Hey, I love a teleprompter. I wrote about how good teleprompters are already. But SNL doesn’t use them; they use cue cards, as they love to point out now and then in meta sketches. And they show their cue card process in the video above, which is way more fun than the thumbnail implies.
The process is laborious — it takes a team of eight people, plus support from other staff, to write, re-write, triple-check and display the cards. The card writers have to learn how to properly space out their letters, how to manually erase lines, how to flip through the cards without fumbling, while the actor reads off of them, on live television. But it’s easy to see why they keep this seemingly archaic system around.
For one, some of the team has decades of experience doing this, and any changeover would introduce new problem. Start printing the cards and you’ll inevitably have a printer breakdown, and no one left to properly hand-write them.
But more importantly, hand-written cue cards are part of the charm of the show. If you’re still a fan of SNL, it’s probably not thanks to Alec Baldwin’s Trump impressions or the extra edition of Weekend Update. It’s the stuff that’s been special since the beginning — and a few new things, like digital shorts, that manage to still feel like the fun class project that SNL always is.
(This is why the funniest digital short is Laser Cats.)
Actors cracking up and breaking character, the host getting “interrupted” during the monologue, sketches that go backstage, Tom Hanks becoming a meme, Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig improvising a duet, John Mulaney rewriting the cue cards to make Bill Hader laugh — this is the stuff that separates SNL from a million YouTube channels.
This is the show celebrating its medium and using the special power of a live show, of celebrity guests, of a comedic institution whose biggest critics can still name a dozen sketches they love love love. This is why they keep hand-writing the cue cards.
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