Bill Hader Talks ‘SNL’ Anxiety, Tonal Challenges With ‘Barry’ & More Seasons Of ‘Documentary Now!’ – USC Comedy Festival
On Saturday, Bill Hader appeared virtually at the USC Comedy Festival, to accept the 2021 Oakie Masters of Comedy Award.
Named after Jack and Victoria Horne Oakie, the award recognized the actor and comedian for his exceptional achievements in film and television comedy.
“The coolest thing about this award is, when I first came [to L.A.], my friend and I would drive to the USC campus, just to look at it. Like, ‘This is where it all went down,’” Hader said. “We were just massive film nerds, and it was kind of the mecca, so this means a lot to me.”
Prior to accepting the award, Hader appeared for an in-depth conversation with Wayne Federman, the comedian, actor, writer and producer, who also serves as an adjunct professor at USC.
At one point, he was asked about the potential for more seasons of Documentary Now!, the IFC series he co-created with Fred Armisen, Seth Myers and Rhys Thomas, which parodies the current cultural obsession with docs. At the same time, Hader touched on the documentaries he’d most like to tackle as subjects on the series, going forward. “I don’t want to say them because we might do them, but we have had a few Season 4 writers’ retreats, and the problem is, the writers on that, everyone is working a lot on other things,” he said. “But it will happen at some point. I will say, the one I would love to do that’s just impossible is Frederick Wiseman’s High School.”
Of course, Hader also touched on the future of Barry, the HBO dark comedy that he stars in and co-created with Alec Berg (Silicon Valley). While the show, centered on a hitman, was long ago renewed for Seasons 3 and 4, the Covid-19 pandemic threw a wrench in the works, when it came to production. The show has therefore been off the air since 2019, despite the fact that it was a major hit in its first two seasons, earning Hader two Primetime Emmys and two Golden Globe noms, along with numerous other accolades.
During the USC panel, Hader once again confirmed what we already know, which is that Seasons 3 and 4 of Barry are already written. While he didn’t tease specific narrative developments to come in the next two seasons, he did touch on the challenge he faced as a writer on Season 3, following up on Season 2’s dark finale. “So much of it is following emotion, wherever the emotion takes you, and just being true and honest to the characters. Doing that, you get funny stuff, and then really tragic stuff, and that’s kind of how life is,” he said. “Finding those moments and not shying away from that stuff, it’s amazing, what will hold. [But] certain things wont hold, tonally. It’s a very fine tuned process.”
Additionally, Hader reflected back on his eight seasons as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, noting that while he was a “massive fan” of the late-night sketch show from an early age, he never once thought he’d wind up being on the show. “It would be like saying, ‘I’m going to go colonize Mars or something,‘” he remembered thinking. “I just had very little confidence in my performing ability.”
Over the years, Hader has also been open about his struggles with anxiety—and how that affected him during his run on SNL—and the comedian and actor expounded on that subject today, as well. “At SNL, it was like people saying, ‘Bill, you’re being dramatic,’” he remembered, “and it was like, ‘I can’t breathe.’”
Particularly memorable for Hader was a “weird thing” that would happen, while he was performing. “[Sometimes] I wouldn’t hear anything except the rafters; like, the lights above us. There were technicians walking above us, so I would be doing a [Weekend Update] feature, and while doing it, I’m just sweating,” he said. “I became convinced something was going to fall on me, and got in my head, and that got annoying [to others on the show].”
Admittedly, anxiety continues to affect the renowned performer, even when he returns as host on Saturday Night Live. “Even when I go back, I kind of have a mental breakdown,” he said. ” I remember last time I hosted, Lorne Michaels came into my dressing room and was like, ‘Can you just have a good time?’”
In conversation with Federman, Hader also touched on his “educational” experience as a writer on South Park, which began after co-creator Matt Stone invited Hader to writers’ retreats for the Comedy Central show. “What was always surprising was how much emotion and honesty played into something,” he remembered, “even if it was just Carter having a spaceship come out of his ass.” Continuing through the present day with Barry, Hader’s education also was fostered by five years spent within the writers’ room of Pixar’s Inside Out, in which he would ultimately come to star as “Fear.”
Earlier on, Hader recalled growing up as a film-obsessed, “spazzy kid” in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Attending a prep school reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, he knew from an early age that he wanted to be a director, even if his big break in Hollywood would come as a comedic performer. “I remember seeing Clockwork Orange and Taxi Driver at a sleepover,” he said. “This is the [thing] with Cinemax: People thought we were watching softcore porn, and we were actually watching the great films of the ’70s.”
Describing himself as a “massive failure” in school—in part, due to his lifelong struggles with anxiety—Hader would later attend Scottsdale Community College, in Arizona, to get access to a decent film program, as well as film equipment. “So, I went out of state to go to a community college,” he said, “which Jimmy Kimmel loves to make fun of me for.”
Landing in L.A. in June of 1999, Hader would get his career started by working on sets as a PA. One of the first projects he recalled working on was a USC student film called Looking for Bobby D. “[I remember] having to go to a pet store, get a rat, put it in a little box, and then driving it in my dad’s old car back to the set,” he said. “Like, ‘Oh my god, this is awful.’”
The fifth edition of the the USC Comedy Festival kicked off on Friday, April 9 and will run through Sunday, the 11th. Other panelists this weekend include Aidy Bryant, Demetri Martin, Lisa Kudrow, Lindy West, Matt Besser, Patton Oswalt, and Ramy Youssef.
Past recipients of the Oakie Award include Lisa Kudrow, Kenya Barris, James L. Brooks, Judd Apatow, Mel Brooks, James Burrows, Steve Carell, Paul Feig, Phil Rosenthal, and Tim Story.
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