After four decades on the air, Saturday Night Live! has established itself as a bona fide American institution, shaping our collective perception of the potential of comedy as a medium. This past season marked the show’s 40th anniversary, and in addition to a star-studded special, and a season stacked with alumni like Sarah Silverman and Chris Rock and comedy greats like Michael Keaton, a new documentary, Live from New York!, out today, takes into account SNL‘s influence on American culture refracted through a political and anthropological context. The show’s longtime costume designer, Tom Broecker, who also headed the wardrobe for 30 Rock, In Treatment, and Season One of House of Cards, served as executive producer on the film, directed by Bao Nguyen. We caught up with Broecker by phone earlier this week to discuss the genesis Live from New York!, the show’s lasting cultural currency, and how he’s created some of the series’ most indelible looks.
COLLEEN KELSEY: I’d love to hear a little bit about how you first started at SNL.
TOM BROECKER: I started about 20 years ago. I had gone to Yale Drama School with the woman who was doing the costumes there. I had just graduated and she was like, “Come on! I’m only going to be here one more year! You can take it over after that.” That’s basically what happened. I worked for her for a year and then she left and I went up to Lorne and he was like, “Okay, sounds good.” That was in ’94.
KELSEY: Who was in the cast then? Chris Farley was there…
BROECKER: What I like to consider as my very first cast, how we grew up together was: Cheri Oteri, Will Ferrell, Molly Shannon, even though I was there the year before that.
KELSEY: This year was SNL‘s 40th and the show’s been celebrating in a myriad of ways, but how did this documentary first come about?
BROECKER: J.L. Pomeroy, my other producer, and I were discussing other ideas that they had for the 40-year initiative. There were a lot of pushes for the 40-year idea. In talking with her I was like, “I’ve always had this idea of a documentary that might be different than anything that’s ever been seen on SNL. I’ve worked there for 20 years. I think that it would be much more interesting to approach it in an anthropological viewpoint.” So she and I sat down and fleshed it out and we thought it was a great idea. Then we went to Lorne and pitched it to him.
KELSEY: A lot of people have their idea of what SNL is in terms of the history of comedy and the history of American comedy, but this documentary repositions the show in relation to how pop culture can process politics and culture and how Americans have been able to interpret their own culture via pop culture.
BROECKER: That was one of the interesting things, because there are so many great other documentaries [on SNL] about the decades. We really wanted this to be more interesting and to give it a bigger, broader context. When you work someplace for so long you want to go, “Well wait—what am I interested in? Why have I been here for so long?” I think the show gets short-shifted in thinking that it’s just a sketch comedy show. Why has it been on the air for 40 years? Because it’s more than just a sketch comedy show. Don’t get me wrong—Lorne says it’s a sketch comedy show, [laughs] and it is a sketch comedy show, but for me, the context of what the show is, is much bigger. Even today, when we did the ISIS commercial and we did the game show with Reese Witherspoon where they couldn’t draw the picture of Muhammad, these things that are in the ether, we touch upon them and help people process them.
KELSEY: You’ve worked on dramas like House of Cards and In Treatment and on 30 Rock as well. What’s been the biggest difference in creating costumes for shows have these elongated narratives, whereas on SNL each bit is a bite-sized sketch that needs maximum impact?
BROECKER: That’s always the interesting thing. That’s why I try and choose the work I do outside of SNL to be a longer format or slightly darker in tone, because you do have a longer period of time to tell a story and for the story to peel away, to enhance the story by way of clothes. Whereas on SNL, it’s much more visual; it’s a very fast visual take. The one thing I learned from Alec Baldwin watching him do 30 Rock for so long, is he really approached 30 Rock as if he were doing Chekhov or Shakespeare. It came from such an intellectual, dramaturgical point that you can’t really make fun of it. I try and approach my clothes that way. You never want the clothes to lead the actor. You want the actor to lead the clothing. Of course, there are times when you do have to play the joke: Carol Burnett coming down the stairs in the Bob Mackie, Gone with the Wind curtain rod dress certainly is a moment where the costume was leading the actress. But that was for a very specific moment. But to me, you want to notice the actor first, hear the words, and then notice the clothes.
KELSEY: The documentary spotlights a variety of impersonations from over the years, like Kerry Washington as Michelle Obama, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, and John Goodman as Linda Tripp. I think with Kerry, Tina, and Amy, those clothing translations were very much true to life, playing the sartorial idiosyncrasies of the real life people, whereas John’s Linda was obviously a bigger, bolder caricature.
BROECKER: [laughs] Yes, in all senses of that word!
KELSEY: What’s your approach translating a real life signature from a very high profile political figure or personality to the SNL context?
BROECKER: I think a lot of times when we are doing those political figures, we have to ask the writers if there’s a specific moment that they are trying to recreate. Sometimes there definitely is, sometimes there’s not. With Tina’s Palin there were certain times when we were doing exact copies, or as best a copy as we could, given the fact that we had three days and didn’t know exactly what the jacket was. It was interesting as Palin went along, there was more dialogue about her clothes and where she was getting her clothes, so we could find out where the jackets came from, where the skirts came from, but I do know that we had to make the one pink jacket from the Katie Couric interview. We just copied it as truthfully as we could. That was a specific moment. Sometimes it’s just a matter of what’s the iconographic version of that particular political figure. [Angela] Merkel, or someone like that, you can tell she wears a lot of different things, but if you start to study the pictures, she tends to lean a little more into certain colors as opposed to others. You start dissecting that a little more.
With Kerry as Michelle Obama, I knew that she wore Tracy Reese a lot, so I specifically went to Tracy Reese and found a dress she had just worn in the last few weeks. But with things like Linda Tripp and John Goodman, [laughs] clearly we have to get a broader approach. A lot of that has to do with what the fitting looks like, and what the body shape is, and that sort of stuff. And you have a man playing a woman so we’re going to go and do a little parody what that is. We try not to make it too comical, we still try and make it real for the character. There’s already a parody aspect because it is a man playing a woman.
KELSEY: What’s the usual week to week run down of how you assemble the wardrobe?
BROECKER: That’s the hardest thing, and you get used to the adrenaline and speed of the show. Tuesday we usually do the photo shoot with the celebrity. Wednesday we have a read-through. We read about 40 sketches and after those forty sketches they go into a meeting and usually about 15 of them are picked, then Wednesday night we start designing the show about 10 o’clock at night and process what we can. Eight o’clock Thursday morning we just go, go, go. Certain things are happening, we’re refining ideas, making things and changing things. Digital shorts have become so much more prevalent. A lot of those start Thursday morning, Thursday night, or Friday morning. A good chunk of our day on Thursday is getting those ready and doing the shopping and getting all the alterations done. We just keep working on the show as we go along.
LIVE FROM NEW YORK! IS OUT TODAY.