Saturday Night Lessons (SNL) for Getting Hard Work Done

Liz Presson • 3 February 2015

We sit in front of our computers for 8, 10—sometimes even 12 hours a day. How could we not forget what real creative work looks like?

At some point along the way, we quit having conversations to get the work done and started talking about what getting the work done looks like. We spend so much of our time reading about how to do the work.

As I watched Saturday Night” a documentary by James Franco that accounts the week-long production of a “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) episode, I couldn’t help but ask: have we forgotten what the action looks like?

It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to see that the SNL process doesn’t strive to be pretty. It’s a great reminder that getting the work done doesn’t have to feel a certain way or fit in a box– including the latest project management system. You don’t need to be in a mood or have the right conditions. It can be a hard and and even forced process. But in the end, this is the kind of work that’s worth it, even if you don’t come out on top.

Just for today, let’s throw out our modern productivity rules and methods and take a few notes from a process that has worked for some of the most creative people in show business for over 40 years.

1. Creativity doesn’t have a time clock, but it should have a forced timeframe. 

Let’s set the scene. It’s Monday and the cast and crew gather in a packed room. People are sitting on the floor, standing in the doorway. Executive producer Lorne Michaels calls on cast members and writers one-by-one to give a 30 second pitch for a sketch. Ideas are rough and there’s no clear “yes” or “no” on the pitches— the only guide is the reaction (or non-reaction) of the room. That’s it. Then, everyone gets to work.

In their creative zone or not, it’s time to write. It’s time to use as much creative energy as possible within a contained time period.

Whether it’s James Altucher’s idea machine method or an hour where we commit to put electronics away and write in a notebook or solve a problem on a white board, we should do the same. Get it out of your head in order to see what might work.

Writers and cast members have 24 hours to deliver their finished scripts. Everyone works on as many different sketches as they can before the morning deadline.

“Last week I got 25 minutes of sleep,” Will Forte told Franco. “Tonight, I would guess we’re going to try to get one more going. We always think… oh, we could get one more in.”

Only nine of the 50+ sketches written will actually make it onto the show. As with the work you’ll produce during these times, most will be unusable crap. But one, or if you’re lucky nine, will be brilliant.

2. If you think you should, you should. 

At 2pm on Wednesday, one hour before the table read, Seth Meyers pops his head into the producer room. “Here’s a real question. Should I write Jacuzzi?’Jaque-uzzi?’ Right? I should not write that?”

“You should not now. You’ve been asking that for two days,” one of the producers says. “We’re like up to 50.”

You know the feeling– you know you should do something, even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else. When your gut speaks up in this way, answer with action. This is how some of the most amazing things get done. And when it doesn’t work out, you create brain space for new ideas.

In Meyers’ case, everyone laughs off his question about adding to the pile so last minute. He still hurries out of the room to write the sketch.

3. Find your angle. 

Passion is a must in order to do the hard work, especially when the hard work means writing through the night at the beginning of a week-long sprint. But, you’re not going to be passionate about every part of the work. Work is work, and it’s hard. There’s no getting around that. You’re just not going to love it all. So, find your angle and embrace it. Do all of the hard stuff because it comes along with the thing that you love.

Andy Samberg gets it: “I never wanted to be an actor, but I always wanted to be a comedian. I still don’t particularly consider myself an actor. I’ve never taken classes for acting, and I’ve never done anything particularly dramatic or intense. But, I feel like I can tell a dick joke pretty good. That’s kind of what I’ve trained for my whole life.”

4. Move on from disappointment— fast. 

When the sketch picks finally get thrown on the table, everyone makes their way to see what’s moving forward and what got cut. Forte describes it as cheerleading try-outs. “I never tried out to be a cheerleader, but I think it’s like cheerleader tryouts. Where you just do your thing and all of the respective cheerleaders hover around. ‘I thought your kick was great. I thought your arm waving was great.’ And then you see the list on the wall and that’s it. Some people cry, some people are happy.”

Jason Sudeikis compares this part of the process to play picks.“Every week everyone runs to the cork board to see what West Side Story part they got.”

This is the same thing that happens to us every time we push send, publish or take the stage. When you put yourself and your ideas out there, sometimes you’re going to win and other times you’re going to lose. The real test is how quickly you can get over disappointment and put your next idea out in the world.

Let down or excited, it’s on to dress rehearsal. And even if you get through rehearsal, the sketch can get cut there too— right before it’s time to go live. Disappointment has to come and go fast, because the show must go on.

5. Fully surrender to the work.

When James Franco sits down with SNL Producer Steve Higgins to talk about making the best show possible, he explained that his approach as a SNL guest was to fully surrender to the process.

It’s true with anything. If you can’t fully buy in, you won’t do your best work. If you’re removed from your work, it’s not really your work.

Higgins couldn’t agree more, “If you’re not going to surrender to the process then you can learn nothing or do nothing.”

6. When it comes to shipping work, perfect doesn’t exist. 

In the world of SNL, it’s easy to see how a live show can go wrong. Even after 40 years, many little things still do in every show. That’s the beauty of it, the unperfected work is shipped, sometimes unexpected things happen and next week everyone moves on and ships again.

Ship, listen to feedback, iterate, repeat.

“If you’re a perfectionist, don’t come here. Because nothing is ever perfect,” Higgins says.

7. It’s all about the right people.

SNL isn’t possible without the right mix of people. In the same sense, no corporation, startup or big hairy project is either. You need the right people and connection between those people to make great work happen.

“If you get the right mix of talented people and it all kind of connects, there’s nothing better. When it doesn’t, like I said, there’s always next week.”

Six days, 50+ sketches, cuts, iterations and dozens of run-throughs later the cast takes the stage to deliver season 34, episode 10 of Saturday Night Live. The closing sketch features guest John Malkovich and cast members on stage, in a hot tub, finishing with the strongest of the show— Seth Meyers’ “Jaque -uzzi”.

On Monday, the process starts all over again.

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Saturday Night” was shot in 2008 but was released on Hulu in late 2014.

A note from James Franco on making and sharing “Saturday Night”: “I shot it when I was a film student at NYU. It started as an assignment. We were supposed to do a seven-minute observational documentary. I asked Bill Hader, because I had recently been on the show, if I could follow him for a week. I’d make a seven-minute portrait of him. Once I realized if I was really going to follow him, I’d need to get certain kinds of permissions like the permission of the host, maybe Lorne Michaels permission. Once I saw that Lorne was going to let me film so much behind the scenes, I thought I shouldn’t waste it on a school assignment. Let’s make a feature-length film. But we didn’t have all the official signatures a responsible documentarian would have before going into a subject. After we made it and cut it together, everybody loved it and the cast all signed off – but then there was NBC. It’s a documentary about one of their longest running shows. There were certain regime changes at NBC and it was this frustrating, run-out thing that I wasn’t even a part of. Lorne gave me permission like 10 times.”

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