Saturday Night Live writer Mike O’Brien is bringing back an old favorite. Mike’s new comedy album drops today, but it’s not what you’re thinking– instead of recording a stand up album, Mike put together an audio only sketch album, Tasty Radio, with some of his comedy friends. Sketch albums used to be more common, Cheech and Chong, Monty Python, National Lampoon, The Credibility Gap, to name a few. But we haven’t seen a major sketch album release in quite some time, so it’s great to see the genre getting revived.
O’Brien has been a writer and performer for SNL since 2009, and has gotten some instant classic pieces on the show like Monster Pals, The Jay Z Story and Prom Queen, and before SNL he did great work at Chicago’s Second City. But for every sketch or short that airs on SNL, there is a much bigger stack of great material that doesn’t make it. O’Brien has rescued some of the best pieces from the unused sketch retirement pile, plus written some brand new material, and put it all to great use on his new sketch comedy album, Tasty Radio.
We talked with Mike about bringing back a great art form, working with some SNL greats, how he got Scarlett Johanssen to talk dirty with him.
The album features some terrific guest appearances from not only ScarJo but also Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, John Mulaney, and some of the brilliant minds of Chicago’s Second City. O’Brien said the idea for the album was inspired by sketch greats Nichols & May, Firesign Theater, and Adam Sandler. “I think having been a fan of audio sketch albums growing up, like Adam Sandler’s in the 90’s, I used to basically memorize them; and then when I was in my 20s I found out about Nichols and May, and devoured all those, and Fireside theater.”
While O’Brien is the primary voice on the album, he drew on his friendships at both Second City and SNL to cast the other parts. Casting was easy thanks to the relationships he’s developed with two of the best institutions in sketch comedy. And it also helps that Tasty Radio is a Lorne Michaels and Broadway Sound project. “It’s a lucky thing for me that I was working for Lorne Michaels, and he makes so much stuff happen for comedians who aren’t a household name; and this was another case of that. I just went in his office and asked him if I could make a comedy album, and he was like, you know we used to do a lot more of these.” Lorne gave him the green light, and the album was recorded at Broadway Sound in New York’s infamous Brill Building after business hours. “It was kind of this under the radar thing that got greenlit from the top so that made it easy,” he said. “And then convincing comedians to come over was fairly easy. If they could work around their schedule, everyone had a fun weird thing to do for an evening.”
O’Brien chose a radio theme for the album, because it enabled him to have a wide variety of styles for the tracks– a sportscast, talk radio sketch, mock commercials. It also was the perfect theme for audio only comedy, which got its start of course, on radio. “It kind of harkens back to when entertainment was all radio people first, and they found great ways when you hear it to still be funny without being visual,” he said, and “part of it also was feeling that nod to the Nichols and May era of people sitting around listening to radios.”
The album is fun, and funny, and celebrity voices provide an ongoing challenge of guessing whose voices are on which tracks. Nobody will have any problem guessing which tracks feature Scarlett Johannsen. In Sexy Bible, and Sexy Bible 2, Mike plays the host of a radio show featuring people reading ordinary things in sexy voices, like the phone book or the Old Testament. We asked Mike if getting ScarJo to record a sexy comedy track was a comedy writer’s dream. “It absolutely was,” he said. It was one of those lucky timing things, he explained, where she was hosting SNL around the time they were recording for the album. “People were talking about how they just recorded that day and she was friends with some of the cast members from having hosted several times. And so at some point the conversation very casually turned to, Scarlett you should do one on his album as well– which is always going to be a million times more effective than going through agents.” O’Brien said she was game for everything and as you might expect, yes it was really fun. They also recorded an additional track that didn’t get used on the album but could get released at another time. “Everyone else was pretty much an old friend so that was obviously an evening I was nervous about making sure I didn’t waste a certain persons time. We have a joke in the other one where she ends it by saying, well i have to go back to being in famous movies now, and I was like oh okay i get it. ”
If there’s a ‘hit single’ on an improv comedy audio album, the hit single on Tasty Radio is an ensemble piece called “Fun Girls” which you can listen to below that includes performances by Vanessa Bayer, Nasim Pedrad, Cecily Strong, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen. But the primary voices are played by O’Brien and former SNL writer Merika Sawyer. O’Brien plays a caller attempting to get through on a phone sex line, only to be painfully tripped up along way by the automated operator voiced Sawyer. “It took a little arm twisting by the way to get Marika to perform it,” he said. “She’s one of the best SNL writers of the last ten years. She’s since moved on but, she’s not a performer by her own declaration. She doesn’t come from the UCB or Second City world or anything but I thought she was so good. When we were writing it she would do the like– ‘i didn’t quite catch that’ and she could do it and really make it sound like what they’re trying to make those robot women sound like. So I had to convince her to do the actual recording.”
Some other favorite tracks of ours include the bizarrely funny Utensils with Bill Hader; John Mulaney and Fred Armisen performing a new take on the Elephant Man saga in Elephant Man’s Boyz, and Jason Sudeikis jumping in on another album stand out track, Basketball Is a Game of Names and Numbers.
Second City greats Peter Grosz and T.J. Jagedowsky appear on a track called Neck Meeting which features a corporate boss (Grosz) who has something on his neck. “America knows them better as the two guys in the front of the car in Sonic Burger Commercials,” he said. “but T.J. is more known as maybe the best Chicago improviser of all time and he has a show called T.J. and Dave they do in Chicago and New York. For 14 years its been standing room only. “
We asked Mike what it is about Chicago that creates such a constant churn of great comedic performers. He explained.
“It’s really got a purity to it that might partly be just, geographically it’s so isolated from New York and LA. And it becomes this kind of isolated feeling, community of artists that are all trying to outdo each other and not trying to get a tv show afterwards. Nothing wrong with that, that’s what me and my friends are now trying to do in LA, but you don’t even think about that. You really just want to get the weirdest group of people that are really cracking me up, the best young director who will try weird stuff and see if we can be the talk of the other artists with the show we put up. You don’t think as much about, this will really nail that demographic, and make us a lot of money. There’s just no money to be had with most projects you go into so its got a purity to it in that way and I think it really makes for some amazing style of performers that come out of there.”
With both Chicago and New York in the rear view, and a full time job at SNL behind him, Mike is in Los Angeles these days. He’ll still create digital pieces for Lorne, but has some other things in mind for the future. “I’m hoping to create and participate in other people’s creations of work out in LA, half hour cable shows and anything like that. I just got out here a little while ago, so I’m kind of figuring out what the next thing will be but hopefully, like the album, I’ll will have a lot of Chicago and New York comedians around me. I’ll be happy if it feels anything like that.”
Tasty Radio is available on iTunes and Amazon.com and everywhere music is sold.