My first job out of college was working at “Saturday Night Live”. My Uncle Jack was an ex-cop that had become the most beloved security guard at the show. I had done some comedy in college, but never felt quite at home around comedy guys.
They tended to be straight-laced and stoic, while I had carved out a niche as the quirky guy with big hair who introduced himself as “Billy Hot Chocolate.” But you don’t pass up any chance at SNL, so I moved across the country to New York, lived back with my mom and became a gopher on the show that had been my favorite since I was nine. The producer in charge of all of the commercial parodies interviewed me and asked what I would want to do at the show. I told him that I just wanted to come work for him and see what happened.
I was a little worried about fitting in around the show because I was used to trying my best to stick out. Maybe being Jack-the-ex-cop’s nephew had given me credibility because people didn’t seem to mind that I entered into this sea of khakis still introducing myself as Billy Hot Chocolate, showing up at the season premiere in blue Dickies. For his part, Uncle Jack steered clear and let me do my own thing with the understanding that whatever I did, I was to try to not make him look bad.
I tried to stay respectable, while still desperately attempting to endear myself to the cast I had been watching from university housing three months prior. I casually bumped into Will Forte waiting by the bar of the after party and picked up the tab on his gin and tonic like it was an afterthought. On top of the good fortune of working at SNL, I had also landed an internship in the box office of The Upright Citizens Brigade, Amy Poehler’s downtown improv theater. I would show up for ticket duty with a box of Entemann’s breakfast bars and pop into the green room to offer them up to the performers that included Jack McBrayer and Horatio Sanz. Amy would chuckle while take a chocolate chip bar and ask, “Who is this Hot Chocolate guy?” Horatio, on the other hand, would go onstage and do a bit where he warned the audience to steer clear of the box office because that was where “Creepy Billy” reined free.
Now Saturday Night Live is a one-of-a-kind atmosphere, but it’s also just a job for a bulk of the people who work there. There are union guys who pull cable, and graphic designers who sit in front of a computer for sixteen hours and just happen to be Photoshopping images for “Cookie Dough Sport.” I couldn’t tell whether everyone was so jaded that they genuinely didn’t give a shit that they were stressing out over finding the perfect Carrot Top wig to put Seth Meyers in or maybe I was just the only one who was unable to play it cool. Luckily for me, the guy overseeing me, who had gotten promoted from my job before the season, was a preppy dude named Luke who had taken a shine to me for whatever reason.. Luke seemed to get a kick out of how much harder I seemed to work whenever my duties involved helping a cast member and was quick to assign me duties like “Bring towels to Jimmy Fallon when his underwater shot wraps” on our call sheet. Luke was also quick to give me a heads up whenever I was crossing the line with my star-struck giddiness with a knowing glance to dial it back.
The third episode of that season was set to have John McCain hosting with The White Stripes as musical guests. The band had just blown up that summer. After a five year stretch where most bands on the radio were bros with backwards baseball caps and white guys with dreadlocks, The White Stripes were the first rock act in ages you could describe as cute. The band consisted of Jack and Meg White, who always dressed in outfits that were entirely red and white, introduced themselves as brother and sister*, and sang about being in second grade and making friends while digging for worms. There was something about The White Stripes breaking right as I was entering the real world that gave me some naïve hope that it wasn’t going to be as harsh of a place as most people had tried to prepare me for. Unfortunately, they were still new enough to fear that their sweet and clever act was just a blip on the radar and soon enough rock radio would revert back to Jerk Town**.
Even though I had been at the show for less than a month, everyone in my department knew I was geeking out about my favorite band being on that week. There was almost never a free moment in the days leading up to the show, since everything in my department had to be shot before the live broadcast. But Luke had thrown me a bone on Thursday and let me duck away for 15 minutes to watch Jack and Meg run through their songs at sound check. I got to be a fly on the wall as The White Stripes were greeted post run-through by Conan O’Brien, who had also abandoned his post at 30 Rock to come tell them what a big fan he was. I tried to look inconspicuous while Jack and Conan shot the shit for ten minutes. Then Meg, notorious for her silence, meekly interjected, “I really like the monorail episode of The Simpsons.”***
The upside to working 20-hour days was that once it was time for the live show, my work as a set gopher was done and I got to sit back and watch with everyone else. That meant sitting in the writer’s room above the stages with a mini-fridge full of beer and explicit instructions from Supervisor Luke not to laugh in a snarky way at sketches that were bombing but might have been written by the guy sitting next to you. No one in the room knew why I was there, and no one seemed to care. Luke had told me he was sneaking me in there because he knew how bad I wanted to be at the show, but instructed me not to rock the boat. He told me to go easy with the free beer and not go out of my way to introduce myself to the room. I had to do what I could to blend in.
But when I woke up that Saturday, I knew that I couldn’t be just another comedian, casually dressed in Chinos and acting like nothing was a big deal I was Billy Hot Chocolate. As I listened to The White Stripes in my underwear once more that afternoon, I felt like I was a part of something that I didn’t fully understand. I had few ambitions, but that night I felt like I had to ”go for it.”
I made my way down to 30 Rock dressed in red pants and a candy cane-colored sweater. I showed up at work dressed exactly like Jack and Meg. When I arrived in our offices an hour before show time, the rest of our team was running around taking care of last-minute business. I had the Commercial wing of the SNL office floor to myself. So I popped in my copy of “White Blood Cells” and buckled up. Luke walked in on me playing air guitar in his office and just shook his head, giving me a once-over. “Really?” he asked. I had that moment of nervous laughter, wondering if this was about to end before it started.
“Here, take this.” Luke said, as he handed me the ID badge from around his neck. I looked at it a little puzzled. “This’ll give you access to go onto the floor when they play. If I were you, I’d do my best to avoid Marci Klein between now and then. Word is, she’s trying to convince their label people to play “Fell in Love With a Girl.**** If she sees you dressed like that, she probably won’t be amused.”
“And if you really need to listen to them, at least close the door. You’re embarrassing us,” Luke snickered, as he grabbed a new temporary ID and went back to his pre-show errands.
Normally I could rely on Luke to hang with me in the writer’s room and basically vouch that I had a reason to be there, but this had been a busy show for us with two commercials running instead of one and my coworkers were super busy. I made my way down to the writer’s room early enough to secure a spot in the back, where I could attempt to look inconspicuous, dressed like young Santa Claus.
Thankfully, comedians tend to be silently judgmental about people they don’t know, so the worst I got from the writers were a few sideways glances as they made their way to the beer fridge. “Big fan?” someone asked with a polite smile. John McCain was actually a terrific host, but I was too nervous to take in the show. Around midnight, the third commercial break came and I knew the band would be next. So for the first time ever during a show, I put on Luke’s badge and made my way down to the stage floor.
The stage area is an intense place during a live broadcast. Luke had to lend me his pass because being a brand new gopher was not enough to grant me access anywhere near the actual studio they shot in. So now here I was, for the first time, without Luke or Uncle Jack or anyone I felt comfortable around anywhere in sight. I tried to ignore audience members who I would catch out of the corner in my eye, covering their mouths and whispering to one another, pointing at me like I might be an extra for an upcoming sketch. I darted toward the band stageabout thirty seconds before we came back from break. I planted my feet and kept my eyes forward as if I was blending in and belonged there. And then I immediately felt a hand on my shoulder, with the voice of an older man accompanying it.
“Excuse me, son. We can’t have you down here looking like this. You’re going to freak the band out.” My heart sank as I turned around to discover that the hand on my shoulder belonged to… Horatio Sanz. “Seriously though, don’t let Marci Klein see you dressed like that.”[SJ4]
By that point, the “Applause” sign was on and John McCain looked at America and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen… The White Stripes!” Jack shredded through the opening notes to “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” their second single from “White Blood Cells”. The song had a way of breaking down all of my nervousness as I finally got to see the two other people in the building who were just like me. In the middle of it, I felt another tap on my shoulder and looked up to see all six feet five inches of Uncle Jack above me with a bit of a disappointed look. But thankfully he had a sense of humor about things as well.
“We always called you Weird Willie for a reason,” Uncle Jack whispered to me. “Hey, if Commercial lets you down here like this, it’s fine with me. But you better make the most of it right now. There’s no way Marci’s gonna let you down here for the second song. She’s steaming through the hallways, saying the band needs to play some song or else they’ll never be back.”
Uncle Jack didn’t wait for any response, as he moved back to his duty post. “Dead Leaves” is a two-minute song and it whizzed right by. I knew this was my moment. The band played out, the audience applauded and I bee-lined for the backstage hallway, knowing the exact path Jack and Meg would have to take to get to their dressing room.
As I snaked through the halls, past the framed pictures of Bill Murray and Dana Carvey, I timed myself perfectly to walk right past the band as they strolled by catering. Meg noticed me first, gave me a nervous chuckle and kept moving past. Jack caught one glimpse of me, turned around as we passed each other and said in his smirky way, “You should join the band, man.”
“Sign me up!” Jack White once invited me to join The White Stripes. I don’t know if he was serious. But for about five seconds, the offer was on the table.
And I kept moving, as their dressing room door closed, desperately searching for some lackey from their label with a clipboard to come scrambling for me while whispering, “Follow me.” Then he’d invite me to spend the evening with Jack and Meg, celebrating our big moment in the name of eccentricity. It didn’t happen. So I headed back up to the writer’s room, feeling victorious nonetheless.
I obeyed Uncle Jack’s orders and stayed out of sight when The White Stripes came back for their second song. There was a knot in my stomach one more time, as I waited to hear the opening hook of “Fell in Love with a Girl.” New bands never get away with ducking the hit. Elvis Costello had even gotten himself banned from SNL by not playing what he was supposed to. John McCain introduced The White Stripes one more time and I knew something was up when I noticed that Jack was holding an acoustic. And then they broke into “We Are Going to Be Friends” — The White Stripes’ very radio-unfriendly version of a nursery rhyme, the one about a second grade boy and girl becoming friends to the tune of “numbers, letters, learn to spell, nouns, and books, and show and tell.”
Somewhere downstairs I knew that Marci Klein had steam coming out of her ears. After the song was over, I decided to skip the remainder of the show and head back up to our offices to pick up the copy of “White Blood Cells” I had been pre-gaming with. When I got up there, the plain white disc was hanging out on the keyboard with red marker now written across it, a note that said, “Billy Hot Chocolate—You’re a Freak.”
* They were actually recently divorced. You either got the joke or didn’t.
** Or more accurately, Crazy Town.
*** Conan wrote that episode. Meg White is a nerd.
**** The monster summer anthem that Jack did not want to be their one hit wonder.
Billy Parker has written for Gothamist and Facebook.com. “What I Heard When I Turned When I Turned On the Radio” first began calling out Billy Corgan on his nonsense back in his teenage zine, Says Who? Billy is an elementary school teacher in New Orleans.