God, If You're Not Up There, I'm F–ked By Darrell Hammond
You should recognize Darrell Hammond as the impressionist on Saturday Night Live who plays the bottom-lip-biting-thumbs-up Bill Clinton or the foul mouthed, Trebek-hating Sean Connery. You may know he’s the longest running cast member on the show. You may know that he does a killer Donald Trump. But what you probably don’t know is that he had a severe drug and alcohol problem, that he cut himself out of desperation, or that he suffered from depression and borderline psychosis. Of course, this might not come as a surprise to you. Comedians, in general, often fall prey to addiction and/or mental illness, perhaps more consistently than any other class of entertainer. SNL in particular has had its share of tragic figures, Chris Farley and John Belushi being the most memorable. But Darrell Hammond is somewhat of an oddity.
Maybe it’s because Hammond never seemed to strike out on his own the way other SNL cast members did. Compared to most of the show’s players, he’s made a relatively small splash. Sure, his Clinton is a top-runner for the best impression of the former president, and his crude misreading of categories as Connery on the Celebrity Jeopardy skits have entered into the pop culture canon, but as a comedian we tend to pass Hammond over. Perhaps it’s his uncanny ability to mimic public figures, a talent, Hammond points out, which proved unmarketable in a New York comedy scene that deemed impressions as novelty. Or perhaps it’s because Hammond never cohered properly with the rest of the SNL cast, despite appearing on the roster for a record-setting fourteen years. Look closely and you’ll see Hammond is absent from the closing credits. Hammond himself admits to feeling apart from the SNL family and dodging out after his skits because he felt he didn’t belong. Whatever the reason, his career has remained somewhat low profile, a little obscure, and certainly secretive.
In his new memoir, God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked, Hammond sheds some light on his private life while letting the reader in on the workings of SNL and the trials of a career comedian. Tracing back the roots of his drug addiction and psychosis, Hammond reveals/discovers that he suffered from a traumatic childhood. His mother was physically and psychologically abusive. She maimed the young Hammond, shutting his fingers in doors, cutting his tongue with a steak knife, electrocuting him, all while his father, an alcoholic war-vet prone to delirious rants, remained detached. Hammond details his youth growing up in Florida, playing baseball (a sport he loves to this day), graduating college, working the radio waves and the comedy circuit, moving to New York and finally getting his break on SNL, and he does so in a non-pretentious, familiar writing style that darts in and out of anecdotes, studded with humor, tragedy, and off-kilter scenes of inebriation.
Unfortunately, Hammond exhibits little skill when it comes to writing memorable prose. The progression of the narrative appears to lack any linear or thematic thread, as each chapter deals with a period of seemingly isolated events or ideas and each entry feels like it was jotted down on the backs of cocktail napkins. In all, the book reads like a fractured memory with a little insight here and a little expository history there. But what really hamstrings the book’s narrative is the feeling that this work is part of the healing process, which it most likely is and there’s nothing wrong with that, but Hammond’s writing feels prodded along by some outside force, a sponsor or publicist, and because of this a lot of the scenes feel rushed, underdeveloped, and remote. But who could blame him? Hammond is not a professional writer, and to be truthful, drudging this material up from his memory must have been very taxing for Hammond; an activity best achieved in short, energetic bursts.
Style aside, the book is most interesting when Hammond is explaining the craft of impressionism, the tricks of the trade, how he manipulates his voice and body. His grasp of the art form is certainly a masterful one, as he is among the best impressionists of our time. When he describes the process of learning the voice and mannerisms of Al Gore, we see that performing an impression is far from being simply a novelty act. He discusses the problem of trying to assimilate, what he sees, the three Gores into one manageable character and subsequently gives an insightful estimation of why the politician failed to win the presidential election (because no one saw the real Al Gore). In fact, Hammond’s astute observations of politicians, and public figures in general, go beyond mere physical impression and become critiques and affirmations of unique personality. Above all, Hammond displays his appreciation for emotive gestures, idiosyncrasies and humanity as a whole, and we find that, although his life might not bely the fact, Hammond is, deep in his core, a people person.
Equally as interesting is Hammond’s behind-the-scenes look at the Saturday Night Live set. He goes through a moment-by-moment break down of how each show is written, produced and performed. His glimpse into the fabled Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center is a privileged one, yet humbled by the awe of it all. Likewise, Hammond retells his encounters with the celebrities and politicians he plays with a sense of gratitude, constantly exclaiming his luck with a how-did-I-get-here gee-whiz.
It’s this sort of attitude that makes this book such an enjoyable read, which it is, and gives Hammond a sense of commonality; he is such an easy to person to empathize with, and yet, at the same time, undeserving of shallow pity. Hammond never asks his audience to feel sorry for him and likewise he isn’t exorcising any demons as an attempt to excuse his actions. He is simply telling his life story to all who will listen, and he does it with an irreverent, heartbreakingly funny tone. Sure his prose isn’t highly defined and the narrative thread is disjointed and scattered, but the voice is about as sincere as sincere gets. So, if you’re a fan of Hammond and Saturday Night Live, or if you’re a connoisseur of the human condition, or if you just appreciate the strength of the human spirit then Hammond’s book is a right fit.