In 2016, Saturday Night Live’s Kenan Thompson and musical guest Chance the Rapper celebrated Barack Obama’s last Christmas in office with a Run-DMC-style rap called “Last Christmas” — and ended up earning an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. (On YouTube, the clip is known as “Jingle Barack.”) So when SNL announced last year that Chance would return to the show to host its Nov. 18 episode, the song’s co-writers — Thompson, Will Stephen, and music director Eli Brueggemann — knew they had to get the band back together.
Yet the follow-up, a parody of over-the-top ‘90s R&B love songs called “Come Back, Barack,” was anything but predictable, taking almost a full minute to build up to the chorus and reveal whom exactly these crooners were pining for. The video was an instant hit on social media, and it has since racked up more than 5 million views — more than double that of “Last Christmas” — and earned SNL another Emmy nomination in the same category.
Below, Thompson, Stephen, Brueggemann, and featured player Chris Redd take Billboard behind the scenes of how the song and video came together, from their early inspirations to the rain-soaked shoot and the down-to-the-wire editing process.
When Stephen learned that Chance would be hosting again, 10 months into Donald Trump’s presidency, he immediately started mulling over ideas. But even after he decided to embrace his love of ’90s R&B groups like K-Ci & JoJo (“Crazy,” “All My Life,” “Tell Me It’s Real”), he found himself debating what direction to pursue.
Stephen: I wanted to write something about [Robert] Mueller. I was thinking about the metaphor of thanking Mueller for all of his hard work the way that these songs thank their girlfriends for being so wonderful. But that felt a little forced. Eventually, I talked about different ideas with Chris.
Redd: I was trying to capture this feeling of what I missed exactly about Barack. We had so many different versions of it. [At first] it was more about how we just wanted him back in office, which is impossible — and why it was so funny when Kenan had that joke about it that made it to the last version [“I don’t think the three of us have the firmest grasp on government”]. We just missed somebody who cared about making us feel good about him. With the crassness of what we were going through, it was like, “Man, how do we capture that feeling in a song, but then also acknowledge the fact that it’s impossible for him to come back in the same capacity?” Using that ‘90s style, I was really excited about marrying K-Ci & JoJo and Boyz II Men, and I was obsessed with the thought of having Kenan talk over the beat. Like, who doesn’t want to hear that?
Thompson: We all remembered that era and everything that made those groups special. There was always like a deep-voice dude, there was a high-pitched-voice dude, and there was a dude that held it all down. I consider myself lately to have a deeper voice, because my voice was so high all my life, so I’m always leaning toward opportunities where I can showcase that. Chance was the obvious lead singer, and then the anchor, of course, was Chris. It was just the natural formation.
Redd: I wanted to play the high-pitched-voice guy in the group that knows his voice ain’t that good, but his emotion fills it. [Laughs] He’s so emotional about it, you know? Something that still makes me laugh is singing “You were so intelligent, you were so strong” with that much passion.
Thompson: Exactly. That’s what makes him the anchor of the group — he’s the one that cares.
Stephen: Sometimes when we’re writing new songs, we’ll come to Eli at like 10 or 11 p.m. on a Tuesday and say, “This is what we’re thinking.” I want to say at least one or two weeks before, I had told Eli in passing that I wanted to do something K-Ci & JoJo-esque when Chance was hosting. I remember you, Eli, telling me that you had made a playlist on Spotify of a lot of different songs from that era that you were just listening to and letting marinate.
Brueggemann: That definitely helps. When I get a heads-up, I can start putting it into my subconscious. What we do is kind of hard: We’re parodying a style, and it’s really easy to just rip somebody off, and we definitely don’t want to do that. I like to take a tiny little piece from like eight songs. I gave them a simple beat that was an amalgam of three or four K-Ci & JoJo and Boyz II Men songs, and then I created a chord progression that was similar to a K-Ci & JoJo song but different enough to lead the melody in a different way.
I sent them that skeleton of an idea in an email and then went over to their office and just pitched a couple of vocal concepts. Chris started writing the rest of the melody, and it kept developing. It took me probably 30 minutes, maybe 45 minutes, to put together the beat when I gave them the rough [version]. Because there is all this other s–t that comes in on Tuesday nights. It’s like I am a chef that has usually at least five or six different things on the burners.
The group started writing the lyrics and melody Tuesday afternoon and continued through the night. Following the structure of those K-Ci & JoJo songs — verse, pre-chorus, chorus — they knew they’d be building toward a big reveal about 54 seconds in, but they still weren’t sure exactly how to phrase it.
Stephen: I tend to overthink things way too much, so I was trying out all these different complicated versions of revealing the joke. I eventually got tired and flustered and was like, “’Come Back, Barack’ is just the quickest and simplest way to bait that idea.” I put it in as a placeholder, and then it stuck around.
Redd: “Come Back, Barack” was a placeholder because there was discussion about, “Would it feel too liberal if Barack Obama’s name was in it?” Which is always a thing you’ve got to keep in the back of your mind, because you want it to affect as many people as possible without turning somebody off immediately. You don’t really know what it’s about in the first verse, and that turn just felt so good to everybody.
Stephen: By the end of that night when we wrote it, I knew that we had put in a lot of hard work. I knew that we really like the idea. But I had overthought it so much that I couldn’t tell if I was confident in it or not.
THE TABLE READ
Every Wednesday at SNL, the entire cast and crew pack themselves into the writers’ room to read the roughly 40 sketches that were written Tuesday night. The actors do their best to get laughs; the writers sweat, hoping they won’t have to sit through a five-minute bit as it bombs. They’re lucky if they get 10 to 15 minutes with the host to rehearse their sketch before auditioning it at the table.
Stephen: We cram into Eli’s office and run through it, getting notes where we can. As a writer, you’re just praying that people remember the rhythm [of the joke], especially with music — it’s so dependent on timing. If someone is off or misses their cue, it can screw the whole thing up.
Brueggemann: Or if someone is visibly uncomfortable. This happens with hosts sometimes: It becomes obvious by the performance at the table that the host is not comfortable singing in a rhythm. It could be the greatest sketch ever, but if you’re not rehearsed enough to be able to perform it at the table, sometimes they’ll pass on it because they just don’t trust that it can be done. But I’d say 90 percent of the time the hosts are musically competent [enough] to be able to do at least what we’re asking them to do.
Stephen: I do remember Chance really liking it a lot when we were rehearsing. I remember him saying, “This is just a good song, We’re definitely doing this,” which, as a writer, actually terrifies me to hear — that makes me think that he’s overly confident and that it’s not going to go well and no one’s going to get it. It just sets my expectations too high. Fortunately, it did go well.
Redd: Someone like Chance picks things up real fast. He’s constantly making music, so it’s very easy to work with somebody like him. He just comes in like, “Hey. Okay. Yeah. Yeah.” He’ll catch it, he’ll add some stuff to it, and then it’s like, “Okay, good.” He’s going to feel as natural as you want him to feel at the table read, and that’s the most important thing.
This is my first sketch that got on the table. It was my first year, so I was nervous as hell, man. Kenan never looked nervous. Every time I look over at Kenan, he’s smiling, but I went to the bathroom six times. I was looking at Will, Will’s nervous. What helped was Chance came through a couple times and ran through it beforehand, and it felt good in that room. When one of your favorite artists is like, “Yo, this is fire,” it’s like, well, if it’s not good enough for this room, at least it’s good enough for an award-winning artist! So it really helped the confidence of it.
I think at the table read, I hit a note that I didn’t have — like, I did it only in my throat. We were already at the end, we had already kind of sold it, and I was so excited I just went for a note that just wasn’t there. [Laughs] It was like watching somebody jump for a cliff and just miss it and fall.
Thompson: Hilarious — just like in American Pie when he closed out that song in choir rehearsal. Like Chris said, it felt good in the room when we were rehearsing it because we spent all night trying to get it tight. Having done the show so many times, it’s like, once you get it to where it makes sense amongst you guys, performing it at the table is not a big deal. But for Chris, it was his first time — and his first time with his name on an idea — so it was a big swing. I know that feeling for sure, but I also know when something is tight, so it was fun to watch it come to fruition at the table.
THE MUSIC VIDEO
Recording the vocals always has to go quickly for the host, who only has time for one or two takes before being pulled away. But there was no getting around the Friday music video shoot being an all-nighter, no matter how much they’d planned out ahead of time.
Thompson: Will was watching a lot of K-Ci & JoJo videos.
Redd: Every time I went in his room, it sounded like I was walking through my auntie’s house because he had R&B playing constantly. We were raised off those videos, so me and my cousins down south in Mississippi used to just reenact these videos all the time. So I was like, “I know this world like the back of my hand. We have to have too many candles.” We had to pick outfits and all that. That stuff was hella fun, because those departments are so talented. You’ll be able to say, “I want a gold suit,” and they’re able to bring it so fast.
Thompson: Or you want braided cornrows.
Redd: You know, man, it’s been so good to have hair this year. I’ve had all types of cornrows.
Thompson: I put my faith in Will early, just because we knocked [“Last Christmas”] out of the park, so I was pretty confident that whatever he came up with was going to be on point. So when they told me, “You’re kind of in your living room with this picture frame, setting it up,” I was like, “Oh, that’s beautiful.” And then the millions of candles at the end was just so classic. My favorite part was doing the long hallway scenes, because all three of us were trying to find different places to be weird and steal focus. Look at Chris way back in the background!
Redd: We were just tight. You would have thought we had rehearsed it.
Thompson: That was the first day we were doing it, just jumping right into it. We just squeezed it all in, just in time. We didn’t know if we were going to get the rain in.
Redd: I remember we were almost about to cut it, and I was like, “No, we gotta do the rain scene! We gotta see the rain!”
Thompson: You gotta see it!
Redd: I remember the moment whoever handles the rain came up and was like, “Hey, man, we said it was going to be warm water, but it is definitely not.” I remember being like, “Damn, do we really need the rain? I mean we could just cry, maybe.” But we had to do it. And then I went up to Kenan, ‘cause I had to tell him. I was like, “This is gonna be cold, man, the water’s gonna be real cold.” He was like, “Let’s just do it then.” That’s why everybody loves Kenan.
Thompson: Me and Chris trooped it out in the rain, freezing to death. Couldn’t see.
Redd: “How is the water hitting me this hard on my eyes? I don’t understand.”
Thompson: It was cold, and it was the middle of the winter, so we gangsters for that.
Redd: Chance is back under the umbrella. It makes sense — he’s a star.
Thompson: He’s a star, but he’s also hosting. It’s late at night, and you don’t want him to get sick. So we took that bullet.
Redd: I swear to God I won’t do it again, but I’m glad I did it the first time with the O.G. It was a good moment.
THE FINAL TOUCH
Stephen spent all of Saturday in the editing room with the video’s director, Dave McCary, who gave the clip that perfect old-school MTV look, right down to the text on the bottom left-hand corner. That meant, with about 15 minutes before the final cut was due, Stephen was frantically texting Redd and Thompson asking what they should name the group.
Stephen: Somewhere in my texts we have like 20 names that we were throwing out.
Redd: There were so many. At one point I got so tired of pitching, I think I pitched The 3 Guys, which didn’t make it. I don’t know why — it’s very to the point.
Stephen: We wanted it to be some kind of K-Ci & JoJo-esque amalgam of names, and I think we were originally going to be DeVonTré as one word, sort of like Jodeci, but Kenan thought that sounded too much like one guy. Meanwhile, our writers’ assistant, Lauren Mandel, is checking all of this stuff with legal to make sure we’re not stealing anyone’s real name. There were one or two names that we wanted that we couldn’t do for whatever reason. Then I think I texted Kenan last-minute like, “What about just De-Von-Tré, like with the hyphens?” He was like, “Yes. Creative.”
Brueggemann: I think what Will’s talking about actually opens up an interesting observation about the way that these writers work. They are truly amazing in the sense that, what you end up seeing on TV is sometimes the very first idea someone had and sometimes it’s the 50th. Like these guys just s—t jokes out of their head. It’s a numbers game, and sitting in and watching these guys write and rewrite stuff, it is truly amazing. It is a hard job. I cannot imagine myself doing it, but I’m really proud and honored to be able to put songs together with them. It’s a total blast the whole time.
Stephen: It’s also operating totally on blind faith, because after you reach a certain point, you just lose perspective on what’s funny and what’s not. You’re just trusting whatever is left of your instinct to pick the right things at the last minute. You hope you do a good job, and sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t.?
Brueggemann: Sometimes you’re laughing your ass off in the writers’ room, and then it gets out on the floor and they just don’t get it. It happens a lot.
Stephen: You just never know what’s going to transpire.
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
The show hired professional singers to round out the vocals of the chorus. But as confident as the group was in the script and the attention to detail, the video still had yet to play for a real audience — until the dress rehearsal.
Stephen: During dress rehearsal, the writers go watch the sketch with Lorne [Michaels] and the producers, and you get immediate feedback about whether it’s doing well or not. I was very, very nervous, because I was the only writer down there for that sketch, so it was kind of all on my shoulders. During those first 54 seconds, it’s getting laughs, but I can’t quite tell how it’s gonna go. Then when that first reveal happened, the response was so overwhelming in the studio that I felt such immediate relief, I can’t even explain it. That was the feeling more than anything — not even joy, but relief. [When it aired], we got a great response immediately online. A lot of rappers really liked it, which was cool. Common was there that night, and he really liked it.
Redd: I feel like I knew that people would at least talk about it, you know what I mean? I was on the road a lot onstage telling jokes, and the general consensus I was getting from people talking about [the state of the country] was this feeling. I was like, “It needs to be addressed, and if we can just do that right, I think it’ll really resonate.” When I really knew [it worked was] when my dad heard it down south on Tom Joyner. I grew up listening to Tom Joyner [on the radio], and Tom talking about it a lot? I was like, “Oh, we done made it! We done made it! Tommy Joyner loves it!”
Thompson: That’s nationwide. Tom Joyner’s nationwide.
Redd: You know what I’m saying? That’s how I knew, man.
Brueggemann: A lot of things have to go right for it to be a great music parody. The jokes have to be there, obviously. The costumes, the cut, and then probably most important, just the audience getting it and understanding. You never know what the temperature of the audience is going to be like on any given day. When it works in the studio, it’s probably going to work on TV and online. We were blessed to have all those things come together on this one.
For me, the coolest response has been from my kids. My kids have been singing that song for the last eight months. Now my [11-year-old] son has actually started to parody that song. He just makes up different lyrics for it. He’s like, “Come back, mama, I need you oh so bad.” He drops it with his friends. When your kid and your kid’s friends are singing your song, it doesn’t get any better than that.
The Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics will be presented during the two-night Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards ceremony, which will take place Sept. 8 and 9 and air Sept. 15 at 8 p.m. ET on FXX. The 70th Primetime Emmy Awards will air Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.