Ten Minutes with Tom Schiller
"Saturday Night Live" writer for 11 years and documentary film maker
Photo by Jacque Lynn
Tom Schiller grew up in Los Angeles, the son of television writer Bob Schiller, who created “I Love Lucy” and won an Emmy for “All in the Family.” His dream of being a foreign-film director was sidetracked when he was invited to write for a new television show: “Saturday Night Live,” an opportunity that brought him success and a move to the East Coast. Schiller wrote for SNL for 11 years. It’s still going strong, and so is he.
Prior to writing for “Saturday Night Live,” you worked on several documentaries. How did you get that chance?
I was always trying to get out of going to school, so I got a job as an apprentice to a documentary filmmaker named Robert Snyder, and I was allowed to get school credits for that. I worked on films about Buckminster Fuller, Anaïs Nin, and Willem de Kooning. Then we were assigned to do a film on Henry Miller.
What was that like?
Miller was a great mentor and we became good friends. I wanted to show him from my own point of view, so I made my own film called Henry Miller Asleep and Awake in 1967. It aired on PBS and became a hit.
How did you segue from documentaries to writing comedy?
I met a Canadian named Lorne Michaels who was an apprentice on one of my father’s sitcoms. He said he had this idea for a late-night TV show. It was a way out of Los Angeles, so I took the chance.
What was the most satisfying experience doing that show?
It was being able to make my own short films, which appeared on the show. I had all these popular comedic actors at my command. I could write anything I wanted and they didn’t censor me too much. In two weeks I could shoot, edit, and air a film with my name on it that reached a million viewers. That’s a great feeling of exhilaration.
What accounts for the staying power of SNL?
While it wasn’t a new format, it was aimed at my generation. For the first time we had the airwaves to ourselves and we could make fun and talk about smoking pot and being hippies and we had a built-in audience.
How did you wind up in the northwest corner?
I lived half my life in LA when it was still charming and fun; then I spent the next part of my life in New York. When I met my wife Jacque we found this wonderful house in Cornwall. We’ve had it for 15 years.
How did the two of you meet?
She was working at an advertising agency and I was hired as a consultant. It was kind of love at first sight—one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me.
Speaking of your wife, she is a writer as well. Have you ever collaborated?
We did about 500 television commercials together. She is now writing a children’s book that will be published in 2018.
What do you find appealing about living in Cornwall?
We love to do bizarre things like visiting abandoned amusement parks and checking out ski-resort restaurants. But we have also checked out every eating place within a hundred miles. We are constantly exploring and enjoying our life together. —Joseph Montebello