‘ SNL’ still takes cues from Wally

A master of an old- fash­ioned art has kept the quips flow­ing for 25 years

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Mered­ith Blake

As a kid, Wally Fer­esten longed to write for tele­vi­sion. He just never imag­ined that he’d be do­ing it with a felt marker on 14- by- 22- inch pieces of re­cy­cled card­board. For 25 years now, Fer­esten has been the cue card guy at “Satur­day Night Live.”

An unas­sum­ing, 49- year- old fa­ther of two with short white hair and glasses, he has played a vi­tal but largely un­sung role in one of the most en­dur­ing in­sti­tu­tions in Amer­i­can pop cul­ture. As­sisted by a team of 20, he su­per­vises pro­duc­tion of the hand­writ­ten cards and holds them, just off- cam­era, dur­ing ev­ery broad­cast of the sketch com­edy show.

The con­tin­ued use of cue cards in such a high- tech in­dus­try might seem anachro­nis­tic, but de­mand for Fer­esten’s ser­vices has only in­creased in re­cent years. With com­put­ers prone to glitches even in the best of times, Fer­esten says the cards of­fer a hu­man touch no teleprompter could ever repli­cate.

“It’s about trust­ing some-

body,” he said on a break be­tween re­hearsals for “SNL’s” sea­son fi­nale, hosted by Louis CK, and a tap­ing of “Late Night With Seth Mey­ers,” where he also runs cards. “Un­less I have a heart at­tack, noth­ing’s go­ing to hap­pen.”

He’s not ex­ag­ger­at­ing. While on the pay­roll at “SNL,” Fer­esten has sat out just one broad­cast — “I just couldn’t stop throw­ing up and they made me go home,” he said, the slight­est hint of re­gret in his voice — and has never dropped a card on cam­era.

Per­form­ers on other late- night pro­grams, such as “The Daily Show” and “Jimmy Kim­mel Live,” use teleprompters to avoid na­tion­ally tele­vised hu­mil­i­a­tion, but in the grow­ing em­pire of “SNL” Ex­ec­u­tive Pro­ducer Lorne Michaels, the old- school, va­ri­ety- show vibe of cue cards pre­vails.

Work­ing six days a week, Fer­esten di­vides his du­ties be­tween “SNL” and “Late Night With Seth Mey­ers,” which tapes next door at Rock­e­feller Cen­ter and is also ex­ec­u­tive pro­duced by Michaels. Un­der the aus­pices of his com­pany, NYC Q Cards, he has teams run­ning cue cards at “The Tonight Show Star­ring Jimmy Fal­lon” ( another Michaels pro­duc­tion) and the L. A.- based “Co­nan” ( O’Brien was a Michaels pro­tégé). Un­til David Let­ter­man signed off from “Late Show” in May, he was also a client of Fer­esten’s.

“I’ve missed a lot of wed­dings, a lot of fu­ner­als, a lot of bar mitz­vahs. But to say you’ve worked at ‘ SNL’ for 25 years? That goes a long way. Fer­esten, the mid­dle of three chil­dren, grew up in a house­hold where com­edy ruled. His fa­ther, a sales­man, in­tro­duced his kids to al­bums by Ge­orge Car­lin, Cheech & Chong and Steve Martin and taught them spit takes over the fam­ily din­ner ta­ble.

Writ­ing for film and tele­vi­sion was “all I wanted to do,” said Fer­esten, whose wife and fam­ily call him by his given name, Chris, but is known to all at “SNL” as “Wally,” his child­hood nick­name. By the time he grad­u­ated, his older brother, Spike ( nee Mike), was al­ready writ­ing for Let­ter­man. ( He’d go on to write the famed “Soup Nazi” episode of “Se­in­feld.”)

With help from his brother, Fer­esten landed a job work­ing for Tony Men­dez, who then ran cue cards at “Satur­day Night Live.” He fig­ured it would be a good way to get his foot in the door.

There was just one prob­lem: Fer­esten’s hand­writ­ing was ter­ri­ble.

“I grew up get­ting straight- A’s ev­ery year, but ev­ery re­port card I got: ‘ Hor­ri­ble pen­man­ship,’ ” he said. What saved him was his un­usual pro­fi­ciency at the other half of the job, hold­ing cards.

He made his “SNL” de­but on Sept. 29, 1990, hold­ing the first few cards in a “Sprock­ets” sketch fea­tur­ing Mike My­ers as Di­eter, the West Ger­man host of an avant- garde talk show, and “Twin Peaks” star Kyle Ma­cLach­lan as his guest. De­spite nerves that made his whole body shake, Fer­esten some­how kept the cards still and turned them with­out any mis­takes.

“I didn’t panic, and I guess the show no­ticed that I was calm un­der pres­sure,” he said.

Fer­esten was soon hold­ing cards for sev­eral ma­jor skits an episode, and with prac­tice, his hand­writ­ing im­proved. When Men­dez left for “Late Show With David Let­ter­man” three years later, Fer­esten took over the cue- card op­er­a­tion.

Af­ter he got mar­ried in the late ’ 90s, Fer­esten left the show to fo­cus on writ­ing — the kind that doesn’t in­volve a marker — but was back within four months. “It was prob­a­bly the best thing I’ve ever done, be­cause they saw what life was like with­out me,” he said, “so I got a lot of perks.”

Ah, yes, the perks. Fer­esten has had a bet­ter-than-front- row seat for pop cul­ture mo­ments both solemn ( the show’s first broad­cast af­ter 9/ 11) and tri­umphant ( he donned a tux to hold cards for “SNL’s” star- stud­ded 40th- an­niver­sary spe­cial in Fe­bru­ary). He’s been writ­ten into episodes of “30 Rock,” ap­peared in sketches on “Late Night” and been thanked by Betty White on “The Tonight Show.” He also earns a men­tion in the just- re­leased “SNL” doc­u­men­tary “Live From New York!” and counts cele­bri- ties such as for­mer NBA star Charles Barkley as friends.

“So many fa­mous and ner­vous peo­ple have stared at Wally,” said “SNL” alumna Amy Poehler. “He has a huge heart and a blue- col­lar work ethic and never for­gets that this whole thing is sup­posed to be fun.”

While Fer­esten’s job re­quires near- con­stant prox­im­ity to the rich and fa­mous, his ac­tual work space is about as glam­our- free as it gets.

The cue cards for “SNL” are “printed,” to use the in- house lingo, in a hive- like space un­der the bleach­ers of Stu­dio 8H. Crammed with mark­ers, rolls of the white tape used to make last- minute ed­its, ink-scrawled ply­wood desks and rec­tan­gles of card­board, it has all the am­bi­ence of a sub­ma­rine boiler room.

Old cards go in a shoul­der- high pile in a cor­ner of the stu­dio, to be reused by “SNL’s” scenic artists to catch paint splat­ters. Once in a while, Fer­esten will let a host or cast mem­ber keep a card as a me­mento, but they are not, tech­ni­cally speak­ing, his to give.

“Once I put NBC’s words on the cards,” he ex­plained, “they’re not my prop­erty any­more.”

The trick to print­ing, Fer­esten said, is to think of it more like draw­ing than writ­ing.

“You don’t move your fin­gers, you use your hand,” he said as he spelled out the show’s sig­na­ture in­tro — “Live from New York, it’s Satur­day Night!!!” — us­ing the broad side of a marker tip.

The cards, or­dered from a sup­plier on Long Is­land, are sur­pris­ingly heavy; a stack of 40 weighs as much as a well- fed cat. Given that sketches can run as long as 75 cards, it’s lit­tle won­der that Fer­esten has suf­fered chronic shoul­der pain and ten­dini­tis in both el­bows. Pa­per cuts are also an un­avoid­able oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ard, though the adren­a­line helps mask the pain. “You don’t usu­ally know you have them un­til you wake up on Sun­day.”

Still, the dis­com­fort is a small price to pay for be­ing a part of “Satur­day Night Live.” “I want to be able to do it for as long as it stays on the air,” said Fer­esten. “To get to know the celebri­ties, to get to know the cast of ‘ SNL’ the way I have, it’s a bless­ing.”

Other than the color of ink used for the host ( al­ways black) and the num­ber of ex­cla­ma­tion points at the end of “Live from New York, it’s Satur­day Night!!!” ( al­ways three), there are few hard- and- fast rules about how the cue cards are writ­ten. In­stead, Fer­esten re­lies on an un­der­stand­ing of each per­former’s par­tic­u­lar rhythm to de­ter­mine things like whether a joke’s setup and a punch line should go on the same card.

Some­times, he holds the cards in a sin­gle stack, f lip­ping through them one by one. Other times, he’ll hold two cards up si­mul­ta­ne­ously, al­low­ing the per­former to move seam­lessly from one line to the next. A crew mem­ber, called a “catcher,” is of­ten at his side to col­lect the used cards.

“Wally has this nice way of just keep­ing the words in front of me and when I’m look­ing for them, they’re there,” said Seth Mey­ers, who per­suaded Fer­esten to join him when he took over “Late Night” last year. The for­mer “Week­end Up­date” an­chor prefers cue cards to teleprompters, which he’s had to use oc­ca­sion­ally on awards shows.

“At the back of my head there is al­ways a creep­ing sense of dread that the com­puter will stop work­ing or that it will be the day that the robots de­cided to start the revo­lu­tion and their first act will be to not put my jokes up,” he said.

For “SNL” new­bies, few of whom come to the show with ex­pe­ri­ence read­ing cue cards, Fer­esten also acts as a kind of tu­tor. Some strug­gle with the new skill more than oth­ers, he said.

“When Chris Rock was on the show, it was hard for him to read cue cards. I think that’s one of the rea­sons why he said they didn’t use him enough. Chris Far­ley was the same way.”

For hosts, who have just a few days to master the art of cue- card read­ing, the pres­sure is even more in­tense, es­pe­cially if there are any added com­pli­ca­tions. Fer­esten re­called hours of in­tense prepa­ra­tion with ac­tress Lara Flynn Boyle, who, he said, “came in near­sighted, dyslexic and col­or­blind. She told me up front, ‘ This is go­ing to be a chal­lenge for you.’”

Such ef­forts don’t go un­ap­pre­ci­ated, even by the A- lis­ters who regularly pass through “SNL.”

“As soon as the act is over, they all — to a per­son — have stood up and given Wally a hug,” Mey­ers said. “He is your life­line to the piece.”

Lloyd Bishop NBC

I N NEW YORK, Wally Fer­esten’s du­ties in­clude wran­gling cards for “Late Night With Seth Mey­ers,” above, as well as “Satur­day Night Live.”

Pho­tog r aphs by Lloyd Bishop NBC

ON THE SET of “Late Night With Seth Mey­ers.” The host per­suaded Wally Fer­esten to join him when Mey­ers took over there last year.

“YOU DON’T MOVE your f in­gers, you use your hand,” ex­plained Fer­esten, 49, who splits his six- day work­week be­tween the Mey­ers’ NBC show and “SNL.”

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