Things We Learned From The NY Times’ Fascinating Oral History Of The ‘SNL’ Audition Process

Since its last episode aired back in May, SNL has lost three of its most important cast members, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Jason Sudeikis, as well as head writer Seth Meyers, who will depart at midseason to host Late Night. Lorne Michaels and his scouts, who if Trouble with the Curve has taught me anything, denounce comedy sabermetrics, are currently looking for a new group of fresh-faced youngsters to dress up as dogs for season 39.

The New York Times‘s Dave Itzkoff asked some of the show’s most famous repertory players, including Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig, about what it was like to audition for the “God of SNL.” SPOILER ALERT: it sounds terrifying.

1. Once a prick, always a prick.

Chevy Chase: We had our cast and were back at [Studio] 8H, and there was a little room nearby with a long desk which could act as a stage. Lorne asked everybody to go up there and do something. At the end he said, “Chevy, get up there and do something.” So I made up some strange story about Gerald Ford. It was pretty clear that I was a funny guy. I was taller than everybody, and very handsome. [Laughs.]

2. Never listen to scouts.

Molly Shannon: There was a woman scouting for the show, and she said: “Whatever you do, when you audition for Lorne, don’t do that character, Mary Katherine Gallagher. Lorne will hate that. You’ll never, ever get hired if you do that for your audition.”

3. Five minutes is the new eleven minutes.

Kristen Wiig: They said the audition should be five minutes long, and do not go over five minutes. I ended up buying a stopwatch because I was so nervous. I would time it and it would say “5:02,” and I would be like, “I’m going to get this in five minutes exactly.” Then I heard that some people were out there for 11 minutes.

I was like, “What?”

4. LOL? No.

Jimmy Fallon: In makeup, they go, “Hey, Jimmy, some advice: Lorne Michaels doesn’t laugh when you audition. So don’t let that throw you.” Then the audio guy, he goes, “Hey, little advice — Lorne doesn’t like to laugh.” I’m like, “O.K.” Then Marci [Klein, a longtime SNL producer] comes out: “Jimmy, they’re ready for you. But hey, a little advice for you. If Lorne doesn’t laugh, be cool.” I’m like, what is this guy’s problem? He’s doing a comedy show. Why does he not like to laugh?

5. Tracy Morgan’s audition sounds incredible…

Tracy Morgan: I did a gay track runner. And a character named Biscuit, from the inner city, who had a chip on his shoulder because his dad wasn’t there.

6. …unlike Seth Meyers’.

Seth Meyers: It’s 2001, so I think I’m doing Russell Crowe, Hugh Grant and David Arquette.

7. Will Ferrell: the best.

Will Ferrell: The directive for my callback was even less structured than the first audition. But first there was a meeting with Lorne, face to face. I started to go through what I was going to do, and Lorne basically said, “Oh, I wouldn’t do that. We’ve already seen this.” By the end of it, I said, “Are you saying, basically, come up with a whole new audition?” And he was like, “Yeah.”

I [had come] in with a briefcase full of counterfeit money that I’d bought at a toy store. And in the middle of whatever Lorne was going to say, I was going to start stacking the equivalent of $25,000 on his desk. “Listen, Lorne, you and I can say whatever we want to say. But we really know what talks, and that’s money. I’m going to walk out of this room, and you can either take this money or not. And I can be on the show.” But it was just not a joking atmosphere. It was just tense. And I never get to do my gag.

8. The city that never…I don’t want to live here?

Seth Meyers: They flew me all the way back to New York to meet with Lorne. I realized later that he was doing a final personality vet. He said, “Do you think you can live in New York?” And I thought, “Does anyone blow it at this stage?” Does anybody get this far in the process, and then is like, “It’s definitely New York? Well, if you guys can’t be flexible on that, I’m not sure if I can be flexible on that.”

9. WTF.

Marc Maron: I think I was a little high on pot. There were some pictures facing [Mr. Michaels], and in front of the pictures was a bowl of candy. It was all very loaded. And then he just starts looking at me, to a point where Steve Higgins [then an SNL producer] goes, “Lorne?” And Lorne goes, “You can tell a lot by looking into someone’s eyes.” And then I took a candy. Lorne looked at Steve, and the meeting was over. I thought I failed the candy test…If it panned out, my life would have been dramatically different. I wouldn’t be mildly obsessed with Lorne Michaels. I talk to people about Lorne because I’m hung up on it. I feel like I need to talk to him again to get some closure.

10. The most charming “YES” story.

Cheri Oteri: I waited for [Mr. Ferrell] outside, and we said nothing to each other. We held each other’s hands and walked to the parking lot and then jumped and let out the biggest scream in the world. We stopped at a restaurant and called our dads.