Kyle Mooney is an underdog’s underdog. On the cusp of his fifth season as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, the 32-year-old comedian specializes in naturalistic depictions of damaged basket-cases who try and fail to pass themselves off as functional and self-assured. In what is simultaneously a sign of professional struggle and a badge of honor, Mooney has earned a reputation at SNL for producing videos and skits that routinely get relegated to the “Cut for Time” section on the show’s YouTube page. Today marks the release of his first feature film: a singular dark comedy called Brigsby Bear that he co-wrote and stars in.
Dating back to his days as a member of Good Neighbor, a sketch troupe he started with friends in Los Angeles, Mooney has consistently gravitated toward characters who try clumsily to appear tougher, funnier, and more socially gifted than they really are. In Brigsby Bear, Mooney swirls all those wannabes together into a protagonist named James Pope, who must rejoin his real family and learn how to be a human being after living unwittingly as a kidnapping victim in a bunker for more than 20 years. The most distinctive thing about James, aside from the fact that he’s never interacted with anyone except the couple that raised him as their son, is his obsession with a low-budget children’s television called Brigsby Bear Adventures. As James finds out early in the film, the character of Brigsby Bear was invented whole-cloth by his captors, and the show that chronicles his adventures has never been seen by anyone in the outside world.
Brigsby Bear, which Mooney co-wrote with Kevin Costello and which includes appearances by Mark Hamill, Claire Danes, Greg Kinnear, and Andy Samberg, tells the story of James’ fitful efforts to adjust to life after confinement and find an outlet for his lonely, orphaned love of Brigsby. I spoke to Mooney in June about making Brigsby Bear, wanting to be cool, and finding room for his brand of apolitical character work on SNL at a time when the show is being celebrated for its coverage of President Trump. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Slate: I liked the movie. Do you identify with the character?
Kyle Mooney: Thank you. That’s nice of you to say. Yeah, I mean, the writing process was a decent amount of me riffing and just coming up with how this character would react in various situations, and I’d like to think that a lot of that is just the same as how I’d react. But certainly he’s obsessed with this TV show, and I kind of have my own obsessions with pop culture—mainly ’80s and ’90s children’s television and a lot of ’90s sitcoms. I also come from a world of making videos with my friends, and that’s in essence what the character gets into.
But so much of James’ demeanor is informed by the fact that he’s never been in society before. You clearly have.
Maybe it’s more just about interacting with the world awkwardly or weirdly. Like going to a party alone, you know what I mean?
Part of what’s so special about this character—and some of your other characters, too—is his affect, how he’s always kind of trying not to trail off when he’s talking to people. There’s one part where someone asks him, “Where are your parents right now?” and he kind of stammers in response, “One is doing golf, and the other one’s at the stores.” My question is: Did you write “stores” in the script? Like, did you pluralize it ahead of time or was that just something that came to you?
I should clarify that I was doing a ton of ad-libbing as a form of writing, but when we actually went to shoot it, we pretty much stuck to what we wrote. There was certainly some improv and naturally as a performer when I’m reciting dialogue I’ll slightly change it up every other time or something like that. But we definitely pluralized it. We pretty much wrote all that stuff verbatim. We wanted to kind of express his vague grasp of both the world around him and dialect and dialogue. But it’s not that far off from a video where I’m, like, interviewing people and I’m kind of getting the broad concepts right but not totally spitting it out accurately.
I felt like a lot of what he says in the movie is him trying to sound natural.
Yeah, and I love that. That’s something I’m kind of into—just people who want to be cool and attempt to be cool and try to seem as confident as possible. I feel like it’s something we all do as human beings. It’ll happen just in conversation, when somebody’s, like, talking about a movie they’ve seen and someone will just be like, “Oh, yeah.” And they’ve clearly never seen the movie but they’re faking it, like, “Oh, yeah yeah yeah, I love that one.” Just these little lies that people do to present themselves as whatever they think they should be presenting themselves as. That’s always fascinating to me.
Were you like that as a teenager? You were a skateboarder, right?
Yeah … I dunno if it would have been fair to call me that.
I ask because skateboarders are pretty cool.
I definitely tried to skateboard in middle school, and being from San Diego, surf and skate culture is a big, prevalent thing. But I was not that good—I was kind of a chubby kid and didn’t totally master skating. It was only after I got on SNL that I linked up with some friends who are skaters and it became a fun outlet just totally unrelated to writing and acting and comedy.
To me, skaters were the coolest ones. I didn’t realize the chains they had hanging from their pants were wallets, so I just bought a bike chain and cut the plastic off and tied it to my belt loops. I feel like that’s something one of your characters might do.
Did you get caught?
Yeah, because someone tried to rob me—they pushed me against the fence and they were like—
“Hey, what the fuck is this!?” That’s funny.
Yeah. So I’m sort of relieved you weren’t a real skater. Because I don’t know how you’d turn into you from being a skater.
Well, I can’t say that I was like, a total loser.
But I for sure tried to be cool in ways that I now cringe at.
You mentioned you had obsessions as a kid. Do you remember any of your early experiences of connecting with other kids through being fans of something?
Yeah. I mean, I can get pretty specific here. One of the first that jogs when you say that is this kid Jagger O’Neill who had these toys that were from The New Adventures of He-Man. So Masters of the Universe was the popular He-Man cartoon and action figures from the ’80s, and that kind of died out, I imagine, in ’87, ’88, or something like that. But then a couple of years later they tried to reintroduce the series and the toys, and Jagger had all these toys. I’d known of the old He-Man, but he showed me these toys and the cartoon, and I just got super into it. That was probably the first collaboration I can remember where it was like, “We’re both really into this thing. We love this thing.” Also, you know, I grew up with Dave McCary, the director of the movie, and he and I shared a decent number of interests over the course of our friendship. We got really into underground hip-hop for a while, and we were really into collecting baseball cards. And then eventually making videos.
You filmed Brigsby Bear last summer, right?
What’s summer like for an SNL person? Does it feel like being off from school?
I think to some degree it changes after you’ve done so many seasons of the show. So the first season, it’s obviously a very strenuous and hectic job that truly takes over your life for the time that you’re working on it. So that first season—I remember Beck [Bennett, one of Mooney’s partners in Good Neighbor] was on the show, and he’s one of my closest friends who I’ve known since my freshman year in college. We both just kind of went crazy over the summer. We felt so free, and it was a full-on summer vacation—partying and hanging out and going to the pool. We didn’t feel a necessity to get any work done because we had accomplished what felt like this major thing. And then I think what it becomes is, well, you’ve got this time off, so now you’ve gotta find a job or create something—now I feel a pressure to some degree of, “I gotta find something to do with my summer, I can’t just hang out.”
Do you usually have specific goals when you head back to the show?
Yeah, I make little notes of characters or write little bits of dialogue throughout the summer, so I usually have something like that—“Oh, I hope this year I can somehow get this character I’ve been thinking about on the air.”
Do you tend to have a pretty clear sense of what was a good year and what was a bad year on the show, for you personally?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, it’s hard to measure them against one another because the show is always evolving. The first year we were there—me and Beck and Dave [McCary, also a member of Good Neighbor]—it was just kind of like, “Let’s try to make our mark. We want to be here, and we want to stay here.” And then, this past season, for instance, a lot of it was focused on the political atmosphere, and that took up a lot of real estate on the show. And so, that’s different than the year before and the year before that.
Do you find the political stuff challenging as a writer? I feel like so much of your sketch work, on SNL but also the old Good Neighbor material, is kind of abstracted away from anything real in the world—like, the sketches aren’t full of references to the historical moment. Whereas SNL tends to be very topical. You guys are responding to the news, you’re responding to what people are talking about on Twitter or whatever—it strikes me as a qualitatively different undertaking to what you typically do.
It definitely is. I don’t write political stuff. I’m sure I’ve made attempts, but I don’t tend to write very topical things, either. I admire those people who do because it’s a talent I don’t have.
One thing that tends to come up when people write about you is that your sketches often are online-only. They don’t get on the show. I’ve always wondered, is there other stuff on the show that you have your hands on, even if you’re not actually in it yourself?
No. If I’m not in it, I probably don’t have anything to do with it. To get myself on the show, it behooves me to always write stuff that I can be in. And I’m not a part of the writing staff per se—there is a paid writing staff. Though that being said, every cast member on that show writes for themselves. And to survive on that show, you certainly need to write, so I try to turn over as many pieces as I can every week.
Does it bug you that you get “cut for time”? That your stuff is deemed too weird for prime time or whatever?
Yeah, sometimes. I’ve gotten used to it to a degree. But the tough thing about that show is, we’ll make a video or something like that, and it’ll play at the dress rehearsal, and audiences just won’t really respond to it. And if they don’t respond to it, it probably won’t get picked for the live show. And the thing is, that studio audience could be made up of any assortment of human beings—they could be tourists or they could be massive fans of the show, but they don’t necessarily represent the people who like the material I make.
I never thought about that. A lot of the people who come are tourists?
Yeah. I mean it’s also not fair for me to blame them, like, “The reason my stuff isn’t getting on is the audience.” Because that’s not true or accurate. But that’s just kind of true of the show generally—a piece can play great for one audience and then play terribly for another.
Were there pieces of characters you’ve played in sketches that you ended up importing into the movie, as component parts of James?
Yeah, I think you could argue there’s elements of the awkward interview character in him. But I don’t know—in general people have told me before that a lot of my characters are seemingly very confident, but over time it’s revealed that they don’t really know what they’re talking about or there’s some emotional thing underneath, like they’re kind of lying to themselves. We touched on this before, but James definitely has those moments, where in an effort to be cool, he doesn’t really understand what he’s saying.
Do you find that being an adult has changed your output as a writer? Like, when you were making Good Neighbor, you were hanging out with your friends all the time making videos. Does being in your 30s and having the lifestyle that goes along with that make it harder for you to get into a particular zone?
Yes, in the sense that now I have a job that I have to put a lot of time and energy into. I don’t have as much time to kick around and pitch ideas and eat burritos. Like, I still get a chance to riff every week and I come up with characters all the time, but now so much of it is focused on “How can we get this onto the show?” or “Can we potentially write a movie based on this?” I guess priorities change, you know?