July 2004

On Directing SNL


Even now in its 29th year, Saturday Night Live (SNL) is still one of the most-watched and inventive programs on the air. The show's success is the result of a collective effort from its producers, writers, cast, crew and directors. James Signorelli, who directs SNL's film and commercial parodies, and Beth McCarthy-Miller, who directs the live segments, discussed the challenges and pleasures of putting together 90 minutes of comedy a week.

When asked, "What was it like coming in to Saturday Night Live in its 20th season," McCarthy-Miller, who joined the show in 1995, replied, "It was kind of like throwing a wrench into a very well-oiled machine."

While McCarthy-Miller had plenty of experience directing for television during her years with The Jon Stewart Show and MTV, Saturday Night Live proved to be a different experience. "Whether you come from cable or network, there's no other show on television that's done like SNL," she said. "When you do a talk show, you do test shows before they even get on the air. The first time you do Saturday Night Live, you're on the air."

Fortunately, McCarthy-Miller was surrounded by a supportive crew, many of whom had been with the show since the beginning. "Lorne hires the best of the best and there are incredibly talented people on the show and they were very gracious with my learning curve," McCarthy-Miller said.

James Signorelli has been directing the show's filmed parodies since it first aired in 1975. "At first the parodies were casual and improvisational," he said. But, "as time went on, we tried to refine the parody commercial so that it really reflected the excesses of commercial production, and at the same time have at least four or five good laughs in them."

Beth McCarthy-Miller and James Signorelli

A week in the life of a Saturday Night Live director is hectic. While the pressures of directing the live segment and the filmed portions differ, both McCarthy-Miller and Signorelli are working with very little time.

On Monday morning, McCarthy-Miller attends a pitch meeting for the writers and that week's host in executive producer (and a 2004 DGA Honors recipient) Lorne Michaels' office. She spends Wednesday morning reading the scripts for the different segments that the writers completed on Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday afternoon she sits at a table read with the cast, the writers and the host. "Wednesday night is when my craziness begins," she said. "After we pick the show, we find out where we're going to fit it because it's not the largest studio in the world."

On Thursday, McCarthy-Miller starts rehearsing the show, beginning with the less elaborate sketches and music numbers. Because of her extensive background with MTV, McCarthy-Miller revels in directing the live music segments in particular. "It's the only time during the show I can breathe," she said. "It's more accessible because I've been doing it for so many years."

Thursday is Signorelli's only day of pre-production for the week's filmed commercial parody. On Friday, he starts shooting at 6 a.m. in order to get the cast members back to set where McCarthy-Miller rehearses the sketches until midnight. Signorelli wraps at 2 p.m. because "that's the point when DuArt says, 'if you don't bring us the film we're going home,'" he joked. He edits straight through Friday night while the film is being developed.

(Top) A fellow DGA member chats with SNL director Beth McCarthy-Miller (below) SNL director James Signorelli is welcomed by fellow DGA members

McCarthy-Miller spends Friday night in a hotel room with her assistant director, Stefani Cohen, marking that week's script from top to bottom. They make notes on every camera shot, cue and transition, preparing themselves for the following day's run-through of the show. Signorelli comes back to the studio on Saturday to complete the last bit of audio finishing "completing a whole full-fledged parody commercial for the air within about 72 hours."

On Saturday night, there is a dress rehearsal in front of an audience only hours before the show goes live. Afterward the head writer, producer and McCarthy-Miller meet with Michaels to revise the show's schedule, pulling some sketches out completely.

Then it's 11:30. "I think the best quote that Lorne has said about the show is that we don't go on the air at 11:30 because we're ready. We go on the air because it's 11:30," McCarthy-Miller joked.

Donald Trump in a sketch from Saturday Night Live

Both McCarthy-Miller and Signorelli were eager to assert that the show's enduring success is a result of a wide and cumulative effort from everyone involved. "It's such a creative process for everybody," McCarthy-Miller said. "It really does get the best possible product on the air because everybody's input makes it better and better."




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