Darrell Hammond is nothing short of a rockstar at the second annual Politicon in Pasadena, California. Though the Saturday Night Live veteran and expert impressionist may be nearly unrecognizable as himself to most, he can’t make it more than a few feet down this convention hallway of political junkies without someone approaching him to say how much they love his work as both Donald Trump and Bill Clinton on the most recent season of the show.
Hammond, far more thoughtful and soft-spoken in person than the real-life Trump, wasn’t supposed to appear onscreen during SNL’s 41st season. More than 20 years after he first joined the cast, the 60-year-old comedian was brought back by executive producer Lorne Michaels to replace the late Don Pardo as announcer. Yet there he was nearly every week, performing his uncanny impersonations of the reality star turned Republican nominee.
Speaking to The Daily Beast in between a panel on “The Political Insult Comic” and a comedy performance that also featured SNL’s current President Obama impersonator Jay Pharoah, Hammond reflected on what he views as a second high point of his career. SNL may not be able to quit Darrell Hammond, but Darrell Hammond has had just as much trouble saying goodbye to SNL.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Before this past season of SNL, they made a big announcement that Taran Killam would be playing Trump. That lasted for a little bit, but now you’re doing it. How did that happen?
I don’t know what the mechanics of it were. Obviously, they wanted to give it to someone in the cast, but if you think about a place like SNL, you know, we change parts all the time. This happens to be a more famous part, but it wasn’t like a personal thing. And I wasn’t expecting to play Trump.
When Trump came on the show and it was you and Taran and Trump, can you talk about what that was like? Does doing your impression next to Trump change how you do it at all?
No. I know him pretty well. He can take a punch. And I’ve done it for him before, in the past, and he’s pretty confident in himself.
How does he compare to other real politicians who have come on the show that you’ve been in scenes with? Is there a difference in the way he approaches it than, say, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama?
We always say to ourselves, where does [his] energy come from? The guy doesn’t even have any bad habits. I don’t even know if he drinks coffee. And I think it’s because he enjoys himself and he expects things to be good. I never saw this combative guy, I never knew that guy before. And I haven’t really talked to him that much since he started running for president. I watched one debate where there was one on the right, one on the left of him, both attacking him, plus the moderator attacking him and it looked, honestly, like a mugging. And afterwards, he was like, “I thought it was fine, I enjoyed it.” So, you know, he’s a really unusual guy. But all of them are. They’re all really unusual in some way and it usually has to do with the way they process negative thoughts or negative experiences. In Trump’s case, every negative experience is temporary. That’s how he sees it.
I find it fascinating that he, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, [Derek] Jeter, they come on the show and they’re not natural performers, but they do well. And I’m fascinated by the idea that they do well because they expect to do well. It never enters their mind that they’re not going to figure out how to do this. And I’m a self-doubter in every single way and have struggled with confidence my whole life. So when you see a guy like Brady or Jeter come on and have a great show, they do well because they think they’ll do well. And that’s the thing that I zero in on him. About four weeks ago, my building superintendent was making fun of my gut, he pats me on the stomach like he’s making a joke, he’s laughing at me. And it hurt my feelings. And that’s one guy. Think about 300 million people. Think about a billion or five billion. And yet that brain doesn’t receive that or accept it.
So what do you have to do to embody that type of confidence when you’re playing him?
I think of a day that I was sitting in front of my fire and a cinder popped on my leg and I brushed it away. And you’ll see originally, and still occasionally we do this, our hands flip out like that [he does his signature Trump hand gesture]. That was how the hands came to be, I thought, that’s how he is with negative thoughts. Because when he came on our show, the first time he hosted [in 2004], he came earlier and stayed later than anyone. He enjoys people. When he’s not in the political arena. When it’s just him standing there, he can get into talking with the key grip.
Why do you think he’s changed so much now that he’s actively running for president?
It’s a different context. He’s at war. Everyone changes depending on how many people they’re talking to and what context it is.
You started on SNL more than 20 years ago, you’re there now. Why do you stay?
Well, I was retired. The idea was that I was going to be the announcer and ultimately I probably would end up doing it from New Orleans, where I was living. And sure, it sounds like a fun job. Lorne [Michaels] called and said, “I want you to replace [Don] Pardo,” and I said, “But, I’m not an announcer” and he goes, “Well, that’s the point. We can’t replace Pardo and that’s the statement we’re making and you’re someone he was very fond of and that’s what we’re doing.”
And now you’re there playing Trump —
You know, if someone walks into your room and says, [whispering] “Do you want to play Trump on Saturday Night Live?” OK, I’m not retired anymore.
It’s too good to pass up.
The debates should give you a chance to play off Kate McKinnon. What do you think of her Hillary?
She’s astounding. Listen, when they said, “Would you like to do Bill [Clinton] again?” I was like, if I could be out there with her, yeah, who wouldn’t do that? In every way, she’s just so damn special and exciting and nothing’s ever the same. She’s one of these people that all I do is key into her and then I end up doing what I need to do, that’s how rich it is.
Coming back in the fall, what are you most looking forward to?
It’s pretty rare to have two high spots to your life’s prime. Usually, you just have the one. Now here’s another one.