'Saturday Night Live' Behind The Scenes: More Cowbell
Most of the time it’s crooning guitars, thundering drums, and, sure, in some cases even red hot basses that get the rock ‘n’ roll glory. But it’s the instruments of alternative percussion that are the oft-forgotten, unsung heroes of the music landscape.
Has anyone ever been disappointed by the sweet, clear ding of a steel triangle? And how about the catchy click of a clave? Heaven knows nobody would be picking up their iPhone if it weren’t for the marimba.
Still, there is one alternative percussion apparatus that has transcended its forgotten niche. No longer is it disrespected, let alone forgotten; it’s been iconicized. It’s an instrument with a chunky clunk that brings the funk — and a lot of joy to a lot of people one fateful Saturday night.
This instrument is, of course, the cowbell.
And on April 8, 2000, the cowbell officially made the leap from obscurity to ubiquity.
For those who haven’t seen the sketch, first of all, welcome back from your 22-year coma.
Second, the sketch has a simple yet extremely specific premise in which four SNL cast members — Chris Parnell, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Kattan and Horatio Sanz — play members of the band Blue Öyster Cult. Guest host Christopher Walken plays the band’s producer, and Will Ferrell… well, he plays the cowbell.
The sketch takes place on the day Blue Öyster Cult recorded its signature song “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Upon first take, Ferrell’s cowbell is fairly prominent but within reason. The band stops the song to call the producer in, hoping he’ll tell Ferrell to dial back on the cowbell. But au contraire — Walken says the line that would forever change percussion history:
“I could’ve used a little more cowbell.”
The pattern plays out in different ways through the rest of the sketch, exploring a dramatic emotional arc for Ferrell’s alt-percussionist. But the more dramatic arc might have actually taken place off-screen.
While the sketch was an instant smash hit for TV comedy, the real-life band portrayed in the sketch didn’t even really get the joke at first. In fact, Eric Bloom, frontman for Blue Öyster Cult, has said in interviews that he was just “shocked” and “didn’t find it funny.”
Of course, now it’s all but certain Bloom and the rest of the band find the sketch at least somewhat amusing. After all, it’s widely credited with revitalizing the group’s career in the early 2000s — so much so that fans would come to their concerts with cowbells in tow, ready to play along when “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” started. (To be fair, according to SNL creator Lorne Michaels, the band also said the cowbells “ruined their concerts.”)
But at the time, the band was given no heads-up that the sketch was going to air, which might be surprising considering how long SNL had the sketch in the works.
The idea was rejected several times before it was finally greenlit for the show. Ferrell reworked it specifically to pitch for Walken’s episode, but a quick look at other hosts that season shows Walken’s role could’ve been imagined for a slew of other big names: Danny Devito, Jerry Seinfeld, Jamie Foxx, and even The Rock. Thankfully for impressionists everywhere, Walken played the role.
With Walken as host, the sketch was featured at dress rehearsal — and, according to Michaels and the cast, it pretty much bombed. But after months of pitching the idea and finally getting it to the stage, Ferrell wasn’t ready to give up the cowbell just yet.
Instead, he went backstage to the wardrobe department and, in a panic, came up with the idea that may have propelled the sketch to stardom:
A tiny shirt.
Once Ferrell squeezed into that itsy-bitsy teenie-weenie brown no-polka-dot long sleevey, the sketch clicked. Fallon in particular attributes Ferrell’s new wardrobe to the sketch’s success, saying, “That’s all it took.”
Ferrell has said on Fallon’s show that he ruined Walken’s life — though, according to Michaels, Walken did sign on, of his own volition, to do the (actually written and pitched) More Cowbell movie. It was never made, but in this case, it seems safe to say that less cowbell is fine.
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Top image: NBC