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What it takes to be a writer for 'Saturday Night Live'

Hits & Misses” author and former “Saturday Night Live” staff writer Simon Rich walks us through a week of writing for the iconic show. Following is a transcript of the video.

Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!

Simon Rich: “SNL” has been functioning I believe in pretty much exactly the same way since 1975. On Monday, you meet the host. Lorne calls on you one at a time and you say a few ideas. You don’t actually have to write those ideas, you’re mainly just trying to make everybody laugh. Sort of a colossal waste of time, creatively, but a nice diplomatic thing to sort of say to the host, “Don’t worry, we’re all pretty funny, you’re gonna be ok and not humiliate yourself.”

And then you write pretty much until Wednesday morning. Write all day Tuesday, and all night Tuesday. And at Wednesday there’s a big table read where the cast and the host read all of the pieces out loud. Sometimes the list will be like 50 sketches. It takes like four or five hours, this read through. The producers, Lorne, and the host, and the head writers, they go back into a room, and they pick the 10 or 12 best ones, the ones that made everybody laugh the most. It’s pretty meritocratic, I mean if something works, it’s in definitely, all the time. And it doesn’t matter if it was written by a first year writer whose name people are forgetting, the sketch goes into the pile.

Thursday, you rewrite these sketches as a group, trying to punch them up and improve them. And Friday and Saturday you’re rehearsing, and building sets, and building props, and designing costumes. And then at 8 p.m. on Saturday there’s a full dress rehearsal. It’s two hours long. Lorne watches the sketches on a little monitor. You sit next to him, he tells you his notes.

The great thing about working for Lorne is that he gives you full creative freedom. He lets you try whatever you want. There aren’t heavy notes, but when there is a note, you trust it, because it’s backed by, you know, decades and decades of mastery of comedy.

Then they go into another little room, and they cut another half an hour out of the show, based on which sketches performed the worst in front of the audience. So it can be really stressful because you really work hard on your sketches, but there’s multiple times at which they could just be cut completely out of the show. Like in sports, you know, if you strike out you just have to kinda try to forget it because next week you have another show to do.

A lot of people assume that “SNL” is like a really competitive, socially toxic environment. That there’s like, backstabbing, and rivalries, and feuds. It’s really not true. In my experience it is one of the most friendly groups I’ve ever seen. People were incredibly generous to one another, helping each other out all the time, for zero credit. People like Seth Meyers, and Colin Jost, who were senior writers, were extremely generous with their time, explaining to me stuff which in hindsight was unbelievably basic.

Like I would do things sometimes in my sketches where a character would be like, “All right, here we are at the dentist’s office.” Because I was like, “We need some exposition about where they are.” And they would be like, “You know you could just, like, show a dentist’s office. And I was like, “Oh wow, that’s a really amazing…”

And I saw that everywhere I went, every year when the new writers came in, because it was mostly people who have never written for television before. Stand-up comedians, or people who have written funny articles for magazines, or he hires like, playwrights, or people who’ve done some web videos. He almost never hires somebody who’s written for another actual television show. So you have all these novices coming in. The more experienced writers are so nice, and they really teach them. And so I’m super grateful for the experience, because it was fun, but also I learned almost everything I know at that show.

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