The Chicago native on writing for SNL and on his web series, 7 Minutes In Heaven
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The make-out game Seven Minutes In Heaven can evoke painful memories of awkwardly fumbling through puberty in a dark closet at a junior high boy-girl party. But Mike O’Brien, a former Chicago performer in his third season as a writer for Saturday Night Live, is slowly helping replace those memories with more enjoyable ones of Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, and Tracy Morgan hanging out with him in his closet in his new NBC web series, 7 Minutes In Heaven. O’Brien and director Rob Klein place celebrities in a small closet with cameras, suits, ties, hats, and only O’Brien. For a few minutes, they share the tight space with O’Brien as he asks them a barrage of quick-hitting, mostly nonsensical questions, such as “Please talk about ways that you are or are not similar to a horse.”
In the series, O’Brien’s knack for riding awkward, absurd moments into comedic ones shines. This will come as no surprise to those who watched him perform in Chicago, most notably as a member of one of iO’s most popular teams, The Reckoning, and as a cast member for The Second City 2008 mainstage revue, America: All Better! Now, O’Brien gets to showcase his delightfully strange comedic voice to the rest of the world. He asks supermodel Selita Banks to play an uncomfortable made-up game of “unsafe touch.” He hugs Tracy Morgan and kisses Jason Sudeikis a little too long. He asks Patricia Clarkson to channel her inner late-’90s suburban mom archetype and read the line, “Robert, if you take one more step, I’ll shoot your dick off,” from a fake script. For all the wonderfully odd moments O’Brien brings to life, he also makes sure to cast his guests in a fun, positive light through silly questions and playful closet theater, before trying to seal the deal with a kiss. Afterall, it is Seven Minutes In Heaven.
O’Brien talked with The A.V. Club from his SNL office over the course of two conversations: The first took place the day before, and the second took place a few days after, SNL’s 37th season première episode hosted by Alec Baldwin with musical guest Radiohead. O’Brien discussed the web series, his own comedic voice, performing in Chicago, and what he’s learned as a writer for Saturday Night Live.
The A.V. Club: What are the origins of 7 Minutes in Heaven?
Mike O’Brien: This is not the genesis really, but I just realized this recently. I wrote a play in Chicago where everybody plays Seven Minutes In Heaven. It was just a good way, really, to get people into a close, uncomfortable talking situation in random pairings or combinations—but that wasn’t a direct route [to the web series]. Maybe it’s something I’ve been thinking about all my life, and I don’t think I really ever played it when I was little. At the beginning of this summer, another SNL writer, Rob Klein, and I wanted to do some kind of series. We kicked around a whole bunch of different ones. The idea for 7 Minutes In Heaven seemed the least expensive, most manageable, and easy to shoot, so we started with that.
AVC: Did you ever put that play up?
MO: The play, [Mr. 1,000 Miles Per Hour], was up at Stage Left for four weeks. Probably about 30 people saw it.
AVC: Do you remember how it went?
MO: It was two 25-minute plays. The first half was these people in their early 20s, drinking and playing Seven Minutes In Heaven. One of them, during the first half, mentions that he’s writing a play, which is a Three’s Company episode placed with the background of the L.A. riots. The second half is his play, so it was pretty close to a Three’s Company episode, but with people getting more and more worried about the rioters. The Chicago Reader, I think, came out with a review. They acted like it was by two different authors. They really didn’t like the first half, but they thought the guy who wrote the second half was funny.
AVC: When you do 7 Minutes In Heaven, do you tell people you’re going to go in for a kiss at the end, or is it part of the surprise?
MO: It was part of the surprise, but almost everybody now goes and checks them out before they say yes or no. Now, I can tell they’re all ready for it. The first seven we did were all before any were posted. We didn’t tell [the guests] anything. The funny thing is they all come in concerned about prying questions about their dating life, they must get all the time, that I’m not going to ask about. I don’t want the interviews to be about gossip, because I don’t care. I just want them to be fun or funny. None of them come in being concerned about being physically assaulted. They were all just like, “Can we just not talk about my ex who is having a baby?”
AVC: Christina Ricci seemed mortified at the end when you tried to kiss her. Did she not know?
MO: She knew. She had watched them. She also, along with a lot of other people, I think, sometimes might think that the best comedic choice is to act horrified and get away from me. Kristen Wiig did that in a very organic and natural way. She giggled and crouched down, and people will almost imitate how Kristen did it, because that’s the most popular one of the series. With Christina, I don’t know; she might have been horrified.
MO: That killed me. Amy’s one of my favorites. She’s a Chicagoan, so I was so excited.
There is so much of that interview that we left out because it would only be interesting to comedy nerds. I got real Marc Maron on her. I was asking about early improv days. That’s not really what the show is about, but it’s something I was interested in.
AVC: What are some of the other moments on the cutting room floor that you liked a lot?
MO: Andy Cohen and I talked for a while about gay marriage in New York passing, which was a few days before. It was real interesting to me, but a little bit longer and more social-political. Sometimes we get into something about some issue going on, where we accidentally do an interesting interview moment, and we make sure to get that out of there. [Laughs.] We don’t want them to be, like, 11-minute interesting things. I think Marc Maron has cornered that, along with a lot of other people—Charlie Rose or whatever. This is supposed to be for fun moments.
AVC: Closet theater. Who came up with that idea?
MO: I did, or Del Close did in the sense that you’re doing bad improv. I just wanted to find a way that I could basically transport us back to Chicago and do a little improv together.
AVC: Has anyone surprised you with their improv skills?
MO: All the non-comedians are surprising to me in that they’re fine, especially like Ricci and Andy Cohen and some of those people. I’ll say that they surprised me in just how agreeable they were to go with everything. The term, “Yes, and,” from improv—they were very comfortable doing that. I would say Tracy [Morgan], and I hope this doesn’t sound mean, surprised me that he was such a good listener in the scene. I don’t know him personally, but I would say that’s probably not the first description someone would give of him: real in-tune to what’s going on, and listening at all times. He’s just constantly being hilarious, a one-man show. His background is stand-up, but he, right away, he did something that really impressed me. Real early, he helped guide the scene to where we needed to go, and got us to the next step. He’s known as a wild stand-up comedian, but I didn’t have to take care of him at all.
AVC: Was it weird to be in basically an improv scene with Tracy Morgan where he plays the more grounded role?
MO: The one where I want to date his sister, but we’re on another planet?
AVC: Yeah, he keeps it pretty grounded throughout the scene.
MO: He was excellent in that. He kept weight in the fact that we were trapped somewhere in space and let my guy be the weird one. He was great.
AVC: And then he talked to your mom on the phone to convince her to buy a new car.
MO: That was great. That was a surprise for her. I just thought of it right as we started, because I was stressed out about her driving this death trap of a Jeep. She is no longer driving it, thanks to Tracy Morgan. That was so much fun. Tracy kept leaning over and yelling right into the phone. It was so great. I love occasionally trying to get my parents or siblings involved in something weird or random. I think Tom Green did that a lot. It was like torturing his family, and it used to make me laugh a lot. I know my mom did have a lot of fun talking to him.
AVC: What did your family think about that?
MO: We’re South Side Irish people. There are like 100 cousins, aunts, and uncles. There was a big group e-mail, “Connie’s Gone Viral.”
AVC: You also got to make out pretty heavily with Patricia Clarkson. Did you see that coming at all?
MO: I was surprised by it. She was the second one we did though, so I wasn’t sure if that would always be the case. There obviously are no other Patricia Clarksons out in the world, so it’s not the case. I’d say it was like eating an amazing ice cream cone after coming out of a P.O.W. camp.
Hoda Kotb was filmed first, then Clarkson. Hoda gave a kiss, but it was very businesslike. Then with Clarkson, it was like, “Oh, wow.”
AVC: You were a pretty well-known performer in Chicago. Are you trying to get back to performing in New York? What’s your goal there, as a performer?
MO: I’m using performance here to occasionally try out material, but not looking to establish a run of anything right now. For a while now, it’ll just be SNL. But during breaks and next summer, the focus is going to be more on things like a sketch comedy album I’m making, web series, things like that. I don’t know why those feel more a good use of my time in New York, whereas in Chicago, I was just obsessed with going up live. It was all, “What is the next live thing you’re going to do? When are you going to be onstage next?” Here, it’s not about that for me. Probably it’s because I’m not a part of this community. They’re very welcoming. I get to play ASSSSCAT and some things like that, but I don’t have like 100 close friends whom I’m dying to improvise with who are hanging out in the same building in Chicago. I just know five really funny people who I get to play ASSSSCAT with every once in a while.
Hey, I’m going to have to go brainstorm a cold open. Can I call you back?
(O’Brien and The A.V. Club reconnected after the season première of SNL.)
AVC: How do you think the show went?
MO: Great. I was real happy with it. There were a lot of strong things that you could choose from. I think everyone is happy when that’s the case. A couple of things people liked didn’t get on the show, but that’s a good problem to have.
AVC: Did you have anything on the show?
MO: No, I was in the mix of people who have things cut right before. I really couldn’t argue with it. There were some really good things in the show.
AVC: Have you gotten used to that?
MO: It happens on different levels all week, even just having nothing in the mix after things are read out loud Wednesday is its own light rejection. So, I have gotten way more used to it. It’s just steady coming, so I don’t really think much of it. I felt almost nothing when it was cut Saturday. [Laughs.] You want the show to be good. You don’t win any points for having something on.
AVC: Are there any writers you like writing with, or actors you like writing for?
MO: There are a handful of writers that I gravitate toward. Some because I knew them before, like Shelly Gossman. We were onstage at The Second City together in America: All Better! and have known each other forever. Some of the guys I’ve met out here like Colin Jost, who I wrote the Insane Clown Posse underground festivals with, and Rob Klein, who directs 7 Minutes In Heaven, I’ll work with a lot. John Solomon is another one. I share an office with Jason Sudeikis, and I’m friends with him, so I end up writing for him a lot. I guess otherwise it’s definitely goes back to there are certain ideas that as soon as I think of them, I think, “That’s an Andy Samberg thing.” Certain ones, I’ll think, “That needs a crazy voice to it; that’s a Bill Hader thing.” They all kind of have their own strengths. They’re all fun to write for.
AVC: How do you toe the line of writing to an actor’s strength, but avoiding a continuation to where it turns to, “Oh, Bill Hader is doing the weird-voice guy again.”
MO: The most clear way to decide the actor is to watch them doing stuff during their downtime. When they do something that’s making both of you laugh, you see if there’s a character or situation that could be written into. But, if you’ve made up the character and now you need to decide the actor, then it’s just a gut feeling, I guess. Sometimes, it’s definitely fun to assign a role to the cast member who’s not most known for doing a certain character or status. Late in the year, it can really surprise the table-read room when suddenly a quiet cast member starts yelling their head off, or vice versa.
AVC: I’ve read before you’re most creatively fulfilled when you’re writing for yourself. Have you made a comfortable transition to having a job where you have to write for other people?
MO: I think it’s just been a fun challenge. It does feel easier than my first couple of months where I was not used to writing for other people. You don’t do that in Chicago, really. Part of it might be getting to know these people. Some of it is getting past what the stereotype of them is or what your first impression of them is when you watch them on the TV in Chicago. You get to know them, and you’re joking with them at dinner for a matter of years. Then it becomes a little easier. But yeah, I do have an easier time now. I enjoy, in the summer, getting back to writing in my own voice. There are some things that people in the cast can do that I can’t do. If I want to write something that is an insane, fun Scottish accent or some perfect impersonation of some celebrity, then I can make that come to life. [Writing for others] has advantages now that I’m starting to learn. Then, there are some others things that I’m learning are just a me thing, and I tuck that away.
AVC: Was it difficult, in the beginning, to make such a drastic transition?
MO: I think so. I may have not realized this, but what I was doing was writing for myself and then just casting Jason, Bill, or Andy as me. Sometimes that worked, and sometimes it didn’t. I wasn’t really writing for them yet. I think that’s always a little bit of the struggle, because you draw from your own opinions during the day, but you also have to think what are the mannerisms of others I can now apply to my opinion. It probably was difficult at first. Sometimes, it literally was something I performed onstage in Chicago, and I had one of those guys doing it. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. It wasn’t the best executing of writing for them that you can do.
AVC: Are there any particular SNL sketches you’ve written or worked on with someone else that you’re particularly proud of?
MO: There are a handful that I really like. They’re all kind of goofy and weird. The one I really only wrote alone was where Tina Fey was an 8-inch prostitute with a big heart.
I really like writing with Colin Jost on those underground Insane Clown Posse ones.
I’ve worked a couple of times with James Anderson, and I really like what we’ve written. The few that made it to air—and it got almost nothing at air—but it was: Jon Hamm and Jason were ’70s cops who just wanted to enjoy the fall air and kept wandering off on their motorcycle instead of going to the next crime scene. There’s one where Elton John was the first gay guy in the Old West. He rode in on his unicorn, and people can’t comprehend what he is. I really liked one in the first year I wrote with Nasim Pedrad where Smash Mouth is hiding in her closet when she’s trying to sleep.
AVC: When we last talked, you had to leave to go think of cold opens. Do you do that a lot, or just stick to sketches?
MO: Around Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, it becomes much more of a team effort. Seth [Meyers] will get everybody in one room. He’ll go off with a couple of people, and he’ll have written something. We’ll read it out loud, and then everyone pitches some more jokes and talk about it. The next day, we all read it again. But while we’re all in there, and we might have a weird sketch that might play at the end of the show, and you’re just like, “Hey guys, I can’t think of a crazy name for this high school.” It’s great, because [in] under a minute, people say 10 of the funniest things ever. It’s a nice resource. I always mention the other co-writer on sketches, but it’s a real ensemble feeling thing. The Smash Mouth one is a perfect example. The funniest line in it was a sentence someone pitched on Friday or Saturday: “What song is it that they’re singing?” “Well, I don’t want to sing it, Mom, or it’ll get stuck in your head, too.” I think that got the biggest laugh. It wasn’t me or Nasim. It starts to blur a bit whose sketch is whose.
AVC: Any particular sketches, videos, or scenes you’re particularly proud of from your time in Chicago?
MO: I was always proud of the fake proposal Shelly and I used to do [in America: All Better!] and how that felt different every night. It was just always part of the show that I could look forward to, because I wasn’t sure how the audience would act. Otherwise, I think a lot of the stuff that I got to do and still do is with The Reckoning. We would do a lot of audio-only Harolds, improv shows in the dark, or the next week, we’d be like, “Let’s try a British farce.” It was the greatest time slot. A lot of student-heavy audiences would show up, and still do every Tuesday. Most of them aren’t recorded, but a lot of my favorite memories or stuff that we still talk about are from Tuesday nights.
AVC: It seems, from watching your videos or watching you onstage, and especially in 7 Minutes In Heaven, you seem to really revel in times when things get awkward and uncomfortable.
MO: I think you build up potential energy whenever something is awkward, and then it releases the next time something funny happens. I do like that. I really loved Andy Kaufman growing up, like every comedy person does. I like when sometimes the audience isn’t quite sure what’s supposed to be happening right then and that sort of unsafe feeling, as long as you’re not punishing them. I don’t love weird for the sake of weird and just punishing the audience performance-art style—just going up and saying the word orange for an hour until they all file out, and high-five your friends because you just did art. A tense moment that releases into something rewarding is really fun.
AVC: Do you feel pretty comfortable at SNL? I guess the honeymoon phase is over. Has the awe over being at SNL gone away?
MO: I’d say I’m both very comfortable, because I’m very comfortable with my co-workers and I really like them, but the awe comes back every week or two when Paul McCartney plays, or you see it during your break on TV in some weird bar in West Virginia. You’re like, “Oh, yeah. That’s insane that I work there.”
AVC: A lot of performers have been writers first. Do you have any sense that you’re on the writer-to-performer track? Do you even know?
MO: I don’t really think about that, because I really am the happiest I’ve ever been right now in my current position. The fact that I get to write for this show and, through that, it allows me opportunities like 7 Minutes In Heaven, I’m the happiest. To be very Zen-like about it. I’m very happy in the present. I’m not sure what will be next for me, and I’m not too worried about it at the moment.
AVC: By the way, in that Reader review of Mr. 1,000 Miles Per Hour, the writer did think the two plays were by two different people. He credited the second to the Good Fritz Theater Company.
MO: My dog’s name growing up was Fritz.
AVC: He said, “Also on this bill, produced by the Good Fritz Theater Company: Victor Hicks’s Reginald Denny’s Date, a wonderfully bizarre and unexpectedly poignant mash-up of Three’s Company and the 1992 Los Angeles riots.”
MO: Victor Hicks was played by my brother-in-law Tom Flanigan in the first half. He writes this play about Reginald Denny going on a date with one of the Three’s Company gals.
AVC: And the reviewer didn’t like the first act.
MO: I’m with him on that. The first half needed more to it. The second half had something to it, a little bit, I think. I’m glad someone got credited for it.