May 17, 2013

Player Hader

Filed under: TV — DB @ 3:55 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Saturday Night Live‘s 38th season comes to an end tomorrow night, and with the close of another year comes the departure of a cast member who, for my money, has long been the show’s MVP: Bill Hader.

Hader has been on SNL for eight years, joining at the start of the 2005-2006 season at the same time as Andy Samberg. (Jesus, was that really eight years ago?) He quickly proved to be one of the show’s most versatile and reliable cast members, excelling at original characters and impressions, though just as capable of playing the straight man. Well…straight-ish, anyway. Last year, he became only the 18th cast member in the show’s history to earn an Emmy nomination for his individual performance. But one thing that also struck me about Hader during his time on the show was how quickly the outside comedy community caught onto his talent and started to utilize him. I haven’t researched this, but my sense is that most SNL cast members who break out beyond the show tend to do so after serving for a few years. But Hader was snatched up fairly soon after hitting the stage of Studio 8H, winning roles in some of the best comedy films of the latter aughts, including Knocked Up, Tropic Thunder and Superbad. Greg Mottola, who directed the latter, also used him in Adventureland and Paul, while the actor’s association with Judd Apatow continued beyond Knocked Up with roles in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Pineapple Express.

As it turns out, Hader may not be the only performer leaving SNL after tomorrow’s finale. Rumors abound that Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis will also bid farewell, and with Seth Meyers leaving halfway through next season to replace Jimmy Fallon as host of Late Night, the show is about to experience a major makeover. Of course, this has always been the nature of Saturday Night Live. Cast members arrive, grow successful, move on, new players arrive, lather, rinse, repeat, lather, rinse, repeat. From Chevy Chase to Kristen Wiig, this has been the way of SNL, and so it shall continue to be. But it’s still sad to bid adieu to the greats, and Hader is one of the greats; a terrific character comedian in the tradition of Dan Aykroyd, Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey. (I’ll miss Sudeikis a lot too, but I’ve always been indifferent about Armisen. If Sudeikis follows Hader out the door, the two best things about Kenan Thompson’s “What Up With That” sketch will be gone: the former’s enthusiastic, red tracksuit-clad backup dancer, and the latter’s repeatedly snubbed guest, Lindsey Buckingham.)

So what’s next for Hader? Sleep, and moving back to Los Angeles, he says. Careerwise, I don’t see him graduating to many lead performances in comedy movies. He seems more suited to supporting parts in that medium, while TV is the likely place for him to find a central role. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he flexes his muscles a bit and takes on some characters and material with more serious overtones; I suspect that he has the talent for them. In the meantime, he’ll be seen in an upcoming project called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy as a couple whose relationship is seen across two separate films: one from her perspective, and one from his. Hader also reunited with director Mottola for an HBO movie called Clear History, co-written by and starring Larry David. And I’m sure he’ll pop up on SNL again, for a surprise cameo or a hosting gig. Until then, here are a few of my favorite Bill Hader moments from his tenure at SNL.

Most notably, Hader’s departure leaves the show without its best recurring character of recent years, Weekend Update’s delicate, trendspotting City Correspondent, Stefon. One of my favorite things about Hader has been that, like Jimmy Fallon before him, he often has trouble getting through a skit without laughing…which only makes it funnier. Never is this more true than in his appearances as Stefon, probably because a) his material is always so bizarre, and b) writer John Mulaney apparently likes to switch up the dialogue between the dress rehearsal and the live show, so that Hader is often seeing Stefon’s lines for the first time when he performs them on air. Under those circumstances, it’s a miracle he holds it together as well as he does. (Incidentally, Stefon’s first appearance on the show was not as part of Weekend Update, but in a 2008 sketch featuring Hader and host Ben Affleck as brothers pitching a movie idea. If Hader reprises Stefon tomorrow night when Affleck hosts, it will mark a nice bit of symmetry.)

Hader’s performance as a beleaguered Vincent Price hosting a Halloween special would be enough to lodge this sketch in my memory, but it gets additional points for Jon Hamm’s turn as James Mason.

Although not as much of a breakout character, I’d put Hader’s Italian talk show host Vinny Vedecci up alongside Stefon as one of his best and funniest creations. I was recently lamenting that Vinny hasn’t turned up in a long time, and have been hoping for a return appearance. We’ll see if he shows up tomorrow night to add Affleck to a list of guests that has included John Malkovich, Shia LaBeouf and Drew Barrymore.

Hader’s impressions over the years range from James Carville to Julian Assange, but one of his best — and most unexpected — is Alan Alda. The veteran M*A*S*H star does have a distinct voice, yet it’s not one that is often imitated…not this successfully, at least. Hader’s take is truly uncanny, as demonstrated in this sampling of Back to the Future auditions. Close your eyes and you’d never know it’s not Alda himself.

Another of Hader’s great characters is TV news reporter Herb Welch, a creaky correspondent long past his expiration date. More than his other recurring characters, if you saw one Herb sketch you saw them all. But Hader made them worth seeing.

Beyond recurring characters and impressions, Hader could always be counted on to elevate an otherwise ordinary sketch. This clip shows that the proof is in the puppet.

Farewell Mr. Hader, and thanks for eight seasons of great work.

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