“Saturday Night Live” is celebrating it’s 40th year on the air with an exhibit of memorabilia and a behind-the-scenes look at the iconic television show. Housed in a space on Fifth Avenue in the city that SNL has always called home, this “live from New York” exhibit is a fun and nostalgic look at one of the most beloved television programs of all time.
“Saturday Night Live: The Exhibition” starts with a short video of a variety of clips from the 40 years, narrated by frequent host Alec Baldwin. When the video ends, the doors open, as the words “Live From New York, it’s Saturday Night” are piped in, and you hear the band, applause, and see a life-size image of Studio 8H at 30 Rock. It isn’t hard to imagine that you’re the host walking through those doors, taking your spot at center stage.
Throughout the galleries are a multitude of costumes, props, backdrops, and even sets from the show. You can stand behind a Celebrity Jeopardy podium, sit yourself down on the Wayne’s World couch, or sit behind the Weekend Update desk and have your photo taken. The best part is that they’ll Photoshop your favorite cast member into the photo with you. How’d you like to do Weekend Update with Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler, or Tina Fey? Not too shabby.
You’ll see placards that explain what happens during the six-day process each week on the show. It’s a break-neck pace, and I found myself wondering how on earth they managed to pull off one show in such a short time, let alone 40 years of them.
I had a chance to sit down with Mark Lach, the Creative Director of the exhibit, and talk to him a bit about how it was put together. The first thing he said to me when we met at the exhibit site was that Alec Baldwin had just been there the day before.
For Mark, who has put together a number of highly successful exhibits, such as the King Tut and Titanic exhibits in New York, this one was definitely the most fun. “I kind of imbedded myself over there at 30 Rock for the last year to get to know all the departments and all the people and be a fly on the wall and sit in on the writing meetings and things like that. I was so incredibly privileged to be part of that and to put this together…. This was a mile a minute of fun. I really enjoyed it,” he told me.
I asked Mark how much SNL creator Lorne Michaels was involved with the exhibition. “Because we’re partner with Broadway Video, I had the privilege to meet with Lorne a number of times. Lorne really stepped aside from this,” Mark said.
“He was very helpful. He made sure that his organization, if you will, was there to assist the way I thought. But I think he recognized that it was important if we were going to be legitimate that it would not be him influencing the storytelling. I wanted to keep him abreast – I’d be foolish not to get his input. He was a delight to work with, but very much stepped aside and said, ‘You guys do exhibitions. I trust you.'”
Finding pieces for the exhibit was a bit tricky because it isn’t like they knew to preserve costumes and props for posterity when the show first began. As Mark noted, no one ever expected the show to last 40 years. In fact, many network executives hated the show and would have canned it early on had it not struck such a chord with audiences.
When they started to prepare the exhibit, people looked for items and had a lot of “Wow, I didn’t know we still had this!” moments. “The thing that’s served us well is that the department heads have been there over the years. Eugene Lee, the famed Broadway set designer, is the head of design over there,” Mark said.
“He’s in his mid-70’s, and he was there when he was in his mid-30’s. An example of that is the Church Lady background…. Everyone said, ‘We don’t have that anymore,’ and Eugene was determined to find it.” One day, Eugene went through the hampers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard where many of the set pieces are stored, and Mark heard his voice yell, “I found it!”
The sets are stripped down and remade into a new set for the next week, so those did not survive for the most part. The Weekend Update set that’s at the exhibit is being retired, and the Wayne’s World set is the one that was reconstructed for the 40th anniversary special. The couch and most of the props are from the original set, however.
I thoroughly enjoyed walking through the exhibit, learning more about SNL and reminiscing about all the years of laughter, as well as the cast members we’ve lost. What was the most surprising revelation? For me, it was that very little improvisation goes on during the live shows. Rewrites are done up until the last minute, but to keep everything running on time and to avoid disruption of camera shots, hosts and cast members have to stick to the cue cards.
I also especially enjoyed four video interviews with writers on the show, one of which was Seth Meyers. They talked about the pressure and insecurity, as well as exhilaration, that they experienced on a weekly basis while working on SNL.
Take a look at my gallery below of photos from the exhibit, but keep in mind that there’s much more where these came from. Below the photos is a video with Mark Lach talking a bit more about what you can expect. Then, if you’re in New York, be sure to check it out yourself.