Bill Hader: Lover of MeTV

Bill Hader is on a roll. The gifted comedy actor and writer left Saturday Night Live last year after eight seasons (and about a million memorable celebrity impressions—here’s an eight minute compilation) and a slew of memorable characters. He’s focusing on feature films at the moment, adding to an already impressive resume that includes Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, Adventureland and more.

He was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1978, and migrated to Los Angeles after college to dive into the world of improv and sketch comedy. In 2005 he became a featured player on SNL, and he’s also worked on South Park since 2008. Vanity Fair Magazine recently pegged Hader as one of “Comedy’s New Legends.” Our recent chat with him was relaxed and fun, and the actor relished the opportunity to talk about the shows that inspired him when he was growing up, and seemed pretty pleased that there's a network where these shows—and more that he’s seeing for the first time—can be found.

Was TV a big part of your life as a child?
Yeah, it was. Our family watched a lot of TV growing up, and also a lot of movies, late night movies. My earliest memories are of the family all watching TV, and then watching a movie my dad had rented.

Any specific memories of any movies?
Some of the things I remember him bringing home were Raising Arizona, Back To School with Rodney Dangerfield, Overboard. But we’d all watch that stuff, and then sometimes I would stay up with my dad and we’d watch old movies or old TV shows. We had channel 13 in Tulsa, and I guess that’s why I’m so attracted to Me-TV, because it reminds me of those shows, you know, Saturday night horror movies and all that. I remember watching The Wild Bunch, but it was edited, and then great westerns, movies like Zulu, The Magnificent Seven.

Then there were the TV shows like Perry Mason, Get Smart and Car 54, Where Are You?, and animated stuff like Beanie & Cecil, and Claymation stuff. I loved SCTV reruns, and Saturday Night Live, obviously.

What era of SNL were you brought up with?
I was brought up with the Dana Carvey, Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks era. I would also add the sort of classic late ‘70s/early ‘80s comedies like Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, Airplane, you know, things like that. The Groove Tube, that was another one.

A lot of your impressions and characters seem to be based on the older actors, like Vincent Price and that older style of acting. 
Oh yeah, that’s the thing that Jim Downey, who was an SNL writer, would say. For a good impression, you want someone with handles. Which means, they need to have something you can really grab onto, something you can really mimic. And it was harder when someone didn’t have an apparent handle to him or her. I had to do Robert Pattinson from Twilight, and that was just kind of a look, I guess. But Vincent 
Price and James Mason and guys like that, there’s so much there, so much character.

But then there are ones like Alan Alda…
Well I see Alan Alda as having huge handles, just the way he speaks and the way he elliptically cuts himself off. He has a very loose way of delivering his dialogue, especially in those Woody Allen movies. I knew him from M*A*S*H as a kid, but really the Woody Allen movie Crimes and Misdemeanors is where that impression comes from.

Tell us why you watch Me-TV and what you like about it! 
Well, the way I found out about it, I was just going through the guide late one night and I just saw, The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, and The Phil Silvers Show all on in one night, and I was like, “What?!” And so Me-TV, when I first saw it, it brought back the joy of growing up and watching channel 13 in Tulsa, where they’d show all these old movies and TV shows at night. And that was my channel. I don’t know if esoteric is the right word, but it’d have Gilligan’s Island and all those things, the ‘70s Bob Newhart Show, Mary Hartman, things like that. And I really responded to those shows. The Honeymooners was huge, and Sergeant Bilko. They would play Sid Caesar sometimes, and I was just so attracted to that. And then they would play all these old horror films at night, Vincent Price movies – that was where I saw all that stuff, on channel 13 at night on the weekends.

I mean, you guys do it in those great commercials, like ‘these are the words you’re not going to hear on Me-TV.’ When I saw that, I was like, this is definitely my network! I don’t watch much television, but it’s so good to watch stuff where the writing is so sharp; I like all the old actors, and the feel of those shows. Twilight Zone is huge for me.

Do you have any favorite episodes?
Man, I have so many. That episode with Agnes Moorehead, The Invaders, that’s pretty outstanding, but they’re all great. And you guys also have Night Gallery – that’s another thing – you guys have stuff that I never got a chance to watch, so I’m kind of discovering Night Gallery and Columbo. I never watched those, and so I’m watching them now. Shows like Emergency!, I like watching. 

You mentioned The Phil Silvers Show earlier. A lot of actors cite that as one of their favorites. What is it about that show that draws you in?
When I found out it was Larry David’s favorite show, it made so much sense to me, because it’s the Army, and so there’s this super high status setting, but it’s never about the military. It’s always about this trivial, dumb stuff! And Phil Silvers is hilarious, but he has this honesty to why he’s funny, you know what I mean? He’s not trying to be funny. He’s not pushing it too much. His frustration comes from his dumb schemes and stuff, because you know they’re going to backfire, and it’s so much fun watching him deal with that. He’s just a great actor and everyone around him is fantastic.

All those other characters, they don’t even know how funny they are. They’re just naturally funny. Like if any of those guys tried to be funny, it wouldn’t work. And I always felt that way about Seinfeld, too. They would hire people who were just weird, straight, interesting characters on their own. And Bilko has that.

There’s that one episode where he isn’t paying attention and he lets a monkey go through basic training. And the monkey stands trial and Bilko’s his defense attorney. There’s this scene where the prosecuting attorney is making his opening arguments, and the monkey’s sitting next to Bilko and the monkey has his hand up, and he’s kind of hunched over and leaning into Bilko like he’s conferring with him. And you don’t hear what Bilko is saying because it’s very straight; and it’s just things like that, playing it straight but adding that one surreal and weird element. I think that’s why people keep coming back to Bilko. The conflicts in those shows are so mundane, and that’s what’s so funny about them. And you see that especially in Larry David’s stuff.

What about some other Me-TV shows, like Star Trek?
That’s a big one, but I actually got into Star Trek way late. I was writing on South Park and Trey Parker was saying that Star Trek was his favorite show, and that they’re constantly making Star Trek references in South Park. Ben Stiller is obsessed with Star Trek too. And again the writing is so great—it’s such a subversive show.

What about Batman?
I love Batman. I used to watch that all the time as a kid. I loved Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. I loved that manic, crazy energy he had. And then of course, Adam West, with that great delivery of his.

What about The Honeymooners?
I love The Honeymooners, and the thing is, I really love Art Carney—he’s the character for me on The Honeymooners. With him, it’s about watching his behavior, more so than him just delivering snappy one-liners or something. Just watching Norton; he was that guy. And then I remember later in high school seeing Harry & Tonto, and thinking, that’s Art Carney, the man is a genius!

Now we know you’re friends with Vince Gilligan. You can’t give us a scoop and let us know if you’re working on Better Call Saul, can you?
No, I can tell you right now I’m not involved! Vince and I have been emailing all week, because I saw he mentioned Me-TV, and I was like, of course! And I recently was emailing JJ Abrams (writer/producer whose credits include Felicity, Alias, Six Degrees, Lost, Fringe, Believe and much more) and I asked him if he was watching Me-TV. He said, no, why? And I told him your lineup and he was like, holy s*@#! He was really excited, and he said, wait, Twilight Zone and Night Gallery and Thriller, all in a row?

Okay, it’s plug time. We’ve heard a lot about The Skeleton Twins. Can you tell us about it?
Oh, yeah! It’s a movie that Kristen Wiig and I did. We play these estranged twins who end up reconnecting. It’s more of a drama, and it played at Sundance and went over very well. It got a nice reception. It’s coming out in September. It’s me and Kristen and Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Joanna Gleason, a great cast. There’s another movie called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, I’ve got a little part in that. And then I’m getting ready to shoot a Judd Apatow movie called Train Wreck.

Thanks so much for talking to us today, Bill, and thanks for watching Me-TV.
I’m being honest, this has been really cool. I always have to do press and stuff, but this is the kind of thing I get excited about!

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