‘SNL’s Best Last-Minute Ideas, Rewrites and Punch-Ups
Dan Aykroyd once punched a hole in the wall of Lorne Michael’s office. Why? He was sick and tired of all the last-minute script changes on Saturday Night Live. “I was so mad at the way he would give us last-minute changes before air,” he once explained. “We would have to run down and give them to the cue card guys, and they would be going crazy and saying, ‘Are you kidding?! You want us to get this on?’”
But despite Aykroyd’s frustrations, last-minute ideas, rewrites and punch-ups are behind some of the most successful bits in SNL’s history (including one by Aykroyd himself). Here are five favorites…
One of Aykroyd’s signature sketches began as a different concept entirely — the Pinhead Lawyers of France. “I had been looking at TV — I guess I’d smoked a J or something — and I thought, ‘Everybody’s heads don’t reach the top of the screen. Wouldn’t it be great if you added four inches to everybody?’” he related in SNL oral history Live From New York. “So I drew up this design.”
But some were afraid that the characters would disparage encephalitic people, Aykroyd says. Was there also concern that it might be ripping off Zippy the Pinhead, an underground comic strip that had become nationally syndicated at around the same time? Cartoonist Bill Griffith has complained about the similarities. Whatever the reason, Aykroyd rewrote his idea, changing the Pinhead Lawyers to the Coneheads. Michaels suggested making them aliens instead of lawyers, with France now a cover story. The rewritten idea spawned 11 sketches, an animated sitcom pilot and a feature film.
Because you never know when inspiration will strike, several of the show’s best ideas come late in the week. In the early days of SNL, writer Alan Zweibel was hanging in a restaurant with Michaels late one Friday night, according to Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. News broke that the animal star of ‘50s sitcom Mr. Ed had just died. “Can we get a horse?” Zweibel asked Michaels.
“You’re not thinking of interviewing Mrs. Ed, are you?” Michaels responded.
“Yep,” Zweibel affirmed.
Zweibel woke the show’s property master at 4 a.m. with his equine request; by Saturday afternoon, a horse was learning its lines backstage. (Okay, that was Gilda Radner.)
Speaking of last-minute rewrites, it’s pretty clear that Mrs. Ed suffered from stage fright during the live show, but Weekend Update anchor Bill Murray leaned on his improvisational chops to make the bit’s off-script moments work anyway.
Mick in the Mirror
Jimmy Fallon thought he had a killer sketch idea for Mick Jagger. Michaels thought otherwise. “I go, ‘Why don’t we do a bit where I play Mick in the mirror?’ And Lorne goes, ‘Please don’t do that. That sketch has been done a million times. Groucho Marx did it, Lucille Ball did it. It’s just been done,’” Fallon explained in Interview magazine.
So Fallon pitched Jagger “a million ideas.” A bit about working at Sunglass Hut. A sketch about a Keith Richards clone. Pitch after pitch, Jagger told Fallon that he didn’t like the ideas. In a last-minute Hail Mary, Fallon threw out his original concept: “What about, you’re in the mirror, and I’m on the other side as you.” Mick’s response? “Hey, that’s a funny idea. I like that.”
Sketches are normally written on Tuesdays, but like Mrs. Ed, “we wrote it on a Friday night, which is rare for SNL, and it did really well during dress.”
When the sketch was performed on the air, “the place was shaking,” Fallon says in Live From New York. “People were standing up, clapping. I’ll never forget that.”
It took a few swings at the readthrough table for “More Cowbell” to even be considered for a live show. How many people know about Blue Oyster Cult and its percussion choices anyway? When it was finally chosen for the Christopher Walken show, the sketch bombed big-time at dress rehearsal.
Credit Will Ferrell with the last-minute comic save. “The clock was ticking, and we didn’t know what to do,” he explained in an oral history of the sketch. “Finally, I get an idea. I asked wardrobe to get me a shirt one size smaller. She asked, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘No, but it’s all we’ve got.’”
“His shirt kept riding up,” remembered Horatio Sanz.
“That’s all it took,” said Fallon.
“That shirt was so small!” marveled Chris Parnell.
“I was just happy we got the sketch to work,” a relieved Ferrell explained. “I should’ve kept that shirt.”
Last-minute rewrites were baked into the Stefon formula. Writer John Mulaney was on a mission to make Bill Hader break, a task he accomplished by constantly rewriting jokes between dress rehearsal and the live show. That meant Hader was seeing gags for the first time as he was delivering them on the air.
“The one that he really got me on that I did not know was up there was on Halloween,” Hader told Howard Stern. “So, they’re flipping the cue cards, and then I’m expecting one joke, and it comes over and then in new, fresh writing on the cue card and it says, ‘Hey Seth, you know how Blackula’s the Black Dracula?’ and he goes ‘Yes,’ and I go, well they made a Jewish one, you know what Jewish Dracula’s called? And it says ‘Sidney Applebaum.’”