/ Interviews / The Man Who Would Be King

The Man Who Would Be King

Daryn Johnson on September 6, 2012 - 9:30 am in Interviews

Turn on the television on a Saturday night around 11:34pm and you’re bound to hear that familiar refrain; one that’s been repeated for 37 years: “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”. We all have fond memories from our favorite seasons, complete with favorite sketches, cast members and musical guests, but who is in charge of putting all of that together?

The answer isn’t a short one. It takes many talented people in a variety of departments to put on a show as high profile as NBC’s Saturday Night Live, from the writers to the actors, from the props, make up, costume and special effects departments to the technicians. These are all seasoned, extremely talented individuals – in many cases the very best in the business of television – and they deliver day after day, show after show, season after season and year after year.

Of course much of the credit goes to the man in charge of creating it all, Executive Producer Lorne Michaels, who started Saturday Night Live over three decades ago. The show has won 28 Primetime Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award and three Writers Guild of America awards. The show was inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2000, and in 2007 it was listed as one of Time magazine’s “100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME.”

But the question remains: who is in charge of making sure everything is in place and running smoothly during the show? Of making sure that you at home see everything the writers intended? You laugh at the actors during the sketch, but who was responsible for blocking the camera shots, and the actors, to give maximum impact to the scene?

The answer is the director of the show, and SNL is fortunate to have as their captain a man who has directed more live network television than perhaps anyone else in the world.

Meet industry veteran Don Roy King.

Production Apprentice: Don, take me back to your college years at Penn State. If I’m not mistaken, you were a broadcast journalism major whose first passion was theater, particularly acting. What made you decide to major in Broadcast Journalism and not become a theater major?

Don Roy King: I think the primary reason was I didn’t want to tell my dad I wanted to be an actor, and I thought ‘let me get as close as I can to the theater department without being a theater major’.

I had some interest in more than just acting, and I had some high school experience in a few other fields, such as broadcasting. In my senior year I took a production course where we, as a group, had to produce a live television show, and each person was assigned a task. I believe mine was writing or producing; it was not directing.

When we got to production time, the student who was assigned to direct panicked at the need to suddenly make decisions; to call shots as they happened – and I said ‘Well…let me give this a shot’.

I slid in and, on the fly, directed the show. And at that very moment, I got this sense of ‘Man, this is like quarterbacking a football team’, and I was a pretty active athlete as a kid, and loved that feeling of making decisions quickly; of dispersing information quickly to a lot of different people, to stay cool under pressure, to following the action as it happened, to realizing that if a mistake is made you’ve got to get past it fast and move on without dwelling on what’s just happened, of fighting the clock…and all of those sensations felt much like an athletic event, so I came out of that saying ‘Yeah, I kinda like that’. It was sort of an adrenaline rush, and it was something that I felt came naturally to me.

When I graduated, I still didn’t have the nerve to move to New York and be a struggling actor and I thought ‘Well, I still want to be a performer. Maybe I can sort of work my way in the back door and be a television performer of sorts’, and I started a very quick hopscotch across the country from station to station, starting at a little educational black and white station at my university. [I] moved on to a UHF station in San Jose, California, then to KDKA in Pittsburgh, then went to WNEW in New York and WCBS in New York, during which that entire 5 year span of sprinting, [I was] spending more and more time behind the scenes and less and less time in front of the camera, and more and more exploring those skills of calling live television shows and finding out that I had some skills that people might want to hire me to do.

PA: Now at those stations, were you directing primarily newscasts at that point?

DRK: Actually the first station, the educational station, had no newscasts. It had semi-educational programs for kids. They were inventive and probably ahead of their time, but they were music and art-oriented. The station in San Jose had no news either. We did some teenage dance shows and some public affairs programming and a lot of used car commercials.

When I got to KDKA in Pittsburgh I had been hired just to produce Pittsburgh Pirate baseball for one summer and direct the pre-game shows and that developed into a full scale position where I was lucky enough to do a lot of different things, including some news, but mostly we did half hour shows every night, and they had a whole variety of different styles. I ended up producing, directing and writing a magazine show called About A Week, which was a forerunner of a lot of those magazine shows.

At WNEW I did not direct news. I directed a daytime talk show, and again, some specials and documentaries. At WCBS it was the same; I didn’t do news there either. In the 70’s the local stations were much more production-oriented and turned out a much broader variety of programming. They weren’t solely news operations. I really directed news only for a while at KDKA and nowhere else.

PA: Something I wanted to touch on that you mentioned earlier. It’s been said that live television is rhythmic in its execution. I think our readers might be interested to know that apart from directing more live television than perhaps anybody in the world, you were also an amateur boxer and title holder in your 30’s. Do you think the rhythm you developed in your boxing in any way translates to the rhythm you tap into, either consciously or subconsciously, in your live directing?

DRK: I’m not sure that the one taps into the other. I will say that rhythm and timing and sort of a sense of  the musical cadence of life does play a part in both of those areas, and I was blessed with some natural ability, and that allowed me to probably be a better director and not a bad boxer (laughs).

PA: You directed live morning television for over 20 years. What type of planning and preparation went into getting those shows to air?

DRK: Well, the number one bit of planning I had to do was making sure that alarm clock went off at 3:30 in the morning…that took it’s toll over 21 years (laughs), but as you suggest I was lucky enough to get a chance to do such a wide variety of shows; telethons and game shows, and lots and lots of talk shows and music shows and specials, and just because I happen to be at the right stations that were trying varied things at the right time…and that’s a little harder to find now…as a result I had a broad range of experiences, and when I left local television and went to The Mike Douglas Show I managed to pick up a whole other set of skills that had to do with performers who would come in every day, and some were classical musicians and some were stand up comics and some were magicians, as well as at least one music act every day.

I also got to do a little writing for Mike. I wrote some parody lyrics for songs through the years that he performed, and all of that experience led me to be lucky enough to dabble and push my skills along enough that I have something to offer now on a weekly basis on Saturday Night Live.

PA: I was just going to get into that. In 2006 you took the directorial reigns of one of the most successful shows in the history of television – Saturday Night Live. Tell me how that came about.

DRK: When I left Mike Douglas I came back to New York to direct a show called America Alive (an NBC show recorded at Rockefeller Center). It did not do well, but in 1979 my AD (Assistant Director) at the time, who I spent that one year with, went on to AD Saturday Night Live and has been there ever since. He’s contacted me a few times over the years just to ask me if I had any interest in moving over there, and each time I said that I would love to, but that’s really not my area…I have no real sketch comedy experience other than the brief things we did with Mike Douglas. And at the same time Saturday Night Live has only had three directors from ’75 to 2006, so that phone call didn’t come very often, but it came the third time – in 2006. He said “They’re kind of desperate because Beth McCarthy (Miller, who directed the show from 1995-2006) is leaving, and it’s now middle of the summer and they have nobody, so can you send something (a director’s video reel showcasing productions similar in style to the job one is applying for)?”.

I said, “Well I have nothing to send actually. I’ve never had to put together a reel and nothing to offer”, and he said “Bring some stuff (clips of shows Don has directed) in and we’ll put it together here”. I did and I guess some people saw it and said ‘let’s meet this guy’. I thought it was a courtesy meeting, and it was lovely touched with, as you suggest, a group of people working on an iconic show.

But I walked away thinking ‘well, they clearly want somebody who knows how to do stage and mount and direct comedy sketches’. But I guess they were desperate in the end. Right after Labor Day I went in to meet Lorne (Michaels, the Executive Producer who created SNL), and the next day they gave me the shot.

So I went in and learned what I had to know about 30 seconds before I had to know it on a daily basis, and now…after six seasons, I still feel I have a long way to go to learn everything there is to know about how best to sell that material, and it’s material that changes…and changes radically every week.

PA: Tell me about the process of getting from a writer’s meeting on Monday to 11:30pm live on Saturday night.

DRK: It’s a remarkable machine. If you had asked me seven years ago can a show even be done this way I would have said absolutely not…nobody would ever put together a show this quickly, certainly not one this high profile, with as many changes as we do and still find it on the air and watchable on Saturday night, but that’s the way we do it.

On Monday night, the writers and I and a few people meet with the host and throw around some ideas…I think that session is designed just to scare the host. Then they write all day Tuesday, and then for the first time Wednesday afternoon around 3’oclock sketches are on paper, and for the first time we sit around a big table, and the cast reads – script in hand – as many as 45 sketches. It takes hours and hours to do.

On Wednesday evening Lorne narrows it down to about 12 sketches that we will actually mount, and puts it in some kind of order.

Around 9 o’clock I take the selected sketches, for the first time, to the set designers and the special effects people and the hair and makeup and costume people, and they find out what we’re going to mount. On Thursday we go back in and rehearse the guest band, and then rehearse some of the easy sketches…the ones that don’t require as much scenery or props.  All day Friday, starting at noon, we rehearse the rest of the sketches and give about an hour to each [sketch]. And I work on the floor [stage] and rough block the sketch, and then we rough block it for cameras, and do a little fine-tuning on that. [We] go back in Saturday and by now, all of the scenery is ready; props are set, costumes are finalized, and then we run through every sketch just once, again starting at noon, then take a quick break. After that we come back and rehearse Weekend Update for the first time, around 6 o’clock. At 8 o’clock we do a dress rehearsal, with as much as 20 minutes more material than we actually need, with a full audience.

PA: Now is this the same audience that will see it live at 11:30pm?

DRK: No. Now that dress rehearsal ends about 10:15pm, and between 10:15pm and 10:30pm Lorne quickly makes decisions about which sketches to lose entirely, reorders the rest of the sketches in what he thinks will work better for the flow of the show, and gives notes that the writers have…well, actually all the way through dress rehearsal writers are getting notes and making changes. And at about 11 o’clock I’ll get my script back, and it now has 150 Post-Its in it with changes on every page. And some of those changes are words written in, some of them are lines killed, some are complete different structures to a whole beat in a sketch, and sometimes I’ll turn the page and say “This is a whole different ending! How are we gonna do this?” But at 11 o’clock I take that revised script down to meet with the camera operators, and try to give them as many notes as I can about which shots have been changed, and then we go up at 11:30pm and fly.

PA: Don, I’ve got to say…it all sounds…that first time in ’06 must have been terrifying (laughs).

DRK: (laughs) It was terrifying, and I must say that part of the thrill of the job is that adrenaline rush, and the challenge of getting through it…of keeping a thumb in the dike, and it’s a thrill to get through it, knowing what it took to do that.

PA: And then you don’t sleep after that for a while.

DRK: (laughs) True, true.

PA: I mean, talk about a rush.

DRK: It is a rush, but a lot of television directing is that kind of rush on almost any level. In this case though, the show’s designed to make people laugh and clap and occasionally think, and that makes it even more rewarding. It’s by far the most exhilarating and rewarding job I’ve had. And it never, never gets tiring. There were times in my morning television period when I didn’t get that butterfly feeling…I didn’t have that sense of ‘I’ve gotta be super sharp here’. I won’t say that it was “work by wrote”; it certainly wasn’t repetitious, but it was not nearly as challenging, and that’s what makes this job so much more intense and rewarding.

PA: With so many local news stations going to automation, whereby the shows are basically “preset” beforehand, with minimal to no crew, I sense that it’s becoming more and more difficult for directors to basically feel those feelings you just described. In fact, during rare occasions where I find myself able to direct with a full, or at least partial production crew, I find it to be completely and utterly rewarding. Many of my colleagues call it “directing old school”, as if it’s some sort of sin to have a full crew on a live television show?! To me, it’s only during an “old school” setup where truly amazing television happens.

In fact, speaking of amazing television Don, I understand you’re nominated for an Emmy this year for the remarkable season ender with Mick Jagger hosting…I was particularly moved by the sendoff for cast member Kristen Wiig…it ranks up there for me as one of the most bittersweet sendoffs in tv history. I hope you guys felt the same way. I’m sure she did.

DRK: Well, yeah…I couldn’t agree with you more. It was a sweet and touching way to say goodbye to someone who was a remarkably, remarkably gifted performer.

Right from the first day I thought “Who is this woman? Where did she come from?” She was so remarkably versatile and she commits so fully to these characters. And then when I started to work with her I realized how intensely she works and how multi-talented she is, and the things she can do are so varied and unusual, and I became a big fan, as did lots of people, so I think the way we said goodbye to her was touching and unusual and sweet and had the right touch…yeah, I agree with you.

Just to back up a bit here. You’re discussion of “old school” is, I think, very accurate, and I could not be more blessed to be in the last operation that is almost fully “old school”. We do not use TelePrompTer for anything – everything is on cue cards. We don’t use a Jib, we use a crane…still this giant machine that’s pushed around by two people with a driver in the back and a cameraman in a bucket, that we use instead of a Jib.

It’s an old school operation; nothing is automated. We do have a state of the art control room and electronics that are the best, but everything else is manmade, including all of those remarkable sets, and just the brilliance of the production teams. Those people…what they do on that show…because there aren’t any shows like it left, and the ones who are the fastest and most brilliant have filtered into our operation, and it is just a joy to be a part of that old school team.

PA: When it comes to working with the actors, how does that work? I know you work exclusively with the crews and various production support teams, which are of course paramount to any television show, but to me, the reason the audience is watching is for the talent – for the actors. I don’t say this because I’ve done some acting, I say it because I genuinely feel that it’s the actor that connects the viewer to the material. Do you end up working with the actors during the week?

DRK: It’s a mix. Unlike the kind of training I had and the kind of directing I thought stage directors do, a Saturday Night Live director is not directly responsible for the performance levels or the characterization, or the interrelationship or how a line is delivered…that’s been given over to the writers. Lorne was a writer and he trusts writers and he believes that the writer is the one who knows the intention of any given material, and he gives the writer the responsibility for the performance level of the sketch.

But since I have some dramatic background, I’ve begun to take over some of that responsibility, and I will give notes and I will talk to a writer in the control room and say “I think we should suggest this or have that accent dropped or maybe this exchange should be faster”, and frequently a writer will say “Oh yeah, that’s good. Go ahead, feel free. I’ll pass on that note [to the actors]”.

Certainly in terms of the physical blocking – where entrances occur, where people get up and down – any of that kind of physical action; that is still my responsibility and I jump right in to all of that.

I would rather have overall control, like a film director has, of a performance, but I understand this works so quickly and I’m dealing with 12 sketches, and a writer is dealing only with the one he wrote and has been nurturing all along. He has a real sense of what he needs and wants, and it is a writer driven show, so I respect that and am more than willing to step back and give up that control. But I’d like to have more of it.

PA: How do you work with your AD (Assistant Director), both during the week and then in the booth during the show?

DRK: During the week the AD takes notes as I direct a sketch. I do a preliminary blocking, but on the fly as we rehearse I may make changes and I’ll say “Did I go to the 2-shot on this line or did I go on the line before it?”…he’ll give me that feedback. Then he’ll make much more detailed notes and actually mark my script for me all day on Friday. We finish about midnight on Friday, then I’ll take that script home and refine it. Then the next morning someone picks it up here at my house and takes it in to the TD (Technical Director) who then meets with all the cameramen and gives them the specific shot sheets for every sketch. And then the AD does all the timing during the show.

I have an AD now who was with me for years at CBS and is just a perfect, perfect match for how I work. He fills in the gaps and protects me in all kinds of ways and is just brilliant with a stopwatch. And he’s got a great eye too. In fact he replaced me at CBS This Morning and directed for 10 years after I left CBS. He’s a quite, quite capable director; a brilliant director actually, and he wanted…just because of the nature of Saturday Night Live…the opportunity to see that from the inside, so he’s starting his second year with me next month.

PA: You mentioned that you thought he was a brilliant director. What do you think made him a brilliant director?

DRK: Well, he too is an excellent athlete and had that same kind of cool, controlled, calm understanding of the patterns. He’s just a good quarterback.

PA: It would seem to me that a live television director who is so passionate about the theater and acting would feel right at home directing a show like Saturday Night Live, yet you have another passion project – Broadway Worldwide. Tell us about that.

DRK: A man I did some shows with in 1979 understood what might come of cable; he thought there was opportunities for original programming. He knew there’d be more freedom to explore, a concept that was way ahead of its time.

About 13 years ago, he decided that there was a market for PayPerView Broadway musicals shot right from the theaters where they were being performed, in front of live audiences with the exact staging they were doing for Broadway. He thought there was a market for that because the Broadway brand was so strong that people around the world would love to go to a Broadway show, but can’t get to New York and this would be the next best thing.

When he first brought up the idea I said “Well, first of all I’m not sure that’s the case. I’m not sure it can be captured”, because the theatrical work I had seen in the past never quite worked. It was designed for a big house, the actors were larger than life, there was sort of an “echoy” sound to it all, and it was flat and badly lit. I never saw a stage production that translated properly.

He thought it would work, and he also thought there was a way to convince the Broadway producers that it wouldn’t hurt their box offices or their road shows. He also thought there was a way to convince all the unions that they could buy into this, and I didn’t think any of this was possible.

It took him a couple of years, but sure enough he managed to convince those producers, and managed to convince all those unions – I think there were 13 different unions he had to sign contracts with.

PA: I’m assuming the producers and unions were concerned that this would take away from folks actually wanting to see the performance live on stage.

DRK: That was a major concern, and it continued to be a concern until just recently.

At any rate, after he managed to get those contracts signed and convince some producers it would work, we did the final performances, and that had something to do with it. Since it was the final performance it at least wasn’t going to hurt their Broadway box offices. We did the final performances of Smokey Joe’s Café, Putting It Together, which is a [Stephen] Sondheim review and Jekyll & Hyde – we did all three of those in 2000 – 2001.

Now they did not do well PayPerView. People thought PayPerView was cheap movies and boxing at the time, and they couldn’t be convinced to buy a Broadway show for $25 bucks. We then thought there might be a market for digital theaters, and there were only a few of them around the world at the time, and he experimented with that and they worked in terms of projection and the quality on the big screen. But again there was not a big enough distribution arm to allow that to happen. So he was ahead of his time, and the company that he formed and funded folded, and then the Metropolitan Opera started to do some live broadcasts of their productions to digital theaters, about 5 years ago, and because the opera community is so strong and the audience is so fervent and religious, they did make money.

In the meantime research started to come in that showed, sure enough, this guy had been right from the beginning and that these shows being telecast, or shown in a movie theater, were not going to hurt their box offices, and in some ways would help. So he managed to find enough backers and we did Memphis 2 or 3 years ago. Memphis had just won the Tony [award] for Best Musical, and we did what we did 10 years ago – just blocked off a few seats and put up cameras in selected areas of the theater and taped 5 productions; 5 performances, so by the 5th we would have been able to do it live, but we did no special blocking and no special non-audience taping. We didn’t redo anything and rehearse anything and we managed to capture the show and it turns out he was right.

It does work, because of Hi-Def, because of advancements in audio and some relighting, and I think those shows work as well, and in some cases better, on screen than they do on stage. And they definitely do not hurt box office. In fact there’s some indication that they help.

I was in the theater recently and got into a conversation with a woman who was from out of town; she comes with her friend to New York once a year to see shows, and I said “What else are you seeing?”, and she said “Oh, the main reason we came is to see Memphis “. I said “Oh, that’s coincidental. I had something to do with Memphis. Why do you want to see it?”, and she said “Because we saw it at home on television and we just loved the music and want to see what it looks like live.”

And apparently the road shows are having the same experience. People are saying ‘Well, I spent a hundred bucks a ticket; let’s not take a risk here, let’s go with something we know and something we loved, and let’s see what it looks like in our local summer stock’, so it’s still a possibility that we’ll get to do more, and maybe a lot more.

PA: It’s probably satisfying for you to work in that kind of environment again; a sacred home for you being on stage and involved with theatrical acting…

DRK: Well you’re absolutely right. I find it just magical. I mean, the first three we did ten years ago I found more than magical and thought ‘This is as close to Broadway as I’m gonna get’, and I just loved being a part of that storytelling.

Now of course I had nothing to do with the staging or the direction; I was just capturing somebody else’s work. It wasn’t quite a full satisfying experience, and when I went back to do Memphis after doing Saturday Night Live for a couple of years, I thought ‘Well this may not be fun at all, because I won’t be involved in the staging or the early stages of this work’ – again, I’m just sliding in and capturing it, but even Memphis was a thrill because it’s designed to really fill up that house and fill up your heart and I loved being even a peripheral part.

Daryn, you brought up something earlier that I believe is worth repetition for others, and that’s the sensitivity to the performer, and because you had some acting experience, you might have gotten that sensitivity that a lot of other directors don’t get, and that’s the realization that what really counts…what comes first, what the people at home see and care about is that person who’s face is on the screen, and separate from any discussions about divas or people who just sit there and read or another pretty face, those people are the ones who count. And it’s easy when you sit in the director’s chair and when you say “Take One” and the whole world, or at least your viewership, sees what you have decided they should see, and when you say “Cue him”, and that person on the other side of the camera begins to talk, you start to think of yourself as ‘this is MY show…I’m making the decisions here…I’m the God of this operation, and what I need and what I say and what I do counts more’…it’s easy to forget that what really counts is that person on the other side of that camera. And nothing else about the control room is as important, so your real job as a director is to make that person the best that he or she can be, to look the best that he or she can look, and to perform to the utmost of their skills, to keep them from being embarrassed, to keep them from looking stupid, and that comes before anything else about the rhythm or the electronics or the special effects or the great camera sequence or the terrific opening or whether you roll the tape early or late.

PA: Last question for you. It seems that theatrical talent and a genuine love for performing seems to run in your family. Tell us a little about your daughter Cameron. She’s attending the High School for the Performing Arts in New York City, correct?

DRK: She will be, starting next month. It’s the biggest thrill I’ve had in a long time (laughs). She’s been in an all girls, private tiny little East side school since kindergarten, and she’s now going to number one, go to a public school; a big one – a co-educational one, but most importantly it is very strongly focused on the performing arts, and she will concentrate in theater, but it’s not just that she’s a good little performer – she can sing and dance and is probably a better actress than most 8th graders – but she loves the process. She loves the whole teamwork of making theater, from the first written word to the strike at the end of the run, and I just think it’s a perfect place for her, and I couldn’t be happier. That’s the Fame school here in New York. Since she was accepted in February I’ve gone to see productions there…the orchestra and the choir and the jazz choir and the singing – the singing kids did an operetta, the dramatic kids did three different productions. I saw a Cabaret performance, and it is the most…and the dance kids and their recital, and it is the most amazing group of talented kids I’ve ever seen concentrated in one building, and I’m just thrilled for her to get that chance to be exposed to that kind of  work and those kind of kids.

PA: I’m the father of a daughter, so I KNOW for a FACT that this was your favorite part of the interview (laughs).

DRK: (laughs) Awwww…no doubt about it.

PA: Don, thank you so much for taking the time today. I really appreciate it.

DRK: Well thank you Daryn. I think it’s an important service, and I hope this is a little bit of a help to those who are doing what we do.

Saturday Night Live begins its 38th season on September 15th, 2012.

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