The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Life in the comedy lane: Former SNL writer and Funny or Die director Andrew Steele


Since leaving his native Iowa City, Andrew Steele has made a few friends. You may have heard of them: Kristen Wiig, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, and Maya Rudolph, to name a few.

Steele spent 13 years in 30 Rockefeller Center in the “Saturday Night Live” writers’ room, four of them as head writer. He moved on to be Creative Director of Funny or Die in 2008.

Steele is back home in Iowa City this weekend for Floodwater Comedy Festival. He spoke with The Daily Iowan before his free Q&A at Riverside Theater, 213 N. Gilbert St., at 4 p.m. April 15.


Daily Iowan: You’ve written for and with some of the greatest comedians of the era; why have you stayed behind the camera?

Andrew Steele: I’m not much of a performer. I get pretty self-conscious, whether in front of a camera or on a stage. At first, I think [Floodwater] wanted me to give a talk, and I steered it in the direction of a panel because I’ve always been somewhat self-conscious. It’s more work than people think, to be in front of the camera.

DI: Why are you not self-conscious about putting your writing out there?

Steele: Well, I am. In all my time at “Saturday Night Live,” I learned to fail and have gotten pretty comfortable. I don’t like to fail in front of people, obviously, but I’m more comfortable with that as a writer.

DI: Walk me through your writing process. What’s your first step?

Steele: Boy, I don’t know if I’ve really qualified what that process is. I’m a procrastinator. I spend a lot of time walking around. I’m a bit of a collector; I collect a lot of junk. I’ll walk through flea markets and thrift stores and see things. Whether I’m working on a project or I haven’t got one, I use that to get the lightning bolt of an idea. I try to get a page down, at least, then it stews in my mind for a long time.

If someone is paying me, it’s the same, but I’m thinking about what they’re asking for and there’s a deadline. Deadlines are very helpful for someone like me.

But I don’t wake up and write from 8 to 12 or anything. I don’t have a professional program, the way I write.

DI: Do you have any tricks to kick-start a project that isn’t coming easily?

Steele: That’s why I like deadlines so much. If it’s something someone’s paying you for, you don’t have a choice and push through. A lot of times you’re worried what you’re writing is terrible, but you push through and it turns out it’s not terrible, you’re just being self-conscious.

I think it was Robert Smigel, one of the “Satuday Night Live” writers, who told me it was like your term paper was due every week. That’s kind of what it’s like, when you’re up until 8 in the morning writing sketches. So I’m used to those deadlines. I don’t write very measured; I write as quick as I can when I have to.

DI: What do you look for when taking on a new project?

Steele: Again, I’ve got to be sparked by the idea. Well, sometimes. If someone’s paying me, I guess I can be less sparked, but I have to find something in the project.

It’s very important to know who’s going to be involved in the work I’m writing. I get very excited about who’s going to act in the work. I’ll try to write, sometimes, for specific actors, and that gets me inspired. But I have to be inspired by something — that’s the only thing that gets me going.

DI: In finding performers for your work, what do you look for?

Steele: I really try to look for people that I’m interested in working with. That’s No. 1. Since all my time at “Saturday Night Live” and getting to know certain people, I can write for certain voices. I can write really well for Will Ferrell because I know his voice very well. If there are interesting people out there, I try to write for them. I didn’t write for Kristen Wiig much at “Saturday Night Live,” just once or twice, I think, and I wanted to write for her so bad that I asked her to do a bunch with me and I’ve gotten the chance to work with her a lot since “Saturday Night Live.” It’s sort of me chasing the people I find interesting.

DI: Do you have a favorite format in which to write — movies, half-hour or hour television shows, short skits?

Steele: Right now I like the challenge of movies. I’m not a great movie writer, I would say. I like the challenge of writing, so any form I haven’t done, I want to try. I’ve done sketches for 20 years, so it’s a format I don’t necessarily need to write again. I prefer, right now, trying to write longer form things.

DI: Was that part of the reason you left “Saturday Night Live”? How did you make that decision?

Steele: Yeah, that was a big part. For 13 years, I’d been writing sketches. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay asked me to come out to LA and help them run Funny or Die, where I’m at now. It was an opportunity to walk out the door with some security while also getting to work on some longer-form things, so yeah, that was the impetus for that.

DI: What new projects do you have coming up?

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