Darrell Hammond’s Stand-Up Act Is ‘Sad’ and ‘Haunted’
The problem with comedy impressionists, from Rich Little to Melissa Villaseñor, is that they’re hilarious when they’re taking on the personalities of others, but unidentifiable nonentities when they’re just being themselves. That’s never exactly been the case with Darrell Hammond, the Saturday Night Live man of a thousand faces who always seemed to have a melancholy interior coloring his many impersonations.
So what a weird double bill he’s on now, touring the country as the opening act for Mr. Jeannie Buss, Jay Mohr. The two comics recently played Philadelphia and while reviewer A.D. Amorosi found Mohr funny enough, it was Hammond who made the bigger impression, as it were. Take in this one-sentence summary:
“Like an insistently vague and hypnotizing David Lynch character you cannot look directly at, or away from, Hammond was self-immolating/self-critical about his dumb schooling and stupid past, a drunken father who hated the child’s bedroom impersonations, hinted at various drug and drink addictions, and wound up telling stories about smoking crack as a celebrity in New York and running around with one-time hookers, lost and in need of directions by following Dominos pizza delivery vans.”
We’d pay to see that David Lynch movie. One can only imagine the slackened jaws of fans who came for Mohr’s less … complex bro humor. (A typical Mohr bon mot: “They give you a hotel room; you have sex. What is it about a hotel room, the second you walk in, you start bumpin', makin' sandwiches?”)
But this isn’t a phase for Hammond. He’s been telling these stories for years, most famously in his autobiography, God, If You're Not Up There, I'm F-cked: Tales of Stand-Up, 'Saturday Night Live' and Other Mind-Altering Mayhem. Even while a regular cast member on SNL, Hammond regularly checked into a psychiatric hospital for treatment and that undercurrent of sadness made its way into impressions of Bill Clinton and others. His empathy for John McCain’s experiences with torture during the Vietnam War made an impression nearly impossible. “I didn’t want to make fun of a guy whose body, soul, and voice were changed by combat,” he told CNN in 2011. “This is why I had a hard time playing John McCain and didn’t want to play John McCain.”
He’s still making art out of struggle. “I’ve never actually written a joke,” he told an audience recently during a comedy special taping. “I just tell stories about how fucked up I am.”
For Amorosi, those painful stories added up to more than comedy during his recent Philly show: “Uncomfortable or not, Darrell Hammond was brilliant, and sad, and brilliant and haunted and brilliant and worth hearing and watching wherever he plies his slow motion disaster stand-up comic mirth and madness.”