Inside ‘SNL’ with Writers Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly
Ask any devoted SNL fan to name their favorite sketch from the last few years, and odds are high that it’s written by the team of Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly. Since joining the SNL writing staff in 2011, Schneider and Kelly have racked up a pile of hit sketches like “Hometown Tourism Ad,” “Back Home Ballers,” “(Do It On My) Twin Bed,” and “Christmas Mass Spectacular,” to name just a few. Ahead of tomorrow’s SNL season 41 premiere, I spoke with Schneider and Kelly about how they met and became an SNL writing team, what an original Schneider/Kelly TV comedy series might look like, and, of course, farts.
How does it feel when you’re on break from SNL? Is it difficult for you to mentally slow down and relax after all those months of writing sketches?
Sarah: It’s nice to stop. [laughs]
Chris: I mean, I’m definitely ready to stop when SNL is over. I’m more than happy to go lay down. [laughs]
Sarah: I think most people go through a couple weeks of complete brain shutdown and then everyone starts feeling the urge to be creative again, so most people work on private projects or collaborations over the summer. And then we start back slowly at the show — everyone kind of eases back into writing for the tone and style of it — so it’s not like a complete-off and complete-on again once the show starts.
Chris: One of the greatest things about being at SNL — aside from the obvious things — is that you meet people where you’re like “Oh, I wanna work with you for years and years to come.” Sarah and I are already talking about, like, “What is the show that we would like to one day try to do together?” I’m not saying it’s happening tomorrow, but sometimes the summers are a good use of time for figuring out whose point of view you like from the show that you can collaborate with. That is often what the summer is for, at least for me.
Just the idea of you two having your own show together gets me excited. That would be very cool to see.
Sarah: We think it would be cool to see too. We’re all for it.
Chris: Yeah, that’s what we’re thinking, so thanks for that. [laughs]
Would it be a sketch show, a talk show, or what?
Sarah: We’ve both been writing sketch for upwards of a decade or so, so if we moved on, it would be interesting to explore other forms.
How did you two first meet? Did you know each other before SNL?
Chris: No, we didn’t!
Sarah: The story of how we first met is great.
Chris: What was it?
Sarah: We met on the set of a CollegeHumor short where Chris played Link and I played Zelda. [laughs]
Chris: Oh yeah! We first met while playing video game lovers in a CollegeHumor short about Zelda…that’s the origin story for a lot of my dearest friends actually. People were like “Who’s Link?” and I was like “I think it’s like Peter Pan, but he’s in a game?”
Sarah: And you were correct.
Chris: I looked like Peter Pan, and we were both wearing little pointy ears…
Sarah: Yes, we both had pointy ears. You were Peter Pan though, basically.
Chris: And you had just started at SNL. Sarah was a guest writer for a couple weeks before I started, and I remember we filmed this video after you had already been a guest writer for a while. And I remember in my mind thinking “Oh my God…she’s on fucking SNL?” And I felt jealous but furious at you just meeting you, but like, I thought it was cool… [laughs]
Sarah: And also we’re both dressed up like an elf. [laughs]
Chris: But yeah, we didn’t know each other. We met for like a second shooting that, and then we just kind of just started working together, slowly but surely.
Sarah: We knew of each other, and I think we both liked each other’s work, so when we met it was very much like “I like you! I don’t know you — I like you!” and vice versa.
Chris: We both had a very similar start, I guess. She worked at CollegeHumor and I worked at The Onion almost the exact same amount of time — it was our first real jobs. Then we were both hired in the year I think people really started hiring kids off the internet and web video people…
Sarah: [laughs] …which is miraculous.
Chris: Yes. And you know, your first year is kind of scary and intimidating, and you kind of hold onto people to help you swim. So we liked each other, and we were also new, so it just kind of worked out. And then once you start writing with somebody and it works, you’re like “Well that worked the first week — let’s do it the second week!” And then if it works again you’re like “Let’s just only do this.”
Sarah: Yeah. It’s equal parts fear and love.
When did it go from just “I admire this person” to “wow, we really work well together — let’s keep collaborating”?
Sarah: I’d say our second season?
Chris: I think it was the first time one of us announced “I’m gonna fart so fuckin’ bad right now” and the other one was like “Go for it.”
Sarah: [laughs] Please print that.
Chris: But I don’t know…do you know?
Sarah: I think it was the second-ish season. The first season you’re kind of writing by yourself and you’re trying different people and feeling it out. We started writing together about halfway through the season, and then coming into our second season it was like “This is my partner.”
Chris: Yeah, totally. And also, the first year, at least for me, I would kind of write from a place of fear. I would be like “What do I do? What do I write? What will they like? What will the show want? What will make the audience laugh? What isn’t stupid? What won’t get me fired?” And then I started to slowly write for what would make Sarah laugh and then what would make us laugh in the room — you know, what would we like — and I think it’s so much better once you have a friend where you’re like “Okay, what do we like?” Sometimes it works where what we like everyone at the table likes, and sometimes what we like no one likes, but we’re at least like “Well we liked it.” Do you know what I mean? It kind of helps you not write from a place of fear — it helps you write more from a place of joy.
That sounds so lame. Don’t quote that I said “I write from a place of joy” because it’s not true. [laughs]
Sarah: I think it’s the exact opposite though, because it’s usually like “What’s something we hate?”
Sarah: That’s where a lot of our ideas come from.
What’s a sketch that didn’t make it into the show that you guys loved but no one else seemed to get?
Sarah: Oh my God…it’s also about farting!
Chris: Oh my God yeah, that is the answer! I have a cue card in my office from it. We laughed so hard writing it. It was Paul Rudd and it was sort of based on something I think we’ve kind of experienced versions of in real life. He was an actor auditioning for a part in a commercial and he was playing it very straight; he was like “Hi, my name is John, I’m represented by WME and I’m here to read for the role of Man Who Smells Farts at Party.” And it was for a commercial, and all he had to do in the copy was somebody was gonna read lines with him and then he just had to, like, smell a fart. And then the auditioner would give him really very serious criticisms like “You know, maybe the fart is bigger actually — if you could just play it a little bigger…” God, even talking about it now is just so terrible. But it was good.
Sarah: And he was so good.
Chris: He was so good! His quiet acting and his very subtly smelling a fart on camera were really good. But it did not go well at all in dress.
Sarah: I really hope that the headline of this article says we are obsessed with farts.
Sarah: We’re very forward-thinking comedy writers…who love farts.
Chris: So like, I have nothing on the line right now describing this sketch to you, but I’m hot and wet with the pain of embarrassment of how bad it went.
[laughs] What have you learned from each other after collaborating on so many sketches?
Sarah: I think in writing together, we’ve both strengthened our voices, whatever that means. I think that we came in with very similar voices, and then being able to have each other and write with each other, we strengthened that voice together.
Chris: I think it’s good because now, moving forward, we’re starting to talk about what would be a show we would want to make together, and I think we have a good sense of what that show would be — not literally what the show would be, but what the tone would be. We know what it’d be like, we know what our point of view is and what interests us or our people, our characters, our world. But on a smaller scale I think…I don’t know, it feels so self-indulgent to talk about our friendship like this!
Chris: But I don’t know…every other writing night there’s this Tuesday night where I’ll say “I don’t know. I don’t know — I don’t wanna do it. I don’t know, I don’t know!” and she’ll be like “Chris, calm down, it’s fine,” and then the next Tuesday Sarah will be like “I don’t know. I don’t know!”
Sarah: “I have nothing!” [laughs]
Chris: And I’m like “It’s fine!” So every other week we definitely take on the role of Person Scooching the Other Person Along and Making Them Cross the Finish Line.
Sarah: And that’s because a lot of times both of us will look at each other and say “I don’t know,” and those weeks we know that because of our friendship we can truly start from nothing and usually come up with something, which is such a valuable tool in collaboration because you end up feeling such joint ownership over it.
Chris: Yeah. And it’s nice to trust somebody enough where I’ll pitch something a thousand times that I’m sure is funny, and Sarah can be like “Chris, I just don’t think so” and I’ll be like “Got it.”
Chris: Or Sarah will say something and I’ll be like “I’m not sure about that” and she’ll be like “Okay, okay.” You feel comfortable saying yes to each other, but also killing each other’s darlings and being okay with that.
Sarah: I’d also say that, around those same lines, when you write with newer writers there’s a lot of deferential-ness — that’s not a word, but this thing like “Okay, you pitched it, so that’s the answer!” and so it’s nice to be with someone where we’ve written for the same amount of time and we trust each other and we can really throw out such full garbage and the other person — like Chris was saying — will say, like, “That’s nothing.” [laughs]
So this isn’t a question, but I just wanted to tell you that “Christmas Mass Spectacular” is one of my favorite SNL sketches of the past few years. It’s just too good.
Sarah: Thank you!
With that sketch and a lot of the other pre-taped sketches you’ve written, it seems to support the idea that the more specific you get with characters or references, the more relatable the sketch actually is.
Chris: We tend to like very small things blown out of proportion — maybe to a fault, but it makes us laugh. I remember we had this dumb joke at the end of “Christmas Mass Spectacular” where we were like “This is only a joke for us — no one will like it, but we’ll take it out,” and it was a joke about getting a glimpse inside the pastor’s house and being like “Whoa, there’s just a little table in there!” We laughed so hard, and it’s a thing I remember from being inside my pastor’s little house and thinking like “That’s his whole house?!” We just assumed it would be cut and then it worked at the table, and it’s such a fun surprise and you’re like “Oh, other people recognized it!” Because we write so many sketches where it’s this little observation where no one’s on board.
Sarah: Usually with things like that, when we’re both on the same page, the details just spill out of us. Because with that one in particular we were going back and forth with so many details from our religious childhoods. [laughs]
You two also wrote “The Dudleys,” which I think sums up a lot of negative online TV criticism these days. Do you guys read SNL reviews? How much do you pay attention to them or try to avoid them?
Sarah: I think we do give a lot of attention to people’s reactions to the show just because they’re so omnipresent and everyone has a loud opinion of the show. It doesn’t necessarily crush us or make us rethink everything, but it is something that we notice, and we notice it a lot with other shows as well.
Chris: Yeah, but I don’t really feel that that sketch was a response to criticism of SNL. I think in general there is this culture of, like…you know, there’s both sides, and I can understand both sides and the push-and-pull of, like, “We need TV to be better, we need TV to be more inclusive, we need TV to represent more people,” but then there’s also the feeling that every sketch on SNL or every show on television needs to be all things to all people. And I’m not choosing a side, but it’s just interesting to me — it’s fascinating, because for me, as a gay person, I wanna see more gay people on TV, but I also recognize that if there isn’t a gay person in this specific storyline, that’s not really an affront on me. …ooh God, I really don’t wanna talk about this shit.
Chris: But you know what I mean? Even talking about it is terrifying! But it’s just interesting. The sketch wasn’t supposed to be like “one is right and one is wrong,” it’s just interesting…
Sarah: I think we did show both sides of that, because everyone has an opinion and everyone’s allowed to have it.
SNL is kind of unique in that it’s been on TV for so long that fans can feel possessive about it. Even the ones who tend to be really critical still watch the show every Saturday, you know?
Chris: Yeah, and again, I don’t really feel — I could be wrong, maybe I’m rewriting my own history — but I don’t really feel like we wrote “The Dudleys” to be like “Let’s talk about people who review SNL.”
Sarah: It was more in the wake of “Why isn’t there a black woman on Girls?” and so many people felt so entitled to weigh in on things. And in hindsight, we were getting people saying “Oh that was such a funny takedown of all the SNL criticism” and we were kinda like “…oh yeaah!” [laughs] It definitely wasn’t where we started, but looking through that lens is an interesting way to look at it.
Do you think you have more freedom to experiment and take risks at SNL now that you’ve had a bunch of sketches that did so well?
Chris: For sure. I definitely know there’s been times where they could probably be on the fence about if we should do a sketch or not or if it’ll work. And we’ve definitely sensed things at the table read on Wednesday where they’re like “Uhh, this isn’t there yet…I like the idea so much, but I’m not sure that it’s there” and they’ll still pick it — which is very nice and we feel very grateful — whereas if we were in our first year I think it probably wouldn’t have gotten on. I think they trust us, like “Oh, they’ll get it there,” which is nice.
Sarah: We’re really pretty critical of ourselves, and I think people notice that by how late we get in our scripts… [laughs] …and how much attention we pay to them. So I feel like we will always try our hardest to be happy with our product, and they know that we’ll work hard at that.
Saturday Night Live’s season 41 premiere airs tomorrow night with host Miley Cyrus.