Saturday Night’s Children: Darrell Hammond (1995-2009)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 37 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
Nothing fuels comedy quite like tragedy, and there’s no way to do full justice to every setback longtime SNL cast member Darrell Hammond has faced in his life. Considering he holds the SNL distinctions of being the oldest hired cast member, most celebrity impersonations, final 90s-era player to leave the show, longest overall tenure, and most times saying “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” all at once, Hammond managed to stay impressively under-the-radar during his 14-season stint. While he provided a never-ending flow of polished impersonations over the course of his run and proved to be a dependable utility player, Hammond is ironically both the show’s steadiest impersonator as well as its biggest unseen outsider.
In his memoir God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked, Hammond recounts his childhood in Melbourne, Florida in the 1960s as filled with physical and mental abuse abuse from his parents and his own burgeoning alcoholism. Despite finding an outlet in football and baseball, Hammond’s troubled home life made him turn to heavy drinking in high school. Realizing that he wouldn’t make the major leagues, Hammond quit his community college baseball team sophomore year and spiraled further into depression; he started cutting himself and going on long benders shortly after quitting the team.
Thanks to a switch to the University of Florida, an acting class, being cast in a play, and working steadily at the university radio station, Hammond began to find a new focus — he even spent a year interviewing suicidal students as well as health professionals for the Alachua County Suicide Prevention Center. After graduating from UFL with a degree in broadcasting, he moved to New York to pursue a career in acting but his drinking and depression overrode the several Off-Broadway roles he had landed.
While Hammond did try stand-up in New York, it wasn’t until he was working at a local radio station back in Melbourne that he began seriously developing his impressions. He recalls in his memoir:
That [job] gave me access to their production studios, which I used six nights a week for well over a year to practice voices of cartoon characters, sitcom stars, celebrities of every stripe. Given how much people seemed to like them, I thought I would see if I could expand my library.
I didn’t think I had as much talent as other people, so I figured I would have to work harder than everyone else. I’d be sitting there in the middle of the night working on my Porky Pig and saying to myself, “My competition cannot be doing this. They cannot be working this hard.”
After a stint in rehab, Hammond got a radio gig in Orlando, regularly performed at open mics, married, and began touring southeast comedy clubs while in and out of AA, which gradually began to kick in along with his renown. Eventually he was a regular at the Comedy Cellar, Caroline’s, and Dangerfield’s, and he landed an SNL audition after producer Marci Klein saw one of his sets in 1995. He joined the cast at 39 years old.
While hard times and stays at rehab clinics and psychiatric hospitals continued for Hammond into his SNL years (including his second wife’s suicide), his dependably accurate impersonations provided a realistic backbone for virtually every sketch he appeared in. This stability ensured he was onscreen a lot but resulted in only five recurring characters — Turkish talk show cohost Tarik Ozekial (alongside Horatio Sanz as Ferey Mühtar), Percy Bo Dance (“Appalachian Emergency Room”), Skeeter the redneck, local news reporter Uncle Frank, and CPAN reporter Clive Budgen.
Hammond’s true success, however, unarguably came from his over 100 chameleon-like impersonations. Here is the complete list, courtesy of The SNL Archives:
Andrew Lloyd Webber
Billy Bob Thornton
Captain Lou Albano
Dr. Phil McGraw
George W. Bush
George Whipple III
Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf
Pope Benedict XVI
Tommy Lee Jones
After 14 seasons, Hammond left SNL in 2009 after another relapse. Despite all his record-setting, he developed a crack and cocaine addiction in the late 2000s and was once taken out of the NBC building in a straitjacket after cutting himself, and it persisted after his departure from the show. It wasn’t until a 2010 stint in rehab that he wrote his tell-all memoir (fantastic but not for a sunny day — you’ve been warned) that was published the following year. While he admits in the book that he wasn’t good at coming up with sketch ideas and “never felt like a real cast member,” he writes that “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.”
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.