Michael Patrick O'Brien is well into his fourth season as a writer for Saturday Night Live, a job he landed after spending years honing his comedy skills at Chicago's iO and Second City theaters. In addition to SNL and working on an upcoming sketch comedy album, O'Brien also hosts the popular web series "7 Minutes in Heaven," where he does bits and locks lips (or awkwardly tries to, at least) with stars such as Ellen Degeneres, Tina Fey, and the Insane Clown Posse. We had a chance to catch up with him about this season of SNL, specifically his appearance in the recent "Five Timers Club" sketch and his penning of some of this season's most memorable sketches, as well as his "7 Minutes" series and his future in late night.
You were recently in the "Five Timers Club" sketch with Justin Timberlake. You played the doorman role that Conan O’Brien played with Tom Hanks in 1990. How did you come about playing that part?
Seth Meyers wrote that sketch, and I’m sure in his writing process he rewatched the 1990 version with Conan. So he came up to me on the day of the table read and said, “Hey, I have you in this part.” And he mentioned it at the time too – he said that Conan did it last time. And I was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” And I know things change between Wednesday and Saturday, so I was glad that thing didn’t change, and that I ended up getting to do it.
What was it like having Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, Martin Short, Chevy Chase, and all the other alumni back on set?
Really cool, really insane. Especially when you start listing off the people. My parents were losing their minds. It was fun to just kind of watch. I had a front-row seat to it, you know? Friday you block it, Saturday you run through it and everything. There was so little time. I was just trying to stand out of the way. But right in between there’s Martin Short and Chevy Chase trying to make each other laugh. It’s like, this is weird. It’s like you walked inside your TV.
You’ve made cameos in other sketches, appearing as one of Romney’s sons, or as an audience member in a cold open. How do they cast writers in sketches? Do writers lobby for parts, or is it just random?
It’s a little more random. For one thing, there are some writers who would never want to do it. And then there’s another handful of us who come from improv or whatever and are comfortable doing it. But often it’s very last minute. After the dress rehearsal show on Saturday, the producers or Lorne will say, “We need more people in the background.” And it’s like a half hour from when it’s going to happen, so it’s too late to get extras.
We use extras most of the time, but sometimes if you want something done a certain way, it’s just easier, I think, to have a writer do it. “We’ll have Jake over here right at this moment and hit this button,” or whatever it is. I don’t think the writers lobby for it. It’s always done in mind with what’s best for this piece. Sometimes that’s a local actor that we bring in, sometimes that means putting a writer in a huge gorilla costume, or whatever it is.
Now that you’re in your fourth season writing for the show, do you feel you can better anticipate what kind of sketches will work on the show?
Maybe subconsciously, but not consciously, no. I can’t write something and say, “This is definitely the type of thing that’ll get on.” It must be that it’s a moving target. It sometimes like, “I swear this would’ve gotten on a few months ago,” and then the one I wrote for this week was an end-of-the-night, silly piece got on, and the one that was the most perfect, SNL-ish sketch I’ve ever written played to dead silence on Wednesday.
But that’s the fun of it for me. You can’t crack it. There are too many variables to the equation. Where we’re at in our season, what the host is like, how the actors figure into that. It’s not a math equation I’ve been able to crack. And I kind of enjoy that. I sometimes go right at it, I sometimes don’t, and I can never predict which piece is going to work.
What were some sketches you wrote this season that you think went well?
I wrote the short film “Sad Mouse” for Bruno Mars. I really liked how that came out. We have two really talented film guys named Matt and Oz. They made that thing look really awesome, and their friend scored it.
Along with Rob Klein and John Solomon, I wrote the sketch “Puppet Class,” with Seth MacFarlane as the instructor and Bill Hader as the Grenada veteran and puppet in his class. Those are the two that jumped in my head right away. It’s hard to remember what went to dress and what went to air – I had a few things that went to dress and then got cut.
“Puppet Class” was one of my favorite sketches from the season. I loved “Sad Mouse” too – it was the first thing I remember seeing since Andy Samberg left the show that I thought could potentially replace the digital short element.
Yeah, I think the show does best when it’s got some short film feeling pieces here and there. And that’s from the original season – especially ones that feel like "Sad Mouse." They're a little bit more from the 70s energy of the show. Albert Brooks used to do them all the time, and Adam McKay did a bunch.
But the presence with Andy and the Lonely Island guys was so strong, and it was such a consistently funny thing. I did feel a little bit like, “So instead of those hilarious raps, we’re gonna have a really depressing thing about a guy who got broken up with!” But I think it had to be different. If I ever tried to a funny rap video – which I don’t have it in me to do anyway – it’d be dumb because you’re following the best three guys in the world at that, and they just did 101 of them.
How important is context when it comes to a pitch? It seems like presentational TV formats like game shows, talk shows, and press conferences have a better chance making it on than a slice-of-life conversation scene.
I think those end up being easier to produce, I’ll say that. I think the jokes in them on Wednesday still have to be really good. I know we write plenty of game shows that don’t make the air. It’s another one of those things where you can’t just say, “I’ll get one on every week if I just write it in a presentational format.” It still has to be one of the best 10 sketches that we read on Wednesday.
But as the week goes on, I’ll always appreciate when I’m working on one that’s in the presentational format, because shooting people that are sitting still and looking out, like the three contestants of a game show, and you cut over to the host – it’s a simple, clear vehicle for jokes. And that is really nice, with the camera angle options we have and the live audience feel. Coming from Second City, I love sketches that involve all sorts of theatrical elements and family issues being worked out, but to try to cram that into our production week just sometimes makes your life… I could make these observations and still have it seem a little more presentational. And frankly, a lot of my favorite sketches are just two people sitting next two each other. Growing up with “Wayne’s World,” or watching Forte and Sudeikis do the ESPN guys. There’s nothing wrong with that. Those are some of the smartest sketches. And it’s really easy to produce once you get into the camera angles and everything.
Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, and Tim Robinson were added to the cast this season. Were you excited to have more fellow iO/Second City people join the team?
Absolutely. I was friends with those guys before, so it’s always awesome to have buddies come on board.
You share an office with Jason Sudeikis – another Chicagoan who you seemed to team up with. Do you find yourself writing more for some cast members than others?
Yeah, definitely Jason. Especially sharing an office. It’s just a matter of turning your head and saying, “What do you think of this?” And he’ll say something funny back, and already you’re developing an idea. So I end up writing with him a lot. He’s also a really funny guy, so it’s not just a proximity-based choice. Tim I write with a lot. Fred – I’m such a fan of his that when I think of an idea I’ll picture him saying the words in my head. I’ll genuinely write for everyone else at different times, when I think of the specific idea. There are just times where it’s “very Kate,” or “very Bobby.” This sounds like a generic answer for political reasons, but there’s some idea I’ll have every week or two for a different person on the cast, and thank god they’re all super game for trying for everything.
Who were some of your favorite hosts to write for this season?
I want to say Will Ferrell. Already my time is blurring together on the show – that was last season. Seth MacFarlane was real fun. Just knowing that he could do a million different voices and sing and everything was fun to think about. Kevin Hart was really funny a few weeks ago, just really fun to work with. He made me laugh really hard. Martin Short was, along with Ferrell, one of my favorite hosts we’ve had, and one of the funniest humans to be around.
With so many music stars hosting the show this season [Bruno Mars, Adam Levine, Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake], do you feel more pressure to come up with musical ideas? Do certain writers step up more those weeks?
There are writers who are really good at that, and I’m not one of them. I’m basically tone-deaf. Also, sometimes with those hosts, they know they’re going to sing two of their songs in the music slots, if they’re hosts and musical guests. And they often know that they might be singing in their monologue. So there isn’t a lot of pressure on us to come up with too many more. It’s why they’re here as host, and we want to show that we think they’re talented in lots of other ways.
It’s fine for someone like me who’s not musically inclined to just write sketches where Bieber and Levine and Bruno are just being actors for that moment and not showing off their voices. Which again, I’m happy to do. I’ve never taken anything in musical theater. My musical director at Second City just told me to mouth the words because I was really bad.
Are there any hosts you’d like to work with?
I’m a big Steve Carell fan. He has hosted, but that was before I got there, so I’d like to have him host again. Any time Ferrell comes, it’s fun for everybody. Any of the alumni. Amy Poehler. Those are always really fun weeks for people like myself, who are really big fans of comedians. Louis CK was this year – that’s another one I forgot about. He was really great and cool to be around, who you look up to so much.
This was your first presidential election season writing for the show. How does the creative energy of the show change?
It’s got a cool feel to it. For instance, we’ll all stick around and watch the debate, and order pizza. And we’ll react and make jokes. Like, the binder of women. There was a laugh in the room, and literally everyone starting pitching jokes. He hadn’t even finished the sentence, and people were like, “We gotta have a binder!” There’s a little bit more charged feeling to it. I think they had a whole other experience in 2008, with Tina being Palin, and all that. The show was on the cover of magazines. There was a crazyness to all of it that I’m sure people who were there could speak to more.
Can we look forward to any new episodes of “7 Minutes in Heaven”?
Lately I’ve been thinking about getting back to it, yeah. I’ve just had a lot of other projects and I wanted to focus on those for the past year. The short answer is yes, I’d like to do a couple “7 Minutes in Heaven” episodes every year. I don’t know if I’ll do any burst of, like, 18 of them in two months, like when I first started doing them. I might not go back with that intensity ever again, but it’s something I’ll probably do every once in a while forever.
Did doing bits with celebrities in the “7 Minutes” series make you a stronger SNL writer, in that it breaks the ice when you pitch weird ideas to famous people?
I hope so. I bet it’s a little like the chicken and the egg, where I may have been more comfortable doing that because I’d been pitching ideas to movie stars for a couple years going into it. And I may have come out of it a little better at doing that back at work. It is a similar skill to our Monday thing, where it’s almost as weird as pitching a one-sentence fragment of an idea to them. Just because the room is packed with people and some of us are sitting on the floor.
Your name was floated around as someone people would be interested in seeing take over Late Night when Jimmy Fallon moves up to The Tonight Show. We’ve also heard rumors of Lorne wanting Seth Meyers. Do you think talk shows are in your future?
I think if we could hammer out the dollar amount… No, I’m just kidding.
I don’t know. I’ve never thought about that very seriously. I mean, the talk show I did was intentionally not a straight talk show. I’d have to become good at doing talk shows. 7 Minutes being popular doesn’t say anything about me being a good talk show host. If you look at the comments, it’s just, all-caps: “AWKWARD. This guy is awkward.” You’d have to be the opposite of that to try to follow in the footsteps of Fallon or Letterman. If that’s a career I would have somewhere down the road, that’d be super fun, but I don’t see anything I’ve done so far that’s pointed me to that.
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