Bill Hader is known as the most generous “laugher” in comedy. But when he’s talking about his increasingly dark HBO series Barrythose laughs come with a razor-sharp edge.
In this episode of The Last Laugh podcast, the Saturday Night Live alum goes deep on the “dumb idea” that fuels his hitman character in the show’s long-awaited third season. He also reflects on his anxiety-filled SNL experience, why he and John Mulaney never made that rumored Stefon movie, the specific genius of Documentary Now!and why he couldn’t stop laughing at Paul Rudd’s final Mac and Me prank on the final week of Conan.
When I bring up his infectious laugh, Hader is quick to characterize one of his most endearing qualities as a professional flaw. “I’m known as someone who’s not good at his job,” he tells me. “I’m terrible at my job. I break all the time. ”
At a certain point during his eight seasons on SNL, Hader says he started to feel like his constant cracking up as Stefon on “Weekend Update” or in other iconic sketches like “The Californians” was becoming a distraction. He decided to ask Lorne Michaels directly if he needed to get his act together. “Well, if what you were saying wasn’t funny, it would be a problem,” the SNL producer replied.
Hader insists that he “put no thought” into what he would do after leaving the show and admits he was in a “very privileged” position to move on without anything specific lined up. At the same time, he recalls people telling him, “So that’s it, congrats! That’s the end of your career! ”
“I was doing these interviews about leaving SNL and it was always, ‘Well, it was nice knowing you, we’ll never see you again,’ ”he adds with a laugh.
Hader also confirms that Michaels “threw out the idea” of him starring in a Stefon movie, but he and Mulaney, who wrote the iconic “Weekend Update” bits, “immediately shot it down.”
“I think our response was, it didn’t work as a sketch, that’s why it was up on ‘Update.’ I don’t know how it will be a movie, ”Hader says. “And he was like, ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense.'”
A week after Hader and castmate Fred Armisen’s final SNL episode, they walked into the IFC offices with Seth Meyers and sold their esoteric parody sketch show Documentary Now! in the room. “They were like, ‘We’ll do whatever you guys want,'” he recalls. “And we were like, ‘Are you sure? You haven’t heard the idea yet. ‘”Soon after that came lead roles in romantic comedies like Trainwreck opposite Amy Schumer and horror movies like It: Chapter 2 as the grown-up Richie Tozier.
But nothing could have prepared even his most ardent fans for Barry, which premiered on HBO in 2018 and turned Hader into the celebrated author he had dreamed of being since he was a kid growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It also won him two consecutive acting Emmy Awards for playing the titular hitman-turned-struggling actor.
Now, after an unexpected three-year hiatus, Barry is finally back on TV and is somehow even darker and funnier than ever.
Hader says it’s “a bit surreal” to have the show out in the world again after such a long break. “It’s a cliché, but it’s true: once it’s done and it’s out there, it’s not yours anymore,” he says. “I’ve been sitting with this for three years. It’s been this long process and now here we are. ”
Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. You can listen to the whole thing — including the unconventional way Hader landed on SNL, what it was like to return as host and more–by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Musicor wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.
Barry is in a pretty dark place when this season starts. Can you talk about where this character is when we return to the show?
Well, it’s been about six months since season two ended and he’s a bit in a corner. He hasn’t fully given up, but he’s pretty close.
Yeah. he’s mostly playing video games and doing some jobs on the side, but not getting too much work.
Yeah, jobs on the side and laying around. He’s kind of back to the way he was when we saw him in the pilot.
You have this incredible scene at the end of the first episode with Henry Winkler as Gene Cousineau when you are sitting across the desk from each other, where he’s really realizing that the monologue that you delivered to him in that first episode of the first season was real and he really knows who you are now.
Yeah, he knows who I am. And at the end of the first episode of season three we have a bit of a confrontation in his office. That scene was very fun to write. And I think it kind of goes to the tone of the show. I think the tone of the show is very well-summarized in that.
Well, it’s real emotions that are in there. Real anger on Cousineau’s part and very real stakes. And I think it symbolizes what the season’s about, which is a bit about consequences. I think Barry goes through life not really thinking about these consequences or he always seems a bit surprised by them. And then when we’re writing those things, you get to a certain place with it and then you decide, well, we’re either going to make it really dark or really funny.
If there’s a theme of this season, it’s probably summed up in that quote, “Forgiveness has to be earned,” which is something that NoHo Hank tells Barry and then Barry, in turn, tells Gene. Was that something that you were thinking about as a theme that you wanted to focus on and really carry through the whole season?
The themes kind of pop up organically. I’m writing season four right now. And you never want to go towards a theme. You never want to start and go, “Well, the theme is this,” and then we’re writing everything so it’s about that. Because it has to be alive and it has to move in the way it wants to go. And then it isn’t until you write everything and then you sit and look at it and you’re talking about it with the writers that suddenly that comes up. And that line, “Forgiveness has to be earned,” Liz Sarnoff came up with that line, I remember, in a writers’ meeting. Because we were talking about the scene in the backyard with NoHo Hank and Barry, and it was like, it’s not there yet. The scenes usually start a bit surfacey. Like there’s funny things being said, but nothing really happens. So then you have to keep at it and digging at it and digging at it. And as the actor in the writers’ room, I’m always going, “Well, if I’m playing NoHo Hank, I would be asking these questions.” And as I’m playing Barry, I’m asking these questions. And so in doing that, what tends to happen is that we simplify it. Everything just becomes much more simplified in terms of the emotion.
It occurred to me that Barry is kind of talking himself out of having to kill Gene in the same way that you guys were probably trying to write yourself out of having to kill off Henry Winkler, which you wouldn’t want to do because he’s so fantastic on the show. Was that something where you wrote yourself into a situation where he might have to go, but then you have to write yourself out of that?
I knew it was never going to go that way, because the two people Barry loves the most are Cousineau and Sally. So I think we always knew that wasn’t going to happen. But figuring out Barry’s boneheaded way of gaining forgiveness, that took a while. We had a bunch of different ideas. And again, what always ends up happening is it starts out kind of like you’re designing a mouse trap. “What if this happens and then that causes things to go off in this direction?” It’s nicer when it’s like, “Well, what would they do?” And you let the characters drive it. And then by Barry having this really dumb idea of how to make him give him forgiveness — it’s this really dumb, kind of earnest idea, and then you can backtrack from that going, “OK, well if he’s going to have that, then let’s show that he’s in a really bad place. He’s really lost. ” Just so I can buy on some level that this is where he would want to go. So that then informs the episode, and then that informs the next episode, and so on and so on in each scene.
“The two people Barry loves the most are Cousineau and Sally. So I think we always knew [killing them off] wasn’t going to happen. But figuring out Barry’s boneheaded way of gaining forgiveness, that took a while.”
I think this is something that’s only really hinted at in this first episode, but we slowly start to realize that Gene Cousineau is perhaps the biggest asshole in Hollywood of all time. And that becomes a really fun thing that you get to play with throughout, especially with someone like Henry, who is known for being such a nice guy.
Incredibly nice guy. That came out of — and this is another thing that happens kind of like the theme — as you’re writing, you start to see parallels between the characters that will just bubble up. Barry says to Cousineau at one point this season, “Look, we’ve both done bad things.” So then there’s this parallel narrative between the two main characters and then that can kind of spread to everybody else. But you don’t want it to be too neat and tidy. You always want it to be like, well, “What would they actually be going through?” So the Fuchs character’s is a little different and Sally’s is a bit different. NoHo Hank’s is a bit different, but it’s all kind of in the same ballpark.
Yeah, Sally’s storyline is also so compelling this season and I’m always so impressed by Sarah Goldberg in this role.
She’s amazing, yeah.
I saw that you said that she is the character that is closest to you or that’s most based on you in the show. Is that true?
Oh, no, I said that at a Q&A because a girl stood up and said that she hated Sally and I just wanted to embarrass this girl.
So that’s not how you think about it?
No, but I think all the characters have parts of you in them. It’s impossible not to. You at least have to understand the emotion behind what the person’s going through so you can write it. It might not have to be something you have experience with, but at least you’ve seen it and you can identify it.
Well, one thing you do have in common with her character this season is that she’s now a showrunner and she’s wearing all these hats on her show. And I imagine that is something that you related to or came from your own experience somewhat.
Oh, very much so, yeah. I mean, there’s a big long “oner” shot in the first episode that is very autobiographical.
What experiences of your own were you thinking about when you wrote that or when you shot that?
Well, when I was writing it, I was like, “Oh, it should be a ‘oner’ kind of taking you through Sally’s day on set or what her experience on set is like.” But I didn’t want it to be a “oner” for the sake of being a “oner.” And when I step onto a set, I feel very small. I feel like it’s this big thing that’s just just way bigger than me. And that’s “in charge of it,” but it’s this mammoth thing. And as it moves from this wide shot, the camera slowly starts to get closer to her and it’s her having to make these quick judgments on things from her past. It’s her talking to two stunt people working out this awful thing that happened to her in her past and her having to be a bit objective about it. And you don’t have the time to really process — not that I killed anybody and I have to do that — but you’re like, this is some heavy shit we’re talking about, but I don’t have time to really digest it. We’ve got to keep moving.
Listen to the episode now and subscribe to ‘The Last Laugh’ on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Musicor wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.