Chicago exhibit takes “SNL” fans behind the scenes

Matt Foley. The Church Lady. Wayne and Garth. Wild and Crazy Guys. Debbie Downer. Mary Katherine Gallagher.

Longtime fans of “Saturday Night Live” know these bizarre but endearing characters, whose home – Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center – draws a television audience of millions each week. No show has earned more (240) Emmy Award nominations.

The comedy looks spontaneous and easy, but “Saturday Night Live: The Experience” provides a day-by-day immersion into the competitive, complicated and sometimes all-night work that goes into each show.

Filling 10 galleries at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, Chicago, are 500-plus artifacts and many classic clips from the 42-year-old-and-counting “SNL.” Lorne Michaels, creator and executive producer, gets credit for the weekly spectacle, but the late Johnny Carson figures into the success too.

Carson’s request that NBC replace his Saturday talk show with something else is what made “SNL” possible. What Michaels at age 30 proposed – as Alec Baldwin explains in a video introduction – was “a different kind of funny” that pushed boundaries in a counter-culture kind of way, long before political humor was common.

In a mailgram is the down-to-the-details proposal that Michaels sent to NBC exec Dick Ebersol. A rotating guest host was part of his plan from the beginning.

Writers and cast are given the freedom – and pressure – to conjure up the oddest of characters and comedic situations. Ideas are pitched on Monday, and what happens from there is the tension of skit development, usually done in small groups. Of the 40-some sketches proposed each week, less than one-half survive to airtime – and it is not unusual for two or three skits to be yanked and replaced just hours before “SNL” airing begins.

For each segment that makes the cut, there are sets to design and construct, characters in need of suitable makeup, hair, attire and props. Placing a big bow in Gilly’s frizzy hair is one thing. Creating prosthetics for Coneheads is another.

Prep for “SNL” has gotten much more complex than Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Rosannadanna and John Belushi’s Samurai Futaba during the show’s first season in 1975.
Each sketch that promotes a phony product is pre-taped, after product packaging is developed and a shooting location secured. Guest hosts and musical acts arrive for rehearsal, and their expectations about how the show will unfold likely changes as showtime nears.

Notes of thanks from celebrity hosts suggest that being invited to play at “the hippest hangout in town” is worth whatever level of strain and uncertainty goes with the job.

In the final two “SNL” galleries are you-are-there replicas of the show’s control room, then Studio 8H with its three stages and audience seating. Tina Fey hosts a mini “SNL” before nudging visitors into the gift shop.

The exhibition, which opened in New York City before moving to The Windy City, stays in Chicago until late 2018. A Schweddy Ball begins there at 8 p.m. Dec. 30. Pay $75 and show up in an ugly Christmas sweater, or dress like your favorite “SNL” character. Admission includes music, cocktails, appetizers, “cheezborgers” and “Schweddy balls.”

The Museum of Broadcast Communications, 360 N. State St., Chicago, also is home to many radio and television broadcast artifacts, plus tributes to National Radio Hall of Fame inductees (in 19 categories: adventure/drama to religion, disc jockeys to talk show hosts, news to comedy). Admission is $25, which includes the “SNL” exhibition. Closed on Mondays. 312-245-8200

Who aims to become the next “Saturday Night Live” rising star? The Second City, which opened as a Chicago comedy cabaret in 1959, has since expanded to specialize in improvisational training and performances. The dozens of notable alums include Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, both part of the original “SNL” cast in 1975.

An average of 2,500 people per week take a Second City class in the value of improv or comedy performance, film, writing. At least one production happens daily at The Second City theaters at the corner of West North Avenue and North Wells Street.

Skits and improv themes this month: “Holidazed and Confused: Mandatory Merriment,” “Fantastic Super Great Nation Numero Uno,” “Dream Freaks Fall From Space” and “Best of The Second City.” Some shows sell out fast. Tickets are $19 to $46. 312-337-3992

The next annual Chicago Theatre Week, Feb. 8-18, drops ticket prices to $30, $15 or less at The Second City and many other venues. Ticket allotments go on sale at 10 a.m. Jan. 9 at See the players at

Pay particular attention to Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, which presents “Short Shakespeare! A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at The Yard, a new theater space with movable towers that interlock and dramatically transform stage configurations and seating. Think audiences of 150 to 850, depending upon the type of performance; it’s 575 for “Short Shakespeare!”

The Yard, a $35 million project, recently earned an honorable mention for innovation from the American Institute of Architects. Now playing, through Dec. 31: “Q Brothers Christmas Carol,” a hip-hop version of Dickens’ classic tale, seating 320 in a cabaret type of setting. Tickets start at $30. 312-595-5600