At lunchtime on a recent afternoon, the chain steakhouse Del Frisco’s at Rockefeller Center bustles with midtown office workers shouting at each other over the blare of Fleetwood Mac.
For Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly, the generic environment triggers specific memories.
“You know when you have a stress dream, where you're, like, one credit short of graduating? And you have to wake yourself up and remind yourself that it’s a dream? That’s what I feel now,” says Kelly, sitting across from his writing partner, Schneider, in a U-shaped booth.
During their six seasons at “Saturday Night Live,” the pair often came here on Monday afternoons to brainstorm for the week’s episode. But more often than not, Schneider says, they’d “have three margaritas and go home,” meaning they’d have to write all Tuesday night to be ready for Wednesday’s traditional table read.
Their method may not have been efficient, but it seems to have worked. The writers, now 35 years old, revitalized “SNL” with a millennial perspective and sketches that often played to the strengths of the show’s female cast members. In 2016, they became the youngest head writers in “SNL” history, guiding the show through its highly rated, Emmy-winning 42nd season — a.k.a. the one during which Donald Trump won the election. Kelly was also the first openly gay head writer.
Nearly two years after leaving the safety of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, they’re returning to television as the co-creators and executive producers of “The Other Two,” a comedy about the flailing adult siblings of a 13-year-old YouTube star.
Premiering Jan. 24 on Comedy Central, the series may not be as overtly topical as “Saturday Night Live,” but as a fast-paced, biting satire of social-media celebrity, which offers both an unexpectedly poignant look at a family in mourning and a radically straightforward depiction of gay life, it is equally likely to get people talking.
“The secret sauce of ‘The Other Two’ is that it doesn’t just lean in one direction,” says Comedy Central president Kent Alterman. “It is not only hilarious, it has searing social and cultural commentary that’s incisive about the world we’re living in. But equally important it has so much heart.”
The series revolves around Cary (Drew Tarver), a New York waiter and frustrated actor stuck auditioning for parts such as “Man at Party Who Smells Fart,” and his sister, Brooke (Hélène Yorke), a dancer turned leasing agent who’s taken to squatting in a vacant luxury apartment. Cary, who is gay, is caught in a self-destructive hook-up cycle with his (supposedly) straight roommate, while Brooke has just ended a relationship with her sweet but dumb boyfriend.
Adrift and closing in on 30, the siblings are forced to reckon with their insecurities when their adolescent brother Chase (Case Walker) becomes an overnight sensation thanks to a homemade music video, “I Wanna Marry U at Recess,” which goes viral. Much to their chagrin, their recently widowed mother, Pat (Molly Shannon), goes through an identity crisis of her own, transforming into an overly eager Momager.
The contrast between Chase’s almost accidental fame and Cary and Brooke’s desperate struggle for meaning “really made us laugh,” Kelly says. And while it’s normal to still be figuring out the world in your late 20s, “when your little brother is hitting it right out of the gate, that makes you spiral, you know?”
The central dynamic between Drew and Brooke is informed by Kelly and Schneider’s easy friendship, which formed when they were newbies at “SNL” in 2011.
Starting at “SNL” “can be a very solitary experience,” Schneider says, lifting a gooey forkful of macaroni and cheese. “It’s honestly like wandering the halls just to see if anyone's office is open, and peeking in and being like, ‘Hey, strangers, does anyone want to write a sketch with me?’”
“We were just sort of like, ‘Oh, yeah, I'm totally alone. Are you fully alone?’ ” Kelly recalls. Schneider continues the riff: “ ‘Is it 4 a.m. and no one's talking to you?’ ”
They soon discovered a shared comedic sensibility, a love of “taking tiny specific things and blowing them up,” as Schneider puts it.
Raised in suburbia on opposite coasts — Kelly in Sacramento, Schneider in western New Jersey — they had enough overlap that they felt like they were “pitching from a shared background,” says Kelly.
Both writers had come to “SNL” from the world of digital comedy. Kelly, who studied improv at UCB and the Groundlings, had started as an intern and worked his way up at the Onion News Network. Schneider initially pursued a career in copywriting — she sheepishly admits to having “Got Milk” ads on her bedroom wall in high school — before pivoting into comedy at the website CollegeHumor.
They arrived during a transitional period for “SNL,” as high-profile cast members, including Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, exited the show.
“People would be like, ‘This show sucks now. Where the hell is Stefon?’ ” Kelly jokes, referring to Hader’s popular recurring character.
But they soon bonded with new talent, especially Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant, earning a reputation for clever music videos and pop culture riffs. A major breakthrough was the spoof “(Doin It In My) Twin Bed,” about the indignities of getting romantic in one’s childhood home.
“They’re both extremely confident, not always right, but never in doubt,” says “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels, who is also an executive producer on “The Other Two.” He recalls how the writers were “always all over everything” — paying attention to props, costumes and graphics as well as the writing. “Their pieces were always just fully realized.”
Despite the show’s notoriously grueling pace, they pursued side projects. Schneider wrote for Aziz Ansari’s series, “Master of None,” while Kelly worked in the “Broad City” writers room. He also managed to write and direct the semi-autobiographical feature “Other People,” about a young, gay comedy writer (Jesse Plemons) who returns home to Sacramento to care for his cancer-stricken mother, played by Molly Shannon. (Kelly’s mother died in 2009.)
They were also determined to come up with a show of their own, and rented a cabin in upstate New York during a dark week in early 2016 to force themselves to write. After a long weekend and countless terrible diner nachos, they had fleshed out the idea for “The Other Two.”
A few months later, they were named co-head writers of “SNL” and steered the show through the raucous election and its head-spinning aftermath. The whirlwind brought a renewed cultural relevancy to the show, powered by memorable moments including Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer and McKinnon as a “Hallelujah”-singing Hillary Clinton.
“They did brilliant work,” Michaels says. “They had a really strong point of view, both in the politics and in the comedy. They didn’t neglect either. There’s always a level of intelligence to what they did.”
Covering the 2016 election at “SNL” “is the coolest thing we’ll ever be a part of,” Schneider says. “Even in the moment, we would talk about how lucky we felt. We ended up putting a lot of pressure on ourselves because we felt like the show was visible that year. We felt the responsibility and we wanted to make sure what we put out there felt thoughtful, fair, considerate and considered.”
They helped propel “SNL” to its most-watched season in 23 years and an Emmy win for variety sketch series plus a Peabody for political satire. But not everyone was impressed. Trump famously dissed the show — which he’d hosted only a year earlier — as “unwatchable.” Even Schneider’s grandma thought it got too political.
“We're overthinkers in general,” Kelly says, “and so—“
“That year broke us,” Schneider finishes the sentence.
While “SNL” was dominating the cultural conversation, Schneider and Kelly would spend dark weeks flying to Los Angeles to work on “The Other Two,” which they sold to Comedy Central in late 2016.
They rounded out the supporting cast with a wish list of comedic actors — Shannon as Pat, Ken Marino as Chase’s slimy manager, Wanda Sykes as his aggressive publicist — and amped up the writing, Kelly says, “to make them do the things that will tickle me the most.”
The slow process of developing a narrative series has been quite a change from the weekly grind of “SNL,” but they’ve enjoyed stepping away from political comedy.
They’re often asked whether they miss skewering Trump, but the answer is a “hard no,” Kelly says. “We liked writing political jokes for a set amount of time, but it isn't necessarily why either of us got into comedy.”
And even though no one ever mentions you-know-who, “The Other Two” still feels relevant, particularly in its candid depiction of Cary’s sex life, which is groundbreaking yet never feels like it’s played for think-piece-generating shock value.
“It's matter of fact on the screen because it's matter of fact in the writers' room and in our lives too,” says Kelly, who also directed four episodes of “The Other Two,” including the pilot. “We're not making a big point out of it.”
“The Other Two” also offers an acerbic take on fame in an era in which social media has supplanted pop culture. Kelly and Schneider liked to play a game with Walker, the 15-year-old who plays Chase, where they’d name people they considered very famous — say, Steve Carell — only to elicit blank stares. (And vice versa.)
“The people who are famous to Case are not the people who are famous to us,” Kelly says, “and it shows in the way he talks, acts, sings.”
They found Walker — where else? — on social media; his songs were popular on the site musical.ly and he currently has more than 400,000 Instagram followers. Schneider says that when Walker auditioned for “The Other Two,” “He was already like, ‘Yeah, it's been, a crazy journey. I've been doing this, like, eight months.’ ”
“So we laughed,” Kelly says, “and were like, ‘That’s going in the show for sure.’ "