Q&A: Ana Gasteyer Talks (and Sings!) Bubbly Holiday Cheer
Abounding with projects, the SNL alum gears up for a lively, old-school Christmastime performance at MIAC
Ana Gasteyer is one of the most well-known names in comedy. What you might not know just yet, however, is that her voice is just as impressive as her remarkable acting resume. While the Saturday Night Live alum stood out with a few singing characters – like Cinder Calhoun, Bobbie Mohan-Culp (alongside Will Ferrell's Marty Culp), and as part of Gemini's Twin – she went on to do five different Broadway runs between 2000 and 2009. She's still keeping an insanely busy work schedule, in fact, just try keeping an eye out for her and you'll find she pops up in just about everything. But she has also released two full-length albums, 2014's I'm Hip, and 2019's Sugar & Booze. The latter is a full-force Christmas album, in the style of entertainers of yesteryear, that's packed with comedy while still showcasing her virtuoso vocals. On Tuesday, Nov. 30, Gasteyer, along with her full band will be performing at the Mary D'Angelo Performing Arts Center at Mercyhurst University in Erie. We were able to talk to her ahead of time to get a little insight into the performance and the mindset behind Sugar & Booze, along with some info on two big upcoming projects, Comedy Central's A Clüsterfünke Christmas, and NBC's American Auto.
Nick Warren: Can you tell me a little bit about what went into the genesis and the creation of you Sugar & Booze and the whole performance that goes along with that?
Ana Gasteyer: Yeah! So, my career is – like many careers in the modern multiple streaming world – it's really just things that I'm a singing comedian. So it's actually pretty basic, but it gets siloed really fast when you get known for one thing or another. And I am better known from the power of television from Saturday Night [Live], even though, as of now it's 20-year-old credit, but in the best possible way. And then basically after SNL, I left and the big picture is that I started my life as a voice person I was I went to college at Northwestern to be a voice major, really to study opera, which I didn't really want to do. And of course, I was in college in Chicago and immediately met the improv people and found my tribe and was like "this fits!" But it's as you do in improv, you tend to use things in your toolbox, and you tend to be more than one thing is that human and so when I got to New York and worked on SNL, I consumed a huge amount of theater. And after I left the show, I sort of buckled down and decided, "okay, this is actually what I'm going to do for a while." And so I ended up kind of doubling down on voice training and doubling down on the more disciplined side of things, and I ended up spending the next five or so years working in music theatre and theatre. And then, I also felt somewhat confined by that. I was kind of like, "where can we find the middle of this?" And when you do work on Broadway, you get asked to sing privately for people to have a little show, and basically deduced that I did not want to stand – said with enormous admiration, I'm not Audra McDonald – I'm not going to like wear a gown and lean against the piano. That's really boring for my audience.
So I started working with my friend Julian Fleisher, who's my producer on my record. There are a number of iterations getting here, but it's kind of tapping into what really is me. and classic standard jazz is very much a fit with me, it comes from an era that requires both skillsets for live performance. Like the Supper Club era, where people could sing the hell out of a song but be expected to crack a joke as well. All my idols kind of fall into that pile. Everybody from your Ellas and your Dinah Washingtons when your Dinah Shores, and your Rosemary Clooneys all performed live in front of fans, and were fantastic. All the Sinatra and Rat Pack guys, Sammy Davis Jr., all those guys. So this sort of performers era started to appeal to me more and more. As I developed acts, I just kept gravitating towards the ridiculous and the fun and in music, that could really swing and you could have a great band, I have a big voice, so I always wanted horns around me. So I've been sort of slowly developing that act over the last 15 years to 20 years, where I've traveled with a band.
So when it came time to put together a Christmas record, I thought that it's a great time of year for this kind of music, it's traditional, it's less of an uphill fight. You're not spending time convincing people that it's fun to listen to old-fashioned music. And, by the way, it's not like I want to be doing a complete oldies record. It's a quality that I like, I like real instruments. I'm not a pop star. [laughs]
So we started to really look at Christmas music and Christmas tunes that we liked and Ted Firth – our arranger who is a friggin amazing, amazing jazz pianist – was like "let's listen to songs that we like." A lot of Christmas songs are terrible songs, you know? So [we were ] paying attention to the ones that structurally are really fun. So the album basically consists of a lot of our favorite holiday tunes, many of which are just American Songbook songs. We've got a ton of Irving Berlin in there, all the sort of classics, right? And then we ended up writing some originals that just felt right, and fit into the feeling of it. And so I wrote "Sugar & Booze" because it really [laughs] is a song from my heart.
NW: The titular track, yes!
AG: It's the title track and represents kind of what I want out of an evening with people, which is a really fun celebratory return to a time of year that you can let go of everything just for a minute. We live busy lives. We live crazy lives. And the holidays –while sometimes they can feel like an onus – they are also an opportunity to just let go for a second. And that's really the origins, even during the quarantine, realizing what matters is sort of having a break and having an opportunity to celebrate a little bit, decorate a little bit, maybe get dressed up a little bit, maybe make a cocktail, maybe make some favorite foods, maybe connect with some people you love. And that's really what we want on the record. I'm actually so excited because a lot of these shows that I'm doing this year are bumps from 2020. So I do feel especially excited this year, because – I know the world's not perfect, and I know there's a lot of what ifs and scary stuff still out there – but we did have a glimpse of what it feels like to stay inside all the time, and it's really nice just to celebrate for a second.
AG: Yes. So, that's probably not the pithy little succinct retort that you're looking for, but that's the big picture.
NW: [laughs] No, no, that's perfect. Are you touring with the full band and everything like that, too?
AG: Yeah. We have two bands, basically, we have a Midwest band – I have a pianist with me who always travels with me and Julian always travels with me, my cohort and glockenspiel player, mostly cohort. But really just a joy. So he and I will come up and with our New York band to Erie, which I'm really excited about. We have horns, we have everybody come up. So it should be a bangin' show.
NW: Excellent. So you spoke a little bit about the influences on it. It feels so – because actually reviewed Sugar & Booze when it came out for the Reader
AG: You did?
NW: Yes, yes.
AG: Aww! Feel free to re-review it, by the way. I guess that's the other thing is when you live life in a silo, it's amazing how many people are still discovering it? [hearing things like] "I don't know you sang!" Every day I get that, every day on the internet. "Oh my God, who never told me about this record?"
NW: Yeah. Isn't that crazy how people just don't even realize what you do. Like you said singing has been a huge part of your life for [laughs] your entire life, and then people are just like, "Oh, I know you from this, only"
AG: Yeah. I know. It's wild. It is. I love it, though. Because I'm really proud of the record. It was a labor of love, I made it myself. I wrote some of the music. People think everything happens because celebrities sit around and people call them up and want to do stuff. It's actually not true. What happens is celebrities sit around and think "I've got to make this something that I want to make." And for a long career, all you do is keep having make-em-ups. And it's one of my favorite make-em-ups to date.
NW: Yeah, not based on like when it came in everything. So is there anything you're working on now that you're excited about it? In addition to the record?
AG: Yeah, so actually, Rachel Dratch and I wrote a movie – a parody of the classic Hallmark Christmas movie, called A Clüsterfünke Christmas. Once again, this is my time of year evidently. And that was really my quarantine project. So we wrote it and we filmed it up in Vancouver, over the summer, and it's premiering on Comedy Central on December 4, but then it'll be available after that. We wrote some really stupid songs for it too, by the way, because the joke, which you'll appreciate as a music person is that on these cheesy Christmas movies nobody can ever afford the rights to anything. [laughs] So we wrote all these like knock-offs. Like instead of "Jingle Bell Rock," we wrote "Jangle Ball Shake." Instead of "All I went for Christmas is You," we wrote "All I'll Have for Christmas is Fruit." It was really fun. So that comes out and then immediately on the heels of that, a new series is coming out – actually, all my stuff is coming out at the same time, which is an odd feeling – a new show for NBC called American Auto. From Superstore creator, Justin Spitzer, and that premieres on January 4 on NBC. It's really good. I'm really proud.
NW: Yeah, I loved Superstore.
AG: He's a fantastic writer, and it's set in the automotive industry and I play a new CEO who comes from big pharma who doesn't sell cars.
NW: Oh fantastic. And you're the lead in this?
AG: I am, yeah. This is my 50-something arrival. [laughs] I'm excited for people to see it. I think it's really smart. It's a real conversation about corporate morality is what I would say. It's really set on the executive side of it. As my friend Jill beautifully put it, it's like "Americans being bad at being good."
NW: And I'm just looking at the spelling of A Clüsterfünke Christmas now.
AG: Yep, we've got some umlauts in there from the old country. Because Rachel Dratch and I are the spinster aunts who run the quaint inn that of course, the big city gal comes up wanting to destroy.
NW: [laughs] Just like the Hallmark movies.
AG: Yeah, exactly. It's literally a parody directly. We have Cheyenne Jackson playing the hockey lumberjack. It's fantastic. I'm really proud of it. It's ridiculous. Nobody had made a parody yet of those movies. So we were like, hello?
NW: which seems insane to think about because everyone knows the formula: Big city girl comes down to her hometown meet you know x man.
AG: And by the way, goes on one date and then leaves her life. [laughs] But yeah, it was really fun to write, and we had a great time. And now we're out there doing the dog and pony show for it.
NW: So, can you tell the Erie audiences what to expect with this performance?
AG: It's a fun holiday celebration. That's all I have to say. We're gonna enjoy some holiday favorites. We're gonna laugh, we're not gonna cry. And we're gonna have a really good time. That's it. It's just bringing some bubbles and some holiday cheer.
NW: And can I ask what your favorite sugary treats and booze drinks for the holiday are?
AG: Well, hard to say, isn't it? I'm a peppermint bark girl in my heart, I do fall for that no matter what, Weight Watchers or not, I'm always doing the peppermint bark. And then booze? I mean, these days I'm just drinking a lot of tequila like everybody else [laughs] but I do enjoy bubbles, I enjoy good champagne. And I enjoy I also enjoy a whiskey and some more brown liquors sometimes.
NW: Fantastic. Well, I'm sure I could talk to you for much, much longer time, but I will let you go.
AG: I really appreciate it, I'm glad, and I hope that you wrote a good review! [laughs]
NW: Oh, loved it. Because it was when the album came out, and I was like trying to look for Christmas albums, and that was definitely one of my favorite ones.
AG: I'm so glad. All right, well, have a great day, and I will see you in Erie!