In The End, Heidi Gardner Just Wants To Make You Laugh
Heidi Gardner has just finished her second season on Saturday Night Live – known for her breakout characters like Bailey the Movie Critic and Angel the Girlfriend in Every Boxing Movie – and, instead of letting out that deep sigh of relief that comes after an SNL season comes to an end, she’s instead meeting me at an East Village bistro on an unseasonably sweltering New York City Monday afternoon so I can ask her questions about her life. (On her first day off of the summer, this was something I felt legitimately bad about.)
Gardner grew up Raytown, Missouri, a suburb just east of Kansas City. (I went to high school not far from there, so prepare for some local cultural references ahead.) Gardner’s story isn’t exactly the usual path to Saturday Night Live. Okay, well, yes, some of it is – like the part about being part of the famed improv/sketch comedy troupe, the Groundlings. But what makes this unique is Gardner joined the Groundlings kind of on a whim. After dropping out of the University of Missouri, Gardner headed west to Los Angeles, not for fame and fortune, but to cut hair – which she did for nine years before channeling the gumption to audition for the Groundlings. It was here she started to become, as she puts it, less shy and a lot of her Midwestern insecurities started to melt away. (Though, as she says ahead, she still considers herself very insecure.)
It was about a third of the way through this past season that Saturday Night Live started to make a shift from political satire to more traditional, “evergreen,” if you will, sketch comedy. Gardner, admittedly, doesn’t have a lot of interest in political humor, so the shift (which she agrees did happen) hugely benefited her. And it’s not surprising to learn that her favorite era of SNL was the late 1980s into the early 1990s, considering her brand of comedy does share similarities with that era. What is surprising is that she was watching that era of Saturday Night Live when she was six. And over the course of our lunch, Gardner walked me through a lot of her cultural sweet spots, including movies as wide-ranging as The Cable Guy, to Parenthood, to Buffalo ’66.
And since we were meeting on the day after the finale of the biggest TV show of the past decade, we started our discussion by airing our grievances with it.
Should we talk about Game of Thrones?
Yes. How do you feel?
About three or four weeks ago someone posted spoilers on Reddit that turned out to be true, so I’ve had time to get used to this.
Whoa. Okay. Now, did this guy have insider info?
It’s assumed he did, yes. And he had the big Bran plot point…
I mean, I get it…
Do you though?
I mean, I guess I get it in this weird, obscure way, but no one I know has ever cared about the one-eyed raven, or understood it or thought it was cool.
They literally wrote him off the show for an entire season.
So I just feel the show, the creators, and George R.R. Martin, and maybe even the cast thinks that Bran is this special thing, but we’re not in on that. None of us have ever embraced him. So it didn’t pay off, I feel like, for any fan. I mean, it was fine. I was glad that Jon Snow went with the Wildlings. That was cool. Because to think about him just in Castle Black forever again, that bummed me out. So yeah.
How old were you when you moved from Kansas City to Los Angeles?
When I moved to California, I had just turned 21. I was in college, and nothing was necessarily sticking. And you know, you’re paying a lot for college.
Was this Mizzou?
I was at Mizzou at this point. So nothing was sticking and my friend had asked me to give him a haircut once, and then I just started cutting all my friends’ hair and I’m like, “Well, I’m kind of good at this. I don’t feel like I’m good at school.” [The waiter asks for our order.] I could order if you’re ready.
I never know what to get at these types of situations. You don’t want to be like, “One giant steak please!”
Get a steak!
I’m not going to get a steak.
So I was like, okay, I’m going to drop out of school and I’ll go to cosmetology school. I’ll do hair. I think I had a lot of shame about dropping out of school. That sounded “bad.” And so I was like, well, maybe if I say I’m going to go to school in L.A. for hair, that sounds cooler. It was a very shame-based position of scared what people would think of me. I think I had saved $600 to move to L.A. with. And I was, again, ashamed and not going to tell my family and just go out there with $600. On my 21st birthday, my brother gave me an envelope that said, “Open me in LA.” So when I landed in L.A. – or maybe even when I was at the airport at Kansas City; I couldn’t wait – I opened that card and it was a check dated for my birthday and in the amount of the year I was born, $1,983. He saved me. And then, yeah, I went to school for hair and makeup in L.A. and ended up working in a salon for like nine years.
Growing up in Kansas City not far from where you did, this makes sense. For instance, I didn’t know the job I have now was at all an option.
Exactly. But I was obsessed with SNL. I was obsessed with comedy. I was obsessed with movies. I was obsessed with this whole world. But if you don’t grow up as a child actor at the Coterie Theatre [in Kansas City], you just don’t feel like there’s a path at all. So I totally feel you there.
So you didn’t do comedy at all in Kansas City?
No. It’s funny that, also, I didn’t do theater at all. But at our school talent show, my friend and I would do funny skits, so it was like I was doing these things that translate into this thing, but there was no clear path or anything.
It’s gone now I think, but I remember ComedySportz was a big thing in the 90s.
My dad did ComedySportz!
Yeah, when I was really little. It was great. It was so much fun.
So then after nine years in L.A., you just on a whim started with The Groundlings?
I’d always heard of The Groundlings. So I went to an improv show one Thursday night, which blew my mind. It was so funny. And then we went back Saturday night for the sketch show, which at that time Melissa McCarthy was still in. We saw her perform and it was like, “Why isn’t this the biggest star in the world?” And six months later Bridesmaids came out and everything changed. But after that week, seeing those two shows, I was just like, oh man. But, again, way too scared to do anything about it. And my husband and my friend Rachel, who was in The Groundlings, were like, “Just take a class. Take an improv class.” My friend Rachel was like, “Just audition into Basic.” I was like, “I’ve never auditioned! I’m not an actor!”
This sounds extremely intimidating.
So once I took that first class, I just realized how much it was changing my life in a good way. I was becoming a little less shy. I was saying sorry less because they tell you, “Stupid things are gonna come out of your mouth. Don’t immediately go like, sorry. Sorry.”
Oh, saying sorry for everything, that’s very hard to stop for people from the Midwest.
Oh, my god. Yes!
I’ve lived in New York for 15 years. If I walk out of here and some guy just rams right into me, I’ll go, “Oops, sorry about that.”
I can’t help it.
I mean, I still have a little bit of it. I mean, I think yesterday someone for sure ran into me and I was like, “Sorry!”
So what era of SNL was your sweet spot?
I feel like my favorite, when I first started watching, was like the Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey crossover into Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Adam Sandler.
Wow, you were really young when you started watching.
So it’s that. And then the reruns were Eddie Murphy “gonna get in the hot tub” stuff. So it was all a ball of that and “Wayne’s World” that just really got me hooked. And then once I got a little older, Will Ferrell came on.
Okay, this is making sense, because your characters do have similar sensibilities from that era. More character-driven comedy than the events of the day.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, there’s a premise, but it’s definitely not a high concept, and it’s just these characters in a situation.
You would have been, what, six years old?
I always remember that when I was six years old, my parents, it’s great for me now, but I think they just introduced me to things maybe a little young, or I was just sitting next to them watching the TV and they didn’t censor. But I had a babysitter once when I was six who was like “What do you want to do?” And I was like, “Can we watch Spinal Tap?” She was like, “What?”
She was like, “No. First off, I don’t have access. And what?”
What was the call from Lorne like when he told you got the show?
You know, you’re just waiting to hear anything. And I definitely didn’t think that was the first thing I was going to hear. You just want to hear good news of any sort. But you can’t stop thinking about it. So I was in L.A. at the time. I had driven to the grocery store, not to get groceries, just to walk around and do something because the only other thing I was doing was watching The Great British Bake-Off just to take my mind off things. So I had just pulled into the parking lot and my phone rang. It was a New York number, no ID though. And I answered and it was like, “Heidi Gardner? I’ve got Lorne Michaels on the phone for you.” And I tried to act like that wasn’t a big deal, so I was like “Uh-huh.”
So where were you at when this happened?
In my car in the parking lot at Gelson’s grocery store. And the next thing, I heard his voice and he said, “Hi Heidi, I’m calling to let you know that I’m bringing you onto the cast.” So it was like he just kind of immediately said it and I don’t think I said anything because I was in shock. And then he just kind of talked to me about what would be happening in the next couple weeks. And then, you know, it’s like two and a half minutes into it and I realize I haven’t even thanked this man who is changing my life.
So how long does the euphoria last before you go into another round of, “Oh my god, now here’s a whole new crop of worries”?
The thing I was worried about the most the first week was, well, I hear about these writing nights, you know, you’re up all night and so I’m going to be up all night. But in my adulthood I’ve had times with friends where we’re going to do a Nicolas Cage movie marathon and stay up the entire night, and always around 3:00 I’m like, “Sorry dudes, can’t do it.” But you’re just in the moment and you do it.
I’ve heard the craziest ideas happen around six in the morning?
I will say, yes, for me the craziest stuff does come around six. I don’t know that it’s good, though. I mean I just wrote a stupid one this last week with one of the writers, Andrew Dismukes, where it’s like these kids at an 8th-grade graduation party who are playing pool at their aunt and uncle’s in their game room. But their aunt and uncle just happen to be minor league pool players and like, “No, you don’t learn by having someone show you. You learn by having a minor league pool player guide you from behind.”
Two shows ago you did Baily the film critic. Who added the “Believe Constance Wu” line?
Yeah, me and Fran Gillespie and Sudi Green were trying to figure out a laugh line, and I think Fran said it. Well, it was either Fran or Sudi, but I think Fran said it. And then we were all playing on how we should say it. But Fran said, “Believe Constance Wu,” and it was that is what Bailey would think the Me Too movement is.
So you just finished your second season. How are you feeling about the show?
Just by its nature the job keeps you on your toes, because I always say, like on a Sunday, that’s kind of your only day to celebrate. But also you’re kind of sleep-deprived and out of it. Because then Monday comes and you have to pitch an idea to the host, you have to think of a sketch idea for the next week – so then you go back into the anxiety of, “Will I ever be funny again?”
Have you really said that? “Will I ever be funny again?”
Yes. I mean, constantly. And I know it sounds corny, but you’re getting to perform and you’re getting to show your stuff and you’re getting another rep in, so it all means something. But it’s just hard if you’re looking at it as “getting something on the show” is the ultimate goal. If your mind is there, then you’ll never be able to see that all the stuff in the journey is really worthwhile to everyone.
You really don’t do political sketches. Not that you can’t…
No, no, but I don’t. I haven’t really shown any sort of political-ness at all.
A few weeks into this season SNL seemed to drift away from political and topical to more straight comedy sketches. This seems to be where your…
Sweet spot is? Yeah. Right now I’m just trying to go with what comes naturally to me and what I’m comfortable with, which doesn’t always translate for what the show needs, either. Because if it was more in the beginning of the season when everything was more politically driven, sometimes you just have to admit to yourself, “Yeah. I’m not there yet, so that’s okay,” rather than try to force the issue.
Was the way the show is covered on the internet a shock?
Yeah. And what’s weird is that I finally kind of had to say to myself, I don’t think there’s a benefit (to reading any of it). Obviously, you are looking at it because, if I’m being honest, you want to see someone praise you. So you’re looking for praise. When you see something that’s not praise – even if it’s a good critique, or sometimes stuff is just a little more mean-spirited – it hurts really, really bad. And it’s almost like all the good things you read, if you read one thing that you don’t like quite as much or that hurts your feelings, you just fixate on that. And so, either way, I now just don’t go looking. Because I just know at this point I’m still an insecure person. I know how it’s going to affect me. And I totally understand. You know, I can be critical of things I watch. I totally understand why you wouldn’t like that.
Right. We just did it with Game of Thrones.
Yeah. Why you wouldn’t like that? But it is the “coming at someone” that hurts, or just feels unnecessary sometimes.
I used to write about the show on a weekly basis. It was after spending a week there with the set designers that I realized this show is a minor miracle it exists every week. So I started to have trouble with, “How come this thing that they just came up with and built in three days is not exactly what I wanted?”
Yes, that is so cool to hear because, yeah, and I get it. When you’re not in it, you don’t know, but yes, the amount that goes into set, wardrobe, wigs, writing, acting, producing the entire show? It’s a total miracle. It’s a miracle the show even still exists. And so, “Why did they do that?,” or, “Why did they use the host this way?” And it’s like, well maybe the host wanted to do that. It’s making it seem like all these people are dumb when really these are like pros of the pros.
Again, I’m very hard on myself, regardless of what someone thinks or writes about me. I have a lot of insecurities and a lot of things that I’m like, “I need to do better in this area or this area.” So I’m always going to be pushing myself. I have read something and then I feel like it gets in my head. No one else told me it, no one else at the job told me it, but I’m adjusting myself because I read this one thing. And I don’t think that’s healthy, you know? So it’s best just not to put it in there.
You mentioned Spinal Tap. What were your other movie influences?
So you know, Jim Carrey was big. Obviously Dumb and Dumber was huge. But when The Cable Guy came out, I felt like that’s Jim Carrey at his best and Ben Stiller at his best, and these minor characters in it like Owen Wilson and Jack Black. It was like the absurdly funny Jim Carrey and then also the weirdness of Ben Stiller. I feel like that kind of started molding and shaping what I liked in comedy. I loved Tenacious D.
A lot of Jack Black.
Yeah. You know, I liked dark comedies like Flirting With Disaster. A lot of people wouldn’t say that this is a comedy, but that movie Buffalo ’66, I remember seeing it with my brother and laughing so hard, thinking it was great. And the theater we saw it at, the Tivoli, it was small but the whole audience was laughing.
And the Tivoli just closed.
I know, I worked there. But the audience was laughing! And then I told my friend, Kelsey, “I have to take you to go see this movie!” And I went the next day. Same amount of people in the theater, and there were no laughs. You could just see it in two different ways. I get it. It’s also a very sad, dark movie. I also love the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
Oh, I just watched it. I know it’s weird to watch it in May.
I don’t think so. And I’ve loved it since I was six years old. You know, I watch it every year and laugh in all the same spots. But then it was just the last year, this is going to sound sad…
The “my hand is between two pillows” scene. I finally got it. But as a kid I used to laugh at it because everyone else who was around me was laughing.
The one that changed for me is when they were singing on the bus. I used to laugh at John Candy singing The Flintstones theme, but now it’s Steve Martin trying to get people to sing…
“Three Coins in a Fountain!”
Expecting the whole bus to just say, “Oh yeah, we all know this. Let’s sing ‘Three Coins in the Fountain.’”
It’s so good. Or when they’re in that piece of shit car, the top’s been burned off, and Michael McKean pulls them over. And he’s says, “Do you think that this is suitable, safe to drive?” And John Candy, he earnestly looks at him, “Yes. Yes I do.” My friend has this theory that something else was going on between Steve Martin and his wife, because those phone calls between them are so loaded and emotional. It seems like more than just, “I can’t make it home for Thanksgiving.” Which I know would suck, but something maybe got cut out that was bad, that they were going to divorce or something. What’s another movie I loved growing up? The movie Parenthood, I think is perfect.
Oh weird, I just interviewed Keanu Reeves for John Wick 3 and Parenthood was brought up.
Oh my god!
So both Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Parenthood take place in Missouri. So the trend here is you like movies set in Missouri.
Yes, I do. But, yeah, that’s one I can watch all the time. Perfect cast. I think Tom Hulce, Uncle Larry, he’s like the biggest loser of all time, so good. He gets rolled out of a car and then says, “Those are my friends.”
I feel people have forgotten that movie because of the television show.
So they should go back and see it.
I am really on a Parenthood kick right now. So we’re going to bring it back.
Yes. Let’s do it. Parenthood 2019!
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.