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Ana Gasteyer's 'Sugar & Booze' Is Holiday Music With 'A Modern Wink'

Dec 25, 2019
Originally published on December 25, 2019 7:12 am

It was the elephant in the room. Over 20 years after parodying NPR hosts in her recurring sketch, "The Delicious Dish," former Saturday Night Live cast member Ana Gasteyer sat down for an interview with NPR host Noel King. Although she's equally famous for impressions of Celine Dion and Martha Stewart, the theme of the conversation, like that of the most famous version of that sketch about "Schweddy Balls," was the holidays. Gasteyer recently released a holiday album; it's called Sugar & Booze.

Appreciating her reason for the season — parties — is the running theme.

"There was not a song out there that quite celebrated the season the way that it was meaningful to me," Gasteyer says. "I knew right out of the gate that it was going to be a record celebrating seasonal secular favorites. I'm not a very religious person, but I love a party, and I love jollity and humor and gaiety."

Even though we have a higher threshold for silliness in holiday music, Gasteyer tried to avoid her own pitfalls.

"The root of what I find funny is overearnestness," she says. "It's also the Achilles' heel of anyone who's been driving in another lane and suddenly wants to make music."

Her solution was to lean into cocktail lounge jazz, or what Gasteyer calls "this late '50s/early '60s entertainers' era music" — music from a time in which it was more common for entertainers to mingle across artistic disciplines. But avoiding overearnestness didn't mean she didn't have any fun with it.

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On "Secret Santa," Gasteyer duets with her former SNL colleague, Maya Rudolph. "I decided, as I was writing, that it was this woke anthem of this woman who felt obliged to buy her Secret Santa boyfriend a really fancy present, when it occurs to her what a jerk he is," she says of the narrator's Christmas shopping-trip-turned-Cuban-vacation.

"I knew that Maya would like it," Gasteyer continues. "It has this ridiculous retro-Cuban, fun energy to it."

Back to ridiculousness, Noel King just had to ask about that elephant from 20 years ago, because in addition to "Schweddy Balls" just being funny, the joke was that NPR hosts had no sense of humor. King did some research and says, "It really did strike a chord here. People were questioning themselves."

"They always say that imitation is the highest form of flattery," Gasteyer says. So from Celine Dion to Martha Stewart and even to NPR, "Everything I've parodied is stuff I'm interested in."

With that, we'll count Ana Gasteyer among our avid listeners.

Phil Harrell and Steve Mullis produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Cyrena Touros adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

The new Christmas song that gets right to what this season is really about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUGAR AND BOOZE")

ANA GASTEYER: (Singing) I love snowmen and turtledoves in twos. Holly, ivy, mistletoe can take away my blues. Kriss Kringle and his reindeer friends - they endlessly amuse. But the best part of the holidays is sugar and booze.

KING: True to life? Is that how you celebrate?

GASTEYER: Yeah. You know, you got to write what you know.

KING: (Laughter) That is Ana Gasteyer. She was a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" for six years. And if you watch that show, you remember her parodies of Celine Dion and Martha Stewart. She also created one of the most hilarious Christmas sketches of all time with NPR as the punchline. We're going to talk to her about that in a minute.

But first, she's written and recorded a series of new, very funny Christmas songs with a few standards thrown in, too. The album is named after the song you're hearing right now. It's called "Sugar And Booze."

GASTEYER: There was not a song out there that quite celebrated the season the way that it was meaningful to me. I knew right out of the gate that it was going to be a record celebrating seasonal secular favorites. I'm not a very religious person, but I love a party.

And the holidays really can be that. It can be a time where people - I mean, that's really what the sentiment of the song "Sugar And Booze" is. It's just this kind of time of year where you can really let it rip. You can connect with people. You can go to some really great parties. Even the most ardent dieter is going to, you know, tuck into some ham at least once over the holidays, you know?

KING: We hope.

GASTEYER: We hope. Music to drink prosecco and eat ham to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUGAR AND BOOZE")

GASTEYER: (Singing) Once a year, we all deserve some fun. Life is short so why live like a nun? Grab a fork; there's damage to be done. King Wenceslas, hit the sweets and sauce, give me gin and cinnamon buns.

KING: It can be a little uncool to make a Christmas album. And I think of you as, like, a very dope person.

GASTEYER: Oh, really?

KING: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GASTEYER: I'm going to tell the children, yeah.

KING: (Laughter) And so I wondered, you know, how did you keep it from being overly earnest?

GASTEYER: You know, that is exactly the word that I lean into all the time. Obviously, it's, like, the root of what I find funny is over-earnestness. It's also the Achilles heel of anyone who's been driving in a different lane and suddenly wants to make music. It's just the most nauseating idea in the world of a comedian in a gown leaning against a baby grand, you know, without making a joke.

And so that's actually how I really came to this kind of cocktail jazz, happy lounge place where I sing because it's deeply musical, and it's rooted in this kind of late '50s, early '60s entertainers-era music - honestly, a time when it really was appropriate to be both a comedian and a singer. It was OK to tell a joke and sing really well. And since I kind of do both things, I would never be able to make an overly sincere Christmas record.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANA GASTEYER SONG, "SECRET SANTA")

GASTEYER: When we were writing originals, I wanted them to have an old feeling to them with a little modern wink, of course. I mean, I wrote this ridiculous song about secret Santa.

KING: "Secret Santa."

GASTEYER: Yeah.

KING: Yes, you are joined on that song by your friend Maya Rudolph...

GASTEYER: Yes.

KING: ...Who we know from "SNL" and other things. Tell me about that song.

GASTEYER: Yes, really not far from a fugue state...

(LAUGHTER)

GASTEYER: ...Which - the lyric, call me a banana, but I went down to Havana...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SECRET SANTA")

GASTEYER: (Singing) To buy my secret Santa a present today.

ANA GASTEYER AND MAYA RUDOLPH: (Singing) But I slipped on a banana, woke up in a cabana sipping rum and orange Fanta, so I think that I'll stay.

GASTEYER: So I decided as I was writing it that it really was this kind of woke anthem of this woman who felt obliged to buy her secret Santa boyfriend a really fancy present, and then it kind of occurs to her what a jerk he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SECRET SANTA")

ANA GASTEYER AND MAYA RUDOLPH: (Singing) He finds my stories silly. He says I laugh too loud. But now I see how life can be. I'm brassy and sassy and proud. So tell my secret Santa I'm staying in Havana, don't want his big banana and his gift will be late.

GASTEYER: So I knew that Maya would like it. It has this kind of ridiculous, retro, Cuban, fun energy to it. And I just thought it would be really fun to harmonize. And I asked, and she said yes. So that was a great privilege to have her on the record.

KING: You said earlier that earnestness makes you really uncomfortable. Why is that?

GASTEYER: I don't know. I just have never been - I mean, that's the essence of, I think, just being a comedian, too, is you stand outside of things and you look at them. And...

KING: Mock them.

GASTEYER: It's not even mockery. I mean, I know that's, like, the lean-in. Obviously, I'm on NPR, and there's a, you know, elephant in the room on that one with me.

KING: Oh, I'm going to bring it up (laughter).

GASTEYER: Yeah, but it is funny. It's like a weird, mutant skin. I think people who write comedy just tend to be pretty good at watching what's happening while it's happening and observe upon it, you know?

KING: Can I ask you about the elephant in the room?

GASTEYER: Absolutely.

KING: OK.

GASTEYER: It's big Schweddy ball season.

KING: (Laughter) It is that season. So for listeners who are not familiar, when you were on "Saturday Night Live," you did a parody sketch of NPR. You played the host of a show called "The Delicious Dish."

GASTEYER: That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

MOLLY SHANNON: (As Teri Rialto, ph) Now, what's on your list this holiday season, Margaret Jo?

GASTEYER: (As Margaret Jo McCullen, ph) Well, Teri, I really got greedy this year. I'm asking Kriss Kringle for a wooden bowl, some oversized index cards and a funnel.

KING: And there's an episode where Alec Baldwin is - he's a guest on your show. He's a guy named Pete Schweddy.

GASTEYER: Yes.

KING: And he makes a very specific kind of Christmas treat.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

ALEC BALDWIN: (As Pete Schweddy) Over at Season's Eatings, we have balls for every taste - popcorn balls, cheese balls, rum balls - you name it.

GASTEYER: We have a long, exaggerated conversation about Schweddy balls. One of my favorite things I think I did on the show - very much just an observation of people who were not aware of what was happening while it was happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

BALDWIN: (As Pete Schweddy) They're made from a secret Schweddy family recipe.

(LAUGHTER)

BALDWIN: (As Pete Schweddy) No one can resist my Schweddy balls.

KING: The joke - in addition to Schweddy balls just being funny, the joke is that the NPR hosts have no sense of humor whatsoever. And I learned - I'm relatively new, but I learned that some 20 years ago, it really did strike a chord here. Like, people were questioning themselves.

GASTEYER: I have to tell you, yeah. I mean, I definitely felt like it bummed people out who worked at NPR. And the funny thing is, like, I - you know, they always say this - whatever - imitation is the highest form of flattery. Everything that I have parodied is stuff I'm interested in. You know, I think Celine Dion is one of the greatest singers out there. Martha Stewart - you know, I was a subscriber. I admire her as a businesswoman, as a homemaker, as a cook - I mean, all of those things. And NPR, I'm an avid listener, so I couldn't - you know, it's just funny to me. Like, you end up writing what you love and - yeah.

KING: Well, Merry Christmas to you, too. And I mean that sincerely and earnestly.

GASTEYER: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

KING: Ana Gasteyer - her new album of Christmas songs is called "Sugar And Booze." Thank you again so much, and happy holidays.

GASTEYER: Happy holidays.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANA GASTEYER SONG, "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.