More than 23 million people tuned in to watch Saturday Night Live’s 40th Anniversary Special from the comfort of their homes last Sunday. But one man from small town Iowa and his 15-year-old son sat but a few feet from the stage in Studio 8H, seated among the likes of celebrated actors, legendary comedians, beloved musicians and notable political figures.
Such is life for Cedar Falls native Gary Kroeger.
Long before his tenure at Mudd Advertising as a creative director, Gary was a cast member on Saturday Night Live for three seasons during the early 1980’s. He attended college at Northwestern University in Chicago, where he became good friends with actress Julia Louis Dreyfus (of Seinfeld and Veep fame) and her future husband Brad Hall. All three of them would later serve on an impressive SNL cast that included Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal and Martin Short, among others.
“We were asked to do SNL when Eddie Murphy’s career was just starting to go through the ceiling and [creator] Lorne Michaels had left the show, which is why that period of the show is never given the attention that it probably deserves,” Gary explains. “Dick Ebersol, Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo really kept the show alive, so that when Lorne did return in the fall of ’85, there was a show to return to. It’s a piece of SNL history that gets overlooked.”
Auditions (Saturday Night Live)
Gary later relocated back to his home town of Cedar Falls after a 20-year acting career to focus on raising his two sons. So being invited back to SNL for anniversary specials – even as an audience member – is an incredible opportunity that he does not take for granted.
“I get a gold ticket to the biggest show in town, every 10 years or so,” Gary says. “Donald Trump was there. Jack Nicholson was there. Steve Martin was there. You include the musical acts – Keith Richards, Paul Simon and Paul McCartney. Matt Lauer is right over here. Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani is right over there. It was a who’s who of media, entertainment and music. And I’m sitting in the audience with them. It was mind-boggling.”
This wasn’t Gary’s first trip back to Studio 8H since leaving the show in 1985, so the difference this time around was being able to share in the experience with his 15-year-old son, Chris. Being able to introduce his son to celebrities like Paul Rudd, Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey and even Peyton and Eli Manning is a once-in-a-lifetime memory that Gary has said he will cherish forever.
But perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was an eye-opening conversation with former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
“I found [Sarah Palin] to be one of the easiest people to talk to – honest to God,” Gary recalls. “I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t think she’d be hostile; I knew she’d be a real person. But I was kind of like, ‘What are Sarah Palin and I going to talk about?’ We talked about our kids, we talked about our home states, we talked about how we love America. That was wonderful.”
An especially touching moment took place when a recent SNL alum made a point to approach Gary and express his gratitude for the underrated work he and his castmates did back in the 80’s.
“I’m never going to forget Fred Armisen – whom I’m a huge fan of – coming up to me and saying ‘Thank you for your years on SNL.’ And he explained, ‘You were my cast. When I was a kid wanting to be on the show, you guys were the ones.’ That meant the world to me.”
Returning to his old stomping grounds also afforded Gary the opportunity to reflect on one of the most formative periods of his life.
“I will always regret that I wasn’t able to do what I’m capable of. I’ve got moments that I’m very, very proud of, but I never emerged. That is the negative side of it,” Gary explains. “The positive side of it is – and I even have to remind myself of this – I got paid to live in New York City and now and again I was on TV. That’s not bad. If you complain about that, you’re going to complain about too much. It contributes to a colorful past that I’m very, very proud of.”
Looking back on this most recent trip back to New York City, Gary cites four people in particular as having contributing to his unforgettable experience: Fred Armisen, Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk, comedian Jim Breuer and Paul Rudd, for “being exactly the guy you would hope he’d be.”
Just days after mingling with some of the most famous people in America, Gary is back in his regular routine in small town Iowa, ready to add more chapters to what has been an unconventional life.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Image Credit: NBC [Getty Images]