William Shatner Says the Key to Comedy Is Being ‘Ultra Serious’
Dana Carvey was on Oprah a few years back with other Saturday Night Live alums like Tina Fey and Chevy Chase. Oprah, hard-hitting as always, asked them to name their all-time favorite host. For Carvey, the name that popped into his head was William Shatner, who shared his keys to late-night comedy on this week’s Fly on the Wall podcast.
For sci-fi nerd and avowed Star Trek superfan Carvey, getting to play Khan alongside Shatner’s James T. Kirk in a sketch about the Restaurant Enterprise was a dream come true. “It was such a thrill,” Carvey said about the 1986 episode. “It was like maybe my sixth show, and I'm doing Ricardo Montalban. You know, all that was surreal.”
Shatner, always a threat to chew interstellar scenery back in his actual Star Trek days, added that the sketch was a good reminder for him about how comedy works. “The best comedy is played absolutely real,” he told Carvey and David Spade. “If you can be ultra-serious. There’s a comedic cloud, it’s just a little mist of comedy so the audience knows it’s funny but doesn’t know it’s funny. There’s a balance there that you superb comedians know exactly what I mean. There is a hint that the actor is in on the comedy but it’s absolutely real.”
For an SNL newcomer like Carvey back in 1986, Shatner’s perspective on live television was also a revelation. Instead of freaking out about putting together a 90-minute show in a matter of days, Shatner’s “attitude about SNL was so light and fun.” Young Carvey boggled at how loose Shatner was, asking him how he could be so relaxed under the circumstances. Shatner returned with a shrug and a question of his own: “How else would you do this? We’re underrehearsed, we don’t know where we’re going.”
That was the perfect attitude, Carvey said. Why take this impossible situation seriously?
“The other part that is butt-tightening,” says Shatner, “is the words.” Meaning: It’s a live show and there are 90 minutes of material to memorize. But SNL has that figured out, explained Shatner. “You don’t need to remember the words because they’re all in front of you,” he said of the show’s obvious cue cards. “You’re not going to forget.”
That was the Christopher Walken method, says Carvey. He’d simply stare straight at the cards, making no eye contact with the other comics — and it worked.
While Carvey is still stoked about Shatner’s SNL appearance, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s family was not. That’s due to another sketch where Shatner plays himself at a Trekkie convention, blasting fans for being such dorks. “I never really appreciated that skit because I think it was demeaning to the fans,” Gene’s son Rod once remarked.
We, on the other hand, are here for it. While a complete clip is unavailable for some reason, enjoy this short bit with Shatner laying into the nerds: “Get a life, will you, people? For crying out loud, it’s just a TV show. I mean, look at you. Look at the way you’re dressed. You’ve turned an enjoyable little job I did as a lark for a few years into a colossal waste of time.”