Live from New York

Inside the hustle of "Saturday Night Live," where Richmond-raised writer Bryan Tucker is following his dream.

Bryan Tucker is bounding down the stairwell from the writers’ room on the ninth floor of NBC Studios at Rockefeller Center to the eighth floor of studio 8H.

Behind him is a swarm of “Saturday Night Live” writers, a mix of balding 40-somethings and fresh-faced kids who look way too young to be here. Strangely enough, the person leading our charge is Jonah Hill, the hilarious, curly-headed young star of “Superbad,” just one of many celebrities hanging out in the writer’s room tonight. Other guests backstage include Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel and Demi Moore. In a nearby corner, recent “American Idol” castoff Michael Johns is holding court with a few blond admirers. It doesn’t take long to realize this is a place where the beautiful people come to spend their however-many minutes of fame.

Tucker, a Richmond-raised comedian and writer, navigates the narrow hallways where his colleagues Andy Samberg, Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers brush by en route to their next sketch. The unseen sketch comedy workings of “SNL” involve controlled chaos, the result of painstaking detail and hours of writing and rewriting. For Tucker, the funny white kid from the suburbs of Brandermill with a knack for riffing on hip-hop culture, it’s the pinnacle.

Since moving to New York in 1997, Tucker, 36, has gone from an unknown stand-up comic working dingy burger holes to hardworking comedy writer on one of television’s most revered, longest-running sketch comedy shows. On the way, he’s written for “Late Show With David Letterman,” “The Chris Rock Show,” “Mad TV” and “Chappelle’s Show,” the last where he solidified his reputation as ‘the white chocolate’ of comedy. He probably wouldn’t like that comparison – though Tucker’s too nice a guy to tell you.

Our group bursts out of the stairwell and hits the darkened studio floor during a commercial break. The NBC studio is chaotic, overrun with cables and cameramen, producers and stagehands. Like a cramped kitchen at a busy New York restaurant, you have to watch your back or get run over. Burly guys pushing carts stacked with props constantly yell “behind you!” Nearby, actress Diaz is laughing her familiar “Something About Mary” laugh pretty loudly, still wearing a leopard-print jumpsuit from an earlier sketch. She seems taller in person.

Glancing up at the balcony reveals the rapt audience of roughly 200 people who have lingered on a waiting list for more than three years to score free tickets for tonight’s show. Tucker tells me he often gives his own allotment of tickets to be raffled for charity.

Suddenly, they’re back from commercial. Thick cables run along the floor leading to a mobile camera and an overhanging boom microphone. Host Ashton Kutcher, who definitely looks like a former underwear model up close, stands a few feet away, on camera.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Gnarls Barkley!” he says loudly, before falling back into the shadows among the rest of us.

The band launches into its hyper new single, “Run,” while the small floor around me fills with dancing celebrities, studio workers and a gruff old NBC employee in a dark red suit wandering around, cursing us for crowding the place.

“What the hell are these people doing here?” he yells. Good question.

Earlier in the day around 2:30 p.m., the studio is calm. It’s a bright spring day in New York City, but Tucker has been busy indoors, running through dress rehearsals for show day: Saturday, April 12, “SNL” episode No. 634.

The historic studio around us teems with history. There’s the surprisingly compact main stage, where the opening monologue occurs and where four decades of megastars have been made: John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Will Ferrell, the list goes on.

When we arrive from lunch, cast member Jason Sudeikis ambles over. He’s wearing white shorts and has a white wig, and looks like Capt. Merrill Stubing from “The Love Boat.”

“You charging for tours on the weekend now, Tucker?” he asks, looking at me. To explain: I’m here to follow along, to reconnect with Tucker, a childhood friend, and his younger brother, Reed, an arts feature writer for the nearby New York Post. We lost touch sometime in high school and haven’t really seen each other in 20 years.

Bryan Tucker working on the SNL set with host Ashton Kutcher, Jason Sudeikis and Bill Hader.

Unsure what to say, I ask Sudeikis how he likes working with Bryan, who started the same year he did, in 2005.

“It’s good,” he says. “I don’t know if he’s my muse or I’m his … but as a Kansas guy, I think I’ve taken it pretty easy on him.” He’s referring to Kansas’ recent Final Four win over Tucker’s alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They’re both basketball junkies.

The main cast members Tucker works with are Kenan Thompson and Sudeikis, who, along with Samberg, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, began their tenure with him. Sketch-writing at “SNL” is an entirely collaborative process. For Tucker, a joke can start as anything: a news story, something he observes or something he hears in passing. There are no hard rules.

“One thing I’ve learned after doing this a few years, inspired ideas only come once in a while,” Tucker says. “The more professional you are, the more you learn to write something funny whether you have a great idea or not. You just do it so often you can make something serviceable out of things that are assigned to you.”

Usually, he’ll have an idea and run it by another writer or cast member, he says. If that person likes it, they will try to write it together, sitting in a room and wracking their brains to come up with jokes or “beats” in a sketch.

“Sometimes we come up with the script as we go, but that’s usually harder because you tend to second-guess every line as it goes. It’s better to figure out what it’s going to be, then have one person turn it into a script,” he says.

He adds that he can always tell if a sketch is going to be successful if the camera guys are laughing during dress rehearsal. None are right now.

Sudeikis steps away and a hush falls over a small crowd of producers and stage managers. A woman yells “Quiet!” while Sudeikis walks onto a nearby set made to look like the deck of a cruise ship, joining Forte, Wiig and Kutcher. They’re working on one of several sketches that will be cut from the show, but nobody knows that yet.

Losing your baby is a normal thing at “SNL,” a feeling all writers get used to: working madly on something all week only to see it disappear without a trace.

Even if a sketch makes it through to Saturday night, however, writers may have to significantly change things during the show. Once, while writing a show’s closing sketch, “Wine Lovers,” for host Antonio Banderas, Tucker explains that he had three minutes to take the over four-minute sketch, cut it to two-and-a-half minutes, and make sure everyone understood the changes: the director, the actors, the cue-card holders. He ran to find Banderas, who was still in his underwear getting dressed. After explaining the cuts, Tucker says the Spanish actor pulled him aside while they were walking on set.

“Zees sketch eez my favorite sketch on the show. Eez so creative,” the actor told him. Tucker replied that he was sorry it had to be shortened. Banderas started laughing and immediately began the scene without even catching his breath. “It was crazy,” Tucker recalls. “But that’s showbiz.”

As we continue along our tour, the tall Bill Hader comes from out of nowhere, emerging from a dark, narrow hallway and what looks like a mop closet, surprising me.

“Was that change OK?” he asks Tucker, who nods in agreement and then introduces us. I’m clearly a little starstruck; Hader is a great impressionist and one of my favorites on the show. He gives me a big goofy grin while shaking my hand, as if he totally understands geek fandom, and his expressive, seemingly elastic face is like Plastic Man on acid.

Reed Tucker later tells me that his brother’s easygoing personality has been one of his most valuable assets. Not only is he a talented comedy writer, but also he’s a Southern gentleman. “You get up here and people can’t believe how polite you are. That goes pretty far,” he says. “If you are genial and easy to work with, people remember that and go out of their way to help you.”

Reed knows this because he interviews celebrities for his job at the Post, including cast members from “SNL” and other shows his brother has worked on. “They’re always like: ‘He’s your brother? Aaw, man, we love Bryan Tucker. He’s the nicest guy.'”

Of the 14-member “SNL” writing staff, only three are women and cast members write roughly half their own material. And everything must make it by the censors, also known as NBC Standards and Practices. Today during rehearsals, there is a sketch in danger of being cut because it features a disabled woman, played by newcomer Casey Wilson (a Northern Virginia native), hoisted by a sleazy bar owner (Kutcher) through her lap dances. It was close, but the sketch eventually made it to become one of the night’s hits.

For this SNL writer, the road to crazy showbiz started humbly enough, at places back in Richmond like Matt’s Village Pub in Shockoe Bottom. That’s where Tucker, a 17-year old Clover Hill High School senior, first tried his hand at stand-up to a small, mostly captive audience.”It went really, really badly,” he remembers. “There were maybe six people in the audience and another eight or so comics.”

Today, he describes his own style of humor as observational, citing low-key, cerebral comedians such as Dennis Miller and Steven Wright as influences.

There were early indications, however, that a comedy-writing career might be in the making. Tucker’s humor column for his high-school paper was so controversial that it led to two separate recalls from the school racks, as well as threats from a corporate lawyer.

“I had written that our Herff Jones class rings were sold by a real guy named Herff who was always yelling, “Kiss my rings!” Tucker says, using a generic pimp voice. “The company sat me down with a lawyer in the school office.”

Another time, he’d jokingly encouraged students to place their own red-dot sales stickers on store items to save money. “It wasn’t that funny,” he says, “but it shows how sensitive they were.”

The Tucker brothers grew up in Brandermill, their parents having divorced before they were teenagers. Their father, Sandy Tucker, is a longtime lawyer at Williams & Mullen, specializing in franchise litigation – as well as a former tennis and basketball athlete at the University of Richmond.

“People always ask me where he gets his sense of humor,” Tucker’s dad says. “Bryan was a pretty serious kid. He ran track and cross-country. How funny can you be running cross-country? It’s such a dedicated sport.”

But young Bryan was making sketch videos even before he graduated high school, with titles such as “Hickslayer” and “Bully.” One of his partners was David Butler, who works as a feature film sound editor in Los Angeles.

“Bryan was really into rap music,” Butler recalls. “I can remember Ice-T’s ‘Power’ being played a lot in the car.”

Later, during his tenure at “Chappelle’s Show,” Tucker would write a sketch called “The Playa Hater’s Ball,” which earned him one of his all-time favorite compliments.

“Ice T [who is in the skit] called it ‘pimp,'” Butler says. “Which Bryan really liked.”

Butler speculates that humor may have been one way Tucker dealt with his parents’ breakup. “Any frustrations I think definitely came out in his comedy,” he says.

Tucker pursued comedy with a passionate focus while studying broadcast journalism at UNC in the early ’90s.

“My dad and I were just scratching our heads; ‘What the hell is going on here?'” his brother Reed recalls, after showing me around the offices of The New York Post, earlier in the day. “I guess I never really thought of him as that funny growing up.”

In North Carolina, Tucker worked on the UNC student television comedy show, meeting four other comedians who were also lacking material. They decided to pool their resources for an entire show and formed a troupe called Selected Hilarity. Tucker wrote most of the sketches. The group performed for free around campus and in Raleigh, eventually landing an agent and nabbing some 90 to 100 college gigs after graduation in 1993. “That’s when I started making a very modest living,” Tucker says.

Fellow troupe member Larry Weaver, now a web strategist and comedy booker based in North Carolina, says that Tucker always knew what he wanted for a career and there was never any back-up plan: It was succeed as a comedy writer or keep trying.

“Interestingly, most people who aspire to show business gravitate towards L.A. Bryan was always clear about succeeding in New York, despite the limited amount of TV work there,” Weaver says. “I’ve never met anyone who had such a clear vision of what they wanted to do with their life.”

Tucker’s father says that one of his proudest moments came when Bryan called him, somewhat hesitantly, to announce his plans to pursue a comedy career. “Frankly, I thought it was a courageous thing for five guys to do,” his father says. “My response was, ‘Go for it, if that’s what you love to do’ — which I think surprised him a little.”

Touring nationwide, the group played mostly colleges and small clubs for three years. From the beginning, Tucker says he was more interested in the actual process of writing jokes than performing. “I was never the guy who would walk into a room and dominate and be Mr. Funny or whatever,” he says. “I always took a more clinical approach.”

Eventually, the group drifted apart to follow other pursuits and Tucker moved to New York in the fall of 1997. It was the beginning of “the lean years,” as he calls them, although they wouldn’t last long.

Richmonder Bryan Tucker rarely has time for doing stand-up comedy anymore — he’s too busy as head writer at “Saturday Night Live” among other projects.

The comedy scene in New York is tightknit and cliquey.

For a transplant from a small town, it can be an extremely lonely and frustrating experience, which may account for the bonding between like-minded comedians: They need the support. “Everything is 10 times harder to do in New York,” says Reed. “You have to pay your dues with everything, but especially in comedy.”

Reed recalls seeing his brother perform in tiny local coffeehouses and dirty hamburger joints where nobody even knew there was a show scheduled. Bryan worked for more than a year temping and doing stand-up, using the same agent from college.

Then Tucker’s agent got a call from “Late Show With David Letterman,” saying they’d just lost a “faxer,” a term for the show’s team of five to seven freelance comedians who send in jokes by fax. Tucker wasted no time sending in material, after tailoring his jokes to be more brief and sarcastic to fit the show.

The producers expected him to send in five to 15 jokes a day, four days a week, paying him $100 per joke that aired. Tucker was able to sell enough jokes to quit temping and focus on his comedy, including his stand-up routine. He learned how to apply for more television writing jobs from other stand-ups.

He then got an even bigger break in 1999 when he was offered a job on HBO’s “The Chris Rock Show.” It was the perfect environment for a young comedic writer. Rock — at the height of his fame — treated his writers well, taking them to baseball games and movie premieres; they’d even occasionally hang out with Bill Cosby.

Even more important, he let the writers produce their sketches and control every aspect: casting, design, production, even sitting in the editing room.

“You took all the credit or all the blame, which was empowering and good,” Tucker says, who also learned to shoot and edit material during his two seasons there. “I had no idea how great I had it on that show because it was my first job.”

Tucker got a jolt of encouragement when his first big sketch aired. It was called “Daddy Still Has a Flattop,” a parody of the old ABC After School Specials.

“Chris [Rock] wanted to hire black writers on the show, and the head writer was black. But what he cared about the most was making it funny. He loved Woody Allen, surreal humor, and he wanted to bring that to a black audience,” Tucker explains. “Mostly he said, ‘Don’t try to write black, just write it funny and it will be black because I’m doing it.’ That was a good lesson for me early on.”

Little did Tucker know that this job was the first step in his becoming known as a white guy who could write for black comedians. The irony isn’t lost on him.

“I came from Brandermill, suburban Richmond, so it wasn’t like I had a lot of black culture around me,” he says. “It was just watching it from the periphery and I was a fan [of hip-hop]. It was more about making things funny and not being scared of black culture than it was being a part of it.”

In the late ’90s, he also married his girlfriend, Rachael Knott, from North Carolina. They now have two little girls, and Rachael works as a strategist and marketer for a bond rating company, he says — the “complete opposite of what I do.”

After Rock ended his show, Tucker stayed busy writing several sitcom pilots for shows with largely black casts. He moved to L.A. to work for “Mad TV” in 2001, but missed his wife back in New York and thought the “Mad” writers didn’t have enough say in the final product. He returned a year later to New York and took a job on the ill-fated “Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn.” That show, which was very open and frank about racial issues, was canceled after poor ratings.

Tucker quickly struck comedy gold again when he began writing for the out-of-left-field Comedy Central smash hit “Chappelle’s Show.” Dave Chappelle and his former writing partner, Neal Brennan, wrote 80 percent of the material. Tucker knew Brennan from doing stand-up around New York City and began to send in jokes to the show on a freelance basis. He was hired midway through the second season, one of only two full-time writers the show ever hired. He also began appearing in sketches.

The industry took notice after the astronomical DVD sales of “Chappelle’s Show” — it eventually became one of the biggest-selling television DVDs of all time, moving more than 3 million units. “I didn’t have any producer credit or anything. Dave and Neal got a nice cut of that,” Tucker says. “But that’s OK.”

After Chappelle notoriously ended the show for personal reasons (“I think he just wanted to be in control of his work,” Tucker says), leaving at least $50 million on the table, Tucker was unemployed again. But Brennan put in a good word for him at “SNL” and Tucker was hired six months later.

“Sometimes you travel by fate rather than by choice,” Tucker’s father says. Bryan was likely typecast once he’d worked with several prominent black comedians, he says. “But I think he’s transcending it now.”

Amazingly, within a relatively short period of time, Tucker had made it to one of the most popular shows in television history.

Ratings for “SNL,” however, have been moving in the wrong direction of late.People complain that the show is less edgy compared with cable programming, that it’s become too corporate and solely interested in cross-promoting films and musical acts (NBC is owned by General Electric, which also owns Universal Studios).

Longtime fans argue that the pre-filmed digital shorts and commercial parodies offer the most consistently funny highlights. A few years ago, the rap parody “Lazy Sunday” took the Internet by storm. Tucker is often recognized for his appearance in the Andy Samberg short “Roy Rules!” in which he plays Roy, Samberg’s dorky brother-in-law who’s verbally harassed in the song. The video also features Tucker’s wife and children.

“Tucker is the raddest,” Samberg tells me later by phone. “He’s really skilled at playing normal, almost mild-mannered, and then he’ll just bust out something wildly inappropriate and sometimes even angry, which is my favorite Tucker move — the super-angry disgruntled guy … all my favorite parts in the video are him.”

The popularity of “SNL” has always been cyclical, often dependent on whether there’s a breakout star among the repertory players. Will Ferrell carried the show for years with his doughy physique, producing a string of memorable characters. But after NBC budget cuts a few years ago, producers chose to reduce the cast instead of the number of episodes (20 per season). Tucker says that more recently, they’ve also been making fewer of the commercial parodies, which are usually filmed before the live season starts.

Tucker also notes that network TV ratings in general have been falling because of increased competition from Internet and cable. While “SNL” is known for improved ratings during political years, this year hasn’t seen much of a bump — except for the first episode after the writers’ strike, which featured Tina Fey.

When asked about the lower ratings and future direction of the show, “SNL” spokesman Marc Liepis declines to comment.

Tom Shales, The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic, co-wrote the book “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live.” He says the show has seen its competition grow from old movies on local stations to 500 channels, many of them with more latitude for language and subject matter.

“Yet it is still the No. 1 show of its kind in terms of prestige, effect, and the loyalty of its following,” Shales tells me by e-mail. “Even the Comedy Central programs ‘The Daily Show’ and Colbert attract only a fraction of the SNL audience and have far less impact. And they’re on every night.”

Case in point: The highlight of the current season, the 33rd, is probably the episode parodying Sen. Hilary Clinton’s struggle to be heard by the Obama-loving media, which Clinton referenced during a debate earlier this year. The subsequent buzz and media backlash reached such a pitch that bloggers were examining political contributions from “SNL” writers.

“I don’t think ‘SNL’ will ever be the cultural touchstone that it was once in the ’70s and ’80s,” Tucker says, “but when it is political, people tune in more.”

While ratings have suffered, the show’s difficulties have been compounded by the recent writers’ strike, particularly the shortened season. Tucker says he was worried about the looming financial difficulties of raising a family in New York City, and during the strike many of the New York writers got to know each other, which created a feeling of solidarity. But after a few months of walking around with signs in the cold and not getting paid, he says, it got a lot more difficult.

“What we got in the short term was not huge in terms of money,” Tucker says. “But the principle behind it, that the writers have a stake in this new media as it grows — the way they should have with DVDs — that is important. As you see more and more people watching stuff on the Internet and plugging their own devices into the TV, like Apple TV, five years from now it’s going to seem like we really won something.”

Watching tonight’s show from the writers’ room, surrounded by “SNL” writers, it’s easy to see how much the writers love their work. They sit watching around a central TV, even though we’re just above the floor where all the action is taking place. The room frequently breaks into loud laughter. Everyone is encouraging, upbeat, complimentary. The night goes much faster here than watching the show at home with commercial breaks.

Tucker’s only sketch tonight features old college buddies reminiscing around a table as the bar jukebox plays a familiar sing-along, “Amie” by Pure Prairie League. Before each new round of singing comes an increasingly surprising admission from each character (Will Forte admits he’s a pedophile; guest host Ashton Kutcher confirms he previously had a vagina). You could call the sketch a walk on the wild side of bro-drunkeness.

It’s weird hanging out in the writer’s room because random celebrities continue to walk in and out of the room. Like Jason Segel (star of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) who enters the room sheepishly, as if expecting a crack about his genitalia, which was recently featured on the big screen. Demi Moore sticks her head in for a minute, but she’s realizes she is clearly in the wrong place and retreats back to Ashton’s nearby host room. Jonah Hill is sitting next to me on the couch wearing a Daniel Johnston t-shirt. I don’t say anything, because, well … what could I say that he probably hasn’t heard already ten times today? It’s all a bit nerve-wracking and I imagine they’re all wondering whose assistant I am.

When it’s over, the studio audience filters outside where onlookers and celebrity gawkers await in screaming clusters. One of the few family men on the writing staff, Tucker skips the after-show party to get some sleep. He has to take his daughters to the circus in the morning. This might seem unusual for a show legendary for its hard-partying, self-destructive stars, but it’s likely one reason everyone here seems to like Tucker: He’s nothing if not even-keeled and focused.

“It was harder when the girls were really small,” says his wife, Rachael. “But now we’ve really enjoyed the balance that it gives us. He’s home every morning until lunch, then I’m around in the evening.”

She says her husband does get recognized in public, often for sketches from “Chappelle’s Show.” She recalls a time when Bryan was playing in his local basketball league, called Technically Foul, only to look up and see Heath Ledger also playing.

“Bryan didn’t want to say anything to be respectful, but when they were standing beside each other on the sidelines, Ledger turned to him and said, ‘Hey, weren’t you on ‘The Chappelle Show’?”

Rachael is proud of him: “He got beaten up when he moved here, but he kept with it and was confident in what he wanted to do. That says a lot about him.”

Larry Weaver, Tucker’s college buddy, says he continues to stay relevant by keeping up with pop culture, but that there’s more behind Tucker’s success: “The real reason is that he’s a genuinely nice guy. What you see is what you get: somewhat shy, unassuming, but clearly very bright and a talented artist.”

Before leaving the studio, we hang out in Tucker’s office, which he shares with writer John Lutz (who appears on “30 Rock”). The office used to belong to former cast members Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz. The room has a view of the city, and its walls are covered with memorabilia, including a cheap oil portrait of a sea captain Sanz thought looked like “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels.

There’s also a wood plank over a big hole in the wall made by a drunken Sanz late one night after Fallon and a female companion locked him out.

Just above Tucker’s desk is a crayon drawing of Martin Luther King Jr. that his daughter created in class. The teacher had asked the students to fill in the thought bubble above King’s head. Tucker’s daughter wrote, “I wish someone would be nice to me forever.”

One of us can’t find our jacket and so we return to look for it in the writers’ room. We run into the waiflike Amy Poehler in the hallway. “Hey, Tucker!” she blurts out, flashing her familiar mischievous grin. The hallways are quiet now. The cameras are off.
After retrieving the jacket, on our way back out, we brush by one last person in the empty hallway, a short guy in a business suit who looks out of place. It’s Lorne Michaels, the man who started it all back in the 1970s. He barely acknowledges us and seems, well, the antithesis of funny.

For Tucker, what this all boils down to is getting laughs.

“There’s a lot of validation in seeing something you wrote get laughs from a lot of people,” says Tucker. “On my first year at ‘SNL,’ I wrote a sketch for Steve Martin, and during the rehearsal he came over to me and said, ‘Nice job. Very funny.’ It wasn’t effusive, but I know he didn’t have to do that. It meant a lot to have the guy who made my dad laugh so much tell me that he enjoyed what I wrote.”

So is he worried about an anticlimactic future after working for such a famous show?

“I’ve had shows end abruptly and have been out of jobs a few times and have been able to get something else pretty quickly,” he says. “I guess the question is whether it will be as exciting as ‘SNL.’ I’m just hoping I can go someplace where I can make my own path.”



A new exhibit at VMFA celebrates the experimental art and books of Ted Joans.
The story behind a local photographer's widely sought-after photo of the total eclipse.
The tormented vamp of “The Vourdalak,” the majesty of “Faye,” and the windy flirting of “Twisters.”
From Mary Timony, Deau Eyes (pictured) and Faye Webster to Plunky Day in the RVA, Loud Night, Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto …

WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW — straight to your inbox

* indicates required
Our mailing lists: