Watch David Hockney Paint with Light, Using the Quantel Paintbox Graphics System (1986)

Think of the television graphics you remember from the nineteen-eighties — or, perhaps more likely, the nineteen-eighties television graphics you’ve seen lately on Youtube. Much of it looks cheesy today, but some examples have become appealingly retro over the decades, and certain works remain genuinely impressive as pieces of digital art. Nowadays we can, in theory, replicate and even outdo the finest TV imagery of the eighties on our computers, or even our phones. But in the days before high-powered personal computing, let alone smartphones, how did such brilliantly colored, energetically animated, and sometimes genuinely artistic graphics get made? The answer, nine times out of ten, was on the Quantel Paintbox.

Introduced in 1981, the Paintbox was a custom-designed digital graphic workstation that cost about $250,000 USD, or more than $623,000 today. To major television stations and networks that money was well spent, buying as it did the unprecedentedly fast production of images and animations for broadcast. ”It used to be that we had a staff of artists who drew and drew,” the New York Times quotes ABC’s director of production development as saying in an article on graphics for the 1984 Olympics.


“But with the Paintbox an artist can come up with a graphic in fifteen minutes that used to take two days.” Its capabilities did much to influence the look and feel of that decade, for better or for worse: looking back, designer Steven Heller rues its propagation of “shadow-ridden, faux-handmade eighties aesthetics.”

As a cutting-edge piece of hardware, the Paintbox was beyond the reach of most artists, due not just to its cost but also the considerable kn0w-how required to use it. (Skilled “operators,” as they were called, could in the eighties command a wage of $500 per hour.) But for David Hockney, who was already famous, successful, and known for his interest in bright colors as well as new technology, the chance came in 1986 when the BBC invited him to participate in a television series called Painting with Light.  A showcase for the creative potential of the Paintbox, it also brought on such luminaries as collage artist Richard Hamilton and “grandfather of Pop Art” Larry Rivers, sitting them down at the workstation and filming as they experimented with its possibilities.

“You’re not drawing on a piece of paper,” Hockney explains in his episode. “You’re drawing, actually, directly onto this TV screen where you’re seeing it now.” By now we’ve all done the same in one way or another, but in the eighties the concept was novel enough to be hard to articulate. Hockney emphasizes that the Paintbox produces “honest” images, in that the electronic medium in which the artist works is the very same medium through which the viewer perceives that work. The eagerness with which he takes up its groundbreaking pressure-sensitive stylus (“a bit like a kind of old-fashioned ballpoint pen”), sometimes with a cigarette in the other hand, shows that Hockney’s penchant for drawing on the iPhone and iPad over the past decade or so is hardly an isolated late-career lark. Even in 1986 he understood what you could do with digital technology, and could also sense one of its prime dangers: you’re never sure when to stop doing it.

Related content:

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Andy Warhol Digitally Paints Debbie Harry with the Amiga 1000 Computer (1985)

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Watch Every Episode of Bob Ross’ The Joy Of Painting Free Online: 403 Episodes Spanning 31 Seasons

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Jack Kerouac Reads from On the Road: The Only Known Footage of the Beat Icon Reading His Work (1959)

The video above shows us Jack Kerouac giving a reading, accompanied by the jazz piano stylings of evening television variety-show host Steve Allen. In other words, if you’ve been looking for the most late-nineteen-fifties clip in existence, your journey may have come to an end. Earlier in that decade, Allen says (sprinkling his monologue with a few notes here and there), “the nation recognized in its midst a social movement called the Beat Generation. A novel titled On the Road became a bestseller, and its author, Jack Kerouac, became a celebrity: partly because he’d written a powerful and successful book, but partly because he seemed to be the embodiment of this new generation.”

As the novelists and poets of the Beat Generation were gradually gaining renown, Allen was fast becoming a national celebrity. In 1954, his co-creation The Tonight Show made him the first late-night television talk show host, and consequently applied pressure to stay atop the cultural currents of the day. Not only did he know of the Beats, he joined them, at least for one collaboration: “Jack and I made an album together a few months back in which I played background piano for his poetry reading.” That was Poetry for the Beat Generation, the first of Kerouac’s trilogy of spoken-word albums that we previously featured here on Open Culture back in 2015.


“At that time I made a note to book him on this show,” Allen says, “because I thought you would enjoy meeting him.” After answering a few “square questions” by way of introduction — it took him three weeks to write On the Road, he spent seven years on the road itself, he did indeed type on a continuous “scroll’ of paper, and he would define “Beat” as “sympathetic” — Kerouac reads from the novel that made his name, accompanied by Allen’s piano. “A lot of people have asked me, why did I write that book, or any book,” he begins. “All the stories I wrote were true, because I believed in what I saw.” This is, of course, not poetry but prose, and practically essayistic prose at that, but here it sounds like a literary form all its own.

If you’d like to hear the music of Kerouac’s prose without actual musical accompaniment, have a listen to his acetate recording of a half-hour selection from On the Road that we posted last weekend. The occasion was the 100th anniversary of his birth, which elsewhere brought forth all manner of tributes and re-evaluations of his work and legacy. 65 years after On the Road‘s publication, how much resemblance does today’s America bear to the one crisscrossed by Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty? It’s worth considering why the country no longer inspires writers quite like Jack Kerouac — or for that matter, given the passage of his own little-noted centenary last December, television hosts like Steve Allen.

Related content:

Jack Kerouac’s Hand-Drawn Map of the Hitchhiking Trip Narrated in On the Road

Hear All Three of Jack Kerouac’s Spoken-World Albums: A Sublime Union of Beat Literature and 1950s Jazz

Jack Kerouac Reads American Haikus, Backed by Jazz Saxophonists Al Cohn & Zoot Sims (1958)

Free: Hours of Jack Kerouac Reading Beat Poems & Verse

Jack Kerouac’s Poetry & Prose Read/Performed by 20 Icons: Hunter S. Thompson, Patti Smith, William S. Burroughs, Johnny Depp & More

Young Frank Zappa Plays the Bicycle on The Steven Allen Show (1963)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

When Oliver Stone & Vladimir Putin Chillingly Watched Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove Together

Having by now seen Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) more times than I can remember, it surprises me to meet someone who’s never seen it at all. When I do, my first impulse is always to suggest a screening right then and there. This would seem to put me in company with Oliver Stone, who in recent years has been documented engaging in at least one instance of high-profile Strangelove evangelism. As for the new inductee into the Strangelove viewership, he went more than 60 years without having seen the film, but for the last couple of decades had the credible excuse of busyness: it isn’t just a part-time gig, after all, being the president of Russia.

Stone seized the opportunity to watch Dr. Strangelove with Vladimir Putin in the course of filming The Putin Interviews, a four-part documentary series broadcast on Showtime in 2017. This wasn’t the first time Stone had made a subject of his own interactions with a head of state whom many Americans consider malevolent: in 2008’s South of the Border, for example, he attempted a humanizing cinematic portrait of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. At Showtime’s Youtube channel, you can watch a variety of clips from The Putin Interviews, including Putin giving Stone a tour of his offices, Putin’s reaction to the election of Donald Trump, and Putin checking in with Stone before skating out onto the ice for a game of hockey.


The viewing of Dr. Strangelove comes at the series’ very end, which is presumably an effort on Stone’s part to save the “best” for last — and as Cold War American cinema goes, one could hardly hope for a better selection. Based on Peter George’s Red Alert, a straightforward thriller novel about American and Soviet protocols of nuclear-defense management gone disastrously wrong, the film only took shape when Kubrick realized it had to be a comedy. As he later recalled, “I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question.”

As Joseph Heller realized while writing Catch-22, certain ridiculous truths about war simply can’t be portrayed non-comedically. As realized through the painstakingly exact filmmaking of Kubrick and his collaborators, Dr. Strangelove is the blackest of black comedies. “There are certain things in this film that indeed make us think,” Putin says to Stone after the closing montage of mushroom clouds. He even credits Kubrick with technical foresight: “Modern weapon systems have become more sophisticated, more complex. But this idea of a retaliatory weapon and the inability to control such weapon systems still hold true today.” Not much has changed since the days of Dr. Strangelove, he admits, and now that he’s undergone his own bout of geopolitical brazenness, let’s hope that he remembers how the movie ends.

Related content:

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

When Rod Serling Turned TV Pitchman: See His Post-Twilight Zone Ads for Ford, Mazda, Gulf Oil & Smokey Bear

The Twilight Zone ran from 1959 to 1964, this concluding in a different culture than the one in which it had premiered. CBS broadcast the series’ first episode to an America that had neither heard of the Beatles nor elected John F. Kennedy to the presidency; its final episode went out to an America that had buried JFK and launched into a youth-oriented cultural revolution just months before. But Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone‘s creator and host, managed to retain a degree of the recognizability and authority he’d enjoyed in the era we call the “long 1950s” well into the sharply contrasting one we call “the 60s.”

At the end of the 1950s, American network television offered a steady, bland diet of sitcoms, Westerns, and cop shows. The Twilight Zone appeared as something new, an anthology series not so genre-bound — or rather, permitted to switch genre every episode — because Serling set its limits at those of the human imagination.


Ghost stories, post-apocalyptic scenarios, tales of alien invasion, superpower fantasies both comic and tragic: all of these narrative forms and more fell within the show’s purview. No matter how brazenly unrealistic their premises, most of these stories had something to say about contemporary society, and all were tethered to reality by the presence of Serling himself.

Even if you’ve somehow never seen an episode of The Twilight Zone, you’ll have a ready mental image of Serling himself, or at least of the dark-suited, cigarette-pinching persona he took on in the opening of most broadcasts. His distinctive manner of speech, still oft-imitated but seldom quite nailed, has become a shorthand for a certain stripe of steady midcentury televisual authority in the midst of surreal or frightening circumstances. As this became a rare and thus in-demand quality in post-Twilight Zone America, no few corporations as well as government agencies must have seen in Serling a desirable spokesman indeed.

Serling, “television’s last angry man,” was notorious for writing scripts from his social and civic conscience. This made him an ideal human face to accompany the ursine one of Smokey Bear in the U.S. Forest Service’s “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” public service announcement of 1968. Its Serling-narrated introduction of Ed Morgan and his family as they motor through the woods, plays for all the world like the opening of a classic Twilight Zone episode, albeit in color. “They’ve driven this road a dozen times before, and nothing ever happened,” he says, “but today’s different: today, Ed will become a killer, and here’s his weapon”: a lit cigarette tossed unthinkingly out the window. Such a dire warning may sound a bit rich coming from a man who not only smoked onscreen in so many of his appearances, but personally endorsed Chesterfield Kings on air.

Yet irony was even more integral to The Twilight Zone than, say, space travel, a theme with which many of its episodes dealt. It was presumably Serling’s resulting sci-fi credibility that brought him the offer, just months after the actual Moon landing, of a spot for We Came in Peace, “a permanent 75-page book with full-color illustrations” about the history of “man’s quest in space,” available for one dollar at all participating Gulf Oil gas stations. In the following decade he would also advertise the cars you’d fill up at one, promoting features like Ford LTD‘s quiet ride and the new Mazdas‘ rotary engines. All these models would also have come with ashtrays, of course, and a responsible midcentury man like Serling would have made sure to use them.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Volodymyr Zelenskyy Went from Playing a President on a Comedy TV Show to Very Real Life

To the great dismay of West Wing fans, Josiah Bartlet never actually became President of the United States of America. At some point, one suspects they’d even have settled for Martin Sheen. Alas, playing the role of the president on television hasn’t yet become a qualifying experience for playing it in real life — or at least not in the U.S. But things work differently in Ukraine, which in 2019 elected to its presidency the star of Servant of the People (Слуга народу), a comedy series about a high-school teacher who becomes president on the back of an anti-establishment rant gone viral. His name, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is one we’ve all become familiar with indeed since last week, when Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of his country.

For as unlikely a head of state as Zelenskyy, a more formidable test could hardly be imagined. The seriousness of the conflict contrasts starkly with the tone of Servant of the People, in light of which Zelenskyy’s ascendance looks less like Martin Sheen becoming President than Veep‘s Julia Louis-Dreyfus becoming Vice President, or Yes Minister‘s Paul Eddington becoming Prime Minister.


Still, the past decade’s further blurring of the lines between televisual fiction and political fact made the Zelenskyy candidacy look less like a stunt than a genuinely viable campaign. During that campaign the BBC produced the segment at the top of the post, which calls him “the comedian who could be President”; Vice published the more detailed view above as election day approached.

Most officials of Zelenskyy’s rank are famous by definition. He had the advantage of already being well-known and well-liked in his homeland, but his performance so far under the harrowing conditions of Putin’s invasion has won him respect across the world. There is now, in addition to the fascination about his rise to power, an equally great fascination about that of Vasyl Holoborodko, the thirty-something history teacher he plays on Servant of the People. This Youtube playlist offers 23 episodes of the show, complete with English subtitles. Give it a watch, and you’ll better understand not just Zelenskyy’s appeal to the Ukrainian people, but that people’s distinctive sense of humor — a vital strategic asset indeed in such trying times.

Related content:

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Why is Ukraine in Crisis?: A Quick Primer For Those Too Embarrassed to Ask (2014)

“Borat” on Politics and Embarrassment — Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast Discussion #67

Comedians Speaking Truth to Power: Lenny Bruce, George Carlin & Richard Pryor (NSFW)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Dick Van Dyke Still Dancing at 96!

Beloved comic actress Betty White left some big shoes to fill last New Year’s Eve when she shocked the world by dying at the tender age of 99.

Who could possibly match her zest for life so many years into it?

Paging Dick Van Dyke

The nimble-footed 96-year-old has yet to host Saturday Night Live, but remains culturally relevant nonetheless, thanks to the enduring popularity of his early work.

His early 60s sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show, was a staple of ‘90s-era Nick at Nite.

Even Generation Alpha knows who he is, thanks to his evergreen turn as Bert, the dancing chimneysweep in Mary Poppins (1964).


The physical grace he brought to such musical fare as Bye Bye Birdie and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is something he deliberately strived for as a fan of silent comedy’s greats, and at 96, it’s not something he takes for granted. He began strength training many decades ago, after observing Broadway dancers’ work outs, and maintains a daily regimen of crunches, leg lifts, and hip openers.

Like White, he thrives in the company of younger people.

He’s by far the oldest member of The Vantastix, a barbershop quartet he formed in 2020.

And for those keeping score, he’s 46 years older than his bride of ten years, Arlene Silver, who sings and dances with him in the above video (and directs, too.)

Yes, Van Dyke’s shoulders and torso may have stiffened a bit in the four years since Mary Poppins Returns  found him hopping atop a desk for a spritely soft shoe, but the ease with which he propels himself from a low slung wingback chair at the one-minute mark will strike many viewers as nothing short of miraculous.

(For those admiring the decor, Fallen Fruit’s recent SUPERSHOW installation provided the video’s younger-than-springtime set.)

Van Dyke’s loose limbed appeal is accompanied by a refreshingly flexible attitude, another way in which he models health aging.

A year into his marriage to Silver, he told Parade that they’re so well suited because “she’s very mature for her age, and I’m very immature for my age.”

“Immature in a good way, Silver clarified to HuffPost, “with the wonder of a child”:

He’s just fun, he’s open minded. He’s not stuck in his ways at all.

We take very good care of each other. But, I’m very aware that I have a national treasure on my hands.

No wonder people love him. As proof, witness the twenty-something leaping to their feet to give him an ovation, as he makes his entrance in Disneyland’s 60th-anniversary special six years ago.

12 seconds later, the 90-year-old Van Dyke was also leaping.

“When people tell you you look good in your 90s, what they mean is you don’t look dead,” Van Dyke confided in the late Carl Reiner’s 2017 documentary, If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast:

At 30, I exercised to look good. In my 50s, I exercised to stay fit. In my 70s, to stay ambulatory. In my 80s, to avoid assisted living. Now, in my 90s, I’m just doing it out of pure defiance.

via BoingBoing

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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.

 

When Eartha Kitt Spoke Truth to Power at a 1968 White House Luncheon

Actress Eartha Kitt amassed dozens of stage and screen credits, but is perhaps most fondly remembered for her iconic turn as Catwoman in the Batman TV series, a role she took over from white actress Julie Newmar.

The producers congratulated themselves on this “provocative, off-beat” casting, executives at network affiliates in Southern states expressed outrage, and Kitt’s 9-year-old daughter, Kitt Shapiro,  understood that her mother’s new gig was a “really big deal.”

As Shapiro recalled to Closer Weekly:

This was 1967, and there were no women of color at that time wearing skintight bodysuits, playing opposite a white male with sexual tension between them! She knew the importance of the role and she was proud of it. She really is a part of history. She was one of the first really beautiful black women — her, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge — who were allowed to be sexy without being stereotyped. It does take a village, but I do think she helped blaze a trail.

Eartha Kitt was a trailblazer in other ways too.

Catwoman vs. the White House, director Scott Calonico’s short documentary for the New Yorker (above), uses vintage photos, clippings and footage to relate how Kitt disrupted a White House luncheon the month after her Batman debut, taking President Lyndon B. Johnson to task over the hardships faced by working parents.


Johnson was clearly under the impression that he was swinging by the White House Family Dining Room as a favor to his wife, Lady Bird, who was hosting 50 guests for the Women Doers’ Luncheon. The theme of the luncheon was “What Citizens Can Do to Help Insure Safe Streets.”

Chairman of the National Council on the Arts Roger Stevens had suggested that Kitt or actress Ruby Dee would be fine additions to the guest list in recognition for their activism with urban youth.

As Janet Mezzack details in her Presidential Studies Quarterly article, “Without Manners You Are Nothing”: Lady Bird Johnson, Eartha Kitt, and The Women Doers’ Luncheon of January 18, 1968, Kitt had an impressive track record of volunteerism.

She taught dance to Black children who could not afford lessons, testified before the House General Subcommittee on Education on behalf of the DC youth-led Rebels with a Cause, and established a non-profit organization in Watts where underprivileged youth studied traditional African and modern dance and “learned about personality development, poise, grooming, diction, and physical fitness.”

She was being vetted for a seat on President Johnson’s Citizens Advisory Board on Youth Opportunity, chaired by Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Surely, a dream guest!

Mezzack writes:


Having selected Kitt as a guest for the upcoming luncheon, FBI clearance checks were conducted on her and other prospective guests at the White House. The FBI cleared her through normal channels. Because of previous embarrassing situations involving entertainers invited to White House functions, inquiries also were made of Roger Stevens office to determine if Kitt would “do anything to embarrass” the White House, “and the answer was no.”

Call it embarrassment for a good cause.

Johnson was unprepared for spontaneous interaction as hard hitting as Kitt’s, when she stood up to say:

Mr. President, you asked about delinquency across the United States, which we are all interested in and that’s why we’re here today. But what do we do about delinquent parents? The parents who have to go to work, for instance, who can’t spend the time with their children that they should. This is, I think, our main problem. What do we do with the children then, when the parents are off working?

Fumbling for an answer, Johnson intimated that the male policymakers behind recent Social Security Amendments that could offset costs of daycare were “really not the best judges of how to handle children.”

Perhaps Miss Kitt would like to take her concerns with the other women in attendance?

Understandably, Kitt seethed, and continued the conversation by confronting the First Lady over the war in Vietnam.

Director Calonico toggles between Kitt’s recollections of the exchange and excerpts from Mrs. Johnson’s White House audio diary, cobbling together a reconstruction that is surely faithful to the spirit of the thing, if not exactly word for word:

Kitt’s words as recalled by Mrs. Johnson:

You send the best in this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street. They will take pot and get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.

Kitt’s words as recalled by the speaker herself:

Mrs. Johnson, you are a mother too, although you have had daughters and not sons. I am a mother and I know the feeling of having a baby come out of my gut. I have a baby and then you send him off to war. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot, and Mrs. Johnson, in case you don’t understand the lingo, that’s marijuana.

That last comment seems funny now, and Calanico can’t resist infusing further dark humor with a shot of a masked Kitt tooling around in Catwoman’s campy Kittycar as the actress describes how the White House cancelled her ride home from the luncheon.

The next day’s newspapers were full of emotionally charged reports as to how Kitt’s remarks had left the hostess “stunned to tears” – a description both participants resisted.

Within weeks, North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive, and Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

Meanwhile Kitt’s outspokenness at the luncheon cast an instantaneous chill on her career, stateside.

She spent the next decade performing in Europe, unaware that the CIA had opened a file on her, compiling information from confidential sources in Paris and New York City as to her “loose morals.”

Her response to the most outrageous allegations in that file should make lifelong fans of feminists who were barely out of diapers when Halle Berry slipped into Catwoman’s skintight pajamas.

Calonico is right to punctuate this with Kitt’s triumphant growl.

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.

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.

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