The last hour has whipped by like a flash. Pelton and the rest of the band take a break, which is a good opportunity for me to finally (a) see what’s happening on the other side of that curtain, and (b) grab as much free food as possible. Emerging from the band riser, I can see set designers, camera people, actors, and giant cat-suit-things milling around in the tall, wide room that is Studio 8H.
When the band’s curtain is raised later on, it will face an island of about 60 seats fixed on the floor in the center, with room on either side for at least four sets to be up simultaneously, in various stages of readiness while the featured skit goes live to air. Looking out over the studio’s rear wall are three or four more rows of what looks to be about 200 seats that wrap around the back, left, and right of the room. Although the place hums with activity, there is a relaxed, unpretentious air about the people who are making this iconic show — now into its 30th season — tick.
After I take a second to drink it in, Pelton takes me to the backstage area, a small but action-packed space with stalls and a big mirror where the actors race to change costumes during commercials. Right now, however, it’s the catering facility, and a simple but very good meal of spaghetti, salad, and bread is out in large, industrial strength trays to feed the stream of crew, band, and actors. I grab a paper plateful and wander over to the studio security desk, where a camera monitoring the street reveals that the snow has started to fall — and fast. Am I bitter to not be romping in it? Or feeling privileged to be in this slightly surreal place?
Just then, Pelton grabs me and takes me back through to the studio, which already seems to have a completely different layout of sets in just the short time we were away. I decide I’m glad to be here, as I settle back in between Naranjo and Turre the trombonist, especially as Turre tells me the first of his considerable arsenal of unprintable jokes.
The band receives a pink sheet with that day’s “Dress Rundown,” listing all the skits that will happen during dress rehearsal and the songs that the band will play subsequently during the commercial break. For example:
Commercial #8………………………………Filly’s Soul
Pelton tells me later that there are more skits listed on the dress rundown than will actually make it to air — the ones that get the weakest response during the dress rehearsal will get cut. I’m relieved to also finally figure out who the guest host is: Paul Giamatti, the unassuming star of movies such as Sideways and American Splendor. He’s been walking around the set for the last hour and as familiar as he looked, I couldn’t figure out exactly who he was. Now that I’ve figured it out, I can relax.
I’m expecting more flat-out rehearsal, but the band has other duties to attend to now. First they have to do a pre-record for some gospel-type music that will run in a skit during the show called “The Lunford Twins,” allegedly a “variety show that never made it to air” like they’d show on TVLand. Next they have to practice a three-note vamp that they’ll play when Giamatti does his opening monologue. Another piece of music for one of the fake commercials the show often airs was recorded in a studio by the SNL band the day before. Union-mandated residuals from these pieces and other band performances, culled from reruns of the show on NBC and cable, will make for a welcome source of additional income for the musicians.
The band has its first and only break of the day — an awkward 3 1/2 hour chunk of time that’s just long enough to not want to hang out at the studio the whole time, just short enough to make it tough to do anything else. Pelton picks up his clothes from wardrobe, which like the rest of the band, are chosen for him by SNL’s wardrobe staffers, takes me on a quick tour through the warren of green rooms, dressing rooms, and offices that surround 8H, then tells me he’s sticking around to take care of some paperwork, which is fine by me — I want to get outside and see the snow. I manage, somehow, to get the elevator to take me down, and see that New York is quickly transforming to the beautiful, messy, white, slow-moving version of itself that only emerges in a serious snowstorm.
I’ve just walked back ten blocks from my own studio nearby. The bad news is that I feel like I walked ten miles — walking carefully on the white stuff without slipping requires a kind of sliding motion that turns into a major leg workout. The good news is that while I was at my own kit, I practiced playing like Shawn Pelton, and it felt good. After watching him I decided one of the specific keys to his massive sound is laying more of the stick across the drumhead (as opposed to just hitting the center with the bead), and doing it forcefully. Another key is laying into each and every single stroke with complete focus, concentration, and oomph. It’s a disciplined way to play — I hope I can keep it up in the future.
“I definitely had a background where I was really into studying and learning about the drums,” Pelton explains of how he honed his sound. “I studied with Alan Dawson a couple of summers, and he was a huge influence. What he had to give was an incredibly sound, technical fundamental basis to your playing. I feel like I’ve been really lucky to have been exposed to that.
“But I’ve worked in musical situations where it was about grooving and making the song happen, so a lot of the focus came on getting a good sound, as opposed to developing left-foot clave, for instance. If I had time, I would probably spend it listening to, ’What did that drummer do to get that sound?’ as opposed to shedding on a groove in 7/8. It was never a priority to me to be an incredible technician, because I was always making a living playing drums in band situations, and that can be more about sound and feel.”
In the NBC building, I’m worried I’m going to have to work the elevator myself, but at the last second a studio electrician shows up and does the magic to take me to the 8th floor. On the way up, he helps me realize what a 24/7 operation putting on SNL really is — last night, he was up until 4 A.M. assembling the set. Tonight he’ll probably be up that late again tearing it apart.
I meet up with Pelton at the 8H security desk, and he takes me back to the band’s riser. The curtain is down now and the musicians are ready to be one with the rest of the set. It’s time to do a rough rehearsal of the monologue and some of the skits, so Pelton quickly settles in behind his kit and invites me to perch next to him, sandwiched between his floor tom and Pendarvis and his organ. It’s an exciting view, looking out on the set just as Pelton has for the last 13 years.
The band starts playing the opening theme and Giamatti races out to practice his monologue, which is about how excited he is to be there. He backs up his claim first by whipping out an asthma inhaler, then letting loose with a series of karate moves so animated that sparks seem to fly out of his body, capped by the song the band rehearsed, where he sings, “I” [VAMP] “LOVE” [VAMP] “THE” [VAMP] “…oh screw it, I’m a lousy singer anyway! Live, from New York, it’s Saturday night!” It’s absolutely hilarious, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. In front of me Pendarvis, who I thought would be jaded beyond words, is shaking with laughter, and declares it “the best monologue I’ve ever seen.” It’s a good sign, and many of the subsequent dry run sketches look promising. Aside from the snow, it looks like we picked a good night for me to be there.