Approached by a Canadian television producer for a variety sketch series back in the early 1970s, production designer Eugene Lee couldn’t have realized then that he’d stumbled on the job of a lifetime. That series, Saturday Night Live, has left an indelible, singular mark on popular culture, while keeping the designer employed for the past 41 years. With over 470 episodes of SNL under his belt, and only a handful of his original collaborators still on board at 30 Rock, Lee’s creative responsibilities don’t end with SNL. Astonishingly, at age 77, the 12-time Emmy nominee has taken on a load that many production designers would surely find unimaginable, moving seamlessly between SNL, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Late Night with Seth Myers and other series.
And that’s not all: a multi-Tony Award winner, Lee designed the sets for Wicked and Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and remains active in the theater community. Below, Lee discusses his most recent Emmy nod, his process on SNL, and the unique legacy of SNL—a show that had never been seen before and, in its eventual conclusion, will never be seen again.
How did it feel to receive your 12th Emmy nomination this year for Saturday Night Live?
I don’t think much about awards. As far as Saturday Night goes, as far as it goes, I’ve done it since the beginning, and initially, everyone on Saturday Night won. Everyone won, you know, except us. I remember Chevy Chase saying to me, “Wow, you guys didn’t win.” I was like, “No, not today,” you know? That’s kind of the story, always, but I’ve won plenty of other things.
We’re a very easy-going, happy design department; whatever they want, we give them. And it’s a pleasure—there won’t be another show like Saturday Night when Saturday Night goes away, whatever happens to it. Lorne [Michaels] always says he’s doing it as long as he can. There’s nothing like it.
You are one of only a handful of creatives still involved with the series who were there in 1975. Is there a strong kinship among the SNL stalwarts?
Come on, we’re just a big, dysfunctional family. I love Lorne—he’s always been really, really good to me. I’ve been particularly busy lately, being as I did the renovation of the studio for Jimmy [Fallon], for The Tonight Show—and a set I rather like, and am proud of. I have a set in almost every NBC studio at 30 Rock.
One rarely works on a show so long as we have worked on Saturday Night. I can’t walk from one end of the building to the other without ten people stopping me in the hallway and saying hi.
From your beginnings in small town Wisconsin to your work at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, how did you originally come to work on this historic series?
My identical twin brother went to West Point, and I tried to go off into the theater—but no one could tell you anything, being from Wisconsin. You say to your high school people, “I’d like to be a set designer”—they’d just look at you like you’re crazy. They don’t know what it all means.
I saw Helen Hayes talking on PBS about this school in Pittsburgh, Carnegie Tech, and I just thought, “Hey, I should be there.” So I jumped in my Volkswagen and drove to Pittsburgh, walked in the front door, and said, “Here I am.”
I [later] got a call from my friend Roger Morgan, who was a lighting designer, saying, “I’m in Providence working for this director, Adrian Hall—he’s a little strange, but he’s unhappy. He’s looking for a new set designer. Maybe you guys would hit it off.”
So, I came to Providence, and I’ve been here for 50 years. We did hundreds of shows, and I was living out of a 50-foot sailboat in Rhode Island. Then one day, I got a call—I was out rowing around, and the phone went off. It was some guy from NBC saying this Canadian producer was doing this new comedy variety show, and he’d like to talk.
I didn’t know anything about television, so I went, knocked on his door—nice guy, very casual—I bring some work along to show him, he doesn’t want to see any of that. He talks about the show a bit, says, “I’m going out to this comedy club. Why don’t you guys come out tonight?”
The next day, we walked down to NBC, and that was that, you know? RCA owned it at the time, and they ran the whole thing like it was an opera company. It turns out that Lorne had seen a show on Broadway that I did—Candide, the Leonard Bernstein musical—which was a big hit at the time.
Anyway, I don’t know; Saturday Night of course became a big hit. Who could predict?
What does your average week look like on the set of SNL?
It’s very simple. It kind of runs like a theater, so these days, we have a read-through on Wednesday, three o’clock. We gather together on the 17th floor, in an office that we picked the first day we walked down to NBC. We read out the script—everyone’s there, the cast, the guest for that week, okay? That’s kind of fun, and then after that, the producers decide what they would like to produce.
Then we meet with the director—Don [Roy] King at the moment, nice guy—and with him, we talk through how the studio gets laid out. After that, we talk to everyone, because the writers produce the pieces. For scenery, they have to come talk to us and tell us what they want.
Suddenly, it’s quiet, and the design department, we pick on different things. We decide who’s drawing what, and we sit right down and do it, however long it takes. Sometimes we don’t start drafting before ten o’clock in the evening, and we’re just lucky if we get out by the next day.
A person comes from the shop that evening, and we take the drawings that we’ve done, and we hand it to them. They go back to the shop in Brooklyn and start working on it, pulling pieces of scenery that we might use. We try to save things, but it doesn’t usually work. If you save it, you never get to use it again, you know? And it’s expensive to store scenery, so sometimes it’s better just to rebuild it.
On Thursday, we rehearse the music. We go on camera, one o’clock, and rehearse the music. Then they do promos, and we rehearse whatever we can. If there’s no scenery there—which there isn’t, by the way—then we have to make it up. it’s made up.
Overnight, some scenery has come; and on Friday, we once again go on camera at one. We’re trying to work together in the studio—it’s kind of hard sometimes. There’s a lot of stage managers saying, “Quiet, quiet.” On Friday, Lorne likes to have a meeting at the end of the day, and that meeting can be any time. It can be midnight, you know? I always go to that meeting on Friday night, and then sometimes, they try to do a layout of what the show is going to kind of look like. It often changes—but I mean, that’s the point.
By Saturday, we’ve finished painting the scenery in the studio, we’re dressing it—and then, just like theater, we do a technical. At eight o’clock, we do a dress rehearsal with an audience, and that is usually long. Things get cut. They didn’t used to record it, but now we record this dress rehearsal, and then we do it live.
After the dress rehearsal, because I live in Rhode Island, I have a driver who picks me up at 30 Rock at 11 o’clock sharp. There’s always someone left in the design department, if there’s some incredible emergency. You know, they decide, like, wait, that whole set is being hurt because the color is wrong, they don’t like the wallpaper—God knows what the story is, and no problem. We come down, the audience is coming in, we’ve painted the thing; we bring out the big fans to dry it.
You just don’t have a show done like this anymore, you know? And plus, there’s all the crazy stuff that makes it kind of sentimental. I mean, we go out into the hallway, right outside the studio, which we do from time to time. We always have Abe Lincoln, a llama, and a chorus girl somewhere in the shot, lurking in the background. Why? We can’t remember anymore why we do it.
But sometimes, like last year, we brought in the llama, and he was the wrong color. This was very upsetting, you know what I mean? Who else does this kind of stuff?
Would you say that series like 30 Rock and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip accurately reflect your frenetic creative environment?
My friend Keith [Raywood], who is a production designer on Saturday Night, did 30 Rock. So, yeah, they get it; and from time to time, when 30 Rock was on, they shot in and around the building. It’s kind of great, actually.
I feel particularly lucky with the whole thing, because as it turns out with Lorne, I ended up doing The Tonight Show; we just did Maya & Marty. I don’t know what’s happening with that—we did six shows. We were using Studio 6A, which is right across the hall from Jimmy [Fallon].
It’s such an extraordinarily interesting, nice place to work, 30 Rock. I don’t know if you remember, but there was a time when NBC, they were going to move everything to Fort Lee [New Jersey], and forget the city. What a disaster that would’ve been.
The look of New York City in the ‘70s was influential in your initial designs for the show. Over these 40 years, as the city has changed dramatically, how has this affected your work?
I think the way New York has evolved, everything is hipper, you know? Every club is, and I think the show is that way. I think the film unit used to do just parody commercials, but we don’t do many parody commercials anymore. The film unit is doing whole little movies, which is kind of great, actually. Hey, they’re all going to go into the movies sooner or later.
This being a highly scrutinized election year, and having been through so many election years with the series, what is your experience in dealing with this sort of material?
You can’t make up what we’re doing now—come on. We actually proposed a show with Mr. Trump called Trump Follies. It never went anyplace, but we had fascinating meetings over at his office. And I found him a fascinating guy, you know? Darrell Hammond was going to play him; it was going to be a Broadway show. It was a fascinating little side thing that never happened.
How do you feel when looking at the legacy of this show, and the tremendous mark it has made on popular culture throughout its run?
Here’s the deal. Just recently, the people who did “Titanic” and “King Tut” did an exhibit on Saturday Night, which we’ve been talking about for a long time. It played for a year, and it forced me to go back and look at the show in entirety. I had a chance to go back, and rebuild the first Saturday Night, which was meant to be kind of a little club in the cellar. I don’t know. It’s a little like my Wicked. It goes on and on.