Why Did SNL's Bill Hader Frequently Screw Up on Purpose?

He got the mistakes out of the way to overcome his anxiety

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Why Did SNL's Bill Hader Frequently Screw Up on Purpose?
Image credit: NBCUniversal | Getty Images
President of The Marks Group
3 min read
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I know you're probably nervous about that presentation you've got coming up next week in front of the customer's purchasing committee. Or maybe you've got a big meeting setup with a prospect. Or a public speech you're making to a business group. But c'mon, at least you're not trying to make a live audience of...oh, anywhere between seven-and-nine million people...laugh every Saturday night.

That's what Bill Hader had to do. The 40-year-old comedian and current star of HBO's great show Barry (see it!) became famous as an eight-year cast member of Saturday Night Live where he portrayed legendary characters such as Stefon, Weekend Update's flamboyant New York City correspondent, the elderly reporter Herb Welch and Vietnam war vet Anthony Peter Coleman and his puppet “Tony.”

You would think a guy like this, a professional comedian and actor, would have no problem at all performing in front of a crowd. But the truth is very different.

"I was terrified," he told Anna Faris on her podcast last November. "I would have really bad anxiety attacks before going on to the point where I couldn't breathe. I would feel like someone was sitting on my chest. I would shake."

Hader would lose sleep, feel “rigid” and “light headed” in the days leading up to the show, then he had migraines and panic attacks sometimes right during the performance.

Related: The Evolution of Anxiety: Why We Worry and What to Do About It

Hader suffers from the same fears that many of us do when we have to perform stressful tasks, particularly public speaking or conducting difficult meetings. But of course he had to suffer through this on a much bigger stage. Somehow he managed to fight his way through these challenges and overcome his anxieties. How?

By screwing up. On purpose.

Related: 5 Steps to Conquering Public-Speaking Anxiety

Hader would step on stage in front of this massive audience and say something that was not on the cue cards. "If my first line as a game show host was supposed to be "ladies and gentleman how are we doing tonight?" I would be like "alright everyone, alright, alright, hey, hey, hey, so...how we doing  tonight?" or something that wasn't on the cards," he said.

Why would he purposely go slightly off-script? Because it would get him over the hump. According to Hader, screwing up would trick his brain into thinking "OK, you messed up and now you're fine. You're still here. You're still breathing. Nothing bad happened."

And then, with the “screw-up” out of the way…he could relax. He committed the mistake he was afraid he’d make all week and you know what? The world continued to turn.

Think about the next time you're about to do something stressful. Ask yourself "what am I afraid of?" Ask yourself what is the worst thing that can happen if you screw up. And then, like Hader, go ahead and screw up...a little. Get it out of the way. You'll still be there. Then you can relax, and be grateful that at least you didn’t have to do that in front of nine million people.

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