Amber Schaefer has always understood the assignment. While her sixth-grade classmates were handing in written work, she was submitting films. She'd write scripts, cast friends and use bedsheets as set dressing, shooting on a Hi8 camera (a Christmas gift). "I thought I was cheating the system by spending five times as much time on comedy sketches," she says. Comedy came naturally; one of her earliest plots involved aliens emerging from household appliances.
Armed with a degree in political theory, Schaefer moved to New York and found an internship at a Brooklyn production company. Thanks to her work ethic, she says, "They had no choice but to hire me." After producing music videos and commercials for three years, Schaefer decided to focus on directing. Her early involvement at every level informs that work. For blink-and-you-missed-it stories told in thirty seconds, she says, every detail, down to the color of a shirt, carries narrative and thematic weight. "Everything in a commercial is like a symbol or a tarot card. Everything has to convey so much."
Eventually her sense of comedy and industry know-how came together. In addition to working on sketches for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, CollegeHumor and Funny or Die, she's directed several shorts for Saturday Night Live.
Her popular "Straight Male Friend" pharmaceutical parody is a hilarious sendup of the ubiquitous genre. "I was hyper-cognizant of microtrends," even down to fonts, she says, allowing her to "parody things that could be invisible to other people in subtle ways."
Schaefer says getting four minutes on an SNL sketch feels "luxurious" compared to actual commercial work. While she has feature-length ambitions (and has directed a short dramatic film called NYC Tips and Tricks), she likes that SNL allows her room to experiment. Like a good improv partner, the crew was willing to work with ideas she offers. "They're saying, 'Yes, and we'll figure it out.'"
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #11, 2023.