“Potato Chip” isn’t the kind of thing that’s going to run in a “best of” montage during, say, SNL’s 40th anniversary show. Have you ever heard how certain comedians are referred to as “a comedian’s comedian,” in that the material makes other comedians laugh? “Potato Chip” is a lot like that. It’s the definition of a cult favorite.
On Dec. 5, 2009, SNL aired a show, hosted by Blake Lively, that featured Andy Samberg’s Swedish Chef in the monologue and a sketch about Tiger Woods’ infidelity (which seems crazy that that was seven years ago). Then the last sketch of the night aired.
The last sketch of the night — often referred to as the “10 to one” sketch, signifying about the time it airs on the East Coast — can often be, well, odd. It’s where things are often slotted that the cast likes, but mainstream audiences might not appreciate closer to 11:30 p.m. The quintessential “10 to one” sketch, written by Will Forte and John Solomon, is “Potato Chip.”
The sketch opens with an establishing shot of NASA, which then fades into a sad-looking office where an older Foghorn Leghorn-sounding man, played by Jason Sudeikis, is being interviewed for a job as an astronaut by a high-pitched, raspy-voiced man, played by Will Forte, who has a large bowl of potato chips on his desk. (Forte is raspy-voiced in this sketch because he blew out his voice performing this sketch at dress rehearsal. I have seen the dress rehearsal version and I can describe it by imagining what Forte does here, only amped up by a few degrees.)
Forte’s character has one rule: Do not take his potato chips. When Forte leaves the room, Sudeikis takes a potato chip. When Forte returns, a non-stop yelling match between Forte, Lively (who plays his assistant) and Sudeikis commences, ending with Sudeikis regurgitating the potato chip into Forte’s hand.
Ahead, the creative forces behind this sketch — Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis, John Solomon, and head writer Seth Meyers — reflect on what they all feel is one of the strangest things they’ve ever put on the air… a sketch that was actually performed three times in front of an audience, as it had been cut at dress rehearsal a month earlier when Taylor Swift hosted the show. (And maybe strangest of all: Sudeikis reveals that his would-be NASA employee character lived on to see another day as the judge in “Maine Justice.”)
Writing “Potato Chip”: Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Will Forte, Cast Member: I was at home, or something, and every once in awhile you talk in a weird voice to yourself. I called myself so I could record myself saying, “Don’t touch my potato chip because I’m really, really hungry. Just promise me you’re not going to touch my potato chip.” And then there was one night and I hadn’t written anything yet, it was like seven in the morning on a Wednesday morning, so I said, “John, come in, let’s just jam this thing out and fucking go nuts.”
John Solomon, Writer: He’s like, “If someone takes my potato chip, I get really upset.” I spent the whole day thinking, What is happening?
Forte: And we just went to town.
Solomon: I remember thinking the whole day, What is that going to be?
Jason Sudeikis, Cast Member: I show up that Wednesday and Forte shows it to me and I was like, “This is amazing. What do you want me to do, voice-wise?”
Forte: I remembered this sketch, Jason did this Foghorn Leghorn voice.
Sudeikis: I had written a sketch when Gerard Butler hosted, it was basically a take on Cool Hand Luke where I played the George Kennedy character. So, he’s “doin’ dat ‘ole voice and all dat.”
Forte: I wouldn’t have remembered it was Cool Hand Luke.
Sudeikis: So the sketch wasn’t Cool Hand Luke. It was going to be like “Cool Guy Jeff,” or something like that – but we were satirizing that. I’d beat 50 eggs and Gerard Butler is playing the Paul Newman part, “You goin’ ta eat the eggs,” I’m doing the George Kennedy part. And the whole bit is he doesn’t really want to do it, “Are these free range chicken?” So, that’s the bit of that thing. The sketch didn’t play well – surprise surprise – but the voice stuck in their heads.
Forte: We needed a character as stupid as my character to get in there.
Solomon: Will and I thought the more important a place we put these stupid characters, the funnier the conflict would be.
Forte: Especially having the voice of Jason as such a clear character in your head.
Sudeikis: Now, I had done that voice because I had “Maine Justice” as an idea. So, I had that character sort of floating around but no one had seen it. “Maine Justice” was originally called “Texas Justice,” which was something I was going to write for Horatio Sanz my first year there.
Forte: It was really fun having this one guy who has no business testing a person getting into NASA, sitting with this guy who has no business being an astronaut.
Solomon: Will and I have always had something with NASA. It’s always been hovering around.
Forte: Part of it is just bleary-eyed from being up all night. You’re fully caffeinated. We’d do that all the time, just write out a bunch of bullshit and see where it went.
Sudeikis: What I added to it was the hemorrhoid donut and that little moment at the end.
Forte: So many of my favorite parts of the sketch just came from Jason coming in and adding his touches. The hemorrhoid donut was all Jason. And the staging at the very end, which is probably my favorite ending to any sketch that I’ve ever been in.
Sudeikis: And then it was just like, this is a Tennessee Williams play.
The Table Read: Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Forte: We put it up at the table with Taylor Swift, and it went really well because it was so weird.
Seth Meyers, Cast Member and Head Writer: I have to say, when you sit at that table read and go through 40 sketches a week for as many years as I did, there’s nothing better than when you realize you’re halfway through something that meant a lot to the people who wrote it and they had a lot of fun doing it and it’s like nothing else you’ve seen.
Solomon: With Will, he’s always the person, in whatever sketch he wrote – especially if it’s put late in the read-through – it was always entertaining to see Will. You knew there would be some kind of energy, no matter what he wrote for himself. Even if he wrote something that didn’t go well, you knew you were going to watch something crazy and insane.
Meyers: I so enjoyed it.
Solomon: At the table read, from my recollection, he did it 100 percent and it was just insane. He was just screaming. Table reads can be three or four hours long, so it was, “What the hell is this thing? What is he doing?” In a lot of sketches we wrote, it was enough just to see it read.
Meyers: Forte never did something half speed at the table. No one pushes it as hard as they’re going to push it when there’s an actual audience, except for Forte. I think there’s a purity to the idea for him and it’s pointless for him to do it at any other speed than the optimal speed.
Forte: Taylor Swift was very pro “Potato Chip.”
Solomon: I remember when it got chosen, I was like, “Oh my God.”
Meyers: I wasn’t surprised. I get that they would think that way, and I think Solomon is a realist and has the right outlook on SNL. But there was a real Lorne adoration for that kind of Forte idea.
Taylor Swift Dress Rehearsal: Saturday, November 7, 2009
Forte: Taylor Swift was great.
Solomon: She was really good in it.
Sudeikis: She did a great job and played it totally different than Blake Lively. She played it almost like something you’d see in Bus Stop, like a Marilyn Monroe version of the character.
Forte: I felt it went all right in the dress rehearsal, but for some reason didn’t make it.
Solomon: I remember her show being a really fun show with a lot of stuff for her. The sketch went okay, but I do remember feeling this was something that didn’t have to be in her show. And I presume a lot of people watching her show would be young fans of hers – and not that they wouldn’t necessarily enjoy this – but there were things on that show that were a better use of her.
Meyers: If you were a Taylor Swift fan tuning into that show, you probably weren’t dying for a NASA-based potato chip sketch.
Solomon: I don’t remember thinking it was dead. In terms of resubmitting things, that was one I felt okay resubmitting.
Forte: I’m a little more stubborn with sketches I like, so I’m a little more willing than other people to just say, “Fuck it, I’ll put it up again. I liked it.” And I think Jason felt the same way.
Blake Lively Dress Rehearsal: December 5, 2009
Meyers: I’ve seen him scream that thing so many times.
Forte: There’s a lot more setup in the beginning and a lot more setup about the process of testing him and about his dreams and aspirations about why he wanted to get into the space program. The dress rehearsal version is probably about two and a half minutes longer.
Sudeikis: Will gets bummed he blew his voice out.
Forte: I went so hard at him I lost my voice.
Meyers: And I would like to think that taught him a lesson, but I guarantee you it did not.
Forte: I do wonder what the live version would have been like if I had held back just a tiny bit. But I got too worked up!
Solomon: There’s a slight difference and it’s subtle. The one that made the air is a person going 1000 percent, but the degrees you’re talking about are Will Forte degrees. Imagine a higher energy version of that and a slightly crazier version.
Meyers: And every Last Man on Earth table read he’s screaming as loud as he’s actually going to when they actually film.
Blake Lively Live Show: December 5, 2009
Meyers: I think when you’re a host like Blake Lively, it’s so fun to get a part that isn’t inspired by Blake Lively in any way, shape or form. It was just pure performance.
Sudeikis: Blake Lively played it great with the same dourness, but it was like a Tennessee Williams play where this guy was going through all this stuff.
Solomon: That regurgitation of the potato chip is Will. It was one of those things where I think I said, “People are going to gag when they see this.”
Meyers: I think probably three or four years into my friendship with Forte, I realized there were certain things it was pointless to argue about.
Solomon: Will said, “I don’t care what kind of reaction we get. I just want a reaction. I don’t care if it’s laughs. I just want the audience to react.” And they did! If you listen to people in the background, they are like, “Oh my God.”
Meyers: It’s great because it’s 187 groans and two people who couldn’t be happier – and those are Forte’s people.
Solomon: It’s so gross.
Meyers: The end of that sketch, there’s just sweat dripping off of his face.
Soloman: That last shot, which is Will and Blake Lively looking out over what we hope you imagine is a theater audience. And when we were shooting it, we were trying to get a nice presentational, kind of hokey, play moment for the end of it. There was that window in the back and Jason saw the shot on the monitor and said, “What if I just step into that window behind them?” We were like, “yes!”
Meyers: I felt like it was like watching 12 Angry Men performed live, rather than it was a comedy sketch. That was the sort of intensity it had.
Sudeikis: It’s just Will.
Solomon: This is Will.
Meyers: When it was airing, I was in Lorne’s office and I just grabbed a Writer’s Guild award from Lorne’s office and I walked down to the floor. So, when they walked off I had a Writer’s Guild award and I said, “This already showed up.”
Living in a Post-“Potato Chip” World
Meyers: It means so much to so few people.
Sudeikis: We had a guy write us. It was so well-written and so well-researched in regards to the world of comedy. He sent us a five-page letter – he sent it to Seth.
Meyers: It was a four-page, single-spaced letter with very small font that immediately looked like a bit or a lunatic.
Suedikis: Where they broke it down and he was citing Nichols and May, and Monty Python. To the point where Seth just assumed that Will and John and I wrote it because it was so complimentary, but also so insanely inside baseball when it comes to sketch comedy.
Meyers: Well, if Forte wrote it that it would have also been a lunatic.
Sudeikis: We couldn’t help but be flattered by it, but also it seemed too good to be true someone sniffed out things we loved about it.
Meyers: But I read it and it was the most in-depth analysis of why “Potato Chip” was the greatest sketch that had ever been written on SNL. And it paid so much tribute to the choices that I really thought this was a really funny joke by Solomon, Forte and Sudeikis – to sort of aggrandize this stupid sketch into making it something more.
Solomon: Did Jason tell you about the Playbills he made?
Meyers: Did Jason mention the Playbill?
Sudeikis: This amazing woman, Tara Donnelly, who does the graphics for SNL and Seth who I’d, every now and then, call her with tiny side projects. She’s so talented – but also so kind enough, because she’s juggling all these things – to make a 1960s Playbill. She made it for me so I could give them to Will and John and Blake. And it’s a Playbill of “Potato Chip,” of that final tableau.
Tara Donnelly, Lead Graphic Designer: I was happy to make it. It’s a nice clean graphic. The graphics department is hidden away from everything else, so I felt like I was in on a private joke.
Sudeikis: Literally, “Potato Chip,” “Maine Justice” and the bar songs are three of the sketches that if people come up to me and say something, I have an instant kinship with.
Solomon: He has a whole story of how the judge in “Maine Justice” got fired from being a judge and then went to NASA.
Sudeikis: That’s the same character from “Maine Justice.”
Solomon: Or maybe he went to interview for NASA then became a judge?
Sudeikis: The second “Maine Justice” we did with Timberlake, you’ll see at the very end of the sketch I pick up a hemorrhoid donut. That’s the same hemorrhoid donut. I’m a fan of the way Tarantino would have his universe closed in, like everyone smokes Red Apple Cigerettes.
Forte: I’m fine with whatever universe he’s in.
Sudeikis: I think we may have called them different names, but it’s actually the same guy.
Forte: A lot of times we’ll say our ESPN guys are the predecessors to our Jon Bovi guys, that they got into heavy metal after. I play basically the same character. I’m the smiley dipshit and he’s the alpha male.
Meyers: It was a really nice thing Sudeikis and Forte found a partnership, because a lot of great stuff came out of them writing together. Solomon was a huge part of that. I think it’s one of the most important things at SNL, when a couple of performers find and share a sensibility in the writing that carries over into the sketch.
Forte: And at that time, Jason and I were doing a ton of stuff together and were hanging out a lot outside of the show.
Sudeikis: I was really tapped. I’d been going through a divorce, going through a breakup, so writing comedy was really hard. Performing, you could kind of lose yourself. When you’re going through stuff, to have people there, to have people looking out for you, it doesn’t always have to show up in “advice.” Sometimes they just need to get you out of your head and I couldn’t provide it for myself. And that’s a place where “singer/songwriters” are well received there, in the sense of writing a piece for yourself. And you’re sort of charged to do that, based on the history of the show and the way it works. And we had a great generation of people who could do that really well and I just couldn’t get it going. I literally didn’t have it in me. And to have two of my dearest friends create that for me?
Forte: It definitely wasn’t any kind of sympathy move to get him involved. It was, “Here’s one of our buddies who is one of the funniest people on the planet.”
Meyers: We always say sometimes you write sketches that, to five people in America, it will always be their favorite SNL sketch. And this was the perfect example of that.
Solomon: I know we like it. I don’t really know how many people are super aware of it other than diehard SNL fans.
Meyers: Someone was sitting at home watching “Potato Chip” and it’s finally a sketch that had every element of comedy they were looking for from a thinly veiled Colonel Sanders impression.
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.