Saturday Night Live has had to reinvent itself week after week for as long as it’s been on the air. But one thing has remained constant through more than 40 years of the NBC sketch-comedy institution. And though season 42 is drawing to a close this Saturday, he shows no signs of slowing down.
Eugene Lee, 78, has served as SNL’s production designer since the show’s very first episode in 1975. The twelve-time Emmy nominee (and one-time Emmy winner) is equally renowned for his work in theater, with an impressive roster of Broadway credits — including Wicked, Sweeney Todd, and The Pirate Queen — to his name.
With exactly 36 hours to go before showtime, I reached Lee by phone last Friday morning at the Stiegelbauer Associates shop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where SNL sets are constructed. He’d arrived at 7 a.m. and planned on spending the entire day there before adjourning for a meeting at 30 Rock around midnight. When we spoke, his “messy family” of longtime colleagues at the scene shop were preparing eggs for lunch, as is their custom.
“They cook right in the middle of the office,” Lee said. “It’s kind of touching, really.” He still refers to the show that employs him as Saturday Night, a name it hasn’t technically been known by since 1977.
Just a few years before that, the Wisconsin native didn’t know anything about TV. But Lorne Michaels, who had seen Lee’s Tony-winning Broadway production of Candide, needed a designer for his new comedy-variety series.
Lee was living in Rhode Island, on a fifty-foot sailboat tucked away in Pawtuxet Cove. (Now he lives on shore, in Providence.) “I was out rowing a tender around the cove and my telephone went off on the boat. I rowed over to the side of the boat and grabbed the phone. It was some guy from NBC saying, ‘This Canadian doing a comedy show would like to meet you.’ ” Lee made an appointment with Michaels at the Plaza Hotel, where he was staying, and headed down to New York City. “I thought, ‘Well, what’s the harm?’ ” Lee recalled.
He brought work samples for Michaels to review, but the SNL creator didn’t look at any of them. Instead, he invited Lee to join him at a comedy club that night. Lee checked into the Plaza himself. The next morning, they ate breakfast, then took a walk down Sixth Avenue together to NBC. Michaels gave Lee a tour of Studio 8H, a “big empty room” that hadn’t hosted a live show in sixteen years.
“And so anyway, hired,” Lee said.
Forty-two years later, he takes the train in from Rhode Island every Wednesday during the season. He stays at the Yale Club — he holds an MFA from the university — during the week, then returns home on Saturday night. Lee’s driver picks him up at 30 Rock around 11:15 p.m., fifteen minutes before the show begins. Usually, the traffic is light. “I’m a little tired when I get up Sunday, but at least I have Sunday, you know,” he said.
Who wouldn’t need a Sunday to recover from the brutal SNL production schedule? “We read the show on Wednesday, we draft it Wednesday night, we build it Thursday and Friday — two days.” Lee and his fellow production designers — Akira “Leo” Yoshimura, Keith Raywood, and Joe DeTullio — take on twelve or thirteen sets in a typical week, cost and degree of difficulty be damned.
“That’s the fun of it, isn’t it? Can you do it every time? I don’t know anything about the budget. You have to spend what you have to spend.” Lee stops himself mid-thought and apologizes: “I’m being impolite and eating a grilled cheese.”
Lorne Michaels has called Eugene Lee “the true heart of the show.” Lee, too, has the highest of praise for his longtime collaborator: “I think he’s a genius. He can rearrange a show that’s not working at all and make it better.” That sometimes includes the scenery — in particular, Michaels cannot abide conspicuous lightbulbs. “He’ll point at something in the set and say, ‘That’s what you want, right? I mean, you’re really serious about that?’ ” Lee said.
Besides an increased emphasis on realistic sets — and a decreased emphasis on scene painting, in favor of computer printing — the population boom at Saturday Night Live is the most dramatic change Lee’s witnessed in his time there. “We have so many new people these days, they put out an index with pictures online. I think they look at me like, Who’s the old guy?” he jokes. Lee doesn’t play favorites with the SNL sets he’s designed, but he admits to being “sentimental” about the simplicity of the early years.
Lee’s original set was intended to evoke a no-frills, basement-level Village comedy club.
“At the time when Saturday Night started, 42nd Street was filled with porn theaters. Graffiti on all the subway cars. I must say I preferred some of that over what it is now. The city changes.”
Now the show’s “home base,” where the host delivers the opening monologue, is modeled on Grand Central. But re-creating one feature of that timeless Manhattan landmark proved controversial. “If you look at the entry to Grand Central, guess what, there’s lightbulbs. So I put lightbulbs on the set. And Lorne said, ‘I hate those.’ I’m like, ‘Lorne, I don’t know what to say. Go to Grand Central. I’m just copying what’s in Grand Central.’ ” They ultimately compromised on dim, “modest” antique bulbs.
The look of Studio 8H — originally used for radio — may have changed, but some of its old idiosyncrasies have endured. For one thing, the elevators are small by modern standards. “We have to go out of our way to build scenery that we can build in pieces and put back together,” Lee explained. “When we get an automobile, they take the engine out. They take everything they can out. It’s still pretty heavy. And then they literally cut it in two.” But live TV is live TV, and no amount of preparation or craftsmanship can fully dampen the chaos. “There have been times when there’s someone still standing behind [a set] just clamping it together who hasn’t been able to get out of the way, and they’re back there for the whole scene holding it up,” Lee said. “It adds a kind of charm to the whole thing.”
After all these years, Lee’s job is still anything but predictable. When SNL alum Jimmy Fallon — whose Tonight Show set Lee also designed—hosted the show on April 15, it was decided that the monologue would be a musical tribute to David Bowie, complete with a dance number in the studio hallway. On Friday, after rehearsal, Michaels suggested they find a way to change the hallway’s familiar appearance. So, Lee did. “I thought, ‘Well, what if we start painting it black?’ I didn’t call anyone. I found a crew person and said, ‘I’m painting the hallway black, so you’ll have to take the pictures down and mark where they go.’ No other show operates like that. Any other show, there’d have to be ten meetings between executives deciding whether we can touch up the building.”
Lee doesn’t worry himself with the show’s reception in the press, be it positive or negative. There may be heightened attention now, thanks to the human punch line that is Donald Trump, but he remembers all too well when headlines proclaimed “Saturday Night Dead.” And, more to the point, he may very well be his own harshest critic. “I often walk out of the building and think, ‘Well, it’s a total disaster,’ ” he said. “The only good news is that next week we get to do it again, and maybe we’ll get a little smarter.”
On the subject of retiring, Lee is a firm “no.” (Actually, he’s a firm “No, no, no, no.”) Besides SNL, he’s recently designed Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner at Redcat in Los Angeles, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Napoli, Brooklyn, and Oklahoma! for this summer’s Glimmerglass Festival.
“It’s better to be working,” he said. “I don’t know what else I would be doing if I wasn’t working.”
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