Creative Control Among the Chaos: Writing for Saturday Night Live
Chris Kelly talks about his work as a writer on Saturday Night Live, Broad City, Funny or Die, and The Onion News Network.
By Michelle Houle.
Chris Kelly joined the writing staff of Saturday Night Live in September 2011. During his tenure on the show, Kelly has written “(Do It On My) Twin Bed”, “The Beygency”, “Dyke and Fats”, “Wishin’ Boot”, amongst others.
For the music video sketch, “(Do It On My) Twin Bed”, Kelly received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics along with fellow collaborators Sarah Schneider, Kate McKinnon, and Aidy Bryant.
Coming off his Emmy nomination, Kelly was promoted to Writing Supervisor at the start of this season. SNL aired its 40th Anniversary Special on Sunday, February 15th.
Creative Screenwriting talked to Kelly about his work on Saturday Night Live, Broad City, Funny or Die, and The Onion News Network. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How much creative control do you have over your sketches?
A lot of creative control. SNL is so great because you as the writer of the sketch are also sort of in charge of helping produce it throughout the week.
Basically you’re in charge of running it throughout the week so you kind of help pick the costumes, you help dictate what you think the hair should look like. You sit in on the edit with the editor and the director and you give your input.
It’s a really cool show because you really get to see a vision through from beginning to end. So for better or for worse when the sketch goes up it’s your sketch that you had a huge hand in. If it’s a success, you feel great, and if it’s not, you’re like okay, well that’s on me too. Obviously with that being said, there are truly a thousand people who make the sketch so much better.
The directors Matt [Villines] and Oz [Rodriguez] have so many great ideas for shooting it and make it all happen in such a short amount of time and made it look so cool. They also edited it and there’s so many people who watch a cut of it and give you feedback.
But as a writer it’s really fun ’cause it’s not like selling a movie. You might sell a movie and then you never are there when it’s shot and you don’t get to see it made. There’s other TV shows where you’re writing as they’re shooting so you may be stuck in the writer’s room while they’re shooting your episode.
It’s a little more disjointed but SNL is fun ’cause you really get to see your things through all week.
Are there a lot of revisions that are made at the last minute?
Oh, for sure. Very, very last minute. I can think of tons of examples down to the last second. I wrote a sketch called The Beygency with Sarah [Schneider] which was a video, another pre-taped sketch. That one was truly down to the wire experience in terms of editing. That was another example of a fun week and everyone, directors and editors, made it look so much better than I could have imagined.
It was certainly just a tremendous feat to pull off in such a short of amount of time and we were editing it right up to the wire. Between dress and air, we were told you have to cut 20 seconds out of this which is a huge feat when you only have an hour-seconds is a lot of seconds.
And then all the computers crashed 30 minutes before air-
I had read about that. That is so scary.
Yeah, so it was just one of those things where I think we ended up cutting 8 or 9 seconds because we just didn’t have enough time and we were just hoping they didn’t cut it out. You’re hoping all these things, and you’re hoping you made the right decision and it’s very scary in the moment. Once you do it enough you realize that it somehow always works out.
I’m sure I’m cursing myself for something in the future but it is truly astounding what the editors and directors and everybody can pull off in minutes.
Is the amount of creative control you have at Saturday Night Live similar to the amount you had at the The Onion?
Yes and no. It’s definitely different. It’s nothing like Saturday Night Live. The Onion has such a very specific voice. Anything you’re writing needs to be in the voice of The Onion-sort of hard, mean, cutting edge, like an all knowing, newspaper like Newsday. Any job you work at or show you work on you have to figure out a way to match the voice of the show you’re working on. It’s your own voice in there as well, but hopefully they overlap enough that you can successfully write for that.
And SNL’s the same way. The difference between The Onion and Saturday Night Live is SNL allows for different groups of writers to get different types of voices on the show. As opposed to servicing the big overarching voice of The Onion.
That being said, back when I worked at The Onion, I started there when the first videos were being made back in 2007.
There was a really ragtag group of people. It was a very small crew and so I was the locations director as well and I also was the 1st AD on set. I was writing, and I eventually started directing episodes. One of our writers was also the casting director, and so it was good because we all got to learn a lot. We had our hands in every part of the pot.
It was like going to grad school for writing because it was my first writing job that I sort of lucked into. I started as an intern at The Onion and sort of scrambled my way up but it truly was like a great grad school of writing because it was a hard place to write for and they’re brilliant there. Everything they make is so good and I think their voice is so strong at The Onion. It was really fun and hard and rewarding to slowly but surely learn how to write for them.
I read your article on Splitsider about how you started out as an intern. The Onion doesn’t usually hire their interns. That’s really cool that you were able to work your way up.
Yeah, it was definitely fun. I knew it was rare. I wanted to be a writer. When you’re hiring an intern or a PA oftentimes you’re just hiring somebody to move boxes from one place to another. You don’t want someone who’s constantly going to be like, “I also have a script, would you like to read my script?” Not that everybody does that, but it’s kind of a stereotype that that might happen.
I was very aware, which I will give myself credit, for not to really let anybody know that that’s what I wanted to do and I was applying.
I kept my head down and kept my writing aspirations to myself. Once I ingratiated myself to people I slowly but surely started being like, “Hey maybe I can pitch a joke or two.”
You started working at Funny or Die the day after Osama Bin Laden was killed. That must have been interesting.
It was, I mean it ended up being good. I left The Onion and I moved to LA for Funny or Die. The night Osama Bin Laden died I was out to dinner with my friends. I think somebody mentioned that you might need to come in to work with a bunch of pitches and jokes.
I was like, “I don’t know, I don’t think they’re gonna expect me to right out the gate to have ideas. I don’t know who’s in charge of that or what but I guess it wouldn’t hurt to come in and pitch just in case.”
It turned out that Will Ferrell was in town and available and they did want to make a quick topical video about it. I just sort of randomly on day one pitched an idea that they liked and my second day I was shooting a video with Will Ferrell as George W. Bush, which was weird and insane.
I felt like I was stealing or something because that was a character I had seen on Saturday Night Live so am I allowed to write for this character?
But it was fine, and he was so great. It was cool and surreal and definitely a good way to start working at Funny or Die right off the bat. Kind of hitting the ground running a little bit.
Could you take me through the process of writing the music video, “(Do It On My) Twin Bed”?
It was sort of like any other sketch. Basically we were just sitting around. I think Kate [McKinnon] or Aidy [Bryant] came in and said, “Hey you know, we were just talking to [Matt and Oz].” Matt and Oz are just incredible. They direct a short every week. I think they were just kind of shooting the shit and talking about anything you think might like to do this week and it had come up that there had never really been like an all-girl music video.
And they thought it would be fun, and so they kind of came back and me and Sarah were talking and I think I randomly pitched the idea of a Christmas song about having sex in your twin bed.
And then we pretty quickly came up with a cool chord that sounded right and then the four of us just sat around and pitched jokes on it all night and just kind of wrote it up.
Kate took it to the table during read-through and we liked it. We never maybe really, really written a song for the show before so none of us really knew what we were doing.
We were kind of winging it and watched examples of songs that we liked and styles that we liked to get inspired. We started coming up with a tune ourselves and I remember we called the music supervisor, [Eli Brueggermann], the guy who puts all the music together for the show.
We hummed the recording into his voicemail at 3:00 in the morning. We did real rough version of it at the table and you just never know how those things are gonna go over.
They picked it on Wednesday and we were shooting it on Friday. They edited it on Saturday and it was up, so it was fun. It was a simple process. Some weeks are easier than others. Some sketches are such a slog because you have to constantly re-write them and sort of a long process and sometimes they’re just fun from the beginning
This was one of those weeks where it kind of all came together in the room and we were enjoying it the whole way, which is nice.
When you first applied for the job on Saturday Night Live you submitted a writing packet?
Yeah, just a normal packet with four or five sketches.
Did they ask you to submit another packet or did they hire you after your first submission? How did that work?
I think I got hired on my third of year of submitting. I had submitted the two years before.
Yeah and then part of moving to LA actually was like had submitted for SNL a couple of times. It’s always been my dream to work there but I had been at The Onion for a while and obviously most TV jobs are in LA.
I submitted twice. I was like you know what, I should probably move to LA and what are the chances I’ll get SNL. So I’ll go out there and I’ll work at Funny or Die which I was excited about and see what happens.
And then I submitted a third time from LA, just on a sort of like, I’m sure this won’t happen, but let’s do it just in case ’cause you’ll kick yourself if you don’t.
I heard that they wanted to meet with me and so I met with Seth Meyers and John Mulaney. I had a little interview, a laid back conversation with them. I waited to hear and I was expecting to get a call from my agent. The twist is that Lorne [Michaels] wants to meet with you now ’cause he’s in LA.
So I’m like, “Oh my god is that good, is that bad?” We had drinks and right away as soon as I sat down he told me that I got hired. I could relax and hang out and talk to him.
It was very nerve racking but then it made for a reveal that I had been hired. It was a very cool, fun, weird experience.
How was your first year on Saturday Night Live?
It was fun. The whole show is such a fun, crazy show. It’s been a very out of body place to work but my first year was fun. I started the year when a lot of people were leaving. I was there during Kristen’s [Wiig) last year and then eventually Andy [Samberg] and Jason [Sudeikis] and Fred [Armisen] and Bill [Hader].
I came sort of at the end of one generation and the beginning of the next, which was definitely fun and cool and very intimidating at first. Because I came into a group of people who had been there for years and years and knew what they were doing.
I had to hit the ground running which I didn’t really do. I kind of sat back and pitched in when I could and tried to get sketches on it was good. It was another one of those feelings where you’re like, “Oh my God I feel like I’m in a master class of writing and performing.”
The first year was intimidating, but definitely fun to get to work with people who you’ve seen on TV for so long.
You and Sarah started writing the same season?
And you both write a lot of sketches together so you must have really clicked.
Oh, yeah totally. I think in that first year or two we would occasionally write with each other and then write with each other more and more and then last year we were pretty much just like let’s do this.
Do you and Sarah have a similar comedic sensibility?
Yeah, we have a similar sensibility. It’s kind of how the show works more or less. I mean not that everybody has to write with the same crew all the time. But you’re writing in such a fast paced environment and people find people that they like to write with.
Groups of two or three will form that have the same sensibility. Everybody has their go to person or two or three people that they like to write with. I mean I certainly like writing with other people too, but she’s great because we have a similar sensibility and we also just know each other so well. We have developed such a shorthand that if I pitch an idea two or three times and she’s not biting she’ll finally just be like, “Chris, no, no, no we’re not doing that one.”
Or vice versa where we can tell each other what we like and don’t like and not worry about hurting each other’s feelings. If I’m stuck on something and I don’t really know how to make it work I just know that she’ll have right answer. It’s just great. She’s truly a lifesaver there. She’s my teammate.
And you guys write a lot with Kate and Aidy it seems. The four of you write a lot of sketches together.
I guess they’re sort of the cast versions of me and Sarah. We all like each other and hang out outside the show. I share an office with Kate and Sarah shares an office with Aidy and so it also just makes it easier ’cause we have the default people we were put with. I knew Kate before the show and we kind of have the same sensibility.
Now when you come you up with an idea, does the writer come up with the idea first or the actor?
There’s no set rule. It’s on a case by case basis. I wouldn’t say there’s one more than the other. It rotates every week. The more you work with each other the more you have an open conversation.
It seems this year there is a lot more emphasis on pre-taped sketches than any other year. There are a lot of video sketches.
I don’t know if there’s more number wise. Maybe there are, I don’t know. I certainly like writing them. I definitely think proportionately I get more videos on than live sketches or at least have more video sketches that I hold near and dear than live sketches I think it’s different for every person.
I came from The Onion and Funny or Die from such a video background that it tends to be our go to.
It’s something we really like doing and we also like being on set. We like the whole process of editing it and being able to refine something before it airs which is maybe cheating. We tend to write a lot of videos ’cause we like it. But I don’t know it’s kind of person by person.
How many sketches do you normally write a week and how many of those make it on air?
It’s different for every person. I would say Sarah and I probably write about four. I would say give or take, maybe it’ll be five. We try to write at least four and we’re writing those all in one night, on Tuesday night into Wednesday morning when they’re due.
I would say one or two [make it on air]. Sometimes on an insanely good week or lucky week you’ll have three on or maybe one or two usually.
Can you walk me through a typical week at Saturday Night Live?
On Monday you go in the afternoon and you pitch ideas to the host. The host is in Lorne’s office and the cast and the writers gather around and pitch ideas. That’s sort of a very loose, casual way to meet the host and have them meet you. You pitch them a couple of joke ideas that you want to write and then everyone goes home. It’s a pretty casual day. Some people kind of stay afterwards and write or maybe brainstorm a little bit to try to get ahead.
Tuesday’s writing night. You write all night with whoever you want and as much as you want. Everything is due Wednesday around noon. I usually stay all night and write straight through. I usually get there Tuesday at 1 p.m. and we write to about noon on Wednesday so almost a full 24 hours.
Then the table read is on Wednesday. The whole cast gathers around the table with Lorne as the host and all the writers sit around too and all the department heads such as costumes, wigs, props. We read all the sketches and then everyone has an hour or two to kind of brainstorm or hang out or talk about sketches while Lorne and the host and the producers pick the show. And if you have a sketch in or a couple of sketches in it’s kind of like being cast in a high school play. You know, like they put up the cast list.
It literally is exactly like that. They tape it to a wall and the ones that are picked are highlighted so it’s very like a high school play. If you are highlighted or a couple of things are highlighted you go back and you meet with all the heads of the departments. You tell them this is what we’re thinking for the wigs and then you get some of their opinions and feedback on what they think would work. You talk about the set design and special effects and basically anything your sketch needs. You kind of get the ball rolling on that stuff.
Thursday you re-write and we block. On Friday we block and then if you have a video in you shoot on Friday.
Saturday is final dress rehearsal. If you have a video you’re editing it and color correcting and doing all the sound mix and stuff then it’s dress rehearsal and the show.
How many sketches are cut from the dress rehearsal to the live show?
It depends. I would say on average maybe 3 or 4. And usually during the live show, we go in like a sketch too long. They might be able to make it, they might not. They’re not sure and then say if there’s a lot of applause that eats up 10 more seconds, that sketch is gonna be cut.
This past year you were writing for Broad City. How was that?
Very great. I wrote on season one and then I also wrote on season two part time in between SNL weeks which was very nice of them to let me do that.
It is the most fun show. I’ve known those girls since Upright Citizen’s Brigade 6 or 7 years ago. I was always such a big fan of the web series. I feel like their web series cut through all the noise of all the web series. It felt like such a strong voice. I just loved it.
I remember always being, “This is special, this is interesting, I love this so much.” When it came time to hire a staff, I’m so grateful that they thought of me. The staff was really small and there were only 5 or 6 of us. We all knew each other and we were all good friends and we all kind of come up through it together.
It’s all very fun and very fulfilling. It was like, “We did it, you guys did it, you pulled a show together and your whole staff is friends.” It was very fun to work on. I just think they have something really special going and I’m excited that I got to work on it.
What do you think the biggest challenge or difference was when you were writing for Broad City compared to writing for Saturday Night Live?
I’d come from The Onion and Funny or Die and SNL so I had only ever written short form sketches. It was fun to write an episode and write a story. I guess it was a slight challenge ’cause I’d never written in that medium of TV before.
I know Abbi [Jacobson] I’m similar to her in some ways. Illana [Glazer] had such a crazy, distinct, fun voice and personality.
It wasn’t challenging so much as it was fun to write in their voices ’cause we’re all friends and have known each other for so long. There weren’t too many challenges. It was a fun, different change of pace.
Would you ever be interested in writing a movie or television pilot?
I’m in the middle of working on a film right now. I’m in the middle of casting which is fun ’cause it’s my first feature. I’m trying to keep busy. Kind of like Broad City I’m trying to write a narrative for the first time.
My first summer after SNL I was like, I should try to write a movie. I don’t know if I know how to do it, but I should at least try to teach myself. I liked the way it turned out. I have been working with producers and trying to get casts attached so I probably shouldn’t talk about it too much ’cause it’s still in the early phases. I’m trying to actually work on a second feature. I’m trying to keep busy and do a bunch of different things and see if it works out.
Do you think of ideas for sketches while you’re on vacation or do you take a break?
Yes and no. I guess I don’t really think about it as much. I’ll try to take a vacation. I don’t like to think of ideas for SNL every single day.
I’m always thinking about it in a stressful way where you’re like, “Oh my God, I’m gonna have to go back in a couple of months, am I gonna be able to think of more ideas, or am I out?” Like next year am I gonna be a complete failure?
But I don’t think about it every single day. I don’t purposely sit down and think of a bunch of ideas. I try to keep a little log for SNL so when the fall comes around I’m not starting completely at zero.
It’s weird. I know my first year I was really good about using those off weeks to come up with ideas and I would come in on Monday with like a thousand brainstorm ideas and I think that was good that I did that.
Usually the ideas that I ended up doing or that I ended up working on the show I kind of came up with at the last minute.
Sometimes that last minute, Tuesday night panic writing kind of insanity breeds the most fun ideas. And also like ones where you have a group of people that you write with a lot just sitting in a room and improvising with them. You just come up with the best ideas that way.
I think all my prep work is good to a point, but this year was the year, because I was able to kind of relax and just go with the flow and more spontaneously write what I thought was funny.
That makes a lot more sense. The best ideas come at the last minute or when you’re within the process rather than when you’re sitting at home thinking of ideas.
Yeah. I mean like me and Sarah have a kind of a running joke where three or four times now where it’ll be one in the morning and one of us will go to the bathroom and then come back from the bathroom and be like, I got it. Then the other person will be like, “Yes, that actually is a really good idea.”
We’ve had three or four bathroom ideas go to the show, which is now when we go to the bathroom we’re like, “Oh my God there’s so much pressure.”
What was your favorite sketch you’ve had so far on the show?
“(Do It On My) Twin Bed” was definitely fun. It was music and dancing. It was a fun thing to shoot. The Beygency was fun too. I really like the videos a lot. I also like directing and being on set and watching it all come together.
Sarah and I also have a sketch with Kate and Aidy called Dyke and Fats.
I wanted to ask you about that. Let’s talk about that.
Yeah, that was fun. That was definitely one where the actors came up with it first and me and Sarah were just lucky to be their friends and be the writers on it. I think it was a joke that they had for a while.
I’m gonna get this wrong, but Kate would be like, “Oh man, Dyke is tired tonight” and then Aidy would be like, “Fats is too.”
And they were just happy for each other. It was sort of the thing they had told us about our second year so it was their first year. I think they were like, “We want to write a cop show called Dyke and Fats.”
Me and Sarah loved it but we were like, “I don’t really know if you’re gonna get a show called Dyke and Fats on the air your first season on the show.”
I was like, “I don’t know if it will ever happen, but maybe when you’re new you shouldn’t put a sketch on the table where you would call out that you’re Dyke and Fats.” So they were like yeah that makes sense.
And so at the beginning of the second year, which was last season, we joked about it. But we should still weigh it, and we would kind of build up momentum of doing some good things on the show. Maybe they’ll let it slide it by, and so we wrote it.
Once it got picked we were like, “Oh my God, I don’t know why they’re doing this, this is insane, this is so funny.” We were so excited, we were literally over the moon, all week.
And all week we were being, “Are people gonna like this? Is this insane? Or is this gonna get cut out at dress, is this gonna go?”
But we were so adamant. We just loved it. We just thought it was so funny and so stupid.
So it was very fulfilling to have it go and when the title came up with Dyke and Fats that’s when people laughed and it was nice.
It was great. It was fun, ’cause it was us four who like to write together. And it was fun because it was Kate and Aidy making fun of a stereotype view about themselves. I don’t know it just felt like a win. I mean I know the girls were really felt proud of it. It was just like a cool, neat, friendship on top of us writing the sketch.
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