Humor trumps sorrow in ‘The Darrell Hammond Project’

American actor, stand-up comedian and impressionist Darrell Hammond can boast the longest tenure of any cast member in “Saturday Night Live” history — 14 years (1995-2009). Now he takes the stage in the world premiere of “The Darrell Hammond Project,” directed by La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley, Jan. 31-March 8 at Potiker Theatre, UCSD campus.

“I have been a decades-long major fan of Darrell and his channeling of other people on ‘SNL,’” Ashley said. “I was one of the first people who bought his book when it came out — ‘God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*ed’.’ It was not what I expected from the comedy and characters he has done; it’s an honest off-look at a terrifying (abusive) childhood.

“I thought this would make an amazing stage piece in this kind of era and reveal the detective story of Darrell’s past. I think of it as the dark side of funny because it’s tough and funny. We did some workshops over the last year and performed it at a school and comedy club. That was tremendously useful in starting the rehearsal process here.”

Hammond, with Elizabeth Stein, wrote the play based on his book, which Ashley refers to as “surprising, incredibly funny and deeply moving.”

“It’s like the trifecta to be funny, harrowing and moving because his writing background is largely in standup and characters,” Ashley said. “Writing a 90-minute piece as opposed to a stand-up set is a new form. Darrell was incredibly open to, ‘How does the theater piece work, and how do you build a set of ideas around emotion?’ He’s one of those newcomers excited to discover what he doesn’t know, and he brings a skill set of comic chops, writing chops and a really evolved dedication.”

Part of Hammond’s detective story is trying to figure out things about his abusive childhood and past.

“We’ve worked on how to keep a handle on that and not invite the audience into his therapy,” Ashley said. “It’s really honest for him to own that history and events and not be driven by them. It’s rough to wake up every morning and know you have to relive them.”

“The Darrell Hammond Project” is also very funny, as often the case, comedians use humor to diffuse the dark moments of their lives. Hammond unravels his heartbreaking and hilarious journey in this show.

“Darrell’s humor saved his life so it wasn’t darker,” Ashley said. “As a young child, he was gifted at imitating and channeling neighbors and what was funny about people around him to make other people laugh … that distracted from some of his real-life, so his comedy was both an antidote and prevention from cruelty.”

Hammond plays 63 characters in “The Darrell Hammond Project,” including politicians such as Clinton, Cheney, George W. Bush, Al Sharpton, shrinks along the way, his parents, his high school football coach, and movie stars like Sean Connery.

“The Connery segment on ‘SNL’ was a little risqué and was only done on late night,” Ashley said. “We only do bits of it, but that was some of the most-searched material ever. Darrell is the longest-running cast member on that show — on and off for 25 years. He’s back on it now and will be on the 40th anniversary special in February. If you grew up in America at any point in the last 40 years and watched television, you probably have seen ‘SNL,’ and will really enjoy this show.”