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Setting the stage for skits

Creative crews compete against deeper pockets

HOLLYWOOD — Just like theme songs and catch phrases, good sets and costumes can become synonymous with the best TV comedies: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” newsroom, the couture of the “Sex and the City” clan.

But what about shows that trade in one-off skits and up-to-the-minute satire? The crews of Fox’s “Mad TV” and NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” work on a tight schedule, and at a level that has earned them recognition from industry peers.

However, the pace and product don’t guarantee entry into the winners circle for Emmy’s variety or music program categories. “Mad TV” and “SNL’s” creative crews have to compete against deeper pockets and longer calendars.

This year, “Mad TV” and “SNL’s” costumers will compete against HBO’s Madonna World concert, NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics’ Opening Ceremony and A&E’s “Target Stars on Ice.” “Mad TV’s” production designers will face A&E’s presentation of a Sting concert, ABC’s Academy Awards, the CBS Grammycast, NBC’s Olympics Opening Ceremony and VH1’s “Concert for New York City.”

“Mad TV” costume designer Wendy Benbrook, who has been on the show for five seasons and been nominated the past three, can be called upon to make as many as 10 new costumes or as few as two per program. Often, she says, the thought in her mind when she gets the script on Monday for a Friday shoot is “Please, let it be recurring characters.”

Benbrook says the costumes are done on a tight budget but stresses that the producers are willing to go overbudget.

Tom Broeker, who has been head costume designer at “SNL” for eight years, has vied with Benbrook for an Emmy the past three seasons and faces the same short-schedule, high-output demands.

Broeker and his crew of five (extra people can be brought in) have 2½ days to get the outfits right; he gets the script Wednesday night for a Saturday taping. As the show fine-tunes, skits and costumes are added or cut.

“Mad TV” production designer John Sabato, who was nominated for art direction for a variety or music program in 2000 and 2001 with art director D. Martyn Bookwalter, art director Cecele De Stefano (in 2001 only) and set decorator Daryn Reid Goodall, works with an overall crew of about 25. Sabato says the crew can have as long as two weeks to work on scenery. The show relies on a lot of mixing and matching of previous pieces, and there are a few dedicated sets for repeat characters. But there are times when a standing set has to be redressed the day of a shoot.

“We don’t get too much of that ‘Oh by the way, we need a submarine,’ ” says Sabato, who has been with the show since its bow in 1995, building an average of 10 sets a week. He singles out a New York-style apartment that was dropped when a guest star canceled at the last minute as his biggest disappointment.

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