Behind the 'SNL' impressions, a humble life in black
By Larry Neumeister
By Larry Neumeister
NEW YORK — During a record 12 years on "Saturday Night Live," Darrell Hammond has provided pitch-perfect impressions of Donald Trump, Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, even Jesse Jackson. On this night, with a Yankees cap atop his head, the comedy veteran works in a less familiar voice: his own.
Hammond is onstage at the Comedy Cellar in Manhattan, where he has performed regularly during his long run on "SNL." Hammond follows former "Weekend Update" host Colin Quinn, who minutes after finishing his own set sounds like more of a fan than a colleague.
"Please do Jesse and Sharpton!" Quinn calls out, leaning forward like an impatient 8-year-old.
Hammond obliges, swapping his slight Southern drawl for some Jackson before distorting his voice into a blustery sound-bite machine to do Sharpton. "I did not call Giuliani a bozo," he says in Sharpton's cadence. "I said Bozo could have done just as good a job as Giuliani!"
Then he does Trump, generating laughs by ending every thought from the self-promoting real-estate mogul with a pause and two words — "The Apprentice." Next, President Bush, drawing cascading laughs.
Other voices follow in rapid succession: Ronald Reagan, Homer Simpson, Popeye. Dick Cheney, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Dr. Phil. And finally President Clinton, a man Hammond describes as "larger than life" and a voice that Hammond returns to at regular intervals.
It's a good night because Hammond is easily scoring the 10 good laughs he wants each minute. To measure what works, he has placed a tape recorder on stage. When he's not doing the voices of others, his own soft tones escape.
A man whose vocal victims generally offer their praise might be above this quest for perfection, but somebody forgot to tell the blue-eyed Hammond he's famous. And his hard-knock past haunts his ego.
"College kids, don't be taking examples from me," he warns after noting his 2.1 grade-point average in college. "I was drunk for 32 years."
The crowd laughs again, but Hammond is serious.
By just about any measure, Hammond has reached comedy's top tier. But by Hammond's measure, he remains a struggling comic.
"I want to be good. I don't think I'm good," Hammond says. And he means it, at that moment. A bit later he says: "I've always been pretty good but not as good as I want to be."
The hunger is not so much for fame or fortune as it is to perfect an art form that brought him salvation once his dreams of professional baseball died, killed off at the University of Florida by his inability to solve the riddle of a well-thrown slider.
Looking at his other abilities for a new career direction, he dusted off voice skills he had developed before age 10 when he played with consonants and vowels so he could mimic the characters in "A Christmas Carol" or Porky Pig saying, "That's all, folks!"
The detour took him from dirt diamonds to a radio job and later to 18 years of developing comedy material. He became one of hundreds of other young comedians across the country, performing thousands of shows, hoping to win enough notice to find steady paychecks.
Now he is welcomed and applauded even by his subjects. Bush always whispers something funny in his ear, he says. Hammond wants his subjects to enjoy his work and he is careful not to take sides politically.
"I'm not sure how a world leader reacts to the work of a clown," he says. "When you visit a White House or shake a president's hand, I'm really impressed with them and happy I've come this far."
Chris Rock, as big a star as exists in stand-up comedy, happens to visit the club on this night to begin work on his new stage act.
Hammond looks at him and quietly says he's not at Rock's level. Rock speaks admiringly of Hammond, saying, "I'm always impressed with guys who do something I can't do."
Like 12 years on "Saturday Night Live"?
"Twelve years! I think it's great," says Rock, noting that Hammond's career has endured longer than some of those he imitates. "The thing with Darrell is he just adapts, not like somebody doing John Wayne impressions."
Hammond talks of his past as if he is lucky to be alive, certainly to be on stage or television.
In his down time he helps people battle addictions, just like others helped him overcome cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.
"I've never really gotten into it how bad it really was. I think the story is disheartening. It was an ugly story," he says.
He still wears black, something he started doing after the 1991 death of a close friend left him so devastated that he resumed abusing alcohol and drugs after a six-year hiatus.
A few years later, he was spotted at Carolines comedy club in Manhattan doing a single Clinton line and was added, at age 39, to the cast of "Saturday Night Live." He'd been rejected twice before.
Once on the show, he wasn't sure he would last. Then, in the second half of his first season, he was impersonating Ted Koppel and tossed in an ad lib, and suddenly realized he could make it.
"I wasn't just reciting the lines," he said. "I actually became the character for one second."
Hammond still dreams, talking about some day having his own act in Las Vegas or becoming a character actor in Hollywood. But he also says he might someday dedicate himself full time as a volunteer helping others overcome addictions.
"I'm starting to wear colors," he says. "Maybe I've decided to get over it all. I know I'm enjoying it more. All of a sudden I remember the gifts. I perform in the major leagues of what I do. It's incredible. I don't have to indict the world anymore."