Working on Saturday Night Live taught me about the ruthlessness of TV

Old showbiz saying: “If I can talk you out of going into the Industry, you wouldn’t have made it anyway.”

Neither we nor the writer of the following article are trying to talk anybody out of going into showbiz.  Nevertheless…well, see for yourself:

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by Steven W. Thrasher

Seeing Saturday Night Live turn 40 makes me feel really old. I worked at the show in seasons 24 and 25, when I was 25. I feel old remembering that Tina Fey was the head writer, didn’t appear on camera and wasn’t a celebrity. I feel geezerly recalling that there was only one internet connection in the SNL writing offices; and outright ancient thinking back on how I copied and pasted Xeroxes of newspaper stories for the writers pre-mass use of Google, and made tape-to-tape analogue video copies for the actors because YouTube hadn’t been invented.

But back then I felt young, for I was one of the first staff members to have been born after the live comedy show started broadcasting on NBC from 30 Rockefeller Center. Having gone to a dress rehearsal years before with my friend Ryan, right before I started at NYU, I dreamed of working at SNL someday. I became an intern during my senior year of film school (during the season when Monica Lewinsky, America’s most famous intern, came on to play herself), and then I landed a job as a lowly script assistant in the anniversary 25th season. I also pitched jokes to Weekend Update, and though Colin Quinn twice tried them out for the dress rehearsal, nothing I wrote ever made it to air.

SNL was a great place to learn about writing, listening and timing, but also to school myself about the ruthlessness of entertainment even when trying to make people laugh. After the writers wrote overnight on Tuesdays, there would be an enormous table read late Wednesday afternoon. Then, all 100 or so members of the company would read every sketch written aloud, which would go on for about four hours. Two hours’ worth of show material would be selected, to be performed at a dress rehearsal from 8-10 Saturday night.

And then, from 10-11 or so on Saturday night, the show would be chaotically re-written in time, hopefully, for the 11:30 live broadcast.

On show night, my job was to take script changes from the writers and to write them – by hand (damn, do I feel old admitting this) – into the scripts of the audio and music crew. It was fun taking Don Pardo’s script to the announcer’s booth. “Good evening, young man,” he would say each week, as he was warming up his octogenarian voice in the booth, getting ready for the show he had announced for a quarter century. Pardo was the voice of the show and its most recognisable source of continuity. Once, before he replaced him after Pardo’s death, Daryl Hammond stood in for Pardo when he was sick, without being credited. The show’s phone line – no internet comments back then – was inundated with calls the next week demanding to know who the impostor had been.

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