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December 5, 2013 - 12:49am

Alumni Profile: SNL Featured Player Mike O'Brien


In 2009, Mike O’Brien moved to New York City when he was hired as a writer for “Saturday Night Live,” Lorne Michaels’s prolific weekly sketch comedy show. He became a featured player this past year and is the first writer after Jason Sudekis to move to an acting role. O’Brien was trained at The Second City in Chicago — which also counts Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert as alumni — and also hosts the web series “7 Minutes in Heaven,” in which he interviews celebrities in a closet. After considering a major in a pre-med-related degree and then engineering, O’Brien graduated from the University in 1999 with a degree in film-video, a program that is now known as Screen Arts & Cultures.

What activities were you involved in at Michigan?

I was on the men’s rowing team for four years. I also was founder and editor of a monthly comedy newspaper called The Anti-Daily. It was started in rebellion because I tried unsuccessfully for two years to get a job writing a humor column for The Michigan Daily. So, you can imagine the soul-searching needed before I agreed to this interview.

Honestly, I was not actually very angry at the Daily, and The Anti-Daily was probably more fun anyway. It was a mess. We got a little money from the school, and me and my friends from the rowing team — none of us with any training in comedy or writing — would get together once a month and read our pieces out loud and put a handful of them in the four-page paper.

What is it like working at Saturday Night Live?

I love it. It’s perfect for dramatic people with short attention spans. There are extreme highs and lows. And then it’s gone. You move on from that host, that sketch, that embarrassing moment because you have to focus on the next one.

I also love that it’s such a unique mixture of humans. Being halfway through my fifth season, I have been getting sentimental about how much I respect and love the fellow actors and writers. They come from so many different backgrounds … We’re from all different styles of comedy but when something is funny, everyone gets on board.

How’d you get there?

I got hired because Lorne Michaels saw me perform several times in Chicago at iO and Second City. I performed, took classes and taught in those places for nine years, beginning a few weeks after I graduated from U of M. I was flown out to do a five-minute in-studio audition in 2005 and again in 2009. The second resulted in being hired as a writer for the show. I wrote for four seasons before being moved to featured player this summer.

What was your interview with Lorne Michaels like?

I didn’t have a one-on-one interview in his office like some actors do. In 2009, I had dinner with him in Chicago before my Second City show. There were five of us there. I basically was quiet but finally asked him to tell stories about Bill Murray and Gilda Radner, knowing that I may never get the opportunity again. I now realize that may have come across as a little obnoxious, but he was very nice and told me some stories.

How does it feel being on live TV?

It gets slightly more normal every sketch I’m in. Even if it’s a small part, you have to get used to where to look and how still to be and how to time your delivery with the camera cuts.

It also bonds you with your fellow actors. This used to happen with my fellow cast members in Chicago as well. The scariness of doing (improvisational comedy) or live TV makes you really rely on each other. Even if you wouldn’t normally be close to someone in the cast, once you’ve had a successful — or extremely unsuccessful — scene together, you feel a connection to them. Same goes for the whole machine that keeps things going smoothly so that we can just focus on saying the lines. Writers, set design, hair and makeup, cameramen, boom operators, etc. Almost everyone here is really, really good at what they do. They have to be.

Well, there’s one guy that’s bad. Head of the shoelace department. Just a complete incompetent egomaniac.

Is there one lesson that you learned at the University that was most helpful when beginning your career?

By having to search around for my major, I learned that you have to love what you do. And you have to receive some feedback that you’re doing well at it. If you’re just doing the career that you feel is correct or garners the most success, you won’t attack it with the same passion and will actually be less successful than if you do something you truly love. It just takes forever to find sometimes.

Also, I’d say that creating the Anti-Daily taught me that when the job you want rejects you, just grab a bunch of your friends and do it yourself. You may reach a smaller audience but you get to have full creative control.

Second City and SNL didn’t hire me for years and years, so I developed a one-man show and side groups and made a web series. Just trying to take matters into my own hands and not sit around depressed that I didn’t get scooped up. And, ironically, once I was fully and happily engrossed in the side projects, the original dream jobs came calling. There’s obviously a lot of luck involved there. I’m just saying you can’t sit around waiting for your career to be handed to you.

If you could give future Wolverines one piece of advice, what would it be?

Go to hockey games. I had season tickets for four years and those are some of my favorite memories.