Design on TV: Behind the Funny — an SNL Rehearsal

If one day we rubbed our beer bottle long enough to cause a magical genie to appear, and we were granted a dream career, set designer for Saturday Night Live would be our choice. Heck, refilling water glasses for cast members would make the top twenty. But until that day arrives, we’re usually forced to usual sit on our couch and point at backdrops we think are impressive, or chairs we’d like to own, or laugh at absolutely any face Kristen Wigg makes.

But this week was different. We managed to infiltrate Studio 8H to see the famed SNL dress rehearsal that takes place immediately before the big dog and pony show. And Neil Patrick Harris (DOOGIE HOWSER!) was there, with Taylor Swift (she used to make out with a Jonas Brother, a nearby 13-year-old girl informed us), and Liza Minnelli (Broadway goddess or Lucille 2, depending on who you ask).

The beauty of attending an SNL taping — besides the incredible history and lineage of the show — is that you see nothing and everything all at once. For many of the sketches our neck was twisted in unimaginable ways to get a glimpse of the top of NPH’s beautiful noggin’, often to no avail. We didn’t even see Liza’s crazy-face until the final curtain call. But what you do see is far more riveting. PAs rolling giant blown-up images of Rockefeller Center (for this Today Show skewer) or wrestling with mini chandeliers (like for this amazing Broadway sketch). Assistants leading jogging cast members off set fast enough to get changed. Bill Hader doing precious little dances off-stage.

It was splendiferous.

Sets are sprawled out across a thin swath of warehouse, with the two most familiar scenes, the train station/orchestra pit and the musical artist performance space, sandwiched in the middle. Various other sets are wedged where they’ll fit, or are flats waiting to be turned around. It’s not made to dazzle the studio audience. Instead you sort of get the feeling that they forgot they invited you and might ask you to help move something — and you want to. At one point a tower of desks (for a sex-ed sketch you’ll never see) toppled over, only to have an army of brawny men sweep in to make sure it didn’t cause the timing to run off the rails. We almost hopped down to lend a hand, but it’s a 20-foot drop from the high seats to the floor. We passed.

The first thing we noticed about this week’s sets was the back drop for the Sardi’s scenario. Designers had recreated the hallowed theater haunt, complete with iconic caricatures hanging on the wall and a window with a perfect city view; it was a point-for-point model that looked like it could have been lying around from previous sketches. Chances are it was built in the last 36 hours.

Other set ups were less involved, and downright wee. The Rachel Maddow Show (welcome aboard Abby Elliot!) set was the size of a couch, while the back drop of Andy Samberg’s Billy Bob Thornton selling Kangols hats was even thinner — Samberg’s personal wingspan is wider. There’s no time for extra space. Like high schoolers with book reports, designers don’t have a lot of time. Sketches aren’t blocked until Friday, when writers sit down with set and costume designers to work out details like what sorts of knobs a long-nailed NPH should be twiddling, giving folks a good day to pull the whole thing together.

But it’s not always flawless. The Frost/Nixon sketch featured an overly complicated (though painstakingly accurate) set up. Crew members were scrambling to ensure ferns, picture frames, and a snazzy ’70s lamp were in the proper place in time. As an assistant counted down the seconds left, the set dressing was no where near done, and the prep had to ramble on for an additional 15 seconds. While we can’t be sure of what changed, the show’s order was completely different from the rehearsal, perhaps to allow time for the fauna to be properly set for this one.

So we learned many lessons from our school field trip to Santa’s Magical Workshop. Lorne Michaels is a minimalist — only make what you need to get the shot. But then hire a truckload of people to move it.

Also, we were learned that Fred Armisen can shred on the guitar, since he and the adorable Kristen Wigg dueted on Prince’s “1999” before the show. But that’s just us gloating.