Bowen Yang Had to Unlearn Everything ‘Saturday Night Live’ Taught Him
For a struggling young comic, getting cast on Saturday Night Live is the break of a lifetime. If you make it to Studio 8H, jackpot! Just sit back and wait for those offers for more movies and television shows to come pouring in. There’s only one problem, says current cast member Bowen Yang: To hit it out of the park on all those new projects, you have to forget almost every thing that SNL has taught you.
“I’ve had to unlearn almost everything about the way things work at SNL, just because the medium is so specific,” Yang told Backstage. “It’s a sketch, and you’re not really worried about people’s motivations, or it’s not too helpful to drill down into a behavior. I really had to let go of that paradigm when I would dip into other projects where more was being demanded of me in that sense, where you had to really examine people.”
Okay, we can see it. There are demands in playing a spotted lantern butterfly, a Chinese spy balloon or the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, but they don’t involve forming an intensive character backstory to generate laughs. So creating a great sketch character doesn’t help develop a fully realized movie character, but maybe the reverse is true? Yang says he’s been able to bring the lessons he’s learned in preparing for meatier roles back to his sketch work on SNL.
“Sometimes you can think of a character, even on Weekend Update, as someone who is in a very specific stage of their life,” he explains. “Maybe you can play it that way and ground it and not always go for the laugh because without putting the effort into the laugh, the comedy comes a little bit more organically for the audience.”
One advantage playing a character on SNL has over performing “meaty roles” is the chance for immediate reaction in the form of laughs. “That is the beauty of working at SNL,” Yang says. “You never really know how an idea is going to play until it’s in front of that audience on Saturday.”
That unpredictability is part of the SNL roller-coaster ride. “I’m constantly surprised when an audience has perceived a character differently than I thought they would,” he continues. “And it goes both ways. Sometimes I go into something thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t know that this will be anything,’ but then the audience really responds to it. Other times, I am pretty secure in how the response will be, and then I get nothing. Either way is equally educational and equally gratifying — almost. I mean, you’d rather it go well, but sometimes you take your lump, then you roll with it.”