40 years after its premiere, Saturday Night Live is still one of the primary sources of interesting voices in comedy. Mike O’Brien, who joined the SNL writing staff in 2009 and was an on-air featured player during the show’s 2014-15 season, is yet another example of that. Beyond those contributions over the past few years, he also created and hosted the online series 7 Minutes In Heaven, which had notable cameos from the likes of Jon Hamm, Ellen DeGeneres, Kristen Wiig, and The Insane Clown Posse.
Now in 2015, Mike is still writing for SNL – albeit remotely from Los Angeles — but more importantly, he has released his debut comedy album, Tasty Radio. An album in the tradition of Adam Sandler’s They’re All Gonna Laugh At You and Norm MacDonald’s Ridiculous, Tasty Radio is a collection of sketches resembling a leisurely scroll through the FM radio band. Mostly recorded during Mike’s New York-based SNL tenure, it features the writing and/or voice talents of a lot of funny people, including Scarlett Johansson, Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, Vanessa Bayer, Jason Sudeikis, and Cecily Strong.
Aside from SNL and Tasty Radio, Mike has also been doing a lot of acting as of late. He recently appeared on Portlandia and Documentary Now! in addition to the film Staten Island Summer. But as learned from my Q&A with Mike, he is currently working on a TV pilot. So keep your eyes and ears open for Mike O’Brien, no matter the media.
In a great way, “Fun Girls” reminds me of something that would have been on Adam Sandler’s They’re All Gonna Laugh At You album. What were some of the comedy albums that inspired you to make one?
Mike O’Brien: You nailed it. They’re All Gonna Laugh At You was my introduction to sketch comedy albums when I was in high school and therefore a huge inspiration. Also Sandler’s What The Hell Happened To Me. Then, in my 20s, I became obsessed with collecting and playing comedy albums to death. Here are some favorites from that time:
- An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May
- Mike Nichols and Elaine May Examine Doctors
- Firesign Theater: Waiting For The Electrician Or Someone Like Him
- Firesign Theater: Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers
- The Buttoned-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart
- The Conception Corporation: A Pause In The Disaster
- Norm MacDonald: Ridiculous
Does your interest in comedy come from your family? Did you grow up watching stand-up shows like Comic Strip Live and Evening At The Improv?
M: It does come from my family. We didn’t watch much TV, although SNL was a Sunday morning ritual. But my parents and three older siblings are all very funny, and I wanted badly to make them laugh. They rip on me, saying I was annoying for the first 15 years or something and then finally said one decent joke at dinner. They’re all very funny. One of my sisters, Meagan, went through improv classes with me in Chicago and still works for the comedy theater, The Second City.
What is the most challenging part of making a comedy album?
M: Probably listening to your own voice for hours and hours as you edit it. Especially when you hear the chatter before the sketch started. Listening to yourself make small talk about the weather is pure hell.
Your album features a lot of your friends and collaborators from SNL, some of whom no longer with the show. Was this album years in the making?
M: Yes! It was really written and recorded mostly in 2011 and 2012. And it’s kind of a time capsule of that period in my life. ‘Cause, as you said, most of the people on the album have since moved on from SNL. And some close SNL friends like Aidy Bryant and Tim Robinson hadn’t even been hired yet. But it could only be worked on during breaks from SNL and then only when people were available, so for three to four years it’s just been this kind of hobby of mine.
Were there leftovers from the Tasty Radio sessions?
M: For sure. Maybe five sketches were cut and I’m not sure what to do with them. I kind of think I’d put one or two on another album someday. Others were probably right to be cut. But, yeah, there’s even one that’s me and Scarlett Johansson doing pillow talk that didn’t make it! I don’t know how I’ll break it to her. “I know you are constantly the lead of huge movies, but I have some news. Are you sitting down?”
Are there any plans to do a stand-up tour in support of the album?
M: Maybe more of a one-man sketch show than stand-up…I want to start doing more road shows soon, but I’m developing a show that won’t be ready in time to promote Tasty Radio. It may be more like, “Also, you guys, I made a sketch comedy album a while ago that you should buy.” But I loved performing one-man shows in New York and Chicago, and am figuring out how the material could work in venues on the road…
When writing material for the album, did you have to present it for consideration in the show first? Or did you have free reign to create outside of the show?
M: I pretty much had free reign. It was a great situation. I mean, a few of the sketches were tried at the SNL table read first, but that was not a requirement.
Having been within the SNL world for over five years, how does a day for you there nowadays compare to when you first started in 2009?
M: Well, for one thing, I’ve moved to L.A. and am only contributing a handful of short films to SNL this season. As opposed to being a full-time staff writer, so it’s insanely different! Nowadays, my SNL writing consists of staring at a palm tree and trying to remember what they think is funny at those table reads and then typing something up and hitting “send.” But, more to your question, the thing that changes over the years is that your fear goes down. And that’s really healthy. It never goes so low that you don’t try. ‘Cause you always still have some fear of failure. But you don’t have that intense fear of forever messing up the – perceived — small window of opportunity that life has given you. That’s crippling in your first couple years, it’s not a fun feeling. But anyone who has felt that and gotten over it is tougher from it.
If you didn’t wind up working with SNL, would you have moved to New York?
M: Hell. No. Rent everywhere in NYC is like $3,000 a month. I used to say it’s like you have to buy a 2000 Honda every month. And then at the end of that month, you just push it into the Hudson River. That money’s gone. I had no savings after nine years of Chicago improv teaching so I would not have moved there on my own, but I’m glad it happened cause I loved it so much!
Overall, what is the best part of working on SNL?
M: Feeling validation for the comedy you were doing when you got hired. And meeting and collaborating from hilarious people who come from very different cities and styles of comedy. And sharing a scary or stressful moment with someone. A “quick change” is when a cast member only has about a minute to go from being Abe Lincoln to Caitlyn Jenner. Every department can be involved in that 60 seconds. And similar versions to that frantic interaction and improvisation are happening every show day in every department. So you bond with people cause you shared thousands of scary or stressful moments and you all came out okay.
Might 7 Minutes In Heaven be coming back with new episodes anytime soon?
M: Yeah, maybe! I’d like to do a few more. I think it’s a matter of working around people’s busy schedules at the moment. Also, we need to find a new closet. Our friend who lived in the place with the final, perfect closet has moved. But I think we have a potential one in L.A. I’m always happy to see pictures of closets sent to me on Twitter ’cause having a handful of perfectly-sized – walk-in, but cramped — closets is something I’ll always value.
When making the 7 Minutes In Heaven episode with the Insane Clown Posse, did you two bond about the state of Michigan?
M: Not really. I mean, we grew up less than an hour from each other but couldn’t have had more different lives. I lived in a tiny town surrounded by cornfields in every direction. But I think we did bond because I didn’t ask any attacking questions, and that’s rare for them. Once they realized this was all supposed to be fun for them, a weight was lifted. My friend Brad Morris and I also went to The Gathering of the Juggalos, by the way. That’s a whole other interview.
When you’re not busy working, how do you like to spend your free time?
M: I listen to a lot of books on tape ’cause I can listen for hours and hours but can’t concentrate that long if I’m reading. I watch a lot of sports and documentaries. I get a beer with old Chicago comedy friends who also live in L.A. I hang out with my best friends Shelly and Ben and their dog Scooter. go back to Michigan and hang with my parents, siblings and seven nephews and nieces.
Finally, Mike, any last words for the kids?
M: Yes, thank you for this forum. Kids, chill out. Don’t spaz so much. For instance, if one of your relatives acts like he’s a monster and grabs you while crossing his eyes, don’t demand it happen over and over. Enjoy that it happened once. Then, let the person who played the monster sit down somewhere comfortable and talk with other adults. Maybe go draw a picture for them. They’ll love it, and it let’s them talk to other adults for a little longer. Mmkay?
-by Darren Paltrowitz