Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club is Nathan Rabin’s ongoing exploration of books involving show business, with a special emphasis on the very bad and the very sleazy.
In many Saturday Night Live casts there is at least one “not ready for primetime player” who cuts an unmistakably parental figure. They’re invariably older than the ambitious twentysomethings that make up most casts. Darrell Hammond, who enjoyed the longest stint of any Saturday Night Live cast member ever, was one such avuncular figure. When he joined the cast at 39 he was already six years older than John Belushi was when he died; when Hammond finally left in 2009 at 53 he was the oldest cast member in the show’s history. In his many years at Saturday Night Live, Hammond came off as both a polished professional and the kind of tedious uncle who would corner you at a family function and bore you to tears talking about golf and 401(k)s and lawn maintenance because he doesn’t have anything more compelling to talk about.
So I was thoroughly surprised when I discovered Hammond was putting out a memoir documenting his decades-long battle with suicidal depression, addiction, cutting, and vicious parental abuse. Judging solely from his amiable television persona, Hammond didn’t seem like a man with a dark side, let alone someone who has wrestled with such formidable demons.
It turns out that it’s not really an either/or proposition. Having read Hammond’s 2011 memoir, God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked, I now see him as both a dark and brooding man of constant sorrow who has overcome drug addiction, multiple institutionalizations, unspeakable parental, and self-abuse and the kind of tedious uncle who would corner you at a family function and bore you to tears talking about golf and 401(k)s and lawn maintenance because he doesn’t have anything more compelling to talk about.
What’s maddening is that Hammond has, if anything, a giddy abundance of stuff to write about. His life has been a lurid melodrama, filled with screaming highs, sordid lows, and creamy middles. But this appears to be a case where the richness of the story cannot overcome the clumsy colorlessness of the storytelling.
Hammond acknowledges in a characteristically limp early chapter about his first season at Saturday Night Live that he isn’t much of a writer or an idea man, and his memoir bears that out. Combine this lack of writerly insight with a memory fogged hopelessly by decades of drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness and we have a trip through the past that is frustratingly bland and vague. God is devoid of the kind of vivid, colorful specificity that might set the narrative apart from the glut of other addiction, recovery, and show-business memoirs.
At this point, Saturday Night Live has been chronicled so exhaustively that it’s difficult to find anything new to say about it, but Hammond doesn’t even try. In Hammond’s telling, the show’s longtime patriarch Lorne Michaels isn’t the fascinatingly aloof, distant father figure of the public imagination but rather just a nice man who is brilliant at what he does and an unending source of support to the troubled author. Everyone else on Saturday Night Live is similarly brilliant. Hammond not only refrains from saying anything remotely critical about his 30 Rock colleagues—he refrains from saying anything of substance about them at all.
Hammond is far more compelling talking about his parents. His mother is easily the most morbidly fascinating character in the book. She’s a sly sociopath who puts on a lovely facade to the outside world but treats her son with vicious cruelty, subjecting him to emotional, physical, and verbal abuse, the extent and impact of which Hammond is only able to confront in his adulthood. He writes that during a perilous and desperately unhappy childhood, he bonded with his mother by doing impersonations. As is often the case, an abused child’s coping mechanism unwittingly becomes his vessel for flourishing. In that sense, the good and the bad are inextricably intertwined.
Hammond’s father, meanwhile, is less actively abusive than his mother but every bit as dark and troubled. He’s a veteran who came back from war with a shattered mind full of traumatic memories. He’s a human minefield of dysfunction and despair, but just as Hammond is able to bond with his sadistic mother over their shared love of impersonations, Hammond connects with his father by becoming a star baseball player. Baseball comes up a lot in Hammond’s memoir, always in deeply uninteresting ways.
The nature of Hammond’s comedy works against him as a writer. A stand-up who is a great storyteller can draw upon that gift when making the transition to books. Alternately, a stand-up comedian who is a gorgeous joke-writer can fill his book with hilarious, unforgettable turns of phrase. But doing killer Bill Clinton or Al Gore impersonations will not help a comedian when they make the oft-unforgiving leap to literature. Hammond’s ability to channel other people is a gift bordering on genius (he really is a profoundly talented impressionist, one of the very best), but it’s not one he can carry over to the written page.
When Hammond writes about his early experiences with mental illness and addiction, as he does extensively here, he has a tendency to undercut the seriousness of his problems with bad jokes and tortured attempts at humor, as in the following passage:
I went to the university’s mental health clinic. The poor grad student who interviewed me grew increasingly nervous as she tried to explain what was happening to me. After a time, she excused herself and brought in her supervisor. It was the first, but not the last, time someone said to me, “We don’t have what you need. We’re not able to take care of you here.” But that didn’t stop them from giving me a shitload of antidepressants and an antipsychotic prescription for good measure—Triavil, Elavil, and Mellaril. Sounds like the members of a 1950s girl group, but the only number this trio did was on my brain.
A passage like that unwittingly conveys the enormous cost of a failed joke. The limp crack about medication sounding like women’s names isn’t just despairingly unfunny. It’s also distracting—a clumsy and failed attempt to inject humor into a grim situation that undercuts its urgency with a dumb dad joke rather than let the pain breathe.
Halfway through the book Hammond comes to realize that his psychological problems are probably not the result of schizophrenia, manic depression, borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder, or multiple personality, all of which he has been diagnosed with. No, he comes to realize that his infinite darkness—his incredible capacity for self-destruction and self-harm—are caused by physical and emotional abuse from his mother, the depths and extent of which he has blocked out of his mind for the sake of self-preservation.
The book briefly becomes riveting and intense, raw and cathartic, as Hammond wrestles with his mother’s abuse, which was cruel and evil. He shares brutal, powerfully spare vignettes like the following:
I am 3 or 4 years old, and my mother is holding me close to her with one arm. In her free hand she holds a serrated steak knife. Slowly, she sticks it into the center of my tongue, making an incision about one-quarter inch to one-half inch long. It is quiet except for the sound of the hibiscus bush thump-thumping against the kitchen window. I do not struggle or cry. Somehow I know that to do so will make it worse. The kitchen floor is red with my blood.
I am 4 or 5 years old, and I’m in a park in Jacksonville, alone. When I get home, I am bleeding from my penis and my ears, and I have a 104 degree temperature. My abdomen is swollen and purplish. I will not let my mom or dad touch me. My father goes to (our maid) Myrtise so that I can be put in a tub of ice. Myrtise cleans the blood off and puts me to bed. My mom tells everyone that I had a reaction to penicillin.
Not coincidentally, these passages are devoid of glib wisecracks. There’s an awful immediacy far removed from what came before. For a brief while, the horrors of Hammond’s ravaged psyche became achingly, painfully real and the book threatens to live up to its immense potential.
Then it returns to being thoroughly underwhelming. After Hammond kicks the booze and drugs, seemingly for good—about two-thirds in—the book loses much of its narrative thrust. Hammond seems to be grasping for things to write about, which should not be a problem for a guy who was on Saturday Night Live for over a decade, was imprisoned abroad for buying cocaine, suffered unspeakable wrongs at his parents’ hands, was addicted to coke, booze, and self-harm, and spent time in mental institutions.
Hammond devotes a chapter to the superstars he worked with where we learn that every host who ever appeared on the show was great (particularly the athletes), while many of them were charming, hilarious, beautiful, ridiculously talented, and likable as well, with the notable exception of Paris Hilton. Hammond has particularly high praise for Donald Trump.
A chapter on Hammond’s dalliances with politics—and more specifically the powerful politicians he impersonated on Saturday Night Live—is even more staggeringly inane and unnecessary. Hammond thinks he’s nowhere near smart or informed enough to have opinions on politics, nor does he have anything negative to say about any politician. As he writes in the book, “How do you hate a guy you’re studying so closely? To do so would be to endorse the notion that there are people who come to Washington to not do their best, and I truly don’t believe that, no matter what side you’re on.”
To Hammond, Dick Cheney and Bill Clinton aren’t divisive political figures with complicated, contradictory legacies. They’re guys he devoted a lot of time and energy studying and, perhaps more importantly, they’re people that he’s met and who have complimented him. They’re fans. So just as Hammond has only nice things to say about everyone who has ever worked at Saturday Night Live—and seemingly everyone who ever hosted Saturday Night Live other than Paris Hilton—he similarly thinks all politicians are swell, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, who he thinks doesn’t like him due to some of his more lascivious Bill Clinton sketches.
Just when I was losing interest in the story completely, a seemingly clean and sober Hammond relapses in his 50s and begins experimenting with crack cocaine. He ends up in a ward, and the book once again becomes compelling and dark, intense and raw. A fourth character (after Hammond and his parents) comes into sharp focus in the form of “The Mayor,” a charismatic, gorgeous thief Hammond befriends despite the yawning gulf in their ages and lifestyles. But this unexpectedly sharp characterization just underlines how superficial the rest of the book feels.
To paraphrase Hammond’s benevolently inane take on why everyone involved in politics should be treated respectfully, I’m sure that Hammond came to the world of painfully confessional memoirs committed to doing his best. But despite some compelling passages, in this case Hammond’s best isn’t quite good enough.