Was Saturday Night Live’s ‘Californians’ Just an Excuse to Break Character?

Why couldn’t anyone keep a straight face during driving directions?
Was Saturday Night Live’s ‘Californians’ Just an Excuse to Break Character?

Bill Hader absolutely hated breaking on-air, according to Stefon whisperer John Mulaney. Hader even apologized to Lorne Michaels at a party for his inability to keep a straight face on Weekend Update, knowing full well that Michaels detested that kind of Carol Burnett Show breaking-character-to-get-cheap-laffs move. But what if Hader and Michaels have been disingenuous all along? What if breaking character is kind of the point, at least in one series of sketches?

Watching this compilation of “Californians” bits, it’s hard to believe every single SNL comic was simply overcome by the hilarity. Sure, the first time Kristin Wiig blurts “Stuart” in her Malibu-stoned-surfer accent, the novelty might have surprised Fred Armisen or Vanessa Bayer into uncontrollable chuckles. But the 10th time?

People who live in California, or at least the ones Hader and Armisen pal around with, might indeed give overly complicated directions. (Don’t try out that theory on anyone who actually lives in California.) And it’s a pretty good joke the first time around. But before the Californians became a recurring sketch, it was a gag that Hader and Armisen (and Kenan Thompson and Andy Samberg) would goof around with while waiting for Michaels to show up for table reads. Sounds like plenty of time to get the giggles out. So we’re asking the question: If we weren’t laughing on the umpteenth go-round, why were they?

One explanation from Hader: Armisen introduced exaggerated line readings on the live show that plain cracked him up. Wiig too! But every time? At least with Hader’s Stefon, the character-breaking was more understandable, with Mulaney rewriting jokes right before the live show so that Hader was seeing wildly inappropriate gags for the first time as he was speaking them. No such excuse for the Californians and its one-joke premise. 

That leads to a couple of possible conclusions. One, Hader is completely incapable of keeping a straight face. “I laugh through every friggin’ sketch,” he’s confessed to Seth Meyers. Occam’s Razor makes that the most obvious explanation, but watch Hader as other iconic SNL characters like Vincent Price, game show host Vince Blight or PTSD puppeteer Anthony Peter Coleman. In arguably funnier sketches, Hader has zero trouble holding it together.

Which makes explanation #2 more plausible: The whole point of the Californians was to mug for the camera, goading the audience into hysterics by the comics’ own “inability” to keep straight faces. Wiig and Armisen aren’t known for breaking up elsewhere, so even though laughter is contagious, Californians seems like a concerted effort to create a vehicle for a very specific kind of comedy. And while Michaels might not like the comparison, The Carol Burnett Show showed them the way.  

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