Power Punk: Dennis McNicholas

Tina Fey’s SNL co-head writer; ladies’ man; “Dark Shadows meets The Simpsons”

Chances are that Saturday Night Live head writer Dennis McNicholas has made you laugh really, really hard in the last eight years. Remember the famous “Schweddy Balls” skit? He wrote that. If you’ll recall, the somnambulant female hosts of that spot-on NPR show, Delicious Dish (Ana Gasteyer and Molly Shannon), interview straight-faced gourmand Pete Schweddy (Alec Baldwin) about his favorite Christmas specialty-popcorn balls, rum balls, that kind of thing. Let’s go to the script:

Margaret Jo McCullen: Wow! My mouth’s watering just thinking about those balls!

Teri Rialto: It’s been years since I’ve seen any balls.

Pete Schweddy: Would you like to see my balls now?

McCullen: Yeah. Whip them out.

“I don’t know if I want that on my tombstone,” said Mr. McNicholas, who runs the shop with Tina Fey, “but I made many people laugh with that.”

At 31, Mr. McNicholas is, by SNL standards, an ancient veteran. And in that time, he’s worked on some SNL -defining material, from the 2000 Bush-Gore skits to “the Ladies’ Man” spots with Tim Meadows, which were eventually turned into a movie.

When Mr. McNicholas arrived in New York in 1994, he came equipped with Harvard-stamped wit and a film degree. Within two weeks of getting here, he met future SNL creative consultant Andrew Steele and producer Steve Higgins, who soon helped place him in a job on Jon Stewart’s early, pre– Daily Show program, The Jon Stewart Show . Nine months later, Mr. Stewart’s show went belly-up just as SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels was looking to fill his dugout. Mr. McNicholas was hauled in at 23, the youngest writer in one of the most coveted, cutthroat, labor-intensive comedy outfits around.

And, as a result, here’s his advice to TV writers on how to make it in the business: “‘Move to New York and, two weeks later, meet the people you’re going to work with for the next 10 years’ is the only advice I can offer.”

Mr. Higgins called his cohort’s sense of humor a mix of light and dark. “I would describe it as Victorian,” he said. “It’s like one of those Fabergé eggs: You look into it and it’s very detailed, but it makes a weird picture of a young child selling apples on a street corner. Dark Shadows meets The Simpsons .” Also: “Any time you hear a reference to McDonaldland characters, chances are Dennis wrote it.”

According to Mr. Michaels, Mr. McNicholas became a reliable go-to man. “I think when people handle responsibility well, people give them more of it,” he said. “That’s what happened with Dennis. He was both reliable and the problem got solved in an intelligent way. When he started being in the room, he was just a very good judge of stuff, whether he was involved in it or not.”

Mr. McNicholas arrived at SNL the same time as Will Ferrell, and his first skit, in 1995, was written for Mr. Ferrell. It was cut before it aired. “It was Will Ferrell as Aquaman out on a date, and he took the date out to a seafood restaurant and was just a real asshole,” said Mr. McNicholas. “He was a guy with a chip on his shoulder because he was one of the lamest superheroes, so he wanted to be a big swinging dick at a seafood restaurant.” Mr. Ferrell, said Mr. McNicholas, “always nailed anything you had him do the first time.”

So how did Mr. McNicholas survive the SNL ego-jostling? “I was absolutely cowering in the shadows and trying to sniff out what was going to be a hit and jump on board …. Trying to see which way the wind is blowing,” he continued. “That’s the thing about it: Every writer, every cast member has their couple of weeks when they’re sort of on top. So you try to get in on the winning side, which changes [from] show to show. So if you can be in the right place … it sounds terrible, but it keeps excellent balance. Nobody’s able to think they’re doing well for very long.”

Mr. McNicholas grew up and went to public school near West Palm Beach, Fla., a self-described late-80′s art nerd, shirt buttoned to his throat, “The Replacements” inked on his sneakers, constantly “quoting Deep Thoughts and Sprockets.”

He studied film at Harvard, working with Ross McElwee, the director of the cinéma vérité classic Sherman’s March . “I loved the Maysles brothers and Fred Wiseman,” he said. “Then I found out I was absolutely terrible at handling a camera.” He found his true calling at the Harvard Lampoon .

Mr. McNicholas lives on West 12th Street in the Village. He said he’s currently writing a screenplay with former SNL head writer Adam McKay, a sci-fi movie in the spirit of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil . The future seemed pretty clear-cut: “Really, my long-term goal is to go out to L.A. and become a sit-com or screenplay hack and make lots of money and be very content with it,” he said. “I’ve put it off as long as I have because I absolutely do love this job.”

-Joe Hagan