What I learned about business from Will Ferrell’s SNL audition

Watching a comedy giant before he was great is like seeing a startup’s first pitch

Two things happened to me today: I discovered Will Ferrell’s audition for SNL (“Saturday Night Live”), and I had first meetings with four early stage startups. If you could predict Will Ferrell’s success from his early work, how might we apply lessons from this audition to early stage businesses and investor pitches?

Premise + Promise

Will’s third bit is the Get Off The Shed guy. He introduces the sketch as “This is Dutch Litchford. And we’re at an outdoor barbecue.” The premise is revealed pretty soon after that.

The premise is that he alternates between having a pleasant, boring conversation and aggressively shouting at his kids. That’s it. He plays that out for about a minute and a half.

Will Ferrell making small talk / yelling GET OFF THE SHED
Will Ferrell making small talk / yelling GET OFF THE SHED
“GET OFF THE GODDAMN SHED! OFF THE SHED! We got hotdogs too if you want.”

But the director and decision-makers in the audience would see promise beyond these 90 seconds. The premise and the character could play out in different situations, have different things to shout at/about, and be put in scenes with other characters (and celebrity hosts) who could have different reactions to it.

The promise is important to SNL’s context. Each episode is written that week, starting on Monday and performed live on Saturday night. They have less than a week to pitch ideas, draft sketches, choose the good ones, perfect the scripts, rehearse, block, tweak again etc. Do that about 20 times each season and you can see why repeatable premises and characters are a major plus.

I found three versions of this sketch that made it onto SNL.

Clip from Get Off The Shed sketch on SNL
Clip from Get Off The Shed sketch on SNL
Get off the shed: 1995
Clip from Get Off The Shed sketch on SNL
Clip from Get Off The Shed sketch on SNL
Get off the shed: 1996 — adding a second shouty character
Clip from Get Off The Shed-inspired sketch on SNL
Clip from Get Off The Shed-inspired sketch on SNL
“Get on the Bag, Brandon!” with Sarah Michelle Geller in 1999.

When I look at a startup’s first pitch I’m looking for a good premise and a strong promise. A good premise = I can see why this would get initial traction. A strong promise = I can see opportunities for the business to grow. Add more value to the same customers, or extend the first product to different markets. I want to get excited about the possibilities.

If you’ve ever heard “this is a feature, not a product” or “the market isn’t big enough” then make sure your premise is clearer and your promise is more explicit.

Give them what they expect

Sketch comedy shows are a bit formulaic. The auditions are the same.

“They give you these cryptic parameters. A character of your choice; a celebrity impersonation if you have one; a political impersonation if you have one. And if you don’t have any of it — just funny.” — Will Ferrell on The Off Camera Show

Will’s audition delivers exactly that. He does a celebrity impersonation, a political impersonation, a character, and then something that’s just funny.

Will Ferrell being a cat playing with cat toys
Will Ferrell being a cat playing with cat toys
“Please hold all my calls.”

“That was the biggest sinking moment, because here I am lying around with cat toys on the stage where the host for Saturday Night Live delivers the monologue every week. I was like… oh, this is the end.”

A startup pitch has a formula, too. Problem, solution, business model, opportunity. And the audience expects you to hit those notes.

You bring your own flavour to it, of course, just like Will flinging cat toys across the stage.

Commitment

Comedy benefits greatly by feeding off the energy of the audience. The SNL audition process is horrible for comedians. You’re on stage in a big room with about 7 people in it, and they deliberately don’t laugh. Here’s Rob Huebel’s description:

They try to make it as scary as possible because it’s a live show, and in real life, I’m sure it is terrifying and things do go wrong, so they want you to be prepared. … [They] make you wait around, and then they tell you at the last minute, “Oh, you only have five minutes” So you have to cut half of your stuff. They do that to kind of freak you out. …

So, I went in and did it. And they sit in the back. At that time, Tina Fey was still the head writer. I was friends with Tina. I think Tina’s great, but I think they have this thing that they do where they don’t laugh at anything. So, you go in and you do [a] few minutes. It’s just a wall of silence, just no laughs at all. Nothing. No matter what. No matter who you are because everyone says this. Then, as I was leaving, I was like, “Bye, Tina.” She was like, “Bye, Rob.”

It was the same for Will Ferrell’s SNL audition:

“I’m doing this to an empty studio. I’m in a void. Nobody is laughing. I hope this works.” (Will Ferrell on the Dan Patrick Show)

And yet, Will’s opening sketch is a very slow and measured impression of baseball announcer Harry Carey that goes for two-and-a-half minutes during which Will often sits in silence while a voiceover does exposition.

Will Ferrell’s impression of Harry Carey
Will Ferrell’s impression of Harry Carey
Will Ferrell as Harry Carey, mostly waiting.

In the whole sketch he only speaks for about 45 seconds. The sketch doesn’t really go anywhere — the premise is obvious from the start, and there is no heightening or escalation. It’s just 2:30 of the same thing.

But he commits to it. Even if nobody else gets it. Even if the room is telling him it sucks. He commits because he believes in it, and knows the only way it’s going to work is if he gives it 100%.

“When a sketch was tanking, and I could tell the audience was like ‘just get to the next thing’, I would take twice as long.” — Will Ferrell on Late Night

When I talk to a startup founder I want to know they are committed. Passionate about solving a problem or helping a customer segment. That they have insights they really believe in. That will keep them going even when things get tough.

Heightening and escalation

“It keeps escalating.” That’s how Will described the Get Off The Shed sketch in 2017. Here are the lines he delivers to the off-stage kids:

  • Hey Brandon? Michael? You wanna do me a favour and get off the shed, ok? You need to be a buddy and get off the shed. Alright?
  • Hey guys I mean it, let’s get off the shed. Ok?
  • If you don’t get off the shed in 2 seconds I’m going to shove this spatula into orifices you didn’t know you had. Now get off the shed!
  • GET OFF THE GODDAMN SHED! OFF THE SHED!
  • GET OFF THE GODDAMN SHED. OFF THE SHED. GET OFF THE SHED. GET OFF — THE GODDAMN — SHED!
Will Ferrell in anchorman: “Boy, that escalated quickly.”
Will Ferrell in anchorman: “Boy, that escalated quickly.”
Can you write about Will Ferrell and escalation without quoting this?

Heightening is an improv term that refers to finding the “interesting thing” and putting more emphasis on it and building on it. One example from this sketch is his obliviousness to how inappropriate his outbursts are. Just keeps switching back to small talk as though nothing happened. You see that a lot more in the SNL versions where you can see the reactions of the other characters. (His partner is equally oblivious.)

Escalation is a similar increase in intensity, but I see it more as a narrative technique: “and then what happens?” Once you’ve heightened or escalated a couple of times you establish a pattern, and now the audience is interested to see where it goes.

A good startup pitch can also use heightening and escalation, especially at the beginning when talking about the customer’s problem. Escalate: tell us the problem, and the impact of that problem, and the future consequences of not dealing with the problem. Or heighten: set an emotional tone with a broad problem, then zoom in on one person’s experience of the problem and the impact on them.

Consistency and adaptability are important

This audition was Will’s “callback” audition, which is like the final round in a job interview process. The night before he was advised by the director Lorne Michaels to change the act he had used in his first round audition and do something new.

“Just so I’m clear. Should I just throw everything out? … He was forcing me to come up with new stuff. … So then I’m up ’til 2 in the morning re-doing a brand new audition in my head. So there I was that next day just by the seat of my pants doing 3 or 4 different things that I hadn’t planned on doing.” — Will Ferrell on The Off Camera Show

That’s pretty horrible, but it served a purpose. The audition process tested whether someone could perform consistently well. And Lorne’s direction tested how well Will could adapt to changing circumstances.

As BlueChilli founder Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin tells founders: “Investors invest in lines, not dots.

Getting to $10k monthly recurring revenue is good, but I want to see what that looked like over the past 6 months. How you’ve adapted to changes in the market or competitive landscape. When you’ve failed and what you’ve learned from it.

If all that has made you nervous about meeting with an investor or starting your own business, I’ll leave you with this quote from Fred Armisen talking about his own SNL audition:

“If this is all that ever happens to me; from punk rock drummer to THIS… I am good. This is amazing.”

Enjoy it

I work with startups, teach entrepreneurship, and freelance in improv and leadership coaching.

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