Saturday Night’s Children: A. Whitney Brown (1986-1991)
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 every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
Occupying the peripheral space on SNL in the late eighties and early nineties was A. Whitney Brown, noted for his stuffy straight-man delivery as Weekend Update correspondent and preference for more cerebral political commentary rather than recurring character gags or impersonations. Brown — who identifies himself as a humorist rather than a comedian — served as more of a glorified writer than a regular player, but he injected rare bits of referential cynicism to the show that only hinted at his very unstuffy life leading up to his hiring.
Despite his clean suited image on Weekend Update, Alan Whitney Brown was a troublemaker from an early age. High school ended early in Charlotte, and he was sent to a reformatory outside Detroit for stealing cars by ninth grade, leading to years of drugs and law troubles from Toronto to Texas. He served jail time in Texas, where he first learned how to juggle, then after his release he busked the streets of San Francisco with an act involving a trained dog, which eventually led to his performing alongside Robin Williams and Dana Carvey at the first San Francisco Comedy Competition in 1976. A slow momentum began with television appearances on Showtime’s The Big Laff Off (1978), Late Night with David Letterman (1983), and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in January 1986. By then, Brown had already made a 1984 stand-up appearance on SNL and been a writer for two months.
According to Brown, his first Weekend Update appearance (the February 1986 Ron Reagan episode) was at the suggestion of writers Herb Sargent and Al Franken. After being introduced by anchor Dennis Miller, Brown set the Robert Benchley-esque tone for his trademark “The Big Picture” segment with some autobiographical points:
Thank you, thank you. Fifteen years ago tonight, I was a shoeless teenage derelict, hitchhiking from Dead concert to Dead concert. But I was busy; I was formulating my all-encompassing view of human affairs, something I like to call The Big Picture. You know, the Big Picture is something noticeably lacking in the news coverage these days. Oh sure, they give you fragmented morsels of the news: wars, coups, epidemics, sabotage, political shenanigans — I could go on and on — but there’s really no use in beating a dead horse. I mean, except for the pure joy of it.
From that point onward, Brown flipped back and forth between writer and featured player billing until the end of the sixteenth season, appearing mostly on Weekend Update with the rare supporting sketch part (like as Ed Jaymes in “Bartles & James” alongside Phil Hartman). Concluding his debut “Big Picture” rant, Brown said: “Insights like these don’t come from traipsing the overused path of reason and logic, my friends. No, they must be drawn instinctively, from that ever-flowing fountain.”
Brown’s satirical news style found better company after leaving SNL in 1991; he capitalized on his recognition by publishing The Big Picture: An American Commentary the same year, then had a contributing writer gig for Comedy Central’s Exit 57 (starring Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, and Paul Dinello) and a correspondent spot on the Craig Kilborn Daily Show from 1996-1998.
Brown’s onscreen work ended soon after his Daily Show stint, but he’s since found other outlets for his political commentary with Air America Radio and Daily Kos. He still performs as a comedian and monologist and has been married to blues singer/songwriter Carolyn Wonderland since 2011. Their wedding was officiated by ex-Monkees member Nesmith — not a bad setup for a former hitchhiker.