by L. WAYNE HICKS
Saturday Night Live evolved from a cult hit to a mainstream success, and along the way made a star of a simple Play-Doh figure known as Mr. Bill.
In the early seasons of Saturday Night Live, the long-suffering figure was stepped on, dropped from the Empire State Building and slammed into a brick wall at the hands of the evil Sluggo and the treacherous Mr. Hands - all in the name of entertainment. Entertaining it was.
The Super 8 films featuring Mr. Bill were audience favorites, a respite from the hit-or-miss skits that featured the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players. A survey once rated Mr. Bill third in popularity, following John Belushi and Gilda Radner. Mr. Bill's high-pitched exclamation of dismay - "Ohh, nooo!" became a national catchphrase that fans even used to greet Saturday Night Live performers on the street.
That's history now. Mr. Bill left the show in 1980, when series creator Lorne Michaels and the original cast departed (Michaels has since returned). Mr. Bill's creator - and voice - Walter Williams kept his Play-Doh pal in show business after Saturday Night Live, with commercial pitches for Holiday Inn and Lexus and new episodes of the Mr. Bill Show.
Mr. Bill appeared on Rich Little's 1981 album "The First Family Rides Again," which had President Reagan joining forces with Sluggo. Today Mr. Bill can be found at mrbill.com, where Williams sells collections of Mr. Bill videos and DVDs, boxer shorts, Halloween costumes and other memorabilia.
The site also features Williams' other work, including the pilot for Michael O'Donoghue's Fox television series, simply called "TV," and a commercial parody for Saturday Night Live about Elvis' coat going on tour.
In a telephone interview from his home in California, Williams reflected on the origins of Mr. Bill.
LWH: You created Mr. Bill in '74, right? Williams: Yeah. In New Orleans, my hometown. And he got on the air in '76.
Williams: Yeah, which was actually the first season. It was the '75-'76 season, which was the first. It was on in February of that first season in '76.
LWH: How does a guy from New Orleans manage to get something on Saturday Night Live?
Williams: I'm Lorne Michaels' cousin.
Williams: No. I'm just kidding. Actually, I was making little films in New Orleans. I kind of decided that's what I wanted to do. I was making comedy shorts and showing them around town. Saturday Night Live came on the first season and somebody mentioned to me they had this contest where you could send in your home movies.
I sent a reel of films in, one of which was my first Mr. Bill film. That's the one they picked and put it on the air. In fact, when they aired it, it was Feb. 20-something, I forget the original airing, and it happened to coincidentally be the same weekend as Mardi Gras. Saturday Night Live was pre-empted that night, even though they told me they were going to put it on. The affiliate let me come and watch it, but no one believed me that it was on. But it was.
LWH: Did you think that was going to be a one-shot deal?
Williams: Yeah. Pretty much. Most of the films, I come up with an idea and I make the film. I don't really plan to be doing it over and over again for 25 years and selling boxer shorts and things or whatever. But there was a demand for it and they asked me to do more. I just kept making more and more and finally got on staff and made a whole lot more, along with other films. It's a great opportunity. I got to make a lot of movies and get a lot of audience reaction.
LWH: So you were on staff for a while?
Williams: Yeah. I was officially on staff for the fourth and fifth seasons. I got hired as a staff writer also. I did other films and skits. The first film I did, non-Mr. Bill, was this concert of Elvis Presley's coat. It was just the coat on tour. That went over pretty well. I wrote skits, Weekend Update jokes, and also did Mr. Bill films. I really had two jobs, going around the clock there the last couple of years.
LWH: Was it your goal to get on staff, or was that just a lucky happenstance?
Williams: No. Well, when they started doing the Mr. Bill movies I told Lorne Michaels I wrote other material. He said, "Well, why don't you submit something for the commercial parodies?" I wrote a couple of things and he liked it and gave me a writing position the fourth year, the fourth season.
The first three seasons I just kept making the Mr. Bills and submitting them. I didn't get paid anything but I knew I was building an audience so I figured I would just keep doing it, as long as they would put them on. Finally they got so popular they gave me a full-time job doing that.
LWH: How did you come up with the characters?
Williams: I wanted to do this bad animation thing. I was watching some of the more recent Popeye cartoons that were really poorly animated. The original Popeyes are beautifully animated. They kind of kept getting progressively less and less motion. I was thinking pretty soon you'd be able to see the hands moving the thing around. That's kind of where the characters came from. The hands could accidentally drop the character.
Then I decided I want to set it as kind of a kids show type motif. I came up with the Mr. title. Mr. Something because everything is Mr. when you do a kids show. I knew that I didn't want to start beating up Mr. Bill right away. He doesn't enjoy it. People mistake it as some kind of masochistic thing. He's always complaining, but he just can't get away. He's kind of a victim of his form of animation. He can't run away. He's just there for whatever's going to happen to him. I decided I needed to delay the action a little bit.
I gave him a best friend, his dog Spot, to start working on first. And then Sluggo is just like the figurehead character. He never talks or anything, but he's always the doctor or the insurance agent, somebody that's a figure of authority. Mr. Hands was really kind of carrying out orders. He wasn't really doing anything malicious. He was basically just trying to help. So there's this formula to it that seems to work. Seemed to work.
LWH: Were you the voice of Mr. Bill?
LWH: How long did it take you to think of that voice?
Williams: Right off the bat. It came right out. I knew I wanted to do a high voice, a silly kind of kiddie thing and that's just what came out.
The early season also had the Muppets on there, which didn't really catch on.
Williams: Actually, it wasn't the Muppets. It was new characters created by Jim Henson. I don't think they were even called Muppets.
LWH: They were just & Muppet-like creatures.
Williams: Right. Exactly.
LWH: But they never caught on like Mr. Bill did.
Williams: I guess not. Well, they were the first season and Mr. Bill went on a few more, so ...
LWH: Why do you think Mr. Bill caught on?
Williams: I tried my best to make it funny. I guess other people thought it was funny too. I basically got to make the film. I didn't have to go around and pitch it. In fact, if I had gone around and pitched the idea to try and raise funding, they would have had security wrestle me down or something. But it fit into my budget at the time, which was Super-8 films.
The film, the processing, the Play-Doh, a few props, and my time. I just kind of kept evolving the character once I got an opportunity to do more. I really didn't think of it as an ongoing thing. The challenge was to continue to surprise the audience. That's what it takes to make people laugh. A lot of committees and big studios put a lot of effort into assuring that people are going to laugh, but it doesn't really work that way.
Somebody, a real tight-knit group of people, has to think it's funny in the first place and somehow preserve it all the way through the production phase and editing. If you can kind of preserve that all the way through without giving it up and thinking it's old, the audience sees it for the first time and hopefully laughs. I think I have a talent for it and luckily I got the opportunity to make the films. I didn't make it for a late-night Saturday night audience. Everything I make are things that seem funny to me.
LWH: How long between the first and second appearances of Mr. Bill?
Williams: Let's see, the first one was on the first season and the second one was, I think it might have been at the end of the first season. There might have been two on the first season. The second one I actually appeared in. Mr. Bill goes to a party, a real party. Most of the movie he's getting ready to go. Different stuff happens to him. He goes to the party. It's a real party with people and the doorbell rings. I say, "Oh, I'll go see who it is." Mr. Bill is standing there below the door. You see me come out, I don't see anybody, I go back in. There's no one there. Then I cross my leg. My foot comes into camera and Mr. Bill's flattened on the bottom of my shoe. That was me.
LWH: Your claim to fame.
LWH: Did you keep using Super-8 the entire time you were making the movies?
Williams: No. The first four seasons I did. Even the first full-time season I had I continued, then I moved into 16 mm. I've actually done several Mr. Bills over the years for different shows.
In fact a few years ago, the first season on the Fox Family Channel, I did 40 new episodes and I used digital video. Sometimes I use a computer-generated replacement for certain stunts that would be hard to achieve with the real thing. He's been kind of a big science project for me. I've gotten to try out a lot of different techniques and technologies, computer animation.
LWH: Mr. Bill always met an untimely end.
Williams: Somehow, yeah.
LWH: Did you go through lots of Play-Doh?
Williams: Oh, yeah. By the peak of Saturday Night Live, I was going through the 55-gallon drums of Play-Doh. They don't last too long. It takes, actually, several stunt men per episode.
LWH: How did you decide to do this?
Williams: As a teenager, I was fortunate enough to meet this guy who was making a feature film. He was dating my sister. He's older than me. But he was writing and directing and starring in, doing the whole feature film. I got to work on it in various capacities. I did the sound.
The main thing, I saw how a film was totally shot out of sequence. It was something that was created and never really existed. Little pieces of film shot at different times and put together in a way that made it seem like something that was really happening. That got me really excited. I started making my own little comedy short films with Super 8. And they went over real well.
Even my first one I made, I had a little screening and everybody really laughed. Actually, they probably laughed at it more when I was rewinding the film and everything was going backwards. I continued making films, and very seriously so, even as a late teenager and early 20s. I didn't really have a real aptitude for anything else. I went to school. My uncle told me be an engineer. But this filmmaking thing, I got very excited about it. To this day that's all I've done.
LWH: Lots of teenagers made 8mm and Super 8 movies back then, but not many actually did much with it.
Williams: I was serious about it. As I say, I got a really good reaction right from the start. People laughed. I was very energetic and ambitious. I know there's a process on "Saturday Night Live" where the writers have to make the case for their sketches.
LWH: Was that the case with Mr. Bill?
Williams: No. Lorne just said, "Look, I don't know how you do it. Just go do it. If it works, you'll be a hero and I'll be a hero. If it doesn't work, I won't put it on." So he just let me go off and do them. Then he would see them at dress rehearsal. He had a chance if he didn't want to put them on. He put every one on, though. There are 27, I think.
Actually, to this day, Mr. Bill is still the most frequently used character on the show, even more than the cheerleaders [portrayed by Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri]. It's hard to believe.
LWH: So it never got bumped for time?
Williams: Well, it would get bumped for time sometimes, but it would then run [on a later show]. But all the ones I made were shown. The films went first because of the sets; you had a guest host and sets were built, so that was an important thing. But if there was a timing thing, the films were a good insurance to throw in. That would be easier to cut and put on the next week rather than strike a set and so forth.
LWH: You weren't the only one making films for Saturday Night Live. Albert Brooks was as well.
Williams: Yeah. He only worked on the first season also. Then Gary Weis and then Tom Schiller, who's one of my favorite people, and me. I guess we were pretty much the only filmmakers.
LWH: Was there a rivalry between the filmmakers?
Williams: I don't know. The first three seasons I was basically submitting them. Maybe there was, but I didn't even know. I was just lucky they got on. I would tell people I think it might be on, but it wouldn't be. By the time I was there, the fourth and fifth seasons, it was just me and Schiller and we were really kind of best friends.
I don't think it was either-or. There were kind of two separate types of things. There was definitely a lot of rivalry about getting skits on, though. By the time I got there, everyone was kind of settled in with the formula and various partnerships. That was a little more difficult.
LWH: Do you have a favorite skit that you wrote?
Williams: I really liked the Elvis Presley's coat. It was a film. I used a lot of my relatives in it. It was done like a Beatlemania-type commercial. That was fun. My Uncle Walt and different people were in it. They were the people interviewed outside, the testimonials. I did a lot of Weekend Update jokes.
LWH: Anything come to mind?
Williams: There's so many. It probably wouldn't make any sense out of context. They're all so topical. I was actually an extra in several skits. I was in the Three Mile Island skit. I was a pirate on the Raging Queen. I would pop up.
My biggest moment was the very last show of the last season [I was on], when Lorne decided that was enough. That was a pretty smart move of his, really. We all left, but it was the last show and he came up with the idea that we were being replaced. NBC let us go and they were going to staff it with a whole new crack group of the finest young comedians. So I was supposed to be one of the new cast members. I had a tuxedo T-shirt on. I had a few lines. It was pretty funny.
LWH: You left in 1980?
Williams: Yeah. That's when everyone left. It was kind of fortunate because Mr. Bill was at its peak in the fifth season. He probably was the hottest thing on the show because a lot of the people had left. Danny and Belushi had left. So Lorne decided that was it. So everybody left. The whole staff, writers, actors, we all left.
It was nice leaving there at that peak because a lot of things get to that point and they just burn out and become like everything else and everyone gets tired of it. If anything, people said, "Well, where is he?" Which I think is good. Rather than , "Oh, yeah, I had enough of that."
LWH: Yours and Mr. Bill's appearances correspond with the first five seasons.
Williams: And a couple after that. There was one show where I wrote the cold opening for the show, Dick Ebersol's first show. Chevy Chase was poking around his old dressing room, which is now a storeroom. He picks up the Bee's costume and Mr. Bill's buried under a pile of beer cans. He's been stuck there since the wrap party.
LWH: Is it a coincidence that you were there when the show was supposedly at its funniest?
Williams: I guess it was a coincidence.
LWH: Do you take any credit for that?
Williams: Mr. Bill certainly was, I think, a big contribution to the show. I'm not saying it was the most popular, but there are some people who thought it was their favorite part. The ratings in the fourth and fifth seasons were the highest ever, probably triple what they are now. That's when everyone stayed home. They didn't go to parties and the nightclub business died. It was a 50, 60, 70 share, crazy numbers. Those were the years actually when Mr. Bill was on a peak. The fourth and fifth, I did 10 each year.
LWH: How long would it take you to write one Mr. Bill?
Oh, it varied. A couple of weeks. Trying to write them and assemble the props. Filming it. I filmed it myself. And editing it. It's a film. It looks simplistic but it's still pretty much a pain in the ass like making any movie. There's a lot of tedious work.
Writing the script is really in some ways the hardest part, coming up with the jokes and then somehow preserving it to the end even when it seems like it's not funny anymore because it's an old idea but that's the trick. If it seemed funny in the beginning, if you can somehow keep it and get it onto film and preserve it, the audience, hopefully, will get the same spontaneous feeling you got originally about it.
LWH: Did you ever hear any jealousies or any bitterness from the cast that Mr. Bill was getting this airtime?
Williams: A little bit. A little bit. I'm not going to name any names. But there was some.
LWH: Did that bother you at all?
Williams: Nope. It's totally out of my control.
LWH: Mr. Bill's been around a long time now.
Williams: Almost 30 years.
LWH: Do you ever get tired of him?
Williams: No. I don't really have to do much with it, really. Occasionally I do things. If someone can track me down and has an idea and I can think about whether I want to do it or not, but I don't pursue it. I don't really think about it.
People don't recognize me, so they don't know to ask me. I go to a party. I never bring it up. I like the anonymity. I never went into this for the recognition. In fact, I like not being recognized. I really like the process. And it was great. Especially at Saturday Night Live when they'd show the movie. I was there in the studio once I got on staff. I got to listen to a live audience reaction to the film, which is amazing, and it would give me a lot to go on. Like if something didn't quite go over, I could analyze it, if the shot wasn't right or something; the next week I could try to perfect that. But just getting it done was really the satisfaction. All the other stuff pretty much was gravy.
L. Wayne Hicks is a Denver-based writer and student of popular culture. He is completing his first book, the story of the TV show Romper Room.