Approximately 1,500 miles from the DC Improv, Finesse Mitchell’s wife is eating birthday cake on FaceTime. She’s in Austin, having spent the holidays in Atlanta with the former Saturday Night Live performer and his family. Now she’s preparing to celebrate her birthday without him; her party is tonight. He’s with me.
It’s shortly before the New Year, and Mitchell is wrapping up his 2017 with a four-night stint at this comedy club. DC Improv is tucked away slightly outside DuPont Circle, less than a mile from the historic Strivers’ Section, which once counted Langston Hughes and Frederick Douglass among its many prominent African-American residents. Today the neighborhood’s largely gentrified.
The temperature is below freezing, and Mitchell is wearing a pair of designer jeans with zippers and rips on each pant leg that can’t be very insulating. Regardless, he bounds on stage to Chris Brown’s “Pills & Automobiles,” instantly hooking the crowd. It’s an energetic and upbeat way to kickstart a set, as well as trumpet the year’s end. (The song’s post-chorus: “I’m just trying to change your life.”)
The previous 12 months saw its share of ebb and flow for Mitchell. He continues to tour while adjusting to fatherhood—he and his wife have a 2-year-old daughter with another baby on the way. “Professionally, I had a few downs,” he concedes, referencing the cancellation of the Showtime series he starred in, Roadies, in addition to his aborted HBO comedy, Brothers in Atlanta. “I went into the year, like ‘I’m on Showtime and HBO, baby! This is the year!’ So it’s kind of weird, even when you win, sometimes that rug can still be snatched.”
SNL, where Mitchell spent three seasons as a cast member in the mid-aughts, is probably the best place to be conditioned for the mercurial nature of show business. In an era dominated by heavyweights such as Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon, Mitchell nevertheless succeeded with characters such as Starkisha and his bits on Weekend Update. (His Update segment on baby names is in league with the desk monologues once performed by Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock.) Given the show’s inherent competition, battling to ensure sketches not only make it to dress, then air—and are funny—can be a slog. Looking back, he offers: “I don’t know if I kind of gave up and quit on myself and let that attitude come out on the show. But I wasn’t smiling anymore, or trying to break the code to win. I was just like, ‘I’m drowning’ and I think they could sense that.”
The fear of being pigeonholed by the show’s monumental legacy, and the boxes placed on its performers, also looms. “There are people who didn’t make SNL—Tiffany Haddish auditioned, Bresha Webb auditioned—these girls are kicking ass in TV and film right now. And some of them are like, ‘I’m so glad I didn’t get it.’ Because you’re so limited in what you can do.”
As a comic, Mitchell is buoyant, a consummate emcee who can rattle off a pitch-perfect Morgan Freeman from The Shawshank Redemption. With me, he’s just as quick, but also thoughtful and reflective. Given the past year’s often-bewildering news cycle, it’s easy to understand. Controversy and outrage lingers over the death of black Americans at the hands of law enforcement. Mitchell’s neighbor-state, Alabama, has just narrowly refused sending Roy Moore to the Senate. “The bar’s been set so low that even someone accused of pedophilia, by his own community, could [have] helped govern and set laws for our country,” he laments.
Beyond SNL, the year’s various political and cultural touchstones have cast their own shadow on the night. If the general public greeted 2017’s horrors with a collective sigh, Mitchell appears to still be wrestling with it.
“2017, what a fucking helluva year. Nothing surprises me anymore,” he concludes. “As much as we claim to love the country, the hypocrisy just chokes you. It forces you to eat it.”
Mitchell’s a member of several unique clubs. He played football for the national champion University of Miami Hurricanes, where his teammates included Warren Sapp and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He is one of a handful of athletes to successfully shift into mainstream comedy. It’s Terry Crews, him, Johnson and that’s about it. Maybe Terry Bradshaw.
Even in 2018, he is still one of the few black cast members to join SNL, though he’s encouraged by the show’s recent strides: “I’m very proud of Lorne. I mean, hell, SNL is almost In Living Color right now. It’s never been this diverse.”
Here’s one final category: Mitchell is one of only 13 cast members who appeared in the April 3, 2004, episode of Saturday Night Live when Trump made his hosting debut.
“He was a cool guy, a nice guy,” recalls Mitchell. “And he did a good job.”
Mitchell and Trump starred together in a sketch about Jayson Williams, the New Jersey Nets star who accidentally shot and killed his limo driver. When it was cut before air (“It wasn’t in good taste, but it was funny”), Trump expressed disappointment.
“At the after party, he gave me his business card and told me to call him if I needed anything. I did and he called me back. We caught up and he said he gave me a shout out in his new book.” Alongside fellow SNLer and Trump impressionist Darrell Hammond, Mitchell is mentioned in Trump’s 2005 bestseller, Think Like a Billionaire: Everything You Need to Know About Success, Real Estate, and Life. Page 151.
Mitchell does not mince words about this point: the man who hosted Saturday Night Live, joking about Jayson Williams, is not the same person as the current occupant in the Oval Office. To Mitchell, there’s “two different Trumps… which makes me question: who was the guy I met at SNL?” It’s a fair point; the charismatic, larger-than-life television personality feels worlds away from the ugly xenophobia and culture wars of the current presidency.
Mitchell—who considers himself an independent who could have voted for John Kasich or Bernie Sanders during the last presidential election—has seen Trump twice since their 2004 overlap, including on the SNL40 red carpet. Though he’s been on a first-name basis with the president, his feelings on Trump’s first term are unequivocal: “Being a black dude, we just had one of the roughest years ever, that transition from Barack’s last year to Trump’s first year. We took a bad turn.”
Following Trump’s meteoric political rise, the show has come under increased scrutiny for its previously cozy relationship and initial softball approach to the 45th president. Mitchell is more tactful, calling Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of Trump “phenomenal.”
Apart from Baldwin, SNL’s recent Trump takedowns have mostly stemmed from current Weekend Update anchor and co-head writer Michael Che. The sometimes-caustic comic earns plaudits from his SNL predecessor, and for a few reasons. During his time on the show, Mitchell aspired to become the first black Weekend Update anchor. “That never happened. Now it has.”
“If you’re only used to one style of SNL, you’re going to say ‘Oh, he’s too brash’ or just ‘too bold.’ I’m glad Lorne is letting him get up there and say ‘You little bitch’ [about Trump.] Shit like that. I think it's funny.” He pauses: “It’s needed.”
More than 40 percent of Americans make New Year's resolutions. For Mitchell, his 2018 plans are already underway. He will co-host a new Facebook game show, Last State Standing. Next up: shooting a comedy special, possibly in the first quarter of the year. Then pilot season in February, with the goal to book another Showtime and HBO show.
Mitchell’s opening act is nearly done. In a few moments, he will be on stage, riffing about family life, the club scene… and Trump. He gets himself a drink.