Former ‘Saturday Night Live’ Writers Say They ‘Worked Harder’ Than the Current Writers

Tina Fey visited Conan O’Brien’s podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, in October to discuss her past work: 30 Rock, Mean Girls, and of course, Saturday Night Live. Both Fey and O’Brien used to write for the iconic weekly sketch series.

The comedy writers reflected on their time at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, working for SNL under the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels. With just a touch of “in-my-day-we-had-to-walk-to-school-uphill-both-ways” energy, O’Brien and Fey shared the opinion that they think the writers who currently work on the show have it easy compared to the schedule they endured while writing for Saturday Night Live.

The ‘SNL’ episodes were written the week of the show, and not a minute before

Fey and O’Brien, veterans of the legendary sketch series’ writing room, talked not-so-nostalgically about their sleepless nights at Saturday Night Live. They remembered that on Tuesday night–the “writing night”–the writers would usually end up staying up all night, starting first drafts of sketches that the cast would perform the following Saturday night.

Fey explained the lurid history behind these night-owl conditions. In its origins, SNL operated on a “schedule designed around cocaine.” Even after the drugs were out of the picture (by the time Fey arrived in the 90s) “we were still staying up all night,” she said.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler of “Saturday Night Live” | Kevin Mazur/WireImage

“Sleep deprivation is no joke,” O’Brien said of the hardcore conditions at Saturday Night Live. “The most effective torture is sleep deprivation. Deprive someone of sleep, and they will break.”

The ‘Saturday Night Live’ alums say host pitch meetings are a joke

“You’re not allowed to write a sketch ahead of time,” Conan said about SNL on his podcast. “You can’t quietly write it on a Saturday afternoon.” This wasn’t an actual rule, of course–it just wasn’t the thing to do.

“There’s no reason why you can’t,” Fey replied, “but no one does.”

“No one even writes them on Mondays,” Conan continued, seeming to marvel at how silly their procrastination was. “The host comes in, and … you make up an idea that you don’t even intend to do.” Both writers admitted many of the staff used complete throw-away ideas in host pitch meetings.

“Mine always involved a blimp,” O’Brien said. Fey, for her part, came in more prepared.

Conan O'Brien and Rachel Dratch on SNL
Conan O’Brien and Rachel Dratch during “Cumberland Farms” | Mary Ellen Matthews/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

“I tried to have real pitches on Monday,” Fey said. “I used to try.”

Fey and O’Brien think season 45 cast have ‘better lives’ than they did

Still, Fey and O’Brien can’t believe the schedule of current Saturday Night Live writers. Fey told O’Brien she was shocked the last time she visited the show to see that the writers “leave on Monday night.”

“I do think we worked harder,” O’Brien argued. Fey said she’d offered to Lorne Michaels “many times” to just “go in and yell at people.” But the SNL showrunner hasn’t taken her up on it, so the current generation of writers carries on with their cushy (in relative terms) schedule.

Saturday Night Live
Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short | Theo Wargo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

O’Brien said the perspective was different when he wrote for the comedy show.

“’I’m gonna push this so hard that I hallucinate, and I get sick,'” he said of his mindset at the time. “That’s how much I care about comedy. With a capital C.”

“I think they have better lives than we did at that time,” Fey agreed of the show’s current writing staff. Poor work-life balance isn’t good for mental health, but is it good for the quality of the product? Many hardcore SNL fans think the show has stopped being funny in recent years. We don’t want anyone hallucinating, but maybe SNL‘s current writers could take note from comedy legends Tina Fey and Conan O’Brien.