Stefon Zolesky should be a natural for Austin, right? There has to be a place to party here (maybe Barbarella?) that compares to the venues imagined by Bill Hader’s shy, gender-bending, oddball “Saturday Night Live” clubber. Check out Stefon’s description of New York City’s “Crease”:
“Club promoter Tranny Oakley has gone all out, and inside it’s just everything: lights, psychos, Furbies, screaming babies in Mozart wigs, sunburnt drifters with soapsuds beards … It’s that thing where a hobo becomes a rich man, so they take the big bubble bath.”
If you don’t catch the breakout character’s husky whisper on Red River or Sixth streets, he’s almost guaranteed to show up at the Paramount Theatre, where Hader headlines the Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival on Wednesday.
There are basically three ways to land yourself on “SNL”: get noticed doing standup; come up through an improv outfit such as Second City or the Groundlings; or sneak your way in through the writers’ room. Hader took a relatively short route.
He grew up in Tulsa, Okla., with his parents and two sisters. He never intended to become a comedian, although he remembers that everybody in his family was pretty funny. Hader’s wife, filmmaker Maggie Carey, noticed that whenever any of his family members tell stories they mimic the voices of the people they’re talking about. “My grandparents did that, too,” Hader recalls.
A film fan, he didn’t get the best grades in high school and found himself in community college when some buddies suggested they all move to Los Angeles and get a “learn-while-you-earn” eduction in the movie business.
Hader was a production assistant on films including “Little Heroes,” which he describes as “like ‘Home Alone’ but with dogs.” He spent his time working on “Final Payback,” a 2001 Richard Grieco crime drama, by driving around Martin Kove, the actor who played the evil sensei from “Karate Kid.” Then, 10 years ago, a friend who had been training at Second City LA invited Hader to watch him perform.
“I was like, ‘Oh, man … people my age are performing comedy.’ I didn’t even know you could do that,” Hader says. He enrolled soon after and eventually formed a sketch comedy group (Animals from the Future) with classmate Matt Offerman, “Parks and Recreation” star Nick Offerman’s brother. Hader’s break came when Nick’s wife, Megan Mullalley, (“Will and Grace”) caught one of the group’s shows.
“She said, ‘You’re really funny. I’m going to tell Lorne Michaels about you.’ I was like ‘Oh, yeah, OK,’ thinking that would never happen,” Hader says. He was working as an assistant editor on “Iron Chef America” when he got a call from the head of the talent department at NBC telling him that “SNL” producer Michaels wanted to meet him.
Like many of us, Hader raised himself on the show. He started watching at age 8 and grew up with the Dana Carvey/Phil Hartman cast.
He met with his manager, who asked him if he could do impressions (“SNL” auditions require three). Hader replied that he didn’t know; he’d never really thought about it. “Well, you’re about to meet Lorne Michaels,” he remembers her telling him, “you have to have something.”
It seems unfathomable that a comic who would eventually impersonate more than 80 celebrities on “SNL” — including James Carville, a creepy Keith Morrison and a silent Lindsey Buckingham — had never done so before being cast on the show.
“When I showed up there, I really felt like I went from middle school to Harvard,” Hader says. “It was like I had just learned this stuff and suddenly I’m at ‘SNL.’”
He was sure producer Michaels and company would discover they’d made a mistake by hiring him, so he set out to learn everything he could.
He’s learned how to write comedy by working with others on the show, especially John Mulaney, with whom he pens the Stefon pieces, often in public settings such as restaurants. Incidentally, Hader largely dispells the rumor that his frequent laughter while performing those “Weekend Update” pieces is caused by his writing partner slipping new items into the teleprompter between dress rehearsal and the live show.
Mulaney will sometimes change a line or a bit of phrasing, but he usually alerts Hader just before he goes on so that it’s not a surprise. On very rare occasions, the writer will add something completely new. Hader specifically recalls being surprised by references to a Jewish vampire and a club that was based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire. “That was him totally throwing me under the bus,” he says, laughing.
He enjoys Stefon, but his favorite character changes from time to time, and he’s currently fond of a different puppet. “John and I probably laugh harder when we write Herb Welch,” he says of his aged, unfiltered TV reporter. “We love that era and those kind of old news guys.”
I like Herb, too. I hope we see the character at Moontower, along with Stefon and — fingers crossed, another of Hader’s impersonations — Rick Perry.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress Ave.
The festival: Moontower Comedy & Oddity Fest is Wednesday through Saturday. Look for more previews and critics picks in Thursday’s Austin360.