Spring 2015

Live From New York

In putting together Saturday Night Live, one of television's most iconic shows, director Don Roy King and his team have to deal with enormous changes at the last minute. Here's what really goes on behind the scenes.


Maestro At Work: Don Roy King has directed more than 170 episodes of Saturday Night Live since he started on the show in 2006. "It is the highest mountain I've ever climbed," he says. "But I've never had more fun climbing." (Photos: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC)

Don Roy King, the longtime director of Saturday Night Live, arrives one day in late February to the eighth floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza for his usual Thursday meeting with members of the production team. He needs to run through the graphics, sound effects, video footage, and other necessary elements for the upcoming show. But first things first.

"The last show was not bad at all," he begins, waggishly referring to the 40th anniversary blowout special that aired the previous week, featuring a star-studded cast of current and former SNL players and three-and-a-half hours of old and new sketches, clips, and music. Despite only a week to put it together and no rehearsal run, King and his team steered the jam-packed trip down memory lane without any notable hitches. "I heard it was more fun to do than the 25th anniversary show," he adds.

"Really?" playfully interjects Steven Cimino, the technical director, who worked the show from his usual control room spot on King's right. "You had fun between 4 and 7 when the lineup changed?"

"What?" King quips back. "There was a change and no one told me about it?"

Everyone laughs.

That's because every person in that room knows how much an episode of SNL can radically shift in the fleeting hour or so before it goes on-air. "That is the scariest moment of the entire week," King says, describing how, after the usual 8 p.m. rehearsal ends, the show's creator and executive producer, Lorne Michaels, calls everyone into his office and announces all the changes he wants before the live 11:30 p.m. broadcast.

The lineup generally shuffles. The cold open can get traded out for another. Sketches shrink or get axed altogether. New endings are tacked on. Gags are pulled and punchlines added. Costumes, wigs, props, graphics, voice-overs, sound effects, animations, and stage setups are modified. Players might even switch roles.

While it's always done to make the show the best it can be, King and his directing team, which includes associate director Michael Mancini and two stage managers, Chris Kelly and Gena Rositano, must stay on top of everything.

"It is the highest mountain I've ever climbed. But I've never had more fun climbing," says King, who has logged more than 170 episodes since he took over the directing reins in 2006. He won a 2013 DGA Award and five Emmy Awards for directing the iconic sketch comedy and variety program, which continues to amuse, rankle, and influence generations of viewers with its cultural and political satires.

On Your Mark: (top) Stage manager Chris Kelly, positioning Betty White for a skit, has been on the show for 15 years and serves as King’s eyes and ears on the floor; (bottom) Kelly and King visit with an old friend. (Photos: Dana Edelson/NBC)

But as freewheeling as SNL appears on Saturday nights, the weeklong production cycle is a well-ordered operation that keeps everyone on his or her toes. As soon as the last show fades to black, the writers start penning gags for the next one. By late afternoon Wednesday, they present their new material at a lengthy table read attended by Michaels, King and his team, and others.

Michaels chooses 11 of the most promising sketches with the understanding that one or more will get cut. He pads the one-and-a-half- hour show, which also includes a block of fake news ("Weekend Update"), some pre-taped shorts (directed by others), and guest musical numbers, with at least 20 minutes of excess material until the final leg.

That means King has less than three days to get it ready.

He immediately hands over copies of the scripts to all the departments, taking time to bounce ideas with the sets and props people. For a crime scene sketch, for instance, he envisions a single woman's living room with a sofa partly obscuring a dead body. For a Cinderella sketch, he pictures a ballroom with a flight of stairs descending into it. "They take those ideas," he says, "and run with them." In 48 hours, Studio 8H will be blanketed with highly detailed sets.

By noon the next day, everyone's had a chance to review the scripts, and King meets with Mancini, the videotape librarian, graphics designer, script coordinator, and others to break down the elements needed.

For the Cinderella sketch, he tells the casting person, "I want two couples as extras, both dressed up as ballroom dancers." He continues to rattle off elements, including a pair of mannequin legs, some video footage of a hospital exterior, and the sound of a heavy thud for a sketch in which someone falls out of a window.

As soon as King spies a stunt, he engages a professional stunt advisor to help do it safely. For the anniversary show, for instance, a sketch required actor Melissa McCarthy to crash belly-first through a desk (her spot-on tribute to former cast member Chris Farley). The desk was constructed with built-in fractures to easily split apart. King arranged for two desks so she could test it out during the run-through. "I told her how to fall. And where to place her hands to protect herself," he notes.

Also during the meeting, King outlines his strategy for shooting the cold open, the sketch that launches the show before opening credits and the title sequence. The plan is for actor Taran Killam to parody former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani undergoing an existential crisis. With a nod to Michael Keaton's role in Birdman, Killam will exit the stage and roam down a backstage hallway while brooding over his ever-diminishing political stature.

"I was thinking that this pedestal camera could carry him out of the studio," King says to the tech director, who is in charge of handing out King's shot numbers and instructions to the camera operators, "and a handheld would meet him here and back up into the dressing room."

King will block out every sketch, shot for shot and line for line, during rehearsals later that day and on Friday. Each sketch can present a unique set of challenges. Kenan Thompson's recurring anarchic talk show, "What Up With That?" for instance, incorporates a profusion of musicians, dancers, guests, and wacky walk-ons and repeatedly degenerates into a rambunctious free-for-all. The first time he saw it, King thought, "How can this mayhem be staged?" before determining that a camera placed way down low could encompass the multiple moving parts.

Stuff Happens: Stage manager Gena Rositano, who has been with the show for 19 years, mostly deals with the talent and sticks with the hosts starting from Thursday on. (Photo: Dana Edelson/NBC)

The host is like the cherry on top of the show. This week Dakota Johnson, star of Fifty Shades of Grey, follows a long line of big name personalities whom King has directed, including politicians and musicians who never acted before. "Inevitably they come to play," King says, popping in to Studio 8H to introduce himself to Johnson.

She immediately asks about the cue cards. Handheld cue cards, a hallmark of the show, along with the old-fashioned camera crane, are preferred over a teleprompter because they allow for last-second script changes. King advises Johnson to "keep your eyes in one place," and not shift them back and forth from the cards to the other actors when reading lines.

King routinely steps in with pointers for the hosts. When Chris "Ludacris" Bridges headlined, King was initially concerned that the rap artist might show up with an entourage and not fully engage. And he recalls that Ludacris did struggle initially. At a table read, "His voice had a quiver," King says, adding, "I'd be nervous too.

"I said to him, 'Chris, open up physically; work in a flat, presentational way. The comedy is best served when we can see you wide open.'" He also advised him to trust the words. After dress ended, King caught up to Ludacris and complimented his efforts. "He grabbed my lapels and pushed me against the wall and said, 'Thank you for that. Hearing that from the director helps me so much,'" King recalls.

Although meticulous about his job, King's demeanor is friendly and unassuming. He gives and takes the light ribbing that goes on in the control room. He maintains a cool head under pressure. Most of all, he loves being party to this theatrical enterprise.

He started acting at an early age but to please his father, he majored in broadcast in college, where he discovered his knack for directing. "It's just like being a quarterback in football," he says. "I was moving the team forward, calling plays, and watching the clock."

He won his first Emmy in 1977 for directing The Mike Douglas Show and continued directing morning shows at ABC and CBS, finding the work challenging and rewarding. "But it wasn't show business," he says. "I felt like I sort of sold out on my pearly dreams to be part of that magic of making people laugh and clap."

When he started at SNL, he had to simplify his camera choreography. "Unusual angles, camera movements and cuts, and cuts in rhythm aren't necessarily serving the material," he says, but can, instead, distract from the humor. "So I learned to be much more conservative."

He also had to get the hang of the perennial "Weekend Update" segment. He initially paused too long after gags to allow the laughter to die down. "Because I didn't want the audience to miss the beginning of the next joke," he says. Over time he honed his instincts. During that segment of the anniversary show, for instance, former SNL player Jane Curtin delivers the line, "I used to be the only pretty blond woman reading the fake news. Now there's a whole network devoted to that." A split-second later King popped in a graphic of the Fox News logo, drawing a big laugh. King says it was initially scripted to appear before she finished her lines, "but I said it's got to change right after. Otherwise the picture anticipates the laughs."

"Weekend Update" is a graphics behemoth. It can entail 40 pages of script and graphics that continue to be modified even after the live show begins. Keeping track of it and all the show's graphics falls to Mancini, who sits to King's left on the front deck of the control room.

"That's one thing Don doesn't have to worry about," says Mancini, who is a stickler for details. He double-checks word spellings, pulling up the AP Stylebook to ascertain whether a particular spelling is correct. He casts a discerning eye on the layouts, sending them back with suggestions when they don't pass muster.

King says Mancini is the finest control room AD he's ever worked with. "He fills in every gap," he says. "Anything that I miss, he just slides in and fills that gap. If I forget to cue a tape. Or he makes sure the right graphic is up next." King is also awed by Mancini's timing skills. "Lorne will run in and say, 'Where are we?' And he'll say, 'We're three minutes and six seconds over.'"

Mancini also operates the light-up "applause" sign, using his instincts for when and how long to push the button (although sometimes it's predetermined). "You definitely have to have timing and a sense of the joke and when you want that big laugh or chuckle," he says. In addition, he directs the live teases during commercial breaks. "I'm a director for those seven seconds," he says with a laugh, noting that he previously worked as a director on CBS' The Early Show before coming to SNL.

Perfect Timing: (top) King says Michael Mancini (right), who keeps track of the show’s graphics, “is the finest control room AD he’s ever worked with”; (bottom) King encourages guest host Dakota Johnson. (Photos: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC)

Early Thursday afternoon, King stages an extemporaneous taped rehearsal with the guest band: "We're going to do a hunt and peck," he tells the five camera operators stationed around this week's band, Alabama Shakes, before heading back to the control room.

To allow himself more elbowroom, King stands before the bank of monitors, often punctuating the air with his pencil as he calls the camera shots. A production assistant hovers behind, providing music cues. Whenever the band's chorus is entering a refrain, for instance, the PA gives a five second countdown so King can ready a camera operator for a wider shot. King gets a similar heads-up when, say, a guitar riff is looming. King will take the tape home and replay it over and over that evening until he's blocked every shot to the music.

After the first song is done, King confers with the lighting director and decides to move the band further downstage. Stage manager Kelly immediately springs into action. He measures and sets a floor spike for the band's new spot. He makes sure that all the band's equipment is moved equidistant. And he checks that all cables are pulled out of camera view.

"I'm eyes and ears for Don," says Kelly, who has been managing the studio floor for 15 years, primarily overseeing the stagehands and set crews, but also making sure that everybody else out there is getting what they need. "Everybody knows what to do," he says. "I don't have to babysit too much. But I'm making sure everyone's getting the proper message."

He and Rositano, who has been with SNL for 19 years, always try to stay one step ahead of King. Rositano mostly deals with the talent, assisting and keeping track of their whereabouts. She sticks with the hosts from Thursday on, explaining scenes to them, getting them script changes, and ushering them in and out of the studio. "In 10 seconds we can make it anywhere," she says. "Although I'm not going to run Betty White in 10 seconds beforehand."

A recent host, rapper Drake, began a sketch before realizing he was missing the poem he was supposed to read out of a notebook. Rositano dashed off. She made a copy, then raced to the props department for a matching notebook, then crawled on the floor of the set to get it to him out of sight of the cameras. Whatever it takes, she says, "I get them through the show."

On Thursday afternoon when the first sketch rehearsals begin, the sets are not yet constructed. But the stage crew arranges flats to simulate the dimensions. Folding chairs are pulled in. King runs through each sketch once or twice out on the floor, staging how he wants the actors to move while Rositano sets spike marks. After that, King goes into the control booth and blocks it with the cameras.

Mancini, meanwhile, marks King's book so that the director can move along quickly. "He takes my notes," King says, "and translates them into an exact line-for-line marking of what the effect is, what camera it is, and what the shot should be."

When the actors can't be there—perhaps off shooting a mock commercial—Kelly and Rositano fill in for them. "We sing. We dance. We give lines," Kelly says. "I've been hit with buckets of water. We're expected to give as much of a performance as we can."

The stage managers also handle emergencies. A video on the SNL website captured what happened when a wall jack broke during a commercial. With only seconds to air, Kelly marshals the crew to hold the wall in place from behind. It's still wavering when the camera fades up. King can be heard saying in the background, "Just get the desk in and we'll go." Rositano is out of view, blocking the actors from the stage until it's safe. "When you hear the opening applause," Kelly says, "it's for us."

Fridays follow a similar routine, except that sets are being constructed while King continues blocking the sketches, so it's noisier. The sets are done by noon Saturday, although the studio is still crawling with stage designers, carpenters, and painters applying finishing touches. "This is the kind of detail that amazes me," King says, pointing to a fake wall light switch and, in the crime scene apartment, a framed photograph of the victim's dog.

Kelly, meanwhile, is walking around each set, ensuring that props and other stage dressings are where they should be. "So someone hasn't put a tree where Kenan should be standing," he says. He checks for pictures hung on the wall that might still have reflective glass on them. During the afternoon run-through, he also verifies that the cue card holders are standing in their proper sight-line spots as per King's directions.

By now, the backstage hallways are buzzing and crammed with costume racks, wig mannequins, and quick-change booths. Entering the control room, King removes his suit jacket and sets his loose-leaf notebook on a stand before him. It contains all his shots and any production notes he might need.

For the next six hours or so, everyone engages in a full-costume run-through while King firms up camera shots and makes other adjustments. When the crime scene set looks too tidy, he asks Kelly to tilt a picture frame askew. When a vase of flowers appears to sprout out of an actor's head, he has it shifted. When they finally get to "Weekend Update," the only piece that hasn't yet been blocked, King heads into the studio to demonstrate how he wants an actor to crawl over the anchor desk. For a missing sound effect, he records an actor's scream. "Can you make it longer?" King asks her. She belts another for three. "I love it," he says.

Mancini, meanwhile, is double-checking the graphics. He sees that a quote of Giuliani's is not attributed, so he puts in a request for that. A cancel stamp graphic covers too much of an actor's face, so he has it lowered.

Afterward, there is a short break before the 8 p.m. live audience rehearsal begins. When they are finally ready to go, Kelly recites aloud the one-minute show countdown. When he gets to count three, he purposely makes his voice crack and the audience laughs. (It's a long-standing tradition and repeated for every audience rehearsal and live show.) "Ninety-nine percent of the time I get a good laugh," he says, explaining that it's to pique the interest of TV viewers, who will hear the laughter before anything else.

When the audience rehearsal ends in applause at 10:15 p.m., the moment of reckoning has finally arrived. Everyone squeezes into Michaels' office to hear the final show order and what is getting shaved. The crime scene sketch is yanked. A character is erased from another sketch. The cancel stamp graphic is killed. A graphic homage to the just-deceased Leonard Nimoy replaces it. The cold open hallway has to be painted and hung with new pictures. The list goes on.

"I hear those changes go by and I think, 'Oh my, how are we going to do that,'" says King, who convenes a quick meeting with the cameramen. "I'll say, 'Kill shots 24 and 28. And camera three, make shot 29 a two-shot, not a single. Oh wait, he's not going to be in the sketch at all, forget that shot.'"

King continues, "If you had asked me 10 years ago if a show could even be done this way, I would have said absolutely not. The stakes are too high. The audience too big to take the risks that we take to put together what is 90 percent brand new material in that short of time. But we do."

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