“Saturday Night Live” featured player Aristotle Athari remembers exactly where he was when he found out he got the gig. It was September 2021, and he was in a liquor store buying wine for his upcoming wedding when his phone rang. The caller ID said “Lorne Michaels,” “SNL’s” creator and longtime producer.
Athari wanted to take a screenshot to be sure he wasn’t hallucinating. However, fearing he might accidentally hang up on Michaels, he answered. Next thing he knew, he had his dream job.
“I yelled out ‘oh my God,’ but I did it in a way that made it sound like I’d left my baby at the mall or something,” he says.
He married his longtime girlfriend, Maura Grace, a few days later to cap off a week unlike any other. The next month, he joined the 47th season of “Saturday Night Live.”
Rambunctious Texas Roots
Athari’s parents emigrated from Iran to Yonkers, New York, before he was born. After his mom became pregnant with him, an uncle working as a pilot in Texas convinced the couple to move for the lower cost of living.
“I bounced around schools a lot because I was a bit of a troublemaker as a kid,” Athari says.
His early school years included stops at Sigler and Huffman elementary schools. After he was expelled from Renner Middle School, he went to Haggard while also spending plenty of time in the district’s alternative program for students with behavioral issues.
For high school, he transferred to Dallas ISD’s W.T. White High so he would be eligible for that district’s arts magnet program. After graduation, he was off to California to pursue his dream.
No Straight Path to Success
“I came to Los Angeles like a lot of people who know what they want to do but don’t know how to get there,” he says. “I knew that I wanted to be a comedian, but I didn’t know exactly how that would unfold.”
He began doing stand-up while still a teen. For about six weeks it seemed like he was killing every set. People even started talking about this new kid phenomenon. Then came a bunch of deflating performances where he repeatedly bombed onstage.
“It scared the crap out of me so bad,” he says. “I didn’t really get back into stand-up again until I was in college.”
Athari cites Robin Williams as one of his biggest influences, along with Eddie Murphy.
“I was probably too young to have discovered Eddie Murphy,” he says.
While his love for comedy was never in doubt, his early career was a series of failed starts. His family often asked what life he was trying to live or whose path he was trying to follow. His answers never reassured them.
Athari realized that he had no choice other than success as a comedian. While he once pondered becoming a doctor with a funny bedside manner or a lawyer who made comedy-infused closing arguments, those career paths were no longer options.
“Life is very short. You just kind of have to do the thing that you want to do,” he says.
For several years, he did behind-the-scenes work while also performing in video shorts. One of his first big breaks came in 2018, when the ensemble comedy quartet Goatface, featuring Athari (then known as Aristotle Athiras) along with Hasan Minhaj, Asif Ali and Fahim Anwar, got a special on Comedy Central.
The following year, he snagged another high-profile role as the recurring character Gabe on HBO’s “Silicon Valley”. His character was known for walking around with a wearable chair.
“I had to wear it for a few days before we started just so I could learn how to sit in it,” he says.
Also in 2019, Athari first performed in the prestigious Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal. It is considered akin to the Sundance Film Festival of comedy.
He did four characters in his showcase, including “Angelo” and the comedian robot “Laughingtosh 3000,” which got the attention of “SNL” executives. Both characters have since appeared on the show.
Athari was asked first to audition for “SNL” at the Groundlings Theater in Los Angeles. A second audition in New York was followed by more telephone interviews. Finally, he received that call in the middle of a liquor store. He remembers racing out to tell his agent, who is also a close friend.
“He was playing soccer at Pan Pacific Park. So I told him at the soccer field, and he hugged me with his sweaty freakin’ body,” Athari says.
One of the first things Athari noticed upon starting at SNL is how small everything seems compared to TV. He says it’s been hard to step back and realize what’s happening because he’s been so focused on what he is doing.
Each week begins with meeting the host and working on new sketches. It’s a creative but challenging environment with everyone performing a bunch of different tasks leading up to the big performance.
Athari says getting “Angelo” on the air and seeing the crowd’s reaction was a highlight. Meeting Stephen Spielberg was a thrill as well.
“That’s a huge part for me. I’ve always been afraid of meeting your heroes and finding out they’re not so great,” he says. “I’ve been lucky that everyone on the show has just been the nicest.”P