Don Roy King, director of “Saturday Night Live” for more than 15 years, didn’t just work the show from behind the scenes, but he also guided an important landmark in the show’s history, passing the baton to Liz Patrick
Patrick took over in 2021, but not before observing King in his element.
No stranger to directing live television — she can count “Ellen” and “MTV Movie Awards” among her credits — this gig brought all her experience in music, sketches and handling last-minute changes together. Patrick worked closely with King, moving the show into a new era.
Here, the directors share how they pulled off the transition.
What was your relationship to the show coming in?
Liz Patrick: I’ve been a fan of the show since I was a kid. I used to try to stay up late and get my mom to let me watch it. But my brother is five years older, so I would watch it with him. I’ve been a fan dating back to Gilda Radner.
Is there a sketch that just stands out for you from all those years of watching the show, even before you got to be a part of the team?
Patrick: There is so much, but I gravitate to the sketches that the women did. Molly Shan- non’s Mary Katherine Gallagher [character] is one of my favorites. Dating back further, I loved Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze when they were strippers outdoing one another in the Chippendales audition sketch.
I have one from each decade. I loved the Church Lady with Dana Carvey, and I loved Mike Myers.
Don, how did the two of you navigate handing off the baton, especially with the challenge of the pandemic and the rise of another COVID variant?
King: It was a lot smoother and easier than I expected it to be. I ended up with an ankle injury that came out of nowhere and it kept me from being mobile.
The show is a crazy process that comes together in four days, and it’s like staging 10 plays at once, all from scratch. You have to shoot them and build them. After 16 years, I’d gotten to the point where I could manage to get through it. Liz came out of nowhere and stepped in, so it was very smooth.
Patrick: It was a great way to do it because I got to observe Don for two episodes before. I got to sit in the chair and become fully submerged with the writers and talk about their sketches and how we were going to get through sketches together. We did it slowly. I took on three or four sketches and then I started doing music, then Weekend Update and gradually doing more. After Thanksgiving, I was starting to do this show on my own. It was nice to have Don give feedback. I also asked for his opinions on certain things. The entire crew and staff were so open, encouraging and supportive.
I’ve done everything this show has, but this show is on steroids. I’ve done music, sketches and comedy. But it was nice to have it all in one place.
Don, you mentioned the show is a four-day turnaround and the news cycle can change right up to the last minute. Liz, how has that been and do you ever get used to the constant change and tearing everything up to start over?
Patrick: I came from a background where I was used to changes at MTV, and I’ve worked on a lot of live shows where the format would be ripped up or someone doesn’t show up. Over at “Ellen,” it was the same again. It was a nice collaboration with the writers. But I looked at this schedule and it’s insane. I looked at Don and asked, “When do you get time to eat?”
Don, when do you get time to eat?
King: I gave up eating about 24 years ago.
Patrick: It’s like an endurance sport. By Saturday, you’re doing each sketch again at least three times. You’re rehearsing it once, you do the dress rehearsal and then the show, and those sketches continue to change.
Let’s talk about the nominated episode with Billie Eilish, a first-time host, pulled double duty as a guest musician, and the return of Kate McKinnon. What was that like as directors?
King: I was shocked at what Billie brought to the table. She had been a musical guest the year before, and she did a complex set where she walked on the ceiling. With that show, she was a little shy and quiet, but this time around, she was so great. She opened up and did such great character work.
Patrick: She’s so talented and has a broad spectrum of talent. She’s just a true entertainer. One of the great things about “Saturday Night Live” is that people want to be there. They’re excited to be there.
With Kate, it was nice to have her back. She has a natural way of putting people at ease. I think she put Billie at ease and had fun with it. King: When I first started, I thought I’d have to deal with egos. But everyone who comes in, whether it’s politicians, sports- people or musicians, they all ask, “Please help me and make sure I don’t embarrass myself. I’ll do anything you ask me to do.”
I’m fascinated about where you find new comedians and new voices.
King: I think Lorne Michaels has this remarkable sense of who is right. He says it takes a year or so for a new cast member to find their way because we’ve got to find characters who will fit in, characters who are repeatable and writers who can write to those characters. So, the audition might include singing, dancing and impressions. It’s a strange, slow and complex process.
Liz, when you’re looking back after an episode has aired, from a directing standpoint, what makes that successful for you?
Patrick: Because it’s live, it’s about trying to have a clean show. I think that’s important to me, to try to not have visible mistakes, and they’re bound to happen. It’s the recovery of myself, the team, the crew and the cameras. Sometimes, things go off book and you have to follow. It’s also about sending the message that the writer wanted, getting that right and making sure in bringing the sketch to life, that it is the best it can be.
Have you ever had to direct a sketch that’s lost on you, but there’s this complete trust in the writers?
Patrick: Yes, maybe I didn’t grasp the full concept until I saw it or saw the cast members perform it. I enjoy the collaboration with the writers. They are the ones who know it the best, so, if I have a question or I don’t understand it, I’ll be the first to ask, “What did you mean here?”
What do you do once you’ve wrapped an episode?
King: I just found out they have after-parties. I guess I was never invited. But I never once had the energy to go to one.
Patrick: Celebrate my crew. I know you can’t do it alone. It’s important to thank everyone and then I usually find a drink somewhere in the studio.