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HomeProduction DesignEmmy Nominees: Saturday Night Live Production Designers Leo Yoshimura and Keith Raywood...

Emmy Nominees: Saturday Night Live Production Designers Leo Yoshimura and Keith Raywood On The Past and Present

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SNL
Jenna Ortega on SNL (Credit: NBC)

Television history buffs like to wax euphoric about the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” era of NBC’s Saturday Night Live. So does Leo Yoshimura, because he lived those days, which evolved shortly after the late night variety sketch series debuted in 1975. The Players featured Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtain and Laraine Newman.

Yoshimura and Keith Raywood, who himself joined SNL in the mid-1980s, are more than ready for prime time – prime time being defined as Saturday at 11:30 p.m. Eastern during the fall through spring season.

Both honed their craft as production designers under the legendary tutelage of Eugene Lee, who passed away in February. Now, they are imparting his teachings to younger people who’ve joined their illustrious crew.

This year’s Emmy nomination for Outstanding Production Design for a Variety or Reality Series adds to the heap of accolades the men – and their production design team– have already received over the decades.

Yoshimura was first nominated in 1977 for art direction and is the owner of six Emmy statuettes– and a total of 18 nominations. For Raywood, his first Emmy nod came in 2000 and he’s since accumulated 18 more and seven Emmy trophies.

Of course, Saturday Night Live, which just wrapped its 48th season, is the most Emmy-winning show ever with 87 Emmy Awards.

Below the Line spoke with Raywood and Yoshimura via Zoom from New York, where our wide-ranging conversation often mimicked the humorous nature of the show for which they’ve devoted decades of their working lives.

Below the Line: Well, hello, Leo and Keith. Leo, journalistic question. You’re actually listed by the TV Academy as Akira. Do you go by Leo, though?

Leo Yoshimura: Both. My friends who respect me, they call me Akira, but most of my friends who don’t respect me call me Leo.

BTL: I’m going to say default. I’m gonna respect you.

Yoshimura: People are more comfortable with Leo and Akira is my Japanese name that was given to me when I was when I was born. So I use that. It’s in deference to my parents. And I expect you to, Keith, because [laughs], now I understand. You respect me.

Raywood: I do very much and always have.

Yoshimura:  I don’t want to spend too much time on this. It should be Leo “Akira” Yoshimura. 

Raywood: Thank you. Okay. We only have 10 minutes left.

BTL: So I feel like I’m in a “Please Don’t Destroy” sketch in the writer’s room right now, [laughs], but congratulations on your Emmy nomination. This is adding to the literally hundreds SNL has received over the years, actually 324 is the accurate number. So how are you feeling about this recognition from members of the TV Academy?

Yoshimura: I feel actually it’s an acknowledgement that I think as we come to the 50th season, these acknowledgements anyways for me are very important. I think that it says something about the visual strength of the show and how it’s continued over the years.

BTL: So can you talk about working with the late production designer Eugene Lee, who’d been with the show since it started in 1975, and what you learned from him?

Yoshimura: What was wonderful was to watch how he was consumed by design. I was always kind of fascinated at his ability to look at something and make it and apply it to his design work. We had had a relationship for 47 years. I mean, I worked for Eugene for 47 years, which in dog years a very long time. So [laughs] the spoken word wasn’t easily used. We generally would actually signal our approval of our work at the end of the show Saturday. He would go home to Providence and I would go home to my New York apartment. But there was always a moment when we would shake each other’s hand and say, “Good work.”

Raywood: I actually just finished an article for Perspective, which is the production design magazine, all about working with Eugene. Eugene was why I became a production designer. Leo, the other members of our team, people who’ve been involved in our show, most all went to design school, or were looking to work on Saturday Night Live. And I met Eugene when he wasn’t on the show. There were the first five years, which was Leo and Eugene, and what they did together, starting in ’75. I think I was just getting out of high school at that time.

And then Eugene left the show in 1980, along with Lorne [Michaels] and several of the other of the original people and the original cast. Leo stayed on and became the head designer and all of that. But I met Eugene, I think it was in 1982 on a movie, while he was on hiatus from SNL. I had studied to be an architect, not a designer. I just thought it would be fun to work on a movie for a little while. And then when I met Eugene, it was sort of like my life literally changed at that moment.

He decided I was going to be a set designer. I don’t know that I got to make that decision, to tell you the truth. And then in ‘85, he came back. When Lorne came back to SNL, Gene came along and I came along with him, and the three of us kind of became a team. And that’s kind of how that went. So for me, Eugene was literally just about the most seminal person to come along in my adult life. He basically changed it for me. And we were very close. We remained close throughout. I’m grateful. Even the day he passed, I saw him the day he passed away, and I was very grateful to be able to do that too. 

BTL: Let’s shift to the episode that got you nominated, the Jenna Ortega hosting episode, starting with that hysterical Oscar red carpet, another Kenan Thompson game show, “The Parent Trap” with Fred Armisen and Jenna, “Ridiculousness,” and then “The Waffle House,” with all the stuff going on in the background, the two 1975 musical performances, “The Exorcist” and the law firm phone number jingle sketch.

Raywood: Wow. You’ve done your homework.

BTL: Oh, yes. I’m a journalist and a respected one myself.

Raywood: And your name’s not Akira either.

BTL: I know, it’s the two l’s in Hillary [laughs]. So I just wanted to get you thinking back on that episode and how fantastic some of those bits were, if you wanted to comment on some of the designs for the specific sketches.

Yoshimura: I think of all the sketches “The Exorcist” turned out to be one that was very complicated because we were replicating kind of the look and the moves of the original Exorcist movie. Usually, when we have a complicated sketch like that, we see it for the first time on Friday evening, usually around six o’clock, which leaves us maybe a day if we’re lucky to fix anything that we need to do to make the sketch visually better. So we worked very hard in getting the bed trundled and we had a hydraulic lift underneath to lift the actress up. And then we had the puppeteers make a puppet of Kenan, and we also had the puppeteers make the photograph above the bed, which twirled around. So there was all that in included in the sketch. 

Raywood: We also had to put in a window on the stage left side at a really particular place so that we could shoot from outside through that window and be able to get the bed and all the performers, everybody in that shot too, you know, it was a lot to figure out

Yoshimura: And that window addition was not made until the Friday night rehearsal. So we’re given this extra problem to resolve, and how do we build it, how do we make that from the camera point of view work. But we do, and we did well in that sketch.

BTL: Oh, absolutely. And with Kenan’s head spinning at the end, that was the coup de grace. 

Raywood: It’s not that what we have to do is ever really impossible. Some occasions it seems to be, but it’s the amount of time we have to do everything. Most people would have a couple of weeks to think about these sort of things or figure them out. We’re lucky if we have 48 to 24 hours.

BTL: Walk me through your weekly production and rehearsal schedule, and the most challenging parts of it.

Yoshimura: I’ll speak to part of it. Wednesdays we come in, there is a read- through around four o’clock and correct me if I’m wrong, Keith. It would be like 32 or 34 sketches.

Raywood: Yeah. Easily. 

Yoshimura: And then after the read-through, we all kind of go upstairs and wait for the sketches to be cut down to maybe 15 that they intend to do. And then we have a director’s meeting with Liz [Patrick] and she explains in a general way how she wants to block the sets in each sketch out, and where each sketch sits in the studio. We’re not just listening. All of us are shooting our thoughts in about how we are going to do it and where we’re going to do it. Then the writers with the performers generally come in and they’ll talk to us and Liz about what they would like their sketch to be and what they imagine their sketch being. And that discussion will go on until maybe 10:30 or 11 o’clock. 

Raywood: It’s all within from the time the sketches are chosen to when we start drawing them up, and there’s usually only about two hours in between. And in that time, as Leo said, we meet with the director, then we meet with the writers and the cast, and then we start drawing. And that is essentially the only full-on production meeting we ever have for the show. Everything starts from that moment where we get all the information, because we start drawing things up, and they’re in the shop at six o’clock in the morning on Thursday, starting construction. That’s how fast we work.

BTL: When you look back at this past season, which obviously ended prematurely due to the WGA strike with the last episode April 15th, what are some of the highlights that stand out for you?

Raywood: We were just talking about that Jenna Ortega sketch and I think that was such a strong show. And I also mean, these two shows that we are nominated for, there’s a reason. They’re the ones that we put in.

Yoshimura: I think these two shows represent the quality of work that we usually do on each show. And if you look at the season that we just finished, I think that you’ll find we do pretty strong visual design. What I find amazing is people still don’t understand our schedule. If they could only experience our schedule, I think it would be a good thing.

Raywood: I can’t believe how many people say to me, I mean, I get asked this, “So when does the show tape? And I’m like, “Which word didn’t you understand? It’s live.”

BTL: [laughs] Just for the record, what is the other episode, aside from Jenna Ortega?

Raywood: Oh, it’s the Steve Martin and Marty Short show. It’s also the Christmas show. See, just because of our category, we’re allowed to put in up to three episodes actually of an existing show like Saturday Night Live. In this case, we chose two. We might’ve put in three, but we didn’t get to do the last three [episodes], so we didn’t get to see what those were going to be.

BTL: I want to just talk about something in the last episode, the April 15th episode that I really loved, and that was the Central Park cold open. So tell me about your designs for that.

Yoshimura: Originally the Central Park sketch was not the cold open. It was in the show as a sketch. Usually the cold open is political. And I keep badgering them about it, telling them it’s Friday afternoon and I really need any information that you have. But what happened is Steve Higgins kept saying, “It may be in Central Park.” And so when they decided it was going to be in Central Park, it was a little bit of a relief for me because of the parameters had been designed. It was a fairly simple set because it was really about people kind of jogging in and walking in.

BTL: It was beautiful though. Like, it was so different than any other cold open.

Yoshimura: I think that’s the reason why they decided to do it. It wasn’t going to be an Oval Office, or it wasn’t going to be Trump campaigning in Florida or Biden at a news conference. It was gonna be something that we’ve experienced by walking around in Central Park and the people that we meet. 

BTL: What are some of the most unpredictable things that have happened live to your sets?

Raywood: Them getting cut [from the show] is always a really annoying thing. [laughs], We do usually about three extra pieces during the dress rehearsal. And then very often a sketch that makes it to the air rundown winds up getting cut at the end. In fact, on that Steve and Marty show, there was that Balenciaga sketch which actually looked pretty good but it got cut for time at the end of the show. So it’s always losing those pieces that you’ve done just as much work on as the stuff that gets on air. Over the years, I’m not emotional about it at all. [laughs], I have to say we have younger folks working for us now, and when stuff gets cut, they actually get really upset because they’ve worked so hard on it, or they really liked that piece. I always feel if you’re emotionally invested, you’re gonna be disappointed.

BTL: That echoes a recent interview with Ego [Nwodim], in which she said she was advised at the beginning to not take it personally when your sketch gets cut. 

Raywood: Yeah. I imagine for them it’s far worse than for us, because we might design a dozen pieces, but at least eight of them are getting on [laughs].

BTL: Do you save certain pieces for reuse or redesign them a little bit? 

Raywood: Yes, but we don’t usually save an entire sketch and keep it intact unless it’s a particular game show like “Jeopardy,” or the Oval Office. We actually always keep it in the building and don’t even send it back to the warehouse in Brooklyn. We always have that around, just in case. But what we save are the pieces of what we build, doors, windows, staircases, things like that. And we keep those because to build this show from scratch, like literally from scratch every week, that would make it very difficult, if not impossible. 

BTL: What is the mood like when former cast members like Eddie Murphy, Tina Fey or Molly Shannon come back to host?

Yoshimura: I love it, because it’s kind of like it’s the history of the show.

Raywood: I think you were particularly happy when — well, we all were — when Eddie came and did the show. There were certain sketches you were very invested in because you were there at the time.

Yoshimura: I think that throughout the years there have been people like that, like Tina for you. And when they come to the studio, it’s like they are returning home,

Raywood: It always feels like an easy week. And when I say easy, what I mean is, we’re still doing the same amount of work, but there’s a certain relaxed quality in the studio where everyone just feels like, we’ve got this. 

Yoshimura: Yes. And it’s because Tina or Eddie, they know the show. They know what we have to do to put the show on. And then for people who come in new, I think it’s a surprise–the ordeal they’re put through to put on a show in four days.

Raywood: The Steve and Marty show is just a perfect example. It was just old home week, you know, it was very nostalgic. When you’re at Saturday Night Live and even after you leave, there is a family that you’re part of. I don’t think anyone doesn’t feel that way. I mean, I finished this season having done 753 shows, Leo’s done ten years more than I did. So think about how many shows that really is. 

BTL: You guys have any fond memories of the best after parties you’ve attended? 

Yoshimura: Actually, Keith goes to more.

Raywood: Leo does not go to after parties.

Yoshimura: I’m too old to go to an after party. I’m lucky if I make it to the door to get into my car to go home.

Raywood: There’s two that come to mind for me, actually. But one of them was not an after party, it was [first-ever SNL head writer] Michael O’ Donoghue’s wake [in 1994], which might’ve been the most fun SNL party I may have ever gone to, I have to say [laughs]. 

And the other was when Mick Jagger hosted the show. It was a season finale, and for the season finale, we always have the after party down in Rockefeller Center in the [ice skating] rink. And the Foo Fighters were the guest band. They did do a song together on the show, but after the show, the Foo Fighters were set up down in the rink and they were like the house band for us, for the party. And Mick Jagger got up and sang, and they did “Jumping Jack Flash” and a bunch of Rolling Stones songs. And it was like, we’re having a private concert with the Foo Fighters backing Mick Jagger at 3:30 in the morning in Rockefeller Center. And no one in New York knows this is happening.

All 48 seasons of Saturday Night Live are streaming on Peacock.

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