Wally Feresten rolls over in bed around noon on Sunday, struggling to open his eyes. He’s had a long night; he didn’t get home until 5 a.m., and his entire upper body aches. He’ll have the next few days to recuperate, but on Thursday, it’s back to Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where he’s responsible for making sure all the actors and celebrities know exactly what to say come 11:30 p.m. EST on Saturday night.
Feresten started working as a cue cards guy on NBC’s Saturday Night Live more than 20 years ago, when he was almost fired for sloppy handwriting. But now he runs the show with precision and a sense of calm that is unusual for a job that requires rewriting cue cards for sketches just minutes before they air. Over the years, he has written episodes for a variety of sitcoms; but most of his writing still involves printing large letters exactly the right space apart on swaths of recycled cardstock, which he orders in batches of 10,000 and stashes beneath the bleachers in Studio 8H.
Sometimes, Feresten feels uncomfortable telling people what he does for a living. He explains that his company, NYC Q-Cards, handles all the cue card work on SNL and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, plus many other award shows, live specials, and commercials. Then he politely inquires about the professions of his new acquaintances. Oh, I’m an accountant, they’ll say. I can’t compete with that.
Graduated from: Syracuse University; studied television/radio/film and writing
In the business for: 22 years
Based in: New York City
Previous jobs: After graduation, I lived in Los Angeles for three years, writing scripts. I didn’t have much luck, so I moved to New York, where my brother had just started writing for the Late Show with David Letterman. He helped me get a job writing cue cards there.
Was handwriting a major factor in the hiring process? Actually, my handwriting was horrible. I had to do about half an hour of duping during my interview, which is the process of copying text from card to card. But [the job is] also a lot about getting along with everyone – you have to work long hours under stressful conditions. They liked my personality, and as for handwriting, said they’d seen worse.
Did your handwriting improve? During my first six weeks at SNL, my trainer Tony Mendez wouldn’t use any of my cards because they didn’t hold up to his standards. He was looking for an excuse to fire me. During one show, he threw me into a line of fire. For the first card, I had to stand on a ladder; for the second, lie on my stomach; for the third, get on my knees. I did it perfectly, which pretty much saved my job. Within three years, I was running the show at SNL.
Do you move around for a majority of the show? If the actors in a sketch are looking directly into the camera – say, for a press conference with Kofi Annan and President Obama – I’ll stand in place. For other sketches, I’m constantly adjusting my height so the actors can always see the cards. It’s like a choreographed dance.
Are you right-handed or left-handed? Right-handed, as most cue card people are. If you are left-handed, your left hand would typically smudge the printing on the card. But you have to be good with both arms. You’re holding one card steadily in the palm of one hand, and balancing the other 7 to 20 cards in your other palm. I’m pretty sore at the end of the day.
Do you have noticeable muscle strain? Over the past eight years, I’ve gone to physical therapy for tendonitis in my left elbow, right elbow, left shoulder, and right shoulder. But I’m feeling pretty good now, knock on wood.
The New Yorker called preparing and holding cue cards a “dying art,” and that was more than 10 years ago. I’m surprised the industry hasn’t digitized. Timing rules everything. If a computer goes down or gets unplugged during a live show, it’s a disaster. Producers won’t allow that.
To what extent do actors improvise during SNL? They can only improvise during rehearsal, not during the actual show. [Improvising] doesn’t make sense, anyway, since writers are rewriting up to the last minute.
Define “the last minute.” We’ll do rewrites until anywhere from 12 a.m. to 12:15 a.m., sometimes rewriting a sketch just a few minutes before it starts. [Editors’ note: SNL airs from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. EST].
That sounds very high-stress. How do you cope with the pressure? I love the adrenaline rush, and I don’t panic. I think that’s why they picked me to do the job 19 years ago.
You undoubtedly have front-row access to some of the most important moments in TV history. An especially memorable one was holding cards for Mayor Giuliani two weeks after September 11, with firemen standing behind me, when we were the first comedy show to come back on the air. It’s also pretty fun seeing pairs meet for the first time in the dressing rooms to discuss their monologues: Sarah Palin and Tina Fey, Jesse Eisenberg and Mark Zuckerberg.
I love the Mother’s Day episode when Will Ferrell hosted. He told you to lower the cards so he could talk to his mom on stage “unscripted.” Was that scripted? Yes. Adam McKay, who used to work for SNL and now writes and directs with Will Ferrell, wrote that. I get my best reviews for that performance.
Writing utensils: M99 markers, which are big, thick, silver pens that we unscrew and fill up with ink. The fumes are really bad for you, so we try not to inhale too much.
Best part of your job: Making friends with cast members and working with our celebrity hosts. After Paul Rudd hosted for the first time, I sent him his monologue cards, and he told me he has them hanging around his house. I’ll do that for young actors who haven’t hosted before and are really excited about it.
Most challenging part of your job: Getting through the day on Friday, when we start rehearsal at 1 p.m. and aren’t done until midnight or 1 a.m. It can be tough to stay focused, especially when it takes two hours to block one sketch.
Walk me through your week. I don’t work Sundays through Wednesdays. Thursdays are light days; we rehearse three or four sketches and are out by 5 p.m. They don’t want to scare the host too much. Fridays are long and hard. Saturdays we rehearse all day, do two shows, and then party.
Do you usually attend the SNL after-parties? Yes. You get such an adrenaline rush from the live shows, that even when I just go home, I can’t fall asleep until 5 a.m. Lots of alcohol helps you relax. Then, on Sundays, I’m a mess. I get home really late, which is tough on my wife and two sons, who are 12 and 10. They let me sleep until noon.
Do you foresee a future in comedy for your kids? I wrote some stand-up for my older son, who performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and he totally killed.
What would people be surprised to learn about your job? The number of people who still ask whether SNL is a live show.
Best reaction to telling a stranger about your line of work: It kind of halts the conversation. Sometimes, I’ll go through my spiel about meeting celebrities, and the other guy will be like, Oh, I’m an accountant.
Most important lesson learned: The rewrite process is the most important part of writing comedy. That’s sometimes the hardest thing for a writer, since you might not want to mess with your work.
Do you consider yourself a funny guy? I do. [Laughs.] Growing up, we listened to a lot of George Carlin albums, and I always want to be a comedian.
Any summer plans while SNL is on hiatus? [NYC Q-Cards] is doing three shows at the same time: Ink Master, a tattoo reality show on Spike TV; Project Runway on Lifetime; and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on NBC.
Salary per show: For most New York shows, I normally charge $500 for an eight-hour day. SNL is a different beast, though. And the cards cost about $1,700 for a 10,000-card order.
I read that your legal name is Chris Feresten. What’s that about? My brother nicknamed me Wally when we were kids, and it kind of stuck.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Practice your printing – that’s copying from script to cue cards. Meet people doing cue card work and have them show you how to hold the cards; you need someone with connections to vouch for you.