By James A. Miller
Special to TelevisionWeek
11:29 p.m. and all is hell.
Nowhere else in the comedy universe does “one minute to air” constitute an opportunity for disaster more than in NBC’s Studio 8-H in New York-the home of “Saturday Night Live.” Here, the point of no return really is the point of no return, a graphic contrast to the situation at sitcom tapings in Los Angeles.
Sitcoms are taped comfortably in front of a studio audience that sits tolerantly through forgotten lines and technical glitches that force cut after cut, “stop tape” after “stop tape.” The studio audience even enjoys the fluffs and blunders, knowing they’ll probably show up on a fluff-and-blunder special some day.
David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, Conan O’Brien, et al., are “live” to tape-they can, if necessary, stop at any time and can also take advantage of the hours before airtime for post-production fixes and alterations.
At “Saturday Night Live” there is no margin for error, no fixing it in post. Flawless execution is not a goal, but a necessity.
A walk around Studio 8-H during that giddy, tense minute before showtime gives the impression that doing “Live” live is like climbing Mount Everest on a very cold day. In your shorts.
Not only is it live, but it’s still being constructed during that 60 seconds before air (and after it-even during the show). After the dress rehearsal, which often lasts past 10 p.m., executive producer Lorne Michaels rushes up to his ninth-floor office to meet with key producers and writers and rework the lineup for the live show, setting it-almost-in stone.
This is the most important of the week’s many meetings, the one where the bell tolls with virtually absolute finality. A sketch that had been successfully pitched to the guest host on Monday, survived the read-through on Wednesday, was blocked and rehearsed (and written onto cue cards) on Friday and even earned lots of laughs at “dress” may still not make it to air, sometimes simply because dress ran long and something had to go.
Many a young performer in the show’s 30-year history has been painfully embarrassed after phoning family and friends to tell them his or her sketch got a great reaction at dress and would definitely appear in the show-“Be sure to watch!”-only to have it cut out at that eleventh-hour meeting.
Some take it worse than others. Cheri Oteri confessed in an interview that she would often greet the new lineup with tears when she saw that a sketch she had labored over all week had been jettisoned. Brilliant impressionist Darrell Hammond can create a black cloud for himself upon making the same demoralizing discovery. It happens to everyone eventually; only “Weekend Update” is sacrosanct and never killed.
Mr. Michaels makes the final decisions, basing them on more than laughs. He’s looking for balance among the cast and variety of subject matter, and he wants the guest host to be comfortable with the final lineup and the host’s degree of participation in the sketches. And, of course, he has to deal with timing, timing, timing.
As it is, Mr. Michaels will often go into the live show with eight to 15 minutes’ more material than needed, and will continue making cuts throughout the broadcast. The rundown is in constant flux. When Mr. Michaels decides on the lineup, cards are posted on his office bulletin board and the cast, writers and others crowd up to it to see what has survived-much like college students trying to see posted grades or athletes learning whether they made the team.
After Mr. Michaels’ decision, every minute will be precious until the beginning of the show. The lineup isn’t the only thing subject to change. Based on audience reaction during dress, possible objections from censors and just because they have the opportunity, writers will do more rewriting on the sketches that survive.
The key to the post-dress meeting is to have it end no later than 11 p.m. As it is, that gives everybody only half an hour before the show starts to adapt, plan costume changes, learn new lines and make other adjustments.
After the meeting concludes at 11, production assistants take the show book that will be used for the director and make the all-important changes. Every page that has a change has a Post-It note on it, and virtually every page will wind up with one. Rare is the show when Beth Miller, the show’s director, will be up to speed on all the changes before airtime. Her best hope is to absorb and execute the changes for the first block, then use commercial time from then on to focus on other changes.
Every change requires another round of coordination among the director, the stage manager, the technical director, cast members and even wardrobe. The people in wardrobe must keep up with the changing lineup for the show so they can figure out the best locations to change the costumes of whoever is in whatever sketch. They have to be strategic with this decision, because time for wardrobe changes is precious.
To experience sheer madness, visit the cue cards department. Every line change must be reflected on the cards, there are often two or three sets of cards for each sketch, and each set must conform to all the others. The host and cast members try not to rely too heavily on cue cards, but when changes are made mere minutes before the sketch airs, they really have no choice: It’s read or die.
“Saturday Night Live” hews religiously to its chain of command. In the cue card department, only production assistants are allowed to talk directly with cue card writers. A script-writer who attempts to convey directly to a cue card person a change that he or she wants made in a sketch will be first ignored and later admonished. It isn’t an overstatement to say that there probably isn’t another show in all of television that grants such clout to its production assistants.
Elsewhere in and around 8-H, a studio that was historic as a performance venue even before “Saturday Night Live” arrived in 1975, the final minute ticks down. Veteran announcer Don Pardo, survivor of many eras in broadcasting, warms up his voice in the announcer’s booth. Backstage, the host goes through whatever rituals and recites whatever mantras might help in preparation for the big moment ahead-the grand entrance after the cold open and opening credits. Regardless, Mr. Michaels pays a final visit to offer counsel, courage, whatever he thinks will help the host retain sanity and make it through that door and onto the stage.
The musical guests? They’re just chilling in the dressing room, though in the history of the show there have been groups and solo performers who have vanished until moments before they were scheduled to perform. Writers are still rewriting, cue card people are still printing out big words in various colors on the large white cards, costumes are still being nipped and tucked.
To get and keep the studio audience hyped, the band plays until 11:29, following a quick warm-up by Darrell Hammond or whoever gets the job that week. (Jimmy Fallon got to be especially good at it.) No matter how many times a visitor, an outsider, is witness to this final, crucial countdown, it always gets the heart beating faster. You have no stake whatsoever in the outcome and yet still feel nervousness bordering on panic as the whole studio reverberates in a kind of controlled pandemonium.
And there, by stark contrast, is Lorne Michaels-a portrait of calm, the quiet eye of the storm, the master of a domain that has become an American institution. He appears amazingly unfazed no matter how overlong dress rehearsal was or how many unexpected crises-late arrivals, broken equipment, hysterical fits of temper or temperament-he has had to deal with.
The last few seconds are shouted out by the floor manager and then 11:29, a very long minute, ends. Live from New York, it’s you know what.
11:30 and all is well.
James Andrew Miller is the co-author of “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturda
y Night Live” and has written, produced and been an executive in both entertainment and news.