I was an SNL intern in 2000. Our fantasy camp consisted of fetching coffee for Tracy Morgan and getting beat up by Appleby's security guards.
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At the SNL fantasy camp, dreaming about becoming the next Tina Fey
The show's programmatic nature doesn't mean it's easy to schedule. After the table read, Farahnakian, Aurilio, and Ward hash over the work, advancing sketches to rewrites, roughing out a line up, and saying ridiculous things: "Which should we film, business casual or Christian sex line?"
"Dial 7" is in, but as Farahnakian says, it needs to be panned for its gold. Also a go: a simple sketch by Soroka, Gillis, Ward, and ace sketch comic Chris Roberti about some douche hitting on a woman with the line "What's the difference between a Camaro and a boner?" Her friends pile on with biting answers: "You can still operate your Camaro after doing shots?" "You can't see your Camaro in your confirmation photo?"
"Nobody looks like Weiner."
"Aykroyd didn't look like Carter."
Timeliness prevails: Weiner's funny, but Tebow was in the news.
The real show probably works like that. Other ways it's different: A new writer is lucky to get a sketch to air per season. The cast gets to use cue cards. After the table read, the celebrity guest host doesn't help break down the chairs and table.
You can guess how the show opens. That first sketch, the Tebow press conference, builds to Chris Roberti's sports-agent Jesus shouting, "Live from the PIT, it's Saturday night!" Then, after dutiful sax-skronking, Ashley Ward bounds onto the stage for the usual "I'm thrilled to be hosting" routine.
The monologue (by Pete Zuorick) is built to fall apart. A projected photo of Ward's old sketch troupe, Big Black Car, features Ellie Kemper (of The Office) and Kristen Schaal (of awesomeness). This stirs Ward to conclude that PITters like her who aren't quite famous yet have wasted their lives. She cries, "Get out of this comedy shithole as fast as you can!"
Cue Farahnakian, now fully in the Lorne Michaels role. It fits, as he presides over a PIT empire encompassing hundreds of shows and classes each year as well as tens of thousands of feet of Manhattan real estate: the PIT theater, rehearsal spaces, the Pioneers Bar on West 29th.
"Ashley," he purrs, "you're a very talented performer . . . at the PIT."
That gets laughs. He continues: "This may not be the show you're thinking of, but it is Saturday night, we are live, and we are in New York City."
That's standard monologue technique on the real show, Farahnakian says: Address the elephant in the room, whether it's a national disaster or some dumb thing host Ben Affleck said about his marriage. The funny thing, though, is that after copping to not being the real show, the fake show proves sturdily hilarious. The students have spent days punching up their bits, both at the table and on their own. Even the weakest premises—like the inscrutable sketch where Ward, as Reba McEntire, announces her love affair with a dog—crackle with new jokes. These aren't all fillets, necessarily, but they're busy and pleasurable, something like well-jimmied Mister Softees.
Still, it's the simplest, most pared down ideas that score the biggest sustained laughs, like Kay Korsak's musical number, "Vaginal Victories," which builds to inspired nastiness with ping-pong balls.
Gillis's "Dial 7" hasn't been punched up much: It gets sliced to seven pages. Somehow, onstage, instead of dada brilliance it feels hammy—just eager-beavers yell-singing sevens. There are laughs, but nothing sticks—nothing that would have sent it viral on the real show, where sketches like it turn up just before sign-off.
During rehearsals, Gillis feared it might be cut before the final performance.
A couple weeks later, Gillis says he's satisfied. "Not the best, but it was good," he says. Since the camp, he's staged a one-act performance of another ambitious sketch from the table read, one even longer than "Dial 7." He's considering signing up again when the next fantasy camp starts this August (cost: $400). After seeing his writers' room hit not quite soar with audiences, he's ready to try again, to get another to the stage, to find an idea and fillet.
If nothing else, that has got to be like the real show.