Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: Does every Saturday Night Live sketch set backstage since Seth Meyers became the head writer of SNL feature a llama, a showgirl and Abraham Lincoln?
A few months ago, in the penultimate episode of Saturday Night Live‘s 38th season, former SNL castmember Kristen Wiig returned to host the show.
In her opening monologue, she sang a version of The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited” about how excited she was to be back at her old stomping grounds. The joke behind the song is that she is singing about how everything is really familiar to her, but as we follow her backstage, she clearly has forgotten everything about her time on the show, including where her dressing room was and the names of all of her former castmates. When she goes to her old dressing room (really a janitor’s closet, where guest stars Maya Rudolph and Jonah Hill are seen making out), there is a llama right next to her.
Later, she runs into an actor dressed as Abraham Lincoln talking to a pair of showgirls (she confuses him for Daniel Day-Lewis).
Pretty weird, right? However, earlier that season, during the Christmas episode hosted by Martin Short (another former SNL castmember), Short also went backstage during a musical routine involving the fact that Christmas is the “randiest time of the year.” He, too, encountered showgirls (while talking to Kristen Wiig, oddly enough, who was making a cameo)….
and then a llama and an actor dressed as Abraham Lincoln.
So is it somehow true that every time a sketch is set backstage on SNL that Lincoln, a llama and showgirls are present?
No, it is not true.
There have been many backstage sketches over the years without the trio present. However, the in-joke seems to owe its origination to current SNL head writer (although not for long, as he is set to leave the show to take over hosting duties on NBC’s Late Night early next year), Seth Meyers. The Lincoln, llama and showgirl routine first appeared together in the premiere to SNL‘s 31st season on October 5, 2005 (Meyers was serving as head writer in place of Tina Fey, who was out on maternity leave). That episode had a sketch set backstage where SNL creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels is concerned about whether that week’s musical guest, Kanye West, would say something unscripted before his performance, as he did earlier that year in a live NBC-TV Hurricane Katrina fundraiser, where West (paired with another former SNL castmember, Mike Myers) went off script to note that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Myers appears as himself, nervously bumping into West. In the background of the sketch, we see first a llama and then an actor dressed as Abraham Lincoln talking to two showgirls.
So has the trio appeared in every backstage sketch since then?
No, but they have appeared in nearly all of them. Really, it reminds me a lot of a recent TV Legend we did about South Park sneaking aliens into the backgrounds of episodes. In both cases, the legend is blurred from “you often see X” to “you see X every single time.”
In a Season 37 episode in February of last year, Maya Rudolph (another former SNL castmember) was hosting and she did a musical routine about how she had fooled around with all of her former co-workers. She goes backstage but there are no Lincoln, llama and showgirls present.
Perhaps the most famous example (and likely where people first started to notice it) was during an October 2008 episode where then-Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin made a cameo appearance backstage while Tina Fey was doing a Palin impression. Actor Alec Baldiwn runs into Palin and Lorne Michaels and confuses Palin for Fey. In the background are, of course, an actor dressed as Lincoln walking with a llama and then a pair of showgirls walking by.
As far as I can tell, the origin of the sketch comes from two separate Eric Idle hosting appearances in 1978 and 1979. In the 1978 episode, Idle goes backstage looking for the writers of the show when he discovers that he has not been given a script for his monologue. He runs into Gilda Radner talking to an actor dressed as Abraham Lincoln.
A year later, in the season premiere of the show’s fifth season in 1979, Lorne Michaels is talking to a doctor (played by Harry Shearer) about how Eric Idle is too sick to do the show (while frequent SNL host Buck Henry insists that he’ll just go on instead). While backstage, we see a llama and we see showgirls.
Often, when people went backstage in SNL sketches, there have been odd characters behind the scenes, all part of the idea of “Who else would you expect to see behind the scenes of a comedy show but clowns, actors dressed as weird people or all sorts of animals?” but I don’t know why the Lincoln, llama and showgirl trio has been decided on specifically to become a recurring in-joke. Actually, it might not even be a Seth Meyers idea, since Lincoln and the showgirls both appeared in a backstage sketch in the season finale of the 2004-05 season, hosted by Will Ferrell (another former SNL castmember) sans llama.
Meyers was a writer on the show at the time, though. I really don’t know whose idea it is, though. This legend is not about the origin of the gag, though, but just whether it is true that it appears every time there is a backstage sketch. That’s ALL I am addressing here. I’m just putting in a little extra leg work to show you my guess for the origin of the gag. That’s just bonus info for you lucky readers.
In any event, while it is a recurring gag that you should now make a point of looking for, it is not in every backstage sketch, so the legend is…
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.