Eugene Lee On Designing the sets for Saturday Night Live – “No One Had Any Hope That This Show Would Be Any Good.”
Eugene Lee is something of a legend. He has designed sets for Broadway favorites – Wicked, Ragtime, Candide and Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Sweeney Todd. However, on TV, Lee has been nominated fourteen times for his work on Saturday Night Live receiving nominations for Outstanding Production Design for a Variety, Reality, or Reality-competition Series. He’s won the award twice; once in 2013 for Outstanding Art Direction for Variety or Nonfiction Programming for Saturday Night Live and again in 2017 for Outstanding Production Design for Variety, Nonfiction, Reality or Reality-Competition Programming. I caught up with him to talk about how he first began on the show, Lee has been there since day one.
On How It All Began
At the time, it was a good time for me, friends of mine had the Chelsea Theater Center out in Brooklyn. They called one day and said, “Harold Prince” is going to do a production of Candide would you like to do it and he’s going to be directing it. It was on Broadway and actually deemed a failure. I did that and it actually won a Tony Award.
I owned a boat and was out on Rhode Island when I got a call about a show NBC was doing, it was a “comedy-variety” show and they wanted to meet. All I had to do was call. I thought, “why not?”
I went to the city, knocked on the door and there was this young guy, casual and didn’t want to see any work. He invited me to a comedy club. I only thought I was going down for the day. We walked down 6th Avenue to NBC and went to Studio 8H. Imagine a big empty shoebox of a shape and that’s how it all began.
Lorne Michaels had some videos of shows he had done in Canada. They were videos of him performing. That day, we went to look at office spaces and we did that. In retrospect, no one had any hope that this show would be any good, the general feeling was that it would be six shows. We looked at different spaces and we went with a unit manager, but it was clear there were budget restrictions and we picked a place on the 17th floor.
RCA owned the company and there was a big design company on the 7th floor with designers. We set up work there. We didn’t stay there long because no one seemed friendly. It just seemed that everyone hated the idea of the first live show in years.
We come into work and it’s all open planned cubicles. We did a ‘show us your guns’ sketch and at 5pm all the designers were leaving. If you know Lorne and how that show works, he will work for hours and he’ll work late.
Imagine the shoe box, that’s the backstage, the middle area was the scenery and the space left over was for the audience and I didn’t like that at all. When we eventually got a director, he didn’t approve of that setup, but it worked. The cameras moved around, it was like being in a theater.
On some highlights for him.
I tend to be fond of the earlier years. Things were simpler then. Lobsters singing Les Mis, just thinking about it makes me laugh. How can you beat that? We have a lot of new writers which is a great thing. In the big arc of the show, they want it to be more realistic. The very first sketch had Chevy Chase, the scenery was very simple, painted on flats and hanging plants were painted on the wall. It stayed simple for a very long time.
On how technology has helped him.
Writers will pull out cellphones and show us photos. The show hasn’t changed much in the way we do it. We read it on Wednesday and design it that night. Thursday we rehearse the sketches, we don’t have any scenery, it’s just for the director to see how much space he has. On Saturday, we do it technically, then we do the dress rehearsal with an audience and we might go over by twenty minutes and then we do it. I leave and go home. If it goes wrong, I think, “We can do it better next week.”