Kate McKinnon and her cast and crewmates on nailing a Delco accent, tangling with Gritty, and learning to love Elon Musk’s creepy priest.
It was 5 a.m. on May 8, less than 19 hours before a highly anticipated episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Elon Musk was set to premiere on NBC. But before that could happen, Sudi Green, Fran Gillespie, and Adriana Robles had to get Gritty under control.
“We had wrapped the cast, and we had this extra who was really great, who was playing Gritty,” says Green, who’s been writing for SNL since 2015. The late hour, the pressure to finish up, the scene’s spooky woodland backdrop, a sudden change that had a new background actor donning the furry mascot outfit at the last minute—all of it contributed to a vibe that was more than slightly surreal.
“Sudi was just screaming at a man in a Gritty costume that was purchased, like, from a costume shop—‘Okay, turn around! Now give us a little wave!’ It honestly was an out-of-body experience,” remembers Green’s cowriter, Gillespie. “Occasionally, I’ll think about it before I go to bed, and shudder.”
Green, Gillespie, and director Robles weren’t working on an uncanny Twin Peaks sendup. They were making a spot-on parody of Mare of Easttown, HBO’s buzzy limited series starring a de-glammed Kate Winslet as a small-town Pennsylvania cop. The sketch is a study in specificity, skewering everything from Mare’s vaping habit to her family’s strange makeup—how on earth could Winslet be somebody’s grandmother?!—to, most of all, the peculiar speech patterns of Kate McKinnon’s Winslet stand-in and her cohort.
Conventional wisdom, and comedy for dummies books, hold that a hard k is the funniest sound in the English language. But like the Ermahgerd Girl or The Rural Juror, SNL’s Mare parody makes a strong case for the letter r. Look no further than the sketch’s absurd money shot, which finds Beck Bennett bellowing in a Philadelphia accent dialed up to 11: “MY DURDUR HAD A BABY DURDUR, AND THEY MURDURED HER!” The title of the sketch? “Murdur Durdur.”
For the record, nobody in the Philly–adjacent area known as the Delco region actually pronounces “daughter” as “durdur.” (It’s more like “dordur.”) But though “Murdur Durdur” takes some liberties, its central joke is based in fact: A real Delco accent sounds absolutely bonkers to anyone unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of southeastern Pennsylvania.
Sudi Green is a Newark, Delaware native whose own speech occasionally comes peppered with Delco’s telltale vowels, turning “always” into “oolways” and “town” into “tahn.” So though just three installments of Mare had aired before she and Gillespie started work on the sketch, Green had seen enough to intuit that the show would be great material: “I just knew that I could write that accent and write those jokes, those words that would fit those beautiful o’s and u’s and dropped consonants.”
While Gillespie isn’t from the region, she shares her writing partner’s fondness for female-centered mysteries like Mare, The Undoing, Happy Valley, and Broadchurch. “Murder shows,” as another of this season’s most memorable SNL sketches put it. “I’m very obsessed with true-crime stuff, and also anything murder related,” says Robles, who directed “Murdur Durdur” and codirected “Murder Show.” “I feel like most women [are].”
Another parody Green and Gillespie had recently cowritten, “Lesbian Period Drama,” helped them land on the structure they’d use for the new sketch—a faux trailer with a somber voiceover. (“Yeah,” says Gillespie, “we were copying ourselves from three weeks before.”) Still, it took a few tries to get “Murdur Durdur” right. Green’s first stab was too heavy on accent gags. Gillespie suggested diversifying by moving into “other joke areas,” like a police station corkboard featuring pictures of Pennsylvania icons (Tina Fey, Questlove, Rita’s Italian Ice). Gritty was added in a Thursday rewrite session, about 24 hours before they’d shoot the short itself. Late in the game, they also changed the sketch’s kicker, swapping a reference to Bradley Cooper—“we didn’t know if enough people knew that [he’s] from Philly,” says Green—for one to Joe Biden, who, as he may have mentioned once or twice, is “definitely from Scranton.”
First, though, they presented the sketch at SNL’s regular Wednesday table read. Green says it played well from the get-go, “because people knew the reference. People knew that we were doing a Mare of Easttown thing.” The parody’s cast might beg to differ. Alex Moffat, who plays McKinnon’s unaccented partner, hadn’t heard of the show when he first read the script. McKinnon says, via email, that she “had seen the posters on bus stops, but I hadn’t seen the show because I was too busy watching Catfish.” Beck Bennett, who plays grieving father Owen, didn’t realize “Murdur Durdur” was even spoofing something specific until he was in hair and makeup: “I had a fake mustache they were putting on me,” he says. “It was huge, and it looked insane. I was like, ‘Can’t we just trim this thing?’ They were like, ‘No, it’s based on a real guy.’”
Robles had just enough time to watch an episode and a half of Mare herself before she and SNL’s production design team convened to map out how they’d recreate the show’s distinctly dingy world. Thanks to COVID restrictions, they had to make due with forest and police precinct sets constructed overnight on a Brooklyn soundstage. The result was surprisingly realistic, especially when shot with dim, prestige-TV-inspired lighting. “I feel like the only thing about it that read as fake,” Robles says, “was that there was this little pool of water in the middle of the set”—a shabby stand-in for the creek where Mare victim Erin McMenamin’s body is discovered.
The Delco dialect is notoriously tricky for neophytes to wrap their mouths around; Winslet herself admitted to V.F. this spring that while she loves doing accents, “this one did drive me crazy.” But Green and Gillespie knew that McKinnon, Bennett, Bowen Yang, and Chloe Fineman could handle it. “Philly is one of those weird ones that just sort of fit in my mouth from the moment I heard it,” says McKinnon. “I wasn’t trying to do an impression of [Winslet] per se, because I am not a shining angel on Earth—I was just trying to embody all that is bizarre and perfect about the Philly accent.” No wonder Moffat felt left out: “I offered to do every single take in the Philly accent, and they had to keep reminding me, ‘No, your character doesn’t have it.’”
Everyone else spent the late-night shoot muttering their lines to themselves, determined to nail their inflection. Though Robles wasn’t familiar with it—“I had never heard this accent come out of a human”—Green was on hand to serve as a dialect coach. Fineman’s big line, “she got home on her own,” was designed to show off those Delco o’s. “Chloe was going up to me and saying that over and over again to get it right, because she really cares,” says Green.
But even the expert didn’t get everything right. “The one thing I do kick myself about is, and this is on me—we say, ‘wooder,’ but it’s really ‘wudder.’ And if I could do it all again, I would remember that. But it does sound so insane when you’re doing it. You’re like, Yeah, that’s it. It’s insane. Absolutely crazy.” Another line was too tough even for McKinnon, and wound up on the cutting room floor: “Whoever did the durdur murder’s goin’ down for manslurter.”
It’s no surprise Green and Gillespie didn’t ask Musk, a billionaire with no prior acting experience, to attempt the accent as well. Instead, they gave their host the comedic equivalent of a layup—a one-line role as a creepy priest. “We just thought, Oh, that’ll be a big laugh at the end for him,” says Green. Which was fine by Robles. “I was like, If he is really bad,” she says, “at least it’s only one line.”
None of them knew that Musk had a trick up his cassock. Upon arriving on set, says Robles, “he told me he had a voice prepared. And I was like…Ooookay?” Her trepidation gave way to surprise when Musk actually delivered the line, and his intonation—part Vincent Price, part Bond villain—wasn’t half bad. “We had him in and out in like 10 minutes. I feel like he really nailed it.”
Though Robles and an SNL editor had to kill a few darlings when they got the sketch into its final form—she and the writers mourn how little screen time was afforded to McKinnon’s pretzel-shaped vape pen—“Murdur Durdur” wound up hitting every note, standing as both a masterly parody and a sketch that’s funny in its own right. The YouTube version of it has been viewed more than 3.3 million times. Mare star Jean Smart told Bowen Yang that Winslet sent it to her, and that Smart thought it was “hysterical,” much to Robles’s relief. “None of us wanted to make fun of it in any way,” she says. “We all love the show.”
That’s obvious from the cast and crew’s reactions to Mare’s finale—which everyone except Moffat, who’s got a new baby at home, has watched by now. McKinnon was floored by that poignant final shot: “In the final moments, I saw Mare look at Drew and I burst into tears and said out loud to my cat, ‘OHHHHHH man, she’s going to the attic. Oh, God. Oh, God.’” Gillespie, like many seasoned murder-show viewers, was shocked to learn that the killer wasn’t Guy Pearce: “I so fully thought it was Law & Order casting, and the second-highest billed person is the murderer. Always!” (You and us both, sister.)
Robles is still marveling at the lot of Julianne Nicholson’s cursed character: “Lori’s life is heartbreaking. I was like, Wow, the writing on this show—they left this woman with absolutely nothing.” And Bennett has nothing but praise for the whole enterprise. “It really worked for me, and it was really complex,” he says. “I understand that motivation, and that’s really sad that these people are a victim of this passed-on trauma in a way that feels really believable and complicated.”
He’s being vague for the sake of Moffat, who’s also on the phone. But the only normal guy in Durdurland isn’t afraid of spoilers: “You guys don’t have to tiptoe around it,” says Moffat. “Somebody already told me that Gritty did it.”