Gilbey on Film: Saturday night livewire

The comedian Maya Rudolph talks about working with Robert Altman and her new film, Bridesmaids.

It's absurd that the US sketch show Saturday Night Live has never had a continuous, dependable showing in the UK despite the talent farm it has proved itself to be over nearly four decades. (You know the roll-call by now: John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Chris Rock and Tina Fey among others.)

Sky Arts is currently showing the series in sequence, but is still way back in the you-really-had-to-be-there-at-the-time 1970s episodes.

Consequently, British audiences are unlikely to be too familiar with the 38-year-old livewire comic and former SNL regular Maya Rudolph -- daughter of the late soul legend Minnie Riperton, and partner of the filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson -- unless it is for her straight(ish) work in movies like Sam Mendes's Away We Go or Robert Altman's swansong, A Prairie Home Companion. If that was all you knew of her (as it was for me), it would've been quite a shock to see her in the SNL spin-off movie MacGruber last year, in which she played a ghost who has energetic sex on her own gravestone.

SNL material is inaccessible to UK viewers even on the internet (though if you're in the US, has a generous selection); but a quick perusal of what few titbits there are available of Rudolph's work -- such as the sketch in which she performs the US national anthem as a checkout clerk seemingly possessed by Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and every American Idol contestant ever -- is enough to prove how fiendishly inspired she can be.

Rudolph left SNL in 2007 after seven years. Thankfully she features prominently in the raucous new comedy Bridesmaids, produced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Funny People) and co-written by its star Kristen Wiig (her former colleague at SNL and in the LA improvisational troupe The Groundlings). Rudolph plays bride-to-be Lillian, who in the approach to her wedding is torn between two of her best friends -- the down-at-heel Annie (Wiig), whom she has appointed maid of honour, and the glamorous and wealthy Helen (Rose Byrne), whose splashy, opulent ideas for Lillian's wedding rub Annie up the wrong way. I met a heavily pregnant Rudolph (she is expecting her third child by Anderson) recently in Los Angeles, where she told me about joining Bridesmaids, leaving SNL, and being manhandled by Bill Murray.

Lillian's an interesting character: she has to be loyal to Annie, but also enthusiastic about Helen's over-the-top wedding plans. Did that make her hard to play?
You know, it was pretty hard in that way. You have to decide when her bullshit meter goes off with Helen. She's under enormous pressure, because it's the toughest thing bringing together two very different friends who are both important in your life. My biggest concern with playing her was I didn't want her to seem two-faced. It's so hard to watch her interact with Annie, yet still see her being friendly with Helen and not notice Annie's discomfort. I didn't want her to come off like some vapid jerk.

How much of the film was improvised?
We were encouraged to improvise all the time, and to come up with our own stuff in a voice that sounded natural to the characters. By the time it's all cut together you really look great. I know the parts in Bridesmaids where it's been edited to cut away from people losing it; I can tell. You can still sort of see people starting to go, there's something in the eyes that shows they're about to crack. I love that. It's the best. There literally wasn't a downside to doing the film; you just get in there and play. You know, I met Bill Murray once and he said, 'If you're rehearsing something and the crew is laughing, you're doing something right.' It sounds obvious, I know, but it helped me. Oh, it was so dreamy meeting him, I can't tell you... He came into SNL one time when I was there, and he just started hanging out. He slung me over his shoulder for some reason. I don't know why. That's a whole other story. Thank God I wasn't pregnant; it wouldn't have worked. He was just dishing out advice, talking about his time on SNL, giving me tips like, 'If you need a good massage and it's 11pm and you've got half an hour before you do the show, go to this place down on 57th St, we used to do that all the time...'

Do you miss SNL?
I do. It's where I feel my heart is the most, the place I feel I gained the most confidence. It's a weekly show, so we had to create all these new characters every week; you really develop yourself there because you're constantly writing, figuring out your voice, producing these pieces. The choice to go was hard. I was raising a family, my daughter was very young at time, and it's an arduous schedule. You're writing constantly, then by the time Monday rolls around you're pitching new ideas, then writing them, blocking, rewriting 'til you get to Saturday, which ends at 1am, which is really Sunday, then it all starts again. It's hard on your loved ones. I think it'll be easier for me once my friends from SNL have left the show; it's hard when I turn on the TV and see Kristen or Andy [Samberg] on there, all the people I love.

How did the show's tight deadlines help you creatively?
It's the only way I ever get anything done. I was always the kid in high school who wrote my paper the night before it was due. When I joined SNL I didn't realise I'd be doing so much writing, and the only way to get me to do it is to say 'It's now or never.' I heard Lorne [Michaels, producer of SNL] say, 'We don't do the show because it's ready. We do it because it's 11.30 on Saturday night and it's time to go on.' Things aren't always finished; you just go on somehow.

People who don't know you from SNL might be surprised to see you in out-and-out comedy after, say, Away We Go.
It does confuse people, it's true. But I never used to look at it that way. When I first read Away We Go, which Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida had written, I thought it was a black comedy really, an acerbic take on how annoying people can be when you're starting a family. But when the film came out, the response I kept getting was completely unexpected; people would ask, 'So, have you left comedy now?' Comedy's my first love; it defines me. But when you get the opportunity to do more, it's so exciting. I think people want you to be what they know you as, or else it confuses them. But I can never imagine leaving comedy. It's who I am.

Is it the same thing doing comedy improv and working with Robert Altman, who also encouraged improvisation?
It is comparable, yeah. Bob loved people coming up with stuff. I was playing a stage manager in A Prairie Home Companion, so I got to be in everything, to be in every room, yet still to be sort of on the outside of it. You get to watch someone like Kevin Kline, who's the perfect example of a skilful improviser; Bob would encourage him to improvise and do more and we'd just watch him fly, coming up with all this insane, hysterical physical comedy, none of which was in the script. You'd always hear Bob say, 'Ah, that's great, let's keep going.' There were multiple cameras moving all the time, and everyone was miked at all times; he loved that organised chaos. Being with him was like being at the most fun party ever, with the best host.

Your partner Paul Thomas Anderson was a back-up director on the film.
Yeah, Paul called himself the pinch hitter, which is a baseball term. Bob was quite a bit older and he was sick, and while you'd think he could get financing for anything, the insurance company needed someone who could take over in case he, you know, died on the spot. By that time, Bob knew and loved Paul and asked him to do it.

And Paul dedicated There Will Be Blood to Altman.
He did. Wasn't that lovely? They really loved one another.

As a comedian, do you crave getting laughs off-screen too?
I probably do. You have to pick and choose. You don't wanna do it at the doctor's office when he's giving you bad news. You don't wanna be someone who takes a drum kit everywhere, you know, 'Badum-ching!' What's that called? I think it's rimshot. But it's good for cocktail parties. Good for those uncomfortable moments. It's helpful to have that ability in your back pocket.

Bridesmaids is released on 22 June

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Pete Burns: too abrasive to be a national treasure, his talent made him immortal

The musician's vulnerability and acute individualism made him hard to pigeonhole but ensured endless media fascination.

When Dead Or Alive's “You Spin Me Round” was number one in 1985, the singer Pete Burns found himself trapped in a limousine by screaming schoolgirls. It's a common enough occurrence — overnight success, autograph hunters, fans wanting a piece of you — but in this case Burns was in his hometown of Liverpool and the schoolgirls were screaming “We’re going to kill you, you fat poof!” From the moment Burns hit the public eye, his untethered wit and unapologetic appearance had the ability to inspire, inflame, and get under society's skin.

In 1985, freshly famous, Burns was already a familiar face about town. Liverpool's centre is compact, and he traversed it every day in the early Eighties to work in Probe Records, the city's equivalent to Rough Trade. Behind the counter, working alongside possibly the most caustic shop assistants in the country, Burns was the most approachable. His demeanour was something quite different, though – hair teased up into a dark lion's mane, a cloak dragging behind him decorated with bells that jangled ominously whenever he moved (he could be audible streets away), and black contact lenses for added horror. 

He looked like a star in waiting, but was in the shadow of Liverpool's Crucial Three: Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Pete Wylie. The relentless electro pulse of “You Spin Me Round” was light years away from the first Dead Or Alive single in 1981, an extraordinary slice of neo-psychedelia called “Flowers”, on which Burns' booming, vibrato-loaded voice seemed to be urging us to travel on a gothic time-travelling galleon back to San Francisco: “What's wrong with this world?” he roared, over shrill organ and sheets of echoed guitar. Liverpool's brief but iridescent pop revival at the turn of the Eighties – a dark strain of melodicism that linked Echo & the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Wah! Heat and early Dead Or Alive — would later be succinctly demystified by Burns: everybody took acid, they all pretended they were living on the West Coast in 1967 rather than Toxteth in 1980, and they all listened to the Doors.

By the time “You Spin Me Round” hit number one in March '85, Burns' acid tongue and working class glamour were a necessary corrective to a year which would make stars of such catastrophically dull acts as the pop duo Go West. He was just what the media wanted after Boy George acquired a destructive heroin habit and fell from grace.

Neither was ever likely to happen to Pete Burns. He felt uncomfortable around anyone out of control on booze or drugs as it reminded him of his upbringing. His mother had escaped Nazi Germany, married a Scottish soldier, and settled in Liverpool. She became a depressive alcoholic after discovering what had happened to her Jewish family during the Holocaust in Germany. Burns made several suicide attempts, he said, to keep her focused and alive.

This vulnerability was combined in childhood with an acute individualism. He wore an American Indian headdress to primary school one day and refused to take it off. He fought compromise and conformity at every turn, and didn't care a hoot if schoolgirls called him a “fat poof”. He was never off, not even for a tea break; he was Pete Burns, full time. A friend of mine recalls being in the queue for a Liverpool club called the System in 1982 — Burns passed him, pulling full-on dance moves when he was only halfway down the steps, which led directly onto the dancefloor — he hadn't even paused to say hello to anyone.

As a pop star, Burns clearly couldn't give a shit, and wouldn't play ball with radio, record companies or the press. Fame didn't tighten his tongue, though it did allow him to be outrageous on a heightened level. After Haircut 100's Nick Heyward gave Dead Or Alive a pasting in a Melody Maker, the group burst into a toilet cubicle and sprayed Heyward with five fire extinguishers. On tour in America, Burns called his press officer's house at 3am in the morning, screaming “I need a plug! A rubber plug! For this fucking bath!” The upshot of the conversation was that Burns had never seen a bath plug operated by a plunger rod.

Pop stardom in Britain, then, was brief. The PWL team that gave him “You Spin Me Round” (their first number one, and unarguably their best) quickly cooled on him, following it with lukewarm soundalikes – only the luxuriant “In Too Deep” came close to matching its fire. Dead Or Alive's next truly great record wouldn't be until 1988 with “Turn Around And Count 2 Ten”, another poppers-at-the-ready electro-blitz which only reached number 70 in the UK but made him a superstar in Japan.

Burns' vulnerability later resurfaced in endless, much documented plastic surgery – he said that the only part of his body that hadn't had work were the soles of his feet. He was always too abrasive to become a national treasure, but he must have known that “You Spin Me Round” had effectively made him immortal — uncoverable, perfect, a saturated record on which it is impossible to add anything. It's so euphoric, so very full of life.


Reflections on Pete Burns:

Gary Kemp, musician and actor

"Pete was one of a triumvirate of cross-dressed boy stars, brought up on a diet of glam rock, who stormed the barricades of macho rock in the Eighties. He also created one of the best white dance records of all time."


Julian Cope, musician and author

"In a sense I’m relieved for him, he was in such pain and was never happy with how he looked… there was something so inevitable about his death, but it’s important that he’s remembered as a truly significant cross-cultural figure

I think the gender fluidity that exists today is really fucking useful — if Pete had become famous now he would have been fine… he was a pioneer. I think he had hero qualities.

He knew so much about music, especially underground stuff, but when other people were around he would revert to his thick babe persona. He wanted to appear superficial, but he was no more superficial than [Andy] Warhol. He was a deep mother fucker.

Pete was forced in a novelty direction by the time he lived in. He demanded that the rest of the world look at, not away from, people who were different.

Pete tried to live in freedom and at least where’s gone to he will find peace."


Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.