By Alexandra Welker | December 1, 2020
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. “I didn’t really think anything of it,” 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. “I don’t think anyone was really processing that Biden and Kamala Harris were going to do a speech Behind the Scenes at Saturday Night Live “ Oh my god, she’s wearing white!” –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,” Broecker continues, explaining that SNL’s planned cold open was based on the previous evening’s speech when Biden and Harris had urged unity for the country.
“There 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.” -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 Biden’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, “Oh my god, she’s wearing white!” Dudek madly screen-grabbed all the details—the pussy-bow blouse, the lapels, the shoes, the jewelry—and by 8:45 p.m. the hunt was on. Dudek scrambled through SNL’s stockrooms, finding charmeuse options for the blouse, and ransacking the “political room” 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. “We’re going to need this at some point and it’s going to be impossible to find,” he remembers thinking. “So two years later, here we are, we needed that suit!” 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. “One tailor took the sleeves, one took the pants, one was making the blouse.” Broecker recounts, “And one was reconstructing the whole front, changing the double-breasted into a single-breasted.” Meanwhile, he headed upstairs for the pre-show meeting. “One of the producers turned to me—this is 10:30 p.m.—and said, ‘Just out of curiosity, are we changing their looks?’ 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. “One tailor took the sleeves, one took the pants, one was making the blouse.” Broecker recounts, “And one was reconstructing the whole front, changing the double-breasted into a single-breasted.”
Meanwhile, he headed upstairs for the pre-show meeting. “One of the producers turned to me—this is 10:30 p.m.—and said, ‘Just out of curiosity, are we changing their looks?’ 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 that’s one of the things that subconsciously people pick up on—you can see in real time how SNL actually works. That’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.”
As a weekly sketch show, SNL has always been uniquely positioned to comment upon political, social, and pop cultural events. Under the Trump administration— rich with comic gold, however inadvertently—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, “Sometimes they have specific references, so they can show us ideas. Sometimes they don’t. Some writers are more costume specific, other writers aren’t. So this is a time when all of that information can start the dialogue in a much more intricate way.” Creating impressions of real people—especially ones that linger longer than the actual people parodied—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, “Once we know what sketches have been pitched, we jump into action. If it’s a specific day, we get as many reference photos as we can. We look at every angle to understand what we’re doing.” Adds Broecker, “There 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.”
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, “Our wardrobe department and our shop are full of magicians that can turn things over so quickly, like the Kamala suit. Without them, I don’t know how we would do what we do.”
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 unit—with less than 24 hours of preparation kicks into action. As Justian notes, “Our production time is not even three days. It’s really two, with Saturday being the fix-it day, because we have to have costumes ready for rehearsal starting at one o’clock in the afternoon. So if it’s not there on Friday night, we already know we’re in emergency mode.”
In this time frame, they prepare for roughly two hours’ worth of material, knowing full well that 25 minutes of it will be cut before the show airs. “Part of the process,” Justian explains, “is not to become attached to what makes air and what doesn’t, because if you start playing that guessing game, oftentimes you’re wrong. You can’t play favorites thinking, ‘Oh, this will never make air,’ because the minute you start thinking that way, you’ve jinxed yourself.”
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, “Resources are closing everywhere,” adding, “we’ve become a little more resourceful about branching out from Manhattan.” Broecker particularly misses the inspiration gained by wandering the aisles. “You can go into the store thinking one way, and your mind switches when you’re able to see it and touch it. A lot of times, that’s how I would walk through a department store, touching everything, because shopping is tactile.” Online shopping can be tricky in their timeframe, and they also face challenges unique to New York City. “A lot of shipping has had to go to my apartment building because it can be delivered there faster than it can at 30 Rock,” says Broecker.
Social distancing requirements have altered their workspace. “We 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 it’s spread out,” Justian observes. “It’s made us all become more on top of our game to try to extract what other people are doing throughout the week.” 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 they’ve had to find new spaces for 58 people that are still close enough to allow for quick changes. Broecker notes, “We 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. It’s logistically crazy.”
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, “There’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, it’s been so long.”
“Saturday Night Live is a mirror to what’s going on— it likes to reflect back what’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,” Broecker says. “We try not to take sides. Sometimes we get criticized for not having a more specific point of view, but I think it’s because we’re trying to reflect all of society, not just one aspect, and we try to do it in a way that is not condescending.”
Justian adds, “Our intention is not to change the dialogue, but if that happens as a by-product of our work, that’s very flattering. We look at current events and if we’re doing something specific, we try to copy the moment as best as we can.”