Maya Rudolph on her variety special, slow 'SNL' goodbye, and Barack Obama impression you never saw

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Image Credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Song. Dance. Sketch. These are three things that Maya Rudolph is planning to bring back to prime time — along with a good time. The Maya Rudolph Show, a variety special that airs May 19 at 10 p.m. on NBC, will take the Saturday Night Live vet to familiar places with familiar faces: SNL alums Fred Armisen, Andy Samberg, and Chris Parnell, along with Sean Hayes, Kristen Bell, and Craig Robinson, are among the featured guests. (SNL overlord Lorne Michaels is serving as executive producer.) It’s a chance to reunite with some old pals but also bring back a piece of a different past. “They always show those Carol Burnett specials, and I always really responded to the familial aspect of it and how much fun they were having, which is what I miss more than anything about SNL — my friends and laughing,” she says. Pick up a copy of Entertainment Weekly with The Normal Heart on the cover to read all about her retro-reboot — and scroll down for some bonus quotes from the self-described “two and three-quarters threat.”

Variety was the spice of her TV-watching as a child. “When we were talking about this show, we tried to recall all of the ones from our childhood. The Carol Burnett Show was the strongest, but when I was really little, Donnie & Marie was my jam. because my brother and I would act out sketches. And also Shields and Yarnell were on it. But I even remember Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters. I feel like I don’t remember variety shows without Sonny and Cher. That’s just a given. You don’t even have to mention it. That’s the image that’s emblazoned in your brain. … We used to watch The Gong Show and a show called Make Me Laugh, and we would play Make Me Laugh — you had 60 seconds to make the other person laugh.”

A former SNL co-star maybe paving the way for the return of the variety show. “The variety show that we grew up with, they come from a time where comedy didn’t have a lot of a spark in it, and the audiences wanted to be entertained as opposed to just be as smart as the show, and people didn’t seem interested until recently. I really noticed more than anything that people have been responding so positively to Jimmy Fallon and what he’s been doing on Late Night and The Tonight Show. Because Jimmy is the same beast — he’s a variety, sketch, and musical beast. And there’s a genuine authenticity about what he’s doing because you can tell that he loves it. I think that’s what’s been translating. And it makes me happy because I feel like that is what I want to do, that is what I’ve been missing doing — the performance aspect of it.”

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. “I asked [Michaels] to do this with me because I felt like no one else knows how to do it. I hate using the term ‘dying art,’ but variety is such a dying art that people don’t know how to do anymore well. And he just lives and breathes this thing that only exists within him that has formed and shaped my life as a fan and as an employee and now as a family member. There is this look and feel to things that come from his world — it’s just the tone that I gravitate toward. So I told people, ‘I don’t want to do it with anyone else and no one else knows how to do what he knows how to do.’ We talked on the phone, but he just more than anything gave me the feeling that he had faith in me about this. There weren’t a lot of questions asked on his part in terms of how I wanted to do this. It was more just like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Do that. That’ll be great.’ And the one thing that he said more than anything was, ‘There’s gotta be music.’ Which we were already writing, but I think he kind of gave it the okay. Because I always feel like ‘Ugh, people are going to hear me sing again. [in goofy voice] Oh boy!’ And it reminded me: This is a good thing.”

She wasn’t opposed to the plan to turn Up All Night from a single-camera show into a multi-camera show.  “I did the show because of [former SNL writer] Emily Spivey and the show that she created. We were trying to save the show so everyone was trying to do something that they thought would work, and because our ratings were so low, everyone was trying something new and it was suggested that we do multi-camera. And, of course, me and Will [Arnett] and Christina [Applegate], we’re all parents, and everybody said it’s a great way to work [with its better schedule] and it could be really fun, so everyone was trying to make that work. It was really just the last-ditch effort to save the show. People assumed there was some incredible plan creatively, but it really did come from the simplicity of: Let’s try to keep the ship afloat. From then on, I think it was hard to do that. … Very soon after [Applegate exited the show while it was being retooled], everybody thought: But then what show are we doing? It’s a completely different show. You have to creatively make decisions that aren’t organic to the original idea. I think that’s when everybody just thought: Why do that?”

She considered joining Sean Hayes in Sean Saves the World after Up All Night was canceled. “I didn’t look at pilots, but my good friend Sean Hayes was the one that asked me to do a show. I really wanted to do it, but I felt like if I did his show I wasn’t going to try to do [the variety show]. It just felt like, ‘Come on, Maya, get off your ass. If you don’t do it now, you’re never going to do it.’ So I was really torn because I love him, and I love performing with him. He’s so f—ing funny. That was really the only thing I was considering. But I really tried to keep my head down with this because I felt like it’s rare that a light bulb goes off in this old head so I better pursue it.”

Leaving SNL behind was not simple or painless. “It was harder when my friends were still on the show. Now that Kenan [Thompson] is really my only contemporary in the cast left, it’s allowed me to slowly kind of let go. When I first left and my friends were still on it, I was mourning it for a long time. If Lorne ever heard I’d be near the building, he’d always manage to wrangle Rudolph into a wig and a costume, because they know she’ll never say no. I felt like the ghost of 8H. I couldn’t leave. I didn’t leave in a way that I wanted to leave. My contract was up and I had my daughter and it was time to go, but I didn’t want to leave. But I knew it was the right time.”

She once played Barack Obama in front of Barack Obama on SNL. Sort of. “I came back for the [fall of 2007] because Lorne wanted me to play Obama. This was pre-Fred [Armisen]’s Obama. Luckily that never happened, even though unfortunately we did it at dress [rehearsal] in front of the real Obama, which was truly humiliating and really embarrassing. I don’t look good dressed as a small man. I just looked awful, and I had zero impression.” Asked to re-create her Obama impression, she says: “Oh, I don’t even remember. It was like a white-hot blur. It was really bad. It was a piece that aired but I just got cut out of it. It was the Halloween where Amy [Poehler] was Hillary [Clinton] and Darrell [Hammond] was Bill, and I came in as Obama, like, ‘Hey guys!’ and then the real Obama went tap-tap-tap, ‘I’m the real Obama,’ and took off his Obama mask. So they just cut me out (laughs) and had him do it... Now if I had to do an impression of Obama, I’d do Fred’s. I know that voice now. But it was flatline. It was pure poop. It was terrible. I put on my Scott Joplin wig, because it was the only short-haired, African-American hairdo I had in my stable, and my boob binder to look like a man in this little Brooks Brothers suit. So I was standing there and then I turned around and he was waiting to go on — and he’s really tall and lean — and was looking down at me. And I said, knowing that I looked awful, ‘Well, how do I look?’ and he said, ‘I don’t wear a three-button suit.’ And that was it. But he was so funny about it. He was pretty awesome.”

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