Last year, Naperville native Paul Brittain, 34, became the latest Chicago product to be named a featured player on Saturday Night Live. (Producer Lorne Michaels also snagged Chicago comedian Vanessa Bayer.) A longtime favorite at iO, Brittain spoke from his new home in New York about landing his dream gig and following in the footsteps of his famous uncle, Bob Newhart. On Sunday 20, Brittain appears alongside stars of SNL past and present in Saturday Night Live Backstage, a behind-the-scenes special.
Did you audition for Lorne Michaels in person? I imagine him sitting stone-faced, petting a white cat.
[Laughs] Well, it’s an orange cat, but… He and a handful of writers came out to [iO]. And then within the week I got a call saying they wanted me to fly out to New York to audition. You do roughly five minutes of original material on the center stage in the studio, you know, where the host does the monologue. So it’s that stage that you’ve been watching since you were a kid. Very surreal.
How’d you find out you were hired?
I found out from Lorne. It was shock and amazing excitement rolled into one.
Considering all the local talent that’s gone to SNL, is there added pressure for Chicago performers?
I try not to let that put any added pressure on me. But I’m very aware of that whole history. It’s cool to be another Chicago guy who’s joined the cast.
It’s no more pressure than, say, being Bob Newhart’s nephew. Growing up, did you see him a lot?
I didn’t get to see him too often. He was in California and had TV shows on up until I was in college, as well as doing tour dates. He still tours the country. We would see him occasionally as he came through Chicago.
Did he influence your decision to pursue comedy?
Not in any overt way. From the time I was a little kid, comedy was just my absolute favorite thing. I started watching SNL when I was nine years old. That’s just the way I was wired. And hearing from my mom, it was a similar thing [with my uncle]. He loved watching comedy and kind of did it in his spare time, writing comedy routines while working as an accountant.
What did you study at the University of Illinois?
I majored in finance and Spanish. You have to major in something, so I just picked a degree in business. I figured, once I graduated, I would move to Chicago and become involved in comedy. But I always worked day jobs. I actually worked full time as an accountant as well for, like, six years.
Like uncle, like nephew.
Yeah, I just kind of backed my way into that job. I tried to keep myself entertained, e-mailing with friends and making each other laugh throughout the day. Anything to try and make the day slightly more interesting than sitting in a cubicle.
Your Sex Ed Vincent character made an appearance on SNL in October at, like, 11:55pm. Were you bummed it was given such a lame time slot?
I was definitely not bummed about anything. I was excited that it got to be on the show. That was just my fourth episode. So that was a real thrill.
A colleague at TOC called Sex Ed Vincent the greatest character to come out of Chicago since the Superfans. Is he based on someone you observed at a real-life sex symposium? You can be honest.
I’m being honest, and I have never been to a sex symposium before. I did it originally on a show at iO. It just came up in the writing process, that I would play this sex enthusiast.
Speaking of sex, you just appeared in the commercial parody for “Estro-maxx once-daily hormone replacement therapy.” It got some negative feedback—
[Publicist: “I’m going to cut you off there. You can talk to me about that offline.”]
Um, your Johnny Depp impression got a lot of positive response. Is he someone you’d done for a long time?
Not for too long. In Chicago, we typically don’t do that many impressions in performance. But I knew that impressions were something [SNL] wants to see you’re able to do. That was one that I had done in my audition.
A lot of the characters you’ve played so far have pervy mustaches. Is that one of your signatures?
[Laughs] I definitely won’t shy away from a mustache.
Who’s the one SNL alum you’d love to pattern your career after?
People like Bill Murray are American icons. He’s been a favorite of mine since I was a kid.
Bill Murray also looks good with a mustache.
[Laughs] He does.
Saturday Night Live Backstage airs Sunday 20 at 8pm on NBC.