Darrell Hammond is best known for taking over the late Phil Hartman’s role on Saturday Night Live as the resident Bill Clinton impressionist. But perhaps the most influential sketch of Hammond’s career was as Al Gore in the first presidential debate of the 2000 election, opposite Will Ferrell as George W. Bush. Everyone who saw the piece remembers each candidate’s final statement—“lockbox” for Hammond as Gore—but few know that Hammond cut himself before going onstage that night when he couldn’t remember how to do Gore’s voice. Those are the stories that make Hammond’s memoir, God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked, worth reading, even though most of his memories don’t live up to that one.
In the wake of rising young stars like John Belushi and Chris Farley, Hammond seemed like an unlikely member of the cast to undergo such a difficult struggle with drugs and alcohol, but his multiple stints in various rehab centers over the course of his career were far less publicized than theirs. Hammond was also in a unique position within the SNL cast. He was the third oldest cast member in the show’s history when he joined in 1995 at age 39, and left the show as the oldest person to ever be a cast member, at age 53. Hammond’s recollections of his personal struggles are the most intriguing sections of the book, but he leaves out a great deal. His childhood playing baseball in Florida gets a decent number of pages, and old high-school teammates like San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy get a requisite name-drop, but those sections drag with nostalgic haze.
Instead of coming up in comedy troupes like Upright Citizens Brigade or Second City in Chicago, where new comedians often feed into SNL’s repertory performers, Hammond came to the show after struggling through a tumultuous standup career full of drugs, alcohol, mental illness, and an unfortunate run-in with police in the Bahamas while working for a cruise line.
SNL mainly used Hammond for his impressions of celebrities, not as a comedic actor, and he didn’t fit in with the rest of the cast. Over 14 seasons starting in the mid-’90s, he shared the stage with Will Ferrell, Norm MacDonald, Tina Fey, and others, but he rarely ever stayed for the final curtain call. Rather than highlighting stories about hanging out with his castmates, he instead details every time he managed to make a president laugh out loud, but it’s hard to begrudge him that.
Revelations of misdiagnosed mental conditions and increasingly depressing relapses into crippling substance and alcohol problems are harrowing, as is Hammond’s history of being abused by his mother, stretching back to infancy. But too often, Hammond meanders from fascinating, terrifying details into retellings of his most notable sketches, which sound like a mediocre DVD commentary. When Hammond pulls back the curtain to reveal details of personal and family struggles, If You’re Up There is gripping. Too often, however, it loses that thread and starts recounting accomplishments like it’s checking off a grocery list.