Inside the Thriving Comedy Career of ‘SNL’ and ‘Broad City’ Writer Chris Kelly
A conversation with the comedy writer about getting a movie made, working on SNL during campaign season, and Abbi and Ilana’s realistic worldview of being young and broke in NYC.
I first met Chris when we were 18 and undergrads at UC-Irvine. I lived in one of the arts themed dormitories, and Chris, a drama major, would often come over to hang out with the ragtag group of dancers, costume designers, actors, singers and writers who lived in our hall.
One night a bunch of us stayed up late and described what our dream careers might look like: best-selling authors, Tony Award-winning actors, blockbuster movie directors; Chris said he’d love to work on “Saturday Night Live” one day.
Nearly 15 years later, Chris is now a writing supervisor at “Saturday Night Live,” a writer and producer for Comedy Central’s “Broad City,” and the first film he wrote and directed, “Other People,” a semi-autobiographical dramedy about a gay comedy writer who returns home to care for his conservative, cancer-stricken mother, just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on opening night (the reviews have been glowing).
None of these things were handed to Chris on a silver platter. When we were in college, Chris’s dad cut him off financially after he came out (they’ve since reconciled), and Chris had to scramble to get student loans with usurious interest rates so he wouldn’t be dropped from his classes. He took improv classes at The Groundlings in Los Angeles, and saved $5,000 to move to New York after we graduated. He found a job as a waiter at a fine dining restaurant on the Upper West Side—a position he got by getting his friends to act as his references and lying about his wine experience (he bought a bunch of bottles of “Two-Buck Chuck” to practice opening bottles). He earned $250 in tips on a typical night—enough money for him to take a few days off to take classes at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade and focus on his writing.
Chris’s comedy writing career began taking off after he landed an unpaid internship at The Onion. At a company holiday party he persuaded his supervisors to hire him to work on the then newly created Onion News Network so he could quit his temp job. He worked his way up from being a locations director to a staff writer, and eventually returned to Los Angeles to work on the popular comedy site, Funny or Die. Then came the call from “Saturday Night Live.”
I met up with Chris recently to catch up and talk about what his career is like now, and how he finds the time to work on so many projects at once.
Can we talk about “Saturday Night Live”? I don’t know the story about how you got there.
I’d applied for SNL a couple times—I think I’d applied twice, then I hadn’t gotten it and I was just like, “Okay, it’s just not in the cards for me.” SNL, I’d always wanted to work there, but it’s also the iconic job that everyone knows, that every family members knows, that every friend knows, so when you’re like, “I want to write for a comedy,” that’s the job that you think of. I really did want to work there, but I thought, “that’s just a fake, not realistic job.”
And then you got it.
Yeah, I got it on my third try. They just contacted my managers to say that they wanted to interview me. So I had an interview with Seth Meyers and John Mulaney in L.A., then had a meeting with Lorne [Michaels] and got hired and I moved back to New York three days later.
I’ve heard some stories about how intimidating it can be being in front of Lorne. Did you feel that way?
Lorne is intimidating because he’s very smart and powerful, and he created SNL, so that’s intimidating. But I find him nice. I have a good relationship with him. But the meeting was nerve-wracking, because I interviewed with Seth and John Mulaney and it was positive, but obviously they don’t tell you anything. They’re just like, “Great, we’ll let you know.” So I was waiting to see if I was going to get it, and I assumed the next call would either be no or yes. Then the next call was, “Lorne wants to have dinner with you.” And he doesn’t really do dinner.
So I went, and it was at the Beverley Hills Hotel or something like that. But as soon as I sat down he’s like, “You already have the job, I just wanted to meet you.” Then I was like, “Oh.” So right away he told me, which was very nice, and it was a huge sigh of relief, but I also had envisioned finding out that I was going to get it during a phone call. I had pictured the phone call in my head and I thought, “Okay, where am I going to be when I get the call if I get it?” I imagined dropping to my knees and sobbing—performing a gorgeous crying session. And he took that from me. I mean, it was good! I was glad that he told me because it made the drinks easier, but I couldn’t celebrate the way I imagined I would.
You got this job that you dreamed about having for years and years. But I know that working at SNL isn’t easy. It has a notoriously demanding schedule with writers working late into the early morning. Did your job working at The Onion help at all with this?
I wasn’t prepared for it. At The Onion you have to write a lot, and you have to write a lot fast, and you have to be comfortable with pitching a thousand ideas and have just one of them make it. So you’re used to rejection, you’re used to fast turnarounds, but SNL is its own beast. And it’s hard. It was tough to write out the day for my first season. It was fun and it was cool and weird but it’s also very hard.
When I started, my first year was the last year of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader and the era of Andy Samberg. It was very bizarre as a new person to come into a new job and join a group that was full of famous people who were in the prime of their career, hitting every week, getting amazing things on, and already had writers. So it was cool because of that, but also extra intimidating because you’re like, “Why am I here? You don’t need me now. What am I going to write that you’re going to want over all of these other people’s things?”
But don’t you think a lot of people feel that way?
Oh yeah, now that I’ve been there for five years I look back and I’m like, “Oh my first year was fine.” While you’re living it you think, “Am I doing a bad job? Do I suck? Is everyone looking at me like, ‘look at this new idiot.’” One week you won’t get a sketch on and you’re like, “Everyone wants to fire me.” The next week you get on and you’re like, “Maybe I’m the next king.” Every week it just vacillates. And I would have so many weeks where I felt so down and out, and now in retrospect, looking at my first year I’m like, “Oh yeah, I was fine.”
I’m a writing supervisor now. Hopefully I’m doing a good job at it. One of the things that I and the other writing supervisors do is try to help the newer writers; they’ll pitch us some ideas before they write. They’ll be like, “I’m thinking of writing these 10 things, what do you like?” You see their nerves. I remember, you see them go through the exact same thing and it feels very bizarre to realize that you’re past that.
So then my next question is, how do you find the time to work on “Broad City”?
I don’t. I mean, well, I do. My first season, we wrote season one of “Broad City” almost perfectly timed with my first summer off at SNL, so I just wrote all summer. It just kind of worked out perfectly. I was in the room every day. I was a full-time staff writer, it was great. I’ve known those girls for years. Everyone who worked on “Broad City” the first season were fans of the web series, so I knew them. We’d experienced things together as New Yorkers. We’d been to the same parties, we had the same friends, and so that just made it easier to write for that first season. Then the second and third season, the timing of the writing for the seasons overlapped with SNL a lot so they were just very nice and lovely and allowed me to still be on staff, but not be there all the time.
So this is not typical.
No, no, no. Because it’s not helpful. You want people in the room the whole time who can contribute. I would come in on my weekend, I would be like, “What’s happening?” I would have understood if they were like, “We love you, you’re great, but it’s just not going to work schedule-wise.” The fact that they figured out a way for me to still write an episode and contribute jokes and be in the room was nice, you know?
I think there’s something very realistic about “Broad City” when it comes to aspects of what it’s like to live in a city like New York, or what it’s like to be in your twenties and not have it figured out and have to work a series of terrible jobs. I think the both of us had moments in our twenties when we had a terrible job and weren’t making a lot of money.
And we buy clothes that we wear over and over again.
I love that [Abbi] is always wearing the same dress. I think everything is based on reality. Season One at least, for sure, was literally the storyline of what happened to Paul Downs [who plays Trey]. “This story happened to me,” or “This story happened Richie,” or other writers in the room. We just sort of sit around and are like, what horrible thing — I remember being locked out of my apartment and being like, “I gotta stay up all night,” and other people being like, “Yes, that happened to me, too, everyone has locked themselves out.” Or there was a storyline of waiting for a package and missing it and then, you know, having to go to bumfuck wherever in New York to get it, which is something that happened to me, but everyone’s like, “Oh, yes, that also happened to me.”
There was one episode that I wrote in the second season called, “Hashtag FOMO,” and it was basically about Abbi having fun one night without Ilana. It was the one night Ilana didn’t hang out with her and Ilana was like, “What the fuck, why would you do all this fun stuff without me? Tonight we are going to go have the best night possible.” And every party they go to is sort of a little bit lame. So Ilana’s like, “We’ve got to go somewhere else. That party’s a little bit better, but we gotta go somewhere else.” So she keeps trying to up the ante to have the best New York night. I referenced, or someone referenced, the last party we go to, “the best party,” should be this party that I went to in the East Village that our friend Lee Rubenstein hosted. It was on a roof and it got shut down by the cops. And then Ilana was like, “I was at that party.” Then the other writer, Paul, was like, “I was there too.” And Lucia was like, “I was also at that party.” And we all realized we were all at that same rooftop party full of hundreds of people but we weren’t with each other. It was such a good example of that is what the show is. Almost every episode is verbatim something that happened.
It also seems very realistic about young people struggling to make it in the city. I mean, in terms of the way they talk about money and, because, you know, you see all these other shows where it’s young people living in New York and you think about how they must have tons of money somewhere.
I hate when it’s like — on “Glee” for example. I guess [Lea Michele’s character] moves to New York or something like that and I saw one episode where it’s her apartment in New York and I was like, “Fuck this shit. This is not a New York apartment.” It was truly the size of a church, but it was a New York apartment, with ugly furniture and so it had a shitty coffee table, but you know the coffee table’s $4,000, but made to look shitty. It was so fake. That’s what I loved about “Broad City,” everything looks like shit a little bit. Ilana’s apartment is so fucking ugly! The first season they shot it in a real apartment and I went to set when they were shooting, and it was so ugly; it was like one of those apartments that’s tile and linoleum in the entire apartment. That’s what I like about “Broad City.” It’s authentic. It looks and sounds like what I relate to.
We had these terrible apartments and jobs and now we’re both in our thirties and have figured out some kind of stability. Do you see that happening for Abbi and Ilana?
I’m not sure what the plan will be. I doubt that “Broad City” is going to follow them as they become successful business women in their 30s. I don’t know, I don’t want to speak for them, but my guess is they don’t end up at law firms with beautiful apartments. It’s more a slice of life, you know?
I think that’s always been the balance at “Broad City,” like how do we watch them grow, how do we watch them change? They obviously have jobs and relationships, they can’t stay completely stagnant, but we don’t want the season to end with them taking a job in Paris and making a million dollars. It’s small: One step forward, two steps back sort of thing, which I think when you’re in your 20s is what it’s all about. I feel that it’ll stay small. I feel like we’ll never see them become tycoons or something, or maybe just in the last episode. You don’t want to watch a show about someone who’s stable!
You just had a movie show at Sundance. How did you find time to work on that while working on these shows?
I had written for The Onion and Funny or Die and SNL and I had 10 years of sketch writing experience, but I wanted to write something that was longer, something that was tonally a little different, a little more serious. I didn’t expect it to be made and come out and have people see it, I just wanted to see if I could write a script that could sustain itself alone within five pages.
I wrote it my first summer on SNL, so I guess I wrote it right after my first season season of “Broad City.” I wrote a very shitty first draft of it, and then that next season, like the next year, I would just kind of punch it up on my off time and have friends look at it—have them give me their opinions.
How did you go from there to actually making the movie?
My agents were like, “We’ll help you find a producing team,” and the agents recommended Adam and Naomi Scott because they also represented them. I was told to try to find a producing team that you jibe with and that you like and then maybe there’s a chance that it can get made. You work as a team to cast one actor and then another actor and kind of cobble it together and get financing. Because it’s not a big summer blockbuster movie; it’s a tiny little indie movie. It needed a bunch of people to care about it and not just someone who’s like, “Here’s 40 million dollars, do what you want with it.” And [Adam and Naomi] were really nice. We had a Skype meeting and they went to L.A. and I had breakfast with them and really liked them. They very kindly said, “We want to make this with you.” That was insane.
What happens at that point?
We just got a bunch of actors involved who were willing to be attached, and once we cobbled together enough of a team, it seems impressive to people. Then you go out for financing, and are like, “Here are all the names.”
Who negotiates the financing?
Oh my gosh, I don’t know. I really feel like it’s completely insane to get into all of that.
So some producing teams—
Producers, agents, managers do all that.
They all do this together—okay.
I had enough to worry about.
“Are we going to get the money? Is this going to come together? Are we going to have the cast? Are we going to have the crew?” And then it’s like …
And then everything eventually clicks and you’re suddenly in the middle of making a movie.
It was a very fast schedule. I moved out there right after this last season ended at SNL. We did prep, we shot it all, and then came back to New York for SNL and they edited it here while I was at SNL. That was a little crazy. I would go in the mornings before SNL and edit with the editor and then would go do it on a Sunday. We finished the sound mix and the color and all that stuff a week before Sundance. It was very, very, very fast.
You sold the movie to Netflix! Congrats! How will that work?
It will release sometime in the fall—I don’t know the exact date—and then after that it goes right on Netflix, which is great. It’s great that it’s in theaters. That’s really exciting to me that it’ll have a theatrical premier. But also Netflix—that’s like 90% of the people, or 99% of the people who see movies, and it’s globally, it’s in every country, so I don’t know, it will be nice. And it’s a small movie, too, so it doesn’t need to be “Star Wars.” I think it will be nice for people to see it in theaters and I hope people do see it in theaters, but I also feel like it is kind of an ideal movie to also just watch in your home on Netflix or something.
With it being election season, I want to ask you about what it’s like working on SNL with the presidential race happening.
It’s more exciting. I mean these last few years have been sort of exciting because last year was the 40th [anniversary]. With election season, my writing partner Sarah Schneider and I write all the democratic stuff, so we write Hillary Clinton with Kate McKinnon, and we write the Larry David Bernie Sanders stuff, all the sketches with them, so that is super fun, because I’m a Democrat and also I like both of them. I like both of the actors and both of the politicians. When they were on the show, it’s just surreal. I’m a huge political junkie and before I was hired at SNL, it would be like, “Oh my god!” during the election, so it’s so out of body to be working there now and to be one of the ones specifically to be writing that stuff, it’s very—it doesn’t quite get better than this at SNL for me.
The Larry David as Bernie Sanders stuff is pretty incredible.
It’s surreal, too, because Sarah and I worked with him pretty closely when he hosted and he was guest starring. We wrote that “Bern Your Enthusiasm” parody about “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” And I truly am the biggest “Seinfeld” fan. I watched it every single week, I saw it during the finale, my mom knew how much I loved it. I bought all of their—I don’t know if you remember this—but when Seinfeld was ending they had special edition magazines and books that had every episode and they had given them grades and stars and I had them all. I would tape every episode of SNL and had VHS tapes with every episode on them and would organize them and make charts about what episodes I liked.
When the finale aired, my mom was like, “This is a big night for you, you can invite some friends over and we’ll have a party.” And I was like, “I don’t want to have anyone near me, I want to experience this alone.” I sat on the floor and made my family sit behind me so I couldn’t see them in my periphery, and while it ended I sobbed actual tears. I loved it so much. I loved “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” so casually working with Larry … he’ll tell stories about Seinfeld occasionally between takes and you’ll just be like, “Holy shit, this is so insane for me.” I kept my cool and never told him any of this, but it’s just been so fun and cool.
Does SNL reach out to the various campaigns, or do the campaigns reach out to you? How do you plan all this during campaign season?
It’s sort of a combination. You know politicians are going to come during election season, and I think you kind of hear Hillary might be available for a sketch, and then we write Hillary so it’s like, great, we’ll write something for her.
Then obviously with Larry David, I think sort of like—there was a debate or something on a week, I forget who was hosting—it was just a random week and Bernie was debating Hillary and somebody joked in the room that this should really be Larry David, we should call Larry David. Then Lorne had gotten it from someone else—several people had mentioned it to Lorne. And I think Larry David’s people reached out to Lorne, kind of half-seriously being like, “Really, Larry should be Bernie,” and it just kind of worked.
Then we were in a meeting with Lorne and his assistant came in and was like, “Larry David’s on the phone,” and, literally, we watched Lorne on a phone call with Larry for one minute like, “Do you want to do this? Okay great. Can you fly out on Thursday? This is how it’ll work.” They just did it all and hung up. We just watched it happen in front of us.
That happened so fast!
Yeah. And with Hillary, she was great and easy to work with and didn’t have any problems with jokes. She wasn’t like, “I don’t want to talk about this.” We just wrote a sketch and she’d be like, “Okay!”
She’s in my episode of “Broad City,” Hillary.
She is? For this season?
I had already written the episode. I don’t want to give away what the plot is or whatever, but the script was basically—it didn’t necessitate her. If she had said no, which everyone is assuming she would say no, it could have been changed so it didn’t need her. But we thought, “It’s so funny, let’s just try, let’s just try.” We have a version where she’s not in it that I thought we’d probably use. Then I guess she said yes, and the girls texted me, “She’s doing it.” And I was like, “What the fuck, that’s insane.” I think they filmed it the same week or the week after she was on SNL, too. It was a very weird timing thing.
What do you see in your future? I mean, you’ve done so much already!
In the short term, I’m going to go back to SNL. Then I’ll spend a lot of the summer going to film festivals with the movie, which is nice and so fun to get to travel to cities in America, but also abroad which is insane. Then the movie will come out in the fall, so the next part of the year I’ll be really doing that kind of stuff. And then Sarah Schneider and I are working on developing a pilot that we can try and sell. We went to a cabin in the woods and wrote for a week, and it was very beautiful, and I brought my dog. We worked all day and watched TV all night. It was great!
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