‘Saturday Night Live’ Taught Robert Downey Jr. Who He Wasn’t
You’d think a guy could learn a lot from spending a year as a cast member on Saturday Night Live. But for Robert Downey Jr., it was an exercise in learning what he was not. “I was not somebody who was going to come up with a catchphrase,” he told Off Camera with Sam Jones a few years ago. As someone who’d “never been part of the Groundlings” or any other improvisational comedy group, Downey learned he was not well-suited for rapid-fire sketch comedy. And finally, “I was not somebody who was going to do impressions.”
“I have some respect for people who do (impressions),” he said with an emphasis on ‘some.’ “It’s a skill — I guess — if you want to develop that skill. You see how we have contempt for things that are out of our reach? I guess I’m not a really good impressionist.”
I was going to argue that point based on a sketch where it appears Downey does a darn good John Mellencamp. But it’s pretty clearly someone else’s voice, and it turns out that Downey is lousy at lip-syncing as well.
How did a guy like Downey get on a show like Saturday Night Live in the first place? Unlike most cast members, he had no background in either stand-up comedy or improv. “I came up through the Weird Science Country Academy,” he explained, referencing the 1985 John Hughes big-screen comedy in which he co-starred with Anthony Michael Hall. “(Hall) was my first Jon Favreau,” he says, a reference to the director who made Downey a star in Iron Man.
Hall was red hot back in the mid-1980s, turning down other big movie projects to try SNL. “I’m going to get you an audition,” Hall told Downey, “and I bet you’re going to get on the show too.” Downey’s audition was as weird as you might imagine, serving up “super avant-garde” characters ranging from Guy Running A Bodega to “a British guy who all he wanted to do was put a piece of tape on your head.” Nonetheless, as Hall expected, Downey got the job.
By most measures, Downey’s tenure at SNL was not a success. When Rolling Stone ranked the 145 cast members who’d been on the show through 2015, Downey came in dead last at #145. (“Robert Downey Jr. is a comic genius,” said his entry. “Making him unfunny stands as SNL’s most towering achievement in terms of sucking.”) Downey makes a passing reference to the article in his conversation with Jones, calling his worst-cast-member ranking “another lie.” Regardless of ranking, he wasn’t asked back beyond his single season. But then again, neither were Randy Quaid, Joan Cusack or Hall, so at least he was in good company.
To this day, though, Downey says he still tells people that there isn’t a more exciting 90 minutes a performer can have. He probably should have been terrified at the prospect of doing comedy on live television, but that wasn’t the case. “For me, being young and whatever, it was just a blast,” he told Jones, recounting the thrill of appearing as a spaceman in one sketch, then sprinting to another stage to do a caveman bit “and you bump into David Bowie. Coolest Saturday night ever!”