Heidi Gardner remembers a holiday working at Panache Chocolatier & Café while actor Paul Rudd waited nearby to flip the switch at the Plaza Lighting Ceremony.
“We were so busy, and I was making so many hot chocolates,” Gardner says. “All I wanted to do was run over and see him turn on the Plaza lights. I didn’t get to, because there were too many people in line. But it’s always been so cool to see performers like him representing Kansas City.”
Now Gardner isn’t that far removed from Rudd and other KC comedians such as Jason Sudeikis and Rob Riggle who have become icons of the community.
She also has made an immediate impact with national audiences, thanks to her first season as a featured player on “Saturday Night Live.”
Viewers have watched the Kansas City native share the screen with hosts such as Ryan Gosling, James Franco, Gal Gadot and Charles Barkley. She completes her debut year on May 19 when “SNL” wraps its 43rd season with former cast member Tina Fey hosting.
“I was so terrified the first show,” the 34-year-old actress recalls. “Even though it was like, ‘This is the best moment of my life,’ I remember thinking, ‘I’m so glad this is over, because I know I’ll only get better from here on out.’”
She knew about the program’s reputation for subjecting cast members to insane hours and paralyzing stress. What she didn’t realize was how much sheer joy she would experience performing on the NBC series.
“I have to deal with my own fear and anxiety,” she says. “But you get to do so many new things and play so many new characters every week, it’s just so exciting.”
Gardner’s contributions to her inaugural season include YouTube teen film critic Bailey Gismert and dead-on impressions of actors Allison Janney and Kristen Schaal.
But her breakout role proved to be Angel, who is “Every Boxer’s Girlfriend From Every Movie About Boxing Ever.” As the unlikely correspondent for the “Good News” report on “Weekend Update,” the long-suffering Angel finds a way to steer all topics back to supporting her aging boxing boyfriend’s death wish.
Decked in a tank top and thick Boston accent, she punctuates the determination of not witnessing her man endure another fight by threatening, “I’m takin’ the kids to my sister’s!”
“It was a really lucky thing that I happened to hit on something everyone realizes but no one possibly had said,” claims Gardner, who auditioned for “SNL” with this character.
“You can go back to any of those types of movies, and it’s the exact same dialogue the girlfriend says. It’s interchangeable.”
“The first appearance of Angel was such a home run,” says Heidi’s older brother, Justin Gardner, a video producer based in Kansas City.
Justin says he and Heidi grew up fans of offbeat TV sketch comedies such as “Mr. Show” and “The Kids in the Hall.” He began to realize how hilarious his sister was when she “started to be more goofy” in high school.
“I always had a group of friends who were funny, and we’d do sketches for the talent show,” says Heidi Gardner, who graduated from KC’s Notre Dame de Sion in 2001. (In her high school yearbook during senior year, Gardner was voted Most Likely to Become a Cast Member of "Saturday Night Live.")
“It was cool going to an all-girls school. By nature, you weren’t worried about boys. A lot of girls felt they were a little more able to be themselves.”
When Gardner opted to head across the state line to enroll at the University of Kansas, she wasn’t thinking in terms of being onstage. In fact, she had no idea what career to pursue.
She signed up for art and design classes and a few theater and film studies courses.
“I was super into movies and pop culture,” she says. “But I learned that although there are classes at KU where all you have to do is go and watch a movie, I still skipped those. What was wrong with me? They couldn’t have designed the schedule better. ‘Hey, you get to watch a classic movie and don’t have to go until 6 p.m.’ And, yet, I’m still gonna skip it.”
Meanwhile, she worked the box office at Lawrence’s Southwind 12 Theater and waited tables at Steak ‘n Shake. (“I got such bad tips there. Like pennies,” she confesses.)
After two years, she transferred to the University of Missouri for a semester.
She says, “While I was at MU, I cut my roommate’s hair. I guess I did a good job, so other people started asking, ‘Will you cut my hair?’ I was directionless, so I dropped out of MU and decided to go to school for hair and makeup. But I was insecure about it and thought it would sound more legit if I went to L.A. to do it.”
So Gardner embraced her somewhat aimless leap of faith, heading to Los Angeles to study cosmetology. She ended up gainfully employed in a salon for nine years. During that period, she befriended Rachel Ramras, a performer in the Groundlings, the veteran L.A. improv and sketch troupe.
Ramras invited her to attend the Thursday improv show “Cookin’ With Gas,” which became “the funniest thing I’d ever seen,” Gardner says.
She returned two days later for the Saturday sketch show and experienced a similar impression.
“(Heidi) had short red hair and a huge personality, and I instantly fell in love with her,” Ramras recalls. “She became the little sister I never had and my partner in crime — and tequila. At the time she was a hairdresser, and I thought, ‘Heidi is the funniest hairdresser I’ve ever met.’”
Even though Gardner had auditioned for only one thing in her life (a play freshman year in which she didn’t get cast), she signed up for a Groundlings’ Intro to Improv class upon Ramras’ prompting.
“I learned a lot of life lessons in those intro workshops about listening and communication and being less shy. But also, I thought, ‘I’m pretty good at this,’” Gardner says.
Over the course of several years, Gardner kept moving up in the Groundlings hierarchy until she won a performer slot in the main company.
“Heidi can tap into a character like no one else,” says Ramras, who is the creator of the TV Land series “Nobodies” and a voice actor on the Adult Swim show “Mike Tyson Mysteries” (she portrays Tyson’s adopted daughter). “You saw it onstage at Groundlings and now at ‘SNL.’ The specificity of the characters’ clothes, wigs, affectations, turns of phrase … there’s never a detail lacking. She doesn’t ‘play at’ characters, she embodies them, and that’s what makes her so likable and empathic as a performer.”
In addition to her current work on “SNL,” Gardner continues to write episodes and perform in the Emmy-nominated animated series “SuperMansion.” She plays Cooch, a cat that got scientifically transformed into humanoid form yet retains the same scant attention span.
“Yes, it’s about superheroes, but it’s really about super funny characters and their relationships,” she says of the stop-motion comedy-adventure on Crackle that also features the voices of Bryan Cranston and Keegan-Michael Key.
On May 11, Gardner lands her first major role in a feature film. She stars in the Melissa McCarthy comedy “Life of the Party.” Gardner describes the picture as an updated version of “Back to School,” which finds McCarthy playing a Midwestern mom who returns to earn her degree at the same college her daughter attends.
“I play Melissa’s roommate, Leonor. She is a total weirdo who never leaves the dorm room,” she says.
Gardner usually comes back to KC during the summer and holidays to visit her family (which also includes younger brother Ty Gardner, who is well-known to KU basketball fans as the mastermind behind the irreverent Twitter account Fake Jeff Withey).
Although she keeps apartments in both New York and Los Angeles, she considers herself a diehard Kansas Citian. She loves the Royals and never misses watching a Chiefs game. And like most natives of the area, she remains addicted to the hometown cuisine.
“As a kid, you can’t really appreciate barbecue. It’s when you’re an adult that you’re like, ‘Oh, man. This is so good,’” she says.
She also admits to being obsessed with her cats and basketball superstar LeBron James — not necessarily in that order.
“She’s the biggest LeBron James fan in the history of LeBron James fans,” brother Justin explains. “It’s not just how he plays. It’s work ethic. His philosophy of life. She’s a big admirer. … Can’t imagine what would happen if he hosted the show.”
A lot of people see “SNL” as a career goal; others see it as a stepping-stone. How does Gardner view it?
“I love sketch comedy more than anything,” she says. “This is my dream come true. I would love to be fortunate enough to be doing more seasons of ‘SNL.’”
That said, Gardner hopes her newfound fame might present an opportunity to clear up one tiny detail that has tormented her for years.
“If you’ve ever watched a movie where there’s a scene set in a salon, the way people hold scissors is insulting,” she says. “I’ll be so happy if I’m ever cast as a hairdresser so I can do justice to the hairstyling industry.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”