SNL Grads Find a New Playground on Suburgatory
Ana Gasteyer, Rachel Dratch
In theory, the ultra-conservative, country club-going fictional town of Chatswin, N.Y., seems worlds away from the controversial, tongue-in-cheek humor of Saturday Night Live. However, thanks to the magic of Suburgatory, suburbia and Stage 8H don't feel so far apart after all.
Since debuting last year, the ABC family comedy has welcomed several SNL vets into the fold, including Ana Gasteyer, Chris Parnell and Jay Mohr. The trend continues this season with the upcoming introduction of Tim Meadows as Malik's dad and — on Wednesday's Halloween episode (9:30/8:30c on ABC) — Rachel Dratch guest-stars as Paula, Sheila Shay's (Gasteyer) childhood rival, aka "The Witch of East Chatswin."
"Paula doesn't conform to plastic surgery and everything about image, so the town naturally assumes she's a witch," says Dratch, a self-proclaimed fan of the show.
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Suburgatory's ties to 30 Rockefeller Center stem back to the pilot when Gasteyer was cast as George's nosy neighbor Sheila. "We knew the part was a little bit underwritten. I talked to Ana and I said, 'Listen, if the show winds up going, I promise that we will find more for you to do than just stand outside and water your flowers," creator and executive producer Emily Kapnek says. "Luckily enough, when the show came to fruition, we really were able to do exactly what we promised."
This included casting fellow SNL vet Parnell as Sheila's loving (read: whipped) husband Fred. Before working together live from New York every Saturday night, Gasteyer and Parnell had also overlapped at the Groundlings, where they portrayed, among other characters, an uptight married couple not too far from the Shays. "We've been playing a version of this weird suburban couple for all these years and now we're old enough to play them for real," Parnell says with a laugh.
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Reuniting former castmates from the long-running late-night sketch show might seem like a no-brainer to some, but both Gasteyer and Parnell say this has not always been the case in Hollywood. "In the past, I've heard this idea expressed that you don't want too many SNL people on a show — that that's not a good thing," Parnell says.
Such is hardly the case on Suburgatory. "It's not like we designed these roles for these actors necessarily, but there's just so much love and affection for the sort of comedic talent that [SNL] has had in its ranks," Kapnek says. "Any time you have people who are comfortable and have a history of working together, you have an instant chemistry, and that was really evident in every time we've recruited any of those people to come aboard."
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Adds Dratch: "You have this shorthand that I don't know where else you could find it because you've been through the whole thing of live TV together and you spend so much time writing together."
Besides giving the actors someone familiar to work with, casting SNL grads means the writers are already well-versed in those cast members' wide-range of skills, like musical numbers à la Gasteyer and Parnell, the latter of whom will lend his voice to the neighborhood's new dad band later this season. "We know what they're capable of, so it's about finding unique ways to make that work in our world and getting to write to that," Kapnek says. "We love the idea of what started off initially as the most sane, average family is actually one of the weirdest."
That weirdness includes seeing the Shays, particularly Sheila, go all out for every local town event, whether it be dressing up as Cinderella as part of an elaborate Mother's Day gift or donning a cat costume for the annual fall talent show. Gasteyer notes that the show's constant costume changes are not unlike SNL. "A lot of the show is artificial because it's making fun of a world that cares a lot about the surface. What you wear and how you present yourself and the commitment to frivolous adventure is really important on this show," Gasteyer says. "They're rich and bored so they do a lot of make-em-ups and dress-ups and that's what ends up being really funny about the world."
Since Suburgatory began, Gasteyer and Parnell have both been promoted to series regulars, and it sounds like there's no shortage of roles for other SNL alums hoping to pay a visit to the 'burbs. "The plan was always to try and populate the world of Chatswin with just really strong comedic actors," Kapnek says. "I think it's hard to find roles that allow actors to access all that stuff, but because we have this satirical element with the suburbs and we get to do this heightened sense, it's just a perfect landscape to play."
Suburgatory airs Wednesdays at 9:30/8:30c on ABC.