Saturday Night Live is an institution. For 43 seasons, you’ve been able to tune to NBC at 10:30pm Chicago time and be in that same familiar place, Studio 8H. That stage has been home to some of comedy’s brightest burning stars, from Carlin and Belushi to Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon and Kate McKinnon. And while it may be live from New York, so much of what makes and has made SNL what it is starts at places like Second City and iO. In celebration of that, a wonderful exhibit has come to the Museum of Broadcast Communications on State Street. It celebrates everything that makes Saturday Night Live what it is and takes you along for the ride as the show gets made. And much like the show it celebrates, SNL: The Experience is unforgettable.
When exhibit designer Mark Lach, who was on hand for our tour of Saturday Night Live: The Experience started working on building an exhibit to honor SNL, he was drawn to the timeline. 43 years is a long time, and though he wanted to do a chronology that would honor the cast and crew of this remarkable show, he wanted the entire exhibit to offer an appeal to all–from those too young to remember Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase’s time to those who would be unfamiliar with the newer faces, like Cecily Strong, Leslie Jones or Colin Jost. So he opted to take visitors through the week as the show is built.
And while he admits he worried it’d be “making of overload” for me, at least, it was very much like being at Universal Studios wandering the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. This exhibit is SNL: The Ride. From the get-go, they set you up to take a journey and immerse yourself in a world you’ve thus far only seen on TV. Saturday Night Live: The Experience lets you wander through a documentary on one of the most iconic, historic, hysterical shows that’s ever graced television. Lach has an obvious passion for this subject matter, and spent countless hours studying the show from the inside, forging relationships with everyone from Lorne Michaels to cast and crew.
You’ll start your tour on Monday, which also serves as a heartfelt tribute to the show’s beginnings in 1975, with artifacts from the show such as one of Lorne Michael’s desks, shipped over from his 9th floor office at 30 Rockefeller Place to a recreation of the original “home base” set that George Carlin first stepped out on in the premiere episode. Though the original set was destroyed, it was rebuilt under the guidance of Eugene Lee, using the same crew that was used when it was first built in 1975.
Tuesday takes you into the writing process, while Wednesday offers a unique look at the table read with Lorne, the writers, host, crew and cast. Visitors to Saturday Night Live: The Experience will get to actually sit down at the table and follow along for a table read, while they listen to Keenan Thompson and Cecily Strong discuss what goes on. Lach used 10 GoPros to get a top down look at the table read, from snacks to scripts, and even added his own touch from his personal experience at a read through, where he noted that instead of discarding the scripts the more traditional way, SNL cast and crew throw them on the floor as the 40 sketch ideas are read through and whittled down to around 15 that will then be built out and planned for in the remaining days (though only some of those final 15 will air.)
“It’s amazing, this machine that is SNL,” says Lach. “The cast stay young and relevant, and go in and out and on to better things, but the machine that is SNL, the set designer, the lighting director is 93 years old now. So you’ve got a 93-year-old lighting Kanye West. You’ll meet all these people. The wardrobe department, hair and makeup, prosthetics, sets, they’ve all been here for a very long time – many from the beginning of the whole show.”
And true to his word, you will meet these people. You’ll see the painstakingly built model of Studio 8H, watch as sets are built, and be able to actually sit in the Church Lady’s chair or on the couch from Wayne’s World. You’ll get a chance to learn about prosthetics and makeup and see amazing costumes, from Coneheads all the way through to Spicer’s podium, Melissa McCarthy’s Spicer Easter Bunny and Alec Baldwin’s Trump duds. You’ll even ride the 30 Rock elevators. As you approach showtime in the timeline, you’ll duck under scaffolding and past the quick change rooms (look for Harry Caray and the Superfans costumes there) and pass through the control room to shouts of “Ready Camera One” until you finally emerge. It’s 11:30, and as Lorne once famously said “We don’t start the show cuz we’re ready, we start it cuz it’s 11:30.”
We certainly weren’t ready for the scale of the finale. Here, Studio 8H comes to life, right inside the Museum of Broadcast Communications. The entire exhibit is enormous, taking up most of the museum’s space, save for the 3rd floor, which still contains the gems from Chicago broadcasting history and TV history at large that you should check out any time you’re here. But it’s really the last bit that catches you, as you swivel on some of the actual chairs from the studio to catch a special museum version of SNL, with Tina Fey, who came on to the project as the host of your own in-museum episode.
SNL: The Experience delivers what it sets out to deliver to a degree few exhibits do. It’s truly an experience. It has massive appeal, for those who love SNL or even just TV in general. It’s a nostalgic look at a beloved show, a fantastic behind-the-scenes for anyone who’s a fan of the show and really, anyone who’s interested in how the sausage is made, so to speak, in television, and it’s absolutely full of treasures–from a pair of Gilda Radner’s shoes that turned up just in time for the Chicago show to the original Coneheads costumes, the first script from the show complete with Carlin’s monologue, Bill Murray’s Nick the Lounge Singer getup, Mike Myer’s outfits from Coffee Talk and The Killer Bees’ costumes. There are classic clips throughout, tributes and tidbits to pick up as you move along.
This is the definition of a can’t miss. Saturday Night Live: The Experience will grace the halls of the MBC for a full 14 months, and we’re only the second city to see it, with its original iteration being in New York for a year following the 40th anniversary of the show. We might even go as far as to call this a “can’t miss, must repeat” since the exhibit is so replete with fantastic pieces, you’ll likely not even catch it all on your first walkthrough. Tickets for the exhibit are $25 for adults, and worth every penny in our book. The exhibit is not timed, but you may be queued at the entrance while a group of visitors (up to 50 at a time) are watching the introduction. The Museum of Broadcast Communications is located at 360 N State St. and is open Tuesday through Sunday, with regular hours from 10 to 5, a late night on Wednesday (until 8pm) and a late open on Sundays at noon. For more information on Saturday Night Live: The Experience, click here.