Artwork in this article by Bryan Little
I have been a loyal viewer of Saturday Night Live for well over twenty years. A comedy show about current events put together in a week and performed live on the air while incorporating a different celebrity each week, a celebrity which may or may not have any comedy chops, is exciting in its sheer unpredictability. I will be the first to admit that they don’t always succeed. Often sketches seem to end randomly, as wrapping up a sketch neatly has often been the unobtainable holy grail on the show, but even in the off weeks, where nothing quite seems to click, there’s always a nugget or two of true gold in each episode that still makes it worth watching.
The main reason the show has been so enduring is doubtlessly the high calibre of the cast. The show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, has a knack for ferreting out singular comedians who have honed their craft for years. A prime source for the talent are improv groups like Second City, The Groundlings and the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. Add to this some stand-up comedians and other random performers, and you end up with a cast that is seasoned in the difficult art of making people laugh and dealing with unexpected situations. Each cast member has their weaknesses and strengths, but most of them can take whatever roles they’re given that week and make it work.
And yet, what thrills me most as a viewer is when the seasoned professionals completely fail at maintaining their composure. These experienced comedians have one job: to deliver a professional comedy performance aimed at making us laugh while not cracking up themselves. When a cast member fails to keep a straight face during the skit it is referred to as ‘Breaking’, an established enough term that two of the show’s most notorious offenders, Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg, wrote a song about it for the show’s 40th anniversary.
Often a break is caused by a flubbed line or a heinous attempt at an accent, but the true gems are when a particularly inspired performance pushes the other participants in the sketch over the edge, like when Will Forte plays a basketball coach trying to inspire a failing team in the locker room by performing a particularly energetic interpretive dance to the instrumental song ‘Casino Royale’ by Herb Alpert. According to Forte, the dance never quite worked during rehearsals, but on the night he went for it and it just worked. You can tell that it is taking the others by surprise because as he really gets going, about halfway through the song, the majority of the basketball team suddenly has an urge to wipe sweat from the bottom half of their faces with a towel, or just cover their faces completely with their hands.
Another inspired performance that has become infamous for not a single person in the sketch keeping a straight face, including the performer, is Rachel Dratch as Debbie Downer, a recurring character who can’t help but mention horribly sad things when other people are having a good time. The original sketch was simply named ‘Debbie Downer’ but is often referred to as ‘The happiest place on Earth’ as Debbie’s family goes to Disney World. The ship is off course early on as Debbie manages to constantly bring the mood down during the family breakfast with references to global warming, fatal train crashes, terrorist attacks, and feline AIDS, each punctuated by a ridiculous trombone noise, but it is ultimately the line “It’s official, I can’t have children!”, which Dratch delivers with immense effort while almost crying from laughter that finally breaks the sketch completely. Jimmy Fallon is just laughing out loud while waiting for her to get through the line, guest host Lindsey Lohan is banging the table and flubbing her lines and Horatio Sanz is wiping his eyes with Mickey Mouse-shaped waffles.
Sometimes it is an inspired piece of writing that has one or more lines that are difficult for the individual performer to deliver with a straight face and for the others to not react to. You can often spot these in advance as there is a tension in the room from the very first line as the whole group collectively braces for the line which they know from rehearsals will get them into trouble. A great example of this is the sketch ‘FBI Simulator’ with guest host Larry David playing an animatronic target named Kevin Roberts, who wears a neon orange suit and has an oddly detailed backstory. They manage to get all the way through without any serious breaking, but there are a few people hiding their faces and several of them are smiling inexplicably at several points, hinting at trouble narrowly avoided. If you go and watch the rehearsal videos (search for “Larry David becomes Kevin Roberts”) you can tell why. All the way through the three rehearsals David is red in the face, tears streaming, unable to get out the two lines “Can a bitch get a doughnut?” and “Kevin Roberts just made it to second base, with a lady!”
Among the most talented Breakers on the show of all time is current cast member Kate McKinnon. She has the evil trifecta: fleshed out and nuanced character performances; an impressive talent for physical comedy; and a extraordinary ability to deliver complex lines that frequently pushes other performers into falling like dominoes around her. One of the most shining examples is her performance in ‘Close Encounter’, where she plays one of three rural people being interviewed by the NSA after being abducted by aliens. The other two have had life-changing ethereal experiences, while Kate’s chain-smoking character was treated in a far more dubious manner by the aliens. She describes the highly unscientific treatment as “It felt super off the books”. One by one the performers are having trouble getting through their lines and guest host Ryan Gosling is attempting to hide his laughing as in-character crying and hides inside his shirt. The writers of the sketch, Mikey Day and Streeter Seidell, described Kate in an interview with Vulture as “an assassin, taking them out one by one”. Of course when Ryan Gosling returned to host the show 2 years later, he was treated to another round in ‘Close Encounter 2’, this time visibly shaking with laughter as McKinnon’s character illustrates what happened to her by slapping and squeezing his butt and at one point inserting her nose in the crack.
The most ultimate homage to breaking is of course Bill Hader’s Stefon, a recurring New York City Correspondent for the Weekend Update segment. Stefon will typically be asked to give families tips for things to do in New York and his twitchy, tragically hip character ends up giving complex descriptions of the most alternative and elaborate (fictional) pop-up clubs which are blatantly inappropriate for most families. Describing his dialogue doesn’t do it justice so a short example is needed: “New York’s hottest club is Booooooooof. Located in an abandoned orphanage in the lower, lower east side of Chelsea, this round the clock puke-party is a creation of narcoleptic club owner Snoozan Lucci. This place has everything: Pugs, geezers, doo-wop groups, a wise old turtle that looks like Quincy Jones. You’ll have your very own when Harry met Sally moment when you share a special kiss with Giz-blow, the coked up Gremlin.”
Hader has played Stefon around twenty times on air and has broken for almost every single segment. Normally I am a bit annoyed by the performers who break during a monologue, as they have full control over the situation, but Stefon is an exception as every segment has at least one hidden landmine. Co-writer John Mulaney would change at least one of the preposterous descriptions right before air-time, so as Hader reads from the cue cards he has to read out loud something ridiculous, while live on television, having had no time to prepare for it and having never said it out loud before. Watching him navigate the verbal minefield of Stefon’s dialogue, which is explicitly designed to get him to break, is a delight. Luckily one of this characters many nervous ticks involves holding his hands in front of his mouth and nose, as if smelling his hands while hiding shock, so most of the time this provides a decent cover, but even so there are moments when Hader barely gets through a line or simply breaks out into hysterical laughter. This is one of the reasons Stefon is such an audience favourite.
Stefon is great example of the power of breaking. It highlights that the show is in many ways living on the edge. Most of the time things go according to plan, producing well executed sketches that become unremarkable. When things go off script however, it reminds us what a live wire balancing act it is for the writers and performers to put together an episode in a week, and it all comes down to how well they can present it live before an audience of millions. There are no do-overs and no take-backs, and breaking in the middle of the balancing act can either fall on its face and feel unprofessional or it can transcend an ordinary sketch to greatness by showing us just how close to the sun the cast is flying.