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The first episode of “Saturday Night Live” to feature its now-famous “Celebrity Jeopardy!” sketch aired on December 7, 1996. The episode’s guest host, Martin Short, played Jerry Lewis. Norm McDonald played Burt Reynolds. Most notoriously, Darren Hammond played Sean Connery. The central gag of “Celebrity Jeopardy!” is that the celebrities are all kind of dumb, to the point that they don’t seem to perceive that they are on a game show. Alex Trebek (Will Farrell) can barely mask his annoyance with their outward idiocy. “Celebrity Jeopardy!” also gained a lot of traction in allowing SNL’s guest hosts to do their worst celebrity impersonations. Tobey Maguire, for instance, doesn’t look or sound very much like Keanu Reeves, nor does Jimmy Fallon resemble Hilary Swank, but they ere impersonated anyway. In one notable twist, Tom Hanks played himself, only he was a version of himself that was too dumb to get his hand out of a pickle jar.
There were 14 “Celebrity Jeopardy!” segments between 1996 and 2009, with a 15th staged for SNL’s 40th anniversary in 2015. Hammond appeared as Sean Connery in 13 of them. As the sketch recurred, a strange rivalry began to form between Connery and Trebek, with the former taking every possible opportunity to berate and insult the latter. In the world of “Celebrity Jeopardy!,” the men hated each other. This, one might admit, is a strange premise, but it was one that produced comedy gold. The sketches are among the show’s most popular.
In a 2020 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Hammond said that his Sean Connery impersonation was, unexpectedly, the most successful thing he had ever done. It was also conceived in a moment of early-morning desperation in an attempt to get a sketch to work. It certainly wasn’t the result of careful planning.
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“Saturday Night Live” is indeed a live program, and the in-studio segments are just as loosely performed as they might look. While there are many animated and pre-filmed segments, all the in-studio sketches need to be written and performed on a tight schedule. Hammond recalls having the Sean Connery “Celebrity Jeopardy!” idea, but felt that it was perhaps too arch to pitch to the show’s writers. Hammond abided by a code of comedy writing of simplicity, and felt that establishing a rivalry with Alex Trebek wasn’t going to be immediately understood by the audience. Hammond said:
“It was like a last-ditch effort on a Tuesday night around four o’clock in the morning because I had nothing to turn in or sell to any of the writers. I was always taught that an audience needs to understand your premise and kind of agree with it in order to laugh. In other words, you can’t educate or show them something new and get them to laugh at the same moment. So I thought, nobody’s going to believe Sean Connery doesn’t know things, or nobody’s going to believe that he hates Alex Trebek. The premise doesn’t make any sense.”
But it worked. Hammond admitted: “And yet it’s one of these instances where the stars were in alignment.” Perhaps the surreality of the premise allowed audiences to accept the sketch’s bizarre humor. Juxtaposing an adolescent, curse-strewn rivalry into the otherwise staid environ of “Jeopardy!,” typically accepted as one of the classier game shows, produced the necessary laughs. Farrell was the perfect straight man, and Hammond, McDonald, and all the others, were perfect comedic idiots.
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Hammond performed on SNL from 1995 through 2009, where he was the show’s go-to Bill Clinton impersonator. In 2014, Hammond would replace the show’s original announcer, Don Pardo. He is the second-longest starring cast member in the show’s history, beat only by Kenan Thompson, now a 20-year veteran of the show. Hammond still announces SNL to this day. It has also been rumored, but not confirmed, that Hammond provided the most celebrity impersonations in the show’s history, hovering somewhere around 107. He was initially tapped to return and perform as Donald Trump on the show in 2016, but was eventually replaced by Alec Baldwin in that regard.
Fans of novelty music will recall Hammond and Christopher Snell’s comedy track “Wappin’,” which was a hardcore rap song as performed by Elmer Fudd. The comedian has been present on radio and in the standup scene for decades, and the enormity of his career should not be undervalued.
His “Celebrity Jeopardy!” segments, however, remain some of the most re-watched clips of 2000s SNL, and his bizarre Sean Connery impersonation is hilarious each time. Hammond and Ferrell were a wonderful comedy duo, an Abbott and Costello of their time. That the two never paired for feature films is a grievous injustice. Ferrell, however, is only 55, and Hammond is only 67, so there will still be ample time to rectify the situation.
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