Review

'Darrell Hammond' traces SNL star's painful path to laughter

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic
One-man show 'The Darrell Hammond Project' unveils the deep pain underlying the SNL star's gift of laughter

Darrell Hammond is dressed sharply in all black for "The Darrell Hammond Project," the world-premiere stage adaptation of his recovery memoir, "God, If You're Not Up There …" It's not exactly slimming on him, but at least it looks like he made an effort.

His weary, shambling demeanor, however, suggests that the former "Saturday Night Live" star has been dragged out of bed against his will by Nurse Ratched from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Although sober for some time, he appears to be grappling still with a hangover from an old bender that would have left most of us on a slab at the morgue.

This quality is one of the most compelling aspects of this unexpectedly enthralling one-man show, written by Hammond and Elizabeth Stein and directed by Christopher Ashley at La Jolla Playhouse's Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre. Structured as a kind of detective story into the origins of his mental illness and addiction, the piece, which opened Sunday, is at its most compelling as a raw encounter with the dark side of a brilliant comic's temperament.

Hammond holds the record for being the longest-running "SNL" cast member, but posterity will salute him for the same reason we, his contemporaries, have adored him: his impersonations. A video montage of his work shows that he was more than a deft mimic of "Bubba" Clinton, Sean Connery and Regis Philbin. Hammond is a caricaturist as artfully precise with his gestures as Al Hirschfeld was with his pen.

He bears the mark of genius as a funnyman, the daft inspiration and aura of outrageousness that are not uncommonly the flip side of a depressive, anxiety-ridden and alienated personality. Look into Hammond's eyes, and it's like staring at a serotonin desert.

If his pleasure centers have crashed and burned, no one's could have survived the onslaught of drugs and drink and self-destructive behavior, including a nasty habit of self-mutilation. Hammond recalls the first time he tried crack after a blow out on Jägermeister, the go-to drink, he explains, when you want to speak Russian without having to learn the language. Even when sucking on a pipe in a wretched den, he's recognized as that Bill Clinton guy from television.

Hammond's slow and difficult rise to fame is traced, but it's clear that his problems go beyond his career and celebrity status. A focal point of Robert Brill's sleek set is the carton spilling over with Hammond's psychiatric file. Hammond recaps the watersheds.

Dozens of doctors attempt to diagnose him. One says he's bipolar, another that he's unipolar, still another that he's suffering from multiple personality disorder. One therapist claims he has a really bad case of seasonal affective disorder. After he objects that this doesn't makes sense given his Florida background, she replies that his case is a kind of inverted version of the disease — too much good weather.

Searching for a cure, he goes to detox the way middle-class families go on vacations. But addiction appears to be a symptom of his disease and not the primary cause. Hammond reviews his medical story with a fatigued tolerance, sipping on an energy drink throughout the show as though his fuel tank had an unpatchable leak.

The jokes and wry observations that emerge from this material are all the funnier for emerging from such painful truth. Comedy for people like Hammond is a survival mechanism, an antidote to helplessness and despair.

Finally, while locked up in a psychiatric ward, he meets a doctor who believes that it's not Hammond's brain but what happened to him growing up in Melbourne, Fla., that's the problem. Dr. K., who has an old-school Freudian authority and formidable accent to match, ushers him back to his childhood trauma.

Hammond's father killed Nazis during World War II and was disappointed there weren't any around to bludgeon when the war ended, so he terrorized his family. Hammond's mother moodily played piano, attended church, passed down her gift for mimicry and, it slowly emerges, committed atrocities on her son.

The plotting here is rough and jagged, as perhaps it has to be. Hammond's insights into his own mental illness raise questions — a few of which he poses himself. Is any of this even true, he wonders, as all abused people are sentenced to wonder?

The narrative's murkiness, however, isn't consequential because the veracity of his story is established by his wounded, permanently confounded, compulsively hilarious manner. We don't need to pore over his file to understand the extent of the damage.

"The Darrell Hammond Project" had me laughing uninterruptedly even when compassion clutched at my heart. Hammond is off the prescription drugs that rendered him a zombie for so many years. He now relies on a mild antidepressant, which he takes "on general principle." But in alchemizing his sorrowful story into humor, he's still trusting in the medicine that saved his life.

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