By Alexandra Welker | January 31, 2021
Behind the Scenes at Saturday Night Live
On November 7, 2020, after a suspenseful week, news broke that Joe Biden had won the U.S. presidential election. Saturday Night Live costume designer Tom Broecker heard the announcement while shopping. â€œI didnâ€™t really think anything of it,â€ he says, other than to note how exciting it was to be out and about in Manhattan as a spontaneous celebration erupted in the streets. â€œI donâ€™t think anyone was really processing that Biden and Kamala Harris were going to do a speech Behind the Scenes at Saturday Night Live â€œ Oh my god, sheâ€™s wearing white!â€ â€“Tom Broecker
Jim Carrey as president-elect Joe Biden and Maya Rudolph as vice president-elect Kamala Harris Winter 2021 The Costume Designer 25 Saturday,â€ Broecker continues, explaining that SNLâ€™s planned cold open was based on the previous eveningâ€™s speech, when Biden and Harris had urged unity for the country.
â€œThere is a crunch time in terms of getting all that research together and figuring out how to change something. We look at a jacket and ask, what can this jacket be? I could take the sleeves off. It could become a vest. Turn it backward, it becomes a dress.â€ â€“Tom Broecker
At 8 p.m., Broecker was watching the dress rehearsal on a monitor, with Biden (Jim Carrey) and Harris (Maya Rudolph) in their Friday-night outfits. His ACD, Ashley Dudek, flipped on the computer to watch live coverage of Bidenâ€™s speech. Harris made her appearance about 8:30 p.m., dressed to honor both suffragettes and the history-making female politicians who preceded her. Broecker recalls exclaiming, â€œOh my god, sheâ€™s wearing white!â€ Dudek madly screen-grabbed all the detailsâ€”the pussy-bow blouse, the lapels, the shoes, the jewelryâ€”and by 8:45 p.m. the hunt was on. Dudek scrambled through SNLâ€™s stockrooms, finding charmeuse options for the blouse, and ransacking the â€œpolitical roomâ€ for white clothing. In a deliciously ironic twist, they found a double-breasted suit shopped for a Melania Trump sketch that never aired. The suit had actually been returned, but Broecker had repurchased it. â€œWeâ€™re going to need this at some point and itâ€™s going to be impossible to find,â€ he remembers thinking. â€œSo two years later, here we are, we needed that suit!â€ The All photos: Will Heath/NBC Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer Kate McKinnon as Kellyanne Conway/Pennywise 26 The Costume Designer Winter 2021 workroom swung into overdrive with only one hour to get it all done. â€œOne tailor took the sleeves, one took the pants, one was making the blouse.â€ Broecker recounts, â€œAnd one was reconstructing the whole front, changing the double-breasted into a single-breasted.â€ Meanwhile, he headed upstairs for the pre-show meeting. â€œOne of the producers turned to meâ€”this is 10:30 p.m.â€”and said, â€˜Just out of curiosity, are we changing their looks?â€™ No one had said a word, no one had approached us, no one had even thought about it, but we decided that it was super, super, super important workroom swung into overdrive with only one hour to get it all done. â€œOne tailor took the sleeves, one took the pants, one was making the blouse.â€ Broecker recounts, â€œAnd one was reconstructing the whole front, changing the double-breasted into a single-breasted.â€
Meanwhile, he headed upstairs for the pre-show meeting. â€œOne of the producers turned to meâ€”this is 10:30 p.m.â€”and said, â€˜Just out of curiosity, are we changing their looks?â€™ No one had said a word, no one had approached us, no one had even thought about it, but we decided that it was super, super, super important to do this and to get it right. It was a really important historic moment that we needed to participate in. I think thatâ€™s one of the things that subconsciously people pick up onâ€”you can see in real time how SNL actually works. Thatâ€™s the magic of this place. I have the best people. They know how to crank it out, and we know how to adapt and change.â€
As a weekly sketch show, SNL has always been uniquely positioned to comment upon political, social, and pop cultural events. Under the Trump administrationâ€” rich with comic gold, however inadvertentlyâ€”one has had the sense that there are many Americans turning to SNL and particularly the cold open to get their news.
The SNL production process is lightning fast. Every Wednesday afternoon, cast and crew gather for a read through. That night, the cast and writers meet with the costume, hair, and makeup departments to further discuss the sketches and their looks. Broecker notes, â€œSometimes they have specific references, so they can show us ideas. Sometimes they donâ€™t. Some writers are more costume specific, other writers arenâ€™t. So this is a time when all of that information can start the dialogue in a much more intricate way.â€ Creating impressions of real peopleâ€”especially ones that linger longer than the actual people parodiedâ€”is a deft and delicate undertaking, and getting the costume details right is a big part of the process.
Co-costume designer Eric Justian continues, â€œOnce we know what sketches have been pitched, we jump into action. If itâ€™s a specific day, we get as many reference photos as we can. We look at every angle to understand what weâ€™re doing.â€ Adds Broecker, â€œThere is a crunch time in terms of getting all that research together and figuring out how to change something. We look at a jacket and ask, what can this jacket be? I could take the sleeves off. It could become a vest. Turn it backward, it becomes a dress.â€
Thursday morning starts with their department meeting when they figure out who will tackle what. Broecker generally handles the host and the women, while Justian handles the men. They have two assistant designers, a shopper, two production assistants, and a film unit, headed by Jill Bream. In addition, Justian says, â€œOur wardrobe department and our shop are full of magicians that can turn things over so quickly, like the Kamala suit. Without them, I donâ€™t know how we would do what we do.â€
Thanks to COVID, Thursday morning is also when Broecker first gets to interact with the host, fitting an average of 25 costumes, and doing a promotional photoshoot. Simultaneously, the film unitâ€”with less than 24 hours of preparation kicks into action. As Justian notes, â€œOur production time is not even three days. Itâ€™s really two, with Saturday being the fix-it day, because we have to have costumes ready for rehearsal starting at one oâ€™clock in the afternoon. So if itâ€™s not there on Friday night, we already know weâ€™re in emergency mode.â€
In this time frame, they prepare for roughly two hoursâ€™ worth of material, knowing full well that 25 minutes of it will be cut before the show airs. â€œPart of the process,â€ Justian explains, â€œis not to become attached to what makes air and what doesnâ€™t, because if you start playing that guessing game, oftentimes youâ€™re wrong. You canâ€™t play favorites thinking, â€˜Oh, this will never make air,â€™ because the minute you start thinking that way, youâ€™ve jinxed yourself.â€
The COVID pandemic has added to their existing challenges, just as it has affected other productions. Favorite resources have shuttered: specialty boutiques, vintage shops, and old mainstays like JCPenney. Justian notes, â€œResources are closing everywhere,â€ adding, â€œweâ€™ve become a little more resourceful about branching out from Manhattan.â€ Broecker particularly misses the inspiration gained by wandering the aisles. â€œYou can go into the store thinking one way, and your mind switches when youâ€™re able to see it and touch it. A lot of times, thatâ€™s how I would walk through a department store, touching everything, because shopping is tactile.â€ Online shopping can be tricky in their timeframe, and they also face challenges unique to New York City. â€œA lot of shipping has had to go to my apartment building because it can be delivered there faster than it can at 30 Rock,â€ says Broecker.
Social distancing requirements have altered their workspace. â€œWe used to work all together in the same room, like a beehive, which is a very easy way to collaborate without talking. You just sort of absorbing what other people are doing, but now itâ€™s spread out,â€ Justian observes. â€œItâ€™s made us all become more on top of our game to try to extract what other people are doing throughout the week.â€ Furthermore, the logistics of dressing for the show have changed drastically. Pre-COVID, the hallway outside the stage was lined with cast quick change booths, and also accommodated hair, makeup, and wardrobe crew. Now theyâ€™ve had to find new spaces for 58 people that are still close enough to allow for quick changes. Broecker notes, â€œWe had to organize the show into who had the most sketches to who had fewer sketches, to could be. And every week it changes, because every week different cast members are in different amounts of sketches. The wardrobe supervisor has to figure out which five people go in that area, which six people go in that area, and which five people go over there. Itâ€™s logistically crazy.â€
COVID or not, one has the sense that the SNL costume department will continue to take everything in stride, and at warp speed as usual, given their seamless teamwork. Broecker has been with SNL for more than three decades, as has wardrobe supervisor Dale Richards. Eric Justian, who is in his 28th year with the show, and 16th as a co-costume designer, notes, â€œThereâ€™s an unspoken language that happens between the three of us. It would be interesting to see if the show ever has to face doing it without us, itâ€™s been so long.â€
â€œSaturday Night Live is a mirror to whatâ€™s going onâ€” it likes to reflect back whatâ€™s happening in the world. Elections are very big in the United States, so I think the rallying around elections really helps anchor and center SNL,â€ Broecker says. â€œWe try not to take sides. Sometimes we get criticized for not having a more specific point of view, but I think itâ€™s because weâ€™re trying to reflect all of society, not just one aspect, and we try to do it in a way that is not condescending.â€
Justian adds, â€œOur intention is not to change the dialogue, but if that happens as a by-product of our work, thatâ€™s very flattering. We look at current events and if weâ€™re doing something specific, we try to copy the moment as best as we can.â€