So the job is this: Monday the staff meets with the host, and the writers spend Monday evening pitching every idea imaginable. Tuesday the writers don’t sleep and crank out material and by Wednesday Don Roy King, the director of “Saturday Night Live”, finds 45 sketches or so on his desk. Wednesday evening Lorne Michaels, the legendary creator and producer of the show, reads the stage directions at a table surrounded by over 50 writers, producers, and various production staff, and with the input of others, nails down 12 or 13 sketches to move forward with. By Wednesday night at nine, Don is meeting with the production crew to see what sets, costumes, and props are entailed to make these sketches a reality. By Thursday, they are in rehearsal with the guest band and 4 or 5 sketches that don’t require any elaborate scenery or props. Friday at 1 p.m., they block and run through the rest of the sketches for camera. Saturday during the day is a quick run through, and at 8 p.m. a full run-through in front of an audience, where they could be as much as 20 minutes over from what the final show has to be. At 10:30 p.m., they all meet in Lorne’s office and get his notes. Don then takes his script with his 150 post-its or so, and meets with his camera operators to let them know what shots are in and out. He then heads to the production booth and at 11:30 p.m.,” Live from New York, it’s…”
Saturday Night Live is known for being one of the great incubators of talent in the entertainment business, but as “The Pittsburgh List” has proven, Pittsburgh has done a pretty good job of incubating talent itself. How did Don Roy King go from attending Monroeville Junior High in Pittsburgh to becoming the four-time Emmy Award winning director of Saturday Night Live? For Don, the journey began when his eighth grade teacher Anne Boden took him and his classmates to Broadway where the got to meet the legendary Mary Martin who was starring in “Sound of Music.”
He knew then that he “wanted to be part of the magic.” However, in high school, Don was more into sports than theater and was top of his class academically. “I did a lot of making speeches, performing, and talent shows,” he recalls. “I was comfortable in front of a crowd and understood the relationship between an audience and performer. I loved that sense of Broadway storytelling, musical storytelling.” He credits his athletic psyche and team spirit from playing sports that sharpened the skills that “made me a pretty good director.”
Pittsburgh also influenced him in other ways, growing up. “It took a good, strong, hardworking blue collar town where ambition and dreams weren’t squelched” he reflects. “[My family was] incredibly supportive and convinced me that no matter where I grew up, I could do anything I wanted to do.” But at 5’ 3” and 130 pounds, it was apparent to him that football was probably not a career option, and once at Penn State, he got the theater bug, and ended up starring in plays while majoring in broadcasting. Like many graduates, he worried about the job market after college and claims he “didn’t have the guts to move to NYC and be a struggling actor.” Instead he applied for work at the PSU PBS station where he thought he would work his way up. But he got there just as the director quit, and with no one around to assume his responsibilities, Don stepped up. “I learned everything I could learn 30 seconds before I had to know it and managed to get one of the shows done. I was a director 2 weeks into my career.”
Within a year, Don found himself out West working for a UHF station in pre-cable days, and then returned to Pittsburgh for a dream job of producing Pirates baseball. Was it the brilliant promos he wrote there while interning that got him the job? “It was a guy who remembered how great I was at driving the van who hired me,” Don fondly recalls. On top of making sure you do little things like that correctly, Don also advises those looking to start their careers to get experience in smaller markets to hone their writing/directing/producing skills so they can be ready when the opportunity presents itself. “Get to the place where you can do the work sooner. And that is perhaps in a small market, little production company, that’s where you’re more likely to get a chance to do the work and get better at it.”
Being in a smaller market was key to Don’s career—for after directing baseball, football, kids shows, weekly magazines and telethons at KDKA, Don was offered a chance to direct the pioneering The Mike Douglas talk show when it was being done out of Philly. It was a setting in which “performers could walk into a tiny studio and didn’t have that sense of ‘whoa this is being seen by the world, I have to protect my reputation,’” he explains. He recalls those days as less sensitive and guests were more off guard than when they were at The Tonight Show, and so would do things they wouldn’t do in L.A. or New York. It was there that Don got to work with some of the biggest names in show biz, including Jackie Gleason, Jerry Lewis, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire.
Ironically, once the show moved to L.A. it was never as big a hit. And Don himself decided to go to New York to direct a short-lived program America Alive. For several decades, Don developed his reputation as one of the most versatile and prolific directors in television, directing everything from the CBS Early Show, and Good Morning America to the implosion of a hotel for Chriss Angel’s Mindfreak; from Barbara Walters’ Specials to the Howard Stern Show; from the Winter Olympics to the network pool coverage of the first Memorial Service for September 11th.
But 9 years ago, he was presented with a rare opportunity when the previous director of Saturday Night Liv” was moving on. A call went out and many were interviewed. But it was the assistant director from America Alive that recommended Don for the job, despite him having no background in sketch comedy.
When asked why the network took a chance on him, he admitted while he wasn’t the most qualified for sketch, he was confident he could do the job if given the chance. Although the producers interviewing him didn’t seem to respond particularly well, Don got a call while at Disney World with his daughter that Lorne Michaels, creator and producer of SNL, wanted to meet him. In the meeting Lorne simply grumbled about the show, asked a cursory question or two and brought the interview to an abrupt end. Don walked out pretty sure that he’d missed his best chance to be a part of that “magic” he’d dreamed of back in junior high school. But the next day he got a call and was told he was hired.
It took a bit to get up to speed, but for the past 8 years, Don has felt he has had a dream job. The biggest challenge has been to learn to keep things simple and straight forward and make sure his work serves the writers and the actors. Highlights include watching performers like Kristen Wiig, who started around when he did, come into their own, and memorable moments such as the Christmas show they did after the Newtown school shootings. It was hard to know how to open the show after a tragedy like that, and a children’s choir was booked to sing with Sir Paul McCartney on the show. But how do you do comedy when faced with a national tragedy like that? Don got a call from Lorne saying they were going to open the show with the children’s choir singing “Silent Night.” Don recalls: “I thought it was the most brilliant, tasteful, heartfelt gesture that any television show could have made at that moment to pay tribute to those kids with our children’s choir singing without there being any specific reference. The fade in and fade to black…as to say life goes on…we’ll go back to the way we always do, try to make you laugh…and i thought it was touching in the deepest, soulful way.”
For those regular viewers of the show, you may notice a few Pittsburgh references. Is that our imagination? (For instance, the Pittsburgh Penguins jersey that Cecily Strong wore in the recent “Baby It’s Cold Outside” sketch with Jimmy Fallon. Well, there have been several Pittsburgh writers on the show, and it helps that head writer Seth Meyers’ father is from the area.
Another thing Don has taken from Pittsburgh besides his work ethic and his sense of teamwork and fairness and a long term view of success. “I remind young people looking to get into the business that it is not a sprint, but it is a marathon. It is not so important to get there first or get there fast. I don’t believe in that theory that it’s not what you know its who you know. Yes its true if you have a contact who was your dad’s college roommate you might get that job sooner…sooner may not be better, you might not be ready when you get it. Opportunities even out over time. Eventually everyone gets some kind of break, some kind of opening, that may lead them to the ideal job. The secret is not to get it first, it’s to be ready when it comes.”
When SNL had to replace six cast members last year, they looked towards to places famous for having comedy scenes and troupes like Second City, the Groundlings, and the Upright Citizen’s Brigade New York, Chicago, L.A., and Toronto. But as Pittsburgh takes it time and starts to build its own comedy reputation with alums like Billy Gardell and Steve Byrne and growing comedy scenes at spots like the Arcade Comedy Theater and the Steel City Improv, perhaps Pittsburgh itself will one day get its turn in the comedic spotlight.
But we hope you all will join us on February 5th at the Frick Fine Arts to hear from Don Roy King in person as we kick off the 2014 Steeltown Spotlight Series. Seating is limited. Click here to get your tickets now.