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Paul Scheer Relives His First ‘Saturday Night Live’ Audition

Paul Scheer Relives His First ‘Saturday Night Live’ Audition

As Paul Scheer writes in his new book, he learned at an early age to be careful who he told about what he wanted to be when he grew up. Whenever he proudly pronounced that it was his dream to appear on Saturday Night Live, he would be met with disbelief or (worse) condescension — he quickly realized it was better to keep his acting aspirations quiet. Of course, like so many of Hollywood’s comedy greats, he found himself at NYU, unable to resist the pull of individuality and creative expression that ran rampant throughout the Village. He eventually found improv, first performing as part of the group Chicago City Limits and later joining the Upright Citizens Brigade. Here, in this exclusive excerpt from Joyful Recollections of Trauma, he shares a particularly memorable moment from his time with the group — being (briefly) discovered by Lorne Michaels.


When Lorne Michaels, the famed producer of Saturday Night Live, asked UCB to assemble a “best of UCB” sketch show, it signaled that we had arrived. We were now on par with the Groundlings and Second City as a place to discover comedy talent; it felt like real opportunities were finally opening up. While we’d all be competing against one another for an audition slot, we approached the show in the same way as we had all the others—as a team. Then we packed the house with every one of our friends, ensuring that every sketch killed in front of Lorne and the rest of the SNL producers. We shared focus and let everyone have their moment. Instead of being a pressure cooker environment, the show was fun, but maybe it was too much fun, because weeks passed and we didn’t hear anything. Maybe he hated it. Then, I got a call; they wanted me to audition for Saturday Night Live. I couldn’t believe it. It was a dream come true.

In a short period of time I went from studying graphic design with no acting outlet to getting a chance to audition for the most coveted job in comedy. I also learned on the same call that I was the only person from UCB to be asked to audition. I felt guilty and I was self-conscious. I was asked to audition because of my performance with all of my friends; to be the only one asked made me feel like it was sort of comedy stolen valor. So I decided that I wasn’t going to tell anyone. I was going to go at it alone.

For the next two weeks, I worked alone on my material. I was really missing being able to bounce ideas off my crew.

By the time the day of the audition came, I was ready.

I arrived at 30 Rock at 3:00 p.m. and was escorted upstairs to the hallway where the SNL cast dressing rooms were. Every door was closed, and I assumed that behind each door was another person just like me, waiting for their shot. Hours passed as I sat in someone else’s decorated dressing room, running my audition and occasionally daydreaming that I got the show and this was my dressing room. Every part of being a cast member of the show was so close but so far away. It was one of the most voyeuristic experiences ever, and then it became even more so. In the corner of the room was a TV. I turned it on. As it buzzed to life, the main stage of SNL came into view, where someone was doing an impression of Sean Connery. That’s odd. Then it dawned on me. Holy shit! I had access to a live feed of the auditions that were currently happening onstage! I quickly turned off the TV. Was I supposed to see that? Was that here to psych me out? I think the answer was . . . maybe. I learned later that these closed-circuit TVs exist in all the dressing rooms at 30 Rock, carrying a live feed of anything that is taping in the building at a given moment.

My nerves were more amped up now, because I could see my competition. I didn’t want to get in my head. I had been waiting for hours in this tiny room. I just needed some air. I opened my door, and there was Kevin Hart, who was doing the same thing as me. I didn’t know Kevin; back then, he was just like me, trying to get somewhere in his career.

We had some mutual friends, but we didn’t know anything about each other besides that we were in the same boat and feeling the weight of the moment. We just needed to see anyone after hours of being so isolated. We shot the shit and laughed, and I calmed down. No sign of competition existed between us, and we were allies in going through one of the longest and most solitary audition gauntlets that ever existed.

Then, a 30 Rock page approached and called Kevin to the studio. I was alone again. I returned to my room and hesitated about watching his set. To avoid feeling too voyeuristic, I turned it on and watched with the sound off; it looked like he had killed. I waited for him to come back to hear all about it, but he never did. Finally, another page knocked on my door and announced that Lorne and crew had broken for dinner, but I’d be up soon after they returned. A few more hours passed, and then it was time.

It was about 8:30 when we walked from my dressing room down a flight of stairs onto the eighth floor, the home of SNL. I walked past pictures of previous casts, looking at faces that defined comedy—people I grew up watching and even some whom I’d recently gotten to perform next to. It felt like I was auditioning not just to be a cast member but to be a part of comedy history.

As I stood outside the double doors that led to the stage, the page said, “You know Amy’s in there.” Amy Poehler, one of my first long-form teachers and part of the UCB 4, was auditioning for SNL, too. The page motioned to the door, signaling me to watch. So I approached the doors and peered through the crack at its center. I couldn’t hear anything. I just felt the cold wind of the chilled studio as I saw Amy at a podium doing what looked like a Weekend Update piece. At this point, Amy had already done three seasons of the UCB show on Comedy Central. She was on TV; she was the funniest person I knew. I couldn’t believe she had to go through the same gauntlet as the rest of us. I watched until she finished and then stepped back. Amy exited the big doors and, seemingly without any nerves, smiled when she saw me: “Scheer.” She gave me a big hug. She said, “It’s not that bad—have fun.” I couldn’t believe how cool, calm, and self-assured she was in the moment or that she was even able to give me advice. She was the first person to know I was auditioning, and she had my back. I needed that. Then I was called to enter the room.

I walked into complete blackness. The only thing illuminated was the iconic stage, where every host has done their monologue for decades. I approached and was quickly surrounded by a team of people. A stage manager showed me the cameras and explained

how the audition and screen test would work. A makeup artist touched me up as a sound person wired me. The nerves started to kick in. Then, from the darkness, Lorne Michaels appeared. As a kid who had grown up watching this show, I knew everything about him. It was a magical moment. He was soft-spoken and kind. He asked whether I had everything I needed; I asked for a table, and he snapped into action, calling over a stagehand and requesting the table as if I were the most important person in the room. Once he knew I was good, he nodded, and with a smile, he walked off into the darkness. It was like meeting the president and Santa Claus combined (which, by the way, is an idea I’m developing into a feature film; please don’t steal it).

The stage manager reappeared with a clapper, walked before me, and announced my name: “Paul Scheer.” The SNL logo with my name appeared on all the screens around the darkened empty stage; a countdown happened, and then I was live on the center stage at SNL. There are all these myths about what the audition is like, and it’s not worth listing or disputing them, because all of them are somewhat true and partly false and wholly unique. The things I know that are true: It’s an intense experience, but it also feels like they just want to find the right person for the show. I think all that stress leading up to getting onstage is to re-create what an actual live show would feel like. Can you hack it when the pressure is on? Will you freeze?

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I felt good about my audition; the most shocking thing was how quickly it went. When I was done, that was it. There was no thank you, no goodbye. I was escorted off the stage and back into the darkness; as I exited the double doors, a page was standing with my backpack in her hand. I was guided to an elevator and sent down to the lobby, and I was back to my normal life once again, probably less than fifteen minutes after my audition started. A moment of utter disbelief kicked in. Then my mind just started to race. Did that just happen? Was it good? Holy shit, I just auditioned for SNL. I hope I get it. I won’t get it. When will I know? I checked my phone, but there were no messages asking, “How’d it go?” because no one knew what I had just done. An existential dread crept over me; my future hung in the balance. Just as I was about to step on an uptown train and head to my apartment, I turned on a dime, ran across the track, and went downtown to UCB.

I walked backstage at UCB, saw some friends, and revealed I had just auditioned for SNL. They all perked up and celebrated. I was embraced, and I answered a million questions as I laid out all the details to see whether there was anything we could read into the experience. Laughing and joking with my friends made me instantly regret not involving this group from the start. The energy and love in the space calmed my post-audition nerves. We decided to celebrate with some drinks; I hung behind for a second to dump my SNL audition props into my locker downstairs. As I had a moment of silence, it was the first time I could bask in this accomplishment. No one could take that away from me. Then, from the other side of the wall, I heard, “Out of all the people, I can’t believe they picked Paul Scheer.” Had I heard that right? I leaned in. I had.

The voice wasn’t one of my peers or fellow performers; it was one of my teachers, someone I thought was rooting for me. I listened to him continue to talk shit about me, and I just froze.

I didn’t know what to do. If I confronted him, it would just be embarrassing. I couldn’t see that playing out in a way that would make me feel good. Then I realized that if he found me, it would be even more embarrassing. To make things even more complicated, there was only one way in and out of this basement area, and it was in the part of the basement he was in. I was trapped. So I did what I do best: I hid in an abandoned stairwell and waited for him to leave. As I hid in my “box,” my mind raced. It wasn’t that I hadn’t heard anyone talk shit about me before. I had. This was different; his status at the theater and what he said played directly into my insecurities. I felt like if I didn’t get SNL, then maybe this guy was right. If he was right, maybe I shouldn’t be doing any of this. But why was I pinning all my self-worth on the outcome of an audition and what someone thought about me? Shouldn’t I be focused on the accomplishment and what I had achieved and the joy that I felt in seeing friends and sharing my success with them? Wasn’t that the feeling I should be embracing in this moment? Instead, I was hiding from a person who I didn’t want to make feel awkward, putting his feelings in front of my own, while my friends waited for me to celebrate with them. What was I doing? For my entire childhood I hid from a mean adult. I didn’t have to do that anymore.

I knew I couldn’t let another minute pass. I emerged from my hiding spot and walked right into the room where that guy was still chatting it up, and I now saw him differently. I had dealt with versions of this type of person my entire life. He used his power to make people feel small so he could seem big. I used to gravitate toward that type of personality, seeking their validation over others because it was harder won and I felt like it meant more. But being at UCB, I discovered I thrived so much more when I surrounded myself with people who didn’t withhold their validation, who told me “you can” instead of “you can’t,” and supported me no matter what I did. Which was exactly what I planned on doing. I politely nodded my head hello and headed to see my friends.

At the bar I sat with my friends, drinking, laughing, and celebrating this accomplishment. I wasn’t thinking about what was next; I was just enjoying the now. I was basking in the fact that I went from a life where I often played by myself and acted out scenes alone to being surrounded by some of the funniest and most talented performers ever. I would never be alone in that way again unless I needed a vanity project. Whether or not I got SNL wasn’t important. Auditions and gigs will come and go, but in a career as hard as this, the most important thing is having people who will get your back on and off the stage. They always did and always will.

From the book The Joyful Recollections of Trauma by Paul Scheer. Copyright © 2024 by Paul Scheer. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

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