all lighthearted enough to be funny, and it’s delivered in a joking manner as if to say, “what a crazy world we live in.”
The chapters resemble magazine articles, so things remain eclectic and fun. One chapter, for instance, gives the reader the rules of improvisation. Eventually she gets to SNL, which she reaches 119 pages into the book. Unlike Hammond, Fey stays away from anecdotes that go into other SNL cast members, aside from an Amy Poehler anecdote explaining how Jimmy Fallon thought her skit was a little crude. Poehler replied, “I don’t [expletive] care if you like it!” The anecdote is more a rumination on being a woman in the workplace than gossipy insider info.
She does go into how gross the writers were. For instance, they’d pretend to rape each other all the time and, oh yeah, 5 out of 20 would piss into cups and leave them on their desks. With bathrooms literally 10 feet away, some of the writers would use coffee cups or even a jar. It’s an interesting anecdote as it explains the atmosphere in the writer’s areas, which not coincidentally became a plot point in an episode of 30 Rock. Sun tea, anyone?
After about 50 pages of SNL-only anecdotes and tips on how to act on a live show, Fey drops back into being a woman in show business, this time the lie that is Photoshopped magazine covers. It’s insightful to hear her opinion on the falsehood that is beauty in society, especially since she has been part of it.
The book always maintains a conversational tone, from skin care tips to meeting Sarah Palin and that helps set the tone for an easy read that skims the surface of being a woman in show business. The book closes by asking what she should do with the last five years of her career. She asks herself if she wants another baby and discusses how older women are considered crazy if they continue in comedy, even though men can stay in comedy even when they can barely feed themselves. Her conclusion is simple and perfectly ends the book. She opens with the impossible expectations of female beauty and concludes with this:
I have a suspicion – and hear me out, ’cause this is a rough one – I have a suspicion that the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to f--k her anymore.”
It’s completely honest, especially considering the criticism women face these days being labelled not funny. If anything this book is an argument that women are funny, and it’s precisely because of the s--t they go through being women.
So Who Wins?
In some ways these books are difficult to compare as one is written by a successful comedy writer and another a successful impressionist. The fact that they both worked at SNL is the only fair comparison. In that regard, I’d say Hammond’s book delivers as there are more anecdotes and insight about working at SNL, while Fey’s book is less anecdotal and explains how it was to work rather than what happened. Hammond’s book is less successful though as it doesn’t carry as strong of a narrative beyond what happened to him and what he thought at the time. Fey’s book is stronger as a whole because it maintains a focus on being a woman in show business, which is at times insightful, funny and interesting. In a way these different styles speak volumes of the meaning of their lives and their books. Hammond’s life will be remembered for his work on SNL and that’s also the focus his book takes. Fey will be remembered as a successful woman, mother and writer. In that order.
The battle of improvisation.