Kyle Mooney is the undisputed king of the “cut for time” sketch on Saturday Night Live.
Since he first joined the SNL cast close to three years ago, Mooney’s hilariously awkward meditations on human behavior have time and again failed to make the live broadcast. Instead, they ultimately find a home, and an audience, on YouTube, where they often receive a million-plus views from fans who have been rooting for him since he co-founded the Good Neighbor sketch comedy group at USC with fellow SNL cast member Beck Bennett.
“It’s nice that the internet exists,” Mooney says with a chuckle during a recent interview in Los Angeles ahead of the premiere of Brigsby Bear, the surprisingly touching new film that deftly showcases the comic persona he has developed over the years. “Certainly, at times it can be frustrating, but it is nice that there is that outlet, that these things can live somewhere.”
“Because it is an institution and it has this history of like, people coming and going, and people blowing up from it, I think there is a habit of some people to keep a tally and a scorecard of what’s happening within the show,” Mooney adds. “It’s one of those things that at times feels intense, and feels like you’re kind of under the magnifying glass. But I appreciate the show in that you truly never know what the stand-out thing will be from week to week.”
The comic sensibility on display in Brigsby Bear is one that Mooney has never quite been able to fully express on SNL, which has become almost entirely consumed with the political firestorm of the week. Mooney co-wrote the film, in select theaters this Friday, with his middle school buddy Kevin Costello. Dave McCary, another childhood friend who directs all of Mooney’s SNL shorts, also directed Brigsby Bear, earning himself nominations at both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals this year.
The less you know about Brigsby Bear going in, the better. At its core it is the story of a grown man trapped in an infantilized adolescence, obsessed with a piece of nostalgic children’s entertainment made solely for him. For reasons that become apparent at the end of the film’s first act, Mooney’s character James Pope knows almost nothing about the outside world or how to interact with the people he encounters, including a detective played by Greg Kinnear and a therapist played by Claire Danes.
“A few years ago, I had this general idea of a guy who’s the only person who’s ever seen a TV show,” Mooney says. “We learn that it’s being produced just for him. That was the seed of it.”
“I stewed on it for a while and eventually had a pretty good idea of what the story would be and pitched it to Kevin in the spring of 2013, because he had screenwriting experience.” From there, they started writing it together and soon brought McCary on board as a director. “He’s directed everything that I’ve ever done—SNL shorts, internet videos—we’ve collaborated forever. So it felt kind of obvious.”
“Then I got hired by SNL,” Mooney adds. At that point, Mooney and Costello would send drafts back and forth and work on the script together during SNL’s summer hiatuses. It was another three years before audiences would get a chance to see the film.
On Saturday Night Live, Mooney often plays a version of himself who struggles to communicate with others, especially teenagers, as can be seen in yet another cut for time sketch that finds him standing out in the rain with Justin Bieber fans for hours. Brigsby Bear similarly contains scenes in which Mooney’s character is forced into awkward interactions with high school students.
“It was definitely a scenario where the story came first and then the character developed through the writing process and [we were] figuring out, how would this person interact with the world around him?” Mooney says. “And how would I, as Kyle Mooney, portray that person?”
In a separate phone interview with The Daily Beast just a few days before the film’s premiere, McCary says that he “always wanted to make something that was more grounded and honest than what the parameters of SNL allow.”
“If this character is super genuine in his or her delivery and the subject matter is funny, then it will be funny,” McCary says. “If the laugh comes out of the most honest performance, then that’s great. But if the most honest performance doesn’t get a laugh, that’s also OK.”
“It was nice to be able to spend more time with a character and to also not be too concerned with jokes per minutes,” Mooney says. “And to just be able to build something and have that trust in the audience that they’d be willing to go on that journey and be patient throughout it.”
“It’s really a credit to Kyle’s ability to capture such subtle mannerisms that feel so familiar,” McCary adds. “He can just tap into his own character’s vulnerabilities so well. It’s just a joy to be able to help facilitate his vision. He is the genius and I will forever be as helpful as I can.”
The film also gave Mooney a chance to explore his personal obsession with an obscure genre of children’s entertainment that he refers to as “critter pics.” They exist somewhere along the spectrum between “charming and creepy.” Those films, mostly made in the 1980s and ’90s, make up a significant portion of his massive VHS collection.
“What I like about them—and the use of puppets and animatronics—is just the notion that there is a team behind the whole production. Or maybe even one guy or one woman,” Mooney says. “And they’re doing their best version of trying to be Jim Henson or Walt Disney, but they just don’t have the means.”
The VHS aesthetic is also ever-present in the pre-taped shorts that Mooney dutifully tries to get onto SNL week after week.
He readily admits it can be “frustrating” to have his sketches cut by Lorne Michaels at the last minute. “But I also know how the show works and that a lot of the show is dictated by how the dress rehearsal audience responds to the material,” he says. “Sometimes our material doesn’t warrant a ton of laughs. It’s pretty democratic there in the sense that if a piece isn’t working, it might not land on the show.”
“I truly have zero frustration about it,” McCary counters. “We’re always going to go after stuff that makes us laugh. We understand we have a more niche pocket of the country that can get behind some of those characters or ideas.”
McCary says he’s trying to stop reading the YouTube comments under the “cut for time” sketches, but when he does he always sees “very sweet” things that people will say about how a certain sketch should have been on the show. “And I disagree,” he explains. “If you were there at the dress rehearsal, that video got complete crickets. There’s no reason for Lorne, or anyone that makes decisions there, to push for some of these videos to stay on the air. We have evidence of it not working with people.”
But then there are the sketches that Mooney and McCary do get on the air that instantly connect with viewers who are looking for something that truly stands out from the rest. Most recently, it was the deadly serious season-long arc that chronicled Mooney’s “relationship” with cast member Leslie Jones.
“I feel like we were slightly working off the template of the Kanye West video, kind of pseudo-documentary style,” Mooney says of another sleeper hit that found him training for a battle against the rapper. “Obviously, Leslie’s hilarious and wonderful. Anytime we’ve been in things together, I’ve always thought we were such a weird combination of people. So I just thought it would be a fun thing to explore.”
It’s also a rare behind-the-scenes look—albeit a fake one—at SNL’s cast, who have only become more culturally relevant as the show enjoys its Trump-fueled best ratings in 22 years. “I don’t know that the show has done a ton of stuff where it’s like, what are these people like when they’re not on camera?” Mooney says. “And it was nice that the show embraced it too, because there would be little Easter eggs throughout the season.” In one monologue, the host walked by the pair making out backstage.
But as SNL became more and more focused on the Trump administration this spring, keeping Alec Baldwin on as a de facto cast member and bringing in ringers like Melissa McCarthy to play Sean Spicer, it has arguably left actual cast members with less to do each week. Mooney’s friend Beck Bennett, who also appears in Brigsby Bear, scored a role as Vladimir Putin. But he was denied the chance to play Spicer, despite having an “amazing impression” of the now-former White House press secretary, as co-head writer Kent Sublette revealed in The Hollywood Reporter’s oral history of this past season.
“Definitely at the table reads on Wednesdays, Melissa won’t be around, and Beck is a man of many voices and a great impressionist,” Mooney says. “There will be cold opens at the table where he will read four parts in a row, because he’s basically just reading all the supposed guests that will drop by on Saturday.”
Asked if he thinks that all of the guest stars are taking away opportunities from the show’s main cast members, Mooney sighs and takes a long pause. “I mean, I feel like, to a degree, without those people involved the show wouldn’t have had the season that it had,” he says, finally. “And obviously a lot of real estate goes to the political stuff. But, as a fan, I remember being onstage during Melissa’s first Spicer piece and I thought it was pretty incredible. It felt monumental as it was happening. It felt important.”
With Season 43 just a couple of months away, Mooney confirms that he will be returning to Saturday Night Live for a fifth year starting this fall. Of the six cast members who joined the show in 2013, only Mooney and Bennett remain. John Milhiser, Mike O’Brien, Brooks Wheelan, Noël Wells were all let go after just one season.
However, it’s possible Mooney and Bennett will be without their director. McCary says he’s “not sure yet” if the show will keep him on staff this fall. He expects to hear one way or the other sometime next month.
“I’ve always wanted to just make movies, but I also really value the experience there and I love working with Kyle and Beck and a number of new friends I’ve made at SNL,” he says. “I couldn’t tell you right now where I’m going end up. I fortunately don’t have to make that decision at the moment, but I will tell you that no option is a bad option.”
“It’s always a mystery,” Mooney says of the way Michaels famously lets cast members squirm over the summer before renewing their contracts. “Fortunately, I’ve had a nice distraction,” he adds of the Brigsby Bear promotional tour. But it wasn’t always so easy.
“The first year is definitely the most difficult year,” he explains. “The whole experience is every emotion. It’s awesome, it’s wonderful and you’re getting to meet people that you would have never imagined being in the same room as. It’s also at times frightening and, like I said, mysterious and ambiguous.”
“But at the same time, I auditioned for the show twice before I got on,” he continues, “and I remember after the first audition, I was scared that I would not get on the show and then live with regret forever. But in reality, I left feeling like, you know what? I had the opportunity to do that, which is so rad and I did a handful of characters on that stage, in 30 Rock. So I kind of felt a sense of relief almost, just in like, it didn’t work out, but at least I got to do that.”
“I think, hopefully, for anybody who’s at the show you feel that way when you’re wondering what’s going to happen,” Mooney adds. “You can at least feel like, look what already has happened. It’s incredible.”