When I was told that Beck Bennett had a new Audible show, I thought this was akin to fellow Saturday Night Live star Kate McKinnon’s Audible Original Heads Will Roll: a long running podcast-y adventure that allowed a SNL hero to use the format to explore something new and bizarre. So I listened to the entirety of his new project, expecting that it was the first episode of a new series. Instead of the entirety of a project. Whoops, I messed up there.
While the audiobook revolution is upon us, there is a consistent question of why or for whom this kind of story needed to find its place in a streaming audio format. It recalls a years earlier open prompt of why did this need to be a streaming television show. So what is this?
Simon Rich, the youngest SNL writer in history, and creator of the shows Man Seeking Woman and Miracle Workers, put together this mostly historically accurate tale of the year Babe Ruth spent playing in the minor leagues before becoming one of America’s ultimate cultural icons. It’s a story framed around Babe’s innocent perspective on a constantly changing world—a 40-minute period tale of trying to find your place in life, and how delightful it might be to completely miss that place in the process.
Paste recently spoke to Beck Bennett about Screwball and the legend of the Sultan of Swat.
Paste: Did this project start with Simon Rich walking up to you like, “Hey, I need you for a Babe Ruth thing,” or was this something that you two had worked on together and knew about ahead of time?
Beck Bennett: This came to me through my agents. It was an offer, I guess, and he thought of me. We had worked together a little bit with SNL, he had come to be a guest writer when John Mulaney was hosting and I was in a sketch of his. I’m not sure who else came to mind for him, but I guess I was the man for the job. I read it and I loved it; I love his short stories and his book Ant Farm and Man Seeking Woman, so I was so excited to be the voice of one of his short stories.
Paste: Was it a bit surprising to be like—so he wrote this historical, pretty straightforward text and was like, “You who should do this? Beck.”
Bennett: I think it’s really, really funny. I thought it was pretty imaginative and grounded in humanity but also so silly. What made him think of me is that I often play these sort of characters who are unaware of themselves and are sort of unintelligent, joyful, and have lots of energy. This bigger voice, too; Babe Ruth is a strong guy, and the way he writes this, his innocence makes him so funny as opposed to his ignorance. People can be ignorant and mean, and this is the way he writes Babe Ruth. He’s so sweet and looks at the world like a child.
Paste: I misunderstood and thought this was going to be a series, so I was listening to the first episode as if it was a forty minute episode and I kept going, “Wow, they’re really plowing through this season. How are they going to stretch this out over more episodes?”
Bennett: Yeah, just got it all done in one.
Paste: Is the idea of more Audible one-shots exciting to you? Anything you want to do in that world?
Bennett: Yeah, it is. I haven’t given it a ton more thought, but I like doing voice over. I would like to do more short stories like this, because I don’t know the Audible world that well. As soon as I posted it, somebody else was like, “Oh, I’m doing this project with Audible.” I’m not totally aware of all the other things that are developing, but I like the idea of doing other fiction, whether it’s a podcast or episodes. It would be really fun.
Paste: How did you find the character of Babe Ruth for this?
Bennett: I figured Simon just wanted me, so I read it as honestly as possible. For me, the character and the world was so clear, so specific that he was just an eager, sweet, genuine guy who just isn’t trying to be tough or cool. He’s just sweet and trying his best. It just made sense right away. This type of character is in my wheelhouse, so when it’s something like this where it’s offered, it’s like, “We want you.” So I get to be a version of me, almost like—I play this character Launchpad McQuack in the new version of Ducktales on Disney. It’s a similar character; really sweet and does his best, and is often in the clouds about what’s happening.
Paste: I’ve never thought to compare Launchpad McQuack and Babe Ruth but now that you say it, I can’t unthink it. That’s makes perfectly good sense.
Bennett: Two pretty good, strong guys who are trying to save the day and don’t know what’s happening.
Paste: With that innocence you bring up, I was surprised by how interesting Babe Ruth’s perspective was in this story. Was that something that drew you to it? You almost have an unreliable narrator, but it’s just so honest and has so much soul in it that it really sells him as being something much different than I’ve ever thought of him.
Bennett: Yes, his perspective of the world is so…almost fact-based. He’s trying to interpret some things, but it’s so simple that it’s more tragic sometimes because he’s not aware of the things that are happening. Anytime that Junior is upset at something and he’s just saying what happened without understanding the circumstances of it is just so much more sad than if he was really able to process the emotional content of the events.
Paste: And his enthusiastic outbursts seem to come when he just can’t read the room.
Bennett: Yes. There are so many examples of it, but there’s like, “Yeah, you made the team! You’re the ice boy!” If he was just like, “You did, but you’re the ice boy. That doesn’t mean you can’t move up, though,” that wouldn’t be as sad. But when he’s the juxtaposition of innocence and the tragic nature of Junior’s world, that’s what makes it heartbreaking and funny at the same time. I guess the perspective is rooted in the fact that he’s so big and strong and good, and also the fact that he came from an orphanage where he didn’t really get to grow up. He’s still sort of a kid at heart. I feel like that’s the angle that Simon tapped into, which I think is pretty cool.
Paste: Do you think that innocence with unawareness is what leads to some of the more monstrous behavior, like when he terrorized a city and maybe still doesn’t understand that he’s done something wrong?
Bennett: Absolutely. He doesn’t have any bad intent, you know? He would never do something bad like that. Then when he gets caught a second time, he’s like, “You know what? It’s my fault, I’m gonna continue to support Junior and follow his career. It’ll be great.” There’s no, “You did this to me, how could you let me do this.” Even at the end of that, Junior steps up and says “He did it,” and then he kind of says “Yes” to all of the bad things he did to terrorize the neighborhood. It’s clearly all of Babe’s behavior but he looks at Junior and is like, “Hey man, you’ve got a problem. You’re an alcoholic.” He doesn’t understand what’s happening. Junior’s like, “Yeah, I know man.” It’s so funny to me.
Paste: But also, some of that sincere cruelty seems like when he’s telling him, “I’m going to follow your career.” The ice boy was never going to have a career. In that moment, it still has to feel like he’s making fun of you.
Bennett: Right, absolutely. It is sweet, though, because he’s the only person who believes in him. Junior put him in this situation, and he’s still the only guy who supports him and is gunning for him.
Paste: With Babe Ruth’s career almost ended before it really began—because of getting arrested—is it wild for you to imagine a time when sports stars were held accountable for their actions?
Bennett: Yeah, I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about that comparison yet. I almost feel like it would be harder to get away with stuff now, but he did get in a lot of trouble.
Paste: I guess what I got from it was that the morality rules were if you’re arrested you have to sit out a year, but now I feel like every time somebody is arrested for truly heinous behavior, the NFL is like, “That’s a three-game suspension.” Feels like we’ve lost some perspective on that.
Bennett: Yeah, I wonder if it’s a similar scale, but just the bad behavior has just gotten so much worse.
Paste: That tracks.
Bennett: Like back then, maybe it was being drunk and causing fights, and now it’s just much worse. It’s like going to jail for crimes and then when you get out, you can go play.
Paste: They told him he should leave the city because he shit in somebody’s mailbox. Boy, that feels a little big.
Bennett: Yeah, I think they were just a little stricter back then. To me, when I think about people in the public eye, I feel like it is harder to get away with bad behavior now. But I could be wrong, just because people are held so accountable, and the Internet, and people can be filmed. It’s harder to do something inappropriate and be like, “I didn’t do that.”
Paste: So Screwball is the story of a guy moving up in his career to the big leagues, and his friends don’t. That has some parallels in the comedy world; in the future could there be a tale of Beck Bennett going to SNL, and the lesser comedian who tried to sabotage him? Is there somebody like that in your life?
Bennett: I don’t think so. You never know, though. Maybe somebody tried and they failed. Not that I can really think of. Comedy and entertainment is just so nonlinear. You can have great moments and somebody will find their voice and all of a sudden they’ll be more in demand and get bigger parts and their career is launched so much further in front of yours. You’ll have another moment. But with sports, it feels like if you’re good, you’re good. So I think at the very least with comedy and creating things, you never know when somebody’s going to surprise you and do something amazing. In that way, I think it’s important to be as supportive as possible. People have done the same to me and tried to help each other as much as possible. If somebody were to do that, it would be like, “That person tried to screw me over!” It’s so much more up and down, so you want to be able to help people through that so you can get help at other points in your career. At least, that’s how I see it.
Paste: Finally here, as the world seems to be hurtling towards a complete fucking breakdown, how is that changing the tone of things you guys are doing at SNL? Is there a plan to lean into things harder or give people a break from the news cycle? What do you do?
Bennett: I think that those decisions are more often made by Lorne and the head of the writers, but the show is pretty in-the-moment. We’re on break right now, but we just sort of deal with things as they come up in the show. I don’t think there’s a plan going into it, you just feel it out. I know that since the last presidential election, things had slowed down in terms of political stuff. Last season was sillier than it’s been in a couple of years. We have an election coming up so we’ll have to deal with that. I don’t know how political it will get, but typically around election years it gets more political, and then its gets a little too much and we just back off and get sillier. So I think that’s a natural ebb and flow of it, but we’ll see. I think when it gets more intense and painful, you’ve got to comment on it. So we’ll just kind of see what happens and react week by week.
Screwball is available now on Audible.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.