The Funniest Guy In The Room
As Barry premieres on HBO, SNL alum Bill Hader has made his rounds on the publicity circuit. He’s revealed much about himself, the person and the comedian.
All magazine profiles start the same way. There’s a choreography associated with peeling back the layers of a celebrity psyche. Bill Hader’s been toiling on the promotional circuit as of late, in support of his new HBO dark comedy, Barry, and the entertainment world has been composing a relatively uniform symphony about their subject du jour.
“ Inside Farmshop, an overcrowded, overloud Santa Monica, California, artisanal-type-food joint, the 20-year-old Bill Hader is giving the 39-year-old Bill Hader a pretty good goddamn dressing down.” — Rolling Stone
“Bill Hader is kicking himself. He does that a lot, it turns out, and this time it’s because of the way he directed a torture scene in his bullet-riddled HBO comedy series Barry.” — Fast Company
“Sitting with Hader at a bar in Brooklyn, I have a hard time reconciling the guy across the table with the guy hyperventilating backstage during SNL.” — GQ
Hader has been a personal favorite of mine since he burned a hole in the SNL atmosphere upon entry in 2005. He seemed to be a singular combination of Midwestern and bohemian, incendiary talent in a brown paper bag. Who else could do — or has even given thought of— mastering impressions of Alan Alda, Al Pacino and Harvey Firestein? Working within the institution that has ushered in the preeminent impressionist lineage, Hader was different. He was different, because he was just like the rest of us. He wasn’t a born showman like Dana Carvey or Kate McKinnon. He was nervous. He still is.
Hader has opened up about his struggles with anxiety and severe stress during his time on SNL. “ Hader’s talents as a writer and performer were in direct contrast with Hader’s personality,” The Ringer’s profile explained, “and, seeing as he’s a person who believes that he has a responsibility to use his skills, he opted to prioritize them over his personal health.”
The GQ profile dug deeper:
Hader is getting better at advocating for himself and, via therapy and transcendental meditation, he’s dealing with the anxiety that comes with being Bill Hader. He’s worried that if he doesn’t correct his anxiety now, it will only crystallize as he gets older, until he’s a mess. But he’s also worried about being too content. “I see people and I’m like, that is a content person. I think ‘Is that a naive thing?’ That’s where I go. Comedians are attracted to cynical people because we think they’re being real. And it took me forever to realize that, no, they’re just unhappy,” he explains, then laughs. “I was very cynical for a very long time. Because if anyone is earnest, you can make fun of them.”
For such a plain truth, it’s striking to hear a comedian lay out the thought in an off-hand quote. A Midwestern guy with three young daughters, a humble approach to work, and a bright future carried the weight of not appearing too earnest.
There is something so fascinating — gripping, even — about a man with prodigious gifts and a disdain for how best to deploy them. It was eight years of strife before Hader listened to his inner circle and walked away from the show that made him a star. The man of many faces took steps to rediscover his own.
“It’s just the minute they say ‘we’re live,’ it’s a level of anxiety I never felt before,” Hader told the Daily Beast. For eight seasons, he confessed, he “was trying everything in my power to remain calm.”
I’ve been an SNL junkie my entire life, and few, if any, cast members elicited the same excitement that Hader did. He created a world of memorable characters that people gravitated towards, and he was painfully uncomfortable doing it. It’s strange to look back and realize he was struggling each and every time.
Through the litany of flowery narratives and glossy cover stories, Hader is the portrait of a man still aligning his inner planets. I think that’s why he is so likable. We can relate to this person because we are this person. We worry about being good enough for parenthood, or speaking the right amount in a staff meeting, or making sure the voice inside our heads isn’t so far out of lockstep with the voices ringing in our ears. That’s when the flashing “Live” sign becomes more of a straight jacket than an invitation.
His life, at least the life patched together through this recent spate of in-depth profiles, has been about voices. The voices that worry him, the voices in his mind, and the voices he then weaponizes and detonates in every comedic setting he inhabits. It’s hard enough finding one voice in this life. Imagine the burden of having an endless supply of them.
From Rolling Stone:
He also went to a shrink and that helped, too. He ponders this for a moment. “You know,” Hader says, “if I were in my 20s and I heard me say that, I’d be like, ‘What? You went to a therapist? Exercise? Meditation? I mean, oh, my God, give me a break.’” Will that 20-year-old ever shut up?
This sentiment may extract the most empathy of all. Growing up in Tulsa, Hader didn’t expect to be a gifted performer any more than most of us didn’t expect to be working desk jobs, or in the relationships we find ourselves in, or anything, really. You can’t predict it, so you handle it as it comes. In Bill Hader, to his detriment and our benefit, we have a public exhibit of someone working hard to get through life’s valleys.
By all accounts, Hader is more comfortable now as a director and star of a TV show of his own creation. The luxuries of editing and production schedules have mended his frayed nerves, a little. The show is getting strong early reviews.
The best work and art is personal. Transcendent work is deeply personal. I’ll watch Barry because Hader is more compelling now than ever before. He’s built a structure now where he can truly, finally, be himself as he performs.
Magazine profiles, for all of their tropes and commonalities, work for a reason. If there’s even one line that makes you think, or one line that strikes a chord unexpectedly within you that forces you to understand why that is, the piece has done its job. Here’s how Rolling Stone did it for me.
He’s inside the coffee place now, ordering a cup of the house blend, black, no sugar, and pondering a pile of ginger snaps, lots of sugar, looking at them like he’d look at a smorgasbord of cafeteria food, silently and at length, him saying to himself, “Do I want that? Can I have that? I should just eat that. Why shouldn’t I eat that?”
Why shouldn’t he eat it? He’s in command now.