In the 1980s and ’90s, before landing on “Saturday Night Live,” Darrell Hammond cut his teeth on the comedy-club circuit.
Les McCurdy remembers him well.
“Everyone knows him for his great impressions,” the McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre co-founder said, “but he was a pretty good stand-up comic, too. He knew how to engage the crowd. We loved having him.”
Hammond’s stand-up career took a back seat to “SNL”; he stayed on the NBC series from 1995 to 2009, the longest tenure of any cast member.
“Back then, I was just trying to learn how to be a stand-up,” Hammond said. “Then this little thing called ‘SNL’ came along and that was the end of that. Which is fine, you gotta make a living, and I was paid very well to do it.”
Now he makes a grand return to Sarasota, playing four shows this weekend at McCurdy’s new downtown venue.
Of course, he’ll bring along a cast of familiar characters — former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Donald Trump, Sean Connery. You name ’em.
“It’s what the people want, and you give them what they want,” Hammond said. “I’ll do all the ‘SNL’ favorites, with a mixture of stand-up. Basically, it’s my goal to be funny for 60 minutes.”
It’s second nature to him now. He’s had a taste for the stage ever since graduating from Melbourne High School in 1973 and later the University of Florida, where he majored in broadcasting.
But not until his 2011 memoir, “God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked,” did his fans know that he had to be funny in order to survive the brutal physical and mental abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother when he was a child.
The traumatic experience led to cutting and several hospitalizations for psychiatric issues. His New York Times best-seller also details his struggle with substance abuse and how he was medicated throughout his “SNL” days.
“I was going through a very difficult time (in the ’90s), trying to cope with things, the repressed memories,” Hammond said, “but I was so very fortunate to be on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ because everyone on that show cared. They took care of me. They helped me in so many ways.”
One of the few ways he could defuse his mother’s anger was by doing impressions.
“It was one of the rare times she would laugh,” he said.
As painful as it is to read of Hammond’s horrible childhood and battling demons in adulthood, he has turned his journey into a one-man show. “The Darrell Hammond Project,” co-written with Elizabeth Stein, will premiere next February at La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California.
“Now they’re talking about Broadway and I just can’t wrap my mind around it,” he said.
Through all the turmoil, how did he manage to keep it together and give so many memorable moments on “Saturday Night Live”?
“Fact is, I just didn’t want to let anyone down, especially (creator) Lorne Michaels,” he said. “What I had with ‘SNL’ was an amazing experience.
“I think of myself as fairly uneducated. I graduated from college with a 2.1 grade average, so imagine this: Here I am in the Oval Office, shaking hands with the world’s most powerful leader, Bill Clinton, and he actually knows my name.
“That’s some heady stuff."