Longtime Director Shares Saturday Night Fever

To kick off the Business of Live TV Summit, presented by B&C, Multichannel News and TV Technology Sept. 30, director Don Roy King took the audience inside the process of delivering Saturday Night Live. The show has begun its 40th season (it debuted Oct 11, 1975), and King is in his ninth, directing every episode. He has won five consecutive primetime Emmy Awards for directing. Prior to his SNL run, King spent 14 years at CBS News.

In his keynote presentation, and a Q&A with Multichannel News executive editor Kent Gibbons, King covered a lot of ground about the adrenaline rush of live TV, from his start in the business in a series of directing gigs across Pennsylvania and Northern California, to the morning of 9/11, when he worked at CBS’ Early Show. But here are some edited portions of his remarks about the goings-on in Studio 8H.

On the Weekly Routine: “We meet the host on Monday for a short meeting, we pitch some ideas, the host gives some other input about his or her skills and interests and any talents and hidden potential to our writers afterwards. They write all day Tuesday, Tuesday night. We go in Wednesday, be there about 4 in the afternoon, sit around the big table, the cast, the producers, [exec producer Lorne Michaels], the host and I sit at a big table, the rest of the staff and crew sit on the outside sort of to the stadium audience, and we read as many as 45 sketches…. it takes hours to do that.

“Then, at 8 o’clock at night, Lorne narrows it down to the 12 or 13 we will actually mount, and then for the first time, Wednesday night, I take those selected scripts into a room with the designers, hair and make-up people, special effects people, music people, they find out what we’re actually going to mount Wednesday night. On Thursday, we will rehearse the guest band, we will rehearse the simple sketches that don’t need sets and props. Each sketch gets about an hour of work. We’ll do the same thing again on Friday for all the rest of the sketches.”

On the Big Night: “With full dress and sets, we’ll run through each sketch again very quickly through the day, rehearse ‘Weekend Update’ for the first time and then go into a dress rehearsal at 8 o’clock, as much as 20 minutes more material [than] we actually need, come down at 10:15, Lorne throws out three or four sketches. Every other one has been edited or rewritten in some fashion. We have a meeting at 10:40 to determine, to exactly run through what those changes are. I run downstairs, try my best to translate the new shot sequences to my camera operators, and then we fly at 11:30.”

On Dealing With Cast Members Cracking Up: “Lorne Michaels, who is a writer, designed the show to be a writers’ show. His belief is what comes first, before the cast, before the lighting, before the directing, what comes first is the written word, and our job is to serve that word. So he has never liked it when a cast member falls out of character and begins to crack up. Sometimes, and he’d probably admit this too, it makes it funnier, sometimes the audience just loves being in on it and, ‘Oh, we’re seeing it live, and this guy just lost his place or lost his focus or started to laugh when he shouldn’t have,’ and it makes it entertaining. But it does undermine the nature or the purpose of the sketch, it does undermine the direction it’s headed, takes you out of the characters and into the actor. So it’s my job usually to just stay with the flow and avoid that sense of, ‘Oh, what everybody’s really laughing at is that character on the side who can’t keep his head up.’ On the other hand, last year there was a sketch where Jimmy Fallon was the host and Justin Timberlake was the musical guest, they were both in a sketch where Justin was doing an imitation and impersonation of Jimmy, and Jimmy broke up. Now the live audience, sitting in the [studio] was laughing very hard at Jimmy, who was on the other side of the stage, who just couldn’t keep it together, bending down, laughing hard at Justin, who was doing his impression of him, and so I thought, despite the fact that Lorne won’t particularly be in favor of this, I’ve got to show people at home what the real joke is here, what everybody is really laughing at, and I cut to Jimmy laughing. And I didn’t get fired, so I guess….”

On Guest Hosts: “In my first season, 2006, the fifth show I did was hosted by Alec Baldwin, who had done it more than anyone else and for good reason, he’s terrific at it. He slides from character to character, he helps write, he’s versatile, he can sing, and it was a smooth show, certainly my smoothest of the five. The next week, the host and musical guest was a man named Chris Bridges, also known as Ludacris, a rapper. There was a little bit of a fog over the whole operation; I didn’t know any better, but I could sense something was wrong, and it was that people thought, man, we had such a high working with Alec, and next week we’re going to have to deal with what may be a [subpar] episode. Chris had little real acting experience, he had no comedy chops that we knew of, all he’d been in was a big battle with Oprah about the nature of his lyrics, and we thought he may just come in with a chip on his shoulder and an entourage and this could be a tough week.

“Well, that Monday meeting he said almost nothing, things went fine. Wednesday in read-through, he didn’t bring a lot to the table but he read fine and there were some good sketches. Then Thursday we rehearsed his songs, they were relatively tame and acceptable. And then we started the first sketch on the floor the first time, to do the blocking and the movement. We didn’t have cue cards ready for the first sketch, which was a talk show, big round table talk show that I certainly knew how to do but he didn’t, his character appeared late in the sketch, and already the cast was bouncing off the wall with great characters, making people laugh, typical Saturday Night Live start to a sketch, Chris’ character appeared late in the sketch and I looked over at him and he was holding a script and his hands were shaking, and I thought, oh man, we’re in trouble, this kid is on something. Funny circle around, his first line, in that deep baritone voice of his came out with a little quiver in it, I thought for a minute, he’s not on something, he’s nervous. and who wouldn’t be nervous? A 20-year-old kid, with some of the best sketch actors in the world, and he’s suddenly got to come up with a line reading and I’d be nervous too.

“For the last two days, his only attitude was, I want to get this right. He was there, first guy to show up, every sketch he had written notes, been up late at night coming up with ideas. He tried so hard, was working so hard to try to catch up to the rest of the cast, and I was really impressed with his work ethic, his hard attempt to make this happen. Well, it’s not a very forgiving process for late starters so he wasn’t quite there at dress rehearsal, so I thought, maybe I could help. I ran out to the hallway to grab him as he came out of the dress rehearsal, and I stopped him and I said, ‘Hey Chris, look, I got to tell you something, I’ve only done five of these but you’ve really impressed me, man you’ve come so far in two and a half days,’ and he looked up and down the hall to see if anybody was around, and he grabbed me by the lapels and pushed me against the wall, and said, very quietly, ‘Thank you so much for telling me that.’ He said, ‘I had no idea what I was getting myself into. This is so hard, but coming from the director that really helps.’ I said, ‘I think you’re gonna be fine.’

“So he went on and he was fine, the air show was terrific. He did some sketches that were amazing. So afterwards I went into his dressing room, show was over, now there was an entourage there, filled with his buddies, but he saw me and pushed his way through, came over and shook my hand, thanked me again for talking to him between shows. I said, ‘You don’t have to thank me, you proved me right.’ He got quiet again, looked around and said, ‘Go tell that to my mom, won’t you?’”—compiled by Dade Hayes