'SNL' writing team Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider discuss the episode highlight, and what it's like to work for the series during election season
With Larry David at the helm, the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live was one of the strongest from this season, right from the opening monologue, in which David attempted to ground viewer expectations.
But the standout sketch of the evening was easily “Bern Your Enthusiasm,” a pitch-perfect Curb Your Enthusiasm parody that had David reprising his Bernie Sanders impression alongside Curb characters Jeff (played by Bobby Moynihan), Susie (Cecily Strong), Leon (Jay Pharoah), and Marty (Taran Killam). Cast members Leslie Jones and Aidy Bryant played women who David-as-Sanders crossed during the episode, resulting in the Vermont senator’s loss in Iowa. (In reality, Sanders lost Iowa too, but did win at the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday night.)
“We thought the impressions for the cast were so fun, and a lot of them were dead-on,” writer Sarah Schneider tells EW. “Susie Essman and J.B. Smoove are such great impressions, and that’s when you would use them,” adds SNL partner Chris Kelly, in explaining why the sketch show didn’t onboard David’s Curb costars for cameos. “It was more fun for us.”
Below, Kelly and Schneider — also the team behind your favorite musical sketches — reveal how the show highlight came together, whether Sanders himself was always destined for the “Steam Ship,” and what it was like to have David drop by Studio 8H.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Larry has such a genius comedy mind, and he used to write for the show — what was it like working with him?
CHRIS KELLY: He was my favorite host I’ve ever had.
SARAH SCHNEIDER: We didn’t really know how it would be to work with him just because he did Seinfeld, he did Curb … he did some of our favorite things. We were like, “He could come in with the biggest ego, the biggest head about comedy,” and he wasn’t like that. He was a great collaborator. He was easygoing and nice and not the grumpy guy that you would think he might be.
KELLY: Yeah, he was super funny, super nice. It was the best experience. All week last week me and Sarah kept saying, “This is the best week! This is my favorite week here!”
You guys were at the helm of the “Bern Your Enthusiasm” sketch, but what was Larry’s involvement in it? What did he add to the writing process?
KELLY: It was pretty collaborative. He knew he wanted to do something with Curb Your Enthusiasm, obviously — he created the whole show. When he came in on Tuesday [Feb. 2], me and Sarah pitched him the idea that Bernie lost the election by such a small amount, and wouldn’t it be funny to see a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode where Bernie was systematically rude to four or five people and those people cost him the vote? We pitched him that idea, and then he came in and kept pitching, and added to that.
SCHNEIDER: He did the cough and the handshake.
KELLY: Yeah, we just all pitched in on it together. He was super collaborative, and then Sarah and I wrote it up. On set we did it as scripted with a little bit of improv from Larry, too, because that’s what they do on Curb Your Enthusiasm. It was a very cool, collaborative process.
SCHNEIDER: We know the show very well but we knew that we needed Larry to okay the arc and the plotline because it’s so his style and tone. Once we had that okay’ed by him, we felt good to write the script.
How did the popper bit come to be? That exchange with Aidy [Bryant] is so uniquely Larry David.
KELLY: It was half-written, and then we just said, “Let’s shoot this long and keep improvising.” If there were four lines about popping in the script, him and Aidy would improvise, like, 20.
SCHNEIDER: I think we pitched him the idea that one of his supporters was hit by a car, and then he said it would be funny if he was grossed out by the injury. And then we wrote 10 lines of, “Pop it back in,” “I can’t pop it back in,” “Just pop it back in.” [Laughs]
KELLY: It was very much us trying to write in the tone of Curb and Seinfeld and Larry David’s voice and hoping that it was right. Any time we’d write something and he would be like, “Good!” we’d be like, “Oh, my God.”
Were there other Bernie Sanders scenarios that the writing team had tried but revised or cut? I think people were surprised to see him in the Titanic [“Steam Ship“] sketch. [Note: Schneider and Kelly did not write the sketch.]
SCHNEIDER: We hadn’t written anything, but I think there were one or two ideas that didn’t make it to the show.
KELLY: We knew on Monday that we were going to write a Curb Your Enthusiasm parody, but we didn’t know what the take would be because we needed to wait and see what the Iowa results were going to be. So I think we all went home being like, “Let’s watch the results, see what they are, and then use that to inspire a take.”
Is it ever weird to meet the real-life candidates when you’ve been exaggerating their flaws for comedic effect all season?
KELLY: It’s weird. When Hillary was here we wrote a sketch with her and for her.
SCHNEIDER: We spent time with her.
KELLY: For this week with Bernie, he wasn’t in our sketch. He was in a different sketch so we didn’t really work with him. But Sarah and I made a point to be like, “Well we want to introduce ourselves. We write your character!” But it is weird to go up to someone and say, “We write your character.” I’m sure he’s thinking, “I’m a person.” [Laughs] It was cool and weird to meet him.
SCHNEIDER: He was really nice.
And you two also head up the Democratic debate sketches. Did you ever think that in your career you’d be so closely following politics?
SCHNEIDER: Absolutely not. [Laughs]
KELLY: I did a little bit. I mean, I didn’t think I’d be writing politics on SNL or anything, but I’m obsessed with politics. I love it.
SCHNEIDER: I came into this job very disillusioned with politics. Didn’t really enjoy it, didn’t follow it. But then we [did the sketch] with Kate and Hillary, and that was sort of the impetus for me to start following and writing politics. Now I enjoy it. It was a surprise for the arc of my life.
KELLY: It’s also exhausting to follow politics. It might be very cynical and it’s exhausting and tedious and it makes you kind of sick after a while. It’s nice that we have to force ourselves to watch it, but then we get to write something funny out of it. So something good comes from having to slog through all that crap sometimes.
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What is it like writing for SNL during the last push in an election year?
KELLY: It’s exciting. I remember before I was even at SNL, just watching the 2008 election — and even the elections before that — and thinking, “What an exciting place to work, especially during election season.” It’s very cool and surreal to be going through that ourselves.
SCHNEIDER: We were here for the last election, and I think we were still fairly new. It didn’t seem to be as exciting. It was just Mitt Romney, since it was Obama’s second term as president. We missed the John McCain election when we came in. This one actually feels like people really care about it. It’s going to be a new president regardless. It’s more exciting to be here for this one.
SCHNEIDER: A million deaths. We’d known for a couple of months because they had her booked so early. We were privately on Cloud Nine for many months. Her album came out and we listened to it immediately, and she had a concert the week of that show. We just loved her.
KELLY: It was a very Adele-centric week. Writing sketches came like second or third or fourth. We would write a page of a sketch and then pull up her “When We Were Young” video and watch it.
Finally, Melissa McCarthy is the next host. Have you guys started writing for that yet? Anything you can share?
KELLY: As soon as we hang up we have to start figuring something out. Give us some ideas! But it’s always a good show with her.
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