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Typography lessons from an unexpected place: SNL cue cards

In praise of Wally and his perfect kerning.

Typography lessons from an unexpected place: SNL cue cards
[Photo: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images]

Saturday Night Live has had an energy like no other show on TV–largely because it’s live. Every sketch is precariously balanced atop an undercurrent of chaos, as 10 million or more people enjoy quickly written, barely rehearsed sketches coming together on stage. The show’s meticulously crafted cue cards are a vital part of that process.

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Now, thanks to a new behind-the-scenes video, we can take a look inside the machine, where SNL cue card supervisor Wally Feresten leads an eight-person team that writes out 1,000 cue cards a week–by hand. The story of why offers a few unexpected lessons in legibility and type design.

The short video, spotted by BoingBoing, is worth a watch, if only to appreciate how seriously the cue card team takes its craft. Feresten walks us through the process, explaining the importance of legibility above all else, which is why the cards are written in all-caps text drafted in a meticulous kerning and spacing. The host always gets their lines in black writing, since it’s the easiest to spot, while the more experienced cast juggles through blue, green, red, and brown text. For each sketch, each actor gets their own color. It’s the perfect plan for sketches of up to five people. Beyond that, the cast has to share. Still, it’s a demonstration of the fact that color is still the easiest way for people to differentiate text.

So much attention is put into the cards that each sketch requires a full hour of work from the cue card team to finish. And this only counts for one draft. SNL sketches are honed and sometimes completely rewritten over the course of the week, meaning cards need to be redrafted and tossed frequently. Even still, Feresten’s team is judicious with their manpower. If just a few lines of a sketch are being replaced, and much of a card can be salvaged, they’ll actually tape over the old draft lines and write new ones on top. At the end of the week, the cards are handed over to the set department, which uses them to protect the floors from paint.

As for why SNL prefers cue cards over teleprompters–which are the mainstay in live news–there’s no perfect, logical explanation. “It’s just nice to see the cue cards,” offers cast member Mikey Day in the video. Indeed, SNL does seem like it would just feel different without them.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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