Live From New York, It's (Kind of) Saturday Night

At the SNL fantasy camp, dreaming about becoming the next Tina Fey

"This wouldn't happen on the real show," says Ali Farahnakian, as laughter shakes the Simple Studios rehearsal room. "On the real show, the attitude is 'We won't read something over 12 pages.'"

It's a table read on a late spring morning at the Peoples Improv Theater's second "Writing for SNL Fantasy Camp," and 25 people have just roared through the sight read of a sketch that, while hilarious, still isn't ready for prime time—or late-night. As Farahnakian talks—about the freedom of discipline, the fact that the folks at the real show don't do it live at 11:30 on Saturday because it's ready—everyone nods.

That's because he's been there. At 30 Rock itself. Working on the show that hangs over these students the way real boyhood hung over Pinocchio. More than that, Farahnakian, the founder of the PIT, has a soothing, persuasive authority, an energy drawn from the cold fusion when Zen calm meets improv training meets self-help uplift meets entrepreneurial mojo. Being in a room with him is like sitting near a koi pond, but one that can convince you your problems could all be solved by ponying up for comedy classes.

Ali Farahnakian as the fatherly executive producer
Santiago Felipe
Ali Farahnakian as the fatherly executive producer
Ashley Ward, Oscar Montoya, and cat-babies
Santiago Felipe
Ashley Ward, Oscar Montoya, and cat-babies

"The ideal," he says, "is the Filet-O-Sketch, the sketch that opens with a strong character and premise and sees both all the way through with just talking. Just fillet—nothing but dialogue."

The current sketch, a parody of a local car service's idiotic jingles, is un-ideal: too long, too many stage directions, too many spins on a single joke.

But it kills at the table. It inspires the students and a cast of the PIT's top sketch and improv ringers to lose their collective shit. Writers pound fists on the table. Even a seasoned performer like Steve Soroka has to fight to get through his lines. "I love this sketch!" Soroka rasps, a little apologetically, after collapsing into a laughing fit.

The writer, Jeff Gillis, musters up a stoic facade, but you can tell he's thrilled. A recent transplant from San Francisco, Gillis has paid several hundred dollars to spend an intensive week banging out Saturday Night Live–style sketches as part of a Saturday Night Live–style writer's room that will, come Saturday night, be responsible for the full content of a Saturday Night Live–style show. And he's just managed the best thing that could happen this side of Lorne Michaels himself turning up and laughing himself sick. "You know when you hit a great basket, and you keep replaying it over and over?" Gillis says several weeks later. "That was this moment. When Steve Soroka laughed . . ."

It's one thing to daydream about becoming a Will Ferrell or Kristen Wiig. The funny men and women taking notes as Farahnakian speaks are dreaming something slightly more practical: to put the words into the mouths of the stars. To learn to fillet comic ideas into the tight, structured sketches of a show almost every adult you meet will tell you hasn't been good for years—even though most of those adults have loved the last five SNL bits they saw that went viral.

Gillis has some filleting to do.

At 14 pages—each one runs 40 seconds of TV time—his "Dial 7" sketch is avowedly not SNL–like in its form, even as it absolutely is in its concept. The premise: A harried exec needs a new jingle for a car service whose phone number is all sevens, so he holds an audition attended exclusively by the sort of eager-beaver lunatics who populate improv scenes. With impossible enthusiasm, they proceed to sing "777-7777" every absurd way you could, including as "Seven million, seven hundred seventy thousand . . ." The biggest laugh: When Soroka, as the ad exec, has to remind the singers that area codes make it confusing to count off the start of a phone number jingle with a traditional "Two, three, four."

Another: When Ashley Ward (of PIT, UCB, and Big Black Car fame) puts her sugared-lemon gush on the line "We're gonna get some motherfucking tap on."

That's something else that wouldn't happen on the real show, of course. But the absence of standards and practices is one advantage that Writing for SNL Fantasy Camp enjoys over its inspiration. Otherwise, Farahnakian and his lieutenants—Chris Aurilio, credited as producer, and head writer Joe Schiappa—aim for verisimilitude. When Ward, the week's guest host, ducks in after the table read has started, Farahnakian deadpans, "I asked Ashley to show up a little late to replicate the show."

More to the point, the course's Sunday-through-Saturday schedule apes the show's. There's the early pitch session, the Tuesday read-through, guided rewrites, a full dress rehearsal from which sketches get cut, and the looming 11:30 p.m. Saturday performance. You know that performance's structure in your bones: a cold open steeped in current events, a monologue from the guest host, a commercial parody, then sketches, a fake newscast, and a musical guest (Angela Wingrove), all interspersed with the sax-bleating of a band that believes the apex of r&b was the Elton John/John Lennon duet "Whatever Gets You Through the Night."

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