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Meet the Man Who Has Been Saturday Night Live’s Set Designer for 4 Decades

6 minute read

Saturday Night Live cast members come and go, but behind the scenes it’s a different story. Production designer Eugene Lee, who leads the staff responsible for getting a set built in just two days, has been with the show since its very first season, which began in 1975. At 77, the Emmy winner—who also boasts three Tony Awards for his work on Broadway—still commutes to Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Center from his home studio in Providence, R.I.

Ahead of SNL‘s 42nd season premiere on Saturday, TIME talked to Lee about his favorite memories of working on the series.

TIME: How did you end up with the Saturday Night Live job?

It’s like a lot of things in this business, just chance. Lorne Michaels saw [the play] Candide and said, ‘Get the people who did this.’ I was 35, living on a boat in Providence, when the phone rang with some guy from NBC saying, ‘This Canadian producer was doing a comedy variety show, he’d like to meet you. If you’re interested he’s at the Plaza, go make an appointment to go see him.’ So I thought, what’s the harm? I went, [Lorne] doesn’t want to see any designs. He talks about how he sees the show, and he says, ‘I’m going out to a comedy club later why don’t you come?’ The only thing I remember about it is a big guy came up to the table and said, ‘Are they hired yet?’ He turned out to be Dick Ebersol [the NBC executive who helped create SNL]. The next morning, we walked down Sixth Avenue and went into [Studio] 8H.

Are any parts of the studio’s original layout still there?

I decided the cameras have wheels, let them move around, let there be little stages—so I drew that. Then I said we’ll put the seats along one side, so I drew a little balcony along one side. Then we needed seats. I called seating companies, but we were kind of behind, and the only seats we could get fast, Yankee Stadium was getting rid of their seats, so that’s how we ended up with these stadium seats. In a funny way, that’s the best thing I ever did. Letting the cameras move around and the little stages. That’s how it still works today.

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What’s your typical week like?

We work Wednesday to Saturday. I always take the Acela in on Wednesday for read-through. We decide what we want to do and hopefully get out of the building by midnight. Thursday we do the music in the studio. After music we do promos. Then we do some little sketches, but we don’t have scenery yet. Like a theater play, we put up flats to try to show the director and actors how much space they have. Then when we come in Friday, two-thirds of scenery, unpainted, has come overnight. On Friday, Lorne has a meeting late — around midnight, sometimes 1:00 am — to decide the order of the pieces. Then Saturday, we’re dressing the set, finishing the painting. At 1:00 pm we start a technical rehearsal; if someone is flying we test if we can do that. At 8:00 p.m., we do a dress rehearsal with an audience. Lorne cuts things he doesn’t like. Even if it’s a really great job for the set, if it’s not funny to him, it gets cut. That’s just how it is. And then at 11:30, it goes live. I leave a little early once I’ve seen the dress rehearsal, and a driver takes me back to Rhode Island. I haven’t been to an after-party for a few decades.

Where do you stay in Manhattan?

I stay at the Yale Club. I have a lot of sailboats in my life, so sometimes I stay at the New York Yacht Club. I lived on a boat at the Boat Basin in the early years of SNL. Then one very cold, very early morning, I’m getting off the boat with my briefcase, and I slip and fall right into the Hudson. I thought, ‘This is it.’

Have you had any particularly memorable interactions with a celebrity?

I did a project for Mr. Trump a few years back, “Trump Follies.” It was this an idea that Darrell Hammond would play Trump in a variety show kind of format, so I worked on what it might look like. That never happened. Probably good that it didn’t. But the last time he was on the show, he wandered by, looked at me — you could see the wheels going — and then he said, “Hi.” He’s always been nice to me, though he’s obviously wrong for president.

Are there any particularly long-standing inside jokes among the SNL crew?

When [actors in sketches] go out into the hallway, we always have [Abraham] Lincoln, a chorus girl and a llama. We’ve forgotten why we do it. But we call up the llama people and say we need a llama. It’s just what we do. Last year, a llama came for a sketch, and it was the wrong color, so we had to call them up and say, “you sent the wrong llama!” So we sent it back and a new, appropriate llama came.

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How would you describe how SNL has changed since you started working on the show?

The biggest change? Just look at the first set, the one I say I remember the most — “The Wolverines” — [starring John] Belushi. It looks like The Honeymooners. It has just a couple of chairs. The wallpaper is painted on the wall. It’s very theatrical, very simple, which I find very appealing. Now, in general, people want it more like a movie, more realistic. This is something that can’t be achieved terribly well because with a movie, you have time to edit it, play with it. It’s a futile effort to me.

And on Thursdays, when they rehearse the music, and it’s someone I’ve never heard of, that means you’re getting old.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com