When the "On Air" lights went dark in NBC's Studio 8H early on Sunday, May 21, Taran Killam didn't realize he had just performed on Saturday Night Live for the last time. Later that summer, after six seasons of his seven-year contract, NBC didn't ask him back.
"It wasn't super negative," he tells NPR's It's Been A Minute. "It was just kind of messy."
Killam's final season was one of SNL's most successful. The show emerged as a voice in the 2016 campaign, though not without controversy. When Donald Trump was invited to host in November 2015, protesters gathered outside NBC's New York studio.
"We could hear the protests during our table read," Killam remembers. "As we're reading 40 mediocre sketches, we just hear, 'No Trump! Donald Trump!' ... I am embarrassed, upon reflection, just because of how everyone was right. Every person outside of that building protesting was absolutely right."
Since then, Killam has been busy. Earlier this year, he played King George III in Broadway's Hamilton. He says that while SNL prepared him for performing live, "I was probably more nervous than I've ever been, for anything, to do Hamilton."
Now he also has a new film. Killing Gunther is a mockumentary action-comedy that Killam wrote, directed and stars in (alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger). He says, "I wanted it to be something entirely original, and entirely representing all things that I love. ... I love assassins and silly, stupid comedy."
On directing for the first time
I think it probably was the hardest thing I've ever done. ... The orientation I would give each new hire, each new department head or crew member, was, "It's my first time and I don't know as much as you. I know what I would like this movie to be. But I look to you to collaborate with me to tell me when I'm wrong, and I promise that I will listen to that and always take it into consideration and only push back if I feel strongly about something."
In every creative conversation we had, I ultimately put my foot in my mouth somehow, not knowing some simple logistical thing that, had I gone to film school, I would have known — or the requirements, budgetarily or logistically, of space, of unions, of schedule. But it was so fulfilling because to get to be at the center and a part of something ... not many people get that opportunity. So I'm incredibly grateful.
On what it was like when candidate Trump hosted SNL
It was rough. It was not enjoyable at the time and something that only grows more embarrassing and shameful as time goes on. I don't necessarily put so much weight into [the idea of] Trump hosting SNL helping him become president, but there's definitely something where it normalizes him and it makes it OK for him to be part of the conversation. And I don't think the intention of having him on was ever politically based. I sincerely believe that. But I don't think it was considered — the implications that it had then and could have moving forward. And I think looking back ... there's nothing good I can take from that week. Because he's not an enjoyable person to be around — he's from a different class; he's from a different way of life. There was never any common ground. ...
The most heartbreaking moment at the time: We're at the host dinner, and he brings [his wife] Melania and he brings [his daughter] Ivanka and [son-in-law] Jared [Kushner]. And he says [to SNL creator Lorne Michaels], "You know, Lorne, if I don't win this thing, I'm gonna be fine. We just bought this beautiful piece of property in Scotland. If I have to be president, I'm never gonna see that thing." And that that was his priority in that moment, that that was even a consideration, made me sad.
On SNL becoming a voice of opposition to Trump
It certainly feels like there's some hypocrisy there. I guess you could say, "Oh, they're righting wrongs." And I don't even think it's righting wrongs. I think the show tries to — and in particular, Lorne's outlook is — play to both sides. Play to the masses, play to whatever the popular opinion is. But, boy, they could definitely mine some comedy out of owning up to it, huh?
On why Drake was one of his favorite SNL hosts
He is absolutely the theater nerd/actor kid that you first saw on Degrassi, and yet authentically — in this culture and as an artist — a master of hip-hop. And it was fascinating because he was kind and well-mannered and polite to everybody. He was in on the joke; he was bringing something to it and just full of charisma and fully relatable.
And then the second time he hosted, he wanted to host the after-after-party ... [at] Dave & Busters. And apparently he frequents, or could be a co-owner, of a strip club out of Toronto and flew down much or most or all of the staff — all the ladies there who work under the Drake corporation. And it was so funny to look around at this Dave & Busters open at 3 in the morning and see 40 nerdy, comedian writer-performers walking around [with] easily 50 to 60 strippers who are dancing and grinding. We literally saw two strippers get in a fight, and one pulled the other's weave out of her hair. And we just wanted to play the Jurassic Park game. ... [That was] Batman Drake. We had Bruce Wayne Drake [on the show], and this is Batman.
On whether he would have wanted an on-air send-off, as some departing cast members receive
Of course. Certainly. And I will say, for better or for worse, [I] got to kind of vicariously feel it through the two people I was maybe the most close with: When Bobby [Moynihan] and Vanessa [Bayer] got their proper send-off, it genuinely made me happy.
It's comedy college, and you're always an alumni. And people who I absolutely love and admire and respect were sent off even less ceremoniously, and people who I was very close to on the show while I was there were let go, or not held on to or not given the appropriate chance that I think they deserved. And that's just part of the show. It's organized chaos, and there are going to be causalities.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SAM SANDERS, HOST:
Hey, y'all. From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders. It's been a minute. This Tuesday, just like every Tuesday, we're bringing you a really great conversation. Today, "SNL" alum, actor and now director Taran Killam. Taran talked with me about his new comedy, called, "Killing Gunther." He directed the movie. He stars in the movie along with - drumroll - Arnold Schwarzenegger. We also talked about Taran's time at "SNL," and he told me how he left the show about a year before he thought he would. Alert, parents, it's one of those "SNL" stories. It features some talk about exotic dancers. All right. We also talk about Taran's role in "Hamilton." He played King George in that Broadway musical for a run earlier this year. And there's one section of the conversation that you are not going to want to miss. Taran told me all about that time in November 2015 when Donald Trump hosted "SNL." Taran was there. He has some stories.
All right. Let's get to it. Me talking to Taran Killam. He was in LA. I was in D.C. His new movie is called, "Killing Gunther." It's out this weekend. Enjoy.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: I'm trying to figure out my perfect tongue twister to do before I go in the booth. There are so many options.
TARAN KILLAM: Yeah. I'm a big what-ti to-do to-di to-day (ph).
SANDERS: I can't do that. What to - what to-do to-di to-day (ph).
KILLAM: What-ti to-do to-di to-day at a minute or two to two.
SANDERS: You're good at this.
KILLAM: Nothing distinctly hard to say, yet harder still to do. For they'll be ti-tat-to (ph) at 20 to two with a rat-ta, ta ta-ta, ta, ta-ta ta two (ph). And the dragon will come when he hears the drum.
KILLAM: At a minute or two to two today, at a minute or two.
SANDERS: Oh, my God. I'm so basic. My pre-studio mantra is just, like, over and over and over, what would Beyonce do? What would Beyonce do? What would Beyonce do? What would Beyonce do?
KILLAM: There's such power in that, though.
SANDERS: There's such power. Well, let's just get to it. My biggest bone to pick with you...
KILLAM: Oh, great.
SANDERS: It's actually praise. You brought back into my life, for the last few days, the wonderful, amazing MTV hip-hop improv comedy classic "Wild'n Out." Wild and out. However you say it. I freakin' love that show.
KILLAM: Yeah. The adjective is wilding.
SANDERS: Yes. I didn't realize that you were in it.
KILLAM: I was. I was sort of third-tier white guy on that show for three seasons.
SANDERS: Yeah. I mean, any white guy on that show was automatically first-tier 'cause there were only so many white guys.
KILLAM: That's true. That's true. No, we shone brightly.
SANDERS: (Laughter). What was the thing they would do before they would rap? They'd all be like, listen, listen.
KILLAM: Listen. That's Affion. A - each - if people were smart, which I was not, they would have their own tag. And Affion Crockett's was, listen. And Mikey's was, ay, yo, Nick.
KILLAM: Ay, yo, Nick. 'Cause he always went after - after the boss.
SANDERS: Did you have a tag?
KILLAM: I had none. I had none.
SANDERS: It's OK. You still made it.
KILLAM: All the good ones were taken. My first two would've been, listen, or, ay, yo, Nick so...
SANDERS: So my producer, Brent, just told me in my ear that's my last "Wild'n Out" question. So we're moving on.
KILLAM: (Laughter). But we haven't gotten into shirts.
KILLAM: Or - or - or swag. There's a lot of swag.
SANDERS: Exactly. Exactly. Now let's talk about this movie you did. It is something to behold. It is a - how would you describe it? Like, you describe it.
KILLAM: It's a mockumentary about hit men. So it's in the style of sort of a Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy film about a group of up and coming, bumbling hit men trying to assert themselves in the industry by taking out the man monopolizing the world of contract killing, Gunther.
SANDERS: Who was played by - drumroll...
KILLAM: Arnold Hubert Schwarzenegger.
KILLAM: I'm trying to put out that his middle name's Hubert, which it is absolutely is not, but it makes me laugh.
SANDERS: Well, now it is. If you say it three times and tweet it, it's real.
KILLAM: Arnold P. Hubert Schwarzenegger.
SANDERS: The 7th.
KILLAM: (Laughter). There's so many of us.
SANDERS: (Laughter). So what gave you the idea to make a movie like this? I've never in my life seen this movie.
KILLAM: Thank you. Yeah. That's truly the reason I set out to try to make it a reality because I just wanted to - if - if I was going to create something, write, perform in and then ultimately direct, I wanted it to be something entirely original and entirely representing all things that I love.
SANDERS: Which are assassins.
KILLAM: A - I love assassins, and I love silly, stupid comedy.
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. And it was great to see all these actors do roles that were quite different for them, for someone of them.
KILLAM: Yeah. Cool. Yeah, I think that's what drew people to it. I mean, Arnold's performance in it is probably what I'm most proud of, not only just in that, like, the get of it...
KILLAM: ...But he - you know, it's been a while since he's done a comedy, and I also found being, you know, a lifelong fan of his that a lot of the comedy comes out of, you know, the silliness of him being a fish out of water. It's sort of like big guy in a position he's not supposed to be in.
SANDERS: And it was almost self-parody.
KILLAM: Yeah. And this - this was very much more he's the architect of the humor for most of it.
SANDERS: Yeah. No, it was good. It was good.
KILLAM: Thanks, man.
SANDERS: You - OK, so you're directing for the first time. You're the star of this movie. This sounds like it was very, very hard.
KILLAM: It was. Yeah. I think it probably was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was - it was the most educational experience by far. Particularly the directing portion of it I was very good at...
SANDERS: Hell yeah.
KILLAM: ...Specifically in - you know, people and ego management is seemingly a big part of the job and...
SANDERS: Who had the biggest ego?
KILLAM: Who had the - probably me.
KILLAM: Probably me.
SANDERS: OK, OK.
KILLAM: Or, you know, my first AD, Dan Katzman I think (laughter) would be OK if I threw him under the bus too. No - but, you know, I was really well taken care of and and went into this experience hat in hand and sort of, you know, the orientation I would give each new hire, each new department head or crew member was it's my first time, and I don't know as much as you. I know what I would like this movie to be, but I - but I look to you to collaborate with me to tell me when I'm wrong, and I promise that I will listen to that and take - always take it into consideration and only push back if I feel strongly about something.
SANDERS: That sounds very humbling.
KILLAM: Yeah, yeah, certainly because there - I mean, literally in every creative conversation we had I ultimately put my foot in my mouth somehow of not knowing some simple logistical thing that, you know, had I gone to film school I would have known or the requirements, budgetary or logistically, of space, of unions, you know what I mean?
KILLAM: Of schedule. But it was so fulfilling because I - because to get to be at the center and a part of something - be it movie, TV, anything in the entertainment industry - for the entire process, from conception to release...
SANDERS: That's a lot.
KILLAM: ...Is a lot but is rare, too, you know? Not many people get that opportunity, so I'm incredibly grateful.
SANDERS: Two more questions about the movie. You made it with a lot of people you know, including your wife, Cobie Smulders, and Bobby Moynihan from "SNL." How hard was it to direct your friends, and how hard was it to direct yourself?
KILLAM: It was very easy to direct myself not because I love everything I do but because I don't love almost everything I do.
SANDERS: Oh, OK.
KILLAM: So I was able to give myself a pass, and in writing this, I had already kind of acted it out in my head so many times through writing and then getting funding and then...
SANDERS: So you had acted all those crying scenes over and over again.
KILLAM: Very easily.
SANDERS: You cry very well, Taran.
KILLAM: Thank you so much.
KILLAM: Tears of a clown.
SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.
KILLAM: Yeah. So I knew the options I wanted to give myself. I knew, you know, I had it locked and loaded, so...
KILLAM: And I knew if I scrutinized any of it I can scrutinize me better than anyone. I promise you. So at a certain point, you just have to live with it, you know what I mean? Get what you think you want to get and then live with it. Directing friends is trickier, right, because there's nothing more important to me than my friendships and my relationships with these people. And you never - and getting them to do it in the first place is such a favor. So I'm already - I already love them and now I'm indebted to them. So it does - it does get tricky communicating the desire for options and not because what they were giving me wasn't good but because, you know, the more choices they can give me the better chance this has of really kind of nailing what we want it to be. But I'm certain that I rushed through certain setups, you know what I mean?
SANDERS: How so?
KILLAM: Like when Cobie's there, I'm just like, my wife is so good.
KILLAM: I'm so proud. That's exact - oh, my gosh, it's so beautiful.
SANDERS: Look at her.
KILLAM: Yeah. And you know what was tricky about this is the mockumentary format, which is a format that I love but isn't - I've now learned - as commercially popular, you know what I mean? It's not...
SANDERS: Well, 'cause they don't get it. They don't get it.
KILLAM: They don't get it. They don't understand my art.
KILLAM: No, but it's just - it's niche, right, and it's - and it's ironic and it's a comment on a format, but it's something I love. And in shooting it that way, we weren't doing coverage, right? We weren't doing cross coverage. We weren't doing - we would do different sizes.
SANDERS: You're getting a little technical here. Explain those terms for folks that aren't, you know.
KILLAM: Sure. So coverage is like if you're doing a scene with two people at a table, you shoot a wide, which is sort of from the side and you see both people at the table and establish their positions in the scene and in the space. Then you'll turn it around, turn the camera around, and shoot one angle at one of the actors and maybe to a medium size where you can see them from the waist up and then do a close-up, which is just from the neck up. And then you turn around and do coverage of the other actor...
SANDERS: Got you.
KILLAM: ...And shoot the scene all over again.
SANDERS: Just on them.
KILLAM: Exactly. And with this movie, for a lot of the action sequences, it was single vantage point because the camera itself is a character.
KILLAM: So we were, you know...
SANDERS: That's harder.
KILLAM: There were confines. It - there was just creative confines, which I always prefer and find challenging and sometimes you discover amazing things and other times you go like, oh, that's why they do coverage.
SANDERS: (Laughter) Well, I liked it.
KILLAM: Thanks, man. Me too.
SANDERS: So let's go back to the start. You just directed this movie. You were just in "Hamilton." You did "SNL." You did "Wild 'N Out."
SANDERS: You have had such a wide-ranging career pretty early on in your career. Did you expect it to be so multifaceted?
KILLAM: I don't know. My expectations starting out were certainly very wide-eyed, and askew and fantastical, you know?
SANDERS: How so? I mean, like, what was your dream as a kid?
KILLAM: My dream - you know, once I was determined to have a career in the entertainment industry - which is pretty young - was to, you know, book that - get that first big break, be it TV or movie, then be a Jedi or a superhero, then move to the United Kingdom, and live there and become a citizen.
KILLAM: ...And eventually get to be, you know, a eighth- or ninth-generation James Bond.
KILLAM: That was the goal.
SANDERS: I love the - you were so ambitious.
KILLAM: It fell apart (laughter).
SANDERS: So how do you work your way into this space you're in now? Like, as a kid, you want to do it. Did you start studying acting, like, in high school or in college?
KILLAM: Yeah, even younger.
KILLAM: I come from kind of a showbiz-adjacent family.
KILLAM: My mother's aunt married Robert Stack, who was the host of "Unsolved Mysteries," and was Eliot Ness in "The Untouchables" series before that and...
KILLAM: So there was a little awareness. My dad was an aspiring actor when he was younger, and then aspiring musician and then full-time contractor.
KILLAM: ...Once he had kids and needed to pay the rent.
KILLAM: And so when I was 5, my mother got me headshots - you know, the pictures that actors need - and took me to an agency. And I was just precocious enough to kind of be able to walk into a room of strange adults and go like, let me sell your stuff.
SANDERS: (Laughter) Not creepy at all.
KILLAM: Oh, I'll sell this for you, sir. I want to act.
KILLAM: But I didn't - you know, that was before I really could conceive of what it meant.
KILLAM: And then my family moved to Big Bear, Calif.
SANDERS: I was reading that. I - you know, I've been to Big Bear. I was there for a wedding, probably a few years back.
KILLAM: Oh, cool. Oh, nice.
SANDERS: And it's so pretty and nice out there, you forget that people actually live there.
KILLAM: Correct. It's a resort town. So I would get that a lot - of like, do people stay here? People visit here, and we get that. No, but it was. It was beautiful and idealistic for, you know, the part of childhood that I was there, which was nine years between 6 and sort of 16 - you know, 6 1/2 - 16 was when we moved.
SANDERS: Was there a vibrant, young actor community there?
KILLAM: Not as much as you would guess for Big Bear, Calif.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
KILLAM: Although I will say, once we moved there, you know, I wouldn't audition as frequently. It would be, like, once every month or every other month, we'd drive down for two days. But then when I was around 11 or 12, a movie shot up there over the summer.
SANDERS: Really? Which movie?
KILLAM: Yeah, it's a movie called "A Pig's Tale." And it's a camp movie, and it was, like, a straight-to-VHS movie. But it was so exciting.
SANDERS: Were you in it?
KILLAM: I was an extra in it, as were many of the local kids. And so that sort of - you know, that lit a fire a little bit. But by that time, I was also starting to do school plays, school musicals, and that got me into it. And then when I was 15, 16, I auditioned for the arts high school here in Los Angeles and got in, and that's when things got...
SANDERS: Which is quite the accomplishment.
KILLAM: ...Stopped being polite, and started...
SAM SANDERS AND TARAN KILLAM: ...Getting real.
SANDERS: But, I mean, like, that's a big deal to go to that high school, no?
KILLAM: It is pretty competitive, I've learned. Yeah, you don't really, necessarily conceive of the competition of it, I think, you know, as a teenager or - because you're just like, ugh, I'm auditioning for this thing, and now I get to go to school where other kids act and there are cute dancer girls.
SANDERS: What is it like "Fame," the movie?
KILLAM: Yeah, less dancing on lunch tables.
SANDERS: Don't dash my dreams.
KILLAM: Sorry (laughter). No, I - don't get me wrong, there was a fair amount.
KILLAM: Yeah, it - you know, yes, in that it's, you know, public high school where kids are working hard and studying theater, and dance, and music and visual arts - and some very disciplined, and focused and knowing, you know, that this is the time to study, and others doing it a bit more on a lark or for the social element of it. I appreciate it much more now that I've come away and experienced the world a bit more.
SANDERS: And you kind of steered yourself towards musical theater, no?
KILLAM: That's correct.
SANDERS: What's your favorite musical?
KILLAM: "Les Mis."
SANDERS: Good call.
KILLAM: "Les Miserables."
SANDERS: Good call.
KILLAM: Thank you. What's yours?
SANDERS: I'ma be simple/basic and say, "The Lion King."
KILLAM: I don't hate that answer at all.
SANDERS: It's - every song in that musical is so accessible.
SANDERS: If you're 3 or 75, the music hits you right away, and you get it.
KILLAM: And from a design point of view...
SANDERS: Oh, my God, yes, yes.
KILLAM: ...So eccentric and so outside the box, and yet so comforting and accessible. Yeah, I hear you.
SANDERS: Speaking of music is - we're going to sidebar really quickly to talk about how you just did "Hamilton."
KILLAM: Yeah, that's a good musical too.
SANDERS: I've heard of it.
SANDERS: Who'd you play?
KILLAM: I played the only role I could, which is King George III, and it was a dream come true. I tell people I felt like a contest winner.
SANDERS: Wow. How'd you get it?
KILLAM: As soon as I moved to New York for "Saturday Night Live," I was, you know, in the capital of, certainly, North American theater, if not global theater.
SANDERS: Oh, yeah, it's better than West End. Let's be honest.
KILLAM: You know what I mean? Eat it, Brits. Eat it, "Cursed Child." Your good stuff comes to us.
KILLAM: You right, you right. But to answer your question, I said to any and all who would listen, I'd love to get involved in theater in any way I can. And one of those ways was 24 Hour Plays, and I became friends with Tommy Kail, who is the director of "Hamilton." And he and I were sort of fast friends and just stayed in touch. And then Lin we kind of knew because Lin...
SANDERS: I love that you're first name with Lin (laughter).
KILLAM: Yeah, man. L to the I to the N. Because he...
SANDERS: Lin - and we should say, for those who were under a rock the last half century...
KILLAM: Sure, who don't - yeah...
SANDERS: Lin-Manuel Miranda.
SANDERS: Yeah, go ahead, it's all right.
KILLAM: The genius - the certifiable genius.
KILLAM: He was hired kind of by Neil Patrick Harris to write music for "How I Met Your Mother," the show that my wife was on.
SANDERS: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
KILLAM: So we knew Lin a little bit, and it was - you know, what a small world. And then Tommy was very kind to invite me to, like, workshops, and labs and rehearsals for this really cool hip-hop-historical show about the guy on the $10 bill.
KILLAM: I was like, uh-huh.
SANDERS: Interesting idea.
KILLAM: Sure, great. Hey, I love you guys. I'll support anything you do.
SANDERS: When you went to those, like, practices did you know it was going to be a thing?
KILLAM: I knew it was good. I - you could tell the caliber of talent. Just Lin, and Tommy, and Alex Lacamoire and everybody involved was at the height of their ability, including the cast. And so what was hard, coming into rehearsal space, is, you know, just hearing, (singing) history has its eyes on you.
And they were, like, practicing the harmony, and you're like, I don't know what this means for the story, but it seems very moving and emotional.
SANDERS: Yeah, I'll go with it. You got the pipes, buddy.
KILLAM: You're very kind.
SANDERS: You got the range.
KILLAM: Yeah, so Tommy - when I didn't go back to "SNL," he's like, hey, listen, this may work out in our favor. We're - we need someone to step in for the king. Is that something you'd consider? And by he - the time he said, we need someone to step, I said, yes, please.
SANDERS: Yeah. How big of a switch was it to go from "SNL" mode to "Hamilton"?
KILLAM: Fairly big. There're parallels.
SANDERS: What parallels?
KILLAM: You know, live performance.
SANDERS: Ok, yeah.
KILLAM: Live performance, live music, that environment. But the sort of prestige and respect that I have for anyone in the world of theater really, really had me in a vulnerable position. I was worried that I was unworthy or would be seen as, you know, a fraud or - even - although, I don't - I know for a fact because it doesn't get them anything - it - you know, seen as stunt casting, though it wasn't. It was just Tommy's and Lin's belief that I could do it well.
But all that meant was, I just needed to put in the work, and go back and train with a vocal coach, Liz Caplan, who was amazing and wonderful, and, you know, show that I was there to take it seriously and honor it because you immediately feel the responsibility to the audience because these are people who have spent a lot of money, most...
SANDERS: Major coins.
KILLAM: ...Most out of their comfort zone, have waited for a long time, have waited, on average, seven or eight months, something like that.
SANDERS: And they've also heard it's the best show of all time.
KILLAM: Correct - lot of pressure, lot of hype.
KILLAM: And then they've been listening to the cast album at home, or in their cars or on their, you know, iPhones, so there's a very specific expectation of quality.
SANDERS: You got to hit your marks. You got to hit those notes.
KILLAM: You got to hit them notes. You got to hit the lyrics (laughter).
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
KILLAM: You got to say the right words. So I was probably more nervous than I've ever been for anything to do Hamilton. And it took me two weeks to get over those nerves, and then it took me another four to kind of really be comfortable and kind of start to explore, you know, freedom within a sort of very set, very - because of the character - rigid character.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
KILLAM: And then it was just the best, the best.
SANDERS: Yeah. So you mentioned having a vocal coach. I'm kind of obsessed with vocal coaching and vocal coaches.
KILLAM: Oh, cool, yeah.
SANDERS: There's an amazing profile in Jezebel of Drake's vocal coach, crazy enough.
KILLAM: Oh, cool.
SANDERS: It's a hard job and intense work, and I always imagine the first time you have your class with a vocal coach, they just make you cry. Like, how intense was that?
KILLAM: Yeah, no. Liz was only love, and warmth and I think an expert in taking people who are feeling uncomfortable or who are unsure and giving them the confidence to get better.
SANDERS: I'm only asking you these because I'm personally curious. It probably won't even make the cut. But, like, what is the, like...
KILLAM: Does Drake's vocal coach yell at him?
SANDERS: No, she's a sweet little Southern belle. She's such a sweetheart. And she said in the thing - she was like, people don't know it, but Drake works. And I even hate to admit that because I don't like him that much.
SANDERS: But she's like, the dude works. He eats well. He drinks his fluids. He goes to bed so that his voice can, like, do what it needs to do. And that surprised me about him.
KILLAM: Drake, he's fascinating to me. He is - he was one of the most enjoyable hosts in my time at "SNL."
KILLAM: And he hosted twice. Truly. Truly.
SANDERS: Really? Why?
KILLAM: Yes. Because he is...
SANDERS: It's 'cause your wife is Canadian and he's Canadian.
KILLAM: Exact - so I have to.
KILLAM: He - he is absolutely the theater nerd, actor kid that you first saw on "Degrassi..."
KILLAM: ...And yet authentically, in this culture and as an artist, you know, a master of hip-hop. So he - and it - it was fascinating 'cause he was kind and - and well-mannered and polite to everybody. He was in on the joke. He - you know what I mean? Like, he was - he was bringing something to it.
KILLAM: And - and just full of charisma and fully relatable. And then, (laughter), the second time he hosted, he wanted to host the after-party.
SANDERS: Wait. There's an after-party?
KILLAM: There's always an after-party.
SANDERS: Yeah, there is. Yes.
KILLAM: And there's an after-party, and there's an after-after-party.
SANDERS: Hey. OK.
KILLAM: So he wanted to host the after-after-party...
SANDERS: Whoa. Where?
SANDERS: (Laughter) You can't say.
KILLAM: Get ready.
KILLAM: Get ready.
SANDERS: Say it.
KILLAM: Dave and Buster's.
SANDERS: Actually low-key. I'm - I'm down for that, man.
KILLAM: It's the best. Have you done "Star Wars" pod? The pod game where you - it's amazing, if you haven't.
SANDERS: Yeah? OK. I've got to do it. But Dave and Buster's - two thumbs up.
KILLAM: So Dave and Buster's. But then this is what's great is that, apparently, he frequents or could be a co-owner of a strip club out of Toronto...
KILLAM: ...And flew down much, or most, or all of the staff.
SANDERS: Stop. Staff. By staff you mean the strippers.
KILLAM: Well, yeah. I guess that's part of it, too.
SANDERS: (Laughter). Staff. That's a nice way to put it.
KILLAM: I was thinking more the deejay, but...
KILLAM: ...All the - all the ladies there who work under, you know, the - the Drake corporation.
SANDERS: (Laughter) LLC.
KILLAM: And it's - it was so funny to look around this Dave and Buster's open at 3:00 in the morning and see 40 nerdy comedian writer-performers wandering around, easily 50 to 60 strippers who are - who are, you know, dancing and grinding and - and - and Drake's playing music.
SANDERS: What do you dance on at the Dave and Buster's? There's no poles. What do you dance on?
KILLAM: There was good space by the four-way Pac-Man machine.
KILLAM: They pushed out the pinball machines to give room for the strippers.
SANDERS: Oh, man.
KILLAM: And - and we literally saw two strippers get in a fight. And one pulled the other's weave out of her hair.
SANDERS: That's the first move, dude. That's how you assert dominance. You pull the weave out.
KILLAM: And we just wanted to play the "Jurassic Park" game.
KILLAM: We just wanted tickets at the "Big Bass" fish wheel.
SANDERS: (Laughter). Did Drake apologize? He's like, ay, yo, I'm sorry about this.
KILLAM: I mean - I - no. He was - he was in - in a different mode at that point.
KILLAM: But always - always thoughtful, always lovely, like a - like a great host. But this was like, oh, this is when - this is when Drake, you know, goes to work.
KILLAM: This is - this is Drake Batman-Drake.
KILLAM: We had Drake Bruce-Wayne-Drake, and this is Drake-Batman.
SANDERS: All right. Time for a quick break. Stick around, listeners. You don't want to miss some incredible stories about the week that Donald Trump hosted "SNL." That's coming up. Also, Taran tells me all about how and why he left the show a year before his contract was up. BRB.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: So that Drake story. It seems like being on "SNL" you'd have a lot of stories like this - amazing, is-this-real-life moments.
SANDERS: But was that just, like, another Saturday?
KILLAM: Yeah. Yeah, that one was special. That one was special 'cause, like, he went above and beyond, and he didn't have to, you know, rent that place out for us.
SANDERS: But he did.
KILLAM: You know, you very quickly get used to being comfortable around celebrity...
KILLAM: ...Being comfortable around incredible fame. Because the...
SANDERS: Yeah, which can be hard.
KILLAM: It is. It takes an adjustment. And - and I think that the show does a good job of setting an example for that.
SANDERS: How so?
KILLAM: Well, in that - in that you - you can kind of witness the writers and the cast who come before you and certainly the way that Lorne and the producers engage with the host. They sort of lay - lay it out for you that, you know, these people are out of their element and they're guests in our house.
KILLAM: And treat them as such. And that makes it very simple, right? It's - it always comes back to just - just being humans.
KILLAM: We're all just people. But - but then, you know, you're dealing with different sensitivities, different insecurities. Like, that's probably the most frustrating or difficult to deal with is when you can tell a host is really insecure or nervous or worried and then lashes out in sort of a negative way. Like, oh, this is stupid. This is not funny or - you know - yeah.
SANDERS: Yeah. I bet that experience probably prepared you to direct.
KILLAM: Very much so, yeah, yeah, absolutely, absolutely, especially because, you know, we had a very tight schedule on "Gunther." It was - we ended up with 21 days, I think.
SANDERS: Really? That's a lot for 21 days.
KILLAM: It was a lot to do in 21 days.
SANDERS: Y'all were in several locations, no?
KILLAM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We soaked all of B.C. Canada. We wrung the juice out of all of B.C. Canada that we could. But on "SNL," you're writing something on Tuesday, you're rewriting it on Thursday and you're shooting it on Friday to air on Saturday.
KILLAM: So 21 days felt like a luxury.
SANDERS: Yeah. Spoiler alert - everyone thinks it's all live. A lot of it's pre-taped for "SNL."
KILLAM: That's true.
SANDERS: And that's fine. That's fine.
SANDERS: Were you there when Trump hosted?
KILLAM: I certainly was.
SANDERS: I'm going to give you seven minutes to talk about that.
KILLAM: (Laughter) Yeah. It was it was rough.
KILLAM: It was not enjoyable at the time...
KILLAM: ...And something that only grows more embarrassing and shameful I think as time goes on.
SANDERS: You say it's shameful. Why?
KILLAM: Yeah because I don't necessarily put so much weight into how, you know, Trump hosting "SNL" helping him become president. But there's definitely something where it normalizes him and it makes him - makes it OK for him to be part of the conversation. And I don't think - I don't think that the intention of having him on was ever politically based. I sincerely believe that. But I don't think it was considered the implications that it had then and could have moving forward. And I think - I think looking back, it's something that there's no part of me that appreciates or, you know, even learns from or - you know, there's nothing good I can take from that week because he's not - he's not an enjoyable person to be around. There...
SANDERS: He wasn't during that week.
KILLAM: No. He's - you know what I mean? He's just - he's from a different - he's from a different class. He's from a different way of life. He's - you know, he's just...
SANDERS: But it's not just money what I hear you saying because there are other rich folks that were on "SNL." What was it about...
KILLAM: No, 100 percent.
SANDERS: What was it was about him?
KILLAM: Completely out of touch I think if I had to presume because it's not like - there weren't many in-depth conversations just because there's no - there was never any common ground, right?
KILLAM: There was never - there was never any, you know what I mean? You couldn't be like how was your day and him be like (imitating Donald Trump) it was fine, you know, went for a walk.
It was always like (imitating Donald Trump) my book is number one. It's very exciting. Everybody's talking about this rally.
SANDERS: V good impresh (ph).
KILLAM: You're very kind.
KILLAM: So it's just - I just am so angry (laughter). I'm just so angry at...
SANDERS: Did any of the - so strangely enough...
KILLAM: ...At him now - at him, you know what I mean? At just every move, every response, every tweet, every stance.
SANDERS: Strangely enough, I was covering the election for NPR the week that he hosted, and they sent me out there to cover all the protesters.
SANDERS: I camped out outside of "30 Rock" for a good two days and talked to folks that were basically there either to wait for extra tickets or say how much they hate this man.
SANDERS: And what I kept thinking the whole time was that there were people of color and Latinos and low-income people who were just like you don't understand how much pain this man has caused. And I don't - I can't speak to their experience, but I heard them, and it felt like some folks at "30 Rock" just did not listen to that.
KILLAM: I agree. I fully agree. We could hear the protests during our table read.
SANDERS: Are you serious?
KILLAM: As we're reading, you know, 40 mediocre sketches trying to make, you know, this funny, we just hear, you know, (imitating protest noise, unintelligible).
KILLAM: No, it's tough. And, look, say he hosts, say it plays out that I think - I'll speak just for myself...
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
KILLAM: ...Thought it would, which is (laughter) he doesn't even get past the first primary, you know what I mean? Like, he's going to be laughed off. Everybody's going to realize that this isn't a real thing and it doesn't have the same weight or gravity, right? It definitely - I'm embarrassed upon reflection just because of how everyone was right. Every person outside of that building protesting was absolutely right.
SANDERS: Did anyone in the cast and the crew and the staff go to Lorne and say, dude, shut it down?
KILLAM: I don't know. I don't know.
SANDERS: Did you?
KILLAM: I did not, no. I did not.
SANDERS: Why not?
KILLAM: I didn't have that kind of relationship, right? I didn't have...
SANDERS: It seems like no one has that type of relation with Lorne.
KILLAM: Yeah. I think he's got - he's got his inner circle and he manages that fairly tightly.
KILLAM: I had - I had gone to him about other things - significantly less important things - and rarely felt heard or considered.
KILLAM: Yeah. Yeah. That's not the dynamic that's necessarily encouraged.
SANDERS: OK. OK.
KILLAM: Yeah. So, you know, I guess the sort of lame excuse is, you know, we're - it was our job. And we're hired to put on a show with whoever the show determines, you know, is our host that week. But it was not a good time.
SANDERS: Did you have any one-on-one personal interaction with Trump during that week?
KILLAM: Yeah. But it's, like, all just like...
SANDERS: I'm sure it's a blur now.
KILLAM: I remember specifics. I remember him being like, you know, he wants to - he's constantly manipulating. He's managing. So, you know, the table read...
KILLAM: And then every rehearsal is like if the line is written, hi, I'm Donald Trump and welcome to the show, it'd be like, you know, (imitating accent) hi, I'm Donald Trump. Welcome - you know, I think I - I think I should say it, hey, guys. I'm Donald. This is the show. Welcome to it. You know what I mean? It's just more natural. You know, it's like, all right.
SANDERS: So like...
KILLAM: What a lateral move.
SANDERS: But what was he doing with that?
KILLAM: Taking ownership. It's now his idea, right?
KILLAM: And now he gets the credit. Now he's like, (imitating accent) I made it so much better. And it was, you know, like stepping to the side or stepping backwards. Like, the most heartbreaking moment at the time - we're at the host dinner, and he brings Melania. And he brings - Ivanka and Jared were all at the host dinner. And he says (imitating accent), you know, Lorne, if I don't win this thing, I'm going to be fine. We just bought this beautiful piece of property in Scotland. If I have to be president, I'm never going to see that thing.
KILLAM: And that that was his priority at that moment - you know what I mean? - that that was even a consideration, you know, made me sad.
SANDERS: I don't want to stay on this forever, but, like, how does it feel to know that "SNL" did that...
SANDERS: ...And now is, like, the face of the resistance? And you got Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon winning Emmys...
KILLAM: Yeah, it's...
SANDERS: ...For their work that is pretty anti-Trump.
KILLAM: Well, listen; I mean, Kate is a genius.
SANDERS: Of course, love her.
KILLAM: And Kate is one of the best people I know in the world...
SANDERS: Call and tell her from my show.
KILLAM: OK, deal. I'll do it right now. Alec I have only good things to say about, only good interactions, and I - has been talented for a long time. There's certainly - it certainly feels like there's some hypocrisy here - there, you know?
SANDERS: Really, with "SNL"?
KILLAM: A little bit. And I guess you could say, like, oh, they're righting wrongs. And I don't even think it's righting wrongs. I think the show tries to - and in particular, Lorne's outlook is play to both sides, play to the masses, play to whatever the popular opinion is a little bit there, you know, whatever the mass consensus is. But boy, boy, they could definitely, like, mine some comedy out of owning up to it, huh?
SANDERS: Well, since we're speaking candidly about "Saturday Night Live," how much can you talk about your exit?
KILLAM: As much as you want. You know, it was not - it was not hostile. And it wasn't super negative. It was just kind of messy, really.
SANDERS: Whose idea was it for you to go?
KILLAM: Well, the way it worked is there's a - there's, like, a pickup date, right? There's, like, a mid-July pickup date for the contract extension.
SANDERS: So every year you have to just, like...
KILLAM: Happens every year.
SANDERS: Oh, that sounds awful.
KILLAM: And this was the first year that they called and said, hey, we need more time. We're trying to figure out what the cast is going to be.
SANDERS: Whereas in previous years they call and say, you're good to go.
KILLAM: Hey, it's done. Yeah. Don't even think about it. And I only had one year left on my contract. And...
SANDERS: How many years was the contract?
SANDERS: So they give you a seven, but they can take it away any year they want?
KILLAM: Correct. Correct. Yeah.
SANDERS: That sounds like an awful contract for somebody to have (laughter).
KILLAM: That's showbiz. That's - I mean, any TV pilot, anything you do, that's the norm. But - so the position I was in is literally as I'm having this conversation, I'm directing my first film. I have two children and a wife who I moved out to New York for this job.
KILLAM: We're looking to get back home. I was raised in Southern California. And, you know, there's schools to consider. There's just the...
KILLAM: ...Significant move. There's many factors in my life to consider. And I just said via my representation, no, I need to know now. I need to know now because...
SANDERS: Good for you.
KILLAM: ...It's my seventh year. And look; I - you know, you're not reaching out to say, hey, we want to talk about a renegotiation for anything. You know, and it's just like we need more time to decide. And I'm like, if you don't know...
SANDERS: And you've given them six years at that point.
KILLAM: I've given them six pretty good years. Yeah. So I said, I need to know now or I'm OK to end it.
KILLAM: And the way that it all went down is my rep said, well, let's go back to them and let's get them to OK the post-production on "Gunther," which was something we would have to have cleared by the show.
SANDERS: This was time off for the show.
KILLAM: Exactly. And by the way, if I had to go back, would have been an impossibility. I don't know how I would have...
SANDERS: Done post.
KILLAM: ...Done post on the show. Yeah. And then had been offered a Showtime pilot with people that I was excited to work with...
SANDERS: Oh, nice.
KILLAM: And they said, you know, the pilot would not have interfered because it would have shot on an off week and then if it'd gotten picked wouldn't have done anything till after my time on "SNL."
SANDERS: Got you. Got you.
KILLAM: So they - you know, part of the business of it was let's go back and say if they're OK with this, we'll give them the two weeks. And I said, OK, fine. And then cut to three weeks later. And they call and they say, yeah, they've decided not to pick up your contract. And I said, OK, all right.
SANDERS: Were you OK with that?
KILLAM: I was. I was. I was OK - certainly OK to be done, certainly OK to have my life back to be done with that 'cause it's a crazy schedule.
SANDERS: Well, 'cause it's a slog, right? Like (unintelligible)...
KILLAM: It's consuming.
KILLAM: It's consuming. And it's long hours. And it's erratic hours. And more than any of that, it's so emotionally draining and challenging from day one. And I don't know that it ever really gets any easier. I think the stress it causes you and the way you handle that as soon as you get there is kind of what's going to stay with you during your run. But I was and do miss the people.
KILLAM: I do miss my friends, you know, who are still my friends and will be for forever. But I missed and was certainly sad to not, you know, shake the hands of all of our crew members and say thank you and, you know, say keep in touch. And I do with people whose information I shared. But you put that much time into any place and you'd like a proper goodbye. And that was the thing that made me the most sad.
SANDERS: Well, and there's such this either public or not goodbye. Like, either they all...
SANDERS: ...Lift you up on their shoulders...
KILLAM: Right. Right.
SANDERS: ...At the end of the episode or they just don't.
KILLAM: Yeah. Yeah.
SANDERS: That's weird.
SANDERS: Did you want that?
KILLAM: Of course, certainly. And I will say, like, for better or for worse got to kind of vicariously feel it through the two people that I was maybe the most close with. When Bobby and Vanessa got their proper send off, it genuinely made me happy.
SANDERS: It's like this fraternity. Like, you're always kind of a member, you know?
KILLAM: Yeah. It's comedy college, yeah, and you're always an alumni. And, you know, people who I absolutely love and admire and respect, you know, were sent off even less ceremoniously. And people who I was very close to on the show while I was there were, you know, let go or not held onto or not given the appropriate chance that I think they deserved. And that's just part of the show. It's just - it's organized chaos, and there's going to be casualties.
SANDERS: It's also a machine. Like, you know, when you - I look at an institution like NPR, you end up in these places where people become family. But at the end of the day, the institution is still a business. And that...
SANDERS: ...Can be so painful.
KILLAM: Without a doubt. Without a doubt. And it's tricky because in entertainment, you know, particularly for "SNL," it's all about vulnerability and expression...
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.
KILLAM: ...And art and heart and thoughts and, you know, feelings. So yeah, but that's what we've signed up for, you know?
SANDERS: Yeah. I took this real dark. We're going to lighten it up a little bit.
KILLAM: Back to "Wild 'N Out."
KILLAM: You've earned three more "Wild 'N Out" questions.
SANDERS: Listen. Listen. Listen.
KILLAM: Hey, yo, Nick. Hey, yo, Nick. Ding ding ding. All right, that was live. I'm going to give that to the red team.
SANDERS: (Laughter). I want you to give me an impersonation 'cause you're really good at those. Who is your favorite person to impersonate?
KILLAM: I really like doing Brad Pitt.
SANDERS: Do it.
KILLAM: (Imitating accent) You know, Sam, very happy to be on your show - very happy. Long time, first time, thank you for having me. Dah (ph).
SANDERS: Dah. That's a really good dah.
KILLAM: (Laughter) It's his "Twelve Monkeys" It's - in "Twelve Monkeys" he does a lot of blah.
SANDERS: Oh, my God, I - you know, I would keep you forever. I try to keep these to an hour. So you got this movie. You got - what's next for you besides that? The world is your oyster.
KILLAM: Back in LA and happy to be, you know, near the Pacific.
KILLAM: Right now I'm shooting a movie with Kevin Hart in Atlanta called "Night School."
SANDERS: I've been seeing buzz about this.
SANDERS: It sounds quite promising, sir.
KILLAM: I think it's going to be pretty fun to be, you know, completely biased (laughter).
KILLAM: But, no, it's such a great cast. It's Kevin. It's Mary Lynn Rajskub. It's Rob Riggle, Al Madrigal, Yvonne Orji...
SANDERS: Molly from "Insecure"?
KILLAM: ...Who's hilarious.
SANDERS: You know I love that show.
KILLAM: The nicest lady and hilarious.
KILLAM: But it's fun. And it's going to be a good one. So I'm doing that till November and starting to write on the next thing that I'll direct.
SANDERS: I tell you what - this has been so fun. Like, I really...
KILLAM: I agree.
SANDERS: I really appreciate when someone who is obviously so gifted and talented is open to kind of just be so candid about their craft and their work and their life because you don't have to.
KILLAM: Oh, thanks, Sam.
SANDERS: You could just say, I'm-a be a good guy at X, Y, Z. But you talk about it, too, and I appreciate that.
KILLAM: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for asking good questions.
SANDERS: All right, man, take care.
KILLAM: You, too. Bye.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: Taran Killam. I mean what I said there. He was so gracious, so much fun. Also, thanks for the Nick Cannon "Wild 'N Out" shout-out. Thank you, Taran. His new movie is called "Killing Gunther." It's out this weekend. As always, we'll be back in your feed on Friday. Make sure that you share the best thing that happened to you all week. And send me the recording of your voice doing just that to email@example.com. And a reminder - depending on where you live, you can hear our podcast on the radio now, too. Make it a part of your weekend routine. Go to npr.org/stations to find out if the show is on near you. That's a wrap. I'm Sam Sanders. Thanks for listening. Talk soon.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.