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Maya Rudolph's Retro Reboot

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Fred Armisen, Andy Samberg, Chris Parnell, and a swarm of other performers are buzzing around backstage, quick-changing into tuxes, old-timey vendor uniforms, and giant foam letters. Saturday Night Live godfather Lorne Michaels is watching from the wings. And Maya Rudolph steps onto the stage in a flowing pink dress and warns: “I hope you’re all wearing socks, guys — because they’re about to get blown off!”

The audience roars, and as the cameras start filming, she says: “Hello, everybody! I’m Maya Rudolph and I’ll be your host for the next hour…” Pause. “That doesn’t sound right. There must be a better way to introduce myself…” A sprinkling of keyboard chords. “My name’s Maya, I’m an actress and mother as well/I’ve got four children lovely and sweet,” she sings. “I spent seven great years on SNL/And in Bridesmaids I pooped in the street…” She rips off her dress, revealing a shinier one, and shimmies through an overstuffed number that involves Laker Girls, plate spinners, and…a farm animal. What follows next are more songs, impressions, sketches, a weird dance-off, and this thought: Sometimes the best way to blow off some socks is to slip on a comfy old pair of your own.

Maya Rudolph is back — not just on TV but in her happy place, surrounded by SNL pals, spectacle, and silliness. Airing May 19 on NBC, The Maya Rudolph Show is a one-time variety special, but should America clap loudly enough, more installments will likely arrive next season. Although recent attempts to pull off this type of feel-good throwback programming didn’t stick (Rosie Live, Osbournes: Reloaded), Rudolph — an SNL vet who scored with incisive impersonations (Donatella Versace, Oprah), bizarro characters (the avant-garde European art dealer Nuni), and powerful pipes — is armed with a funnier, more versatile pedigree. Good luck trying to get the self-described “two and three-quarters threat” to see it that way. “The thing about me is that I don’t have a lot of moves. Like, this is my move,” Rudolph, 41, says self-effacingly, which is how she says many things. “It just kind of was the right time to do the only thing I know how to do. I wasn’t stroking a hairless cat, like, ‘I know what I’ll do next!’

Comedy and music have always been in Rudolph’s lap. The daughter of singer Minnie Riperton and composer/producer Richard Rudolph, little Maya would weasel her way into her parents’ bed by faking tummy aches so she could steal a peek at SNL. Their L.A. house was often filled with friends and jam sessions. (Her mother died of breast cancer when Rudolph was 6.) She’d binge on variety series such as The Carol Burnett Show and The Gong Show. She took piano lessons, appeared in school musicals, and after graduating from UC Santa Cruz wound up as a keyboardist/backup singer in the Rentals, an alt-rock band fronted by ex-Weezer bassist Matt Sharp. “They needed someone who could play the keyboard and sing harmony…and I’d just gotten out of college. I wasn’t doing anything else,” she says matter-of-factly, which is how she says almost everything else. “I always fantasized that I’d play music, but I also fantasized that I’d be a professional goofball.”

Fantasy became reality when, as a member of the L.A. improv group the Groundlings, she drew the attention of SNL. Her well-received run lasted from 2000 to 2007, when she departed to raise her first of four children with director Paul Thomas Anderson. The decision wasn’t easy. “When I first left and my friends were still on it, I was mourning it for a long time,” says the comedian, who’s since returned occasionally. “If Lorne ever heard I’d be near the building, he’d always manage to wrangle Rudolph into a wig and a costume, because they know she’ll never say no. I felt like the ghost of 8H. I couldn’t leave.”

When Rudolph wasn’t popping up as Beyoncé or Whitney, she was on the big screen in indie dramedies (Away We Go, Friends With Kids), broad shtick (Grown Ups, MacGruber), and the ultimate broad hit, Bridesmaids. “We laughed our asses off,” she says of the shoot with SNL costar Kristen Wiig. “The day of the shower where I had to yell at Kristen about bleaching our anuses, I’d had a couple kids by then, and I did pee in my pants. Like, pretty hard. The force of using my diaphragm made me pee in my Spanx.”

After visiting the dry cleaners, she signed up for another Michaels-produced series, NBC’s Will Arnett/Christina Applegate comedy Up All Night, on which she starred as a self-consumed talk-show host. Alas, the sitcom soon ran into ratings trouble and began, says Rudolph, “dying a slow and painful death,” as it was revamped in futility before being axed in 2013. Rudolph had previously told Michaels she’d love to do a variety show; fortunately, he and NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt had been chatting about reviving the dormant format. “I kept saying the only person I knew who could do it is Maya,” recalls Michaels, who’s exec-producing the special. “The other forms are too small for her. I mean, her in a sitcom is fine, but nothing can contain her. You want to see her sing, see her dance. You wouldn’t have Adele sing backup. That would be a waste.”

In November 2013, NBC ordered The Maya Rudolph Show as a pilot, and as Rudolph began sketching out her new project, some old friends popped into mind: “I said, ‘I can’t imagine doing it without Fred. That was, like, rule number one. Get Fred. Okay, now we’re doing a show.” Armisen, who praises her savant-like gift for accents and celebratory-not-cynical comedy POV, signed on immediately. “That’s like someone asking, ‘Would you like to eat a really amazing dessert?'” he says. She also recruited fellow SNL alums Samberg and Parnell (as well as director Beth McCarthy-Miller), plus Sean Hayes, Kristen Bell, and Craig Robinson. “In the same way I fell in love with the original cast of SNL — they looked like a group of friends I wanted to hang out with — in the same way I saw Carol [Burnett], Tim Conway, and Harvey Korman f—ing cracking each other up, I’m with people that I love who make me laugh like nobody else,” she says. “There’s nothing that translates more genuinely than that.”

Those close to Rudolph believe her skills translate perfectly to this genre. “She destroys,” says Samberg. “The second it started, just her sitting on the stage singing, I remember standing with Fred and Sean and looking at the monitor and us going, ‘Yeah. This is exactly where she should be.’ All is right in the world when Maya is center stage, holding court.”

You can find her in plenty of other places, too. She filmed a small role for Anderson’s noir comedy-thriller Inherent Vice, will voice a lead in the Disney animated film Big Hero 6, and will guest-voice on Seth Meyers’ Hulu animated series The Awesomes. Oh, yes, she also sings in a Prince cover band, Princess. (She once met Prince backstage before she performed. “You know how sometimes you meet your heroes and you’re like, ‘Well, there goes that. No more boner for me’? Still got a boner.”) Right now, though, she’s just grateful that her variety-show taping went smoothly. “When I used to do SNL and I’d be nervous for a sketch, I tended to look very calm when I wasn’t,” she says. “But this time, I was calm because I was happy…. Everything fell into place. It could’ve been a s— show…but it wasn’t.” She nods her head and smiles. “That’s a great way to look at things, Maya. It could’ve been a s— show — but it wasn’t.


Andy Samberg on Maya
“It’s the musicality in her performance. Not just that she can sing, and that she can sing funny as well, but that everything she does feels like music. When you’re in the rhythm of it, it feels like you’re in a ‘groove’ of the funniness, and Maya just lives in that groove. She finds a laugh better than anyone I’ve ever met.”

Fred Armisen on Maya
“My favorite SNL memory was me and Maya writing something that did not go to air, and it was the hardest I laughed in that building. Ever. The joke was that Lindsay [Lohan, the host] was introducing each band member and saying crazy things about them. Maya just started making up stories with no punchline… like the bassist or whoever ‘lies about weird things — like, his father works for Keebler and we can get free cookies, but it’s totally a lie.’ I thought I wasn’t going to be able to inhale anymore because I was laughing so hard…. That story will never be as funny on paper. I don’t care.”

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