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Friday, March 16, 2012

Bio Hazard: Fucked-Up People, Fucked-Up Show

Posted by D.K. Holm on Fri, Mar 16, 2012 at 11:29 AM

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Fucked-up people make for a fucked-up show. That's the implication Saturday Night Live comic Darrell Hammond makes in his new memoir.

SNL comics have burst like humorless spiders from putrid nests into numerous movies, TV shows, stand up tours, and plays, and there have been many memoirs by and bios of these comedians, but no book has addressed the real question that plagues the show: Why isn't SNL funny? Hammond's autobiography, God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m Fucked: Tales of Stand-Up, Saturday Night Live, and Other Mind-Altering Mayhem (Harper) finally provides an indirect answer, especially if his life is held up against books about John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Michael O’Donoghue, Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, and the oral history of the show itself.

In their terrific book about screenwriting, Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon discuss booze and creativity (they’re for them). Booze relaxes you and stimulates new ideas and perspectives; it also drowns trouble when your script goes into turnaround yet again. Hammond took booze to extremes, however, along with cocaine and self-cutting, somehow managing to maintain a healthy work ethic while keeping himself blotto and/or blacking out and ending up in Mafia bars at two in the morning.

Hammond was born in Florida and wanted to be a baseball player. In a rare happy moment, the adult Hammond goes to a media event featuring aging Cleveland pitcher Bob Feller. ("I one-hopped one off the wall in left field,” Hammond writes. “Feller said, ‘You got a nice swing, son.’") Otherwise, Hammond is tormented by an emotionally withdrawn, alcoholic ex-soldier dad and a disappointed, sadistic mother, most of whose bizarre practices on his baby body Hammond repressed for many years. He discovered baseball and beer as a youth, with the second interest derailing the first.

Meanwhile, he showed a knack for mimicry and pursued a career in radio, eventually focusing on impressions. Stand up eventually took him to Manhattan and finally to an audition for SNL in 1995, where he remained on the show until 2009, after which he went rogue, appearing in plays and TV shows such as Damages. Hammond says that he was on drugs throughout his SNL career, either cocaine or various medications for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Despite these impediments, he had the longest run of any Not Ready for Prime Time Player.

Details from God, If You’re Not Up There include:

• Hammond's mother would do things like hit him in the stomach with a hammer and stick his fingers in electrical outlets. She once slammed a car door on his hand.

• While working on a Bahamas cruise line, Hammond drank 16 rums in a row and ended up in jail for purchasing cocaine. His dad had to come down and bribe him out.

• Hammond had a whole cutting system: razor blade, gauze pads, strips of precut surgical, Good News disposable razors ("the plastic top was easy to break off"). "Over the years," he writes, "I accumulated dozens of scars, narrow and neat, or raw and jagged, like angry ladders across my arms, legs, and chest."

Hammond's book is breezy about horrible things—it sounds dictated rather than written—but it tells an interesting story of crisis and redemption. It only really falters when it comes to other performers. Hammond doesn't "tell" on anybody, and is perhaps too starstruck, even when the person isn't a star but a mediocre TV talking head. ("I was totally impressed by Tim Russert." WTF?)

Except for, really, the last few weeks, SNL remains achingly unfunny. The humor has little depth or wit, relies on recurring characters, is terribly out of date (the show continually parodies game shows from the '70s), and the writers and actors simply don't know how to end a sketch. But ultimately, that isn't Hammond's fault. He worked hard and remains a brilliant mimic. At least, that's the impression he leaves.

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