Splitsider

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Inside Darrell Hammond's Dark Days at SNL

Look for Darrell Hammond at the curtain call of a Saturday Night Live show, when the cast gathers on stage to say goodbye while the band roars and the credits scrawl. Chances are you won’t find him. Often times — even for years at a stretch — he had already left the studio, departing as soon as his final sketch was over. Backstage animosity at SNL is well chronicled, but it wasn’t bitterness or spite that kept him from taking that final bow with his peers. It was that, once out of character, he felt he simply didn’t belong up there with them.

Though peculiar, this disappearing act seems fitting for the cast member who was in a way the show’s least visible all-star. And Hammond is certainly an all-star. He’s something like SNL’s Iron Man, the Cal Ripken, Jr. of sketch comedy. As the show’s longest tenured player (1995-2009) he’s appeared in more episodes than any other cast member and portrayed several of its most iconic characters. And yet he’s always been obscured. We’ve seen him only beneath pounds of makeup, an assortment of wigs, and a prosthetic nose or two. We know him only through the filter of larger personalities like Bill Clinton, Sean Connery, or Dick Cheney. Paradoxically, SNL’s most ubiquitous member is also its most inscrutable and least understood.

Unfortunately, Hammond’s new memoir, God, If You’re Not Up there, I’m Fucked, doesn’t go far enough in bridging that divide. As the title suggests, it focuses mostly on the sordid despair that engulfed much of the comic’s life from childhood up until he left a rehab clinic in 2010 where he was residing under a false name. We’re taken through a series of wretched locales that range from Bahamian jail cells to Hell’s Kitchen mobster hangouts to Harlem crack houses. We’re given access to a lot of Hammond’s decidedly grim personal history. However, most of the information we receive is unaccompanied by much insight or depth, so that although we’re sympathetic toward the author’s struggle (and sufficiently shocked), we’re still left with only a somewhat superficial understanding of what he went through and how he persevered.

If the traditional formula for comedy is tragedy plus time, then in Hammond’s case it seems to have morphed into tragedy multiplied many times over. Over his career he experiences the suicides of two loved ones, struggles with a mental illness induced by years of systematic physical abuse, and battles through a variety of life threatening drug addictions. “I’ve been hospitalized or shipped off to rehab so many times that I’ve honestly lost count,” he admits bluntly in the prologue. His habit of cutting himself, often times in an SNL dressing room before a show, proves to be his most dangerous disorder. During one such session he cuts too deep and finds himself being escorted out of 30 Rock in a straightjacket.

Tracing back to the epicenter of his mental anguish, we learn about Hammond’s childhood trauma in the god-fearing town of Melbourne, Florida. “I used to sit in our little one story house,” he recalls, “overwhelmed with the sense that I was surrounded by evil.” His father is a stern, frightening World War Two veteran. However, it’s his mother that is the more sinister of the two, heaping grotesque physical abuse upon her young son, including electrocutions and beatings carried out with a hammer. He finds respite from her cold wrath only through performance, which temporarily abates her rage. “I learned how to do voices from her,” he explains. “They were my only protection.”

After discovering his aptitude for impressions, he begins relentlessly honing the craft as a young comic. Roaming Florida in his car as he travels from city to city performing sets, he uses the long stretches of solitude to study tapes of the voices he will later perform. There’s hardly a moment when he’s not figuring out a way to improve upon his act: “I thought of distinctions in the things that I learned. A tweak of how a vowel was pronounced, adding a nasal twang, moving a sound from the back of my throat to the front.” After a decade and a half preparing in obscurity, he finally auditions for Lorne Michaels and lands SNL. He’s thirty-nine years old. Older, he notes, than most cast members are when they leave the show.

From his tenure at SNL there are several cursory and unremarkable anecdotes about certain sketches, guest hosts, and castmates. More intriguing is what we learn about how Hammond fit into the larger machinery of the show. Ironically, before he got on SNL his chosen area of expertise had actually proved to be detrimental to his success. “I was turned down by every club in Manhattan because I did impressions and they were prejudiced against that,” he remembers. “I was a novelty act.”

But Lorne Michaels was able to see the value in such a performer, and carved out a role for him as SNL’s ultimate utility player, someone that could learn an impression at a moment’s notice and be plugged into almost any sketch. “I wasn’t very good at coming up with sketch ideas,” Hammond freely admits, “but that’s not why I was there. I was a field-goal kicker. You need a voice? I was the guy who could kick that football. I didn’t know how to punt, pass, or tackle, but I could kick.”

While it’s true that field-goal kickers win their fair share of glory, they’re also forever identified as distinctly separate from the rest of the team. Even by his record fourteenth season Hammond “never felt like a real cast member,” and still found it difficult to join his colleagues on stage to wave goodbye.

Despite not satisfactorily illuminating the person behind the impressions, Hammond’s memoir does contain flashes of fascinating insight. Not surprisingly, they come when he is studying someone else for an upcoming sketch. In one such instance, while watching tapes of the 2000 presidential debates, he comes to a sudden realization: Al Gore is not being himself on stage and that is going to cost him the election. “Gore said great words,” he observes, “but a lot more people would have gone for him if they’d seen something different, if they’d seen the real man.” At the book’s conclusion, one feels something similar about its author.

Cameron Tung is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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  • Phil Davidson

    Great review.