Gary Kroeger Is Still Smiling

Being erased is not a pleasant experience. Former SNL cast member Gary Kroeger knows this intimately. In a 2018 New Yorker profile of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Gary’s old friend and former cast mate, writer Ariel Levy recounted her subject’s early years, specifically the Practical Theatre Company in Chicago.

It was from PTC that JLD, with Brad Hall, Paul Barrosse, and Gary Kroeger, were hired by SNL. Only thing is, Levy never mentioned Gary. Everyone else had a say, but Gary was airbrushed from his own history. This blew my mind. I asked Levy about this glaring omission. She said that there simply wasn’t room for Gary’s name. I replied that it was only two words. Sorry, Levy shot back. Them’s the breaks.

This hurt Gary. He didn’t publicly admit it, but the snub stung. Gary left showbiz to raise his two sons in his hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa. He booked steady work in LA, but felt that his sons needed a more grounded upbringing. Yet that showbiz flame never really faded.

I learned this when Gary and I reconnected on Facebook, several decades after we first met in SNL‘s Studio 8H. We both moved to New York City in September 1982. I, too, arrived from the Midwest (Indianapolis) after performing in a comedy group, the key difference being that Gary was on national television, and I worked open mics at comedy clubs.

About a year later, I met a Letterman writer who invited me to SNL‘s Friday night camera blocking session. It was a very heady experience for a 24-year-old still relatively new to the scene. Cast, writers, and crew were scattered throughout the small studio. I sat on a bleacher seat and tried to remain inconspicuous. It was amazing to be there.

The second time I went to a blocking session I met Gary. He stood next to me, watching Jim Belushi, Robin Duke, and Brad Hall run through a sketch with host Michael Palin. I whispered something about the sketch to Gary, who smiled and asked if he knew me from somewhere. I said I was a tourist who wanted to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, but got there too late. So I thought I’d take in a show.

Gary laughed, and during a break he and I began talking. Gary was very open and amiable. When I confessed that I didn’t work at NBC in any capacity, but knew someone who did, Gary didn’t rat me out. We got along well, traded stories about our backgrounds and talked about what we hoped to achieve. One of the writers thought we were brothers. We did have the same haircut.

After attending several blockings and meeting Robin Williams, Jerry Lewis, Terri Garr, and Michael Palin, my joyride came to an abrupt end. Director Dave Wilson banned all non-staff from the studio (while producer Dick Ebersol walked around with a baseball bat). Gary and I went our separate ways.

I went Cedar Falls to visit Gary, right before the chaos of the Iowa caucuses. Campaign buses and workers were everywhere. Numerous snow-covered yards displayed Bernie, Amy, and Pete signs. Gary was in the thick of it. A partisan Democrat, he reveled in the politicized atmosphere. When we saw each other for the first time in 36 years, Gary welcomed me with a smile and warm hug.

Gary is a vibrant 62, eyes still sharp, energy keen. (I’m two years younger, but somehow Gary makes me feel older.) He seems to know practically everyone in Cedar Falls. He shakes hands and pats shoulders with a politician’s zeal, which makes sense, given that Gary ran for Congress in 2016. He lost, but the political bug remains embedded, and he hints at a future run for another office.

Gary also misses “the sizzle but not the bullshit” of showbiz, and he maintains a theatrical air. He has a recurring dream about returning to SNL, something he concedes will probably never happen. “Lorne doesn’t bring back Ebersol regulars,” he says, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Eddie Murphy notwithstanding. When he watches the current show, his mind goes back to those moments just before air. The nervousness and anticipation. The excitement of live performing. “There’s nothing like it,” Gary says wistfully.

We talk about his time on SNL. While he’s proud of his first two seasons, Gary admits that his final season was his best. “That should have been my breakout year,” he says, and normally, he’d be right. Gary was hitting on all cylinders, but it happened in the shadows of Billy Crystal, Martin Short, and Christopher Guest. Still, some of Gary’s performances that season were stellar. My favorite remains Gary as a pretentious actor auditioning to play Superman. Though his character is killed, Gary is the heart of that sketch. All sizzle, no bullshit.

When Gary had dinner with Superman himself, Christopher Reeve, he shared a private story. “I told him, ‘Hey Chris, when I was a kid I was a Superman freak. I loved Superman so much that in the second grade I used to wear my Superman suit underneath my clothes.’ In my child mind I thought that if anyone saw the S under my shirt, they’d think I was Superman. I wore the cape, too, and it bunched up in my pants. One of my classmates loudly asked ‘Gary Kroeger, are you wearing a diaper?’ Imagine my horror. I wasn’t really Superman. I had nowhere to go except probably cry.

“After I told that story to Chris Reeve, he went on The Tonight Show and told Johnny Carson that same story, as if it had been him! The audience loved it, and I’m sitting there yelling ‘YOU STOLE MY PANEL!’ I don’t think it was malicious on Chris’ part. It’s just a great story for a talk show.”

“I’ve been thinking about where my place is [on SNL] and what my strengths were,” he says. “I didn’t get a three-picture deal out of it. I didn’t become a household name. I’ve never been asked to host the show. So it’s easy to look back and say ‘I kinda sucked.'” But thanks to social media feedback, YouTube, and the passing of time, Gary is able to better assess his SNL work.

“I always knew what I was doing,” Gary adds. “I made conscious acting choices that were my own. Now I’m able to look back and say, I did it. I touched that reality. I had a front row seat.”

He also became friends with writer Larry David. Gary witnessed several scenes that later became Seinfeld plots, including David planning to slip a mickey to Dick Ebersol during the end-of-season party at the Rainbow Room. Gary doesn’t recall if David actually dosed Ebersol, but he immediately recognized it when George Costanza planned the same revenge on his boss.

Gary received an offer to audition for Seinfeld as Elaine’s boyfriend, which he turned down. While seemingly inexplicable, Gary provided the context for his action. He had booked Archie: To Riverdale And Back Again, a TV movie with a series option. At the time, Seinfeld was near the bottom of the ratings and only paid scale. It was assumed that it would be cancelled. The Archie paycheck was much larger for about the same amount of work. Easy choice, right?

Of course, Gary regrets that decision. He’d be part of Seinfeld lore, his younger self frozen in endless syndication. He also felt that he offended Larry David, which is why when he was offered a part on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Gary thought that David either “forgave me for passing on Seinfeld or simply forgot about it.” This time he took the gig, playing a weatherman who Larry suspects is giving false weather reports so he can play golf on an empty course.

Curb showed that Gary still has it, and should he really desire it, he could easily fit into a show, a film, maybe even a drama. He’s taken enough lumps over time to season a somber side. And he’s still a great impressionist. His Alan Alda, which he did on SNL, remains fine (though I give a slight Alda edge to Bill Hader). But no one did a better Walter Mondale, not even the brilliant Dana Carvey. Had Mondale won in 1984, Gary’s profile definitely would’ve risen. Playing the President on SNL establishes you.

“Give me a little Mondale,” I say to Gary at the tiny Waterloo airport. He slides right into it, that nasal Minnesotan accent still distinct and pitch perfect. We hug goodbye. This was a genuinely warm and delightful reunion, and I’m happy that we’ve both made it this far. Gary’s great — make that Gary Kroeger is great. Two words that will always have room on my page.