Following a natural path from prep school to SNL Santa
It is true, as the title of his one-man show insists, that Steve Cragg is not Mark Twain. Nor is Cragg Fidel Castro, Carol Channing’s imaginary brother Chris, Santa Claus, or a Tourette’s patient. But he has played them all in the weekly “Saturday Night Live” pitch meetings in “SNL” executive producer Lorne Michaels’ office.Cragg was an “SNL” writer in the early ’00s, years that he remembers as productive, enjoyable and filled with anxiety. “We’d go into these pitch meetings in Lorne Michaels’ office. And they were always quite tense, everyone was nervous,” Cragg said. “It got to be too much for me.”So Cragg, a 44-year-old New Jersey native, did what any sensible, tense, offbeat, comic-minded person would do: He dressed like Mark Twain and affected a 19th century Southern accent. That alleviated the tension sufficiently that Cragg made a habit of entering the meetings in character: “Castro, Santa Claus. I went in drunk once. I had an intern go in my clothes and pitch for me. I had Tourette’s. I went in as a new writer. I went as a pirate and had my parrot pitch.”
Attending a tension-filled situation in costume and accent can have one of two outcomes: Either it eases everyone’s nerves, or it gets your ass fired.”[“SNL” performer] Anna Gasteyer begged me not to do them. She said I was going to get fired,” Cragg said. “But I didn’t care. I was commuting from L.A., and I wanted to go home.”The title aside, Cragg’s “I Am Not Mark Twain” has nothing to do with those “SNL” meetings. Those meetings, however, do make a more likely subject for comedy than the actual subject of Cragg’s one-man show. “I Am Not Mark Twain” revolves around a road trip Cragg and his brother took nearly a decade ago, from Los Angeles to Santa Fe. Purpose of said trip: For Cragg to cheat on his wife with an old girlfriend.There’s more to the show than the illicit affair. There are the people the brothers meet along the way. There is a load of self-examination of the reasons Cragg sought an affair: His mother had just died and his son had suffered a febral seizure. And there are bits about his brother, a quiet sort who wanted to get into the film business.”And that’s the thing about Hollywood – it’s wide open to shy young men. It embraces them and makes them feel at home,” said Cragg, forced by the absurdity of his statement to slip into Mark Twain mode.
“At the start of the trip, my brother said, ‘Why don’t we go to Canada? That’s where dad’s from?’ But I couldn’t tell him that he was just a chauffeur, driving me to” – and here he uses a crude substitute for the act of making sweet, sweet love – “an ex-girlfriend.”Cragg traces his need to be funny – and from all appearances, need is the apt word – to his childhood in southern New Jersey.”My dad was a quiet man, and I tried to make him laugh,” he said. “It’s the standard story: you have a big hole. And I had acne, another wonderful instigator.”Cragg got the performance bug when he starred in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” at prep school. “I got the big role and did it and the headmaster came up and told me I did the ‘Othello’ of comedy,” said Cragg. “After that, you can’t go back. You can’t go to produce; you can’t go to an office.”
His ambitions to be a greengrocer or actuary thus thwarted, Cragg went to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. It was a creative atmosphere, but not exactly attuned to his tastes. He was guided into illustration, and did theater productions in the school’s basement. Cragg made a living as an illustrator for several years before heading to Los Angeles. In L.A., he became a member of the Groundling Theatre, which had a sketch and improv school and a theater company. He won a spot on the “Saturday Night Live” writing team but was adamant about not living in New York City. From there, it was a natural path toward dressing as Mark Twain for meetings in Lorne Michaels’ office.Steven Cragg performs his one-person show “I Am Not Mark Twain” today at 9:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Feb. 12, at 1:30 p.m., at the Hotel Jerome.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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