“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.
“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.”
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?”
There are two pitches for cold opens, both press conference bits, one starring Anthony Weiner and the other Tim Tebow’s hotshot new agent, Jesus.
“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.