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Saturday Night Live Veteran Puts Life On La Jolla Playhouse Stage

Video by Nicholas Mcvicker

As the longest running cast member in the history of Saturday Night Live, Darrell Hammond is known for his impressions. He’s played Al Gore, Sean Connery and most famously, Bill Clinton. But throughout his life Hammond struggled with deep seated trauma. Now he's putting his life story on the stage in "The Darrell Hammond Project," a world premiere, one-man show at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Veteran comedian and Saturday Night Live alum Darrell Hammond often gets asked to do Bill Clinton. The former president himself is apparently a fan.

“I just make the headlines,” Clinton told Hammond upon meeting his impersonator for the first time.

“You turn them into gold.”

Hammond’s flawless Clinton became a hit on SNL, where he went on to portray a slew of powerful figures (Al Gore, Dick Cheney), pop culture icons (Donald Trump, Sean Connery, Pee Wee Herman) and activists (Al Sharpton) during his 14-year-stint as the longest running cast member in the history of the show.

During that time, and long before, Hammond struggled with emotional demons. He went in and out of crisis and psychiatric hospitals, felt abject terror, drank, did drugs and cut himself.

That journey, along with his professional successes, are recounted in "The Darrell Hammond Project," a new one-man show getting a world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse.

“I was diagnosed with at least six major mental illnesses incorrectly,” Hammond said before a recent preview performance. “I was put on 13 different psychopharmaceutical medications that I did not need. And this went on for 30 years.”

“I was trying to find out what was wrong with me.”

He saw more than 40 psychiatrists over the years, many of whom he portrays in the show. In fact, Hammond does more than 60 voices in the course of 90 minutes. He’s the first to admit, it’s exhausting.

“It’s not like 90 minutes of stand-up comedy where I sit on a stool, take as many pauses as I want, drink soda, light up a cigarette, and fool around with someone in the audience,” said Hammond.

“I’m up and down and across that set.”

And he’s portraying some of the darkest moments of his life.

“He’s been really brave about not protecting himself,” said Christopher Ashley, who is directing the show and is the Playhouse’s artistic director. “He doesn’t pretty up some of the moments when he behaved badly. And he’s on that stage without a net, telling this very personal story every night.”

Childhood Trauma

Hammond doesn’t feel brave telling his story to a live audience.

“This is about something that happened to me," he said. "I’ve always felt the worst crime is you can’t talk about it, you know?”

At age 19, Hammond started cutting himself. Sometimes with a razor, other times with a knife.

“It’s a way of creating a more manageable crisis than the one going on in your head,” said Hammond. “You’re feeling these flashbacks, this terror, so you just make a little wound. And you have to bandage it and clean it. And in the process of doing that, the terror goes away.”

Few of Hammond’s fellow SNL cast members knew of his troubles, or that he would often cut himself backstage before a sketch.

The ongoing terror was rooted in childhood trauma, including physical abuse at the hands of his mother. He was hit with a hammer, stabbed and had his fingers slammed in a door, all before the age of 10.

His father, a World War II veteran, never adjusted to coming home from the war, according to Hammond. He wasn’t around during the abuse and they didn’t have much of a relationship until his dad was dying.

Hammond’s mother was a talented mimic of neighbors and community members. The young Hammond discovered he had the same skill. The two would do the voices in Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.”

It was the only connection he had to his mother, and he used it to distract her from hurting him.

“The point of what I was doing was not to entertain, it was classic shape shifting.

“And the definition of shape shifting is you become like your enemy. Then your enemy has no one to attack,” said Hammond.

Much of this came to light during therapy under the guidance of a doctor in a psychiatric hospital outside of New York City, where Hammond spent three months in 2010. That doctor is a major character in the play.

From Life to Stage

The cover of Darrell Hammond's 2011 bestselling biography.

It was Christopher Ashley’s idea to put Hammond’s life on the stage.

Ashley likes directing one-man shows and hadn’t worked on one in a while. He’d long been a fan of Hammond’s ability to do impressions. Then he found the right material after reading Hammond’s 2011 autobiography “God, If You're Not Up There, I'm F——-: Tales of Stand-Up, 'Saturday Night Live' and Other Mind-Altering Mayhem.”

“I got struck by the idea of a comic who develops his skill as a defense against the people who are abusing him,” said Ashley.

Ashley flew to New Orleans and presented the idea to Hammond, who lived there at the time.

They started writing and Hammond performed the evolving script for small audiences.

“A couple of those performances were really bleak,” said Ashley. “We had to discover the balance and how much dark is there inside the funny.”

There is a particularly difficult scene in the play, when Hammond confronts his mother under the direction of his doctor. Hammond plays all three roles. It’s a wrenching scene.

“I feel like I could do that scene a couple times a day, but not 10 times,” said Hammond.

Directing the scene in rehearsals meant finding the right balance between learning it and performing it, Ashley said.

“Some of it is making sure there’s muscle memory for the lines and the blocking. I don’t ask him to do it all the way every time in rehearsal,” said Ashley. “That way he has the experience of doing it really really, simply. When you add an audience, that immediately juices it up adding adrenaline and emotion.”

Colorful Voices

There are plenty of laughs - and voices - in the show.

From the time he was a young boy, Hammond connected voices to different colors.

“First you get the color, then you get the voice. And if you don’t get no color, you ain’t getting no voice,” said Hammond.

Ted Koppell, he says, is blue. Martin Luther King is all the colors at once.

Hammond learned to do Bill Clinton by reading John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech with a Southern accent. He also watched tapes of Clinton going about his day.

“I would see that as he got a little tired, there would be a crinkle in his voice, so I factored that in,” said Hammond.

He added Clinton doing a thumbs up and biting his lip later.

“The SNL formula was first I would duplicate the person, and then I would italicize him,” said Hammond.

“It ends up being a caricature of a person that we can use in any kind of comedy.”

In a tour de force scene from the one-man show, Hammond acts out his SNL audition which took place in front of the show’s legendary executive producer Lorne Micheals.

After doing everyone from Pee Wee Herman, to George Bush to Dick Cheney, Micheals asked Hammond to do Clinton again. It seems his fate was sealed.

Hammond no longer cuts himself or has flashbacks. He’s on only one medication, the common anti-depressant Wellbutrin. He's even going back to Saturday Night Live, filling the shoes of long-time announcer Don Pardo who died last August. As the show celebrates its upcoming 40th anniversary, rumor has it Hammond will do the cold open with fellow alum Will Farrell.

Hammond’s always been good at the comedy.

Now, at this stage of his life, he’s also learned to master the darkness.

The Darrell Hammond Project runs through March 8 at the La Jolla Playhouse.

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