The Early Audition Tapes of Your Favorite Comics

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Earlier this week, Conan O’Brien’s website commemorated the 20th anniversary of his audition for Late Night by releasing a short clip from it, an abbreviated “mock show” in which he interviewed Mimi Rogers and Jason Alexander in front of a live studio audience. O’Brien is clearly nervous (and can you blame him?), but Lorne Michaels and the Late Night producers saw something in that performance, and gave him a shot. That’s the beauty of the great comic audition — even when a talent is a little rough around the edges, the joy of discovering someone fresh, new, and funny wins out. After the jump, we’ll take a look at that tape and several other killer auditions from very funny folks.

Conan O’Brien

O’Brien, best known then merely as a writer for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, is more than a little jittery, even in this short clip (and let’s be honest: he was noticeably uncomfortable for a good long while after the show hit the air). But a key element of his comedy persona was in place from the beginning: self-deprecation. He jokes with Alexander about what a nobody he is; he gets a good laugh with Rogers off the idea that he’s done any modeling. And that was the key to his likability, right off the bat: he was as surprised to be behind that desk as we were to see him there.

Jimmy Fallon

O’Brien’s Late Night successor Jimmy Fallon auditioned for Saturday Night Live in 1998, and wisely went with his biggest strength: celebrity impressions. Unsurprisingly, the biggest laughs come from his spot-on Adam Sandler, which was apparently a big hit at Sandler’s former home. He tanks a bit with his original characters, though — and doesn’t seem to understand the difference between a composer and a conductor. Hopefully ?uestlove has cleared that up by now?

John Belushi

Belushi’s SNL audition is a much looser affair. After all, he didn’t know what the hell he was trying out for (and neither did the people who brought him there, probably), and his opening riffs appear completely off-the-cuff — though they may well have been totally planned, which was part of Belushi’s genius. Then he rolls into his Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger impressions, and all bets are off; his fierce energy and endless invention are on full display, and adding him to the cast of this strange new show must’ve been a no-brainer.

Dan Aykroyd

Belushi’s castmate and best buddy Aykroyd seems much more rehearsed and prepared — true to his style. But that doesn’t make him any less funny; his rat-tat-tat delivery, obvious intelligence, and boundless confidence were already on full display.

Phil Hartman

Like Aykroyd, Hartman’s hallmark as an SNL performer was his versatility, and his audition tape highlights that skill — dizzyingly so. But he also shows his subversive streak: the rundown of celebrity impressions was a required portion of the SNL audition, so Hartman shook it up by doing his impressions as a German impressionist.

Andy Kaufman

Unlike the other Saturday Night Live audition tapes that have appeared online, Kaufman’s clip is incredibly brief — only 18 seconds. And yet, somehow, that’s about all the time you need to grasp how strange and inexplicably funny he was.

Dana Carvey

“Would you like to see some impressions?” asked the baby-faced Carvey, and off he goes: Robin Leach, Jimmy Stewart, Robin Williams, SNL’s Dennis Miller, John Travolta (“this is an old one”), and… his brother Brad (an early version of Garth, apparently). He’s got the voices down, but there’s more happening here than that: he’s so transparent in his nervousness and eagerness to please that you can’t help but like the guy.

Seth Rogen

The ridiculous number of talented people that came from Freaks and Geeks, coupled with the Apatow factory’s predilection to release making-of materials, makes that show’s audition tapes an excellent source of comic talent in its embryonic form. Take, for example, this brief but wonderful clip of Seth Rogen (not yet 17 years old) reading for Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s short-lived cult classic. What’s most impressive here — particularly for a comic actor of his tender age — is his utter refusal to overplay; he’s dry, wry, and hilarious. Nice bonus: Apatow’s distinctive, hearty laugh in the background.

Jason Segel

According to Freaks and Geeks‘ creators, they weren’t looking for Segel’s type at all when he came in to read for burnout drummer Nick. But he captured the character’s strangeness, awkwardness, and self-importance beautifully, and they were so impressed with his reading that they ended up rewriting the character for him.

Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert

Not a conventional “audition tape,” to be sure, but worth including; at a Paley Center panel on The Daily Show, Colbert revealed that his agent sent a tape of this sketch, from the legendary but short-lived Dana Carvey Show, to Daily Show co-creator/executive producer Madeleine Smithberg. “I get a lot of tapes,” she recalled, “and this just cracked me up.” She liked it so much, in fact, that she not only hired Colbert, but later brought on his fellow nauseated waiter Carell.