Eugene Lee, a set designer for Saturday Night Live, is the man SNL producer Lorne Michaels sometimes calls “the heart of the show.” Now 78 years old with an Emmy and three Tony awards (he also designs sets for Broadway shows like Wicked and Sweeney Todd), Lee started working on the long-running sketch series in 1975 when he was a young man living on a boat and SNL was just debuting.
For 42 seasons and nearly 500 episodes, Lee has built set after set for the show every week, working through the nights to design effective, unobtrusive sets that can be ripped down almost immediately after they go up.
I recently spoke with Lee over the phone about his work with SNL. He’s an old-fashioned raconteur: He peppers his conversation with references to “the old days” and the kind of New Jersey jokes that would have been at home on SNL in its earliest episodes. He’s a walking encyclopedia of institutional knowledge: Having worked on every season of a show that has become a comedy icon, he knows it inside and out.
Over the course of our conversation, Lee walked me through the hectic, sleepless nights that come with working on SNL, how to put together the thousands of moving parts that make up a successful Broadway set, and what to do when you accidentally order the wrong color of llama.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Walk me through the process of building sets for SNL. When in the week do you find out what you’re going to have to build?
It’s very simple at the moment. There’s a general read-through scheduled on Wednesday at 3. We read the scripts, and then we wait for the producers in question to decide what they would like to produce.
Once they’ve decided, we have the director come in, and between the various designers and the director, we try to decide where these various sketches might fit into the studio. We eventually get the writers involved. We talk to everybody. It’s usually kind of a craziness.
The way it always has worked on Saturday Night Live is that the writers produce their own pieces. It’s a great show that way for writers, because they learn a lot. If they have special effects, they have to go talk to those people. Costumes, same thing. Set design? Well, they have to come talk to set designers.
We have to figure out what they want. Some writers are clearer than others. You have to ask them everything. Sometimes they don’t [say] whether it’s night or day. Sometimes they say it’s a restaurant, but they don’t get into the details.
And then, guess what? They’re gone! Boom! Room empties out!
We look at each other, and we decide who might draw things. We draw it up by hand, in the old-fashioned way. By this time it’s 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock. We’d be lucky to get out of the building by midnight.
As a hangover from the old days, we eventually send someone to the shop [where set pieces are constructed] to explain things. Communication [back then] wasn’t so good — this is no longer true, but remember, there was no fax machine, there was no cellphones, so things were a little simpler when we started. We’ve been doing it for so long.
The set decorator goes out the next day [Thursday] with the prop people, and they prop the furniture and the pictures and whatever. Joe [DeTullio, a production designer] goes to the shop, and he organizes the construction. Leo [Yoshimura, another designer] and I usually go to the studio. He gets in at 6 am; I get in at 7. He likes to come early. It’s the best time of the day. It’s nice and quiet. Things we didn’t finish drawing, things we want to make more clear, we work on that. We figure out if there’s backdrops to order. If we make them, we used to paint them all, but now we do them with computer printouts.
Also happening at the same time: The musical guest’s equipment is being loaded in. We go on camera at roughly 1 o’clock and rehearse the music. We do it many times. Then we do promos, a few quick little promos.
After the promos, we rehearse. Sometimes sketches are being changed, they’re being rewritten, but they decide what we can do at the time. We don’t have the set for it, but we just show the director how much size he has to work in so he doesn’t shoot off.
Let’s say we finish around 9, 10, 11, that area. Overnight comes the night crew, a kind of throwback to the live days at NBC. It’s a crew that starts around 5 o’clock and works all night in the building. They work on Jimmy [Fallon] and Seth Meyers, also two sets I designed [for Fallon’s Tonight Show and Meyers’s Late Night, both of which also tape at 30 Rock].
Whatever has been built by that time is shipped in at night [to studio 8H, SNL’s famous berth within 30 Rock] and set up by the night crew. But they don’t get all of it, and it comes not painted. It comes with no doorknobs. In the early years — since I’ve been there so long, and NBC had a number of different shops since then — they used to paint everything in the shop, and then they wrapped it in brown paper so it didn’t get messed up, and then they sent it in. That didn’t last too long. It wasn’t terribly cost-effective.
We get in, and you never know what’s going on. Particularly in the political years, every time you turn on the TV, there’s some new problem. People getting shot in the park. There’s always something going on that’s changing. And with this president, it changes all the time.
Often there’s things in the schedule that the writers haven’t worked out yet. So we work on what we can do, you know?
Friday is kind of a hard day. We have gotten more scenery, and we get painters. We work on Friday late. It’s lucky that we get out of there by midnight.
You get a little tired. That’s the hardest part of it. It’s a hard schedule.
Friday night, the painters, they stay on late, because it’s the only time they can get into the studio and move the equipment to the side if they want to paint the floor — we often paint a lot of the floors. They work all night. It’s a good show for painters.
Lorne [Michaels, SNL’s producer] always has a meeting late on Friday. Not many come, just a few: the director, the head writers, a few writers. The purpose of that meeting is to see if we can actually do the show the way it’s laid out in the studio. Can we get from this sketch to that sketch? There’s all kinds of conflicting things: the costume department, the wig department, people have makeup issues. That meeting happens late. Usually I don’t walk out of the building until 1 or 2 o’clock.
Saturday we come back and we dress the sets. We do new sets if there’s new ideas — things have a way of changing if there’s new ideas, which is okay with us. Sometimes you just get it built in the shop, and it’s standing up, ready to ship out, and it gets cut. It’s gone.
It’s like theater. We do a technical, just like we would on Broadway or anyplace else, a run-through of the show that has within it any technical issues: if someone gets tossed through a wall, if someone does this or that, if you get a lot of water on you, whatever it is.
We come back with an audience at 7 o’clock and do a complete show. It’s usually long by 15, 20 minutes. We also at this time figure out if our assumption about how things are laid out is actually working. The makeup and costume people say, “We need more minutes, we need this, we need that.”
It’s kind of like organized confusion. Which is kind of nice, actually. I kind of like it.
We do the dress rehearsal. We wait around. Three or four pieces for sure get cut right then and there. I wait around until we know for sure what the show is.
Since I live in Rhode Island, I have a longtime driver, Sam. Sam picks me up at 11:15, 11:30 at 30 Rock and drives me home. Of course, someone is always there in case there’s a last-minute disaster.
And that’s a week.
And how many sets are you doing per episode?
It’s hard to say. Ten or 12. Two or three get cut.
You’ve been at SNL for pretty much the entire span of the show.
I got hired because Lorne saw a Broadway play of mine. He was looking for a set designer, and he saw Candide on Broadway. I’d won a Tony for it, and it was a very hot show at the moment, when Saturday Night began.
I was living out of a sailboat in Rhode Island. They just called me, and the next thing you know: 40 years.
How has the show changed in the time you’ve been there?
As a general thing, from show one to now, they want more scenery, not less. They also want the scenery to be more realistic, like movie scenery. If you look at the first few years, things were a little simpler back then. It’s not a good or bad thing.
Movies affect us. They have great detail. It’s just gotten more real. So the capacity of the audience [to suspend disbelief] has taken a little hit because of that.
What else has changed? There are so many people now. In the first year, there was, what, seven cast members? So you knew them all more intimately. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just like anything that’s been on a long time. It’s nice to get new people, because new people bring new ideas about things. It’s good that way.
The only thing that makes it bearable at all is that it’s live. I like Jimmy and I like Seth’s show, but those shows are not live, okay? [On SNL] we actually do it live.
It’s sometimes kind of difficult. Someone made a videotape this year: We had to do a very complicated change in the middle of the studio. We had to go from Putin’s office to the beginning of the show. It was a big set and it was an important set, so we put it in the middle of the studio. It looked impossible to change live. The crew just said, “Well, we’ll try to do it.”
Someone made a little video of it, and it looked insane. At the last second there was someone onstage, and it was like, “GET OFF THE STAGE, GET OFF THE STAGE! GO FASTER! JUST STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING!” It was a kind of craziness, which is kind of fun.
Live is good. If it’s not live, then you always get the chance to go back and mess with it, and then it’s like, “Well, if we did it again it might be better.” Which is terrible. Live is the only salvation.
Is there a set you particularly liked that stands out in your memory?
I don’t have favorites, really. “Church Lady” was kind of fun. Looking at it now, it’s really simple, just some painted stained glass windows on black velour.
I always liked “Wayne’s World”: a real simple basement, with a furnace on one side and an icebox and a crummy sofa. The prop guy found some funny stuff to hang on the walls.
The thing about it is, the scenery shouldn’t get in the way. It doesn’t matter how good you try to make it. That does not usually affect whether it gets on the show. If it cost a fortune to do, and we’ve propped it all and painted it all and did the best we could, and then, in the dress rehearsal, no comedy? Gone! It’s kind of heartbreaking sometimes, because those things usually never come back.
How is the process of designing sets for SNL different from the process of designing a set for a Broadway show, where you have much more time and space to work with?
I’m really a theater designer. The television thing just happened accidentally. And with theater, it’s all about the transitions. That’s all that it’s about. You can make it look like anything, but the transitions have to look seamless.
If it’s a hit like Wicked, it goes every place on the planet. So it’s been unbelievably documented. And if someone’s playing in London and they want to come and play in New York for a week or two, they can. The set’s exactly the same in London as it is here. The props are exactly the same. If the director occasionally has little ideas, if we change something in one company, it ripples through all the companies everywhere.
There’s an old-fashioned quality about Saturday Night Live that is kind of nice. We have this thing where, if we shoot in the hallway, we have a llama, Abe Lincoln in a top hat, and a chorus girl. We have forgotten why we do this. We just do it. We get a script, we see it says, “They’re shooting in the hallway,” the next thing we do is call the llama people. Last year the llama came once and it was the wrong llama, the wrong color. We had to send the llama back and get a different llama.
We used to have something, it must have been in the first years. The design department had a cow, a white cow with black spots, soft, with foam rubber inside it. We used to hang it above sketches that we didn’t like, and at the end it would just fall down.
Broadway is just different. I like theater. I just opened a little play; it’s in previews now. [Outside of the theater world, I was also] working on that Barry Diller project that at the moment has been frozen by a federal judge, Pier 55.
Why was it frozen?
It’s like New York. [Diller’s] wife, who was a self-made millionaire, I guess, and Barry Diller, who’s a billionaire — but he’s a good billionaire, I think — they gave money to build a city park, more money than any park ever in Manhattan.
It instantly got sued right away. Everybody was suing everyone. Hey! It’s Manhattan. That got settled, and it was about to start work. They had come to me because there was a space about the size of the football field, just offshore of the Hudson [that they wanted Lee to design]. Then suddenly some judge stopped it.
It was for “environmental reasons.” The funniest thing I read was that “it blocks the view of New Jersey.” We get a medal for that, don’t we?
I may work on that anyway, a little bit. Who knows?
It’s always better to be busy. [SNL is] doing four shows in August, just “Weekend Update.” They said to me, “We need a set designer and an assistant, and that’s all we’ve budgeted, because there won’t be any scenery. It’ll be simple. Do you believe that?” Nope! Don’t believe that! It won’t be true! There’ll be suddenly the need for Putin’s office.
I feel lucky to do the show, I really do.