‘Saturday Night Live: The Book’

Book Design

Book design for a visual history of the legendary sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live.

“Saturday Night Live” premiered on NBC on October 11, 1975 at 11:30 pm, and quickly changed the landscape of late-night television and modern comedy. In the four decades since its debut, the show has become a cherished American institution and has helped launch the careers of many of comedy's most influential performers and writers. Now, just in time for SNL’s 40th anniversary celebration, Pentagram has designed Saturday Night Live: The Book, the definitive visual history of the show and a loving behind-the-scenes portrait of how it all comes together every week. Written and edited by Alison Castle and published by Taschen, the massive, 500-page book features over 2,300 images, many never before seen, an exclusive interview with the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, and an exhaustive encyclopedia of all the seasons.

The designers have collaborated with the show on various projects over the past two decades, including three iterations of its identity, several opening title sequences, commercial parodies, and most recently, the graphics for the 40th anniversary season. Being a Taschen title, the book has been conceived as a visual compendium that has all the qualities of an art book but still appeals to mainstream fans. Various accounts of SNL have been published over the years, including the authoritative oral history Live From New York, but there has not previously been an in-depth illustrated title that wasn’t fundamentally tied to one era or another. Castle and Pentagram were given unrestricted access to the SNL archives, including the photography of Edie Baskin, the original staff photographer whose famous hand-tinted portraits of performers did so much to establish the look of the show, and the work of the current photographer, Mary Ellen Matthews, whose striking, fashionable and witty images are equally iconic.

Within its well-established format—the show is broadcast live at 11:30 on Saturday night, with signature elements like the opening monologue, musical performances, and “Weekend Update”—“SNL” is constantly evolving, a key to its longevity. During its four decades, “SNL” has cycled through several generations of performers and writers, helping to keep the show fresh and making the various iterations feel like they “belong” to their respective audiences. (Michaels comments in the interview that a viewer’s favorite cast tends to be the one they watched in high school.) Castle wanted to create a framework that would show off all of the eras equally, so that a fan of any period would find something to appreciate in the book.

To that end, because each episode of “Saturday Night Live” is famously created in six days, coming together in a single week that finishes with the show’s live broadcast on Saturday night, the book uses the course of a week as its organizing structure. This allowed for a lively mix of materials from all seasons to be juxtaposed across the spreads and pages. The designers developed a clean, elegant yet bold layout for the book, a neutral, documentary-like platform that would allow the content to shine. The approach echoes the program’s title sequences, which are not meant to humorous in themselves but rather set up the show as a fun, welcoming place to tune in to—a party viewers want to be at. The book's typography is set in Founders Grotesk (by Kris Sowersby), a contemporary take on classic grotesks that lends a straightforward, journalistic style.

The book is loosely organized into three sections, starting with the week leading up to broadcast. Photographs give a rare glimpse into the show’s production, from pitching ideas for sketches, writing and read-throughs, to costume and set development, pre-tapes, promo shoots, and dress rehearsals. During the photo research phase, the designers realized that many of the images were so great they wanted to publish the contact sheets in full. Throughout the book, the emphasis is on showing the glorious creative messiness of SNL, to immerse fans in everything that goes into the shows, not just the finished episodes.

This leads into “Saturday Night Live” proper, documenting the taping of actual episodes in a mix of backstage images and sketch stills. The book’s white pages switch over to black—it’s night, it's on-air—and the content is presented in the order of a typical episode: starting with the opening monologue, leading into commercial parodies, sketches, pre-taped short films (presented in strips), musical performances, “Weekend Update,” more sketches, and wrapping up with the goodnights. The photographs are arranged thematically across the different spreads, creating a natural flow through diverse material like costumes, game show parodies, holiday episodes, movie satires, recurring popular characters, and more. The section closes with the new interview with Lorne Michaels, which has been printed on a different, more tactile paper stock.

Next up is “Seasons,” an illustrated encyclopedia cataloguing the details of every season. The section opens with headshots of all the players and the stats on which seasons they appeared in. Each season’s bumper photography by Edie Baskin or Mary Ellen Matthews is presented as a double-page collage, and pages on the individual seasons catalogue every episode, photos of highlights, and exhaustive notes on the relevant hosts, musical guests and any surprise performers.

The book’s opening endpapers feature a grid of performers exclaiming the show’s signature line, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” The back endpapers collect the goodnights, the closing moment when the cast and crew assemble on the stage to say farewell. For bookmarks, the volume features three ribbons in red, green and blue, the colors that are used to make color television.

For the book’s cover, Castle and Pentagram wanted an image that would not read as coming from any particular period, but would rather convey the spirit of the show. Many concepts were considered, but ultimately (and based on a suggestion by Lorne Michael) they settled on Edie Baskin's iconic hand-tint of the Statue of Liberty, the first image of the show's original title sequence. For the title typography, a graffiti logo used in the show’s early seasons was updated and appears in holographic metallic foil. Stickers on the cover tout the book with “Stick around!,” a play on the phrase that closes the opening monologue of every show.

The act of designing of the book echoed the round-the-clock, pell-mell style of the show’s production. The designers started work on the book in spring 2014, in advance of the show’s 40th anniversary season. To finish the book, the team took over one of the conference rooms at Pentagram (as they have with previous SNL projects), turning it into a veritable SNL bunker. At the same time, Pentagram was also completing work on the identity and opening titles for the anniversary season. Pentagram is currently working on the graphics for "Live From New York!", a new documentary on “Saturday Night Live" that is set to open this year's Tribeca Film Festival, as well as the graphics for an anniversary exhibition.

Book Design
New York
Emily Oberman
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