Sometimes a sketch comedian’s dream can turn into a nightmare. Consider the case of “More Cowbell.”
The 2000 “Saturday Night Live” sketch, which imagined how Blue Oyster Cult recorded their 1976 classic “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” became an instant hit. It featured Will Ferrell banging away on a cowbell and Christopher Walken uttering two lines that quickly lodged themselves in our collective consciousness: “I need more cowbell” and “I got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell!”
Apparently those phrases haunted Walken for some time, according to Ferrell. During a Nov. 21 appearance on “The Tonight Show,” Ferrell told host Jimmy Fallon about going to see Walken perform in a play years after the sketch aired.
“I say hello to him backstage, and he’s like, ‘You know, you’ve ruined my life,’ ” Ferrell said, while doing his best Walken impression. “ ‘People during curtain call bring cowbells and ring them. The other day I went for an Italian food lunch, and the waiter asked if I wanted more cowbell with my pasta Bolognese.’ ”
“I think he was really mad at me,” Ferrell added. “I mean, he had a little smile.”
Fallon noted Walken’s notable career, and Ferrell agreed, ticking off his most celebrated roles. “From ‘Deer Hunter’ to ‘Pulp Fiction,’ ” Ferrell said. “ ‘More Cowbell’ — that’s all he gets now.”
Few could have predicted the enduring, and sometimes annoying, appeal of the “More Cowbell” sketch, and that’s true of many popular comedy sketches. For instance, the “Key & Peele” sketch “Substitute Teacher” has become the most viewed clip on Comedy Central’s YouTube page, but the comedy duo almost didn’t even bother posting it online.
“Cowbell,” Fallon said, aired toward the end of the episode, “which is usually where the weirder sketches are.” Chris Parnell played his role as lead singer masterfully, managing to transform his expression from annoyed to disturbed. Fallon and Ferrell both fought to repress their laughter. And as Ferrell played his lowly instrument, his shirt steadily crept up his torso, revealing a hairy belly.
As the “SNL” cast performed the sketch, the studio audience laughed hysterically. “I remember it was so loud on air,” Fallon said. “It was working so well that the floor started shaking.”
Then the sketch went “viral.” Ever since, cries for “more cowbell” have haunted not only Walken but also Blue Oyster Cult.
“Reaper” was written after Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, co-founder and lead guitarist of the band, discovered in his 20s that he had an erratic heartbeat. “I was thinking about mortality,” Dharma told the New York Times in 2016. “The whole idea of the Reaper was that if there was another sphere of existence, maybe lovers could bridge that gap if their love was strong enough.”
Before “More Cowbell,” horror filmmakers had enlisted the song to create eerie vibes. “It had been used as a go-to creepy thing, but Will Ferrell pretty much sabotaged that,” Dharma told the Times.
Still, band members had been amused by the spoof, even years after it aired. “We didn’t know it was coming,” Dharma told the Washington Post in 2005. “We all thought it was phenomenal. We’re huge Christopher Walken fans. ... I’ve probably seen it 20 times and I’m still not tired of it.”
Ferrell hosted “SNL” Nov. 23.