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Listen: Topher Grace on How ‘Saturday Night Live’ May Be TV’s Most Important Show

Topher Grace believes we may take “Saturday Night Live” for granted. After nearly 45 years, the late-night sketch series has become such an institution that it’s easy to forget the program’s unique place in TV history.

“There’s something special about ‘SNL’ and how it’s been in the same place the whole time,” Grace told Variety‘s My Favorite Episode podcast. “A lot of it is the genius of Lorne Michaels, which is that show is so successful he could have moved it. He could have put it in a bigger studio. There’s something so small about that studio space, it’s hard to make things look great. That’s the point of it. He gives it this live, tactile quality that has captured over the last four and a half decades what America is going through. It’s so immediate, there’s nothing else like it.”

Not only is Grace an “SNL” superfan, he even got the opportunity to guest host an episode in 2005. My Favorite Episode sat down with the actor recently to discuss his love of the show, and the serendipity of working on “That ’70s Show” under former “SNL” writers Bonnie and Terry Turner, who created that show and cast Grace in the lead role as a complete unknown.

Grace took his My Favorite Episode assignment seriously, stopping by the podcast studio with notes in hand and ready to talk about his favorite “SNL” installment ever. Listen below:

CREDIT: NBC

His pick for favorite episode is the Season 17 episode hosted by Steve Martin with musical guest James Taylor, which aired on December 14, 1991. The episode kicks off with a unique cold open, as Martin and the cast sing “Not Gonna Phone It In Tonight.” Grace said the Turners told him all about this episode, and how the entire writing staff, which normally wrote individual sketches for “SNL,” penned this opener together.

“They told me this was one where this whole legendary staff, including Bob Odenkirk, Conan O’Brien, and people who were new to the show and voices from the ’70s, they all came together to write this opening,” Grace said. “All this history, it all comes together in this one sketch and it’s about ‘SNL’ itself. And Steve Martin outside of this is one of the greatest American multi-hyphenate geniuses of all time. I couldn’t get over how perfect that opening is.”

The episode also comes at a landmark time for “SNL,” as the show’s famed late 1980s cast (Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Victoria Jackson, Kevin Nealon, Mike Myers and others) collided with its early 1990s cast (Chris Farley, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Tim Meadows and more). And it was winter, right before “Wayne’s World,” written by the Turners, premiered in theaters.

“It’s the two greatest casts,” Grace said. “It has to be the best time of that show. This is one of those few years where they’re all there at one time.”

The episode also included classic fake commercials like the “Schmitt’s Gay” beer commercial; multiple “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey,” and one of Rock’s “Nat X” sketches.

“I love this episode and there’s so much going on,” Grace said. “Everyone comments how it goes up and down. But it’s always relevant. There’s always something to take from it. I think what’s so important about ‘SNL,’ there’s something powerful about having a show be on that long and be completely live.”

Dr. Peter Jahrling (Topher Grace) and Dr. Nancy Jaax (Julianna Margulies) examine specimens in the lab. (National Geographic/Amanda Matlovich)
CREDIT: Amanda Matlovich

The Hot Zone,” Grace’s upcoming six-episode National Geographic limited series, is based on the book that chronicled the terrifying true story of the origins of the Ebola virus and its first arrival on U.S. soil. Julianna Margulies and Noah Emmerich star, while Grace plays Dr. Peter Jahrling, virologist for the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

“The message from that book and our limited series is it happened, it reached American soil, Ebola was here and it can come back,” Grace said. “The fact that we haven’t had a major earthquake in a while doesn’t mean we’re more safe now. It means inside you internalize it, you feel more safe but you should actually feel more scared. And after some of the things we learned doing our research, you start washing your hands all the time.

“The monster is real, this isn’t a fictional monster we’re making a movie about, and it’s invisible,” he said. “That’s what’s so scary.”

As for whether “That ’70s Show” might join the ranks of TV’s reboots and revivals, Grace said the cast might be too busy right now to do any sort of reunion. But “the personal answer is, I would love it. Think about it, if someone said we would pay you to go back and do another year of high school with all your friends it would be amazing. And you wouldn’t have to do any schoolwork, it would all be fun. I would love it. I love when I see any members of that cast individually or sometimes we all get together. I’d be there. I wouldn’t be the one who held out.”

Variety’s “My Favorite Episode With Michael Schneider” is where stars and producers gather to discuss their favorite TV episodes ever — from classic sitcoms to modern-day dramas — as well as pick a favorite episode from their own series. On “My Favorite Episode,” some of the biggest names in TV share their creative inspirations — and how those episodes influenced them.

Be sure to subscribe to “My Favorite Episode” on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, Soundcloud, or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every week. 

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