'SNL' a total rush for director

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"Saturday Night Live" director Don Roy King's weekly live wild ride begins at 11:30 p.m. Saturday.

By midnight, he is running on pure adrenaline. But by 1:01 a.m., he kind of crashes.

The Pitcairn native orchestrating the 90-minute high-wire act embraces the challenge.

Don Roy King's 2013 Emmy Awards speech

Pittsburgh-area native Don Roy King delivers an acceptance speech at the 2013 Emmy Awards. This was his fourth consecutive Emmy for his work on "Saturday Night Live." (2/2/2014)

Justin Timberlake as Jimmy Fallon in 'SNL' skit

This "Saturday Night Live" skit, featuring Justim Timberlake as Jimmy Fallon, helped Pittsburgh native Don Roy King win another Emmy. (2/2/2014)

"The 'SNL' process is the most intense mountain climbing I've ever done, and it happens so quickly," said Mr. King, 66, who has won four consecutive Emmys in eight seasons with the venerable late-night sketch comedy show.

He'll discuss his frantic vocation at Wednesday's Steeltown Spotlight Series talk at the University of Pittsburgh's Frick Fine Arts Building in Oakland. Tickets can be reserved at www.steeltown.org and are $15 general admission, $5 students. The program begins at 7 p.m.

His resume is dotted with live TV director/producer gigs, from ABC's "Good Morning America," CBS's "The Early Show" and "CBS This Morning" to daytime Winter Olympics coverage in France, Norway and Japan. On Jan. 25, he won his first Directors Guild of America award for "SNL's" Justin Timberlake episode.

But "Saturday Night Live" has made him, as he said during his Emmy acceptance speech in September, "kind of cool" in the eyes of his teenage daughter and her friends.

"I could be wrong about that," he joked.

The show's executive producer, Lorne Michaels, surprised him with the job offer after a brief interview eight years ago.

"It's the ideal show for me at this particular time in my life, and I couldn't be happier," Mr. King said. "Growing up, my real love and interest was theater. So it kind of circled back around and came into play. Certainly, working with the performers on 'SNL' is all part of that nicely tied-together circle."

When he was an eighth-grader, he joined the Curtain Call Club at Monroeville Junior High. He tried out for a play and was hooked.

Later, he went on a school trip to New York City, where he, three Gateway High freshman girls and the club sponsor, Anne Boden, saw "The Sound of Music" and met star Mary Martin backstage.

"We saw 'The Miracle Worker' the next night and I just fell in love with theater and New York and had kind of a teenage crush on that world for the next few years."

But he was also obsessed with sports, which took up much of his free time in high school. At Penn State University in the late 1960s, he realized he was too small to play football and instead rekindled his passion for theater.

"I fell in love again with that whole process of putting on plays," he said. "But I didn't have the guts to tell my dad I wanted to be a theater major. So I got as close as I could by becoming a broadcasting major."

Taking a directing course as a senior at Penn State, he found himself for the first time in a television studio with multiple cameras.

"I said, 'Wow, this is just like being the quarterback of a football team.' I loved that adrenaline rush, that need to communicate quickly, to have one eye on the clock and one eye on the script, calling the shots as they happen."

His first job out of school was directing at Penn State's PBS affiliate station. This was followed by gigs that included 14 years at CBS News as director/senior producer for "The Early Show" and "CBS This Morning," Connie Chung and Bob Simon news specials, four live "Survivor" finales, concerts for A&E's "Private Sessions," "Day to Day With Rachael Ray," some "Barbara Walters Specials" and ABC's "The View," plus the network pool coverage of the first Sept. 11 memorial service at Ground Zero.

Mr. King also is the creative director for Broadway Worldwide, which films theatrical events for broadcast in theaters and through pay-per-view. He has directed Broadway Worldwide's first four ventures: "Memphis," "Putting It Together," "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and "Jekyll & Hyde."

A version of "Romeo and Juliet" with Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad will stream in theaters -- including Cinemark at Pittsburgh Mills in Frazer, Phoenix Chartiers Valley in Bridgeville and Wynnsong in Delmont -- during Valentine's Day weekend (details at www.fathomevents.com). Mr. King directed the process of filming the show during two Nov. 27 performances.

Putting together an episode of "SNL" is like the cartoon version of a snowball rolling down the hill, getting bigger and bigger and collecting people and things along the way. Writers do their thing early each week so that by 3 p.m. Wednesday, there are perhaps 40 sketches on hand for a table read.

Writers and staff act as the test audience, and Mr. Michaels chooses about a dozen sketches to mount. In the days and hours leading to air time, myriad changes and challenges will be met by the set design, hair, makeup, wardrobe, prop and special effects people.

Camera choreography will be worked out. Actors will, with luck, learn their lines. There is a dress rehearsal. And then, it's live, from New York.

"Even though it's only put together in two days and there are so many changes made along the way, including the gigantic changes between the dress rehearsal, which ends at 10:15, and the actual show, at 11:30. But the team is so smooth and well-oiled that we manage to pull it off almost every week," Mr. King said.

"Almost" sometimes depends on who's on stage.

Mr. King deals with actors who have improv skills -- but woe to anyone who breaks from the script.

"The overriding [rule] is that Lorne, as a writer himself, believes this is a writers' show, and what's written comes first. ...

"When an actor breaks character, it might be funny. It might even be funnier. But it undermines the purpose and the thread, the flow line of the sketch.

"Lorne is very strongly opposed to those moments and discourages anyone from breaking."

Still, there are exceptions.

"My favorite weeks are when an old cast member comes back to host because they know how it's done," he said. "They also bring back with them characters that we know and sketch premises and camera choreography that I've already worked out."

Jimmy Fallon, notorious for cracking up on camera when he was a cast member, hosted the Dec. 21 Christmas show. In a spoof of "Family Feud," he appeared as "The Big Bang Theory's" Sheldon, with musical guest Justin Timberlake doing the "Late Night" version of Jimmy Fallon.

Watching Timberlake-as-Fallon, the future "Tonight Show" host began to laugh as he ducked behind a prop.

Despite "SNL" policy not to point a camera at such an offense, the host's good-natured reputation for giggling allowed him to get away with it. Mr. King ordered a quick shot of the real Mr. Fallon, bent over with laughter.

There was also a practical aspect to his decision.

"If you're sitting at home and hear the audience laughing ... clearly laughing at Jimmy Fallon breaking up and sliding behind a lectern, then that's the time you've got to break away from the sketch and let the people at home in on what's happening in the room," he said. "It's based on my vision to put the home audience in the studio."

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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