Chris Kelly On His New ‘SNL’ Co-Head Writer Job And His Directorial Debut, ‘Other People’

Chris Kelly
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After five seasons, Chris Kelly, along with his writing partner, Sarah Schneider, were just promoted to co-head writers for the upcoming 42nd season of Saturday Night Live. It’s the culmination of quite a year for Kelly, who also premiered his directorial debut, Other People, earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and has been on the festival circuit ever sense. Slated for a September 9 release (it will then be on Netflix shortly after that), Other People is getting its fair share of awards chatter (particularly for the amazing performance of Molly Shannon).

The film is based on Kelly’s own experiences. David is a New York City comedy writer (played by Jesse Plemons) who has to return home to Sacramento to care for his mother (Shannon) who is dying from cancer. It’s tough to watch. But, the backdrop of David’s attempt at dating while back in Sacramento provides some necessary relief. (At least based on Other People, Sacramento probably won’t be topping any lists of cities with the best gay nightlife.)

Kelly is one of the first openly gay head writer in the show’s history – which, in 2016, feels like both something worth celebrating and something maybe not worth even mentioning, because of course there should be a gay head writer by now. (There have been gay head writers before, but it’s unclear how many people knew that at the time.) Ahead, Kelly discusses his new gig as head writer (and his feeling on his place in history at the show), his first film, and where this all goes from here.

At the end of last season, I had heard you might be leaving SNL, then I heard you were coming back, then the head writing job gets announced.

I’m trying to put a lot of different pieces of information out there to keep a very intense mystery alive about myself.

You’re doing a good job.

Yes, I am equally confused. I wasn’t 100 percent sure if I was going to be able to come back. I didn’t really want to leave SNL, but then they offered me head writer. There isn’t really a secret to how I got the gig: Over time, if you’re there for a while – Sarah and I had been writing supervisors for a couple of years – it’s always a natural progression, you know, because not everyone becomes head writer. But I think we’ve been there for a while and we were asked if we’d want to be.

I debated bringing this up because it feels like a notable thing worth celebrating, but also it’s 2016 and of course there should be an openly gay head writer of SNL. But this is a great thing.

Yeah, I don’t know if it’s a thing or not. [Laughs] It’s up to other people to tell me if it’s a thing. I don’t know, I kind of think a couple things about that. First of all, I think the reason SNL has been successful for so long is its diversity of voices. Regardless of who the head writer is, you don’t want the head writer to hire 15 writers who sound like the head writer. You want writers who write great political stuff, and write satire, and who write the weirdo sketches at the end of the show. You want silly and you want broad. And for all 41 seasons so far, and hopefully this coming season, it’s not just one voice that’s going to dictate the whole show. At the same time, I can’t say Sarah and I haven’t looked at each other and been like, it’s very cool that it’s a gay man and a woman who are the head writers. We do think that’s cool and we are excited for ourselves. It’s cool. I wouldn’t say growing up as a young boy I was like, “Oh, God, could a gay man ever be head writer of SNL?” I never thought that. It was more that it’s a hard job to get regardless of who you are. But I guess it is cool.

Other People has been playing the festivals. People are finally going to get to see it soon in theaters.

Oh my God, it’s been so long. It’s very weird, in my mind I think it’s been out for years and everyone has seen it. But only festival people have seen it.

And it’s a very personal story.

It’s been very nice to watch it with different groups across the country and get to talk to people after the movie who relate in some way, or have gone through something similar to what the movie is about. It’s been very sweet. It’s been a very cool, intimate experience with a lot of people I would have never met otherwise. It’s been a good, surprise bonus.

I assume you will direct another movie. When you have one like this that’s so personal, do you think about what you would do next?

My next movie will be about making this movie. It’s going to constantly be eating itself. I don’t really know. I still just think of myself as “a writer who directed a movie,” which maybe I need to be better about that and be like, “No, I’m a director, too!” I need to own that more.

You had a movie at Sundance. You’re allowed to say that.

But the directing of this movie came out of the fact that I wrote it and that I cared so much about it. It mainly sprung out of the fact that I don’t want anyone else to touch this movie. It came out of a possessiveness. I knew the tone that I wanted and I knew a lot of things that I just didn’t want the movie to become. I didn’t want the movie to be overwrought. I didn’t want it to be schmaltzy. I didn’t want it to be saccharine.

There’s a scene in the film where David’s family keeps asking him when he’s going to be on SNL.

When I was toiling away, trying to get more work, the question I always got was, “When are you going to work on SNL?” And the answer is, “Probably never. I mean, almost nobody gets hired at SNL. So, please, grandma and aunts and uncles, please don’t just say SNL. The things I’m doing now are great!” But it’s hard to tell them that.

But now they look at you and say, “See, we told you.”

I know. But my aunt so sweetly did say that before I worked on SNL, “When are we going to see you on SNL? We turn on SNL every week looking for you.” And it’s like, “What are you talking about?” Like, I would tell her if I were hired on SNL! She’s not going to find out by turning on the TV and there I am.

Molly Shannon is amazing in this film. I’ve been waiting for this type of Molly Shannon role and I’m so glad it exists.

She’s so good, right? I just love her.

I’m glad there’s some awards chatter surrounding her performance.

I feel like a fan watching her in my own movie. It’s one of the things I’m most excited about people seeing the movie. I want them to see my whole cast, my whole cast is great, but Molly is just the loveliest in it. I feel the same way you feel. I was a fan of hers on SNL and she was always one of my favorites. And then some of her dramatic work afterwards in Year of the Dog and even her small arc in Enlightened, she’s always so good. I would watch her on TV and say out loud to no one in the room, “Why is she not in more things?! Why is she not the lead role in every sad comedy-drama?!” So I feel very lucky and excited I got to have her in my movie playing a role, as a fan, I want to see her in.

Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.