This really shouldn’t be surprising—coming from a guy who came up with a sketch that has the line “Come have sex with the Iron Sheik” in it—but Mike O’Brien’s new talk show is brilliant.
Mike O’Brien’s new talk show is so brilliant, in fact, it makes you really want to know who the hell Mike O’Brien is.
So here you go: He’s a writer for Saturday Night Live. He writes the relentlessly funny “Kickspit Underground Rock Festival” sketches, along with all of the standard topical fare. And he’s also now the host of “Seven Minutes in Heaven” on Hulu, where he stands far too close to celebrities before trying to make out with them.
The concept sounds funny. It’s even funnier than that.
That’s why we tracked down O’Brien to talk about what it was like trying to neck with Elijah Wood, how to spend an SNL summer break, and why Patricia Clarkson has forced him to become a shut-in.
Hulu: I’ve got to say, I was really dreading watching this show to begin with because I thought I was getting ready to watch a new show from the CW. I was pretty excited to discover this show was actually really funny.
Mike O’Brien: Oh, that’s interesting. I never really thought of that. I can see that now, that you’d think this is the sequel to “7th Heaven” or something.
I guess I’ll start with the most pressing question: How did you ever get (future guest) Hoda Kotb to drink on camera?
It was really, really tricky. I don’t know how we did it. It’s funny—everyone that’s come in has been real loose with the drinking, which is weird because we shoot from noon until about 4 p.m. We’ve done four of them. We always do a few in a row then go and crash or something.
I think at first we thought it would be almost all SNL-related people: Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler. I don’t think we anticipated that it would be that many people I’ve never met—at least not that soon.
Wait, so you didn’t know these people beforehand? How was this presented? “Here, celebrity: You’re going to go into a closet with a guy you don’t know and be silly with him for a few minutes?”
Considering the circumstances, isn’t it kind of a miracle you got people booked for the show?
I’m 100 percent with that. It’s a little bit of a mystery to me. They probably paint it like, “It’s fun and quirky and it’ll go on the Internet. It’ll take you 20 minutes or so. It’ll be fun.”
So, basically, you bribe them with booze.
Yep, booze—and then we just pour on a lot of thank-yous. The original idea was to do a couple of them and put ’em up with Sudeikis and then have other people look at it and see if they wanted to do it. But we got some people who I never thought would be willing to do it in those first seven. We’ve been real lucky.
Have you considered next steps after this? Did you ever think, “Hey, if they’re up for being in a closet with a stranger for an extended period of time, we should call this something really dangerous and see if people still come on.”
Maybe it should have gotten more and more dangerous. “It’s water filled with snakes! Snakewater! Only on the CW.”
So how did you come up with the idea to base this on a teenage make-out game?
Well, Rob Klein is another writer on the show. He was looking to direct more. He had five to ten ideas of shorts. The thought behind this one was purely that it was an interview show, but (we wanted) to make it real easy. It comes from the fun dynamic of having the (SNL) hosts throughout the week. You form a bond. There’s always that weird moment (on SNL) where we end up talking to them with their shirt off (between sketches). We were trying to capture that. So we decided to use that junior high game Seven Minutes in Heaven to play off that awkwardness. One or two other ones—the more recent ones—they’re more like a narrative.
What do you think was the best episode so far?
I’ll give three people a nod. Kristen Wiig’s episode is great for straight-up laughs. She’s great at acting like a character almost on queue. Andy Cohen is great for seeing someone as themselves in an uncomfortable small closet. If you’re looking for something hot—like a sexy, hot video—I’d go with Patricia Clarkson. She’s just such a…
It sounds like you’re having a hard time even saying that name.
I stammer just thinking about the name ‘Patricia Clarkson’ now. I can’t even go near things that rhyme with Patricia Clarkson anymore.
You can’t even food shop anymore because of Patricia Clarkson.
Yeah, so many different products rhyme with ‘Patricia Clarkson.” It’s almost impossible to go anywhere.
Did you have any ambition to host a talk show growing up? You seem to have a natural ability to keep this thing moving, even though you’re surrounded by clothes.
I never consciously thought of that. I was a big fan of Conan and Letterman growing up. There’s such a skill to it, to interviewing, and I don’t think I’m there yet. We’re able to edit them, though. So I’m able to get away with it. If you watch Letterman, he’s able to (carry on conversation) almost innately.
Maybe the best moments on television right now are when Letterman has somebody on his show that he clearly hates. Like, say, Paris Hilton. You wait and wait for him to get a jab in on this person. It’s almost as much fun watching him restraining himself.
Yeah, he’ll do a little undercut and then, right away, he’ll take it to commercial. Sometimes (the guest) never even notices.
The way (Letterman) keeps it moving no matter what—there’s a lot of that in this show.
I’m glad that’s coming across. The construct is that there’s no cameramen in the closet, not even in earshot. They’re just in a booth down the hall. It may be the odd circumstance that makes people warm up to me immediately. It’s kind of a fight-or-flight type moment. They have to be overly nice to this guy they don’t know. They just shake my hand and they’re offered a drink. Then they stand on this tape marker on the floor that’s less than a foot from each others’ faces, which is closer to someone than you’d ever be naturally, even in that closet. There’s a tiny bit more elbow room in that closet that we don’t use.
They’ve all immediately been so friendly. But they probably walk out of there and go, “Wow, I really need to fire my publicist.”
Yeah, all of these people open right up. I was a little shocked when you said you didn’t really know some of these people before you did the show.
Well, these people have done so many interviews in their life. They enjoy their new twist on it, hopefully. Kristen and Elijah Wood, for example, are coming off a full-time job of promoting things for the last month—Elijah to promote “Wilfred,” Kristen for “Bridesmaids.” One goal, for me, was to try to not overlap with questions they’d usually get.
So where do you see this going? What’s the goal for this? A several-hour “Seven Minutes in Heaven” telethon?
Yes. A two-hour episode that’s commercial free is the goal.
We’re kind of taking it one step at a time. We’ll get these up to see the reaction. If it goes well, we’ll try to do another round before the SNL season starts. Rob and I will either move on to the next project, or if there’s some demand, we’ll do another round.
So what’s an SNL summer like? Are you stashing sketches? Or did you just fall into a stupor?
It’s a decent amount of stupor. It’s all either beach volleyball or crying alone in your apartment. I personally will jot down the ideas from the summer. But it’s just as important giving your brain a break like this. It says a lot that we’re not sick of each other when we finish 22 weeks of intense show work. Working at the show is so much fun that you forget how stressful it gets at times.
How many years have you been with the show?
I’m beginning my third year of writing. I’ve done two seasons after being with Second City in Chicago.
Are you still in the honeymoon period?
Yeah, the terror honeymoon is over, at least. It’s initially a horror movie honeymoon. I’m still worried about messing up and doing something wrong, though. A job like this never works if you’re ever cocky.
You write the Kickspit Underground Rock Festival sketches, right? I think that’s one of the most consistently funny recurring sketches on SNL. How did that come about? It seems like you’re just walking down the street, seeing two things, then combining them for maximum effect.
Yeah, I wrote it with Colin Jost when we saw the real thing on TV one night—the 14-minute-long Gathering of the Juggaloes infomercial. So Colin and I decided we were going to write a parody. We came back at 3 a.m. I sat at the keyboard and he would doze in and out of sleep. Every once in a while he’d say something. “Hot dog explosion. Cast of Growing Pains.” Then he’d go back to sleep. Then it would be both of us staring for a while. “Fart Monsters. Return of the Fart Monsters. Mrs. Potato Dick.” And that’s the first one where I really couldn’t stop laughing. So, yeah, it’s just mentally walking down the street, like you were saying, but with music and rap and TV.
So how would you recommend “Seven Minutes in Heaven” to someone who just watched the Kickspit Undergound Rock Festival sketch?
I would say that they need to first let go of the Underground Festival. I don’t know that you’d be loving “Seven Minutes in Heaven” if you expect it to be exactly like that. I would say that if you like your interview shows awkward and sexy—like most of my relationships—then you’ll probably learn to like this.