Favorable Impression 

Despite his low profile, comedian/impersonator Darrell Hammond has become a Saturday Night Live mainstay

Despite his low profile, comedian/impersonator Darrell Hammond has become a Saturday Night Live mainstay

Darrell Hammond

July 30-Aug 1

Zanies Comey Showplace

For tickets: 269-0221

Saturday Night Live will be celebrating its 30th anniversary next year. Those who are old enough to remember the show in its infancy—with an amazing cast that included John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase—have probably watched with some bemusement as new players have come and gone through the program's seasonal reincarnations.

The quality of SNL varies with each new shuffle of comic actors, but things seem stabilized for now, with standbys like Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Horatio Sanz and Amy Poehler doing consistently good work. But Darrell Hammond, SNL's resident impressionist and "older guy," is a link to a previous era. Hammond looks more like a businessman or a high school history teacher than an acclaimed comedian, but that hasn't stopped the 44-year-old Melbourne, Fla., native from carving out a considerable niche for himself on what he calls "the most successful show in TV history." Hammond arrives in Nashville this week for a three-night engagement at Zanies, a rare opportunity to catch him live.

"I try to throw in as many impressions as I can during the show, and at the same time mix in straight stand-up comedy," Hammond says from his home on New York City's West Side. Fact is, long before Hammond joined SNL during the 1995-96 season, stand-up was his stock in trade, along with forays into straight acting that landed him in a few off-Broadway shows. Though he always had a knack for impersonations, it was SNL that really made him a household name in that department.

"I'm a special teams player," says Hammond, who, unlike dozens of SNLers before him, brought no previous sketch comedy or improv background to the gig. "I'm like a field goal kicker. I was basically hired to do [the late] Phil Hartman's job, doing political people and characters that were older."

Hammond was doing his stand-up act at Caroline's, a well-known New York comedy club, when he was brought to SNL producer Lorne Michaels' attention. "I wasn't really doing impressions at the time," he says. "But on the basis of a one-liner I did as Bill Clinton, I was brought into a tough audition, in which I had to produce a bunch of impressions in 10 minutes."

Unlike his stand-up routines, Hammond doesn't write his SNL material, content to leave that to the show's Emmy Award-winning staff. "It doesn't matter what I think about it," he says. "It's not up to me. I come in under pressure and on the clock. Once you do a voice, then you're working on another one, sometimes as many as five a week. It's like being Nolan Ryan: as long as you can keep performing at a certain level, they keep on asking you back."

Without mentioning specifics, Hammond concedes that "there have been voices I wasn't able to do." Meanwhile, he now has more than 100 impressions in his arsenal, which are typified not only by vocal nuance but also by his uncanny gift for catching his subject's attitude and facial demeanor. "You learn things quickly with age and experience," he says. "Some of my favorites are Dick Cheney, Ted Koppel, Jesse Jackson, Sean Connery, Donald Trump and, of course, President Clinton."

Hammond was no overnight success. He headed to New York after attending the University of Florida, where he majored in advertising. "I always wanted to be in entertainment," he says, "even if it meant being poor. I would have taken anything—a game show host, straight acting roles, anything. Then I started working as a stand-up."

With SNL as his bread and butter, Hammond has continued to branch out. He's appeared in various films, including Scary Movie 3, Agent Cody Banks, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Blues Brothers 2000 and Celtic Pride, and he lent his voice to Disney's animated The King and I. In addition to appearances on the usual lineup of late-night TV talk shows, Hammond received solid reviews for his role as a deranged criminal defense lawyer on an episode of Law and Order: SVU.

Though he admits to being married with children, Hammond prefers to keep his personal life private—which is just as well, since he doesn't appear to be the kind of guy who would make good fodder for the tabloids. He's a working man who's good at what he does: entertaining millions of TV viewers every week, with little fanfare.

Though other comics had longer tenures on SNL—Al Franken did 12 seasons, Tim Meadows, 10—Hammond, with nine seasons under his belt, is the longest-running permanent repertory actor in the show's history. (Franken and Meadows did significant stretches as featured players only. Kevin Nealon also did nine years total, but his first was in a feature role.)

This raises the question of whether Hammond sees an end in sight. "You tell yourself that every year will be the last time," he says. "Then you take a month off...and they always talk me into coming back. It's a great financial and artistic arrangement."

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