Saturday Night’s Children: Rich Hall (1984-1985)
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.
While Rich Hall’s biggest claim to fame to younger Americans is being the inspiring force behind the grumpy bartender Moe Szyslak on The Simpsons, for those old enough to remember watching Fridays, Not Necessarily the News, and Dick Ebersol’s era of Saturday Night Live, Hall was a prolific young street performer-turned-writer/performer who skyrocketed the term “sniglet” to fame throughout the eighties and starred in one of the very first shows on The Comedy Channel, now Comedy Central. But what neither old nor young Americans know is that for the past twenty years, Hall’s remained a big star in the UK and Australia, where he’s a regular on the panel show/stand-up scene, often as his Confederate flag-wearing alter-ego jailbird singer Otis Lee Crenshaw, a merciless yet loving take on American culture and Hall’s own experiences as a pavement-pounding, road trip-bound, hat-passing US street comedian.
An only child, Hall was born in Alexandria, Virginia and raised in rural North Carolina. After briefly attending Western Carolina University not far from his hometown, he transferred in 1975 to study journalism at Western Washington State college. Speaking in a 1983 People interview, Hall remembers his college campus as “the last bastion of hippiedom, with lots of people named ‘Sunshine’ … I used to watch the street performers harangue the crowds and involve them.” Inspired in particular by the “insult magic” of Harry Anderson, Hall left his job at a local newspaper and became a street performer himself, starting with local open mics and eventually touring cross-country performing impromptu shows at college campuses (one such show involved him getting people to act out fake student films). He eventually settled in New York City in 1979, where he regularly performed at The Comic Strip, The Improv, and Catch a Rising Star and first caught the attention of David Letterman, who invited him to become a writer and regular performer on his then-daytime The David Letterman Show, where he earned an Emmy for writing in 1981.
The same year, Hall joined the cast of Fridays — ABC’s answer to SNL — as the show’s first and only new cast addition in 1981. A month before the show’s March 1982 cancellation, Hall had already landed another gig writing for Letterman’s late-night show, and he earned an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson six months later. Hall and his dry onscreen delivery were in the right business at the right time, and cable TV opened up the amount of programs that could use a wit like his, proven in the field of late night. His first big break came with HBO’s Not Necessarily the News in 1983, where he drew fame for his sniglet segments about “any word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary, but should.” Some examples of sniglets include calling a photo featuring the photographer’s finger a “flirr” or a used coffee filter a “filther.” They spawned five books from 1984-1989.
In 1984, Hall was among the proven ringer talent hired by SNL producer Dick Ebersol, standing in good company alongside Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer. While Hall didn’t rise to prominence as much of a character actor on SNL, his subtly sardonic delivery (illustrated in the opening credits, where he uses the Empire State Building to light his cigarette) helped him earn numerous appearances on Saturday Night News, often under the guise of one of his nine impersonations including David Byrne, radio broadcaster Paul Harvey, mustachioed Canadian magician Doug Henning, Vince McMahon, 1984 Heisman winner Doug Flutie, NYC “Subway Vigilante” Bernhard Goetz, original MTV VJ Mark Goodman, and Robert Latta, who famously wandered past White House security in 1985. He also wrote and starred with Jim Belushi in a 1984 short film segment called “Wing Tips” playing a store clerk who discovers that the door’s electronic door mat can open everything from the freezer doors to his mailbox to a casket, and in an absurd final scene, he uses the mat to trick his overbearing boss into killing himself.
Ousted alongside his fellow Ebersol-era writers and cast members at the end of the tenth season, Hall continued late-night appearances on Letterman and starred in a Showtime special called Rich Hall’s Vanishing America and in the short-lived Comedy Channel’s series Onion World in 1989. While he’s since appeared on numerous talk shows including Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Politically Incorrect, and The Late Late Show, Hall shifted his homebase to the UK starting in the early nineties, where he became a staple on BBC2 comedy panel shows like Have I Got News for You, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, QI, and Stand Up for the Week, all while regularly performing at The Comedy Store in London, often introducing his act to UK audiences with the line “Well I’m an American and…I’m sorry for everything.”
Hall was touring comedy festivals in Australia and Ireland before landing a gig at the Edinburgh Festival, where in 2000 he debuted his grumpy white trash old-timer alter-ego Otis Lee Crenshaw to instant acclaim. Echoing his trademark “sorry for everything” opening line, Crenshaw — who Hall has said is based on his uncle — is both a loving tribute and sharply critical of the U.S.A. The character earned Hall a Perrier Award, Time Out Comedy Award, and Adelaide Fringe Festival Award, video special London, not Tennessee in 2001, and autobiography I Blame Society in 2004.
In addition to writing more books (Self Help for the Bleak, Things Snowball, Magnificent Bastards) three plays (Levelland, Best Western, Campfire Stories), three BBC TV series (Rich Hall’s Badly Funded Think Tank, Rich Hall’s Fishing Show, Rich Hall’s Cattle Drive), and one BBC American election special, Hall has written and presented four 90-minute documentaries for BBC Four examining American film culture including How the West Was Lost, The Dirty South, Continental Drifters, and most recently Inventing the Indian, which aired in October 2012. In the specials, Hall — who calls both London, England and Livingston, Montana home — appears perhaps more American than he ever did back when he rose to fame in New York City, now donning a black suede cowboy hat and speaking in a deep, raspy voice he developed after years of chain smoking in character as Otis.
When asked in 2009 about his switch from US to UK audiences, Hall said: “Somehow they buy this shit in Britain. Brits are just glad you showed up. In America, I bomb. I just get open-mouthed fish faces. Americans kind of see stand-up comedy as a sort of illegitimate form of entertainment. Why would I go back to America?” Perhaps it’s because in the States, stereotypically patriotic characters — from Larry the Cable Guy to Stephen Colbert — are a dime a dozen, or maybe Hall’s Grinchlike appeal shines brighter through the gloomy London fog than the humid Carolina backroads. Either way he’s a half-bitter, half-admiring expatriate for whom SNL was just one point on a very unusual comedy arc. “It is important every 10 years to shift and try something new when you are a comedian,” he said in the same interview, “and I have been doing this for 59 years, which is pretty astounding considering I am only 55.”