What Terrified Bill Hader About Performing on ‘Saturday Night Live’?

Bill Hader is one of the more memorable cast members from Saturday Night Live. His tenure on the show left an indelible mark. From his ingenious portrayal of club kid, Stefon to his uncanny impression of Dateline‘s Keith Morrison, when Hader hit the stage, the audience knew they were in for a laugh-fest.

However, behind the strong performances was someone who was more comfortable behind the camera instead of out in front. As someone who could visualize humor in his mind, delivering lines in front of an audience was more than just a little stressful for Hader.

Bill Hader|Photo by Christopher Polk/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Lorne Michaels knew Hader was uncomfortable

Michaels told The New Yorker that many talented performers get nervous before going on stage. But Hader was a little different. “Most people who are good play scared, but Bill was particularly timorous,” he said. “You’d just see in his eyes, ‘I’m about to be hit.’” 

As a coping mechanism, Hader dove into doing his (now famous) impressions. “I think Bill started by doing impressions of people who were scary to him, as a defense,” Michaels added. “He did me, of course—nearly everyone on S.N.L. does a Michaels impression—because he was convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that I was going to fire him every time he passed me in the hall.”

In fact, Michaels eventually had to remind Hader his job was safe. “After Bill had been on for four years, Lorne told him, ‘You know you can stay as long as you want,'” John Mulaney told The New Yorker. “And Bill said to me, ‘It’s crazy to hear the thing you most wanted to hear.’ In my head, I was, like, Bill, you know you’re a famous person on ‘S.N.L.,’ right?”

It was the ‘live’ part that terrified him

Hader told The New Yorker he often did impressions of people who scared him. “The people I impersonated growing up were authority figures, like my chemistry teacher, Mr. Sullivan, who really did scare me. I guess it’s a weird form of rebellion.”

According to his interview in The New Yorker, Hader was actually terrified of performing live. Even though he loved the crew and team, he felt shame and rage if he stumbled over lines. He often suffered from migraines and had a panic attack when he portrayed Julian Assange.

After a few years on the SNL cast, Hader said he began blowing his lines on purpose. “That would relax me, realizing, after my brain panicked, that no one even noticed,” he said. “It was embarrassing how unhappy I was. I’d wake up Saturday morning crying, be hitting my head in the shower—I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go. The irony was that I was being rewarded for it, so I had to keep doing it.”

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Jeff Bridges gave him the best advice

When actor Jeff Bridges hosted SNL, he noticed Hader was rather skittish. “When Jeff Bridges hosted the show, he noticed me being nervous in rehearsal, and he told me ‘I worked with Robert Ryan on The Iceman Cometh, and before every take, he’d be sweating bullets,” Hader told The New Yorker.

“I asked him about it, and he said, ‘I’d be really afraid if I wasn’t afraid.'” Hader recounts. “‘So that nervousness you feel, that’s your buddy, man!’ So now I always think that instead of fighting my demon, I am going to invite it to sit on my shoulder.”

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Hader then offers a visual. “It’s like a gargoyle with weird green eyes that pulls on my hair or nibbles my ear. And every once in a while it just attacks my face.”

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