Entertainment

01.13.14

‘Saturday Night Live’ Star Bobby Moynihan Is the ‘Chozen’ One

Your favorite drunk uncle is about to become your favorite animated gay rapper. SNL’s Bobby Moynihan on ‘Chozen’ and butt jazz. (Yes, that’s a thing.)

He’s been a drunk uncle. He’s been an oversexed middle-aged woman. He’s been a coked out mayor. He’s been Rosie O’Donnell.

Bobby Moynihan is clearly not one to be typecast, having played a range of degenerates, weirdos, scandal-ridden politicos, and larger-than-life celebrities in his six seasons on Saturday Night Live. Still, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow at his latest role: a white gay rapper in the new FX animated series Chozen, which premieres Monday at 10:30 p.m. EST.

After serving time for being framed by a former collaborator, Chozen is fresh out of a prison and on a crusade for redemption by becoming the world’s biggest hip-hop star—despite the obstacles of being white, gay, and having absolutely no connections to the industry. Much like its network’s other hit series, Chozen gingerly walks the tightrope of taste, with political correctness on one side and pushing the envelope on the other. The show’s tagline is, after all, “In hip-hop, you’re on top or you’re on bottom.”

As the voice of Chozen, Moynihan pulls off his own remarkable feats. In one of the first episodes, for example, he mimics what it sounds like to perform a sexual favor he refers to as “playing his butthole like a saxophone.” Ahead of Monday night’s premiere, we talked with Moynihan about Chozen, his favorite SNL memories, the dramatic story behind how he got cast on the show…and a little bit about “butt jazz,” too.

How did this come about? When someone pitches you a character who is a gay rapper, what makes you think “perfect for Bobby Moynihan?”

Perfect fit, right? It was one of those things where I got an email asking if I wanted to put myself on tape for this cartoon. I wanted to be an animator when I was a kid so I really enjoy that kind of work. So I was like, yeah, I’ll do it. Then they sent me the character drawings and I was like, first of all, that looks exactly like me and, second of all, they said Method Man was doing it. So I was like whatever I don’t care. I’ll do it.

It’s crazy that they got him to do it. (Method Man voices Phatasm, Chozen’s hip-hop nemesis.)

He’s the best. The last two jobs I’ve had have been with Method Man. I love him.

Did you ever imagine that Method Man would be one of your most frequent collaborators?

Oh absolutely not. I’ve worked with Method Man and Shaquille O’Neil on multiple occasions. I’d never have thought. It’s like, Oh, those guys. They’re my movie buddies. Meeting Method Man and hearing him say your name—I was such a huge fan of Wu Tang Clan—hearing him say my name is still the most bizarre thing in the world. Because his voice is so distinct.

This is some tricky comedy to pull off, where you push the envelope without being offensive. But considering this is from the team behind Eastbound and Down, I’m guessing there was some confidence that everyone knew what they were doing.

It’s funny. It’s hard to explain. Even when I watch it I feel like I keep saying over and over again—he’s a gay white rapper. But it’s really not about that. It’s more about this guy who acts the way he does and is just hellbent on everything he does in his life and just happens to be a gay rapper.

But even though it’s such a matter-of-fact thing in the show, all the coverage uses the hook that Chozen is a gay white rapper to promote it.

People need something to latch on to. So if that’s what brings them to the show, then great.

You already mentioned your love of Wu Tang Clan. Are you a hip-hop fan?

Very much so. I’m very bad with music. I don’t know any new music. I’ve listened to the same 10 or 12 albums my whole life. Biggie’s Ready to Die, Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, Wu Tang’s Enter the 36 Chambers, I was very into Beastie Boys and then G Love & Special Sauce, Pink Floyd, and Pearl Jam. That was it. But mostly rap my entire life.

That would be surprising, probably, to people who know you only from SNL. Do you find that people expect you to be a certain way because of what they see of you on the show?

A thousand percent yes. In the real world I’m a very nice chubby man. In the SNL world there are very distinct lines. It’s like I’ll come in and be like, “I’ve been working on this impression!” and they’ll just be like, no, you’re going to be Rosie O’Donnell. My favorite one was, “What impression are you working on? We need something from the ‘80s.” I was like, “What, Larry Flynt or something?” And they were like, “No, you’re Wendy the Snapple Lady.”

When you get assignments like that do you groan?

In the beginning I used to be like, “I’m on the show!” Now I’m like, “Oh boy…another dress.” But it’s not bad.

Is it at the point now that when you see something happening on the news you know whether or not to start prepping an impression? Like when the Rob Ford stuff took off?

That Rob Ford thing, the second I saw him my first thought was, “Oh man. If Chris Farley was still alive he would be amazing at this.” And then I went, “Oh no. It will probably be me!” It was during a week off, so I was like hopefully this will go away before…

So when something like that with Rob Ford happens does it seem daunting or exciting?

The Rob Ford one worried me just because I feel like he looked so much like Christopher Farley. He looks so much like Brian Dennehy in Tommy Boy, his dad in the movie, so I was like, “I’m screwed.” No matter what I do, people would have been like, “Farley would’ve done it better.” And they’re right!

What’s it like when artists you’re a fan of come perform on the show?

Pearl Jam for me was probably the biggest one. I had never seen or heard of Lady Gaga before when she first was a musical guest, and then seeing her perform live, I was like, “She’s amazing.” And then was like, she should take off that space suit and just play the piano, because she’s incredible. That’s one that I remember being like, “Whoa, that’s amazing.” Any time Paul McCartney comes by, you’re like, “There’s a Beatle here.” But he’s the nicest dude. And he knows my name! It’s crazy.

What’s it like to hear Paul McCartney say your name?

I was walking in the other day for the Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake show and I hear, “Oh Bobby!” And I turn around and it’s Paul McCartney. I’m just like, what’s happening? He gives me a hug and is like, how are you doing today? I was in some weird costume. I was in an all-white suit. I was playing Rob Kardashian. He was like, “What are you playing? Liberace?” Joking. And then Barry Gibb walks up in a completely white suit that he happened to wear that day. Almost the same outfit. Now I’m just sitting here talking to Barry Gibb and Paul McCartney about whether I look like Liberace or not. Seeing them have this little conversation, and then you walk away thinking, “Did that just happen?” You just talked the two most prolific people in music. He’s the nicest dude in the world.

You guys just hired a new cast member. Do you remember when you first started on the show?

Yeah, it was rough.

Rough?

The process itself was just long and insane. I knew a lot of the cast members, not very well. But once it started happening that I was going to audition, that they wanted me to send in a tape and all of that stuff—that’s all I ever wanted to do. Lorne brought me in. It was me and Donald Glover, who’s a good friend of mine. The way he talked about it was so nonchalant, and then it was the most awkward first date in the world. “Tell me about your family. Where are you from? What’s your favorite SNL sketch?” I’m very nerdy about that, so I was prepared for that section of the questioning. He was like, “Uh, well, you know, I think we’ll start you in January.” I had a big beard and long hair. He was like, “Maybe cut your hair, shave your beard. Come back tomorrow and let me see what that looks like.”

I was like, did I just get the show? Went home, cut off all my hair, shaved my beard, went back, and he was gone. He had left for the Emmys. Then the writers’ strike happened. So for nine months I just sat in my apartment going, “I think I’m on SNL, but I don’t know.” And then right around when the writers’ strike ended they called and said, “I think I have bad news.” I was like, “What happened?” They were like—and this isn’t the bad news—but Maya Rudolph had a baby, so she had to leave. And they were hiring a girl instead, and they hired Casey Wilson, who’s a good friend of mine. So I was very happy for her and very devastated for myself.

And then spent another six months, just like that was it—I almost got it, but I didn’t. I ended up getting a couple movies in that time. Seth called me up to do this thing called The Line, a webseries with Bill Hader and Simon Rich. I was like, oh, this is my consolation prize. This is them being nice and being like, sorry we put you through all this. You can play this part in this thing.

Then I realized it was essentially my second audition and they were just trying to see if I was an asshole or not. I did that and then two days after that ended they said why don’t you come back and do all new stuff? I was like, I was working three years on that last audition! And then in two days I just wrote and wrote a bunch of new bits. I watched Jimmy Fallon’s audition tape and he just runs through like 30 things. He doesn’t do anything for more than 20 seconds. And I was like, that’s the way to do it. Show them your first two months on the show in five minutes. That helped. I did that, and then I got it.

Who was the host on your first show?

Michael Phelps. And Lil’ Wayne was the musical guest. I remember thinking, of all the people in the world for my first episode, Michael Phelps!? I think it was Tom Hanks, and I was like, what!? And then Michael Phelps won all those medals and they were like, we’re going with Michael Phelps. No! But it could not have worked out any better because Michael Phelps, as talented and wonderful as he is as an athlete, I don’t know if comedy is his forte. So I got to actually be in things. I got a sketch that I wrote in on my first show.

Really? What was it?

I was a character called Mark Payne, who was a weird waiter who worked at a Pizzeria Uno. That was my first show. I love Michael Phelps now because he was kind enough to let me do whatever I wanted. Meanwhile he was so tired. That’s all I remember. I was like, “Are you having a nice time?” And he was like, “I was in Greece two days ago, man, I have no idea what’s going on.”

I think if you asked a SNL fan what their favorite characters are that you do they’d say Drunk Uncle or Anthony Crispino. But what’s the most fun for you?

Anything that I get to do with Seth Meyers is fun. Of course he’s leaving now, which sucks, but I feel like I got comfortable enough with Seth. Like I watched the first Drunk Uncle opposed to the last one I did and it’s two completely different things, because it became me messing around with Seth and trying to make Seth laugh, essentially. Characters I like to do? I’ve had fun doing Kirby this season, the character who misses his kitty cat. He’s based on this weird dude I met once.

Wait. Stop. Kirby is based on a real person?

Yeah. (Laughs.) Not the hair. We just gave him Keith Urban’s hair, because we thought it was funny. But yeah, I met a dude once and I was like, “You doing alright, man?” And he was a little upset and was like, “I just miss my little kitty cat.” And I was like, “Well, I’m writing that.” There’s another sketch I do with Brian Tucker, one of the writers, and John Solomon. It’s Janet Peckinpaugh, a middle-aged lady who’s trying to get through life and have sex with anybody who’ll have her. She’s very self-deprecating, but it makes me laugh. I like doing that one, too. It’s so weird.

How do you think Chozen ranks among your crazier SNL parts? Could you get away with him on SNL?

I feel like I have! He’s very Mark Payne. To me, it’s like this character I used to do, that’s why I felt very comfortable when I got the part.

There’s a scene in one of the first episodes of Chozen where you’re playing butt jazz. How did you perfect those sounds?

You know my favorite part about that joke is that when I first got the script to audition, in the script it just says, “I’ll play his butt like a saxophone.” I just improvised the Sanford and Son theme songs. [Proceeds to alternately hum and fart-noise the Sanford and Son theme.] It kept going and going and then it was like a musical rights thing, so they couldn’t use the theme song. But the best was that they had to call and tell me to come in and redo the butt saxophone. (Laughs.)

The songs in Chozen are outrageous, but only just slightly more outrageous than what you might find in a hit hip-hop song.

Yeah. Also some of the lines in it, if they were in a real rap—like, there’s a line in the third episode and it’s so quick and so stupid. It’s Phantasm, Method Man’s character. He’s like, “Shut up, I’m better than you and when I’m dead I’ll be deader than you.” If Biggie or any of those people said that I feel like it would be used all the time as a common thing. Because some of the lines are very good. Like that’s the stupidest line in history, but if Jay Z said it…

With Chozen and The Awesomes and Monsters University, you seem to having pretty great luck working on side projects. Do you feel a pull away from SNL at all? Is there a timeline you’re thinking about for the rest of your time there before you leave?

My contract ends next year and my biggest dream right now is that Chris Christie is running for president. If he runs for president I think that will decide my fate.

So you want to stay?

Oh I’ll stay until they kick me out. If I can beat Darrell Hammond by 20 years… I would stay there forever. It was my life’s dream. I’m in my sixth year and I feel like I just started.