'SNL' Director Reflects on Standout Sketches: "The Ones That Didn't Get Any Laughs at All"

Recalling memorable moments, late-night veteran Don Roy King talks about creating Billie Eilish's technically challenging musical number and the time Adam Sandler and Mikey Day reported from a fictitious war zone via Snapchat.
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Don Roy King

Following a successful career at local news stations, directing talk shows and morning programs "where the real intention is to tell people that the world didn't blow up overnight" — to use his words — Pittsburgh native Don Roy King joined the creative team at NBC's Saturday Night Live in 2006.

As the director recalls to The Hollywood Reporter, it was a risk. "I thought, 'Do I really want to take a chance late in my life, a chance on failure?' But then I thought, 'If I don't, there will be some regret.' There's no worse emotion than regret." King now looks back on his decision as the best he ever made in his life.

Highlighting the sketches that have stood out to him recently, King brings up a few that were technically difficult to achieve, such as when SNL alum Adam Sandler and castmember Mikey Day were reporting from a fictitious war room via Snapchat, talking live, with Snapchat cartoons visualizing them; or the moment when Day was interviewing the queen in a giant ballroom and has to walk through a door into an entirely different visual setting, which required the use of a rotating stage and tricky camera setup. 

But the sketches that are the most meaningful to King are the ones that "didn't get any laughs at all," like when Kate McKinnon's Hillary Clinton sang "Hallellujah" during the week that Leonard Cohen died. "It felt so moving that that's how we opened this comedy show," says the director, going on to mention sketches that were performed in the wake of tragedies such as mass shootings. King goes on to say, "That is just the brilliance of [producer] Lorne Michaels, who embodies a national thermometer and just has a sense of what we can do: not only to hold people accountable, not only to make people laugh and clap, but also to do some healing."

What was your childhood like in terms of the media you consumed and the interests you held?

I grew up in a small suburb of Pittsburgh, and it was suburban in every way: big back yards, Little League baseball, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts. We had exposure to the '50s and '60s media world; though I wasn’t in love with television or obsessed with film, it was part of my life. I was more in love with and obsessed with playing center field for the Pittsburgh Pirates. I got a little exposure to acting. I was sort of an all-American boy; got to be president of my class and loved to speak in front of people and put on a hat and do a show. There was some of that that was inside me, beside my athletic career.

In junior high school, I had a teacher whose whole life was putting on little plays, and I wandered into an audition and got cast in a play and fell in love with theater. Every Easter, she would take a few kids to New York and let them see a Broadway show. I managed to talk my parents into letting me go, and came back with a boyhood crush on New York City — couldn’t wait to get back there! We got to see The Sound of Music and go backstage to meet Mary Martin, and I thought, "My God, there’s magic in the air here!" I manipulated my career to get back as quickly as I could as a television director, producer and writer. To this day, I still get that adrenaline rush when I walk down the street and think about how much happens in this little island, which is now my home.

Is comedy something you came upon later in life?

Inside the New York dream that I had my whole life was the magic of Broadway and performing on stage and being a storyteller. My career had mostly been talk shows and morning shows, where the real intention is to tell the people that the world didn’t blow up overnight and take an umbrella to work. It was challenging and fun, but there was a part of me that thought, "I still have the show business dream, and this really isn’t show business, it's more news than it is entertainment."

Out of nowhere and relatively late in life, I got an opportunity to direct Saturday Night Live, and I thought, "There’s no show I’d rather do than that, but I’m not sure I can." I had certainly directed more live shows than anybody; I’ve made every kind of show that SNL makes fun of; I had done comedy news — but I wasn’t sure I could direct actors in sketch comedy. I thought, "Do I really want to take a chance late in my life, a chance on failure?" But then I thought, "If I don’t, there will be some regret." There’s no worse emotion than regret, so I thought I’d give it a shot. It was the best decision I made in my life. It’s been the most challenging and rewarding, entertainment-based show I’ve ever done, and it’s a show designed to make people laugh and clap and think, and I play a small role in that, and I’m thrilled to do so.

What is your favorite sketch, character or hosting moment?

Sometimes it’s the ones that are the hardest, that I despise the most going in, that I feel the best about at the end. That’s often because a writer or a music guest — or visionary producer Steve Higgins — has an idea that is technically really demanding, and I think, "I’m not sure if this can be done live." And even if it can, it’s going to take a lot of effort and attention and detract from my ability to think about the others that have to be done in the same show. But this past week, we created the illusion that there was a very small group of stargazers looking at this giant sky way, way up above them, and they were tracing constellations in the sky. We managed to create that illusion electronically and do it live — it took a lot of manipulation, but we made it work.

Singer Billie Eilish in the premiere show wanted to create the Fred Astaire walking on the walls, dancing on the ceiling effect in one of her numbers. This was actually really complicated, certainly to do live, but we managed to pull it off and I was proud of that. In the Adam Sandler show last year, Mikey Day and Adam were reporting from a fictitious war zone through Snapchat, and every time we cut back to them, they were talking live, but they had the Snapchat cartoons visualizing them — and to do that live was monumental.

Speaking of Mikey Day, twice we’ve done a sketch where, he was in a giant, royal ballroom interviewing people like the queen, and then he goes through a door and it looks like he’s walking into another room that’s just as big and creates the illusion that our studio is twice as big as it really is. But we did that with a rotating platform, where the camera is on it as well as Mikey, and as the door spins around, everything has been changed in the room we were already in — stagehands are repositioning furniture and adding new people — and then he goes through the door, which is the exact same door to the same room. But the spinning turntable wasn’t obvious to the home audience, and that’s a cool effect.

Sometimes my favorite sketches are ones that didn’t get any laughs at all. The week after the 2016 election, we opened the show with Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton sitting at the piano, singing the Leonard Cohen song "Hallelujah." Coincidentally, Leonard Cohen had died that very week, but it felt so moving to me that’s that’s how we opened this comedy show. The week of the Sandy Hook massacre, we opened the show with kids singing "Silent Night." After the Las Vegas massacre, we had the singer who was onstage when shots erupted from the nearby hotel that night come on and sing "We Won’t Back Down" to open the show.

That is just the brilliance of Lorne Michaels, who embodies a national thermometer and just has a sense of what we can do: not only to hold people accountable, not only to make people laugh and clap, but also to do some healing. Those moments were by far the most moving and healing moments I’ve ever been involved with in television.

What has changed for you at SNL in recent years?

What is different this year is that the shows we make fun of have become a lot more electronically sophisticated, so we have to duplicate all of that. Plus, we have young writers who have come up in the YouTube world and know more about how things can be manipulated and done electronically, so the production demands are more intense than they ever were. That’s made it a little trickier, but also more rewarding.

How have you changed as a director?

I’ve become much more of a collaborator. I’ve realized while here that each writer is the visionary. He or she has created this little one-act play that he or she wants to bring to life, and it’s my job to help get it onto the screen in the way that they envisioned. I’m dealing with 12 or 13 one act plays every week, and so I’ve become much more of a collaborator and less of a dictator.