Contributing Nothing at Saturday Night Live - Hollywood: My Good Friend Who Is Also a Little Embarrassing - Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) - Mindy Kaling

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) - Mindy Kaling (2011)

Hollywood: My Good Friend Who Is Also a Little Embarrassing

Contributing Nothing at Saturday Night Live

IWAS A dreadful guest writer on Saturday Night Live. Not like, destructively bad or anything, just a useless, friendly extra body in the SNL offices eating hamburgers for free, like Wimpy from Popeye.

I came into the show during the hiatus between seasons two and three of The Office. My friend Mike Schur, who had worked at SNL before The Office, recommended me to Mike Shoemaker, a producer over there. Mike Shoemaker and some others had liked an episode of The Office I’d written called “The Injury,” where Michael grills his foot accidentally in a George Foreman Grill. Mike Shoemaker graciously invited me to write there for a few weeks. I later found out that most guest writers were there as a kind of “audition” for a permanent writing job, and they came prepared with lots of hilarious sketch ideas, even some partially written. But since I was coming straight from my Office job, I didn’t have time to prepare, even if I had known I was supposed to.

I guess that’s not entirely true. I was prepared in my own way, which is to say, I had packed several fashion-forward outfits that I bought from Nordstrom Rack with my mom, all of which were rendered useless immediately. Writers and actors at SNL looked cool but casual. When I heard of a “television writing job in New York City,” I imagined a Gossip Girl-type aesthetic. My outfits of button-down shirts, an ironic broach, men’s ties, kilts, and gold high-tops were completely stupid in the face of Seth Meyers’s subtly awesome gray T-shirts and Levi’s or whatever.

So, lesson one: fashion plays a relatively unimportant role in the day-to-day work life of Saturday Night Live. Okay, learned that.

Here’s how the writing worked. The writers either wrote sketches alone or paired up with other people they collaborated with regularly. The problem is, I didn’t know anyone, so I felt shy approaching anybody with ideas.

I shared a tiny windowless office with Kristen Wiig. This was, as you can imagine, incredibly exciting. We had no privacy, which was fine with me, because I was hoping the claustrophobic atmosphere of our shared office would be like a college dorm room, and that we’d become confidantes through our sheer physical proximity. It’d go down something like this:

(Joni Mitchell’s Blue is playing on my computer.)

KRISTEN: God, I love this album.

ME: Me too. Doesn’t it make you wish we’d been alive during Woodstock?

KRISTEN: Yes! I always think that when I listen to this!

ME: That’s hilarious. Hey, do you want to go get some lunch and then hit Crabtree & Evelyn?

KRISTEN (as though I’m an idiot): Uhhh yeah. I mean if we can even fit out the door of this tiny office.

ME: You’re so bad.

(We laugh and laugh.)

KRISTEN: Seriously, I wish we could’ve gone to Woodstock together.

This interaction didn’t happen. As it turned out, Kristen Wiig was kind of busy at Saturday Night Live. She was almost never in our office. She was either rehearsing on set, at a fitting, or writing sketches with other people in their offices. It made sense, but it was disappointing.

At dinnertime, one Wednesday night, some production assistants brought out huge bags of food and put them on the main writers’ conference room table. People trickled out of their offices to eat. I had spent the last four hours trying to write a sketch where Bill Hader was a pregnant female cat. I don’t know why, but it seemed so funny to me at the time. Like so funny I would stop and look up at the ceiling thinking: “Oh man, this is gonna be so great when the others hear this aloud. Like ‘Land Shark’ for a new generation.”

Among some of the writers were Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, Rachel Dratch, and Tina Fey. It was a pretty awesome group, especially because a Tina sighting was rare back then, since she was editing her pilot (which was the pilot for 30 Rock). While they all talked and goofed around, I sat at the table listening and smiling and saying nothing, like an upbeat foreign exchange student who spoke very little English.

The last time I had felt like that was when I was in ninth grade and I would have to wait after school in the eleventh-graders’ student center for my brother to get his stuff so he could drive us home. I stood there smiling like an idiot, just excited to be in the presence of all these cool older people. “Stop smiling so much,” my brother said to me once when he came to get me. “You look like a maniac.”

I cowrote one bit that made it to air. It was a segment for Weekend Update where Chad Michael Murray was talking to Tina and Amy about why he needed to get married so much instead of just date women. Because even though he doesn’t affect anyone in the slightest, I simply felt Chad Michael Murray needed to be satirized! Will Forte played the part valiantly. That might have been the most unnecessary little piece of comedy ever to grace Saturday Night Live. “Mom, Dad, I wrote a sketch for SNL. I’ll explain who Chad Michael Murray is later.”

My Bill Hader pregnant cat sketch got read at the table and went over so poorly I remember wondering if I should fake meningitis so that I could blame that for such a bad sketch. Or if I could, at all, play it off as so ironically terrible it was good. What? I’m not hipster enough for that? I started writing my agent an e-mail asking if I could leave after my first week there. I was literally in the middle of writing it when I heard a knock on my and Kristen’s door. It was Amy Poehler.

ME: Hi. Kristen is on the stage, I think, but I can leave her a message.

AMY: Oh, I wanted to talk to you.

Amy went on to ask if I was going to go out with some of the writers and actors after work. I nodded yes, which was a huge lie. I had planned on sprinting back to the Sofitel (where they were putting me up a few blocks away) and falling asleep watching the syndicated That ’70s Show, which I had done every night since I landed in New York. But Amy, being warm, prescient, Amy, said knowingly, “Why don’t I just wait here for you and we can walk over together?”

Everyone has a moment when they discover they love Amy Poehler. For most people it happened sometime during her run on Saturday Night Live. For some it was when she came back to the show in 2009, nine months’ pregnant, and did that complicated, hard-core Sarah Palin rap on Weekend Update.

I first noticed Amy when I was in high school and I saw her on Conan’s first show. She was in a sketch playing Andy Richter’s “little sister Stacey.” Stacey had pigtails and headgear and was obsessed with Conan. As a performer, she was this pretty little gremlin, all elbows and blond hair and manic eyes. As a teenager, I tracked her career as best I could without the Internet, and was overjoyed when I saw she had become a cast member on Saturday Night Live. I loved when she played Kaitlin, with her cool stepdad, Rick.

But when this popular, pretty genius made this kind gesture to me? That’s the moment I started adoring Amy Poehler. She knew I was going to be a coward, and she was going to have to gently facilitate me into being social. We walked over on Forty-ninth Street with a big group of people and Amy asked me about my life in L.A. I told her, super self-conscious about seeming nervous. This was the woman who, ten years earlier, had inspired me to keep my parents up until 1:00 a.m. to watch her on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. When I said something even a little bit funny, Amy cackled warmly. (This sounds weird, but that’s the best way I know to describe Amy Poehler’s laugh: a warm, intoxicating cackle.)

The evening that followed wasn’t especially memorable. Many of her friends reasonably expected to talk to her, so I didn’t get precious one-on-one Amy time. I had also forgotten to bring cash and had to borrow twenty dollars from a writer I barely knew. But I stayed the second week at SNL. Antonio Banderas was hosting, and at the read-through, I presented a new sketch. This hilarious sketch was about identical twins who were reunited when their parents died in the rubble when the Berlin Wall fell. After an almost laugh-free reading, Antonio looked over to his assistant, befuddled, and said, “Theese? Theese makes no sense to me.”

All the humiliation was worth it for the one shining moment when Amy Poehler proposed we walk a few blocks together, late at night, in New York City in 2006.