Illustration by Hilton Dresden
Ladies and gentlemen, Chris Kelly!
The head writer of comedy crown jewel Saturday Night Live is really having quite the year: in addition to his new gig, which kicks off with Margot Robbie hosting the show’s 42nd season premiere this weekend, Kelly’s highly personal film Other People is now screening in select theaters.
The movie is a heartbreaking, funny work about a New York sketch writer returning home to be with his dying mother, played by Molly Shannon in one of her most powerful roles to date.
BlackBook: I’d love if you could speak about how autobiographical it is, and what made you decide to make the movie?
Chris Kelly: Well, in real life I’m married with a wife and kids. The best way I can describe it is it’s very, very loosely autobiographical. The bones of it are true, the big picture stuff. I’m a comedy writer, I’m gay, I’m from Sacramento, I moved home to be with my mother while she was sick, and she ultimately died of cancer. The big things are true. But then scene by scene, moment by moment, character action by character action – a lot of those things are kind of invented, or changed, or modified.
When did you decide to make a movie about it? Was there a moment that prompted that?
There wasn’t a specific moment, but after my first season of SNL, I had the summer off, and after the year you don’t really know if you’re going to get hired back or not, and I just wanted to write something on my own. I come from a comedy background, and I had only ever written comedy before, and mostly sketch comedy, so I wanted to do something that was more of a sustained narrative, and something tonally – basically I asked myself, If I wasn’t writing under the umbrella of another show, in another show’s voice, what would my voice be on its own?
One of the best things about this movie is its phenomenal cast. There’s Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights, Fargo) in the lead role, an ensemble of improv veterans from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater (where Kelly has long performed and trained) including Zach Woods and Matt Walsh, and blossoming stars like John Early.
What specifically did you see in Molly and Jesse and the leads that made you want them?
Well, Jesse was the first person who said he’d do the movie, and that was a year and a half before we even knew it was going to be a thing. I was truly fascinated by him – I feel like people always say he’s our generation’s Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s such a legitimately fascinating, chameleon-like actor, and it’s true. He just has that “it” factor. Every role he does is a complete 180 from the role before it. Friday Night Lights, to Breaking Bad, to Fargo, to Olive Kitteridge. And then for Molly, I really just wanted – and this is true of a lot of the supporting cast as well – I wanted people who were funny. Specifically for the role of the mother, I just wanted someone who could light up the room, and who was hilarious, and a firecracker, because I really didn’t want the movie to be nonstop sad. I didn’t want it to be a slog. The movie isn’t 100 percent autobiographical, but one of the things I remember about my mom is she was young, and she was funny, and she was smart, and she was loud. She was all these things, and I wanted that to be intact. I was also so aggressively, like, “Molly Shannon will be great in this movie because she will make it so much funnier.” But then over the course of filming it, and editing it, and showing it to people, I realized how much sadder she also made it. Because people were like, “Why would you make Molly Shannon die?”
It’s so sad.
It’s difficult to see Molly Shannon lose her voice. And as much as that sucks to watch, it felt true, because that’s how I felt watching it happen to my mom. It really was a good approximation for how it felt to me, so it felt effective. She’s just wonderful – and she’s the nicest person in the world, too.
And you have some legends in the cast – June Squibb, and you have Matt Walsh, which, just from a UCB standpoint, how amazing.
I felt sort of embarrassed, because we would reach out to these people, and June Squibb is a perfect example of – we sent her the script, and they’d respond with, “June Squibb wants to call and talk about it.” And I felt so silly calling June Squibb to talk about my little movie – she had every right to go, “Of course not! I’m June Squibb!” So every time these people liked the script, or related to it, it was just wonderful. I was so lucky.
One member of the cast people who’ve seen the movie will be talking for weeks is J.J. Totah, a prepubescent boy who nearly steals the show from Shannon with his wild, pseudo-drag dance scene in the middle of the film.
That’s the most unreal performance I’ve seen. Is that autobiographical? Who is that?
J.J. Totah is incredible. That is autobiographical-ish. In my real life experience, with my mother, I had a very close friend who had a much younger family member who moved in – this kind of over the top, very self-sexualized, very confident young child. And this child was very comfortable in his own skin, and it was sort of beautiful. The performance itself was funny, and confident, and provocative, and maybe too sexy for the child’s age. But I do remember just being wowed by it. I remember laughing, and my friend turning to me, and going, “Shut the fuck up. You’re laughing because you’re uncomfortable, and this kid is a million times more comfortable than you’ll ever be.” He cut me down so hard, and it really stuck with me, because I thought, “Oh, shit. That is what I’m doing, by laughing at this.”
One more thing about the cast – Zach Woods and Jesse are both straight in real life. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on casting two straight actors in those two roles.
It was just one by one by one. We didn’t cast them all in a day. And I’ve known Zach for a long time, and he loved the script, which was really nice. And I just thought he would be so good for the role, because he’s funny, but he’s warm, and he has the ability to improvise comedically, but also just naturally. It’s not just improv, joke, joke, joke, joke, joke.
I’ve seen him live, and it’s incredible, what he can do.
He just has a warmth about him, too. And it sounds pretentious, but he just has a sense of “home” about him. I can picture the main character going back and being in bed with Zach Woods and feeling nice and comfortable, and you feel sort of bummed out that it didn’t work between them. It was more about that actor. I was drawn to Zach. So one at a time I just compiled people who I thought could bring something to the role.
Do you have a favorite scene in the movie? A favorite moment?
In terms of being a fan of my actors, I really love the scene where Brad and Molly and Jesse are filing out the end-of-life paperwork and Molly and Brad are fighting about whether she’s going to be cremated or not. From an acting standpoint just watching Molly shift from comedian – teasing her husband, laughing with her husband – and then she’s suddenly upset, and about to cry, and then calms down again. I think that all in one long take, just as a fan of hers, it was fun and overwhelming to watch that.
Kelly began his comedy career writing for The Onion News Network, and went on to work at Funny or Die before eventually getting hired to join the staff of SNL in its 37th season. After five years there, he’s been promoted to head writer, becoming the show’s first openly gay mastermind in history.
Congratulations! Do you feel a lot of responsibility, or pride, with the new title?
It’s very cool. I feel a lot of responsibility just in general. It’s a show that has been around for 42 years, and I don’t take this lightly. There haven’t been hundreds and hundreds of head writers, so I feel the weight of, “I want to do a good job for the show. For Lorne, and for the cast and the writers.” But it’s a huge honor. As a gay writer, but as a writer in general, every part of it is exciting. And I got promoted with my best friend Sarah Schneider. So that’s an extra cherry on top, that I get to do it with her, and we started around the same time and we’re such good friends, so it makes it extra fun.
How did you meet her and become a comedy pair?
We basically met on the show. We didn’t really know each other before. We did one small College Humor video together – I acted alongside her. She played Zelda and I played Link? I don’t even know that stuff well enough to know if I’m saying that correctly. We met one day and shot some random video. But that’s it, we weren’t friends. So the real answer is we met on SNL. And then our first year we didn’t really write together too much – we were in different offices. In your first year you’re just struggling to survive, and figure out what you’re good at and who you’re good at writing with and what works and what doesn’t. I think at the end of the first season we started writing one thing, and it went on the show and it worked. And we wrote together every single week after.
Can you talk about the direction you want to take SNL this season?
Well, I’ve said this before, but it’s only going to be gay now. Every character is gay in a sketch – if you see a waiter in the background, and he doesn’t even have a line, just know he’s gay. No, I don’t really think there is a direction we take the show. It’s a variety show. The show is best when it has a variety of voices.
Favorite host you’ve had, and you’re dream host.
Favorite host is Larry David. It’s sort of a cheat – he was on the show all year last year. Me and Sarah got to write the Bernie Sanders stuff with him. Then when he hosted, we got to do that Curb Your Enthusiasm parody. But even for all the other live sketches – he was so funny, and game for anything. My dream host is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, which already happened. Some people who stand out – Channing Tatum was great. Chris Hemsworth. They seem like typical “guys’ guys,” but they’re not that. They’re so funny, and normal, and they don’t have a deal about them. They were so easy to work with. Everyone just loved them.
Favorite movies that inspired Other People?
Movies that inspired Other People, or that I just like and watch all the time – I really like You Can Count on Me, with Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney. It’s just a very simple brother-sister relationship drama – no bells and whistles, but I think that inspired me a lot. I really like a lot of Alexander Payne movies, like Nebraska and About Schmidt. He does such a good job of showing small town folk and families, and laughing with them. I think Mike White is a huge one – Chuck & Buck, Year of the Dog, which is one of the first things I saw Molly in as a dramatic actor, and thought, “Wow, this is great.”
Would you say there’s been a gay comedian or actor who’s paved the way for you, or are you just doing it on your own?
Mike White is the best example of that, because I love his work, and I admire him – he’s done bigger movies, comedies, but then he’ll take the time to write a really small, private, personal movie like Year of the Dog. His ability to work in all the different spaces really inspires me. I’ve been a huge fan of his for a long time.
Do you feel like it’s still a straight man’s world in comedy, or is everything fine now?
I think it’s somewhere in between. It probably gets better every day and week and month and year. The more LGBTQ people writing and creating and directing, the better it is for everybody. And that’s not just true of sexualities, people of different races, and religions – there’s a million other ways there needs to be more diversity in Hollywood. It’s always strange to think of myself in the macro sense. I think there’s still work to be done, but it is very inspiring to see a little more visibility in characters and scripts. We’re not all done, but we’re moving in the right direction.
What was the first sketch you saw on SNL?
The ones that stick out to me are that era of Molly, and Cheri Oteri. That’s when I was in high school and drawn to the women of SNL. I remember being drawn to the “Morning Latte” sketches with Cheri Oteri and Will Ferrell. I’d transcribe them and then perform them. Or the “Cheerleaders,” or the “Schweddy Balls.”
What’s the hardest you’ve laughed in recent memory?
On Tuesday nights we sit down and write the sketches for that week, and it ends up being me and Sarah and Kate and Aidy in a room all night laughing so hard we become legitimately worried that one of us has peed ourselves.
Watch the trailer for Other People below.
SNL returns to NBC with Margot Robbie and The Weeknd on October 1 at 11:30 PM EST.