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‘Saturday Night Live’: How the Sets for TV’s Craziest Sketch Comedy (Camels, Airplanes and Crooning Clintons!) Are Built Overnight

Veteran production designer Eugene Lee reveals just what it takes to make the weekly comedy show in mere days.

Aidy Bryant and Tracy Morgan on "Saturday Night Live."

Aidy Bryant and Tracy Morgan in “Saturday Night Live.”

Dana Edelson/NBC

After 41 years and 12 Emmy nominations (including one win in 2013), production designer Eugene Lee is the definition of modest when it comes to his work on “Saturday Night Live.” “If it looks good, I always think it’s by accident,” he told IndieWire recently from his studio in Connecticut. “I only see the mistakes. But guess what? You have the chance to make it better next week.”

READ MORE: ‘Saturday Night Live’: The 21 Best Sketches From This Season

Eugene Ted studio shot by Ted Lee

Eugene Lee

Courtesy of Eugene Lee

Lee, who has been with the show since the very beginning, had plenty of stories to share about what it’s like to create these miniature worlds in a super-compresssed time frame. His “SNL” work “week,” as he explains it, begins on Wednesday, with a 3pm read-through — “it doesn’t usually start until later, but it’s scheduled for 3.”

It’s after the readthrough that the sketches to be produced are selected, which is when Lee and his team get to work, coordinating with director Don King to determine where things fit in the studio and figure out who will be designing what. (Lee usually does boats — he has a soft spot for them.)

“Our goal is to get out of the building before the next day — if we get out of there before midnight, we’re doing pretty good,” he said. But then the real work starts.

Production begins at 5am on Thursday, giving the crew two days to build sets for 12-15 sketches, at least three or four of which will get cut before 11:30pm. The studio, hearkening back to the days of radio, simply isn’t that big, and so they’re looking to economize space whenever possible. So when a sketch gets cut, they’ll break down the set right after dress rehearsal, even with the audience in the theater.

Lee, heading up a team of designers including Akira Yoshimura, Keith Raywood, Joe DeTullio and Wells Thorne, recently got on the phone to reflect on Season 41, picking five sketches that provided his favorite challenges, revealing which was the nightmare and why the simplest solutions tended to work best.

“The Undersea Hotel” (April 2, 2016)

Host Peter Dinklage plays the manager of a hotel with an underwater honeymoon suite — the drawbacks to which become apparent when a dead body (Taran Killam) floats by.  

“Those are the kind of things where there was all this discussion about how that might get done… Keith, I think, was pushing the video which we did, and it turned out pretty good. We don’t do too much of that. We’re a little old fashioned — we’re still drafting with a pencil. when I work outside NBC I work with people who don’t know what a pencil is.

“We ordered a flying rig with a track at great expense but the cables were too visible and [Killam] said “why don’t I just do it?” We said well, do it. and he was just terrific. it’s like those famous sketches from vaudeville where people go behind the sofa and walk down the steps — a few people have made their career out of this kind of trick. We cut the technical flying rig and he just pantomined it.

“I think we did it the right way. Usually the simplest idea is the best and often the simplest idea is the funniest.

“Bob Flanagan, who does our puppets — he did the mean little puppet thing that came in at the end. Flanagan is the guy for special projects — need a talking monkey or a smoking beaver? He’s the perfect person. He knows it needs to be done by Saturday.”

“The Restaurant Cold Open” (February 13, 2016)

A friendly brunch keeps getting interrupted by a crooning Hillary Clinton (McKinnon) (and friends). 

From the Set: Melissa McCarthy and Kanye West

Kate McKinnon in “Saturday Night Live.”

Dana Edelson/NBC

“Oh yeah, that was a nightmare! Nobody seemed to know what it should be like, including the writers. The writers kept changing their minds; they were unclear about what kind of restaurant it was, high class, low class. And that’s why we had little elevators under the tables because busting through the table — easy to say, not so easy to do.

“This was one of those things that got finished in the studio, because it was changing all the time. It was typical Saturday night low tech — even when it was failing, it was funny.

“The writing was actually wonderful, which is how it should be. I think in a general way the design department feels that it should stay in the background. If we’re trying to do funny design, that fails. And usually Lorne [Michaels] doesn’t like that either.”

READ MORE: Lorne Michaels on ‘SNL’s’ Future, Seth Meyers’ Partisanship, Recruiting Larry David and Not Apologizing for Trump

“The Bus Sketch” (February 13, 2016)

Host Melissa McCarthy gets chatty with Leslie Jones on a doomed bus ride. 

“I drew that bus — a real bus is half curves, same with airplanes, there’s curved shapes and things we don’t have time to do. So it’s kind of primitive, which is part of its charm. The way we do a bus it’s pieces of plywood put together and it kind of looks like a bus and then we paint the guardrails yellow. When you see the driver with the steering wheel, if you got closer to it or pulled back you’d realize that it’s just on a nail, like kids built it.

“[To create the movement of the bus], what we do is we get some inner tubes and we put the set on top of the inner tubes so the stagehands can rock it a little bit. I don’t know when we started doing that. And then we ask the camera people, ‘Can you move around a little?’

“We ended up using chromakey, a couple of them, for movement out the windows. But it’s kind of funny because it’s whatever could be gotten in time — so you see buildings and then suddenly boom they’re in the country. It’s kind of charming.”

“Delta Flight” (October 10, 2015)

Host Amy Schumer and Cecily Strong just want to get through their special flight attendant song. 

“We have this huge fan, it looks like an airplane prop [engine]. I’ve borrowed it and used it on a few of my Broadway sets. Just seeing it is kind of funny, it’s big — but once again, it was just acted. it’s hard for us to do that kind of thing because we’re talking two days to build it and you can only do so much, but that’s kind of the fun of it.”

How did they get the oxygen masks to drop down at exactly the right time? “That’s just someone above standing on a ladder tossing them over.”

“Brian Fellows’s Safari Planet: A Beaver and A Camel” (October 15, 2015)

Host Tracy Morgan reprises one of his classic characters — an animal expert who loves to meet live animals, like a camel. 

“I think it was our first camel — we have a great outside prop department, if it can be found they can find it. So if the writer says camel, we get it if we possibly can.

“The camel had its own mind and was all over the place. He wasn’t very cooperative — he was cute, but he was big. I didn’t see him come up in the elevator but he must have been pretty cramped.

“It was kind of messy on air. The camel got in front of the camera. But there’s no going back and making it better. That’s the good news about live — whatever happens happens.”

“Saturday Night Live” returns October 1, 2016 on NBC. 

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