27 “Saturday Night Live” Behind-The-Scenes Facts

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Every car on the show is real, and they’ve all been cut in half to fit on the studio’s elevators.

Table of Contents

1.

Saturday Night Live got its start because late-night host Johnny Carson wanted to work less.


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Carson asked NBC to air his reruns during the week instead of on the weekends, to “cover him for when he ducked out on vacation.” That left the network with a big blank spot on its weekend programming, so they reached out to Canadian producer Lorne Michaels to come up with something.


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They paid him $115,000 to make a “new late-night variety, comedy, and music television show,” and 46 seasons later, it’s still going strong.


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2.

The SNL crew has less than two minutes to transform the “home base” stage (used for both the cold open and the opening monologue) while the show’s opening credits play.


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3.

Speaking of sets, Eugene Lee, the longtime SNL set designer, told Vanity Fair that the show recycles most of its set pieces, since keeping them would mean that they would be “sitting in a warehouse costing money.”


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There are some exceptions, though. For instance, the show holds onto its Oval Office set.


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4.

In the same interview, Lee said that SNL uses real cars in its sketches. They’ll “go looking in Brooklyn or someplace,” offer to buy someone’s car (telling them it’ll be on SNL to sweeten the deal), and then get its engine and any other unnecessary parts taken out.


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The car will then have to be cut in half, because otherwise, it wouldn’t fit in Studio 8H’s elevators. Lee said, “It’s a miracle actually…a car just fits by sometimes half an inch.”


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5.

According to the New York Times, it takes seven minutes for Alec Baldwin to get into hair and makeup as Donald Trump.


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He’s paid $1,400 for each appearance as the former president.


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6.

An episode of Seinfeld is based on Larry David’s experience of sort of (but not really) quitting Saturday Night Live. During Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit in 2017, David recalled that six weeks into his gig as a writer, he snapped and quit after yet another one of his sketches was cut just minutes before the show was set to air.


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On his walk home, David began to regret quitting, and when he encountered his coworker Cosmo Kramer (the eventual inspiration for Seinfeld‘s Kramer), Kramer advised him to “simply to go back into the office on Monday and pretend the whole thing never happened.” That’s exactly what David did: He showed up at the Monday morning writer’s meeting, pitched a sketch about trapeze artists, and that was that.


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In “The Revenge” (Season 2, Episode 7), George quits his job in a fury and tries the same trick David used, but in his case, and as is typical on Seinfeld, it doesn’t turn out as planned.

7.

According to the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Eddie Murphy met Mr. Rogers after his parodies of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood aired, and even though Mr. Rogers wasn’t a huge fan of “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood,” the pair still embraced, and Mr. Rogers was “as gracious as you’d expect.


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8.

Howard Shore is an Oscar-winning composer who scored The Silence of the Lambs, Seven, and the Lord of the Rings movies, among others. He’s also a childhood friend of Lorne Michael’s, and SNL‘s first musical director.

Michaels and Shore met “as teenagers at summer camp,” and Michaels told the Washington Post, “If it was anything to do with music, Howard would have been there.” In addition to composing the opening and closing music, Shore starred in sketches (at one point, he was Dr. Frankenstein) and booked musical guests.


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9.

During an appearance on The Howard Stern Show, Johnny Knoxville recalled that Lorne Michaels offered him a weekly three- to five-minute segment on SNL to do “pranks or stunts.” Even though Knoxville thought it was a “wonderful opportunity,” he decided to pursue producing the Jackass television show for MTV instead, both because it offered more creative control and allowed him to continue collaborating with his friends.

10.

Producer Jerry Weintraub thought Michael Phelps would be perfect for the title role in The Legend of Tarzan. That is, until he saw Phelps hosting SNL.


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Vanity Fair‘s Rich Cohen was with Weintraub when he saw the episode, and witnessed his outsized disappointment to Phelps’s onscreen presence. After watching for two minutes, Weintraub yelled at his assistant, “He’s a goon! Why didn’t anyone tell me he’s a goon? Turn it off. Goddammit, turn it off.” Alexander Skarsgård ultimately won the role.


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11.

In an April 1976 episode, Lorne Michaels spoke directly to the camera and offered the Beatles $3,000 to reunite. While holding up the promised check, Michaels said, “You divide it any way you want. You want to give Ringo less, that’s up to you.”


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Little did he know, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were watching from the Dakota, which is a “mere mile and a half away from 30 Rockefeller Plaza.” They thought about showing up at the studio, but ultimately decided against it. That night was the final time the pair hung out in person.


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12.

In an October 2004 episode, Ashlee Simpson performed her song “Pieces of Me” as that night’s musical guest; it went well, but when she came back to perform another song, her vocals from “Pieces of Me” started playing while Simpson was “holding her microphone at her waist.” Simpson “danced a bit of a jig” before fleeing the stage, and her father (and manager) Joe Simpson explained that she was lip-synching because acid reflux disease had affected her singing voice.


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Michaels didn’t know about it, and told 60 Minutes that he wouldn’t have permitted it if he did. He added that Simpson was the first guest to ever walk off mid-performance. That being said, the incident didn’t seem to ruffle Michaels too much, and he pointed out that “the great part about SNL is there’s always next week.”


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13.

NBC was terrified of what Richard Pryor would say when he guest hosted during the first season of SNL, and executives believed his material was “too dangerous” to be broadcast live. They refused to allow him to host the first episode, like Lorne Michaels wanted, and when he did appear, they insisted on a five-second delay in between what he said and what aired. Today, that kind of delay is typical for live events broadcasted on television.


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14.

When Chelsea Clinton was 13, SNL aired a “Wayne’s World” sketch making fun of her appearance. The ensuing controversy caused the show to edit out the jokes. At the time, Lorne Michaels told the Baltimore Sun, “We felt, upon reflection, that if it was in any way hurtful, it wasn’t worth it. She’s a kid, a kid who didn’t choose to be in public life.”


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Michael Myers, who plays Wayne in the sketch (and film) series, even went so far as to write a letter of apology to the White House.


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15.

The oldest person to ever host is Betty White, who made her SNL debut in May 2010 at the age of 88.


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The musical guest that night was Jay-Z.


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16.

The second oldest person to ever host SNL is Miskel Spillman. She wasn’t famous, but she did have the rare honor of winning the first SNL Anyone Can Host competition. And there’s never been another, so Spillman’s still the reigning champ.


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To win the contest, you had to pitch yourself on a postcard using 25 or fewer words. Spillman’s read, “I need one more cheap thrill since my doctor told me I only have another 25 years left.” This got her into the top five, out of 150,000 other entries. She and the other finalists got to speak to the SNL audience directly, but only to deliver bland introductions. But Spillman stood out by saying, “I’m Miskel Spillman. I’m old.”


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She got the job, and hosted in December 1977 at the age of 80.


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17.

Speaking of hosts, one of the least liked by the cast and crew is Steven Seagal. After his 1991 performance, he was banned by the show for being “extremely unfunny and inflexible.”


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When Nicolas Cage hosted in 1992, he jokingly despaired in his monologue that audiences thought he was “the biggest jerk who’s ever been on the show.” Lorne Michaels responded, “No, no. That would be Steven Seagal.”


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18.

John Mulaney, who co-created Stefon with Bill Hader, used to try to get Hader to break during the sketches by adding new lines or details to the script at the very last minute without warning Hader.


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One of those details was “three screaming babies in Mozart wigs.”

19.

Mindy Kaling was offered a job on the show’s writing staff, but she had to turn it down because of her pre-existing commitment to The Office.


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Greg Daniels, the showrunner, told her that he’d let her break her contract if she were cast, but not if she were offered a writing job. In an interview with the AV Club, Kaling called turning down the opportunity “heartbreaking,” especially since at the time, she desperately wanted to leave LA for New York City.


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20.

Paul Reubens, the comedian behind Pee-wee Herman, recalled during a Q&A at SF Sketchfest that he was “so bitter and angry” after he didn’t get cast on SNL in 1980. Reubens’ rage stemmed from his belief that Gilbert Gottfried got the job by being friends with a producer.


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While he was traveling home after the failed audition, Reubens decided that to “take this to the next level,” he needed to produce The Pee-wee Herman Show. He borrowed some money to get started and “went from this Saturday Night Live reject to having 60 people working for me.”


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21.

And now, for the obligatory (but incomplete) list of famous people who were rejected from SNL. First up, Stephen Colbert, who auditioned in 1992:


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And Aubrey Plaza, who auditioned in 2008:


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And Jim Carrey, who auditioned in the ’80s:


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And Kevin Hart, who tried out with an impression of basketball player and coach Avery Johnson, “a person that nobody knew“:


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And Donald Glover, who according to the AV Club was rejected twice:


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They all seem like they’re doing OK, though.


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22.

Relatedly, here are some stars who got fired during their tenure on the show. First up, Sarah Silverman, who got the boot after her first season on the show because, as she put it during a HuffPost interview, “I wrote not a single funny sketch“:

And Adam Sandler, who told the Daily Beast that “it hurt a lot at the time…but it all worked out”:


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And Chris Farley, who was fired at the same time as Sandler:


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And Jenny Slate, though she told InStyle that it wasn’t because she said “fuck” during a sketch, as was the popular rumor at the time. Instead, Slate said, “I didn’t do a good job; I didn’t click”:


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23.

During Zach Galifianakis’s brief trial as a writer, Britney Spears was a guest host, and he pitched a sketch that involved Will Ferrell “being the bodyguard to her belly button.”


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It absolutely bombed, and during an appearance on the show Off Camera With Sam Jones, Galifianakis recalled that the room was so quiet while the cast read it that he could hear the air conditioner turn off and on.


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After it was over, Tina Fey put her hand on his shoulder. Galifianakis said, “It didn’t feel sarcastic; it could have been. But in my mind, it was her going, ‘It’s OK.'”

24.

In her memoir Bossypants, Tina Fey revealed that SNL has a term for famous people appearing in the same sketches as the cast members poking fun at them: “Sneaker Uppers.”

A Sneaker Upper, according to Fey, is “a term that veteran SNL writer Jim Downey coined to describe that queer moment when a famous person ‘sneaks up’ behind the actor who plays them and pretends to be mad about it.” She wrote that they’re a way for celebrities to show they’re “in on the joke,” and added that none of the writers like them, because they’re “lame” (but popular).


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25.

In 1978, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray got in a fist fight in John Belushi’s dressing room “just moments before the show aired.”


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Jane Curtin, a cast member who witnessed the fight, said on Watch What Happens Live in 2021, “There were these two bull mooses going at each other, so the testosterone was surging and stuff happens.”


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Years later, Chase appeared on The Howard Stern Show and said about him and Murray, “We’ve never been close, but we’ve been very friendly; we play golf together.”


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So the show came up with a unique solution: airing a segment where Murray quite literally asked viewers to laugh at his jokes. Apparently, it worked, because he soon became a hit with the audience.

27.

And finally: One of the most controversial moments in SNL‘s history came in 1992, when musical guest Sinéad O’Connor ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II during her performance as a protest against “child abuse within the Roman Catholic Church.” She then yelled, “Fight the real enemy!


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The moment came as a surprise to the show’s producers, since in rehearsals, she held up a photograph of a refugee child, not the pontiff. O’Connor told the Irish magazine Hot Press that the “photo itself had been on my mother’s bedroom wall since the day the fucker was enthroned in 1978.”

Ten years later, John Paul II issued an apology for the “sexual abuse of children by priests in the Catholic Church.”


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