This interview was originally broadcast on Aug. 22, 2012.
Comedian Bill Hader is adept onstage and doing live TV. But he’s scared to death of standup.
He remembers watching Chris Rock’s 1996 HBO special, Bring the Pain, and thinking, “I don’t know how people do that.”
“I need a character,” Hader tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “I need people out there with me.”
So Hader has stuck with sketch comedy — where he’s been wildly successful.
He joined the Saturday Night Live cast eight years ago, along with Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg, who’ve since left the show. And he’s garnered quite a bit of attention — including a recent Emmy nomination — for his role as Stefon, an obsessive New York clubgoer and nightlife critic.
“The majority of people come up to me and say ‘I’m a Stefon,’ or ‘I’ve been called a Stefon,’ or ‘I used to date someone like Stefon,’ ” Hader says.
He cites one person who approached him to say he “liked that Stefon was gay, but it’s not the joke that he’s gay.”
Hader and John Mulaney, the SNL writer who co-created the character of Stefon, appreciated that comment, because it meant the viewer got what they were going for.
The joke is “more about how [Stefon’s] doing a bad job and on a lot of drugs,” Hader says.
As a child, Hader loved watching old movies with his family — and he was always interested in what was going on behind the scenes. So when he moved to Los Angeles to begin a career in entertainment, he intended to direct films.
He found work as a production assistant on both low-budget and expensive Hollywood films for nearly four years before joining the sketch-comedy group Second City. Hader was eventually noticed by actress Megan Mullally (formerly of Will and Grace), who recommended him to SNL producer Lorne Michaels.
In 2012, Hader was nominated for an Emmy as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. The last SNL cast member to be nominated in this category was Eddie Murphy in 1983.
On his SNL audition
“I remember getting in the elevator for my audition and there was a guy next to me who had a backpack full of props and wigs and things, and I went, ‘Oh my god, that guy is so prepared, I have nothing, I have no props.’ And that was Andy Samberg. And Andy Samberg said he was looking at me going, ‘Oh, that guy has no props. He doesn’t need props.’ And that was the first time we met, was in that elevator.”
On his love of old movies
“We were a big movie family — even more so than television and books. My grandparents lived next door to us when we were growing up — my mom’s parents — and they were the reading house, and our house was the movie house. And pretty much every night we would watch a movie, especially during the summer, and it was our way of relaxing. …
“A very clear memory I have is watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton. Watching that movie and the scene where he swings down and saves Esmeralda [played by Maureen O’ Hara]. … And I just remember the way it’s shot, you see him way in the background, and then he comes right into frame and picks her up. It’s an amazing shot, and the music kicks in, and I just remember when that happened, my mom gasping behind me and her watching, going, ‘I just love this, I love that moment.’…
“That moment is one of my favorite moments because it’s a great film moment, but I just think of my mom … getting choked up … so that feeling, you just become a junkie for it. I just want that feeling over and over again.”
On moving to Los Angeles and being a production assistant
“I didn’t do anything creative that entire time because I just was like, ‘I need to pay the bills.’ I think that happens to a lot of people, you get out and you kinda go, ‘Oh man, I came here for one purpose,’ and then you get sidetracked with the realities of paying the bills. So I stopped doing that, and said I need a job where I get out at 6 p.m. So I started a job as a post-production assistant on a Lifetime television show and that led to me being an assistant editor. …
“And you know what, I still wasn’t doing anything creative. I was enjoying L.A. and being in my 20s. So my friend said, ‘Hey man, you wanna come see my Level 5 show at Second City?’ …
“And I went there, and that’s when I realized there are people my age performing sketch comedy and performing improv theater, and I said, ‘Oh, I need to be doing something creative. I’ve been here for almost five years and I’ve done nothing creative; I’m gonna do that.”
On how co-writer Mulaney started messing with Hader’s cue cards
“We had a club promoter whose name was Amnesia Bernstein, which we thought was very funny and we did it at the dress [rehearsal], and … it didn’t work. And it was right before air — it’s 10 minutes before we go on to air — and John [Mulaney] said, ‘We need to change that club promoter’s name.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and he said, ‘I’ll think of something, I’ll think of something.’…
“So I run away … and as I was walking out [on set], he said, ‘I changed the club promoter’s name.’ And I said, ‘Oh, great.’ I went out and did it and he changed it to Gay Liotta, and I completely lost it. …
“What I’m seeing is are the camera guys are laughing, the cue cards are shaking because the cue card guys are laughing. Beyond that, I can see some of the writers, I can see Andy Samberg, people against the wall in 8H [the studio where SNLis filmed], they’re all laughing, and then that kind of started it in John’s mind.”