SNL cast
(Photo/Kyle Dubiel/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank Via Getty Images)

“Live from New York, it’s USC!”

Tune in to the beloved NBC series Saturday Night Live and it might feel that way. Beck Bennett ’07 and Kyle Mooney ’07 have been cast members since 2013 and were joined this season by newcomer Ego Nwodim ’10. Behind the scenes is Eli Brueggemann MM ’03, one of the show’s musical directors since 2011. They’re the latest in a line of comedic Trojans — including Will Ferrell ’90 — who have made their mark on the iconic show.

Their presence is no fluke. USC offers its students plenty of opportunities to hone their comedy chops. “USC Comedy Live,” a class offered through the USC School of Dramatic Arts and USC School of Cinematic Arts, may well be a road map to auditioning for SNL.

The class has been going strong for six years and is the brainchild of Jack Epps Jr., professor and chair of writing for screen and television. Instructor Kirstin Eggers ’01 calls the class “a mini Saturday Night Live” for both comedy newbies and seasoned actors.

“I try to help students develop their comedic voice and give them confidence,” Eggers says. “I also want to keep a sense of joy in performance versus tearing anyone down, which happens at some comedy schools.” Three times each semester, students try out their sketches for a live audience. New this spring is a companion class, “Characters of Comedy,” where students develop characters and create an SNL-type reel.

“Live From USC…”

Last year, Eggers bumped into her friends Bennett and Mooney while they were on break from SNL and invited them to her class. The SNL cast members took questions, offered advice and gave pointers during the students’ rehearsal.

These sorts of opportunities and industry connections have earned USC a strong reputation in the performing arts. Word of mouth from his high school improv troupe friends first piqued Mooney’s interest in USC’s film school. He applied and quickly found his niche.

“When I got to USC, I saw the sketch group Commedus Interruptus performing and thought everyone in it was funny, so I auditioned,” Mooney says. He landed a spot in the group — USC’s oldest comedy troupe — alongside Bennett. “We did improv shows on the lawn by Tommy Trojan every Friday and a sketch show every semester.”

After graduation, Mooney and Bennett joined fellow Commedus Interruptus member Nick Rutherford ’06 and friend Dave McCary to create the sketch group Good Neighbor. “At the end of my time at USC, YouTube was just beginning and we uploaded our videos,” Mooney says. “Good Neighbor gained a little following on the internet and we parlayed that into acting work in commercials and television.”

When auditions for SNL came up in 2012, Mooney took a shot, but didn’t make the cut. A year later, while acting in an independent film, he got a call from producer Lorne Michaels. “I remember him saying something about how the weather in L.A. is famously nice,” Mooney says. “Then he invited me to New York to be part of the show.” His Good Neighbor co-founder Bennett also became a cast member, while Rutherford wrote for SNL and McCary joined as a writer and segment director.

Listen to Mooney’s advice for those with SNL dreams and you can feel Eggers’ influence. “Try to make as much stuff as you can,” he says of creating comedy. “Surround yourself with people who are smart, critical and push you to do your best work. Develop your own voice.”

Learning His Music Cues

For keyboardist Eli Brueggemann, the graduates of the USC Thornton School of Music drew him in to USC. “You could tell the school really valued its music program and the facilities were great,” he says.

His road to SNL began in 2004, when a music agent called the school looking for musicians to play at a client’s birthday party. Brueggemann found himself playing alongside guitarist Jared Scharff at the gig. Fast-forward several years, and Scharff told the same agent about an opening for SNL’s keyboardist. The agent promptly phoned Brueggemann.

Though Brueggemann didn’t land the keyboard gig, he did make an impression on SNL’s music director, Lenny Pickett, through some silly songs he had composed. “Lenny knew I had a diverse background accompanying singers, playing in bands, and arranging and producing beats and film scores,” Brueggemann says. “That set of skills, honed more by necessity than design, led him to believe I’d be good for a musical director position.”

Brueggemann was on tour with Glee star Matthew Morrison when he got the call to meet with Lorne Michaels.

“I don’t think any musician starts their career with the goal of working in sketch comedy, but every musician on the planet reveres the SNL band,” he says. After several nominations over the years, Brueggemann won a 2018 Primetime Emmy with SNL cast members Kenan Thompson, Chris Redd and Will Stephen for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics.

Brueggemann’s advice for Trojans looking to take SNL’s stage? “You never know where or when your break is going to come, but there are things you definitely do control. Showing up on time, having a great attitude, working hard and being flexible are the biggies. And in today’s social media-driven world, the important thing to set you apart is physically showing up, making those human-to-human connections and participating in a community. I can’t think of a better place to start doing that than USC.”

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