Mr. Bill From ‘SNL’ Was a Proto-Kenny from ‘South Park’

Two characters who are dying for a laugh
Mr. Bill From ‘SNL’ Was a Proto-Kenny from ‘South Park’

“This animated character’s claim to fame is the violent death he suffered at the end of every episode.” 

If we were playing Comedy Jeopardy!, the obvious answer would be, “Who is Kenny from South Park?” But there’s another response the judges would have to accept — Mr. Bill, the Play-Doh putz who was regularly dismembered during the early days of Saturday Night Live.

Just as the initial South Park cartoons were a DIY comedy adventure, Mr. Bill grew out of a fertile mind with zero budget. It all started when Dan Aykroyd announced a home movie contest during SNL’s first season, inviting viewers to create their own comedy shorts for possible inclusion on a future episode. Showing the home movie on national television was considered the prize — no other reward was offered.

Enter Walter Williams, an accounting school dropout from New Orleans. He thought it would be funny to create a kiddie-show parody with a clay hero who gets squished into oblivion. “I was watching some of the more recent Popeye cartoons that were really poorly animated,” White told TV Party. “The original Popeyes are beautifully animated. They kind of kept getting progressively less and less motion. I was thinking pretty soon you'd be able to see the hands moving the thing around. That’s kind of where the characters came from.”

He filmed the first Mr. Bill in his apartment in a single evening, spending about $20 start to finish. The character was an immediate hit, and the show encouraged Williams to keep sending in more Mr. Bill adventures. SNL didn’t bother to pay Williams, however, until it put him under contract during the show’s fourth season. “People mistake it as some kind of masochistic thing,” Williams said, referring to Mr. Bill, not his own willingness to work for free. “He’s always complaining, but he just can’t get away. He’s kind of a victim of his form of animation. He can’t run away. He’s just there for whatever’s going to happen to him.”

It’s a funny bit with a built-in ending the audience knows is coming. It was a problem that Kenny’s South Park writers no doubt wrestled with as well. “The challenge was to continue to surprise the audience,” Williams explained. “That’s what it takes to make people laugh.” 

That and a lot of clay. At the height of Mr. Bill’s SNL fame, “I was going through the 55-gallon drums of Play-Doh. They don’t last too long.” All of that Play-Doh was necessary because over SNL’s first five years, Mr. Bill…

  • Sky-dives with a parachute that never opens
  • Gets set on fire
  • Is sawed in half permanently by a magician
  • Gets decapitated by a flying bag of rice
  • Gets shot out of a cannon
  • Falls from the top of the Empire State Building
  • Gets devoured by a killer dolphin
  • Endures shock treatment after a court finds him insane

There’s more but you get the idea — brutal acts of comic savagery that would make Kenny McCormick proud. A few years ago, a Flickr user posted a picture of Kenny and Mr. Bill together, asking the obvious question to his followers: “If they had to fight, who would win?” 

The comment section provided the obvious answer: “It’s a tie! Both will die!” 


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