Bill Hader Really Wanted to Be Lonely Island

Bill Hader Really Wanted to Be Lonely Island

Once Bill Hader left Saturday Night Live and developed Barry, we realized that what Hader really wanted to do was direct. When he was a performer on the show? Same deal — he really wanted to get behind the camera. But more specifically, he wanted to be Lonely Island. 

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Hader’s anxiety as a performer is well known, confessing to an on-air panic attack during a cold open as Julian Assange. The guy just couldn’t relax, unlike “Kenan Thompson, Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisenthey always seemed like they were having a ton of fun,” Hader told The New Yorker. He really wanted to let loose like his successful SNL castmates, but had no idea how to do it. “I was so rigid and very anxious.”

Hader believed the solution was to get away from live TV and settle in behind the camera. “When the Lonely Island guys were making short films, that’s what I wanted to be doing more than anything.” In fact, a Lonely Island clip was the first YouTube video that Hader ever saw. He was hooked. There was only one problem. The Lonely Island dudes had video ideas that really worked for SNL. As for Hader? “What was in my head was not very good for the show.”

C’mon, Bill, how bad could it be? Well, Hader showed us just what he meant by “not very good for the show.” He wrote an SNL Digital Short called ‘The Tangent,’ a little video starring Fred Armisen as a guy who babbles on for nearly three minutes straight. “I think they did a poll, and I think it was worse than ‘Daiquiri Girl,’ which was the one that they just recorded with (producer) Lindsay Shookus with a scroll that read ‘We have no ideas, so here’s Lindsay dancing with a daiquiri.’” 

“‘Tangent’ was below that,” says Hader.

Maybe the problem, Hader believes, was not having his finger on the pulse of what people liked. Impressions of faded celebrities like Vincent Price and Alan Alda were pretty brilliant, but they weren’t designed to capture the zeitgeist. “I’ve always kind of enjoyed what I’ve enjoyed.” 

After leaving SNL, going for ‘popular’ probably would have meant Hader adapting Stefon for the big screen, but his gut told him that would have been a mistake. “Like, nah, I don’t want to do a Stefon movie. It didn’t work as a sketch!” he says. “That’s why it was on ‘Weekend Update.’ And the reason people liked it is because I kept laughing.”

Instead, Hader leaned into his weirdo tastes. Near the end of his SNL run, he and Armisen starred in a Seth Meyers-penned sketch about Ian Rubbish, the only punk rocker who was pro-Margaret Thatcher. Hader convinced Meyers that they could make a whole TV show around mimicking documentary styles, the parody parallel to a Vincent Price impression. Since Armisen’s Portlandia was a hit for IFC, the network agreed to make Documentary Now!, a place for Hader to make, essentially, long-form Lonely Island videos without worrying about going viral on Monday morning.

“It’s beyond niche. It wasn’t about the jokes. It was being obsessive about getting it right, making it feel almost like a hallucination,” Hader says. “It’s the personification of peak TV that a show like Documentary Now! could exist.” 

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