“Saturday Night Seder” is unlike most of its competitors in the Emmys’ outstanding variety special (pre-recorded) category. For one thing, it’s not a standup special. But it also didn’t air on a network. It doesn’t hail from a major production company or studio. And its budget was nearly $0.
The 70-minute special, which posted April 11 on YouTube — in time for Passover — has raised $3.5 million so far for the CDC Foundation. Now, the team behind “Saturday Night Seder” have put together funds to mount a mini Emmy campaign: Besides variety special (pre-recorded), it’s also being enterted in writing for a variety special, and original music and lyrics (for the songs “Dayenu” and “Next Year”).
But once again, just like the special, the producers are mounting the Emmy campaign by themselves. But “Saturday Night Seder” has the benefit of some pretty hefty names who volunteered their time to participate in the special: Cynthia Erivo, Ben Platt, Henry Winkler, Beanie Feldstein, Billy Porter, D’Arcy Carden, Bette Midler, Dan Levy, Pamela Adlon, Finn Wolfhard, Alan Menken, Ilana Glazer, Nick Kroll, Darren Criss, Josh Groban and Stephen Schwartz, among others.
Specials in the time of COVID-19 have become increasingly common as the months have progressed, but “Saturday Night Seder” came just a few weeks into the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders. Variety‘s Awards HQ newsletter spoke to co-writer and executive producer Benj Pasek about how he and his partners managed to turn things such as Zoom, Dropbox, Streamyard and color-coded Google Sheets into a special seen by millions.
AWARDS HQ: Take me back to that moment when you all decided to do this and figured out how to mount a variety special.
Pasek: We decided very early on that we wanted to do something that would have impact and benefit the fight against the epidemic that was happening in real time. I remember being terrified when we even began to reach out to people of note, because the ‘Imagine’ video had just happened and there was such a backlash. We were like, ‘should we even be asking people to be in anything right now? Is that okay?’ It just continued to snowball from there. We made up it up as we went. Some people who had never produced before were all of a sudden producing, some people who had never written music before ended up being songwriters. Everybody was working for free.
AWARDS HQ: How long did it take to put this together?
Pasek: Putting it together was around the clock. There was no impetus for it beyond just our passion. It really did feel like you were back in camp or in college, pulling an all nighter, but for like two weeks in a row to make this thing happen.
AWARDS HQ: What was the message you wanted to convey?
Pasek: For a lot of Jewish people and people who are not even in the Jewish community, Passover is a really special holiday because it’s the one that most people celebrate with their families. So that week people were trying to do virtual Passovers, which is so depressing. The holiday is so special to me because it’s one of the tenets of why Judaism is a really progressive community. Passover, itself, sort of mirrors so much of what we were going through in COVID. It’s this holiday about going from oppression to freedom, from confinement to space, from winter to spring.
AWARDS HQ: As you were doing this virtually, what was the biggest challenge in pulling this off?
Pasek: Every element of it. I come from the world of musical theater, so how the songs interweave with dialogue is really a challenge to figure out. Whether it was Henry Winkler reading about the story of Moses and Billy Porter singing “Go Down Moses,” that’s actually based on the story of Passover itself. Or Judith Light telling the history of the background of the song “Over the Rainbow,” which is written by these two sons of immigrants to talk about what it means to look at America as a place of freedom.
AWARDS HQ: How DIY was this, in relying on everyone’s expertise?
Pasek: There were so many people on this team with amazing backgrounds. Some people came with more technical experience, some people came from the comedy world, some people came from the musical world and everybody used their expertise to figure out how to make a variety special on Zoom, basically.
AWARDS HQ: As this thing got bigger and you attracted all these stars was there talk of going to a network?
Pasek: We wanted to keep it indie. The next day was certainly very different than the Friday before in terms of interest from those bigwigs. But we also felt a responsibility to all the people that we reached out to. We were making something with love and duct tape. And so we didn’t want to then turn around and be like, and ‘it’s gonna be on this big network!’ A lot of the submissions that people sent were very personal to them and we didn’t want to betray that.
AWARDS HQ: How much did this cost, given that almost everyone volunteered their time?
Pasek: I would think it’s pretty as low of a budget as you could get. In the end we hired a couple of editors to edit some stuff in the final two days. And this great organization, Reboot, found some money for us to be able to pay them. But besides that, everybody donated their time and their labor.
AWARDS HQ: Why enter the Emmys?
Pasek: It’s not something that we expected to get any kind of recognition in that regard. The fact also that we were able to raise all this money for the CDC Foundation, all in small donations. I think that the average donation size was $60 and no corporate donations matched it. We thought that maybe we would raise $25,000, maybe $50,000. We then started to hear from all of these people in the industry who tuned in. James Corden wrote to us and congratulated us, as did Ben Winston and Greg Berlanti. Then folks from the Television Academy actually said, ‘this is something really special, you guys should consider throwing your hat in the ring.’ And I think that a lot of people on our team were excited about that possibility. To have this labor of love recognized, especially because it was done from a place without any budget or any impetus, just from a place of wanting to create something. Also being able to also maximize the reach of the organization that we’re supporting, and the work that everybody did, it felt like something that made sense to us.
AWARDS HQ: The reaction was very positive.
Pasek: Almost every comment on on YouTube, which you expect to be this cesspool of racism and bigotry — which often it is — really seemed to embrace this in a way that we didn’t expect. I was really afraid of even having the comments on, because it is delving into things like religion or spirituality and ways to interpret it, which are not always not always embraced by the trolls of internet culture.
AWARDS HQ: Any talk of an encore?
Pasek: We don’t know. It’s exciting. We were thinking about doing something for Pride this year, but didn’t have enough time to kind of put that together.