Live, from New York, since 1975
You may not have heard of Eugene Lee. Let’s just say he’s behind the scenes. If you’ve seen Saturday Night Live, you’ve seen his work.
It’s a truism you learn quickly in the performing arts: theater is ephemeral, while film and TV are forever. The bittersweet beauty of a stage production is that it disappears so quickly, never to be seen again, while the daunting thrill of a recorded project is that it can be replayed by anyone who cares to watch.
From that perspective, 77-year-old Eugene Lee ’86MFA may have the most ironic career of any set designer in America.
For one thing, he designed the megamusical Wicked, which has been running on Broadway since 2003 and has toured the world for nearly a decade. Millions of people have seen his whimsical vision of Oz before Dorothy dropped in, with its distorted green architecture, recurring clock motif, and enormous mechanical dragon hovering over the proscenium arch. By now, that particular set—which earned Lee his third Tony Award—is like a permanent installation, and with the show still selling out almost every performance, it will likely remain in place for years to come.
To find Lee’s impermanent work—the sets that vanish almost as soon as they’re created—you should really turn on the TV. For most of the last 41 years, Lee has been the head production designer for NBC’s iconic sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live, which means that for four decades he has been creating new sets every week. Unless they’re part of a recurring sketch, those designs are seen exactly one time, never to be used again. Lee has frequently said that there’s just not enough space to keep things around, and that inevitably, nothing he sets aside ever feels right for any other sketch.
“It may be the best thing we’ve ever designed and propped, and we’ve spent a fortune on it, but if they don’t like it or they’re not gonna use it, it’s gone,” he adds. “And the odds of it returning in another show? Usually pretty bad.”
But there’s no point in despairing over a lost masterpiece. A few days after one episode ends, it’s time to start designing the next week’s new batch of living rooms, offices, and restaurants. Ask Keith Raywood, an SNL production designer Lee hired in 1985. “The funny thing about doing a show that does a dozen sets a week is that, frankly, I can’t remember last week,” he says. “It’s always moving forward. It’s never looking back.”
The weekly gauntlet begins on Wednesday afternoons. “We have a read-through at 3:00,” Lee says. “Well, supposedly! It won’t happen at 3:00. But we’re there at 3:00. And then we gather together and read half of the scripts. We take a little break, and then we come back and read the rest of the scripts. Then we wait around for the producers to decide what they would like to produce from all this reading.”
From there, “we talk to everybody. We talk to the cast. We talk to the writers. It’s kind of a madhouse. We try to learn as much as we possibly can. Is it day [in the sketch]? Is it night? Is it elegant? Whatever they think they want. We get what we can and then—boom!—the room thins out. Everyone has drifted away, and we sit down and draft it right then and there. Hopefully, we get it done by midnight.”
The late nights continue as rooms are built, props are bought, and revisions are made. Fridays are especially intense, as sets are being assembled while the actors are rehearsing. “It’s usually late on Fridays,” Lee says. “I stay at the Yale Club, and I usually don’t walk into the Yale Club before 2:00 in the morning.” (A resident of Providence for 50 years, he commutes to New York every week to work on the show.)
Then Saturday night comes, and the deadline hits. “At 11:30, we do it live, and that’s what you’ve got. And I’m kind of a negative guy. I kind of think, ‘Well, we could’ve done better. Maybe on Wednesday night we should have asked more questions.’ But then on the other side of my brain, I say, ‘Oh wow! Look! We’ll do another show next week, and we’ll do it better. Hopefully!’”
Lee credits his youth in Beloit, Wisconsin, for turning him on to design. “My high school built a brand-new building just as I was getting ready to enter my high school years,” he recalls. “It had a fabulous theater—two theaters actually! Also, my parents were both involved in community theater. Those two things together made me interested in theater and set design.”
In 1966, he enrolled in the Yale School of Drama’s stage design program. “The best thing I gained from my time at YSD was definitely the people,” he remembers. “Great teachers, like Donald Oenslager. Great students.” He left without finishing in 1967. Nineteen years later, after he’d won his first Tony, his classmate and SNL collaborator Carrie Robbins ’67MFA helped persuade Yale to grant him his degree. “She wrote the letter; I signed it,” says Lee. “They had me to lunch and gave me a degree—a real degree, not even an honorary one!”
That is as close as Lee gets to boasting. Despite his Tony Awards and his 2013 Emmy Award for SNL—and despite his induction into the Theater Hall of Fame—he’s reluctant to tell war stories. And when asked if he has any favorite designs from his work on Saturday Night Live, he sighs and says, “I’m sure I do. But I must say that having a good set does not make the scene work. We think scenery should be in the background in a comedy show. It’s about performance. Not about scenery.”
That’s a fair point. In an e-mail, critic Erin Keane, managing editor of the website Salon, notes, “When we talk about Saturday Night Live, we usually talk about the performers first and the characters they create, and then we talk about the writers, and of course how they all orbit around [series creator and executive producer] Lorne Michaels. The set design on SNL isn’t something that gets a lot of attention, and maybe that’s because it does its job by rarely calling attention to itself.”
Still, these rapidly created environments have a cumulative impact. Keane notes, “Think about the title card and smarmy opening voiceover announcement for ‘Church Chat’ fading into Dana Carvey [dressed as the Church Lady] sitting behind the big, authoritarian wood desk in the ornate chair with the faux stained-glass panel behind. The desk, the chair, and the window are just as important as Carvey’s costume and wig are to communicating the character’s pomposity and self-righteousness.”
She also mentions the “basement rumpus room” of “Wayne’s World.” If you watched Saturday Night Live in the early ’90s, then you’re probably already picturing what Keane calls “the granny-square afghan draped over the hand-me-down couch.” The environment “instantly communicates that this cheeky and charmingly naïve show you’re watching could be shot in any average suburban basement.”
Here, Lee does concede a bit of success. “Some things have worked out great,” he says. “‘Wayne’s World.’ What is it? A basement. Oh—how about some wood paneling on the wall and a couch? Sometimes the simplest things end up being the most important.”
In fact, he thinks the entire show works better when it’s straightforward. “When you look at the show in the beginning, the set was kind of like The Honeymooners. Paint. Wallpaper. A couple of chairs. Whatever. Simple. Over the years, the arc has gone from that to movie-quality realism. That creeps into every area. Chevy Chase played Gerald Ford, and he didn’t even look like him. He just played him and fell down a lot. There was no special makeup to make him look more like Ford. Same thing with scenery. I think it’s nicer when it’s simpler, as opposed to super-real, but hey, that’s what it is now. And it’s still a great show.”
Simple or super-real, few sets are saved. The few that are preserved aren’t treated with particular reverence. When Lee wanted to highlight “Church Chat” in a 2015 exhibit on the show’s history, he assumed that the backdrop was long gone. “But someone said to me, ‘Oh, we might have seen it!’” he recalls. “And in the shop there are hundreds of hampers filled with stuff. So we sent someone and said, ‘Look through every hamper.’ And sure enough, sooner or later we found the hamper. It had other things in it, but in the bottom of it, tossed in first, was the Church Lady set. I was glad to find it, because we kind of get rid of things.”
What Lee does not get rid of are collaborators. Not only has he been with Saturday Night Live for most of its existence (he left the show along with Lorne Michaels in 1980, then returned with Michaels in 1985), but he’s also been working with largely the same design team for decades. (Another School of Drama alum, Akira Yoshimura ’71Dra, has also worked on the show from the beginning.) According to Raywood, Lee inspires loyalty by having faith in the people around him. “The feeling I had from the very beginning of working with Eugene was that I was a collaborator, not an assistant,” he says. “He was always saying, ‘What do you think? What do you think would be good here?’ He’s amazing that way. He likes you to participate.”
Lee is also quick to decide that someone should be on his team. Raywood remembers meeting him for the first time in the early ’80s, when he came to interview for a job on a Rodney Dangerfield film called Easy Money. Just minutes after walking into Lee’s office, he was sketching an art deco boardroom. Lee liked what he saw. “Then he said, ‘Let’s go,’” Raywood recalls. “And I said, ‘Where are we going?’ And he said ‘Oh, we’re going uptown to the studio. They’re gonna start building it tonight.’ So I went with Eugene and my drawing, and he gave it to the head carpenter. And they started building what I had drawn right there. And I knew at that very moment that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
That rapid-fire decision making is helpful on a show like SNL. “There’s a hubris one needs to have, and I think we all have it,” Raywood says. “You have to have that confidence, because we don’t have time to wonder if we made the right choice. But it’s not just about the confidence. We accept that each [designer] is going to bring a perspective into the show, and in that sense it’s a true collaboration. But obviously we defer to Eugene as not just the lead designer but the designer who put us all here. If Eugene has a note, it’s going to happen.”
Lee himself is quite aware that he’s the old-timer who gets deferred to. “There’s no one left from the beginning,” he says. “We used to take a picture of the people who were around the first year, but now there are so few of us. Last year we didn’t even bother to take a picture.”
Still, he’s not planning to retire, or even reduce his commitment to SNL’s frantic weekly schedule. “I still love the show,” he says. “It’s still something sweet, and there aren’t so many shows like it. Maybe any. Maybe I’m just sentimental today, but I’m still excited for it.”