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John Mulaney On Hosting 'SNL': 'I Had No Idea How Hard This Was'

TERRY GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's Emmy week on FRESH AIR, featuring interviews with some of this year's nominees. Let's get back to my interview with former "Saturday Night Live" cast member and writer Bill Hader. He's nominated for five Emmys for his work on "Barry," which he co-created and stars in, and for being an executive producer of "Documentary Now!"

On "Barry," Hader plays a Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan, returned home with PTSD and feels lost with no purpose in life. At the suggestion of a family friend, he puts his war skills to use and becomes a hit man. One of his targets is an acting student, which leads Barry to take acting classes. He falls in love with acting. But an actor is supposed to reveal emotional truths, and it's Barry's job to hide the truth.


GROSS: The first time I interviewed you, I didn't know about this. But apparently, when you were on "Saturday Night Live," you had a lot of anxiety about performing live and even had, like, a panic attack I think while the show was on - while you were...

BILL HADER: Yeah, on the air I had a panic attack.

GROSS: ...Doing a bit playing Julian Assange.

HADER: Yeah, I was doing - playing Julian Assange, I had a panic attack. It was fun (laughter). No...

GROSS: Can you describe what happened then?

HADER: Yeah, I was doing Julian Assange. It was Jeff Bridges hosting. And I don't know what happened, but I suddenly went, I can't breathe. It felt like - it just felt like I was dying. I just - that's the only way I could describe it. It just - the panic - I think it was a bit of exhaustion, and also I've - I'm a very naturally anxious person.

You know, I'm - and in some ways, it's good because when I'm directing a thing, I'm eight steps ahead of things. And I'm trying to make sure things are in order and things like that. You know, we talk about the things that we wish we could change in ourselves. And, you know, I'm very, very anxious, and it could kind of make me slightly isolated or not being in the moment in a thing.

And on "Saturday Night Live," I felt like the majority of my time there - especially in the first half of it, at least - I wasn't in the moment. I was very, very, very nervous - heart palpitations, sweating. I would get dizzy. I would - you know. I remember once it got to the point where I became completely convinced that either a piece of equipment was going to fall on me (laughter) or that someone was going to storm the stage, that someone in the audience was going to run up on stage...

GROSS: Well, that seemed like...

HADER: ...And, like, attack us, you know?

GROSS: ...Unusual things to worry - like, a...

HADER: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it got crazy. It got a little...

GROSS: I thought you'd be worrying about, you know, like, I'm going to forget my lines. I didn't know that you were worrying about...

HADER: No, and you forget your lines and things. It went from that to that. So once I started getting into these other things, and I - you know, I started doing, like, TM. And, you know, you take, you know, medication. You go to a therapist. You know, I really - you know, exercise, changing my diet, I mean, all these things to try to get this under control. And it - you know, it's just acknowledging it, you know? You just kind of go, that's not happening, you know? Relax. But I think it got to a really bad place.

And I think in "Barry," it's not so much the anxiety of it. It was more of this idea that I was naturally good at impressions. And I was telling Alec Berg this when we were just starting, right? And I go, you know, I was always good at impressions. But I - what I always wanted to do was write and direct. I moved out to Los Angeles 20 years ago to be a writer-director. And I was a production assistant, and I did all these things and, you know, in a fluky way, got on "Saturday Night Live."

(Laughter) You know, Megan Mullally saw me in a show, I got on "Saturday Night Live," and I was not prepared for it. And I was saying it's so ironic that all the things I was writing and directing were never really - all the short films I made were never very - that good. And the scripts I were writing was - they were not good. I had a lot to learn. But I could kind of just do impressions. And the irony was that the show I did the impressions on, it was, like, slowly destroying me because of the anxiety of having to perform in front of a bunch of - in front of the nation, you know? I just - it's - I still get - I hosted a year ago, and I was a wreck.

And I told Alec this. And he went, I think that - I think that's the show. It's about a guy who thinks, you know, the thing he's naturally good at's destroying him. But the thing he wants to do, he's not very good at (laughter). You know? And he goes, well, that's an emotion you understand. We can write that.

GROSS: So I have to ask you about your eyes. On "Saturday Night Live," you always - you have very big eyes.

HADER: (Laughter).

GROSS: And you're one of those people who can, like, raise one eyebrow.

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: And on "Saturday Night Live," you always used your eyes great for comic effect. On "Barry," staring into your - like, when I look at your eyes on "Barry," like, sometimes your eyes are saying, like, thousand-yard stare, the scare of a soldier who's seen combat too long. Sometimes it's a stare of someone with just, like, so much existential dread. And sometimes it's the stare of somebody who has just become overtaken by rage and anger. And I wonder if you think about your eyes at all or whether they - it just kind of happens that your eyes communicate so much.

HADER: Yeah, I don't think about it at all. Thanks for saying that. That's a nice compliment. It's funny you say that because I always - there's a funny thing that happened with one of our editors, Kyle Reiter, where we're - we were watching episode four. And I just went, do I have any other facial expressions? (Laughter) I just have the same facial expression this whole show. I just look angry.

And he played this clip, and it's me - he plays the take. I do the take. And then you hear our director of that episode, Liza Johnson, going, that was great, Bill. Do you want to do another one? And I go, no, I'm good. I think we got it. (Laughter) You know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: And he (laughter) - he's like, do - you know, do another take, man (laughter).

GROSS: Did you?

HADER: No. No, I would always do - I always do, like, two takes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: I'm like, did I say everything right? Are we good? OK, let's move on. You know...

GROSS: Is that because you want to save time and money and get everything made on time...

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And all that?

HADER: Yeah. I just am like - I'm - and I mean this. It's hard to talk about this without, like, sounding, like, you know, you're being modest or - I'm quoting Alec on this. Alec is always like - he said, you're the only performer, writer that I know that can't write for himself. I'm - I write best for Sally, NoHo Hank, Cousineau, Fuches. But as far as the Barry stuff is concerned, we're always coming around to Barry kind of last.

You know, episode seven of the season till I think two weeks before we shot it, Barry had no storyline. It was just like, what's he doing? He's just kind of hanging out. And Alec had to be like, Barry has no storyline, and the show's called "Barry." What is he doing?

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: But I was so focused on, you know, Fuches and Cousineau and, you know, Sally and her agent and all these other things that I wasn't even thinking about it. And then we were like, well, what if he got an audition? And then we kind of added that in at the eleventh hour, that whole storyline. And - but yeah, I - I'm the same way as an actor, too. I kind of, like go, is everybody happy with that? OK, we can move on. You know, I'm not precious. I'm weirdly - I like very few - in the edit, I like fewer choices. I kind of like having to be forced to make a decision as opposed to, you know, when I was in my early 20s, these idea - I thought was so romantic that Stanley Kubrick would shoot 150 takes.


HADER: And now I'm like, that's crazy (laughter). Why would you do that? That makes - and now that I've done it, I'm like, wait. That's insane. You know, you don't need to do that.

GROSS: Just watching the takes is going to take forever.

HADER: Yeah, but it doesn't - I think there's this thing of - the directors want actors to stop acting, so they pummel them to death with a lot of takes. And I just feel like that's someone who's not really respecting an actor and also someone that - all you have to say is, hey, could you try this, you know? (Laughter) Could you do less?

GROSS: Bill Hader, it's been great to talk with you again. I regret that our time is up. I look forward to Season 3 of Barry.

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: Thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

HADER: Thank you. This is a huge honor.

GROSS: Bill Hader recorded in June. He's nominated for four Emmys related to the HBO series "Barry" and one for IFC's "Documentary Now!" - on which he's an executive producer. We'll hear from another Emmy nominee, comic John Mulaney, who also got his start on "Saturday Night Live," after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's continue our Emmy week series with another nominee - comic, writer and actor John Mulaney. He spent five years as a writer on "Saturday Night Live," starting in 2008. He and Bill Hader, who we just heard from, co-created the character Stefon. Mulaney returned to host "SNL" twice in the past year. He's nominated for two Emmys for hosting "SNL" and two for his work on IFC's "Documentary Now!" Last year, he won an Emmy for writing his comedy special "Kid Gorgeous." Here's an excerpt from his "SNL" opening monologue last February.


JOHN MULANEY: I'm very happily married now. I'm very happily married. My wife is Jewish, and I was raised Catholic, which you can all tell from the moment I walked out. That's not a big deal - getting married if you're Jewish and Catholic. Only a couple people asked about it. And they were my parents. Before we got married, my mother asked me if my wife was going to convert to Catholicism.


MULANEY: You're right to laugh.


MULANEY: It's a stupid question.


MULANEY: I don't know, Mom. Let me go ask.


MULANEY: Let me go see if a 29-year-old Jewish woman who doesn't like any of my suggestions...


MULANEY: ...Would convert to - what was it again? Roman Catholicism?


MULANEY: How would I even have that conversation? What, do you come home with a brochure, and you're like, hey, honey allow me to tell you about an exciting, not new organization.


MULANEY: Don't Google us.


MULANEY: You know that strange look of shame and unhappiness I have in my eyes at all times, especially after sex? And it was all forced on me at birth? What if you voluntarily signed up for it?


GROSS: That's John Mulaney hosting "Saturday Night Live" last February. John Mulaney, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You've hosted "Saturday Night Live" twice in the past year or so. Did you write your own opening monologues after having written them for so many people?

MULANEY: I did. Yeah. I wrote them, and a large part of them were pieces of stand-up I was doing at the time, both this year and last year. And it was very fun to do after writing so many monologues. I wrote a monologue for, I think, every host for about three years, along with the wonderful writer Simon Rich, who, my second show, approached me at the after-party. We really liked each other right away, and we're already working together. And he said, you and I are going to write a monologue every week because no one wants to write the monologue. So there'll always be an open spot for the monologue. And he said, and guess what? They can't cut the monologue.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MULANEY: So that was our sneaky 20 - he was 23 and I was 25, and that was our sneaky way of trying to always have a spot in the show. I, by doing the monologues, didn't realize that you will get to spend time with the host in the most unique way, which is - in some cases, for people who haven't performed in front of a live audience, you're working with them on the thing they are the most terrified about, which is...

GROSS: I never thought of it that way.

MULANEY: ...Walking out and doing - it's not pure stand-up. Often, cast members join them, or it's a song. But to them, it's like, I'm supposed to stand on stage alone on a comedy show and, you know, deliver a very funny speech. And it's a very scary moment for people. And it was a very valuable and interesting and strange experience to be with many people who have excelled in many different fields and, you know, kind of working with them on the thing that was the most terrifying.

GROSS: So when you hosted for the first time, were you nervous about it?

MULANEY: I was terrified.


MULANEY: I was absolutely terrified. I mean, it was everything from, like, the feeling I had when I would have to play basketball in front of my family.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MULANEY: It was like, these people know me. And you know, it's not that people who know you don't love you. But they know you. And so, like - you know, they can't possibly think that I should be here. They have known me since I was, you know, 25 and just standing in the hallway like an idiot, drinking Dr. Pepper. And I'm a fraud - which is a common feeling among all people, I think.

And you know, as much as I had written and worked behind the scenes, I had not had to step in front of the camera and deal with that. And to be rehearsing things as a performer that I'd written on that show and dealing with camera blocking - all things I'd done countless times on the other side of it - was so jarring. I had no idea (laughter) how hard this was to be performing something you've written and wanting - you know, trying to listen to the jokes while making sure you're on your mark and looking into the right camera and then being, you know, pulled around to do costume fittings. And it was a - an absolute - it was scary. It was a very good education as to what it was like for the other side of it - for all the people that I made, you know, wear wires and fly through the air and put on any costume.

GROSS: (Laughter) So you used to be a writer on "Saturday Night Live." What did you do in your audition?

MULANEY: I tried to do jokes that I had that had, like, slight characters in them - you know, not full one-man show immersion in characters. But I had a - I had some jokes back then about "Law & Order" and the different types of people you see on every episode of "Law & Order," such as the guy the police interview who's always stacking crates and won't stop...


MULANEY: ...Even as they're questioning him, who's like, Tony Ramirez? Yeah, I remember him...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MULANEY: ...Good guy - you know? - worked on Tuesdays...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MULANEY: ...And the bartender who's shown a photo of the missing person and immediately recognizes her and everything about her, like, despite being a bartender in Midtown who sees thousands of people every night...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MULANEY: ...Like, yeah, blue shirt lady - nice lady, sat at the end of the bar. Why? Did something happen to her? It's like, yes, that's why the homicide detectives are speaking to you.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MULANEY: So as you just heard - my voice did not change that much - but I tried to throw in some slight character touches to it.

GROSS: Well, we should take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is John Mulaney, a former writer on "Saturday Night Live," a two-time guest host. He has comedy specials, including his latest on Netflix, which is called "Kid Gorgeous," recorded live at Radio City Music Hall. So let's take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic and writer John Mulaney. And he was a writer for "Saturday Night Live" for about five years. He's hosted twice in about the past year. He's also one of the voices on the animated series "Big Mouth." And he's very, very funny.


GROSS: You've described yourself as a song and dance man when you were a kid. So let's hear an excerpt of a musical you did on "Saturday Night Live," and this was also from your second appearance hosting the show. And the musical is called "Bodega Bathroom." And - you want to describe what it's about?

MULANEY: Yes. It was kind of a - not a sequel but a spiritual cousin to a musical piece I did the previous year that I'd written with Colin Jost called "Lobster Diner" (ph) or "Diner Lobster" - I'm not sure what the official title is - about ordering lobster in a diner. And we wanted to write another musical piece about a specific New York conundrum, or a New York City taboo, which is asking to use the bathroom in a bodega. Pete Davidson asks to use the bathroom in a bodega, and it opens up a magical world of that bodega bathroom introduced by...

GROSS: Which is just a hideous, filthy (laughter)...

MULANEY: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: ...Bathroom in every way...

MULANEY: Well, have you ever gone to...

GROSS: ...You can imagine.

MULANEY: Have you ever gone to the bathroom in, like, a grocery store or a convenience store?

GROSS: Oh, I really try not to do that.

MULANEY: Oh, well, I mean, yeah, everyone tries not to. But you know, adult life is adult life. And you (laughter) sometimes have to.


MULANEY: And you get - you get led back to this just place - you know? - where they, like, they store things. And there's occasionally, like, a family photo that, you know - you're really going, wow, I wonder if that's that guy's parents. And yes, they do try to dissuade you as much as possible. But if you give them that look. There's really nothing you can say. It's just that look in your eye of - you know, sir, I have no options.


MULANEY: You either let me behind the soda fridge, or something very bad is about to happen.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MULANEY: I didn't plan this. I left the - I tried to leave the house. You know I didn't plan this. But there was coffee, and my SSRIs have kicked in, and a lot of things are going on.

GROSS: OK. Here's my guest John Mulaney singing the Bodega Man from "Bodega Bathroom," the musical.


CHRIS REDD: (As character) What kind of creep would let a bathroom get like this?

MULANEY: (As Bodega Man) I did.


MULANEY: (As Bodega Man, singing) Who can sell you condoms...


MULANEY: ...And Arizona Iced Tea - a loosie cigarette and plantain chips?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) The Bodega Man can. Oh, the Bodega Man can.

MULANEY: (As Bodega Man, singing) The Bodega Man can 'cause he mixes lots of pills and calls them Tiger sex pills.


GROSS: Did you ever want to sing - like, for real?

MULANEY: Oh, oh, of course. Yes.


MULANEY: I mean, you can hear both the pathetic mid-range of my voice in that moment. But I believe you can also hear the absolute joy I have in being able to sing in a musical even if it's for 15 seconds. I really wish I could sing - I cannot. My wife told me I was tone-deaf, and I thought I might be tone-deaf for a while. And then a friend of mine who is a trained opera singer - I said, I think I'm tone-deaf. And she said, OK, sing any melody. And I went bada-ba-ba-ba (ph), which is the McDonald's theme, which is the first melody that came to me. And she said, OK, you're not tone-deaf because you can follow a melody. She said, what you are is a terrible singer.

GROSS: (Laughter). So you played yourself in what turned out to be the final episode of Pete Holmes' HBO series "Crashing." You play, like, a well-known comic yourself - John Mulaney. And your assistant tells Pete Holmes that you want Pete Holmes to open for you. And he's just, like, amazed. Like, he's just left the Christian circuit. Now he's got this opportunity.

And he shows up at the club only to be told by you - it's like, what? I didn't ask for you. I asked for, like, Ben Holmes from Chicago, Holmes from Chicago. I don't even know who you are. But then you have the assistant call all these other comics who you'd like to work with, and none of them are available because the show is just in a few minutes.

MULANEY: Yes, and it's at Town Hall, I believe.

GROSS: Is it Town Hall? Right, which is a...

MULANEY: Yeah, Town Hall's the...

GROSS: ...Prestige place. So you finally tell Pete Holmes, OK, you're going to open for me. But then moments before he walks on stage - because he's already really, like, unnerved by this whole experience - moments before he walks on stage, you give him this advice.


MULANEY: (As John Mulaney) God, I hate doing standup. I hate doing standup comedy so much. I only wanted to be a comedian my whole life, and the thing I hate for most is standup comedy. Are you clean?

PETE HOLMES: (As Pete Holmes) Yeah, I'm a clean...

MULANEY: (As John Mulaney) No, you got to be dirty - that way my parents will hate you, and when I walk out, I seem clean. I'm not a clean comic. People think I am. But I say [expletive] and ass and cocaine and all this stuff.

HOLMES: (As Pete Holmes) OK, I'll be dirty - a little dirty.

MULANEY: (As John Mulaney) Also, don't mention marriage. Don't mention adolescence.

HOLMES: (As Pete Holmes) A lot of it is about adolescence.

MULANEY: (As John Mulaney) Well, then you don't do that, you do something else. Or you just say, welcome, I'm the venue owner, and then you walk off. Look. Don't be bad.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Ben Holmes.

GROSS: (Laughter) So were you chosen to do that part because you're not nasty?

MULANEY: I think Pete wrote me into that episode and one previously because, as he would say, we're very close friends. And I try to be a very nice person. But someone like Pete knows that I can be extremely mean to him in order to make him laugh. So that was always our dynamic as friends was to make fun of the most sensitive things in his life to him, or when he was nervous, try to make it worse in order to make him laugh. But he thought that that would be a good use of me would be to play a tremendous bastard.

GROSS: Yes, well, well done.

MULANEY: Thank you. I forgot about the line don't be bad before he walks off.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's really helpful, right?

MULANEY: Which I - oh, that's that's so common too, you know.

GROSS: Seriously? People really say that?

MULANEY: Yeah - not don't be bad, but you better kill. Or a club owner once said to me, I need you to do really well (laughter).

GROSS: How is that helpful?

MULANEY: I said, I got - it's not. It's not. It's just - it's - I always thought that's kind of an unspoken thing in live performance that we would all like it to go really well. But yes, don't be bad is often said in a variety of ways.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

MULANEY: Thank you very much for having me. It's a real, real pleasure.

GROSS: John Mulaney recorded last March. He's nominated for two Emmys for his work hosting "Saturday Night Live" and two for his work on IFC's "Documentary Now!"

Our Emmy week series continues tomorrow. We'll hear from three more nominees - Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette, who are both nominated for the series "Escape At Dannemora," and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator and star of the Amazon comedy series "Fleabag." She stars as a young single woman who's a feminist but suspects she's a bad one. She's sex-positive but often doesn't enjoy the sex. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media as Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. My thanks to Dave Davies for hosting last week while I was on vacation. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.