Talking to Zach Kanin About Writing for ‘SNL’ and Drawing Cartoons for ‘The New Yorker’
Since joining Saturday Night Live‘s writing staff in the fall of 2011, Zach Kanin has quickly found his footing on the show and created some memorable sketches, not that it comes as any surprise to those who’d been following his career before that. Before being snatched up by SNL, Kanin was editor of The Harvard Lampoon, a contributing cartoonist for The New Yorker (his cartoons are archived here), and author of The Short Book, which offers a humorous look at what it’s like being 5’3″. Now, with only a season and a half at SNL under his belt, Kanin already has a bevy of funny and popular sketches to his name, in addition to an Emmy nomination and two WGA Award nominations. This season, he teamed up with fellow SNL writer Rob Klein and New Yorker cartoonist Paul Noth create an animated short for SNL called “Cool Drones,” which looks like the start of a new line of animated segments for the show. I recently had the chance to talk to Zach Kanin about animated shorts, his favorite sketches he’s written at SNL, and drawing for The New Yorker:
Let’s talk about the animated short you wrote for the show with Rob Klein, “Cool Drones.” Has this been something you’ve wanted to get on the show for a while?
Rob (another writer at SNL), Paul Noth (a fellow New Yorker cartoonist) and I have been working on some animated short ideas off-and-on for a few years now, and “Cool Drones” was one that we started working on this August.
How did the idea for the short come to you?
We work very collaboratively. Every month or so we’ll each come up with 10-20 ideas for shorts, and then we’ll meet up and whittle them down to what we might want to make. I think Paul had the initial idea to do something about drones, and we all agreed it seemed promising. The three of us threw around a bunch of ideas (the drones go undercover, they’re like Power Rangers) and in the end Rob came up with the brilliant idea of them being a boy band and he wrote up the initial script. So it’s a real team effort — everyone brings something to the table and it’s been really fun and exciting to work together on these cartoons.
The “Midnight Snack” title on the short suggests that we can expect some more animated shorts from you guys, is this correct?
That would be awesome. We have some more shorts in the works, so we’ll see what happens.
The short, of course, makes most think back to Robert Smigel’s “TV Funhouse.” Did that inspire you?
Definitely — I loved “TV Funhouse” when it was on, and it would be an amazing achievement if we could create something as consistently funny, creative, and unique as that.
Do you have a favorite “TV Funhouse” short?
There are so many great ones — I think maybe the ones where Mr. T is looking for work are my favorite though.
Augenblick Studios was responsible for the animation of the short, have you worked with them in the past?
This was our first time working with them, but I had been a big fan of their work on Ugly Americans and Superjail! They were great to work with. When you’re trying to make a funny short, it’s really important for the animators to “get” the jokes, and the team at Augenblick was right on board from the get-go.
You’ve been writing for the show since the beginning of last season, could you talk about your personal experience of getting sketches on air as such a new writer?
It’s been incredible. The people you work with there are the best in the world at what they do. The producers pick the sketches for the show on Wednesday evening, and if yours is picked you immediately go into a room and consult with the costume department, hair and makeup, the set designers, and props and special effects. And all of those people are Emmy Award-winners who have been doing this forever, and they’ll say, “What are the characters wearing?” and I’ll be like “Clothes?” and they’ll be like “Goddammit, how do you even brush your teeth in the morning?” and I’ll be like “You’re supposed to brush your teeth in the morning too?” and they’ll be like “How about we just tell you what we think this skit should look like?” and I’ll be like “Hold on one sec, I’m on the phone with my dentist.”
It’s really an amazing process and there are just so many people who are geniuses at so many things all working to realize what you wrote. This last week, I wrote a skit about The Hobbit movies with Colin Jost, and one day later we walk into a studio and there is a perfect replica of Bilbo Baggins’s house. And all the cast have prosthetic noses and look exactly like the characters from the movies. It’s crazy.
My first week there, I had a sketch where Alec Baldwin, Fred Armisen, and Bobby Moynihan are dying soldiers making final requests to Taran Killam [like] “Tell my wife I love her,” “Tell my son there’s no Santa Claus” that eventually devolved into “yo mama” jokes. After dress rehearsal, my sketch was placed in the last spot of the night, and I was certain it wouldn’t happen. But around 12:50 I saw Bobby walking around with army fatigues and a helmet on and I started to get a little hopeful. And then at 12:54, there I am standing out on the studio floor watching Alec Baldwin performing in a sketch I had written, and I was like, “Even if they fire me tomorrow, I’d still be happy.”
What are your favorite sketches that you’ve written for the show?
I’m numbering these, but the numbers signify absolutely nothing.
1. “Dying Wish” is the one I described above.
2. “Spin the Bottle” is a short film where Daniel Radcliffe is at a party playing spin the bottle, and he keeps landing on increasingly gross hobos. I wrote that one with Sarah Schneider.
3. “Maya Angelou Prank Show” was a promo for a show in which Maya Angelou (Maya Rudolph) mildly surprises her colleagues and they are super honored to meet her. Also written with Sarah Schneider.
4. “Brutus” was a sketch in which Jonah Hill is a scientist holding a press conference where he reveals that he has taught an ape (Fred Armisen) to speak, but the ape immediately accuses Jonah of having sex with him. Written with John Solomon.
5. “The Real Housewives of Disney” was a parody of the Real Housewives shows but with Disney princesses instead. Written with Colin Jost and Sarah Schneider.
Was there ever a time when you thought your goal was to make it to SNL? Or did it just happen that way?
In college, I wrote for The Harvard Lampoon, so I ended up knowing a lot of people who went on to write for SNL and other TV shows. So I was always interested in TV, but after school, I was really focused on cartooning and writing books and even spent two years trying to be a painter. It was actually when I started working on animation projects with Paul and Rob that I realized I really enjoyed writing with other people and that TV offered a whole different way of writing comedy and reaching an audience. Not that these are such startling revelations, but I just hadn’t known I wanted to do that and I found out I did. And right around then I sort of hit the jackpot and got hired at SNL.
Take us through a highlight of each day during a show week for shorts, like “Cool Drones.”
Well, most filmed shorts are done in a completely different way than an animated short. We write everything on Tuesday night and the sketches are picked on Wednesday, which means filmed shorts are written, shot, and edited in a period of just a few days. It’s a very quick turnaround. Sometimes we’re still editing shorts as dress rehearsal on Saturday is starting, whereas you have no such luxury with animation. Three minutes of animation takes a matter of months to put together. Every change needs to be redrawn, re-voiced, and re-scored, and often when you see the animation you realize that the whole script needs a major rewrite, which of course means that the animation needs to be changed as well. I’m sorry, I’m getting myself worked up here. I don’t mean to yell.
Let’s talk about getting hired. How did you get “discovered” by Lorne?
I submitted a packet of sketches to the show in July of 2011, and then I had an interview with Seth [Meyers] and a few of the other senior writers in September. A week later I was at band practice with my band, Tropical Boys, when I got a call from Seth telling me I was hired. Needless to say, our band practiced extra hard that night.
You’re also a cartoonist for The New Yorker. How did you start doing that?
A week before I graduated college, an HR person from The New Yorker called the Lampoon building and asked if anyone wanted to be the Assistant Cartoon Editor there, and I was the person who answered the phone, so I said “Sure, I’ll do it.” As a kid I had always wanted to be a cartoonist, so I was very excited. At all the graduation parties I went to that week, my friends’ parents would be nudging their kids, saying “Zach’s got a job at The New Yorker, why don’t you have a job?” But I hadn’t even been looking — I was just the guy who answered the phone.
My job as the Assistant Cartoon Editor was mainly to read all 8,000 or so entries to the caption contest every week and help pick a finalist, but I also got to look through all of the cartoonists’ submissions and see what got picked and what didn’t. It was a real education in cartooning, and the editor, Bob Mankoff, was very encouraging of me, even though I was terrible at answering phones and doing the administrative work I was responsible for. I started submitting ten cartoons a week as soon as I got there, and within a few months, I had sold my first one. And I guess if I had to pinpoint it, that’s when the troubles with drugs began.
Clay Sublett lives in Virginia, sometimes tweets, and always wants to shoop.