Heidi Garner needs a bit of warm-up to tap into her creative flow.
Light floods the 14th-floor DUMBO apartment she calls home, where she lives with her husband, writer Zeb Wells, and their three cats, Marshall, Cubby Bear, and Tweaky.
An ideal morning includes a bit of reading, making an almond milk latte (Heidi makes her own almond milk), and tinkering away at a feature script she’s been writing. Maybe make some oatmeal around mid-morning, play with the cats, work at her own pace. “If I ground myself first, and then wait until like, 10 or 11 to get writing, I feel like that’s my power hour,” Heidi says. “Eleven to 1 o’clock is going to be my best material.”
However, there’s just one thing. Heidi is a cast member on Saturday Night Live, an institution not particularly well-known for relaxing, well-rested writing sessions at reasonable hours of the day.
Now in its 46th season, production weeks on SNL follow an iron-clad schedule that’s been etched into the annals of American comedy. Mondays are the host meeting; Tuesday is writing day; Wednesday is table read; Thursday is sketch development; Friday is pre-tapes and rehearsal; Saturday is rehearsal and, finally, show night. It’s a minor miracle that SNL actually happens every week.
Tuesdays have an especially grueling tradition, one antithetical to Heidi’s sun-soaked, latte-sipping mornings: the all-nighter. Tuesdays at SNL traditionally bleed into dawn on Wednesdays, with writers and cast members leaving around 4am or just staying at 30 Rock until the table read.
Heidi knew the well-established SNL lore when she joined as a cast member in 2017 and followed suit. “I definitely am a good girl rule-follower,” she says. “I did all the math. It was like, ‘Oh, they’re in their fourth season and they stay until 4am. I’m in my first season so I should stay until 7am.” Have your own creative practice pre-SNL? Doesn’t matter. On show weeks you do what’s been proven successful each week since 1975.
Or, at least, you do at first. “I don’t think I’m a genius when I’m dead-tired, and I’m just better when I’m on my natural rhythm. I’m not trying to be Jim Belushi.”
That’s the one silver lining of this very strange SNL season: Heidi has more time on her natural rhythm. Due to the pandemic, Mondays and Tuesdays are work-from-home days; the team doesn’t meet IRL at 30 Rock until the Wednesday afternoon table read. Working from home means less in-person time with creative collaborators, which can hurt, but it also erases the pressure to stay at work late—a little more time with cats and lattes. Heidi’s made it a point to avoid crazy late nights. “A lot of the writers I collaborate with, who are women, are like, ‘Hey, do you want to meet to pitch ideas around noon rather than midnight?’” Heidi says, laughing. “Yes! I’d love that!”
SNL has nearly 50 comedy writers: 15 repertory players (Heidi’s one of them), five featured players, and another 24 members of the writing staff. Within such a sprawling creative apparatus, writers and cast members find people they jive with, people on their comedic level.
Heidi works a lot with co-cast members Ego Nwodim, Bowen Yang, and Mikey Day, as well as writing supervisors Fran Gillespie and Sudi Green. A selfie of Heidi, Ego, and Bowen, smiling through face masks, is tacked to her fridge, just above an SNL still of Heidi playing Jill Biden alongside a comedic hero of hers, Jim Carrey, as Joe. While Heidi is genuinely close with her co-workers, she describes a tacit necessity to take the off-weeks to rejuvenate.
“There’s this weird, unspoken understanding that when SNL is on break it’s like, ‘I guess we can also go on a break from speaking to each other,’” Heidi laughs. “I think everyone just wants their lives to be quiet.”
To Heidi “quiet” still means working. On show weeks, SNL trumps everything, so she spends her time away from 30 Rock chipping away at her first-ever feature script. She has another comedy writer at home to work with: her husband Zeb, whose credits include animated series Robot Chicken and SuperMansion (which he created and Heidi voice-acts on). Heidi wrote a full draft of her script in the fall, then she and Zeb broke it down and re-outlined it; she’s writing draft two now. It’s helpful, particularly with limited in-person writing time on SNL this season, for Heidi to have someone at home with whom to casually bounce ideas off of.
Heidi and Zeb moved into their DUMBO apartment mid-pandemic. After hopping around the East Village, she wanted the relative quiet of Brooklyn, a bit of mental space from the constant stimulation of SNL. Moving apartments so much in her first four years in New York exhausted her, rendering her less-than-enthusiastic to decorate her space.
But you wouldn’t know it from seeing the place now. One gallery wall includes a poem she wrote to her cat, Marshall, early on in the pandemic; a framed illustration of a Kansas City Chiefs warm-up jacket from the 1990s; and a quilted rendering of Heidi with her butt in Harry Styles’ face, in character as an overly confident Icelandic couple at a birthing class. Heidi didn’t quilt the piece, but she did write the sketch.
This might be the home of two comedy writers, but that doesn’t mean Heidi’s too much of a theater kid to love pro sports. Hailing from outside Kansas City, she’s always been a huge Chiefs fan—and as of this winter, has a vintage Chiefs-print dress (and matching mask) to prove it. It’s a way for her to stick to her roots, she tells me.
Heidi grew up playing basketball (“I still have a good layup, and a pretty good three,” she says) in the era of Michael Jordan, Shaq, and Charles Barkley. It shows throughout her living space. On the fridge is a hand-written Jordan quote; among her jewelry is a Los Angeles Lakers button, “KOBE” scrawled in Sharpie; next to her bed, a yellow smiley-face basketball covered in her favorite Kobe-isms.
I spoke with Heidi toward the end of her fourth season on Saturday Night Live. She admits it’s a bit of a strange middle-ground on the show. “You get a little bit of that middle child syndrome,” she says. She’s no longer a freshman—no longer doing the stay-up-late math, no longer paranoid of getting fired. She’s comfortable. And yet, there’s still a large cohort of audience favorites who’ve been on the show for nearly a decade, like Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant. “I feel like sometimes you have this feeling like, ‘Do I exist?’ when you’re in your head at your finest hours. It’s a weird identity crisis.”
Heidi shines on SNL as unhinged female characters enduring emotional crisis at every moment of existence. There’s her smudged-mascara, Long Island-drawler “Every Boxer’s Girlfriend In Every Boxing Movie Ever,” who constantly threatens to take the kids to her sister’s if Tommy fights tonight. This past season she debuted “Famous ’80s Cocaine Wife Carla,” a shaky-voiced cokehead who can’t believe there’s no SNL after-parties during the pandemic season.
While she writes emotionally driven characters, Heidi describes herself as “tempered,” not one to explode with feelings. Perhaps it’s her Midwestern-ness. But such outlandish characters—like Bailey Gismert, a teenage girl who reviews movies on her YouTube channel—might be her attempt to access her own emotional reality.
“Maybe unconsciously I’m trying to get some stuff worked out through my characters,” she suggests. Heidi finds it strange she can access an emotional depth as an ’80s Cocaine Wife that she shies away from as Heidi Gardner. “Even at SNL, sometimes they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re just going to use your real hair for this one.’ I’m like, no! I have to go through something! Put a wig on me!”
Embracing emotional openness is a major theme of the pandemic season, Heidi says. Not just for her, but for the whole cast and crew. “Other times at SNL, it’s such a machine that I’m just in survival mode, and I’m not so in-touch with my feelings,” she says. To viewers, the show looks the same each week: rotating celebrity hosts, Weekend Update jokes, musical guests, wigs for days. But Heidi is here to confirm that the strangeness of this year, the grief we’re all sharing, has permeated 30 Rock. She can sense the abnormality of Season 46 in real time: “I feel like I’m going to look back at this season and see it as totally its own thing,” she says. Perhaps she’s more in-touch with her feelings than she gives herself credit for.
A version of this article originally appeared in Sixtysix Issue 06 with the headline “Heidi Gardner, Comedian, Brooklyn.” Subscribe today.