On Oct. 11, 1975, when “Saturday Night Live” first aired on NBC from Studio 8H in Manhattan’s RCA Building, with George Carlin as host and musical guests Billy Preston and Janis Ian, Eugene Lee was the production designer.
On May 20, 2017, when “SNL” ended its 42nd season from Studio 8H in the renamed Comcast Building, with host Dwayne Johnson and musical guest Katy Perry, Lee was still the production designer.
Feeding on material provided by a tumultuous political year, the “SNL” season that just ended was the most watched in more than two decades. It also garnered a whopping 22 Emmy nominations, one of which went to Lee for his design on the Feb. 11 episode hosted by Alec Baldwin.
Lee spoke to Variety about his long tenure at “SNL,” what it takes to design for live TV and the Sean Spicer podium, which may appear again next season.
How did you start at “SNL”?
The original connection was with [creator] Lorne Michaels. I was in Rhode Island, where I still live. The phone rang and some guy from NBC said this Canadian producer of a comedy variety show wanted to see me.
How did Lorne hear of you?
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He had seen the Leonard Bernstein hit musical “Candide” on Broadway, which I designed. I went to New York and brought work for him to see, but he didn’t look at any of it. Later that night we went to a comedy club. A big guy ran up to our table and asked, “Is he hired yet?” It was [NBC executive] Dick Ebersol. Somehow I got hired.
What did you do first?
Before first broadcast I discussed ideas with [ice cream heiress] Edie Baskin and [filmmaker] James Signorelli, who were doing the hand-tinted initial title sequence. Then I focused on how to rearrange the seats and bring material up the small elevators into the confines of Studio 8H, which was built for radio broadcasts in 1933. Most people are struck by how small the studio really is. We had to make the scenery in little pieces.
Lorne left from 1980 to 1985.
When he left, I left. When he came back, I came back. During that time everyone was bailing out and going a little crazy.
What has changed the most since 1975?
At the beginning there weren’t even fax machines. It was all telephones. No car service. We took the subway to the scene shop [in Brooklyn], which [NBC parent] RCA owned. When GE bought RCA in 1986 they moved the shop to Queens until some bean counter discovered it was losing money and got rid of it. The people in the shop started another shop. It’s now at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Who’s been on your team the longest?
The first thing I did was look for an assistant. [Akira] Leo Yoshimura turned up with a little red toolbox. He had a great attitude, so it was, “OK, you’re hired.” He’s been on the show ever since, and he didn’t leave when Lorne was gone, so he gets credit for being on the longest. And Keith Raywood has also been with the show [since 1988]. And this kid, Joe DeTullio, had been a page and was looking for work. He’s still with us.
What’s a typical week?
I come in Wednesday for the read-through, which is scheduled at 3 p.m. but happens later. We read some of the scripts, with everyone from various departments sitting around a big table, plus the writers, plus the performers. It’s really fun. We read half the scripts, then we take a break, order food, then read the rest. The producers decide what they want to produce. Sometimes that happens fast, sometimes slow.
And then what does your department do?
We all look at each other and decide who’s going to draft what. We try to get out of the building by midnight, but sometimes we don’t. The next day Leo is always in by 6 a.m. I’m usually in by 7:30. We still draft things up the old-fashioned way with a pencil and a straightedge.
What can go wrong?
You can never have too much information. Questions come up. Is it daytime? Is it nighttime? Oh, it’s a restaurant. What kind of restaurant?
Is live TV nerve-racking?
What happens on Saturday?
We do it like theater — a dress rehearsal and technical rehearsal. If someone is walking through a wall, we have to test that. Then we do the dress with a real audience, which usually runs long, so we have to make cuts for the real show.
When is your work done?
I stay through the dress rehearsal, then I leave just about the time we go on air live. I could stay, but I usually don’t because I’ve seen everything.
What changes would you make, if any, to the show’s design?
It would be nice to have a little more audience in front of the performers. We use a large Chapman crane on the floor. It’s kind of antiquated, but Lorne likes it because, with a lot of people moving around, you get a very theatrical look. I’m hoping to get a smaller crane so we can get more seats on the floor.
Who came up with the moving Sean Spicer podium?
We have to give the writers credit, but we had many things to consider. If the podium is going to run into people, we need lighter chairs so when they get hit, no one gets hurt.
Will the podium be back next season?
I think it will.