Eugene Lee has been the “Saturday Night Live” production designer since the start of the show’s first season in 1975.
At 77, he is one of the only original crew members still working, alongside “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels, who brought Lee in for the variety sketch program from a background in Broadway theater.
Three Tony Awards, 12 Emmy nominations, and one Emmy win later, Lee continues to carry on his accomplished tradition in theater while also leading the “SNL” production-design team, week in and week out.
“In live television, we’re a throwback to the past,” Lee recently told Business Insider. “We still draw up sets by hand, the old-fashioned way: drafting sheets, pencils, tracing paper. But some things have changed over the years, of course.”
Lee traced the evolution of the show over the course of its 42 seasons to us. In doing so, he revealed the inner workings of some of the best sketches in the history of the legendary series.
Here are the backstage secrets behind six famous “SNL” sketches:
1975: “The Wolverines”
“Well, I naturally love the first sketch, ‘Wolverines,’” Lee said.
The first cold open on the first-ever episode, “The Wolverines” featured John Belushi as an immigrant receiving absurd English lessons from a tutor (Michael O’Donoghue).
Lee outfitted the barebones set with nothing more than a rug, two arm chairs, an end table with a lamp, and a stairway – a no-nonsense setup for a theater designer who “didn’t know anything about television.”
“In retrospect, it’s like ‘The Honeymooners,’” he said. “It’s so simple. In the early years, the scenery was much simpler, and as time goes on, people want the scenery to be more realistic, more like a movie.”
1978: “The Olympia Restaurant” (the “cheeseburger, cheeseburger” sketch)
The famous Greek diner sketch starring John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Dan Aykroyd is reportedly based on the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, which is still around, but Lee says the look of the greasy-spoon set instead drew mostly from the “gritty” appearance of New York City in the ’70s.
“It’s just our gritty version of a diner,” he said. “I love the gritty, you know. I liked 42nd street when it was porn theaters. When we started ‘Saturday Night,’ New York was not in very good shape: subway cars graffitied over, Radio City Music Hall was basically empty.”
“And after all, these were the ‘Not Ready for Prime Time Players,’ and the original home base was a fantasy of mine of a club underground, and it was kind of junky,” he continued. “We’ve always liked sort of industrial looks, but things have just gotten slicker.”
1983: “James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party”
The classic sketch that featured Eddie Murphy as a singing and disrobing James Brown stepping into a hot tub was decorated with elaborate curtains and a real, operating, miniature hot tub.
It was a relatively easy setup for Lee, thanks to his background in constructing Broadway stages.
“When I laid out the studio originally, there was the home base in the middle, which changed over the years, and there were little stages,” he said. “And the little stages were like 18, 19 inches high, maybe 2 feet high, so things like hot tubs and other things that we needed to go down, since it played on a little stage just like Broadway, you could just cut a hole and set it in, really very simple.”
1989: “Wayne’s World”
“Wayne’s World, I sketched that originally. But of course, I didn’t get to do the movie, and I should be upset,” Lee joked.
One of the show’s most notable regular sketches, which turned into a successful couple movies, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey’s public-access rock talk show “Wayne’s World” started (in scenery, anyway) with Lee’s conception of a basement.
“It could have been a garage, it could have been other things,” Lee said. “But my version of a basement – it was kind of silly. It had cheap paneling, and of course, it would be centered around a couch. And it wasn’t a hit right away, you know. It ran a few times, and then suddenly they’re making a movie of it.”
1996: “Celebrity Jeopardy!”
Despite the show’s seemingly accurate recreations of real-life TV programs like the Will Ferrell-starring “Celebrity Jeopardy!” Lee insists that such sets still “aren’t terribly realistic.”
“On the shows that have a big board and you have to change it, in real life it’s done with monitors and everything,” he said. “But we do it with little cards. Some stage manager goes behind the board and pulls out the little card, and in the past there have been mistakes – not too many – where the wrong card is there.
“It’s done in a rather simple way,” he continued. “We have a big floor-paint treatment, but there’s a kind of wonderful simplicity to the things that I like.”
2016: The presidential debates
“Things have changed over the years, and technology moves on,” Lee said. “When we first started ‘SNL,’ we didn’t even have a fax machine, but now most everything is done on computers.”
Lee explained how the photorealistic sets for the recent presidential debates could only have been done through computer printing, an asset that the show uses constantly today. Nonetheless, he laments the loss of the handmade artistry in the old “SNL” set designs.
“There was a time in the country when everyone painted billboards, and now computers print them,” he said. “When you look at early shows in the backgrounds, we used a company in California that had really elegant painted backdrops, and they were actually kind of beautiful.
“They had a really interesting reality that is better, I think, in a way,” he continued. “But now we just do everything on the computer.”
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