Creating Saturday Night Live: Behind-the Scenes Videos Reveal How the Iconic Comedy Show Gets Made

I’ve yet to meet any­one who doesn’t have some gripe about the state of SNL, very often root­ed in nos­tal­gia for a sim­pler, fun­nier Gold­en Age. It’s hard not to asso­ciate icon­ic TV shows with lost youth, even shows that have moved on when some of the rest of us haven’t.

The live sketch com­e­dy show, now two years into its fourth decade, has done its best to keep pace with chang­ing times and tastes. While my own fan­dom has waxed and waned, one thing has remained a con­stant: my con­sid­er­able appre­ci­a­tion for the tal­ent and sheer mox­ie required to stage orig­i­nal live com­e­dy on nation­al tele­vi­sion, week after week for forty years.

Comics and celebri­ty guests risk the dis­as­ter of dead air when jokes fall flat. Crewmem­bers rig up con­vinc­ing sets only to strike them min­utes lat­er for com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent envi­rons. Make-up artists trans­form Kate McK­in­non from the car­toon­ish Jeff Ses­sions to the bald, jow­ly “Shud the Mer­maid” in-between sketch­es, a process that seems to unfold in sec­onds in the sped-up behind-the-scenes video above.

Sure, every­thing on the show is script­ed and chore­o­graphed, and the actors read from cue cards. But as the pop­u­lar phe­nom­e­non of “corps­ing”—break­ing char­ac­ter by break­ing into laughter—shows us, any­thing can go wrong live with the best-laid plans of writ­ers and direc­tors. The quick-change tran­si­tion between the cold open and the open­ing mono­logue, which both hap­pen on the “home base stage” of stu­dio 8H, as you can see at the top; the rock-sol­id segues from the live band, below…. The SNL machine depends on every one of its many mov­ing parts to func­tion.

And if—or inevitably when—one of those parts mal­func­tions, well the show goes on… and on and on and on…. How many sea­sons does SNL have left in it? Anoth­er forty? A pos­si­bly infi­nite num­ber? Giv­en how well its teams of cre­atives and crew have mas­tered the art of live tele­vised sketch comedy—not all of it to everyone’s taste, to be sure—it’s pos­si­ble that Sat­ur­day Night Live will out­live even the phe­nom­e­non of tele­vi­sion, trans­plant­i­ng itself some­where in our brains in the far future, where we’ll lean back, close our eyes, and hear the sax­o­phones and that famil­iar, rous­ing announce­ment, “Live, from New York….”

See the show’s make­up depart­ment head and hair design­er walk us through their process below, and watch four more behind-the-scenes shorts at the “Cre­at­ing Sat­ur­day Night Live” playlist on Youtube.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Dave Chappelle’s Sat­ur­day Night Live Mono­logue: “We’ve Elect­ed an Inter­net Troll as Our Pres­i­dent”

Sat­ur­day Night Live: Putin Mocks Trump’s Poor­ly Attend­ed Inau­gu­ra­tion 

When William S. Bur­roughs Appeared on Sat­ur­day Night Live: His First TV Appear­ance (1981)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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