Not everyone possesses the kind of quick-thinking flexibility required for such spur-of-the-moment entertainment. Luckily for the show, many of the staffers who do have that x factor have stuck around throughout the years. Chief political writer Jim Downey has been with the show since 1976 and is considered one of the founding fathers of SNL. The show’s lighting director and set designer date back to the early days as well, as do some of the prop guys and veteran techs on the studio floor. Those that do leave often don’t go far; in May, SNL veterans Steve Higgins and Michael Shoemaker joined the staff of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, which is headed by the titular SNL alum and is executive produced by Michaels. (Higgins is pulling double duty as both an SNL writer/producer and an announcer for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, while Shoemaker, now Late Night’s producer, still remains “of counsel” to SNL.)
Other elements of the show that haven’t changed during its 34-year run are its sketch-comedy format and its sharp focus on current events, and Michaels insists that they never will.
“The formula, or the format -- that’s not the part that needs to be changed when things aren’t working,” he says. “When the cast is not a cast that works, that’s the change. The four longest years of your life are high school, and that’s generally when you connect to [an SNL] cast. It’s a time in your life when you’re staying up late with a bunch of friends, and watching the show is something you just do. As you get older, you hit a time in your life when you have to make time to watch the show, but you don’t lose the connection you had in high school; you’re watching because of a cast.”
This revolving door of cast members has seen more than 120 primary and featured actors come and go over the years, many of whom have gone on to superstardom. Indeed, almost every bold-faced name in comedy today has previously been on an SNL cast roster, including Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Amy Poehler, Chris Rock, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and, of course, the inimitable, not to mention silver-screen untouchable, Will Ferrell. The show counts thespians (like Oscar-winner Robert Downey Jr.), celebrated directors (including A Mighty Wind’s Christopher Guest), and even politicians (Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, for example) among its alumni. And it’s not just the on-air talent who are making headlines either. The show’s writing staff has produced a few superstars as well -- namely, Conan O’Brien, Stephen Colbert, Larry David, and Adam McKay (who, along with Ferrell, cowrote big-screen hits like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and cocreated the popular humor website FunnyorDie.com).
Yet for all the new faces that have graced Rockefeller Center’s Studio 8H, the place itself hasn’t changed a bit. Originally constructed in 1937 as a radio soundstage for the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the set remains suspended on what amount to giant springs, a concession made to conductor Arturo Toscanini, who feared that subway trains passing a dozen floors below the old landmark building would rumble through his radio broadcasts. It’s a fitting setting for a show as storied as Saturday Night Live. Just as the springs beneath the set are in constant motion, the show is never stagnant and never settles; it’s able to change with the slightest vibrations in the air. It’s that constant adaptability that has kept Michaels and SNL on top for all these years. And it’s what will keep them on top for many years to come.