Eugene Lee will say that his start as the production designer for Saturday Night Live was a miracle. But when he tells the story, it sounds like his recruitment was an example of simply doing their best to make things work. It was 1975, and Lee, a Wisconsin-born, Yale-educated set designer, was working in theater, specifically a revival of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. Producer Lorne Michaels, who was looking for talent for his new late-night comedy show and couldn't find in-house designers from NBC, liked the performance, and decided to recruit whomever designed the sets. A few days later, Lee, who at that point was living in a 50-foot houseboat in Pawtucket Sound, new Providence, Rhode Island, got a fateful phone call. Lee agreed to the job, and hasn’t stopped working for Michaels ever since.
In a career that spans more than 470 shows and four-plus decades, Lee, who was just nominated for an Emmy for his work last season, has seen plenty of things change in the world of set design. The studio has been slow to evolve from the hand-designed and hand-built, and just recently started digitally scanning plans to make it easier to recreate and rebuild sets. But over the many years he’s been in charge of perhaps one of the more efficient set design staffs in the entertainment world, who build a dozen or more sets a week in roughly 48 hours, he’s in no rush to embrace new technology.
From the start, New York City played a big role in the design and aesthetics of the set. The main stages where hosts deliver the monologue have taken their inspirations from urban design, from Grand Central station to subway platforms. When the show started in '75, the original cast was billed the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" for their edgy and ground-breaking sketch comedy. Lee made sure the set design reflected that attitude.
The comedy variety shows that came before SNL, such as Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, relied in part on glossy, shiny stage sets. Lee wanted to reflect the grit and reality of the city—"Lorne Michaels hates those little lightbulbs on decorative sets, and has some phobia against them"—an aesthetic that complemented the more in-your-face, realistic approach to comedy taken by the cast.
"At the time, New York wasn’t like it is now," says Lee. "It wasn’t in good shape. There was graffiti on the subway cars, and the area across from the studio was lined with old porn theaters. I kind of miss that, to be honest. The Disney version of New York today doesn’t do much for me. "
That focus on realism, and simple set design, carried throughout the first season and beyond, a constant throughout the show's four-plus decades. Lee has always adopted a "let’s make it work" philosophy, an important frame of mind when your staff works on tight deadlines and needs to built sets that can be broken down and swapped out during commercial breaks. While sets in the ‘70s were especially barebones, Lee says that the increasing fidelity and budget of movies has forced the design staff to create more realistic backdrops. But the important part was always to stay out of the way.
"Sets really shouldn’t be that important," he says. "By definition, they should stay in the background. If they’re in the foreground, then you’ve done something wrong."
His team, like the cast, first encounters sketches on the Wednesday read-through. After the initial read, Michaels and the producers pick ones that will make it on the show, and then Lee and his team begin building. They usually work extremely late nights on Thursdays and Fridays in an off-site workshop in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, and usually have everything ready by late Friday night, set for the next evening’s performance at Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center.
"At the beginning, working in the NBC design department was like working for an opera company," says Lee. "They just had so many people on the payroll. You could call someone on the phone and get an answer to just about anything."
Because of the on-the-fly nature of the show, few sets are kept week-by-week. Even in the case of famous reoccurring characters such as Dana Carvey’s Church Lady, there would be a good chance sets would be rebuilt week by week. History shows most sketches don’t come back, says Lee. Even sets that get prominent placement each week, such as the Weekend Update stage, are often relatively simple affairs, loosely inspired by the sleek glass and special-effects heavy news studios of today, but unable to fully replicate them because of the need for flexibility.
"Most times, it was just cheaper to rebuild each week," he says. "It’s always in total flux all the time; almost nothing from the early years is in storage."
Lee had a hard time naming his favorite set, saying that he generally favors whatever he’s working on at the moment. He did say it’s a safe bet he had a hand in any sketch that involved a boat. He says he often finds himself focusing on what went wrong, and trying to hold things together during a live taping, but they do manage to pull off some incredible feats of last-minute assembly.
He remembers the last time Prince performed for the show, and they literally had no idea what he wanted or how to design the set. Lee simply thought, "let’s ask him." Soon, they flew out to Paisley Park, and after waiting a few hours for the gates to open, had a meeting with Prince to discuss stage design for his now-famous performance.
"We just make sure to never say no, and just make things happen as quickly as possible," says Lee. "The thought in the building when the show started was that it was going to last six shows. Guess they got that wrong."