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For Bill Hader, Sketch Comedy Sprung From A 'Need To Be Doing Something Creative'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's first guest, Bill Hader, just hosted "Saturday Night Live," returning to the late night sketch series where he was a regular for years. And he just launched a new comedy series on HBO called "Barry," in which he plays a hitman who stumbles on a potential new career as an actor.

On "SNL," Hader earned three Emmy nominations for his versatility as a performer, playing everyone from New York City nightclub correspondent Stefon to Italian talk show host Vinny Vedecci. But on "Barry," which premiered last Sunday, Hader doesn't even think about acting until he follows Ryan, his next assigned target as a paid assassin, to his acting class. As Barry explains to his handler, played by Stephen Root, something happened there.


BILL HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Look. Look. Look. Something really, really cool happened, OK?


HADER: (As Barry Berkman) I followed Ryan yesterday, and he went to this theater to take an acting class. And I end up doing a scene with him from "True Romance."

ROOT: (As Fuches) "True Romance" is a movie?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Yeah, it's LA theater, so I guess all the scenes they do are from movies. Point is, I was really good. And afterwards, I hung out with all of them.

ROOT: (As Fuches) Them?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) The acting class, and they're super nice.

ROOT: (As Fuches) The whole class, including the guy you were supposed to burn?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Ryan Madison. Yeah. No, he's a great dude. And I don't know. They just made me feel really good about myself, you know? And you know how you and I talk all the time about my purpose?

ROOT: (As Fuches) You think acting could be your purpose?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) I don't know. I just - I don't know - I just feel really motivated right now or something. Like, that made me feel really good.

ROOT: (As Fuches) OK, but what about what we do together, Barry?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Well, you know, they told me a very small percentage of actors actually make a living acting. You know, so most of them have day jobs. So I just figured, you know, I do night hits or something. Just...

ROOT: (As Fuches) Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Just - that's it, OK? Barry, acting is a very face-forward type of job. It's in direct conflict of being someone who anonymously kills people. You want to have a hobby or something? You could take up painting. Hitler painted (laughter). John Wayne Gacy painted. It's a good, solid hobby. It never got in the way of what they were doing.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) These are professional actors, and they're the real deal. And they say I got something.

ROOT: (As Fuches) No, I get it. I get it, but I think you got to think this thing through. I mean, you want to go out there and try to burn a guy and have him say, hey, there's the guy from chicken commercial?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) I don't know if I do commercials.

ROOT: (As Fuches) Barry, when you decided to do this for a living, you closed the door in being able to do anything else. You're a killer, Barry. You kill the bad guys.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Yeah, but this Ryan guy wasn't a bad guy.

ROOT: (As Fuches) No, no, no, no.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) He lent me a book. He's...

ROOT: (As Fuches) Stop thinking. Kill Ryan. These Chechens aren't the scariest people I've ever worked with, and they're talking about taking you off this job.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Off the job?

ROOT: (As Fuches, laughter) God, I'm sorry, but I don't feel like dying over some wannabe actor.

BIANCULLI: Terry spoke to Bill Hader in 2012 just after he got the first of his three Emmy nominations as a performer on "Saturday Night Live." Here he is in a sketch from that show, a trailer for a pretend movie with Hader providing the voices of both the announcer and one of the film's stars, Alan Alda.


HADER: (As character) This Friday, from the makers of "Valentine's Day" and "New Year's Eve" comes the story of the whole world coming together on one night to celebrate "The Apocalypse."


PINK: (Singing) So raise your glass if you are gone.

HADER: (As Alan Alda) You know, I love this whole Armageddon thing - you know, brimstone and hellfire. You know, just the other day, I strangled a guy for some flashlight batteries.

(As character) Starring literally thousands of your favorite celebrities.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: That's Bill Hader as the announcer and as Alan Alda in that trailer from "Saturday Night Live." So how did you start doing Alan Alda?

HADER: I - (laughter) that is such a good question. I think Lorne would love it if I had came in and was like, I got a really good Robert Pattinson or something. You know, somebody...


HADER: But instead, I'm like, you know, I was watching "Trouble In Paradise." I think I could get Herbert Marshall really well. And he - Lorne said someone who's alive and working now. You know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: So Alan Alda was, like, the closest - 'cause I'm like he's in "Tower Heist." He's in "Wanderlust." He's still working. He's Alan Alda. I mean, he's a national treasure, you know? That came from watching "Crimes And Misdemeanors" with my wife. And I just started doing it watching the movie 'cause he's so funny in that movie. And I was just doing it while we were watching the movie. And again, like John Mulaney, she was like, oh, you should do that on the show. And I was like, oh, really? And so we did it in a - again, another sketch that Colin Jost wrote. It was the audition tapes for "Back To The Future," and it was Alan Alda auditioning for the role of Biff, the bully. And he was like, hey, why don't you make like a tree and get out of here? You know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: (As Alan Alda) I really love this. This is such a great script. And so we thought that that was just really funny in that he's very nice.


HADER: And that he's such a nice, gregarious guy and very complimentary. So yeah, that - and then one time, John Mulaney and I tried to write a thing with Alan Alda. I will - this was what it was called in the sketch because there was the - that show out with William Shatner called, you know, "S - Explicative My Dad Says." You know what I mean? So we had My Roommate's a Blank Horse - an F-ing horse - and with Alan Alda. And it was him with this - you know, I've got this horse for a roommate.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: And it was him, like, trying to have a date. And he would come home and go, why are these horses in the house? You know, it was like - and no one laughed (laughter). We did it at the Wednesday table read, and it played to silence. (Laughter) It was one of those things where we were doing it, and I'm doing it, and you can hear people, like, you know, folding their legs...


HADER: ...You know, crossing their legs and, like, digging in their pockets to check their cellphone. You know, you can actually hear it. Like, it was really bad.

GROSS: So as we heard in the trailer for "The Apocalypse," you - you know, you were the announcer. You do so many announcer voices. Were there announcers that you used to do impressions of as a kid or that you especially enjoyed or thought were great or ridiculous on TV?

HADER: Oh, that's a really good question. I always grew up with people that I didn't know their names. Actually, you know what? Interestingly enough, Maya Rudolph - her husband is Paul Thomas Anderson, the filmmaker. And his dad was Ernie Anderson. And Ernie Anderson was the voice of ABC growing up, like "The Love Boat."

GROSS: Yep (laughter).

HADER: You know what I mean? And, like, "America's Funniest Home Videos," and like - so he was a guy I remember growing up with. And I didn't realize that until Paul was talking about him. He's like, oh, my dad was this guy Ghoulardi. And I was like, oh, wow. And I went on YouTube and went oh, that's your dad? You know (laughter), like, I loved him.

GROSS: He was a horror TV host.

HADER: Yeah, yeah. And just being, like, kind of an overall geek for stuff, just started devouring all that - you know, just going in and, you know, finding all the, you know, Ernie Anderson stuff. And it was really funny and interesting. And - so yeah. He was a guy that - without consciously doing it, I would do that, like, at school. You know, I would try to be doing those kind of voices. Another guy, to be honest - fullheartedly ripping off - is Phil Hartman. You know, he was a guy that I really liked on the show because he could do that. You know, he could be the announcer. He could be the lead in the sketch, like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. That was one of my favorite "SNL" sketches of all time. That was one I would do at school. I would walk around and do that in science class. Like, this photosynthesis - you know, I would...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: ...Like, you know, try to do that voice but, like, at 9, you know?


HADER: It didn't really sound right. He could be the lead in the sketch, but he also could be the dad and - you know, it was Matt Foley's sketches where Chris Farley was the motivational speaker - he would be the dad, and completely committed and engaged. And I remember my dad saying it to me. Like, yeah, everybody's laughing at Chris Farley, but look at Phil Hartman. I like watching Phil Hartman. And so yeah, that - yeah, I feel like I took that approach when I got to the show.

GROSS: So in addition to all the announcers you do, you do a lot of game shows. Do you watch the Game Show Network...

HADER: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Just to get inspiration?

HADER: I don't know. No, I don't.


HADER: I don't. Those - you know what the funny thing is? I will say Vince Blake, the one game show host - Simon Rich, Marika Sawyer and John Mulaney have written these game shows like What's That Name. I don't know if you remember that where we did that - where someone would come out. And you would say, you know, he's the star of "Ocean's Eleven." And they'd be like George Clooney. I'm like that's right. You know, $15 for you.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: And then it's like, all right. Then - she starred in "Pretty Woman." Julia Roberts. That's right. Twenty dollars for you. And then I go, all right, now, for $10 million...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: ...Who is this? And it's like, hey, I'm your doorman. I say hello to you every day.


HADER: What's my name? And it was so funny. And we did it with Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga where Lady Gaga knew everybody's name. And Justin Timberlake didn't even remember one of his former bandmates from *NSYNC's name.


HADER: And, like, he couldn't remember anybody's name.

GROSS: What did you do for your "Saturday Night Live" audition?

HADER: I played Vinny Vedecci, the Italian talk show host, doing impressions. So I did Vinny Vedecci doing Al Pacino, James Mason, Peter Falk - I can't remember. Oh...

GROSS: Gregory Peck?

HADER: Gregory Peck, thank you. And you know who else? That morning, they called me. My audition was at 2. My manager called me at 9 in the morning and said, they want a political impression from you, and it can't be George Bush. And I was like, OK. And I just went on C-SPAN. And I saw this thing, and it was, like, a live meeting of Parliament. And Tony Blair was up - went up and spoke. And I listened to Tony Blair. And then I called my friend, who's from the U.K. And he was like, who's this? And I did it. And he was like, is that supposed to be Tony Blair? And I was like, let me - I'll call you right back.


HADER: And then I watched it some more. And I call back and go all right, now who's this? And he was like, Tony Blair. And I was like, yeah. And he was like, all right. And I hung up.


HADER: And so, yeah, I did, you know, Tony Blair. And I had to come up with some bit for him, like, really fast, like, in my dressing room before I went out to audition. And I remember getting in the elevator for my audition and there was a guy next to me who had a backpack full of props and wigs and things. And I went, oh, my God, that guy is so prepared. I have nothing. I have no props. And that was Andy Samberg.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: And Andy Samberg said he was looking at me going, oh, that guy has no props. He doesn't need props. (Laughter). And that was the first time we met. It was in that elevator.

GROSS: Oh, that's great. So you did Vinny Vedecci for your addition. And, you know, he's a character you've done on "Saturday Night Live." And he hosts a talk show and, you know, has on celebrities. But you once did him - and this is on YouTube for anybody who wants to see it. You once did him at Garage Comedy, which is a comedy club, I assume. And you were introduced by the emcee as the replacement for a comic who had to cancel. And she said, the comic we're going to hear is actually our busboy, but he used to be Italy's top comic impressionist back in 1985.

HADER: Right.

GROSS: And then you come on stage and start, like, speaking in Italian or faux Italian.

HADER: Yeah, it's Italian gibberish.

GROSS: Italian gibberish, yeah. And then - so you start doing your impression. So I'm going to play just, like, an excerpt of that.


HADER: (As Vinny Vedecci) Impressioni, impressioni.


HADER: (As Vinny Vedecci) This is Mr. Gregory Peck in "To Kill The Mockingbirds."


HADER: (As Vinny Vedecci) Very famous racecar driving movie.


HADER: (As Vinny Vedecci) Scout - (imitating Italian). Scout, you are not a lady.


HADER: (As Vinny Vedecci) You're a tomboy. And you know what they call tomboys when they grow up, Scout? Bull dykes.


HADER: (As Vinny Vedecci, imitating Italian).


GROSS: So did the people in the audience know that you were Bill Hader, or did they really think that you were a busboy?

HADER: I think a lot of them knew I was - I think they knew it was a bit that I was doing.

GROSS: And why were you doing it? I mean, were you testing something out?

HADER: That actually was before I was on "SNL," I think.


HADER: That was before I was even on "SNL." That was my first - that was me probably working out my audition is that clip. I - before I got "SNL," I would try stuff out at live audiences. And I was in a sketch group at the time. And what happened was - quick version of a long story. Megan Mullally saw me in a show, recommending me to Lorne Michaels. Lorne Michaels came to LA and said, I want to see you in your sketch show, the show that Megan Mullally saw.

So we put on a sketch show. And in it, I did Vinny Vedecci doing impressions, kind of like what you heard, but as a sketch. So it was like I snuck an audition into a bigger sketch show. And Lorne - it went great. But Lorne, I think, kind of was like, oh, these are all his friends in the audience 'cause the place is going crazy. They all know I'm here. So Lorne said, you've got to come to New York and do it (laughter) at UCB Theatre, an audience where no one knows you.

So we came and did the show in New York with the sketch group. And we looked out, you know, in the audience and there's Tina Fey and Seth Meyers (laughter) and Amy Poehler. And I was like, oh, my gosh (laughter) - plus with a bunch of New York people going, who are these guys from LA. 'Cause they all knew - look at all the "SNL" brasses here. Who are these people? Oddly enough, Bobby Moynihan was in the audience, who later got on the show.

And I did that - what you kind of heard, that Vinny Vedecci. And I will always be thankful for this. Amy Poehler laughed really loud. And it kind of made the whole audience relax 'cause they went, oh, Amy Poehler finds this funny. We can kind of relax. This is funny. Like, this is great.

GROSS: So what were the movies you watched with your family? Did you watch old movies on TV? Or did your parents, like, rent videos and screen movies for you that they thought that you'd love?

HADER: Yeah. We - my family, we were a big movie family, even more so than television or books. Like, my grandparents - I grew - my grandparents lived next door to us when we were growing up, my mom's parents. And they were like the reading house. And then, like, my mom and dad's house was the movie house. And pretty much every night we would watch a movie, especially during the summer. It was, like, our way of relaxing. And it was all different types of films.

Everything from whatever was currently - like, my dad would come home from the video store and go, yeah, whatever, I got "Overboard" - you know, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell - let's watch this to my mom going, oh, my gosh, on Channel 13 is "To Kill A Mockingbird" or "The Enchanted Forest" or "Gone With The Wind." I remember watching all of "Gone With The Wind" on a Sunday with my parents. And it was a very communal thing.

It was something that I still - my favorite kind of thing to do with, like, my wife is to watch a movie and get caught up in it. And my wife and I recently watched the film "Take Shelter." I don't know if you saw that.

GROSS: Sure did.

HADER: It was fantastic. And that movie was - just getting caught up in it. And one - a very clear memory I have is watching "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" with Charles Laughton.

GROSS: I love that film.

HADER: Watching that movie and the scene where he swings down and saves...

GROSS: Esmeralda.

HADER: Yeah, Esmeralda. Who's the actor? It was Maureen O'Sullivan (ph)?

GROSS: Yeah.

HADER: Yeah, Maureen O'Sullivan, where he swings down and grabs her. And I just remember the way it's shot you see him way in the background, and then he kind of comes right into frame and picks her up. And it's just - it's an amazing shot. And the music kicks in. And I just remember when that happened my mom going like - gasping, you know, behind me and looking - and just her watching and going, oh, I just love this. I love that moment, you know? And...

GROSS: And then he climbs with her to the top of the Notre Dame Cathedral and holds her out to the, like, thousands of peasants who are (laughter), like, storming the cathedral below. And he holds her up and he says, sanctuary, sanctuary.

HADER: Yeah. That moment, that is one of my favorite moments because it's a great film moment. But I just think of my mom when I see it, my mom getting, like, choked up. And like, you describing it is very much how my mom talks about it. She goes, oh, I just - you know, and he does it, and you're, like, oh, it's so amazing, you know? So that feeling you just want - you just become kind of like a junkie for it. And you just go, I just want to watch - I just want that feeling over and over again (laughter).

GROSS: When I was growing up in New York "Million Dollar Movie," which was on Channel 9 in New York, used to show the same movie over and over all week. And the next week it would be a different movie shown over and over and over. And one of the movies that they frequently showed for a whole week was "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame." And so the first time I saw it, I thought it was, like, about a quarterback.


GROSS: I was expecting it to be like a football movie.

HADER: Yeah, the hunchback...

GROSS: I was, like, too really young to know the difference.

HADER: Just let me play.


GROSS: I want to be in this game (laughter).

HADER: He's the hunchback. We'll never let him play. We're Notre Dame. We're a big university. We're the Fighting Irish. We can't have a hunchback. It's like, just let him play, everybody. Sorry. Go ahead.

GROSS: So I was just - so I realized, OK, so it's not about, like, the quarterback of Notre Dame. It's, like, the hunchback of Notre Dame. But - you know, but I'll watch it.

HADER: I'll play hunchback (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah, I'll watch. And then suddenly it's like they're crowning the king of fools and there's all these, like, you know, people trying to look like clowns. And suddenly you see the hunchback's face. And he's so deformed. And it was - I wasn't prepared for it. I was so frightened. And I made my family, like, turn off the television and put on "Texas Rangers," "Tales Of Texas Rangers" (ph), instead.

HADER: (Laughter).

GROSS: And then I used to, like, sneak a peek at it because it was so scary but thrilling. And then I'd watch the - and then I just like - I realized what a beautiful, beautiful film it is.

HADER: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Were you afraid the first time you saw it? Did it...

HADER: You know what? My parents were such movie nerds that they kind of told me everything. OK, it's got Charles Laughton. And, you know, and so the first one, you know, had Lon Chaney. And you know, he did all these things with his face. But Charles Laughton - I remember my mom saying Charles Laughton is the greatest actor who will ever live. And that's how I was introduced to the movie (laughter) so that you're seeing - acting doesn't get better than this.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for joining with us. It's really been fun. Thanks for being with us.

HADER: It's a huge pleasure. No. Are you kidding? This is huge.

GROSS: Oh, it was so much fun.

HADER: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: Actor Bill Hader speaking to Terry Gross in 2012. His new comedy series "Barry" premiered last Sunday on HBO. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.