CEDAR FALLS | Cedar Valley resident Gary Kroeger has the comedic golden ticket: an invitation to "Saturday Night Live's" 40th anniversary special, airing live from New York Sunday on NBC.
Taking his 15-year-old son — "This is a bigger event to him than it is to me," he said in a phone interview — Kroeger admittedly may be among the least-known performers in Studio 8H. The Cedar Falls native spent three years on "SNL," from 1982-85, while stars such as Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, Billy Crystal and Martin Short were in the spotlight.
"For me it's a footnote in my life, and I'm just really a footnote in 'SNL' history," Kroeger, 57, recalled. "But those were three years where I learned so much and worked with so many amazing people that (the memories) constantly come back to me."
More than the telecast, Kroeger said he looks forward to his weekend trip to New York.
"That's where I get so see people I knew and say hi to people I've never met," Kroeger said.
Along with Brad Hall and future Emmy-winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kroeger was hired by then-"SNL" producer Dick Ebersol after seeing them perform at the Creative Theatre Company, an offshoot of Second City in Chicago.
"We weren't used particularly well, to be honest, the first year," Kroeger recalled of Hall and Louis-Dreyfus, who later married each other. "And we really had to fight for our opportunities."
Kroeger's most memorable moment was when he and Louis-Dreyfus played Donny and Marie Osmond in a Christmas sketch that introduced Murphy's re-creation of childhood character Gumby.
Playing the siblings, he and Louis-Dreyfus sang "Blue Christmas," and quickly dropped their microphones and began to make out.
"It was a one-joke thing that I thought was marginally funny, but people howled. And it still shows up," said Kroeger, who re-created the bit two more times.
He also played presidential candidate Walter Mondale, and broke character to admit he was miffed Mondale lost the 1984 election because Kroeger had been working hard on his impression.
In one of his final sketches, Kroeger played a dentist Dr. Ira Needleman whose submission to a video dating service turned into a full-fledged music video, complete with dancers in nurses' outfits and Kroeger in a skimpy, spangled swimsuit.
"It was difficult to get airtime and build career momentum," Kroeger recalled. "Unless you have writers behind you, it's very hard to get that going. The writers wanted to write for the stars, Piscopo and Eddie Murphy, and I understand that. There wasn't a process of bringing talent along on the show particularly at that time.
"We were just sort of thrown into the water and had to figure out how to swim," he added.
On his final season, breaking its trend of establishing its own stars rather than hiring well-knowns, "SNL" added Crystal, Short and Christopher Guest to its cast.
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"We were the Yankees, where they hired the big guns," Kroeger said, albeit to one-year contracts. Then the show cleaned house of everyone.
"They weren't going to hang their star on me, or even Julia, at that time," he said.
Like every cast member before or after, Kroeger recalls the boot-camp environment of "SNL," where performers and writers struggle to get their pieces on the air with scant few hours of sleep from Monday through Saturday of show weeks.
But there also was a bond with the cast members.
"You become so close to people," he said. "It's like orbiting in the space shuttle together. You're all in the same space together under that glaring spotlight. There's really no experience like it."
Even though his star wasn't the largest that was launched from "SNL," Kroeger said he has fond memories.
"You feel that your career is on the line, but, that being said, I was getting paid to live in New York, and it was exhilarating," he said. "I remember the smiles and the laughs and the good times."
Kroeger headed to Los Angeles in 1985 and got jobs as a game show host for "The Newlywed Game" and "Beat the Clock" revivals, as well as announcer on "Whammy! The New Press Your Luck."
He returned to Iowa in 2003 and works as creative director for Mudd Advertising in Cedar Falls.
He said he still gets recognized occasionally.
"I still get mileage from it," he said. "Obviously I didn't become a big star on the show. I'm like the cousin they met at a wedding — they recognize me but they can't quite figure out from when."
More than the special on Sunday, Kroeger is looking forward to an elaborate version of "SNL's" after-party, this time at the Plaza Hotel in New York. There, he said he hopes to spend some time talking to Al Franken, a former "SNL" writer-performer who has been twice elected to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota.
Kroeger also is considering a political career, running for the U.S. House of Representatives from Iowa's 1st District.
Running or not, win or lose, Kroeger said he's looking forward to the experience.
"I've fashioned together a very interesting life," he said. "It's not at all what I've expected, but it's been very interesting."