HOLLYWOOD, California—When ex-cast members of Saturday Night Live are asked about the worst host they ever had to deal with, there’s generally only one name that comes up: Justin Bieber.
So is it any coincidence that for their first post-SNL project, former co-head writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider have created a show that centers around the two older siblings of a YouTube star-turned-pop sensation named ChaseDreams?
Over coffee and orange juice at The London West Hollywood hotel, just weeks before The Other Two is set to premiere on Comedy Central, Kelly tells me that Bieber was not his “worst host.” When I point out that the pair were also on the writing staff when Donald Trump hosted SNL in the fall of 2015, he says, “Oh, I wasn’t thinking about him.”
As he laughs, Schneider adds, “We blocked that out.” They tried hard to avoid writing sketches for Trump that week, they reveal, instead penning a “Bad Girls” music video starring only SNL’s female cast members as a sort of “silent protest.”
In retrospect, they feel less like Bieber was a “bad host” and more like, “What was this child in the middle of?”
The pair first pitched The Other Two to SNL creator Lorne Michaels, who serves as a executive producer on the show, while they were still at 30 Rock. His one big note? “You have to cast a kid who’s an actual star” as Chase. “You have to believe that this kid put out a video and it got 20 million views.”
We get a glimpse of the “next big white kid’s” debut music video— “I Want to Marry U at Recess”—in the opening minutes of the series premiere, which airs this Thursday night at 10:30 p.m. ET after Broad City. Chase and his mother Pat, played by yet another SNL alum Molly Shannon, sit down with the real-life Kathie Lee and Hoda on the Today show for his first-ever live TV interview.
“I actually never really sang before,” Chase admits, naively. “I just made this one video for fun and I guess lots of people liked it.”
From there, we are introduced to Chase’s siblings—Drew Tarver’s Cary and Heléne Yorke’s Brooke—who are 28 and 30 years old, respectively, and nowhere near as successful as their much younger brother. Cary, a struggling actor, is trying to book a role as “Man at Party Who Smells Fart” while Brooke, a former dancer, is crashing in an empty luxury apartment she’s supposed to be selling to Saudi billionaires. When their brother suddenly becomes famous, they really have nothing better to do than hop on board for the ride and hope celebrity doesn’t destroy him.
If Bieber helped spark the initial idea, it was the raft of YouTube stars that rose up in his wake that helped fill out the character of Chase. After an exhaustive search, they zeroed in on Case Walker, the 15-year-old singer who plays ChaseDreams, through the social media platform Musical.ly (since rebranded as TikTok). “There’s a whole parallel universe of fame that’s happening out there, right now as we drink our orange juice,” Kelly explains.
After Walker nailed his audition—playing a stripped-down version of Khalid’s “Location” on the ukulele, no less—Kelly and Schneider tried to impress him by explaining that they used to be co-head writers on SNL. “What’s SNL?” he asked them, before realizing that they meant Saturday Night Live. “Wait, did you guys write Mr. Peepers?” Walker wanted to know. He had seen the decades-old sketch starring Chris Kattan on YouTube.
“That was 25 years ago,” Kelly says, laughing. “It was a real humbling experience.”
Walker didn’t mean to offend the writers, he’s just genuinely living in that parallel universe. The next day, when I meet the cast at Comedy Central’s L.A. headquarters, he acknowledges to me that The Other Two’s jokes may be “on point” for people in their twenties or thirties, but there are references in the show that go over his head. “Like, I don’t know who Debra Messing is,” Walker says. “I’m being straight-up, I don’t know who that is.” Another episode includes a joke about Googling Lisa Vanderpump’s age. “Who’s Lisa Vanderpump?” he asks.
Last March, former SNL cast members Bill Hader and Jay Pharoah appeared together on Watch What Happens Live! with Andy Cohen and a caller asked who the “worst behaved” host they ever encountered was. “I mean, we both know, dog,” Pharoah said before Hader admitted that it was Bieber, who served as both host and musical guest in February 2013. “He was in a bad place,” Hader said. “Maybe he’s in a better place, but then, it was rough.”
Hader elaborated in the most recent edition of James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’ oral history Live From New York. “I really didn't enjoy having Justin Bieber around,” he told the authors. “He’s the only one who lived up to the reputation. I think that’s the only time I felt that way in eight years.” Even the generally controversy-averse Kate McKinnon acknowledged that Bieber “wasn’t pleased” with her impression of him.
When we meet him at the beginning of the series, Chase resembles Bieber at the very beginning of his career. “We started him a little more innocent,” Schneider says. But over the course of the first season, he starts to resemble the real-life pop star more and more. As Chase’s manager Streeter, comedy veteran Ken Marino evokes Bieber’s longtime manager Scooter Braun. That’s not an accident.
Typically, an SNL host hangs out at 30 Rock all week, working with the writers on ideas that they think could be good for Saturday night’s show. But the week Bieber hosted, he sent Scooter Braun in his place. When Kelly asked where Bieber was, Braun told him, “Oh, bad news on that front. We’re trying to get his body jacked so I fed him a bunch of raw eggs and he is puking his guts out.”
That moment is recreated almost verbatim in the first episode of The Other Two, in which Marino’s Scooter Braun stand-in puts Chase on a raw egg diet. Later in the season, he also makes Chase wrap his tongue in tinfoil to keep it extra pink and binds his Adam’s apple to keep him from looking too old.
Despite lifting that story wholesale for the show, Kelly and Schneider insist that Chase is not Justin and Streeter is not based exclusively on Scooter Braun. “Streeter is lovable and more a doof and means well,” Kelly says, implying that the opposite might be true of Braun.
“I think if anything, our takeaway from Justin is that we didn’t want our kid to be unlikeable. We didn’t want him to be this above the rules, like peeing outside of brothels,” Schneider says. “We wanted him to be sweet. We thought that was tougher to be faced with for the brother and sister than if their brother was just an asshole.”
Summing up her point, she adds, “Chase is nice and Bieber was not.”
A “lifelong Justin Bieber fan,” Walker says the Canadian pop star helped inspire him to become a performer from an early age. “I’ve paid attention to Justin since the beginning,” he says. After years of stories about Bieber egging houses, crashing cars and doing drugs, Walker praises him for making a “really huge comeback,” marrying Hailey Baldwin and turning towards religion.
“The people that go off the hardest sometimes come back as the coolest people,” he adds. “I really respect him. He kind of went off the edge a little bit but he’s back and that’s cool.”
If ChaseDreams is loosely based on Justin Bieber, then it would make sense that his “other two” siblings might share some characteristics with Kelly and Schneider.
The similarities are apparent when I meet Tarver and Yorke at Comedy Central’s L.A. headquarters. Like Kelly and Schneider, they continually crack each other up and finish each other’s sentences. When the alternate universe of tween celebrities on social media comes up, Yorke jokes, “It’s what I imagine discovering another planet feels like,” before Tarver adds, “that you know is cooler than yours, like dang, my planet is getting old!”
“They’re not us,” Kelly says of Cary and Brooke, whose vain attempts to benefit from their brother’s sudden success provide much of the show’s comedy. “But it’s how we talk to each other, how we relate to each other.”
The two creators grew up on opposite coasts, but took parallel paths to becoming writing partners on SNL and now The Other Two. Some moments from the show, including a scene in the pilot in which Cary’s boss pulls him and the other gay waiter he works with aside to tell them he just watched Brokeback Mountain, come directly from the creators’ real pre-SNL lives. Kelly and Schneider each have stories about literally sleeping during the day at office jobs they couldn’t wait to give up.
“I think everyone has gone through that experience of being in a job or on a track and just being like, ‘Oh crap, I don’t want to do this, but this is where I am, so I have to blow up my life,’” Schneider says. That’s more or less where Brooke and Cary are when their brother becomes a breakout YouTube sensation.
Following the unexpected success of Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island crew’s digital shorts, SNL started looking elsewhere for online-bred talent. Kelly came up through the Upright Citizens Brigade scene before joining the Onion News Network where he made his way up the ranks from locations intern to writer and director. After a short stint at Funny or Die in Los Angeles, he was hired by SNL and moved back to New York. Schneider, meanwhile, was working at CollegeHumor and “hovering on the outskirts” of UCB before getting the call to join the show.
Kelly and Schneider were hired as writers for SNL at right around the same time and immediately gravitated towards each other. The first sketch they wrote together came during the 37th season premiere in the fall of 2011. Host Alec Baldwin played a child psychologist and Nasim Pedrad was his deeply troubled daughter.
Soon, they were writing every sketch together. “We started to write together so much that if we were writing together and Sarah had to go to the bathroom, I would sit completely motionless until she came back and vice versa,” Kelly says, mimicking the way he would “shut down” and then “come back to life” when she re-entered the room.
After five years at the show, Kelly and Schneider were promoted to co-head writers for what would end up being one of SNL’s most lauded years ever starting in the fall of 2016. The 42nd season, which kicked off with three consecutive pre-election episodes starring Alec Baldwin as Trump and Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton, went on to win SNL its first major Emmy Award (for best Variety Sketch Series) since 1993. Baldwin and McKinnon each won awards in their respective categories as well.
But instead of trying to replicate that success, Kelly and Schneider abruptly stepped down after one season at the helm to focus on The Other Two. “It looked like it was this big year and then we were like, ‘Peace!’” Kelly says, a bit regretfully, explaining that in reality their new show was already in the works when they were named head writers. Lorne Michaels knew that if The Other Two got picked up they would be leaving SNL to pursue that project.
Schneider says they will always look back on their last year at SNL in “reverence” while Kelly adds that they were “very aware” what a big deal it was when it was happening. “It’s very easy at that show in particular to be very stressed and just running non-stop that you don’t take the time to realize how cool it is or how lucky you are,” he says. “But we would do that. We would stop and be like, this is insane that we get to be here for this.”
As a lifelong Seinfeld fan, Kelly says the most surreal moment came when they were finalizing the edit of a pre-taped parody video they had written called “Bern Your Enthusiasm” with host Larry David as Bernie Sanders. On the day of the show, David came to them and said he wanted to see the final edit before it aired. “We were like, we are about to show him a parody of his own show,” Kelly says. “How dare we have made this? We’re trash!” David sat on the couch and laughed through the whole thing. “I could not believe it, I was so excited,” Kelly adds.
They may have led SNL at the height of the show’s political relevance, but more than anything else, Kelly and Schneider were known for writing music video parodies like “(Do It on My) Twin Bed” and “Back Home Ballers.” For The Other Two, they collaborated on the lyrics for not only “I Want to Marry U at Recess,” but also ChaseDreams’ follow-up hits like “Stink” and “My Brother’s Gay.” They hired Leland, the pop songwriter behind hits for Troye Sivan, Selena Gomez and others, to pen the music.
Collectively, they had to find a balance between making the songs good enough to be plausibly popular while still bad enough to be funny. “It can’t read like a parody song,” Kelly says. “It has to read like they earnestly were trying to write a good song. It has to sound real, but be dumb enough to us that we know it’s a joke.”
Towards the end of the pilot, Chase tells his older siblings, “I miss Dad.”
The creators added the line without knowing where it would lead, but over time the absence of the family’s paternal figure starts to provide darker shades to what could otherwise be a frivolous story about 21st century fame. That tiny thread ultimately leads to a cathartic family confrontation at the end of the season that Kelly says he hopes feels “earned and real” but at the same time “out of left field enough that it is surprising.”
They decided to cast Molly Shannon, who also starred in Kelly’s 2016 directorial debut Other People, as the mother of the family because they knew she had a unique ability to nail both the broad comedic and emotionally dramatic moments. “It’s very fun to watch her act,” Kelly says, “because she’s very precise but it also feels like she’s making it up as she goes along.” Schneider uses the word “miraculous” to describe how Shannon can go from admiring dog photos on someone’s phone to having a full-on emotional breakdown once the cameras start rolling.
“The fact that she’s the mom on Chris and Sarah’s show tells you everything you need to know about the style of comedy,” Ken Marino, who first appeared with Shannon in 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer, tells me. “It’s funny, but there’s a truthfulness and there are real characters and that’s what Molly’s so good at. She can hit comedy in anything she does, but it’s always real and it’s always grounded and it’s always wonderful.”
“The greatest thing about Molly Shannon is that she doesn’t know she’s Molly Shannon,” Yorke, who grew up watching the actor who now plays her mom on SNL, adds. Tarver, meanwhile, says he had to remind himself not to just stand there and smile at Shannon during their scenes together. “She’s doing her thing like two feet from you,” he says, “and it’s like, oh my god, it’s her, just remain calm.”
When it came to casting the two leads, they chose actors who will probably be familiar to some comedy superfans but are relatively unknown overall. Drew Tarver, the Georgia-born comedian best known for starring in Seeso’s Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, was cast early on as Cary. When Tarver read the pilot script he immediately called his agent and said, “This is my favorite, please can we do this?” He adds, “I just loved it so much because the comedy also had heart and wasn’t as cynical as you might think it could be with this premise.”
It took them a lot longer to zero in on Heléne Yorke, whom they had both loved on HBO’s High Maintenance, for Brooke. “She played it with a fun sense of inappropriate confidence,” Kelly says of Yorke’s audition. “Just so ballsy, but confidently wrong, with the correct lack of self-awareness.”
Tarver, who read with several other potential Brookes before Yorke was brought in, adds, “She was just so good at bringing a warmth to the role.” He fondly recalls the moment during her audition that she put her hand on the back of his neck. “Nobody else had touched me.”
“It finally paid off, my lack of boundaries!” Yorke exclaims. She also quickly became obsessed with the script after she read it. “I hate reading things that I love, because it’s terrifying,” she explains. As opposed to Tarver, who knew the creators from the UCB comedy world, most of Yorke’s big credits have been on Broadway. “It feels like I’m in a club that I didn’t really do anything to belong to,” she says.
Both leads were unknown enough that when they were shooting scenes on location in New York, pedestrians would come up to them and ask, “What’s going on here? What are they filming?” They would sheepishly respond, “Well... us?”