What’s key to the absurdly funny ‘SNL’ clips, and movie, from Please Don’t Destroy? Friendship
So these three guys met at New York University in 2016. Fueled by a shared love of films like “Wet Hot American Summer,” “School of Rock” and “Napoleon Dynamite,” as well as chicken tenders in a Brooklyn basement, a three-headed monster baby known as the comedy trio Please Don’t Destroy was born.
Or something like that.
And now the monster baby’s videos have become a regular highlight of “Saturday Night Live.”
It helps that two of the guys — John Higgins, 27, and Martin Herlihy, 25 — have showbiz lineages as the sons of, respectively, Steve Higgins (a writer and producer on “SNL” since 1995) and Tim Herlihy (another “SNL” figure best known as an Adam Sandler collaborator of nearly 30 years). And now it seems the third member, Ben Marshall, 28, is the son of Conan O’Brien — at least, the version of him in the trio’s first feature film, “Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain,” that’s now streaming on Peacock. In the movie, three 20-something guys, also named John, Martin and Ben, go in search of a treasure on, you guessed it, Foggy Mountain. Which, truthfully, isn’t particularly foggy.
And before you start with the “nepo baby” argument, their short videos, which began as clips posted on TikTok and Twitter often depicting their failures at adulting, have been a big hit since they started appearing on “SNL” in 2021. They have millions and millions of views on YouTube, regularly outdrawing postings of full “Weekend Update” segments. Sure, the one with more than 12 million views happens to have Taylor Swift in it (“Three Sad Virgins”), but others have major viewership — including one called “Self-Defense” in which the guys attend a class led by a terrifying instructor played by Travis Kelce (pre-”Tayvis”), and one where Bad Bunny reveals his abiding love for Shrek. Even videos that don’t highlight a host have racked up big numbers, by showcasing their signature, bizarrely self-effacing sense of humor. So there.
The trio chatted with The Times about their videos, their movie and their friendship. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you three initially bond?
Ben Marshall: I was in an NYU-based sketch group called Hammerkatz with John, and I remember us just really clicking on this one trip to Brown, where we were doing a show. Martin and I started doing stand-up together around the same time. Then eventually the three of us went to this party in Brooklyn and stayed way later than everyone else and ended up sleeping in the basement and eating chicken tenders and cracking up together, super-late at night. We were just like, “Oh, I think that we really like each other. This feels special.”
John Higgins: It was the energy that’s in the movie — that sleepover-boy energy where anything and everything is kind of silly. I remember eating a ton of chicken tenders, though.
Martin Herlihy: I remember I was sleeping on what essentially was the bottom of a couch, if you took the cushions off. And I remember John making fun of that.
Marshall: I remember that too; We were laughing at how s—y Martin’s bed was.
I think “SNL” is best at its weirdest. The weirder stuff looks as if it made the writers laugh — like a lot of your really absurd stuff, such as “Bad Bunny Is Shrek.”
Marshall: There’s so many weird sketches that make the writers laugh that don’t make the audience laugh. So it’s finding that sweet spot, when it really makes the writers’ room laugh, but also makes the studio audience laugh, which is a very rare, but special, thing.
Higgins: I’m glad that you brought up the Bad Bunny one because that is an example to me of, “It’s so weird, but it also doesn’t feel like you don’t get it or you’re outside of it, ever.” He’s so good in it. We didn’t need to do a ton of takes at all. The first and the second take, we were like, “Yeah, that’s pretty perfect.” When he’s rubbing the light fixture being like, “I don’t know ... maybe.”
You’ve completed your first movie. What scene most sticks out to you?
Higgins: This is not a funny scene, but the scene that I watch and just smile is when we’re little kids after the talent show and you see young Ben, John and Martin running through the woods and finding the compass. Just something about that song [“A.M. AM” by Damien Jurado] and the way that those kids look, it makes it feel like that was actually us, even to me. So that part always is like ... I really like that.
What are gags of each other’s that make you laugh?
Marshall: I really laugh every time I watch John singing that song in the tent [in the movie]. That makes me laugh. And then Martin singing at the baptism [in the movie, in a surprisingly bold baritone-bass], I think is really funny.
Higgins: The stuff that Ben does that makes me laugh the hardest is in “Touch Up” [an “SNL” video that didn’t make the broadcast, but is available online], when he comes in acting normal, but is clearly afflicted with something horrible. That’s my favorite kind of Ben acting: “Hey, what’s up dude?”— Just totally normal.
Herlihy: I love all of Ben’s stuff with Conan in the movie. I think it’s a performance of male fragility that will be remembered. I love him needing Conan’s approval so bad and Conan shutting it down every single time. That scene with them in the office I think is one of the funniest scenes in the movie. And also I think John singing in the tent with Lisa [the love interest played by Megan Stalter], that is so funny, and you could never map that out. That is just two people who are extremely funny, being extremely funny.
Higgins: We just improvised songs for an hour and it was so fun. I told her, “Let’s play that game that we play in real life where we make each other sing earnestly, but it has to be original songs.” And she was like, “Yep, I know exactly how to do that.” And she really did.
John (John Higgins) and Lisa (Megan Stalter) improvise songs of love in “Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain”
I’m curious about the depth of research you guys had to do for these characters. You really challenged yourselves to transform, starting with the names [John as “John,” Ben as “Ben” and Martin as “Martin”].
Higgins: I couldn’t imagine calling these guys anything else besides Ben and Martin. I don’t think that’s a reflection on our acting ability. I just think it’s a reflection on our friendship. We spend too much time together as each other.
Marshall: For me, getting into the role of Ben “Patterson” was a years-long process. I didn’t speak with my family. I meditated with monks in Tibet.
Higgins: Ben’s name in the movie is “Ben Patterson,” Martin’s is “Martin McGrath” and mine’s “John Hoggins.” I just changed one letter.
Were there moments on set where Ben would say, “I don’t think Martin would say that,” or Martin would say, “What if John were played by Brad Pitt?” or John said, “Ben, can your hair be less red?”
Marshall: We all give each other notes all the time, and I think maybe to other people it could sound brash or curt, but I think we know each other so well that we’re able to be really honest: “Do a smaller one, you’re doing it way too big,” or something like that. We’ll be like, “Yeah, OK, got it.” And we’ll get another one.
Higgins: It makes it a lot faster.
Going from shorts to a feature is a big leap. I’d imagine for you guys, part of that leap is going from the totally absurd humor the public associates you with to telling a longer story with characters to follow. What were some of those adjustments or things you found difficult or enlightening?
Marshall: It’s like you’re trying to keep a bunch of balls in the air and if you drop one, all the others come falling down. In a sketch, you can just change anything whenever and it’s fine. But in a movie, if you change one joke in the first act, it could make three other jokes not work as well in the second and third acts. Everything has a domino effect when you’re working on a larger scale.
Higgins: I like to think that there still is a lot of the energy that people like about the videos in this. I look at the walnut scene or the taser scene or the Conan and Ben office scene. I feel like you still get that fast-paced, really jokey stuff. But then on top of it, there’s a love story and a story about friendship and getting older with your friends and hopefully [the movie] is one layer deeper.
Herlihy: There are also jokes that we set up and pay off 45 minutes later. That was really satisfying, to be able to write those types of jokes.
OK, time for the lightning round. Who on “SNL” has been most helpful to you? Is there a mentor or sounding board or an inspiration?
Marshall: Our friend Dan Bulla is a writer there who we love. He helped us on the movie, and he wrote some of our videos with us. But there’s so many others that I feel bad even naming one person.
Higgins: Lorne [Michaels]? Yeah, I’m going to go with Lorne.
Herlihy: Also Celeste Yim was the first friend we made there who had worked there longer than us.
Marshall: Also Sarah Sherman. Got to say Sarah.
Was that really her dad in that video “Chelsea”? The one that says, “Starring Sarah Sherman’s Real Dad”?
Higgins: It really was. Yeah, he was amazing.
What host was particularly great to work with? I’ll interject here that Paul Dano‘s cameo in “We Got Her a Cat,” emerging from under the sofa, was really funny.
Higgins: Yeah, Paul Dano just showing up really, really is funny. He was so good in it. I mean, I’m going to say it, he’s in the news a lot, but Travis Kelce — super, super awesome.
Marshall: He was awesome.
Higgins: Completely unique performance. So funny. Totally got it. But honestly, every host that we’ve been able to work with — we luckily don’t have any, “Oh, that person was an a—hole” stories, which is really nice. But I’m going to go with Travis because I don’t really watch football, so he was this big, giant dude who I was kind of intimidated by and then he was sweet as hell and super funny.
If one of you were to win an angry dance-off, who would it be?
Herlihy: Me. 100%. I’m an incredible dancer. So in touch with my body, it’s unreal.
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