FROM SNL'S "WEEKEND UPDATE"...WITH A LITTLE HOLIDAY CHEER by Sara Courtney
Its producer, Scott Weinstein, reflects on how much has changed, and what’s stayed the same
If the holidays in New York possess a certain magic, then the epicenter of that special blend of ethereal winter charm is surely Rockefeller Center. Surrounded by festively decorated windows of upscale stores, blessed with an ice skating rink to twirl around in and the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, with its spectacular annual lighting: This is the heart of the holiday season.
Imagine making it through the crowds to see the tree lighting. Imagine pushing your way to see Mariah Carey belt out the holiday classics. Now imagine squeezing your way past the jostling horde to your job at Rockefeller Center for Saturday Night Live, perhaps the most iconic late-night program ever. For Maplewood resident Scott Weinstein, the longtime “Weekend Update” producer and author, that means long days and long nights, constantly evaluating content to be sure it is the best, and, during the holidays, enjoying a special wonder at the way everything becomes more festive, albeit more densely-packed, when he steps outside to grab a slice of pizza.
Weinstein and his wife, Abbey, came to Maplewood in 2012 by way of Park Slope. He was initially reluctant. “Like everyone, you sort of have this idea of Jersey as the Turnpike and that’s it.” But they already knew that the area was home to a lot of creative types in TV and publishing, and decided to give it a chance. “Once we saw Maplewood, we knew this felt really right for us,” Weinstein says. Citing as an example his neighbor who’s a drummer on Broadway, he praises the community’s concentration of creative energy and marvels, “Everyone is in the industry here.”
Growing up in Virginia, Weinstein always knew he wanted to work in television. His parents, however, were deeply skeptical. He fought a long campaign, he says, “to convince (them) that I wouldn’t be an out of work actor and that’s not what it meant.” But then his father, who had studied architecture at Pratt, saw a flyer about their film and TV school. “It completely changed his mind,” Weinstein says. “All of a sudden, he thought it was a legitimate career.”
Taking advantage of the opportunities offered by Pratt’s program, Weinstein interned at Late Night with Conan O’Brien for one semester and found he enjoyed it immensely. He was determined to secure another internship before graduating. “At the time, the only other real option was Letterman, but they wanted you to be there full-time,” he recalled. “And then there was SNL.” The show was in the midst of one of its rebuilding years, and Weinstein promised himself that if he didn’t enjoy it, he would leave. “But it turns out, I loved it.” Unlike most shows, SNL allowed their interns to return for additional semesters, so his internship at the show lasted a year and a half. His hard work paid off and following graduation he was offered an entry-level job in reception in January of 1996.
Meanwhile the show was growing and changing, spawning some unexpected opportunities. “When I was interning, I had done some work with “Update” when Norm MacDonald was doing it,” Weinstein recalls. His experience and familiarity with “Update” came in handy when MacDonald was abruptly sacked and replaced by Colin Quinn. “Norm’s staff sort of went with him,” Weinstein says, adding that “nobody else really had any experience with “Update” at all. [Longtime SNL producer] Mike Shoemaker asked me to come work in “Update” as an assistant, and I just worked my way up from there.”
Back then, “Weekend Update” was a relatively simple production compared to modern times. “Update” writers would submit hundreds of jokes for the segment, and then the producers would whittle those down to the best ones for the show. The format of “Update” is straightforward: a seemingly straitlaced news anchor delivers a two-line joke – a factual set-up followed by a punchline that is often absurd or scathingly sarcastic – and it has inspired a seemingly endless number of news-oriented comedy copycats.
“Update” jokes are often accompanied by an over-the-shoulder (OTS) graphic, a process that Weinstein coordinated then and organizes now. “They basically used headlines most of the time,” he explained. “They would get a couple of pictures from AP, but back then you couldn’t just order anything up at any time of the day, so they got what they got.” Weinstein’s job was to find the headlines and articles that inspired the jokes. “I would photocopy it, make sure it had a lot of contrast and was very black and white.” From there, the graphic artists would redo the headline in a program, and the resulting graphic would appear along with the joke. “So that was my job then, to find headlines. That was my intro to the world of ‘Update.’”
In his 26 years at SNL, much has changed. Weinstein now goes through news sites instead of flipping through newspapers. “I write a pack of set-ups every day of about three pages of one-line summaries of what is happening in the news,” he says. Weinstein and other producers read through the jokes submitted off these packets and highlight the best of the material before passing it on to the current “Update” anchors, Colin Jost and Michael Che, who make their choices.
Weinstein then puts together the tentative “Update” script late Friday evening, usually around 1 or 2 a.m. Saturday is spent writing, rewriting, and organizing graphics. The show has an afternoon runthrough before the audience files in for the dress show at 8 p.m. Anything that doesn’t survive the much longer dress show has to be cut or edited down for the live show. The entire day is spent refining, rewriting, tweaking, taking out, and finding what works.
Producing “Update” is fast-paced and relentless. Says Weinstein, “Anything involving wardrobe, props, hair and makeup, graphics, things like that for ‘Update’ – my job is to make sure everyone knows what they need to do to make sure it happens by air[time].”
The whirlwind news cycle and the pace of the show, which accelerated during the Trump years, has become relentless. What was consuming our nation’s attention on Wednesday may be a blip in our collective memory by the time Saturday night rolls around. “It was a lot simpler back then,” says Weinstein, who has worked with eight different “Update” anchors. “There wasn’t the same attention on the show. It was a smaller staff. We did a lot less material. Over the years the staff has grown a ton, the turnaround times have changed, and the show is a lot more packed than it used to be,” he says, noting that the show includes significantly more sketches and filmed pre-tapes (such as fake commercials) than before. “Everyone is pulled in a thousand different directions, and so it’s a far more hectic schedule than it used to be.”
Despite all the changes, much has stayed the same. “At the end of the day, it’s still two guys reading cue cards, sitting behind a desk,” he explains.” It’s such a stripped-down form of comedy, and that’s why it’s lasted so long.”
While returning to SNL season after season and raising two children, Weinstein somehow found the time to explore his own creative side to write and publish a book series called Team of Steves about a high schooler named Steve Buchmann who comes face-to-face with three versions of himself from different dimensions. A mix of sci-fi and high school angst, the idea came to him years ago when he was leaving the gym. “I had a long list of things to do and I thought, ‘Oh I wish there was a team of Scotts to do all of this.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh wait. That’s something cool. What is that?’ So I expanded on it and ruminated on it for years, and when I came out to Maplewood I started writing it.”
Weinstein wrote drafts of all three books, which he ultimately decided to self-publish. This is where his many years in television production proved to be invaluable. He says, “There is a certain standard of quality you expect, especially working at SNL. ‘Just good enough’ is never enough for me, so I was always pushing myself on that.”
He drew on his experience communicating with the show’s graphic artists to convey his expectations for the book’s illustrator. And he constantly kept a weather eye out so as “not to fall in love with your own work and incorporate notes that you get.” Weinstein says he approached writing the books in the same spirit of refining a great television segment until the audience loves it. He says, “That’s definitely something I got from working at SNL. Just this sense that – all right, this didn’t work, so let’s figure out how to make it work.”
Weinstein published Team of Steves in 2019 and followed up with Book 2, Team of Steves – Dimensions in 2020. The final book in the trilogy is expected in February 2023. (Books can be found on his website scottrweinstein.com.)
SNL, now in its 48th season, is gearing up for the holidays. Navigating the excitement and overwhelming crowds can be challenging. “It’s basically all of a sudden there are a couple hundred thousand more people in front of your office everyday and they are all standing around and moving very slowly,” says Weinstein. Still, the enchantment is not lost on him. “When I leave work at two in the morning and I walk out and I’m the only one in the plaza and I look up and there’s this beautiful Christmas tree, I realize, ‘This is still magical.’ There’s something very special about being there.”
Starting in December, the stage at Studio 8H is decorated with garlands and trees and wreaths, and the offices come alive with festive decorations and menorahs. During commercial breaks, the band plays holiday music. And the show itself is seen as one of the biggest of the year. “The host is usually a bigger host,” he says. “For a long time it was Fallon or Timberlake, or some other really big fun host. This is not a host where you are wondering if they are going to be any good – you know this person can do it. And that adds an energy to it.”
That energy is fed by the show’s surroundings. “I was thinking back over the years,” says Weinstein, “and one of the takeaways is that even after 9/11, even during COVID, even during whatever random nonsense may have happened in the city – people still came. People never stopped coming....This gathering place in the city, this place that means so much to people in the city, but also from all over the world – this is the place you go for Christmas.”
Sara Courtney is a writer and word connoisseur living in Maplewood. She has previously worked in television and often fought those same holiday crowds to look up at the magical Rockefeller Tree too.