Before “Saturday Night Live” hired him to concoct fake movie trailers, political satire and goofy music videos, Chris Kelly roamed Anteater land as a member of UCI’s Live Nude People (With Clothes On). The campus improv troupe helped the 2005 drama graduate cut his comedy teeth – and the experience still influences his work.
“UCI is where I first fell in love with improv … and I use what I learned there every day,” he says. “At ‘SNL,’ I always improvise with my fellow writers to flesh out ideas. It’s maybe my single greatest tool, especially when I’m co-writing. Sometimes, my writing partner and I will literally take out our phones and record ourselves improvising a full sketch in character. Then we go back and transcribe the best parts.”
Currently on break after his first season as a head scribe for the show, the Sacramento-bred humorist recently spoke by phone about his UCI days, his charmed job path and the pitfalls of trying to pen jokes in the era of Donald Trump.
As an incoming freshman, Kelly had only a vague notion of what he wanted to do after graduation. “So many young drama majors know right away that they want to be on TV or Broadway one day, but it was harder for kids like me,” he says. “I knew I liked comedy, having memorized every episode of ‘Seinfeld’ when I was growing up. And I knew I was funny-ish, because I usually got those parts in high school plays. But I didn’t know how to make it a career.”
Things started coming into focus once he discovered Live Nude People. Such extracurricular outlets “may seem ragtag and silly and just for fun, but they really can change lives,” he says. “I give the school a lot of credit and thanks for … helping give that group free theater space to rehearse and perform, because it was vital to me as a young comedian and writer.”
From that base, he began mapping his future. “On graduation day, I very dramatically bought a one-way ticket to New York City for three months later,” Kelly recalls. After working and saving all summer, he headed east, where he waited tables and got involved with the Upright Citizens Brigade, a bicoastal improv and comedy program.
He also scored an internship at The Onion, a popular online news parody outfit. He began as a location scout for the website’s soon-to-premiere video offshoot, then cajoled his way into a staff writing job.
But while he was spoofing everything from teen kidnappings to the national debt, tragedy began unfolding back home. Kelly’s mother was diagnosed with a deadly form of cancer. Onion colleagues graciously allowed him multiple leaves to visit her in California – and even chipped in for airfare, he says.
In 2011, after her death and a brief stint at Funny or Die (an L.A.-based comedy website co-founded by “SNL” alum Will Ferrell), Kelly was drafted to write for “Saturday Night Live,” a job he had dreamed of since college.
That made him the second Anteater to infiltrate the show’s ranks. Actor-comedian Jon Lovitz ’79, who also studied drama and reached “SNL” six years after graduation, led the way. And the Irvine connection doesn’t end there. Former cast members Ferrell and Nasim Pedrad went to high school just down the street from UCI, as did Pedrad’s sister, Nina, who wrote for former “Weekend Update” anchor Tina Fey’s “30 Rock” sitcom.
Kelly’s “SNL” contributions, co-written with Sarah Schneider, range from “St. Joseph’s Christmas Mass Spectacular,” an amusing look at holiday church services, to “The Dudleys,” which ribs political correctness.
He credits being gay with giving him a good ear for dialogue and a different take on the world. “Growing up, I always felt a little bit like an outsider,” Kelly says. “Whether it was sports or dating or sex, I often wasn’t having the same shared experiences as everyone else, so I spent a lot of time on the outside of conversations, not talking – just listening, observing, sort of picking things up. I was the kid to the side, just kind of taking mental notes. Is that creepy? But I think it helped me as a writer.”
When asked if any skits or personas from his college improv days have resurfaced in his current work, he jokes, “Yes, back at UCI, I came up with the idea for ‘Donald Trump.’ He was a character I created in an improv show, and then it just kinda snowballed – and now I’m so, so sorry.”
Last year, Kelly was elevated to a co-head writer slot at “Saturday Night Live,” just in time for the homestretch of 2016’s topsy-turvy presidential race. “It was a rush,” he says, to help lead the show during the campaign, but with big news stories often breaking shortly before airtime, “we were constantly writing and rewriting to keep up. It was hard.”
“SNL” isn’t Kelly’s only creative outlet. In the summer of 2012, after his first season at NBC, he began tinkering on a loosely autobiographical screenplay about his mother’s final days. “I had done a lot of comedy, and I was eager to try something different,” he says. Titled “Other People,” the film debuted to mostly favorable reviews in 2016.
This summer, Kelly and writing collaborator Schneider are working on a television pilot for Comedy Central. If the show gets a green light, he isn’t sure how that might affect their tenure at “Saturday Night Live.”
But if they do come back, there seems to be no shortage of new fodder for political satire. Does Kelly miss the chance to poke fun at White House machinations while the show is on hiatus? “Oh, it’s an absolute blessing to not have to write about Trump this summer,” he says. “I’m more than happy to take a break.”