It’s not often that one finds themselves an eyewitness to history. At least, the kind of history that didn’t result in the catastrophic loss of life — rather the kind of history that will get you a free drink at the bar, or help turn a horrible date into, well, a less horrible date, or impress teenagers and their fathers at a football game.
But I was there, on April 8, 2000, in 30 Rock’s Studio 8H when Saturday Night Live’s players, and host Christopher Walken, performed the sketch now known as “More Cowbell.”
See? Now, where’s my beer?
I had been working as an editor at Entertainment Weekly for four years by then and rarely used that fact to my advantage. Movie screenings, sure, but I never traded on the name and our relationships in any real way. But it was gonna be my girlfriend’s — now wife — 30th birthday and, well, fuck it. I went to our TV expert for a name at NBC’s PR department and asked ‘em if it’d be possible to attend a SNL taping. Despite being a born-and-bred New Yorker, I’d never been. This was as good an occasion as any to rectify that.
Christopher Walken was the host and Christina Aguilera was the musical guest. He was hosting for the fourth time, promoting nothing besides being Christopher Walken. And Christina was fresh off of “Genie in a Bottle” and a Best New Artist Grammy. Not bad. Not Lucy Liu and Jay-Z (Dec 2000), but not Joshua Jackson and ‘N Sync (March 2000) either.
The cast, though, was a fucking monster: Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Cheri Oteri, Rachel Dratch, Chris Parnell, Tracy Morgan, Chris Kattan, Darrell Hammond, Ana Gasteyer, Tim Meadows, Molly Shannon, Horatio Sanz and Colin Quinn. Tina Fey was the head writer. Easy one of the top five ensembles in Saturday Night Live history
I was given the option between attending the dress rehearsal or the live telecast. Because I am not a moron, I chose the live show — even though there’s more material at the dress and, if you’re a comedy nerd, watching that sausage get made is amazing. I am just a normal nerd, so we went to the live show.
After getting to 30 Rock at around 8pm and spending two hours winding our way along hallways, up elevators, through metal detectors, and down corridors, we finally took our seats in the balcony. We weren’t cool enough to make it on the floor — that, or EW didn’t have that much juice.
If you’ve never been to a live taping of anything, here is the one thing that always applies: The studio is smaller that you think it’ll be. And Studio 8H is tiny. Like dollhouse tiny. There’s the main monologue stage, the stage for the musical guest, and then the swing stage for all the skits. And that’s pretty much it.
I don’t remember a ton about the rest of the show — Christina Aguilera belted out a frankly amazing version of Etta James’ “At Last” while sitting on the edge of a piano and watching the logistics of “The Continental” skit was impressive.
But even in the room, everyone knew that “More Cowbell” was special.
There was a rumor that floated among the youths in Baldwin, Long Island, the town where I grew up, that Blue Oyster Cult used to rehearse in an abandoned power plant in the woods that bordered the train tracks. Me and my pack of preteen knuckleheads used to scour those ruins, looking for evidence. We found a pentagram once, which was all the confirmation we needed that they were the coolest band in the world for about three weeks. (They also wrote a song about “Godzilla” which confirmed it.). When I was in high school, I once took a road trip with my friend Nick, a charming Greek fellow who loved classic rock. He introduced me to Van Halen and Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. The combination of summer vacation, cheap gas and no girlfriends left us with time on our hands and his Pontiac Grand Prix at our disposal, so one night we just picked a direction and started driving.
It was dawn by the time we stopped for gas, somewhere outside Albany, and I just remember looking out the window, watching the sun rise, my brain an exhausted tapioca, as Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” came through the speakers.
So when SNL’s fake Behind the Music started, I already had a smile on my face. It’s hard to recall exactly when I lost my shit: When Fallon (who barely had a line in the whole skit) couldn’t keep from laughing — which then made Sanz break; Walken’s “I put my pants on just like the rest of you — one leg at a time…except once my pants are on, I make gold records”; Chris Parnell’s stone-faced demeanor the whole time; or Will Ferrell’s goddamn belly button, winking at me from beneath his too-tight, too-short shirt.
(Legend has it that, for the dress rehearsal, Ferrell wore a regular-sized shirt and the skit did just fine. But he changed into that baby-shit colored tunic for the live show.)
It’s hard to brag about something that happens to you completely randomly. Through no effort of my own beyond picking up the phone once, I was a bystander to a pop-cultural touchstone. There are others like me out there. The stagehand who was there for Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks,” or a cowboy extra for Blazing Saddles’ fart scene. Maybe we should all meet at a bar sometime and trade stories of third-hand glory.
The question is: Who’d buy the beer?
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com. He also sat in Captain Kirk’s chair once. #Badass.