The Shape-Shifter

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In his memoir, God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked, Darrell Hammond tells his story with a remarkable candor that seems designed not to shock or titillate, but to allow for a full and honest rendering of a scary life.

It was Whoopi Goldberg who first called him “the shape-shifter,” and Darrell Hammond was “extremely flattered” when he heard that one. “It might sound a little woo-woo mystical,” he writes in his new memoir God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked: Tales of Stand-up, ‘Saturday Night Live’ and Other Mind-Altering Mayhem, “but truth be told, it might actually be the best description of what I do. According to mythology, though, a real shape-shifter has trouble returning to his original form after a while, whereas I, unfortunately, had no such issue.”

It’s hard to know just what returning to his original form means, exactly, when it comes to Darrell Hammond, although it’s apparent that what he means here is returning to the addict, depressive, bipolar, multiple-personality schizophrenic. Those are all diagnoses Hammond has received and shares in these pages, but it’s the last of them, more than any other, that makes coherent definition impossible, even if all of them, to some extent, describe someone who’s a shape-shifter even when not on the clock.

He got his start shifting shapes in childhood. The son of an unconscionably abusive mother, Hammond “learned to exist in my house as if I weren’t there at all. I kept my voice a level monotone, my expression flat. I didn’t reveal anger or fear or sadness. If I showed any of those emotions, it suggested that something was wrong in that house, and that made my mother angry.” His first plan was to try making himself cry, the thinking being that “if I could make myself cry, she’d lose interest in making me cry herself.”

When that didn’t work, he turned to “the voices,” and it was there that he learned he “could win her approval, or at least avoid a beating,” doing Bob Cratchit and Ebenezer Scrooge, whereupon “her eyes would go soft and childlike as I said my line. She would listen to me intently like a mechanic listening to an engine.

“I learned how to do voices from her—they were my only protection.”

God knows, there were great impressionists on SNL before Hammond—the show wouldn’t exist without them. But what makes Hammond sui generis, even when placed among Phil Hartman and Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo and Dana Carvey. Dan Aykroyd and Jay Pharoah (here the list of truly versatile SNL impressionists ends), is that he thrived on the show without being known for his invented characters as well. (Pharoah, too, isn’t known for his invented characters, but he hasn’t yet been properly utilized as an impressionist, either.) Many consider this a dubious distinction, at best, like the other superlative Hammond holds, as the longest-enduring cast member, on a show that many consider a college one is supposed to graduate from after four to seven years. (Hammond was there for 14, by the end of which he was 53, older than any player in the show’s history—another dubious superlative.)

But when you bring the breadth of caricature that Hammond brings, it’s never a limitation—it’s never not a strength, any more than longevity is, on a show that functions at a brutal pace while remaining culturally current. The SNL Archives lists 107 different impressions that Hammond has done, which means that he was learning an average of seven a year, refining many of those on a constant basis, during his run as regular player between 1995 and 2009.

This may not sound like it involves a lot of work, until you hear Hammond describe what goes into learning these characters, and then what goes into actually performing them. He had to be “ready to learn a new voice at a moment’s notice. If one of the writers gave me an impression on Friday night, could I learn it by Saturday morning? Sometimes a sketch that featured Dick Cheney on Friday had been reconfigured to include Geraldo Rivera on Saturday.” Because the show is written and rehearsed in a single week, and then performed live, Hammond reckons that “[d]oing an impression on SNL was a little like painting a picture while dodging bullets. Sometimes the paint gets smeared, sometimes the strokes are too broad, sometimes you don’t even have time to put the brush to canvas.” He breaks things down more specifically elsewhere: “Even if a writer brings you a voice on Wednesday, you don’t have forty-eight hours to master it, because you’re prepping other things simultaneously. I’d be lucky to get in five or six hours to work on it. It’s also really hard to absorb more than an hour or two a day of a person.”

None of which even touches on the rigor of costume preparation: “There were some shows when I’d appear in four or five different sketches, which usually meant four or five different wigs and as many putty noses. I used to have the most painful rash blossom on the side of my face after shows because they’d rip a wig with, say, Sean Connery’s sideburns off my head fast to get me ready for the next sketch as Rudolph Giuliani. My face got pretty burned up over the years.”

In spite of the impressionist’s marginalized status among comedians, impressions are all Hammond ever really wanted to do. Before SNL, he did them in nightclubs and on the radio, in Florida and New York and then all over, on the road. It was his craft, and he gave it the respect any craft demands. At one point early on, when he got out of rehab in Florida, “I made a decision that I was either going to starve to death or I was going to make a living doing voices.”

Even if Hammond wasn’t so talented at doing voices, I don’t think any actuary would have identified starving-to-death as Hammond’s most likely cause of death. He’d been abusing drugs and alcohol off and on since he was a kid, and he was far from done by the time of his post-rehab epiphany. This all gets written about in the book, with a remarkable candor that you have to respect since it seems designed not to shock or titillate, but to allow for a full and honest rendering. He also writes about two incidents of surpassingly strange similarity that would have challenged the sobriety of the strongest among us. The first came in Florida, when a gay man he was sponsoring in AA killed himself after Hammond informed him he was not himself gay; and then, years later in New York, a serious girlfriend, whom Hammond threatened to leave if she did not cease her bulimic self-destructiveness, also killed herself. Hammond found her hanging from the ceiling of their apartment.

And so it is that Hammond’s journey through SNL is also a journey through various psych wards and rehabs, soul-searches and psychoanalyses, problem after problem, the problems as various as the characters he crafts for the camera. This is a schizophrenic book that’s emerged from a schizophrenic life. No surprise, then, that when we see him preparing to actually play his mother, from whom all this shape-shifting started, and the make-up person goes to put the wig on his head, Hammond hears his mother’s voice from all the way back in childhood, telling him, “I saw what you did, and I know who you are.” Hammond starts to throw up right there in the makeup chair, and is taken to the NBC infirmary where his blood-pressure is deemed fatally high. He ends up not even making the show that night, but at least he stays around to make it on some other night. He keeps on telling himself he knows who he is, and he keeps on being right, every single time.

Lary Wallace is a contributing editor for The Faster Times (where he regularly covers SNL, among much else), and is the author of Biographia Americana. You can reach him at [email protected] More from this author →