Organized Chaos!: Watch 33 Videos Showing How Saturday Night Live Gets Made Each Week

Who do you think of when you think of Sat­ur­day Night Live?

The orig­i­nal cast? 

Cre­ator Lorne Michaels?

Who­ev­er host­ed last week’s episode?

What about the guy who makes and holds the cue cards?

Wal­ly Fer­esten is just one of the back­stage heroes to be cel­e­brat­ed in Cre­at­ing Sat­ur­day Night Live, a fas­ci­nat­ing look at how the long-run­ning tele­vi­sion sketch show comes togeth­er every week.

Like many of those inter­viewed Fer­esten is more or less of a lif­er, hav­ing come aboard in 1990 at the age of 25.

He esti­mates that he and his team of 8 run through some 1000 14” x 22” cards cards per show. Teleprompters would save trees, but the pos­si­bil­i­ty of tech­ni­cal issues dur­ing the live broad­cast presents too big of a risk.

This means that any last minute changes, includ­ing those made mid-broad­cast, must be han­dled in a very hands on way, with cor­rec­tions writ­ten in all caps over care­ful­ly applied white painter’s tape or, worst case sce­nario, on brand new cards.

(After a show wraps, its cards enjoy a sec­ond act as drop­cloths for the next week’s paint­ed sets.)

Near­ly every sketch requires three sets of cue cards, so that the cast, who are rarely off book due to the fre­quent changes, can steal glances to the left, right and cen­ter.

As the depart­ment head, Fer­esten is part­nered with each week’s guest host, whose lines are the only ones to be writ­ten in black. Bet­ty White, who host­ed in 2010 at the age of 88, thanked him in her 2011 auto­bi­og­ra­phy.

Sure­ly that’s worth his work-relat­ed arthrit­ic shoul­der, and the recur­rent night­mares in which he arrives at Stu­dio 8H just five min­utes before show­time to find that all 1000 cue cards are blank.

Cos­tumes have always been one of Sat­ur­day Night Live’s flashiest plea­sures, run­ning the gamut from Cone­heads and a rap­ping Cup o’Soup to an immac­u­late recre­ation of the white pantsuit in which Vice Pres­i­dent Kamala Har­ris deliv­ered her vic­to­ry speech a scant 3 hours before the show aired.

“A cos­tume has a job,” wardrobe super­vi­sor Dale Richards explains:

It has to tell a sto­ry before (the actors) open their mouth…as soon as it comes on cam­era, it should give you so much back­sto­ry.

And it has to cleave to some sort of real­i­ty and truth­ful­ness, even in a sketch as out­landish as 2017’s Hen­ri­et­ta & the Fugi­tive, star­ring host Ryan Gosling as a detec­tive in a film noir style romance. The gag is that the dame is a chick­en (cast mem­ber Aidy Bryant.)

Richards cites actress Bette Davis as the inspi­ra­tion for the chick­en’s look:

Because you’re not going to believe it if the detec­tive couldn’t actu­al­ly fall in love with her. She has to be very fem­i­nine, so we gave her Bette Davis bangs and long eye­lash­es and a beau­ti­ful bon­net, so the under­pin­nings were very much like an actress in a movie, although she did have a chick­en cos­tume on.

The num­ber of quick cos­tume changes each per­former must make dur­ing the live broad­cast helps deter­mine the sketch­es’ run­ning order.

Some of the break­neck trans­for­ma­tions are han­dled by Richards’ sis­ter, Don­na, who once beat the clock by pig­gy­back­ing host Jen­nifer Lopez across the stu­dio floor to the chang­ing area where a well-coor­di­nat­ed crew swished her out of her open­ing monologue’s skintight dress and sky­scraper heels and into her first cos­tume.

That’s one exam­ple of the sort of traf­fic the 4‑person crane cam­era crew must bat­tle as they hur­tle across the stu­dio to each new set. Cam­era oper­a­tor John Pin­to com­mands from atop the crane’s coun­ter­bal­anced arm.

Those swoop­ing crane shots of the musi­cal guests, open­ing mono­logue and good­nights (see below) are a Sat­ur­day Night Live tra­di­tion, a part of its icon­ic look since the begin­ning.

Get to know oth­er back­stage work­ers and how they con­tribute to this week­ly high wire act in a 33 episode Cre­at­ing Sat­ur­day Night playlist, all on dis­play below:

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

When John Belushi Booked the Punk Band Fear on SNL, And They Got Banned from the Show: A Short Doc­u­men­tary

The Stunt That Got Elvis Costel­lo Banned From Sat­ur­day Night Live

Sat­ur­day Night Live’s Very First Sketch: Watch John Belushi Launch SNL in Octo­ber, 1975

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