How SNL turned prim Queen Elizabeth II into a punk brawler
Those are just a few of the SNL alums who tried to fill the queen’s tiara. But there is one impression to rule them all: Fred Armisen’s ridiculous rendition of the queen as a brawling, trash-talking, Cockney-accented thug.
It’s a loving sendup and lightning strike of silliness that represents SNL at its best. Over the course of three sketches Armisen wrote with John Mulaney and Bill Hader (plus one memorable cameo in a royal gynecologist’s office), their queen intimidates Elton John, compares derrieres with Katy Perry’s Pippa, and waves pound notes in the face of a terrified Kate Middleton (Anne Hathaway), taunting, “I’m on the money!”
Oh, and she’s also an excellent punk rock drummer.
The Washington Post caught up with the writing trio to talk about how their brash and bawdy Elizabeth came to be.
“It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done on the show. There was this immediate sense of, ‘Oh, this is going to be fun,’” recalls Armisen, a lifelong Anglophile and lover of British punk, who texted a picture of the Elton John sketch to Hader and Mulaney when the queen died.
The first of Armisen’s queen sketches aired on Nov. 20, 2010. It featured Hathaway as Kate, who had just gotten engaged to Prince William, the queen’s grandson. All is polite until William (Andy Samberg) is called away and Kate is left alone with the queen and her husband, Hader’s Prince Philip.
“Shut up!” the queen barks at Kate, and proceeds to grill her while a menacing, Cockney-bruiser Philip chomps on a toothpick and plays with the future princess’s hair. (Choice lines: “You think you can just show up and do a bit of queenin’, right?” … “Don’t go asking questions like, ‘Where’d you get this vase?’ Or ‘Where that throne from?’ … because chances are we nicked it.”)
Armisen: It was basically a topical sketch. But it was just an excuse to do that kind of British accent. It wasn’t too complicated. I just wanted an excuse to talk like Mick Jones from the Clash. You know, kind of thuggish. A London tough guy.
Mulaney: Bill and Fred and I were very interested in North English accents. The Yorkshire accent. The Red Riding Trilogy, which were such brutal movies and featured the line “we come from the North [where] we do what we want,” which we borrowed for the queen in one of these sketches.
Hader: I just remember Fred saying, “I got us playing the queen and Philip. But we’re kind of like gangsters,” and I thought that was really funny. We used to do these late-’60s, early-’70s British gangster characters around the [SNL] office with John Mulaney. We would just walk around the office going like, “Oh yeah? Who’s they?” Or if someone’s food was late: “I’m still waiting for my lunch order. Someone’s gonna pay for this.”
Armisen: I didn’t feel like we were making fun of [the royal family]. I felt like we were really just celebrating that they exist, you know? Because it is awesome. It’s like, “This is the queen and her husband in the comfort of their home.” It’s what I hope the queen is like.
Mulaney: I loved how petty and low-rent and criminal the queen as played by Fred was.
Armisen: I worked to get her regular speaking voice correct, that quiet tone that she has. Watching videos, hearing speeches, just to make sure there’s a difference between the two. We wanted it to feel like, “Okay, all of the queen’s staff is gone. Now we’re really going to talk.”
I think, physically, Bill has to pretend to have a toothpick in his mouth. Or maybe he really does.
Hader: I had to have the toothpick! [laughs] You’d just think it was Prince Philip if I didn’t have the toothpick.
Armisen: I know it’s illogical, but my perception of England is that that’s what it’s really like. I imagine everyone at every — whatever — university or government building, that when you close the doors, that’s what they really talk like. It’s almost like the Cockney accent is such a fun, cool one, and I just imagine people are more fun when the doors are closed.
The Rocket man goes to Buckingham
The second sketch, on April 2, 2011, features Elton John coming to the palace to go over the musical program for the royal wedding. Once again, the queen yells “Shut up!” as soon as they’re in private, and accuses Sir Elton of offering only his “crap” songs.
Before long, the queen is on the palace drum kit, with Hader’s Philip on guitar to play “Riot in London,” which Armisen wrote. “My name’s the queen and this is not a democracy!” the royal matriarch shout-sings.
Hader: I do forget a lot of the stuff I did on “Saturday Night Live.” I’ve had people come up with lines that I’ve said tattooed on their body. And I’m like, “Oh, what’s that?” And they’re like, “You said that on ‘Saturday Night Live.’” And I’m like, “Oh my god. I’m sorry I’m ruining your moment.”
But I do remember doing those sketches. … Especially the one with Elton John. That was crazy.
Mulaney: I remember being in the hall outside 8H 10 minutes before the Elton John sketch. And Fred was standing there alone dressed as the queen with quiet dignity. It was adorable.
Armisen: The more I get to learn about Elton John, like, he was also very supportive of the punk scene and new wave. And [the punk song] kind of matches the London-ness of it, you know? It made sense. What if they had some instruments at Buckingham Palace anyway? How cool would that be? It feels like something they would be doing.
The Post: Was the whole purpose of the sketch to play punk with Elton John?
Armisen: Without a doubt. It’s a very personal sketch in that I’m thinking, “Wow, I’m dressed up as the queen playing drums with Elton John singing punk.” It’s like an ultimate awesome thing.
Hader: I was very intimidated by Elton John so I didn’t say much of anything to him. We did a “Laser Cats” with him, too. And I just remember being like, “Oh my God. I feel so bad for debasing you.”
Mulaney: Elton John was fine with absolutely any joke.
Hader: I had to call him a “poof,” which is a derogatory term for gay person. And Standards and Practices said, “You cannot say that,” and Elton John was like, “This is absolute madness! You have to say it!” If you watch it, I say what [Standards] told me to say — [“You must be the only fruit who doesn’t know about weddings”] — and then Elton John corrects me, and he did that live on-air: “I’m the only poof ….” So that’s not scripted when he does that. I don’t know if he paid the fine.
In the third sketch, airing Dec. 10, 2011, the queen and Philip lay into Kate about not giving them a royal heir. The shock comes when Kate’s sister, Pippa (Katy Perry), shows up and turns out to be a Cockney brawler, too. As they compare bums, the queen declares: “I call my a– the IRA because when I walk into a room, people’s heads explode!” It ends, of course, in a Christmas ska song, with Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah randomly popping out in suits and fedoras to dance and play tambourine.
Hader: Oh, my God. I don’t remember that at all. I really genuinely cannot remember that.
Mulaney: We thought about the queen and Philip playing something like the Streets. But we loved watching [the British ska band] the Specials and loved their appearance on SNL in 1980.
Armisen: I wanted [Kenan and Jay] to be like two members of the Specials. As a side note, my favorite SNL musical guest I’ve ever seen is the Specials. I never saw it live. I saw it as a kid on TV. And even now when I watch, it’s always my favorite.
Hader: I don’t remember this at all. You could literally tell me anything right now and I’d be like, “Uh, okay.”
Mulaney: We wrote one version for Mick Jagger that didn’t make it. Mick played Rebekah Brooks from News of the World. I don’t remember any of the jokes but I remember at one point the queen and Philip say the greatest English musician ever was [Queen guitarist] Brian May. And then later they say it again.
That was the last full outing for Armisen’s queen, but she did make one final appearance in a Dec. 15, 2012, sketch called “The Royal Gynecologist.” A bewigged palace emissary (Martin Short) visits Kate’s new OB/GYN (Hader) to instruct him on how to address “the royal ahem.” It’s an exercise in watching Hader try not to burst out laughing, as Short threatens to deport him to Australia for uttering the term “vagina” and offers an approved substitute: “Her Downton Abbey.” The bit ends with the queen jumping into medical stirrups to “get me Judi Dench washed” as audience members scream out, “Oh no!”
Mulaney: Seth Meyers and Marika Sawyer and I wrote “The Royal Gynecologist” piece for Jamie Foxx. He would have been wonderful but Marty was off-the-charts stupid hilarious in it. That wig!
Hader: That one I remember because Martin Short was like, “I’m gonna make you break.” He was doing everything in his power to make me laugh because I’m a very soft touch, which is very well documented. The minute he started doing that character in the first rehearsal, everybody was like, “Oh, Hader’s toast,” because I was laughing so hard.
Armisen: It really bonds you. That’s the fun of working there — it’s that me and John and Bill are still connected. We’re still sending each other these pictures. It keeps us together as friends.
Hader: During the pandemic, John and Fred and I texted every day and most of it was bits. I remember we did a whole thing talking like we were the Van Halen brothers, just about random stuff. Anything to lighten our mood.
Armisen: [The queen sketch] is a nice reminder of how long we’ve known each other. It came together so easily and so quickly because we all agreed, like, this is what it’s going to be.
Hader: Seeing pictures of that sketch makes me feel like, “Oh, man. We had so much fun.” Sitting in a room with Fred and John Mulaney on a Tuesday night writing, thinking up sketches was one of the high points in my life. Like, if we were all working at a Kinko’s or something — if they still have those places — we would be doing that stuff. We would be just doing voices and doing bits and thinking up ideas and stuff.