Mike O’Brien on Tasty Radio and Saturday Night Live

Comedy Features Saturday Night Live
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With 2015 almost over, we want to take a few minutes to look back at Mike O’Brien’s year. From The Jay-Z Story video on SNL back in the winter, through his October sketch comedy album Tasty Radio (AKA our third favorite comedy album of the year), to his surprise revival of 7 Minutes in Heaven just this very morning, the guy’s kept us entertained throughout the entire year. He’s best known for his time as a writer and one-season cast member on SNL, but with Tasty Radio he’s established himself outside that show’s sometimes limiting legacy. O’Brien called us from Los Angeles shortly before Tasty Radio’s release to talk about that record and his SNL career, and we learned that, like almost every other high schooler from the early 1990s, O’Brien was a big fan of Adam Sandler’s sketch album They’re All Gonna Laugh at You.

Paste: What are you doing out on the West Coast right now? Isn’t there a TV show that you work on in New York happening Saturday night?

Mike O’Brien: There is but I’m not staff writing anymore, meaning every day all day. I’m gonna do some of the videos that I did last year but I just fly in when I do that.

Paste: Were you staff writing last year or just doing the videos?

MO: Staff writing, full time. If there wasn’t a video that week I’d just help with the live sketches.

Paste: Cool. So hey, let’s talk about Tasty Radio. Why did you want to make a sketch comedy album in 2015?

MO: Well it almost sounds accusatory when you say it that way. I’m not sure if it’s a good idea. You have a good point. I grew up loving sketch comedy album. I think the first one I heard was probably the Adam Sandler one when I was in high school and then when I got older I found out about older ones like Nichols and May and got obsessed with those. I’ve kind of had it in the back of my head forever. I started recording these in 2011, 2012, somewhere around there, and it was like the amount of ideas me and friends were generating, both when I was an improviser in Chicago and a writer at SNL, there were so many of them, more than could be used at Second City or at SNL. So all these side ideas that I loved, I thought, well, we could do an album like Sandler did where it’s just a bunch of friends getting together and recording it and getting some of these [sketches], especially the ones that aren’t that visual, out there in the world.

Paste: That first Sandler album came out when I was 15 and it was so huge for my friends. We’d sit around and listen to it over and over. I was playing Tasty Radio in the Paste offices the other day and realized that was maybe the first time I’ve listened to a comedy record with other people since I was in high school. When’s the last time you listened to a comedy record with your friends?

MO: That makes me so happy because that’s exactly what I pictured. The last time I did that a lot would’ve been those Sandler albums, also in high school, around the same age. I have one distinct memory of it: my friend had gotten it before I had. He picked me up and drove to a movie and we were like a half-hour early so we just sat in the car, listening to it, and dying laughing. It sounds like a story from like 1955 but it was ’95 or something. More recently, maybe we would’ve done, I shared an office at SNL for four years with Jason Sudeikis and I remember a couple times where we found some Nichols and May that we hadn’t heard where they’re improvising, at the end of an album or something, I had heard it before but didn’t remember it, and we listened to the whole thing. It is so much fun to have as a social thing. Most of the time you do only music socially but it’s fun to do comedy socially. A couple of times I’ve played this old Woody Allen stand-up album I have when people are over and it’s like weird for a minute. People have to get used to “we’re just going to sit and listen to comedy and we’re both going to kind of laugh at the same time but we’re both just looking at the wall.” After a couple of minutes it’s really fun. I hope people do that [with Tasty Radio].

Paste: Nichols and May and Firesign Theatre are mentioned in the press release, along with Sandler. What specifically do you like about those three?

MO: I like the non-visual talent. It seems like it would hold you back but it also can be freeing. Sandler had the hilarious one where the dudes hang out with the talking goat all the time and you could fill that in perfectly in your mind without seeing whatever the technology of the time would have produced as a talking goat, or having to make it animated or whatever. You can make it perfect in your mind when you fill in the visual.

With Nichols and May I love how rounded it is and what good actor they are. You can really imagine the facial expressions that go with it. Their patient, grounded but still hilarious pacing, which is obviously very different than what Sandler was doing with some of his more upbeat and musical based stuff—I love that about theirs and it went real in line with the training we’ve had at Second City and other places in Chicago.

Paste: Cool. So again, Nichols and May and Firesign Theatre: that’s obviously before your time. Every time I talk to a comedian they are, for lack of a better term, big comedy nerds. They go back and find things from before their time, the way record collectors do. Have you ever worked professionally with anybody in comedy who doesn’t care about the past?

MO: That’s a funny question. I don’t know. I guess they wouldn’t really bring it up, and I haven’t accidentally busted someone on that. I think it just naturally happens, to musicians as well. You ask a musician who their favorite people to listen to are, they usually will say, of modern people, it’s my three friends who I like toured with and stuff, otherwise they go back 30, 40, 50 years, and it’s similar with comedians. If you get immersed in it and it’s all you do all day every day, you don’t end your day by watching five sitcoms that are currently popular. Something about going back in time, having a little distance between it, is easier to do than watching contemporary people. I don’t know the psychology behind that but it seems to be pretty across the board that everybody loves to listen to older music and comedy if they’re currently immersed in it. That’s true of me and a lot of my friends. All my stand-up friends have a Richard Pryor album that they list as their favorite comedy thing as opposed to, you know, an equally hilarious one from last year.

Paste: When it comes to writing, when you’re doing sketch comedy for an album, and you know it’s just going to be an auditory experience, how do you approach the writing differently than when you’re writing for a TV show?

MO: It’s hard. You have to try to enjoy that anything can happen as opposed to thinking of the things that can’t happen. You do butt heads against things that can’t happen, though. You can’t help but at some point to be like “and he’ll just silently move closer to her” and I know from other things I’ve done that that could get a laugh right there, but well they don’t know he slid closer to her. That’s a visual. And some of them were full visual and audio, a full live sketch written with that in mind, and had to be adjusted to only audio. Some of them were even tried at SNL table reads and totally ready if need be to be a thing that you would see as well. And then when you’re like okay if we knock out seeing anything what do we have? You’ll have to write sometimes the opening explanation differently. “Imagine me having a big bushy mustache, I’m an older guy in this one.” You have to make sure they’re on board with what’s going on since you can’t explain everything with a clear, quick visual.

Paste: What do you prefer?

MO: Both. There are things that I like better doing this way. There are a whole bunch of sketches that wouldn’t work at all. The Jay-Z Story, a video I made at SNL, wouldn’t work as audio only. You have to see I’m a big dorky white dude otherwise it doesn’t make sense.

Paste: Talking about SNL: You said you’re going to be doing more videos this year. I realize this is a similar question to what I just asked you about the writing. You have the experience as a cast member—which I personally was bummed to hear it was coming to an end so quickly, because you were funny doing live stuff too—what do you prefer? Do you prefer writing? Doing live sketches? Making videos? What’s the most personally satisfying for you?

MO: The most satisfying would be writing and performing in your own ideas but having it be as collaborative as possible, too. Not that I totally enjoy… I’m a little bit of a control freak with some of my comedy, so I kind of like wearing all the hats I can, and certainly will probably do that at times in the outside world, but it’s always more fun, and I think a better project, if you write it with someone, and you get three other cast members involved, and they’re adding funny little improvised things. And the director for those video shorts, guys named Matt and Oz, and you’re collaborating, they have an idea of how this could be funnier, if we shot it this way. And having lots of friends come when you’re editing it and chiming in. That feels like the best of that building, that there’s so many funny people around. Initially my kneejerk reaction might be that I love writing and performing, trying to get my idea out there as close to its origin in my brain as possible, but really, even better than that is kind of giving it up to the group, and having a team product that you couldn’t come up with on your own.

Paste: When you were hired as a cast member, when you saw that they were bringing so many people on at once, did y’all know it was going to be a weird last man standing death match tournament thing to see who got to stay on?

MO: I think so. We didn’t say that all the time but obviously we were like, “this is a lot of dudes. I doubt we’re just going to have a cast of 30.” It was only slightly annoying when I’d look at the internet and it’d be like “god, so many dudes! so many white dudes!” I was like, “well, hold on just a minute, I’m not positive we’re all here forever.” Day to day, that wasn’t a concern. I’m still close friends with all the other guys, so it obviously didn’t hurt our relationships. Luckily.

Paste: You mentioned the internet. Do you check out what people are saying about you and your work?

MO: Not really anymore. SNL will rid you… at first you’re addicted to it, because you’re so excited that this silly idea you came up with in the middle of the night on Tuesday is out in the world in a much bigger forum than when I was doing live theater in Chicago. Now five million people saw it, and what did they all say? So you get up Sunday morning all excited and the first couple of great, they loved it, and then you get to a third one, and especially when you get to one that’s true, that strikes at a truth you were worried about, you were worried something was a little long or slow paced and you read that one that’s like “so boring, fell asleep,” and you’re like “I knew it,” it confirms your worst fear. That stinks. I can’t enjoy the good ones unless I give the bad ones weight so I just kind of avoid it. If really funny people I look up to text me, those are the best ones to get anyway, because if those people liked it I don’t care what the reviewers or some mean… I was going to say fan, but SNL’s got a lot of people who I don’t think call themselves fans. They’re just very vocally angry about it, but they demand to watch it.

Paste: With every community of super fans, you have those people who just now hate it, but for whatever reason they still watch it and talk about it, but now hate everything about it.

MO: They were never told of this other option, which is NOT watching it.

Paste: Those people… I mean, we sometimes write negative reviews of the show, but those people who are like “they had all summer and THIS is what they came up with?” Like you spend all twelve weeks writing this one episode.

MO: They’d have to pay us for that.

It feels more attackable, and I kind of get that. It’s an institution. It’s forty years of strength and fame and producing famous people. It’s been at the center of the comedy world for forty years. But the current performers on it aren’t a forty year institution. They’re just figuring out how to be on TV. It both warrants that kind of criticism but… I think there’s an anger and a meanness to this particular one that isn’t remembering that this was a performer at UCB or Second City or the Groundlings a year ago who is still figuring out “oh I have to turn this way when this word happens because the camera is over here, I haven’t really worked with live TV performing in my life,” and people are like “what is this idiot! They suck.” Give ‘em a year, they’ll probably kill it.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.