From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
One Christmas in the early '90s, before Chris Kattan and buddy Will Ferrell had made the leap from struggling comics to Saturday Night Live regulars, they worked a few weeks playing Santa and his elf. at a Santa Monica mall. Ferrell, 6'3", got the beard; Kattan, a wiry 5'6", donned the green felt cap. "We got a little bored," says Kattan. "So I began talking in a high-pitched, demonic voice and chucking candy canes. The kids were like, 'I wanna say hi to Santa, but that elf is scary.' That was fun."

That same giggly, out-there energy has been the hallmark of Kattan's breakout SNL creations: Mr. Peepers, a chattering half-man, half-monkey, and Mango, an erotic-dancing diva who drives men and women wild. Lately Kattan, 31, can also be seen twitching his way through Corky Romano, a movie comedy about a lovable twerp trying to thwart an FBI investigation of his Mafia family. "Chris is always teetering on the edge," says Ferrell, 34, his costar in the 1998 comedy A Night at the Roxbury. "He has a complete love of silliness."

Kattan claims that while fans often expect him to be as jittery as his characters, "I'm kind of mellow." (Maybe so, but, while speaking to a visitor in his Manhattan apartment, he never sits still.) "Chris's idea of relaxing," says his father, comic Kip King, "is pacing back and forth talking on his cell phone."

Kattan proudly admits to having inherited King's comedy DNA. "He's the funniest guy I've ever seen," says Kattan, who as a boy took in King's work in the famous L.A. improv group the Groundlings. Recalls King, 64 (born Jerome Kattan): "We'd watch movies on television together and ad-lib dialogue."

Still, Kattan grew up at a remove from comedy country. The L.A. native was raised mostly by his mother, Hajni Joslyn, 57, a former actress. After she and King divorced when their son was 2, she married Marc Joslyn, 72, a psychotherapist, and moved to rural Mount Baldy, about an hour northeast of L.A. "It was a little too calm," says Kattan. "The kind of calm that might push you further to nuttiness." When he was 15, the family (including stepbrother Andrew, now 19) relocated to Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, hear Seattle. At Bainbridge High, Kattan felt like an outsider until he impersonated a teacher at a pep rally. "Suddenly all the seniors liked me," he says. "I thought, 'Comedy might be my thing.' "

He spent two semesters at California State University at Northridge but dropped out in 1989 once he'd been accepted into the Groundlings, alma mater not only of his dad but also the likes of SNL vets Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman. He admits the family connection didn't hurt but adds, "If I really sucked, they wouldn't have let me continue."

In addition to playing elf, he made ends meet by waiting tables, once getting an autograph from a tipsy Frank Sinatra. "He signed my napkin 'To Chis,' " says Kattan. "Then he drew a flower with a smiley face and signed it, 'Love Frank Sinat.' "

In 1995 Kattan auditioned for SNL producer Lorne Michaels and was invited to join the cast, not long after Ferrell and Cheri Oteri. Ferrell—who was upset that Kattan hadn't been selected when he was—nudged Michaels to make the offer. Once hired, "Chris made an immediate splash," says Ferrell. "I was really proud."

The never-married Kattan has been romantically linked to model-actress Jennifer Gimenez but is currently uninvolved. His most constant companion is Lola, a Dalmatian who happens to have been an inspiration for Mango. "If you saw them you'd know it's true," says his mother. "Lola is always shaking her tail." The movie buff also has a huge and growing DVD collection. Will a Mango movie someday join the shelf? "Mango would be a fun movie," says Kattan. "But right now I don't want to have to wear gold-lamé shorts for an hour and a half."

Tom Gliatto
Joseph V. Tirella in New York City

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