Live from New York, It’s Saturday Night with Lindsay Shookus

Lindsay Shookus first landed at Saturday Night Live back in 2002. 19 years and ten Emmy nominations later, the New Yorker—working alongside SNL creator and luminary Lorne Michaels—is responsible for some of the most iconic comedy moments and talent of most of our adult lives. As a Producer and Head of the Talent Department, she knows better than anyone that running one of the most challenging producing gigs on TV is not for the faint of heart. Certainly, Shookus has just the kind of tough demeanor and determined disposition it takes to help steer such a live wire act, but also has the kind of warmth and steady, reassuring presence one would imagine is required of a person whose job includes championing some of the all-time biggest names in Hollywood through one of the most nerve-racking weeks of their lives.

On the eve of the show’s 47th season, the notoriously press-shy Shookus walks us through the process: from scouting for talent and landing a host, to some of her favorite moments—be it getting Matt Damon to hop on a plane on a moment’s notice to channel Brett Kavanaugh or finally getting Dave Chappelle on election night. Twice.

Saturday Night Live premieres Saturday Oct 2, 2021, on NBC.

LEO: What’s your general day-to-day at SNL, and your overall responsibilities on the show? 

LINDSAY SHOOKUS: Oh, so simple. You started with the really simple one.

I know, I’m sorry [laughter]. Just walk me through the basics.

I’m a producer, and I’m the Head of the Talent Department at the show—which basically means I oversee all hosts and musical guest bookings, casting for new cast members, and then just dealing with the talent throughout the entire six days that they’re here. Working through any problems and logistics and trying to get the best out of each host and musical guest. 

My day-to-day is always based on who’s coming in. This week we have Owen Wilson. He’s a first-time host which is exciting, but that means a little bit more hand-holding: trying to show him what the week is like; making sure that he feels comfortable; that he gets to do things that he’s excited about; and that we get to show him off in a really great way.

How far ahead do you get started before a season premieres? 

Well, we might even start before the last season ends. We might start talking about things we want do in the fall when it’s still the spring. We start really watching screenings of movies ahead of time; we start thinking about music. Music has changed a lot in the past five years. You used to be able to predict music drops a little bit easier than you can now. Now there can be surprise drops. But we start paying attention to what’s happening in the fall, I’d say around the Fourth of July.

How does the live aspect of SNL affect your job as a producer as opposed to working on a regular sitcom?

You have very little time to create the show, and when a problem arises, you have very little time to deal with it. But I think that’s what makes the show special: it’s not meant to be perfect, and it’s meant to have hiccups and human moments because we really truly only do it in six days. In some ways it’s significantly harder, especially in the times of COVID, because everything’s quick and live, but in other ways, you don’t have four weeks to overthink it. You can’t keep editing or keep over-thinking a sketch at a certain point. As Lorne always says, “We don’t go on because we’re ready to go on; we go on because it’s eleven thirty.” It eliminates over-thinking, because you just don’t have the time to do it.

Pink, Kumail Nanjiani, Aidy Bryant, and Shookus. Photo by Rosalind O’Connor/NBC

And then move on to the next one.

Yeah, in my office, we always say, “Sunday always comes.” And then Sunday comes, and that show is completely over. And you can’t go back and change it. If you think about someone editing a movie and about all the notes you get, and it’s a year of that—versus we have six days.

Walk us through how you and the team decide on a host—how far in advance is that worked out? 

I have a great team of seven people who work in the Talent Department with me. We also love to get ideas from cast members and writers; it’s fun for us to bring people in whom the cast and writers are going to be really excited to work with. But we also just try and think about timing; think about who’s going to be having a big moment, or who’s never done it before that would be really exciting for the public to see. It’s not necessarily just about who would be good at it, but who makes sense at that perfect moment.

Do you have a calendar of what’s coming out, when and who’s got what getting released? 

Normally you do, but with COVID, everything’s become so crazy that you have to be like, “Well, let’s assume that’s coming out. What if it doesn’t come out? Are we still going to want them? Is it still the right moment even if the movie gets pushed?” And that changes—for certain people, it would still make sense, and for certain people you’d want to wait. We try and always think about, “Who’s going to have a project?” But the nice thing about SNL is that we’re not just a promotion vehicle; it’s also just a fun, crazy week. If you look at our hosts from last season, during all of COVID, we really didn’t just tie it to who had a project. It was like, “Who’s going to be good, who’s going to have fun?”

We really like to have new hosts, bringing new blood to the show. It’s really fun. We’re starting this season with four first-time hosts. To me, that’s extremely exciting.

But way more nerve-racking.

Exactly, more nerve-racking, and you can imagine, going from Owen Wilson to Kim Kardashian to Rami Malek to Jason Sudeikis. Those are four very different people with very different experiences, and for me, that brings in a different breath of fresh air each week. That’s what keeps the show really fun and exciting in my position.

How many times have you had to calm a host’s nerves backstage? That monologue must be pretty terrifying if it’s your first time, or if you’re not a comedian.

When they come in, the first thing they always bring up is the monologue. But by the time they’re about to do the monologue on Saturday night, they’ve worked through the nerves. And yes, of course, they have butterflies and they’re—it’s live TV, but I think by Saturday night, they’re ready. And between Lorne and some of our producers and writers who are right there, right before they go on, they’re ready to go.

I’d say what I usually deal with is: people have a moment sometime throughout the week of being like, “What the hell am I doing here?” A lot of them are like, “What is happening?” because it all moves so quickly, and it really requires trust. I always say most hosts have just a short moment of panic sometime throughout the week. It doesn’t have to be Saturday. It could be Wednesday; it could be Thursday; it could be Friday. But they just need that trusting voice, whether it’s Lorne, whether it’s me, whether it’s another cast member to be like, “You got this. We’re going to be okay. And everyone goes through that same feeling, so you’re not feeling anything you shouldn’t right now.”

Shookus with host Harry Styles. Photo By Rosalind O’ Connor/NBC

It’s like doing a play. Everyone’s there, everyone’s nervous, everyone’s in it together.

Yeah. Even past cast members can have that same moment, and they grew up with the show. So, the great thing about SNL is that it’s so many people who have been there for so long, so it’s a bunch of pros. We know how to do it, from the cameramen to the writers to the costumes to lighting. Everyone has been there for so long that they really are coming into a well, well-oiled machine.

It must be fun for the cast too to have someone new that adds that element of excitement and nerves.

Absolutely, yeah. We’ve been asking Owen for a long time, and this is the first time he’s agreed to do it. And for this generation of cast members, I think he’s someone that they really look up to in a comedic actor kind of way. And I think they’ll be so thrilled to get to perform with him and be able to experience that.

“I spoke to Matt [Damon] at 10 PM on a Friday night… He just was the kind of guy who’s up for the adventure of getting on a 6 AM flight without a script and showing up and trusting SNL and Lorne, just knowing that he had to do it. 24 hours later, he was on stage.”

One would just assume Owen Wilson’s hosted SNL before.

Absolutely. And that’s the thing—I always say every year, you hope that you can convince two people who were too nervous to do it before to change their minds. It’s always fun to change someone’s mind and get them to show up and get rid of the nerves and just kind of put it all out there.

Is there a specific booking during your time there that stands out as a game-changer, be it a musical guest or a host?

When we booked Dave Chappelle. Honestly, I would say the first time, but both times when we booked Dave Chappelle. At that point, he hadn’t been on television in over a decade I think.

We had been chasing him for a long time to do it, and really it was Lorne who got Dave to agree to it. But he’s just such a special presence, and he’s such a special man that even though it was the week that Donald Trump was elected, and it was a very emotional rollercoaster, he was the right person to have there that week. He was an incredible experience for all of us. He was just an incredible presence to be around. And then when he came back four years later, on the day that Biden was called as President.

Was that planned? 

Well, we knew. We purposely tried to get him that show after the election. Obviously, none of us could’ve imagined that the election was going to be called the day of the show like it was. But he’s who you want to hear from in those kinds of moments. Not only is he the comic genius, but he’s a master of words—beyond comedy. He’s just someone who knows what to say to put people at ease. I think all of us are in awe of him.

Is there a particular iconic pairing that comes to mind for you, in which you needed a certain actor to play a certain figure? 

There are two that stand out to me. My favorite pairing would be Melissa McCarthy playing Sean Spicer because it was just spectacular. She happened to be in town, and it was the most spectacular alignment. And it was so fun to see. I believe it was the Kristen Stewart show. We knew she was in town and we were trying to figure out what would be a good use for her, and I’m pretty sure one of our head writers had the idea, and Melissa immediately loved it.

Melissa McCarthy as Press Secretary Sean Spicer on February 4th, 2017. Photo by Will Heath/NBC

That one, and then I think when Matt Damon played Brett Kavanaugh a couple of years ago. That was really special because I spoke to Matt at 10 PM on a Friday night, and he was shooting a film in LA. And he just was the kind of guy who’s up for the adventure of getting on a 6 AM flight without a script and showing up and trusting SNL and Lorne, just knowing that he had to do it. 24 hours later, he was on stage.

Matt Damon as Judge Brett Kavanaugh on September 29, 2018. Photo by Will Heath/NBC

Most likely no one at home watching knows that he hasn’t had that time all week to prepare.

Yeah, people think that we’ve had this long thought-out plan.

Is there a certain dream host you haven’t been able to get? 

We’ve always talked about Beyoncé hosting music; it could be really fun. Someone who we really want that I’m hoping in the future we make happen is Zendaya. I think she’s made to be on our show. I really think Tom Cruise would be great on the show, and we’ve talked to him about it for years. He’s one of the busiest men in show business; he never stops working. So it’s hard to fit it in, but I still hold out that someday he’s going to do it.

When it comes to new cast members, that’s an enormous decision given the iconic history of the show’s cast. What are you looking for and what is that process? 

We spread a wide net in the beginning. We get so many links of so many people, and there are so many comedy shows, and you start to slowly narrow it down to: who do you want to see live? We’ll do a showcase in LA and a showcase in New York, and we’ll go to Chicago. We bring the producers and writers with us a lot of these times, and we see people live. Then from there, we have to narrow it down even more, so it’s a whole process throughout the summer. And we’ll do a studio test with Lorne and a lot of our writers and producers, and sometimes it’s really clear cut to just someone who really, really makes you laugh.

We like to think about what we need, but the true basis of it is: if someone makes you belly laugh in an audition, that’s a good sign. We don’t overthink; I don’t think Lorne overthinks either. I think he just has a gut for it, and he surrounds himself with people who he trusts to also weigh in, and I think that’s enough. We do have a sense about it.

Has the scouting process changed now that you can access anyone on YouTube and social media, versus when you had to probably be more boots on the ground, going to live shows and so on? 

I remember when I started, I would… First of all, just how many VHS tapes we would get, you can imagine… [laughs] Our rooms filled to the brim with a bunch of VHS tapes. And then when you were trying to show somebody else, you’d have to copy the VHS tape; it was… God, it was not easy [laughs].

So yeah, it has changed. I remember when Vine was a thing, people would be like, “Oh my God, you are the most amazing Vine star, you have to audition.” And we’d be like, “Isn’t Vine like nine seconds or six seconds or…?” [Laughs]. You can’t really tell much from a Vine. Everybody can have their internet sensation moment.

It does make a difference though. You still have to get through the muck a little bit, you still have to find the funny, but it’s more easily accessible now.

But are you looking on things like Instagram and TikTok? 

If I randomly see someone who I think is funny on Instagram, I might come into my office and be like, “Look into this person, what’s their deal.” But I’m not just [laughs] sitting on Instagram trying to find the next SNL cast member. There are still comedy schools: Groundlings, Second City, UCD; there are still comedy schools that we trust, and they’ve trained people really well.

Thomas Rhett. Photo by Rosalind O’Connor/NBC

Given how many iconic careers have been launched on SNL, it must feel pretty great to be a part of that discovery.

Well, I definitely feel like part of the group. I feel part of the process that gets them there, but at the end of the day, who do I think feels the most pride? Probably Lorne Michaels, because it’s his baby. This is his show. He has those instincts and continues to have them, and he also helps us learn how to have those instincts. I’ve been at SNL for 19 years; I’ve been taught by Lorne. He’s the captain.

What’s the dynamic between you? 

He’s been a big proponent for me. Since the very beginning, he’s been really supportive of me growing at the show. He definitely requires hard work, like a boss should. But he’s really been supportive of me trying to figure out how to be a working mom, which I think is important. There’s not very many of us at SNL. When I was coming back to work after I had my daughter, he was really supportive of figuring out the balance of: how do I do it, and do it so I feel good about myself?

He’s a teacher, and he keeps us on our toes. People always say to me, “Well, he can’t be that involved now,” and I’m like, “Oh, he’s never been more involved” [laughs]. He’s super-involved, and like I said, he runs the ship. He also has those instincts of keeping the show fresh and new, and new blood and new ideas; which is amazing considering how long he’s been doing it. He knows how important that is, and he reminds us about that.

How involved do you get in the writing process and the overall kinds of storylines you guys are going to be hitting in a season?

We all sit in a room, and we decide what sketches are going to go into production and which are going to go into the live show. Lorne wants our opinions. He wants to know what we think, and if you’re worried about something, he wants to hear it. So there’s a core group of us that really do help shape the show with him.

“You have very little time to create the show, and when a problem arises, you have very little time to deal with it. But I think that’s what makes the show special: it’s not meant to be perfect, it’s meant to have hiccups and human moments because we really truly only do it in six days.”

At the beginning of the season, I’m assuming you’re looking at what’s happening politically and what the climate will be.

It’s not like we think about it from the beginning of the season. We just think about it every week. It’s really just like six days by six days. Today is Monday, and we’ll have a writers’ meeting later today that we’ll all be on. And the writers will talk about what’s going on…

So, you’re not thinking ahead for the whole season, “We know we’re going to need to hit this, this and that.”

No, no. We really think about it, like, truly day-by-day.

This past administration, we would wait to write our cold open. And our writers would do it Friday nights because everything was constantly changing so much that there really wasn’t an option for them to write it at the beginning of the week. Because the news cycle is so fast and so quick that you could write something on Tuesday that was completely old or wrong by Friday. I give our head writers and our entire writing staff all the credit because they really do have to be able to shift with the times. And it could be like Saturday at 5 PM something changes, and you have to come up with a way to address it.

That’s intense. How do you come down from that adrenaline every week? 

A tranquillizer [laughs]. I’m kidding. I’ve gotten better at it. This is my 19th season, I have gotten better at how to shut out the mistakes. Usually, without COVID, there are after-parties. And that helps kind of tie a bow to the night, and then you can move on to the next day.

I’ve learned to—on Sundays, I try not to read too much about the show from the night before because I try and separate my Sunday to be like, “This is my day. It’s my day with my daughter. It’s my day to rest.” And then I pick up Monday morning, and I’ll read all the press on Monday. Because I need to just have a day to myself. But it took me a little while to come up with that plan, believe me, for like 14 years [laughs], I would just sit there all day long, reading stuff and then spinning.

You just have to be able to put some boundaries up. I have very few, but that is one of them.

And so with COVID, you guys aren’t getting to have your big after-party. That’s got to be sort of deflating. After all that, everyone just goes home [Laughter].

It’s a weird experience. My entire career with the show, I’ve always had that—the experience of the after-parties. I remember, last year, Jason Bateman hosted in December, and he didn’t have any family with him because of COVID. His family was back in California. The show ended, and it was just him in his dressing room. And he was like, “Alright, I guess I’m going to go back to my hotel.” [Laughs]. There’s this exciting adrenaline rush, and then fully 15 minutes after it was over being like, “Well, I guess I’m going to go back to the hotel and go to bed.” It was just such a weird experience. Usually, you’d have all your friends there in the audience and your family and your representatives. And you’d go to the party and celebrate.

To do your job, do you basically have to be a person who just always knows what’s happening in the world and in culture? 

I mean, you try your best. I try my best to read as much as I can; I don’t want to be a person who’s constantly on my phone and on Instagram. That’s why you have incredible people who work for you who help you stay informed. I can’t watch all of the TV and see all of the shows, and see all of the movies, then go to all of the concerts. That’s why we have this incredible department. That’s why we listen to the writers and cast—that’s a big, big group of people, and you’re polling a lot of people. As opposed to it just being like, what Lorne or I think. 

John Cena. Photo By Rosalind O’ Connor/NBC

Right, you’re not just relying on your own info. They are all out there watching stuff, doing stuff, seeing stuff.

Also, you have to be aware that your taste is maybe different than what the majority of what the world likes. I know there might be a band I love, but is it the right band put on SNL? Are they right for the show? Maybe not, you have to know. You can’t romanticize things just to force into the show. I really try and be aware of: are we hitting lots of different angles? Are we making a lot of people happy? What does everyone in 50 states want to see? What’s cool?

You have to be aware of what’s trending, but you don’t want it just be like a show that only captures one month out of 50 years of time. You want to try and think about something that’s going to last.

You’ve been at SNL 19 years. Looking back, what has changed the most? What has remained constant?

The thing that’s changed the most is, honestly, the internet. The internet, and the way our show can be watched now has changed the most—the consumption of our show. Television has changed the most, honestly, since I’ve started. It’s being creative in thinking about those things, but also trying to stay true to what the show is. But knowing that, yeah, you can get a lot of eyeballs. People watching just the cold open, or certain digital shorts… We can get a lot of eyeballs online.

I remember as a kid, it would be like, ‘Okay, it’s Saturday night, we’re going stay up to watch it.’ And if you weren’t home at that time, that’s it. You’d missed it.

That’s it, right. That’s changed a lot. Even when I started in 2002.

What’s remained the same is the heart of the show and the schedule. The schedule that we do currently is the schedule we did when I started which is the schedule they did when Lorne started the show in 1975. Every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday… It looks pretty much the exact same. Somehow, that man had the foresight to come up with a schedule that really just works and stuck.

The thing that stands out to me the most through my 19 years: so many people come through our doors, and I’ve been able to develop such nice friendships with so many incredible people that span such a wide variety—from the Peyton Mannings of the world; to the Lady Gagas; to the Miley Cyrus’s; to the Bruce Willis’s; to Woody Harrelson; to Emma Stone; it’s all different people. You get this six day look into who this person is, and you get to help get them from a Monday to a Saturday. It’s a really exciting fun process to be a part of; it kind of bonds you with them, and so I really just had such a beautiful experience getting to know so many different people, and then that’s not even to mention the cast members that come to the show. And the writers and the staff. It’s all I know as an adult.

What are you most looking forward to for the 47th season? 

We’re really excited about the new cast numbers. We have three new cast members—which we announced just 15 minutes ago. I’m excited to bring some more first-time hosts to the show this year because it’s such a great energy injection, and we love getting to showcase new people, but it’s really fun to see the new cast get to experience their first few weeks; it’s really cool. These are some life-changing moments for these guys, so I love getting to be a part of it.