In 1975, Eugene Lee was offered a job on a new comedy sketch show launching on NBC. Lee had never worked on a TV show before, but he had designed sets for operas and theatre. He took the job and moved into an office opposite the NBC studios in New York’s Rockefeller Plaza.
The show was Saturday Night Live, the weekly series devised by producer Lorne Michaels. In the 41 years since, Lee and his team have designed hundreds of sets for sketches involving A-list guests and comedians, recreating boardrooms, living rooms, restaurants and government offices for the show. This year, he has worked on several sketches poking fun at President-elect Donald Trump.
SNL’s US election sketches have proved hugely popular – it reported its best season in 24 years this year, with an average of 11.3 million viewers watching each week. They have also been popular online: a spoof presidential debate featuring Alec Baldwin as Trump and Kate McKinnon as Hilary Clinton (below) has had over 22 million views on YouTube.
A week in the life of SNL
Lee says the SNL team has just four days to prepare the show and construct sets. Every Wednesday, he takes the train from Rhode Island (where he lives) to New York (where the show is broadcast) and spends the afternoon reading through scripts submitted by writers. Once the producers have decided which scripts they’d like to use, Lee and his team will work with the writers and actors to devise each set.
“We go and talk to the writers and actors and try to work out what they see in the set,” he explains. “If the script says there’s a restaurant, we’ll say, ‘what kind of restaurant? Is it high class? Is it elegant? Does it have red chequered tablecloths?’…. SNL is best when there’s great writing – if a sketch doesn’t have that, then it’s a fail – so we listen to the writers and they tell us what they think.
“It’s a mad scene, because the writers have to produce their own pieces. If [a sketch] needs scenery, they need to come and talk to me and the people in my department, and if they want costumes, they have to talk to Tom and the costume people, so they learn a lot about how things get done,” he adds.
Once he has a good idea of what a scene should look like, Lee and his team will sit down and sketch out each set by hand. “A few of [the team] now work a little more on their computers but it’s slow going – it’s still faster to draw by hand,” he says. “We aim to get it all done by midnight, and then a person from the shop [where sets are built] comes and takes the drawings away.”
A construction crew works overnight on Wednesday and throughout Thursday, delivering sets to the studio on Thursday evening and Friday morning. “On Friday, everyone works really hard,” says Lee. “We have painters painting scenery while [the actors] are rehearsing in the studio and filling it up with things. You’re trying to co-exist with lots of other people – the director is rehearsing down one end and the crew is setting up the set that’s just come in down the other,” he explains.
On Friday night, the cast have a meeting with Michaels to decide the order of the show – “and then on Saturday, we come in and try to finish the sets,” says Lee. “At 1 o’clock, we stop rehearsing and we have a technical, where we go through every sketch. If someone’s going to bust through a wall [in a sketch] then we have to try it and see if it works.” The technical is followed by a dress rehearsal in front of a studio audience. “That’s often the most interesting one [to watch], because you’ll see things that might get cut,” adds Lee. At 11.30pm, it’s time for the live show.
Lee’s team is made up of just a handful of people. Designer Leo Yoshimura has been with SNL since the show’s beginning, while Keith Raywood has been there over 30 years. The show also takes on paid interns throughout the year.
Raywood is often responsible for set decoration, sourcing props and furnishings, while designer Joe DeTullio works from the scene shop and is on hand answer questions while sets are being built.
The series is filmed in NBC’s Studio 8-H – a space that was originally built for the NBC Orchestra in the 1930s and was converted into a TV studio in the 1950s. The only entrance to the studio is via small elevators, which presents some interesting challenges for the design team.
“The scenery has to come in in little pieces,” he says. “Whenever we have an automobile in a sketch, we usually take a real one and send it to the body shop, where they take everything they can out of it, and then they cut it in two and put little wheels on it…. Usually, it just fits in the elevator by about half an inch!”
“The biggest challenge is that you need things right away”
One of the biggest challenges the design department faces is sourcing backdrops and unusual items at short notice. “You’ll need a giant clay pot or something, and you’ll find one and people will say, ‘that’ll be ready in about a week’, and we’ll say, ‘no, no, no! We need it in the next hour!’ Sometimes that’s a big challenge, especially now because people don’t keep things in stock anymore … but we have a lot of people who we use regularly,” he adds.
The way props are produced has also changed: “We use a lot of printed backdrops and when we started the show, they all came from a shop in California and they were hand-painted,” explains Lee. “Now, everything’s done electronically and it’s all printed…. The lead time is usually a week or something but with us, they’ll do it in a day or two.” Working to such tight deadlines can be expensive, however – a single backdrop might cost around $20,000.
In 40 years, the basic format of SNL has remained largely unchanged. The design team still works in much the same way is it did in the show’s early years – though Lee says sets have become more complex. An early set might have featured a couple of chairs, a lightbulb and a painted backdrop, but a recent scene involving a Christmas tree required three separate sets and a stunt performer. “[The sets] used to be simpler and not as detailed or realistic. Now, they want more detail – it’s more like a movie,” adds Lee.
Outside of his work for SNL, Lee – who is now in his seventies – continues to design sets for theatre. He designed the sets for Wicked and musical The Pirate Queen and has also worked on production design for films, including 1980s crime drama Hammett. “I don’t think there’s a great deal of difference [between theatre and TV]” he adds. “Saturday Night Live is a lot like theatre and the great part is that it’s live…. It’s much more fun to be totally live, although it is more of a challenge!” he adds.
Saturday Night Live is broadcast on NBC. You can also watch clips from shows on its YouTube channel.