When I went to check out the new Discovery of King Tut exhibition at Premier Exhibitions for a press visit, they said we could also go to the Saturday Night Live exhibition. Woo hoo! I hadn’t realized that was even a thing (shame on me). It was like a super guilty pleasure that turned out to be fascinating as well. And so much fun I brought my family back the next week to get their take.
Before going into the faux Studio 8H, you’ll watch a short movie narrated by Alec Baldwin, highlighting the beginning of SNL and playing some great clips. Then the doors open and you walk the red carpet toward a picture of the stage where you hear the opening monologue.
The exhibition takes you through a typical week at Saturday Night Live, going day by day, showing what happens each day to make the show. There’s also historical bits of information interspersed, and televisions in various rooms, playing clips. The first room was Monday, and in addition to talking about the pitch meetings, it talked about the start of the show 40 years ago. Dick Ebersol was charged with finding a show to fill the Johnny Carson late Saturday night rerun time. He ended up hiring Canadian writer/producer Lorne Michaels, who had a lot of ideas.
Lorne hired writers and actors who had no television experience, and they ended up calling themselves the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, as a jab at Howard Cosell’s show, called Saturday Night Live (at this time, SNL was just called Saturday Night – the name changed after Cosell’s show was cancelled). Michaels has two offices. The one on the 17th floor is used during the writing/pitching part of the week, and then he moves down to the 9th floor, with an office overlooking the rehearsal space. He produced every episode, except for the five years he was on hiatus from SNL.
Tuesday is a writing day. In this room, you’ll see some big videos of writers talking about their writing process, and you’ll see scripts like the ones above. Wednesday is the read-through day. This room has a big desk with projections on it, and chairs around it so you can feel like you’re sitting at the table. A video shows the read-through and various cast members talk about the process on side screens. The read-through includes up to 70 people, and they go through 40 sketches. Less than half of those will make it to the show.
After the read-through Lorne decides what will stay, and he posts index cards on a bulletin board, in order of the show. The writers of those sketches meet with the production heads (set, costume, make-up etc.) for a two hour meeting to discuss how the sketches will look. The writers have a lot of say in this process. Eugene Lee leads design team. He won three Tony awards (Candide, Sweeney Todd and Wicked), and the 1975 set vision was his – the ambiance is supposed to be like a NYC nightclub, complete with swivel chairs so the audience can see all the stages.
On Thursday morning at 6 a.m., set construction begins at the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s Stiegelbauer Scenic Shop. They make all the sets in two or three days, shipping them by truck to 30 Rock. The sets must be able to break down into smaller pieces because the 30 Rock elevator is small. The only three permanent sets are the Weekend Update set, the one where the host does the intro/ending, and the musical stage.
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Also on Thursday: rehearsals start on the 8th floor. The graphics, props, and extras are sourced/hired. The musical act rehearses. They pretape certain segments. They begin costuming and make any needed prosthetics. At noon on Thursday, the writers meet with the head writers to go over script edits.
On Friday, things move into high gear. The show has more than 20 make-up, hair, dress people. Each cast member has their own make-up, hair and wardrobe person for the season. Wigs are mostly hand-made (and outsourced because they can take 40 hours each). The show has 2,000 wigs in stock.
Throughout the exhibition, you’ll see costumes you recognize. My teen daughter got excited when she saw Dick in a Box costumes. “That’s Dick in a Box!” That made me a little nervous. The show uses 75-90 costumes per show.
Yes, they have a few sets there too, like the Wayne’s World set and the Jeopardy set with Turd Ferguson’s podium (and Norm McDonald’s Burt Reynolds costume). They also have some props.
Dress rehearsal is Saturday night from 8 to 10, or 8 to 10:15. Between rehearsal and airing, they make even more changes, depending on what didn’t work. Michaels meets with directors of production, the hosts and head writers. Each week, they drop three or four sketches before the live broadcast. They also may shave three to four minutes off of some of the scripts. They may cut Weekend Update be up to 50%. That sounds like a lot, but having watched many Weekend Updates that went on too long, maybe that’s a good thing!
They talk about the musical acts as well, and have a Lady Gaga costume (it was tiny) and pictures of some of the acts that have performed through the years.
I was interested to learn that they have a cue card for every spoken word in the show, and the actors are supposed to read directly off the cue cards. The production team (including camera operators) rely on those cue cards with words and gestures, to know how to make the live show work from the back end. If someone goes off script, they’re in trouble.
The show has some of the cue cards from the 40th anniversary episode framed in the exhibition. That show used 800 cue cards (you can see the stack there). They have cue card department with production assistants who make the cards. That would not be a job for me – my handwriting is terrible! They use different colors for different characters.
You then head into a fake control room where you watch a movie about what happens behind the scenes during the show. If you need to wait for the movie to start, there are television clips on the small consoles where you sit, and you can listen on the telephone.
Everyone heads into fake studio together. Unfortunately you can’t get pictures on the stage (or go on the stage). There are actually three stages here, the one for the opening monologue, the one for the band, and one for Jeopardy. One of the employees wheels out a screen where you watch Tina Fey give an opening monologue made for the exhibition. It’s actually funny. She says the only room you have left is the After Party room, and that’s the gift shop. I thought she was kidding, but pretty much that’s what you have left.
There is one more room, and it has a wall of pictures of cast members as well as some thank you letters from people who have been on the show. I guess that’s technically the after party room? Mostly it talks about hosting and has a few other items. There are more televisions and clips and a few more costumes. Then you head down the elevator to exit. While you’re there you’ll hear the David Spade flight attendant airplane dialogue “buh bye” which was the perfect ending.
What the kids thought: My kids didn’t grow up with SNL the way we adults did. With the internet, though, it’s much easier to access the shows. My teen daughter is a huge fan of many of the more recent SNL comedians that broke out to the wider world, like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Andy Samberg, Jimmy Fallon and others. We watched much of the 40th anniversary show as a family, to give them some much-needed cultural references. And my daughter watches a lot of episodes online. So when she found out I saw the exhibition without her, she wanted to go. Of course she loved it, and littered her Instagram account with photos from it. One of the highlights was getting her photo at the SNL desk (below, though you’ll only see my picture!). My son enjoyed it too, partly because there are a lot of TVs and they play clips from the various shows, so in addition to it being funny (duh!) it gave him context to what he was seeing.
But you’re not done! Before the gift shop you’ll see the Seth Meyers’ Weekend Update desk/set and you get your picture taken there. The set is real, but they do let you add on various anchors digitally (you choose). You can get them printed out and you’ll also get a code to download them digitally. Just a warning, it can take awhile for them to appear on the website for downloading. I had mine taken on a Friday afternoon and they weren’t available until Monday night. The website said it could take up to 24 hours, but for me it was more than three days, and I actually emailed them to find out where they were (I never got a response but the the pictures were up soon after I sent the email. Coincidence? Probably). When I went back with my family, we took more photos and they were ready the next day (the first time I checked). Maybe the first time was bad luck.
My daughter was amazed that Tina Fey was taller than me in this picture, since she’s pretty tiny and I’m much taller. But posting this photo on Facebook attracted a lot of comments!
IF YOU GO
When: now through January, 2016. Times vary – check the website.
Tickets: $29/adult, $24/seniors, $20/kids 5-11; get a combo ticket with King Tut for $43.50/adult, $36/seniors, $30/kids. If you search the internet, you’ll find discount codes.
How long: I spent less than 90 minutes in the exhibition, and I waited in the control room to watch the movie again since I came in partway through. You could stay longer and watch more of the television clips, or you could head out earlier. I’d plan for 60-90 minutes.
Photos: It’s $20 plus tax to get three photos taken at the Weekend Update desk, and that includes one 5×7 print out and downloads with several anchors. You can do those yourself on their computer. They said you get three downloads, but then said we could download as many as we wanted.
Disclosure: We got media tickets to review the show.