Live from New York
Behind the scenes of “Saturday Night Live” with Richmond-raised comedy writer Bryan Tucker.
by Brent Baldwin
Submerged in a festive swarm of “Saturday Night Live” writers — a mix of balding 40-somethings and fresh-faced young hipsters with toothpick-thin girlfriends — Bryan Tucker bounds down the stairwell from the writers’ room on the ninth floor of NBC Studios at Rockefeller Center to the eighth floor of studio 8H. Strangely enough, the person leading the charge is Jonah Hill, chunky young star of “Superbad,” just one of many celebrities hanging out backstage tonight.
The unseen workings of “SNL” are controlled chaos, the result of painstaking detail and hours of writing and rewriting. For Tucker, the funny white kid from the suburbs of Brandermill with a knack for riffing on hip-hop culture, it’s the pinnacle. Since moving to New York in 1997, Tucker, 36, has gone from unknown stand-up comic to a hardworking comedy writer. He’s worked for such shows as “Late Show With David Letterman,” “The Chris Rock Show,” “Mad TV” and “Chappelle’s Show,” where he solidified his reputation as the white chocolate of comedy.
Tucker was able to sell enough jokes to quit temping and focus on his comedy, including his stand-up routine. He learned how to apply for more television writing jobs from other stand-ups. He got an even bigger break in 1999 when he was offered a job on HBO’s “The Chris Rock Show.”
It was the perfect environment for a young comedic writer. Rock — at the height of his fame — treated his writers well, taking them to baseball games and movie premieres; they’d even occasionally hang out with Bill Cosby. Even more important, he let the writers produce their sketches and control every aspect: casting, design, production, even sitting in the editing room.
“You took all the credit or all the blame, which was empowering and good,” Tucker says, who also learned to shoot and edit material during his two seasons there. “I had no idea how great I had it on that show because it was my first job.”
Tucker got a jolt of encouragement when his first big sketch aired. It was called “Daddy Still Has a Flattop,” a parody of the old ABC After School Specials.
“Chris [Rock] wanted to hire black writers on the show, and the head writer was black. But what he cared about the most was making it funny. He loved Woody Allen, surreal humor, and he wanted to bring that to a black audience,” Tucker says. “Mostly he said, ‘Don’t try to write black, just write it funny and it will be black because I’m doing it.’ That was a good lesson for me early on.”
Little did Tucker know that this job was the first step in his becoming known as a white guy who could write for black comedians. The irony isn’t lost on him.
“I came from Brandermill, suburban Richmond, so it wasn’t like I had a lot of black culture around me,” he says. “It was just watching it from the periphery and I was a fan [of hip-hop culture]. It was more about making things funny and not being scared of black culture than it was being a part of it.”
Tucker quickly struck comedy gold again when he began writing for the out-of-left-field Comedy Central smash hit “Chappelle’s Show.” Dave Chappelle and his former writing partner, Neal Brennan, wrote 80 percent of the material. Tucker knew Brennan from doing stand-up around New York City and began to send in jokes to the show on a freelance basis. He was hired midway through the second season, one of only two full-time writers the show ever hired. He also began appearing in sketches.
The industry took notice after the astronomical DVD sales of “Chappelle’s Show” — it eventually became one of the biggest-selling television DVDs of all time, moving more than 3 million units. “I didn’t have any producer credit or anything. Dave and Neal got a nice cut of that,” Tucker says. “But that’s OK.”
After Chappelle notoriously ended the show for personal reasons (“I think he just wanted to be in control of his work,” Tucker says), leaving at least $50 million on the table, Tucker was unemployed again. But Brennan put in a good word for him at “SNL” and Tucker was hired six months later.