Melissa Villaseñor was among the eight cast members to leave Saturday Night Live after its most recent season. And in this episode of The Last Laugh podcast, she opens up for the first time about everything that led to her difficult decision to step away from the show that had been her home for six years.
The comedian and author of the new book Whoops… I’m Awesome also talks about how she got her start doing celebrity impressions on America’s Got Talent, looks back at the most surreal highlights from her time on SNL, and shares some thoughts about what she wants to do with her life now that she has left that high-pressure job behind.
When I spot Villaseñor’s bright pink hair and ask if it’s a sign that she’s living her best life in Los Angeles after leaving SNL this past summer, she replies, “I really am.”
“I almost feel reborn or something, because I have all this free time,” she continues. “So I’m enrolling in classes, almost like a little kid. I’m taking guitar lessons and Spanish lessons. I signed up for a pottery class!” She explains that she would previously try to expand her mind like this between seasons of SNL, but just found it to be “impossible.”
Of course, all of those new hobbies have been on top of putting the finishing touches on her new book of stories, affirmations, and drawings—many of which the reader is encouraged to color in—that hits shelves today. She decided to title it Whoops… I’m Awesome because it “just sounds fun,” adding, “I think it’s a perfect title for this book because it’s self-helpy, but also, I don’t take it too seriously.”
And yet those silly drawings, which she has been sharing for years on a dedicated Instagram account for her biggest fans, have served as a more cathartic creative outlet than almost anything she was able to get on SNL.
“I think you could say it was the release of what was going on inside the show for me,” Villaseñor says, adding that that release was better “channeled” through art than the more self-destructive ways cast members have coped with the show’s stressful environment in the past.
“I think comedy is where I feel very silly, confident, and really can’t expose too much of my sensitive side,” she adds. “And drawing became that place where I could share anything that I’m feeling sensitive about or insecure about, and I released my feelings through there. It’s this quiet side, and I really love it.”
Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. You can listen to the whole thing by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.
When it was announced that you were going to be on the show, every headline—including one that I wrote—was something like “SNL Hires First Latina Cast Member.” So that was a lot of pressure, I would imagine.
Yeah! And I didn’t even think about it.
Did that hit you in a way once that started happening?
Oh, it for sure did. I was really proud, but also nervous because it was like, what do you want me to do?
Did it feel like you were supposed to have some responsibility to represent a whole community on the show?
A little bit, like I was supposed to bring in a bunch of Mexican humor or something [laughs]. And at that time I didn’t really have a lot of it—other than imitating my abuelita, my great-grandma—I didn’t have a lot of bits about it, until I think the last season, where I had a girl who kept saying “thas sah” with Selena [Gomez], and then my character loosely based on my uncle Cesar.
Why do you think it took you that long to bring some of that more personal stuff to the show? Just until you felt comfortable enough to do it?
Yeah, I guess. You know, the first year it’s like, do what I’m good at, what got me here, which were my impressions. So I don’t know, I think it just unraveled that way.
I’ve talked to a lot of cast members on this podcast who talk about how long it takes to get comfortable on the show, and some of them never feel like they fully get comfortable—Bill Hader being probably the most famous example. He really had a lot of trouble up until maybe the last season or so, where he finally felt like he knew what he was doing, and he’s obviously considered one of the best that ever did it.
He’s so good.
Do you relate to that feeling of taking a while to find your footing?
Yeah, for me, it did. And I think it’s until you find a writer that really connects with you. There were a lot of really great people I wrote with. But man, it is a toss-up, it really is. And every year was different. Some years I was like, “Oh, I was in a lot.” And then some years I was like, “Oh, I guess I’m not here much.”
Your very first episode, I know you did Sarah Silverman in Celebrity Family Feud, which was a big sketch with nearly the entire cast in it.
I was shakin’ in my boots! I was nervous. I remember thinking, “I have to do this every week? No!” I was very, very nervous. But then you just get a little used to it.
You also have had the surreal experience of impersonating a celebrity and then hearing what they think about your impression, like when Dolly Parton responded to your impression, right?
“I never looked or sounded so good!” [as Dolly Parton]
That must have felt good.
Yeah, that felt really great. I mean, that was such a fun piece, because it was Christmas and I got to sing, and I got to also play myself. I think that’s the perfect mix. I just like when I’m playing myself, and then slipping into the impression. I think that’s just like the perfect mix of what I love doing.
So you were one of several cast members who left before this current season. Was it your decision to leave? Or how did that all go down?
Yeah, it was my decision. I gave myself a lot of time in the summer to think on it and kind of play out in my head if I go back… At the end of the day it was about my mental health. Last season, I had a couple of panic attacks. I think it was just… I was struggling. I always felt like I was on the edge of a cliff every week. And I was like, I don’t want to be doing that to myself anymore. And it’s not like the show was mean towards me or anyone. It was just how I handle things. I think I’m an introvert. When I’m in a big group of a lot of amazing people, and everyone’s speaking over everyone else, I think I tend to get small. I get nervous, like, where do I fit? What am I supposed to do? That’s how I was in high school, too. And so I think that’s what caused it. And I was like, I think I’m OK. I feel like there’s nothing else that I feel like, oh, I need to be sharing this, I want to do this on the show. I think I’m ready. There was just something telling me, I think I could part ways.
It was time.
And it was super hard because I love Lorne [Michaels]! And I am so grateful for all of them for having me. And I shared with them that this was my kid dream. This is all I wanted as a kid. So I’m going to carry that forever in my heart, that I got to experience that in my life.
Well, I imagine that as the cast got bigger and bigger, too, that it was harder and harder to stand out. But I think that that might explain why there was so much turnover this year with a lot of people leaving.
Yeah, I think it was a lot. And then the pandemic, I mean, that quarantine year in 2020 was really rough too.
Are you still able to watch the show? Have you had the experience of watching the show since not being on it?
I’ve noticed that I still will go online and watch certain clips. It is a little tough, I’m not gonna lie, it is a little tough.
There’s some FOMO there?
Yeah, yeah, a little bit for sure, but not enough to where I’m like, oh, I need to go back. But I do love watching my friends on there. And then just seeing the new folks shine and do well, that’s nice to see.
Looking back, are there things that you will miss most and least?
I probably will just miss that magical feeling of, “I’m going live with something that I love, and I’m proud of and excited to play.” That magical feeling of, “I can’t believe I’m on this show” that would come every single time I would go out there and do a Weekend Update piece. Just knowing it was going to get on air, it’s exciting and thrilling.
What will you not miss?
I mean, probably the work schedule. And that pressure of every week coming up with something and trying to share it with a writer and be like, “Hey, what do you think of this?” And that feeling of, “I don’t have time to help you like that,” or “someone’s already writing that so you can’t write it.” That feeling of, “OK, what else? What could I do?” That feeling, I’m not going to miss.
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