'Saturday Night Live': How To Audition In 4 Easy Steps
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Over the years, approximately 158 comedian/actors have called Saturday Night Live home. Some sketch and improvisational actors consider SNL THE dream job. If nothing else, it’s a great way to show your family and the people you went to high school with that you were serious when you said, “I’m a comedian!”
Every SNL cast member brings something different to the table. There are the dry sensibilities of a Jason Sudeikis, the ultra-comedic dominance of an Eddie Murphy, or the laugh-or-get-out-of-her-way mentality of a Leslie Jones. But they all have one thing in common: they had to audition.
The SNL audition process is something of a mystery, mostly because it’s slightly different for everyone who has gotten on the show.
Lucky for you, dear reader, this humble writer has compiled an easy 4-Step Process to get the job a million clowns would kill for: Saturday Night Live. Take some notes, brush up on your Mitch McConnell impression, and soon your career in comedy will take off! (NOTE: “Career taking off” not guaranteed.)
STEP 1: GET NOTICED
The first step to getting cast on Saturday Night Live is undeniably the most difficult: Get on the show's radar. Saturday Night Live and its head honcho Lorne Michaels have seen hundreds if not thousands of comedians. So how can you, the lowly nobody, get in their line of sight?
Colin Jost has some advice in his book A Very Punchable Face: “For some people, you spend years honing your skills at established comedy institutions … so you can impress the SNL producers when they come to see a showcase.
For others, you start as a stand-up comedian in clubs around New York or L.A. and someone from our talent department goes to see you, and if they like you, they force Lorne to see you too. Or you make videos with your friends and hope they gain traction until someone from SNL sees them and recommends you.”
As a Chicago improviser, I've gotten pretty familiar with the road to SNL process. I recently spoke with two comedian friends who auditioned in Chicago. The auditions took place at the iO Theater Chicago (formerly known as ImprovOlympic; also formerly open; now closed). I shall refer to them as Miss Scarlet and Colonel Mustard 'cause I’m cute as hell!
For a lot of Chicago improvisers, the path to SNL begins when you do a live comedy showcase at a theater. For Miss Scarlet, the whole process began as a complete surprise. "A friend put me on the waitlist. I found out 48 hours before that I was doing the audition.” But it’s never just one showcase. A Chicago comedian may have to go through several showcases before SNL even gives them a look. It’s all about impressing the big dogs, and IO legend Charna Halpern.
As Colonel Mustard explains, “I think I shocked Charna. She came to me after my first audition and implied I had a really good chance of making it to the final round.” Sometimes getting noticed is just that easy. But it’s not an exact science. Sometimes it’s just about who you know.
As Jost explains, “Sometimes, SNL cast members recommend people they used to perform with, like how Tina Fey recommended Amy Poehler, and Nasim Pedrad recommended Mikey Day, and way back in the day, Chevy Chase recommended John Belushi.” But it’s not all Hollywood nepotism at work. Even if you know the right people, you still have to be funny.
STEP 2: PREPARE LIKE HELL
So you’ve caught the eye of SNL, and they’re coming to see if you could handle the real audition in New York. This is the biggest audition of your life! (… besides the actual SNL audition in New York, but we’ll get to that later.) Right now, you have got to crush. And the best way to do that is to get on a stage and get seriously silly for strangers. As Chicago comedians call it: it’s showcase season baby! That's the glorious time of year when comedians run all over town looking for any variety show or open mic to allow them to test out their tight five minutes for SNL.
Cause it’s gotta be five minutes. It shows you understand and produce content in a set amount of time. You know, like if you were on a live television show.
“Two months before my audition, I was trying out characters at different live show venues in Chicago, three to four a week," explains Colonel Mustard. "Finding out what I liked or what people liked and the right order.”
But as fun as it is to see everyone’s creative juices flowing, Showcase Season is a stressful time to be in comedy. “Chicago is one of the most genuinely supportive comedy/artistic communities," says Miss Scarlet, but "it was a BUMMER that 4-5 months of the year, it was less supportive and a little bit grey.”
That’s the power of SNL. Even the thought of doing a showcase that could lead to an audition that would lead to the ACTUAL audition in New York City is enough to turn Chicago's little comedy hamlet into a valley of hungry golems yearning to impress their precious Lorne. Hopefully, that didn’t happen for you, because now it’s time for your showcase performance!
STEP 3: CRUSH THE AUDITION (Part 1)
All right. You’ve put in the work. Now it’s time to begin the long uphill journey of auditioning… and auditioning and auditioning.
SNL mainstay Kenan Thompson remembers his tryout journey in Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live: “One (audition) was at a comedy club where there was no stage, just a microphone, and kind of angrier people came there," he says. "Then a week later they were like, ‘We want you to audition one more time at the Laugh Factory,’ another comedy club. That was terrifying once again because it was me versus three other stand-up comedians.”
There's no such thing as a short road to Studio 8H. SNL wants to make sure they are seeing polished talent that is ready to be on this show. There is an intensity and high pressure that squeezes the hearts of those auditioning. And that pressure is intentional. This is a big job! If you can’t handle a theater of 100 people watching you try not to mess up live, how are you going to fare when 10 million people are watching?
Colonel Mustard remembers his showcase performance for SNL scouts: “Knowing Lorne, Colin, and Che were in the audience… I was so nervous.” It wasn't just the comedy elites in the audience. The rules for auditioning were intimidating. “If SNL has seen you before, they don’t want you to repeat characters; don’t address SNL is in the room; have a good mix of characters and impersonations.” Basically, it’s the real New York audition while not being the actual New York audition.
Unfortunately, the Colonel’s journey didn’t advance to the big stage in NYC. “Your goal is to always have fun when you’re performing," he says. "I didn’t remind myself to find the joy in my performance. I had a good performance but I was disappointed because I didn’t have more fun.”
The Colonel didn’t go all the way but for others (like Miss Scarlet), the journey continued all the way to Studio 8H.
STEP 4: CRUSH THE AUDITION (part 2)
Here it is. The BIG one. Even the thought of auditioning on Studio 8H’s stage sends shivers down my spine. The pressure. The history. The … Lorne of it all! It’s inherently intimidating. How do people do this?
But at least one audition urban legend isn't true. “Everyone says they are warned in advance that Lorne won’t laugh," says SNL producer Lindsay Shookus. "It’s just not true. Lorne will really laugh, and I promise you that Lorne has never hired someone that hasn’t made him really laugh. What he won’t do is the polite laugh.”
No one told the great Horatio Sanz. In fact, it was just the opposite. “I was told by people that I knew on the show, ‘They don’t laugh at auditions. So don’t be thrown by it. Keep doing your job.’ So then when I did hear laughter, that helped me out. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this is going better than it normally does.’”
For some, like Miss Scarlet, the thought of getting cast on SNL is so out-of-this-world impossible she couldn’t help but feel a bit out of her league. “It felt like I had won an essay contest," she says. "It felt like I wrote a good essay about how much I love NBC, and I got get a tour of the studio.”
Miss Scarlet's experience going to the Big Apple for her SNL audition was less than ideal. “I flew in on Tuesday, auditioned on Wednesday. I was throwing up the entire time. I had the worst flu I had had ever had. I gave it to half the people who auditioned with me.” But she powered through it all and did her audition. Her advice for future auditionees? “Any prop you have will feel so stupid and humiliating. I had a broom, and I felt like such a loser.”
Ultimately, Miss Scarlet did not get cast on the show. But she is far from a loser. At this audition point in her career, she was simply “too young, and too similar to people that SNL already had.”
The truth is most comic actors won’t get on SNL (sorry if I led you on). Getting cast on SNL is like getting to go to space with William Shatner – a lot of people want to do it but not everyone can. Simply getting the chance to audition is an incredible achievement. Even in the dream job a million clowns would kill for, there is a way in. It’s a daunting task, but it’s not impossible. Keep your impressions sharp, your observations insightful, and your resistance to the flu high, and maybe one day you could join this murders row of comedic royalty.
Top image: NBC