Saturday Night Live has reflected politics and pop culture through comedy since 1975. The cast has changed throughout the years, but there are still some things that haven’t changed. Lorne Michaels has acted as the producer of the show almost entirely throughout its run, and there have been others who have always stayed with it as well.
Eugene Lee is one of those people as the production designer of the show. Over the years, he has helped create iconic sets of famous sketches and also still finds time to help out with other iconic late night shows and Broadway musicals. The Cheat Sheet talked to the Tony and Emmy winner by phone on Dec. 14 about the crazy behind-the-scenes process.
Here are 15 things to know about Saturday Night Live, including the crazy detail you probably didn’t notice in every hallway skit.
1. A director didn’t want the iconic Yankee seats at first
Q: You said in the past that you think your biggest contribution to the show was rearranging the seats in the studio. Do you still feel that way?
Eugene Lee: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely! I honestly think it would be a different show if we changed the seating.
Q: Why’s that?
Lee: You know, when I started this show, I had never done any television and I laid out the studio the way I thought it should be. The director at the time, Dave Wilson said, ‘No, no no that will not work. You have to do it slightly differently. The crane can’t function. It doesn’t have enough space blah blah blah.’
Anyway, I didn’t listen. I didn’t listen, I just did what I thought was best at the time and it really hasn’t, you know, I don’t know if it’s worked out very well. It’s not perfect but [I] would never change it. Lorne [Michaels] at the time was worried about the seats that they weren’t comfortable enough but they were the only thing we could get fast.
Q: You said that you were sentimental about them. Why is that?
Lee: Well, they’re kind of street. They were renovating. People tell all kinds of stories, the pages go through saying things, and occasionally I’m in the studio and there’s a tour and a page telling people — but anyway, they were renovating Yankee stadium taking the old wooden seats out and replacing them with fiberglass seats and so the company making them had a lot of extra ones. So it was something we could get fast and we’ve never changed them and they’re different colors, yellow [is] kinda nice.
Next: Lee got seats for this late night show from another country.
2. Lee has also worked on The Tonight Show
Lee: I must say on the other things I’ve done recently here, I laid out The Tonight Show, the new Tonight Show, and Late Night. The seating there, I got from Italy, which is very elegant and nice. But there’s still something kind of street about the kind of sports stadium seats.
Next: The regular sketch got a makeover last minute.
3. They’ve had to build a Weekend Update set on Friday for Saturday
Q: Can you remember any sets that you did change quickly and why?
Lee: Well, every once in a while, suddenly at the last minute, like, they call and say ‘Oh we want a new update set’ and it’s like Friday [laughs.] So we would build them a new set and it was very fast. It was so fast, one of the line producers actually, the next week sent out a little dinner for the shop crew out in Brooklyn where we build the scenery because they were awfully nice to put up with us.
We do everything last minute. We still don’t know everything that goes into the show on Saturday this week. We think there’s some more things to come, history. But so far, we don’t know. That’s part of the charm of the whole thing.
Next: These three things can be found in most hallway sketches.
4. Most scenes in the hallway include a llama, chorus girl, and Abe Lincoln
Lee: Every time we go into the hallways and not shoot in the studio — usually we have, it’s not 100%, but it’s a lot, we always have a llama in the background. There’s a llama, Abe Lincoln in a top hat, big top hat, and a chorus girl that looks like a Rockette. Chorus girl, Abe Lincoln, and the llama — often they’re not part of the scene, they’re just in the background. You see them, if there’s a hallway, you kind of look and there’s Abe Lincoln way down at the end of the hallway. We don’t know why we do this! [laughs]
Next: The show used to drop this toy in the middle of sketches.
5. A stuffed cow was used for sketches they weren’t sure would work
Lee: We used to have a stuffed animal, like a cow, kind of a black-and-white cow and we hung it up in the grid on sketches we didn’t think were gonna work and then we would just drop it and it would fall down. We don’t do those silly things anymore, I think.
6. The one time Saturday Night Live was in danger was when Lorne Michaels left
Q: You’ve been with SNL since the very beginning and now it seems like it’s always going to be on the air, but can you remember if there was ever a time you thought SNL wasn’t gonna make it?
Lee: Oh yes, there was the missing five years after Lorne [Michaels] went. After the first year — five years, it was really crazy. The cast was all leaving and Lorne was leaving and I, of course, went with Lorne because that’s how I am. And that lasted, almost the year he left, the next year it almost got canceled, I know that.
It didn’t, he came back. I came back. The people came back. I, at the moment, am working on another project for Mr. Michaels.
Next: Lorne Michaels planned an interesting business when he left ‘Saturday Night Live.’
7. Michaels and Lee have plans to work together at a pencil factory one day
Q: And what was that project?
Lee: It’s a little crazy. He has a house up in Maine and when he was up there, he told me one day I was in his office that he had gone to an auction and they were selling all the machines that make pencils and he bought all the machines.
And I said, ‘Wow that’s really great.’ So he said, ‘Hey, you can run my pencil factory’ and I said, ‘That sounds great.’ So who knows? That seems to be moving ahead.
Next: This is how many original people there are still working on the show.
8. There are less than five people left from the original show
Q: You worked with Lorne Michaels on so many projects over the years. What is it about him that makes you want to continue working for him?
Lee: He’s a very interesting guy. I find him to be a very fascinating guy. He’s a really smart guy. He’s been wildly loyal to me and helpful in anything. I can only say good things about him. There’s not many of us left from the first show here. I can count the people who are left on one hand I think.
He has a wonderful way of finding good people, all his people. I mean even people working for the pencil factory. I mean he always has the nicest, best, smartest, and interesting people. I can’t say anything bad about him. He works really hard.
Next: Find out why this area of the studio got this nickname.
9. Areas of the studio used to be nicknamed after sketches
Lee: And also all the studios, all the little areas where the show is done, all the areas had fanciful names. Now they all have numbers because that’s corporate. But like we had the area called ‘The Kane’ because we did [a parody sketch of] Citizen Kane there, which we liked. It was nice, wonderful little sketch, so we always called that area ‘The Kane.’
Next: Find out why some people feet changed from working on the show.
10. Some people got flat feet from working on the show after so many years
Q: You said people got flat feet from walking around?
Lee: Oh yeah, the prop man! His name was Willy Day. He was the all-time prop man in Studio 8H and, you know, you walk around on the floors, you walk on the concrete floor all your life your feet get flat [laughs.]
Next: The oval office set is kept in a specific place for a reason.
11. The Oval Office is now kept closed in a box just in case
Q: You’ve had to dress a lot of Oval Office [sets] over the years.
Lee: We have the Oval Office. We keep it around. We built a little box for it, so, we because you never know. Often the Oval Office is something that suddenly they need.
Q: When you change the Oval Office with each president, do you look for the exact decor that’s used or do you go for something similar?
Lee: It’s our take on it. It’s not a movie set so it’s kind of our version of the Oval Office
Next: This is the hidden place where other sets are stored.
12. An old Rockefeller safe is used for storage
Q: What’s the weirdest place you guys used for storage for sets?
Lee: The only thing I could think of down in the basement, there’s a safe that’s from the Rockefellers or something. They put a safe down in there. It’s like a room, a big room, and we store things down there occasionally, I know that. It’s like another world down there. I haven’t been there in years.
Next: These classic sets were recently rebuilt.
13. Some classic sketches were rebuilt for an exhibit
Lee: We did a Saturday Night exhibit, which turned out really kind of wonderful because I got a chance to — it’s now playing in Chicago and [will] be there a year, if not longer. If it does good business, it’ll stay there. It was pretty interesting because things we didn’t have, we just rebuilt. Wayne’s World just pulled out the drawing and did it. Black Jeopardy did that.
Next: This is how the show changed with New York City.
14. The music set has changed along with New York City
Q: The musical theme now is Grand Central and before it was themed around the subway.
Lee: The subway was a nice set, really loved that. It was always kind of down and out New York. I mean the original set was meant to be a club in the basement down in the village or something. Because when we started here, New York was kind of a mess.
The buses were all graffitied, the subway had stray all over them, 42nd street was a lot of like porn theaters and Radio City was hubby happening. It’s all changed you know.
Next: The show borrowed an animal that is known to spit on people.
15. The show also occasionally borrows a camel
Lee: We have a camel on this week. A camel is kind of a mean animal. It spits at you and does things. So we get the camel from time to time. They used to have one at Radio City. I used to always see it walking down 50th street.
Follow Nicole Weaver on Twitter @nikkibernice.
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