Taran Killam On His Rise From Nickelodeon To Saturday Night Live
We got the chance to speak with the actor about some of his earlier work — Wild N' Out, MadTV, The Amanda Show — and, of course, his time at SNL. Find out why his shirt comes off in sketches, how he got his big break, and more!
As an animatronic robot in a creepy fun house ride, a very feminine Prince Charming, and inventor of the Sloppy Swish, Taran Killam has proven that in his third season on Saturday Night Live, he's the guy you want to see in all the sketches. Starting in the biz when he was just 12 years old, he's made his way from All That to SNL and gotten some pretty great gigs along the way. We got to talk to Taran and he told us all about his past, what it's like to be on the most legendary sketch-comedy show of all time, and we even played a little game of word association. Here's what he said.
We love nostalgia here at BuzzFeed so, if you'll indulge us, we'd like to chat about some of your previous work before SNL, to start.Taran Killam: I dig, I dig.
So we used to LOVE Wild 'N Out.
TK: It's coming back, you guys! It's coming back. They just shot a new season (maybe two?) at the beginning of the year here in New York.
Are you going to make a guest appearance?TK: I did not, I was not asked. Apparently the third-tier white guy didn't make the cut.
Speaking of that — did you feel extra pressure on that show to be funny, as the minority?TK: I was very welcomed in that environment, which was lovely. We obviously came from different backgrounds, and I very quickly realized that I was never going to match them on their level. I think by my second or third episode I fully embraced the "white guy" image. I think if you go back and look at some of the footage, I very quickly started wearing dress shirts and ties just to subconsciously say, "I'm not trying to fool anyone."
What was Nick Cannon like to work with?TK: Nick's always been very friendly and very good to me, and our paths crossed a bit at Nickelodeon. I think I came in to write for All That a little after he left, but [we] always circled each other. I auditioned for Wild 'N Out for the first season and I didn't get it. My best friend — and roommate at the time — Mikey Day got it. Mikey and I were living together when he booked the first season. The second season, they asked me to come work but I was working on a different project at that time. By the time the third season came around, I had lost said job and was very happy to Wil' Out. Guys, I picked up almost none of the terminology, so I apologize. I dropped some mad crazy rap burns on the heck'las? Heck'las.
How did you get involved with The Amanda Show?TK: I was still in high school, and it was actually my last week of high school [when] I booked the job for Moody's Point. I auditioned for both Sternum and Spalding but ended up getting Spalding. I then found out because of the shooting schedule that I wasn't going to be able to make my high school graduation rehearsal. And my high school graduated at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which is a big theater in downtown Los Angeles, and part of the requirement was that you had to be there for rehearsal or otherwise you weren't allowed to walk.
Dan Schneider — who created The Amanda Show as well as All That, Drake & Josh, and iCarly, he's the lord of Nickelodeon — he sent a car for me and said, "We'll make sure you can get to the ceremony if your school will let you miss rehearsal." I still didn't make it to rehearsal, and wasn't allowed to walk, but because Dan was so accommodating I decided I wanted to shoot [The Amanda Show]. So I shot four episodes and they called me back to do another three for a total of seven.
And did you fancy yourself the Dawson Leery of Nickelodeon?TK: I mean, basically, right? It's why to this day I still go out with a hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses.
So moving on to Scrubs: What was it like to be on a show that changed networks [from ABC to NBC]?TK: Right. I was involved in the last season and I shot a pilot for Bill Lawrence — who created Scrubs and was also very good to me. I've had a lucky run of powerful people looking out for me — and I don't know if you've seen it, but they did some webisodes called Scrubs Interns. The plan was that the people who were interns would transition into the new, ABC, ninth season, and I was maybe going to be a part of that, but that kind of fell through. But what did happen from those webisodes was that they gave me my own episode to basically do a bunch of impressions, because Bill at that time knew that SNL was my big dream. [I think] he did that to help give professional footage of me doing impressions, and I like to think it indirectly helped push along me getting this job.
You were on MadTV before SNL. What's the biggest difference between MadTV and SNL in the creative/writing process?TK: Well, MadTV happened right after Amanda Show and before anything else. I was 18 when I did The Amanda Show, and I was 19 when I did MadTV, and I was in way over my head. I was just sort of a goof who could do impressions of WB stars — speaking of the Dawson Van Der Beek era — and it was overwhelming. I don't think I've learned more faster in my life than when I worked on MadTV. The schedule is so different. Here at SNL, cast and writers hang out together, we all write on Tuesday nights, while there [at MadTV], it was sort of more of an "us and them" — though I befriended some lovely, wonderful writers there, in particular Michael Hitchcock from Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show fame, and he had come from The Groundlings Theatre. So when I left Mad after half a season, that's what I realized: Oh, sketch is what I want to do, but I need to learn how to do it well. So I went back and started training at The Groundlings in L.A., and I'm so grateful for that.
That's what I'm most grateful for about MadTV — is that it led me to The Groundlings. It was tough. And also, MadTV would have live tape nights where they'd bring in an audience and you'd maybe shoot five or six sketches in front of an audience, but for the most part it was all pre-taped. Here [at SNL] maybe once a week we'll do a three-minute pre-tape, but everything is live.
In my experience, SNL has Lorne Michaels, who is, you know, the captain of the ship and gives the show direction and a singular focus, whereas MadTV — even in my 13 episodes there — had maybe one too many cooks and was a bit more chaotic creatively. Whereas here, production is chaotic, but I think creatively we are all pulling the cart in the same direction.
So that brings us up to SNL! You mentioned you were at The Groundlings, but how did your audition for the show come about?TK: We were doing a show at The Groundlings Theatre, and it was a show where I was performing what has now become the "French Dance" sketches. I came back[stage] after doing that sketch at an intermission, and on the white board and on the dry-erase board our stage manager Greg had written, "By the way, Lorne Michaels is in the audience." The dry-erase board in The Groundlings greenroom — as much as it's informative, you might imagine, it's also a place for some pretty solid bits. So I was like, "Haha, very funny, yeah right," and Greg said, "No. No. He was actually out there." I don't think backstage at The Groundlings Theatre had ever been quieter.
From there, he flew four of us out there to audition. Nasim [Pedrad] was one of the four, and she and I auditioned the first time and were called back two weeks later for a second time. The first time was awesome and like a party: "Can you believe we're actually getting to audition?" and then being called back two weeks later was, "Oh my god, this is a possibility," and also, "I've given them all of my A material, what am I gonna do?" But I think just my persona — we have this server here where everything is connected online and you can pull up videos including auditions. And you can just see a difference in mine. I'm a bit more stoic and maybe a bit sweatier in my second audition. And I ended up not getting it that year, but then they called a year later out of the blue and I auditioned a third time, and that was a charm.
Did you come into SNL with any of your own characters, and have they made it on the show?
TK: It is true in that my favorite material and what I felt best represented me came out in the first audition, and [in] the second one, things that I had cut from the first audition. But I'm so grateful to The Groundlings in that I had a second audition's worth of material.
How was it being a new cast member? Was there any hazing or rights of passage before you felt "at home" at SNL?TK: There's no real "hazing," so to speak. The show and the process of it, is I think hazing enough in itself. But there's little milestones, like your first update character or your first sketch that you get on the air. And you just kind of chip away at it. There is an element of the show, like, you're good enough to be on this show, congrats: Now prove it. You don't take any comfort in getting the job. I think you get a week of sort of ignorant bliss. And then you kind of have to hit the ground running.
I've been a fan of the show my whole life and, I would even say, student of the show. So I've read every book, I've seen every interview, watched every behind-the-scenes special. And I feel like in the history of the show you hear a lot about the competition, the competitiveness, and maybe even some cutthroat maneuvers and backstabbery. The biggest surprise of getting hired on this show is how genuinely supportive the current cast and writers are. I think that's what's different in our era than any era previous, because I think the majority of people on the show were born after its creation and have kind of learned from history, so to speak, in that fighting each other doesn't get you anything. If we are able to work together and be genuinely supportive, it's hopefully going to create better material. But at the same time, the show is just competitive in nature, so there's going to be that competition. It makes it a little easier to stomach that competition if you're able to hang out and like the people you work with.
Who is your favorite character to perform on SNL?TK: I really like performing Eddie, who's the "Glice" character in the Justin Bieber episode. I like any character that's like — there's a certain amount of looseness in that character, and this show is all about precision, and there's a clock and we have to cut to commercial in 30 seconds, but that allows me a little leniency to improvise and be somewhat loose, which is what I miss from performing at The Groundlings.
So, we have to ask: At what point in the writing process does your shirt coming off happen? In the writer's room? In dress rehearsal?TK: (laughs) Well that's something worth analyzing. I know it's happened frequently.
Well we just want to know, are you offering it? Or are the writers telling you to do it? What's the magic behind it?TK: Well the one I wrote with my own doing was the hypnotist sketch, at the beginning of the season. That's all on me, and I think the writers seeing that willingness are going to take full advantage.
Who parties the hardest at the after-party?TK: I would say just from a stamina point, Timmy Robinson. On Tim Robinson's headstone it will say, "You wanna grab one more?"
Who is your favorite person to collaborate with at SNL?
TK: Rob Klein, who is one of the writers — I write a lot of my stuff with him. I write Maryville animatronics with him, I write the "French Dance" with him, I wrote "Glice" with him. Cast-wise, Vanessa Bayer, I just love her to pieces.
Who is your all-time favorite cast member?TK: That's a good one. Probably Eddie Murphy.
If you're up for it, can we play word association with old cast members? We'll say their name and you say the first thing that comes to mind.Molly Shannon.TK: Fearless.
Chevy Chase.TK: Hokey.
Chris Farley.TK: An assault. That's two, I know.
Amy Poehler.TK: Lovely.
Will Ferrell.TK: The master.
Phil Hartman.TK: Versatile.
Tina Fey.TK: Smart.
Eddie Murphy.TK: Fun.
Maya Rudolph.TK: Musical.
Mike Myers.TK: A character.