This Isn’t the First Time ‘Saturday Night Live’ Hasn’t Wanted to Pay Its Workers

The possible editors’ strike is just the latest ‘SNL’ money squabble
This Isn’t the First Time ‘Saturday Night Live’ Hasn’t Wanted to Pay Its Workers

Season 48 of Saturday Night Live might be coming to an end sooner than any of us expected. That’s because the show’s post-production editors plan to go on strike, no fooling, starting with the April 1st show. Variety reports that members of SNL’s editing team are paid far below industry standards, as opposed to others who work on the show who “receive pay appropriate to their crafts.” Health benefits are another issue that the two sides are negotiating.

Post-production editing has taken on more prominence in recent years, as opposed to the nearly all-live productions of the show’s early days. Commercial parodies, fake movie trailers like the Super Mario Kart/Last of Us mashup from the Pedro Pascal show, and videos from the Please Don’t Destroy guys all require such post-production work. Coincidentally or not, they’re often the bits that go viral after the live show.  

Seems like it’s time for NBCUniversal to step up and pay the editors. But it’s not as if SNL has ever been a place to get rich. Performers notoriously start at a low number. On a recent Fly on the Wall podcast, Dana Carvey revealed that he began SNL at $4,500 an episode. We’ll do the math for you — at 20 episodes in Carvey’s first year, that works out to a cool $90,000. Not bad for 1986, but surely not the cash stack people would have guessed for a breakout TV star. For David Spade, who started a few years later in 1990, it was $900 a week as a writer. If he found his way into the background of a sketch, he got $1,500. That’s nothing, said guest Ellen Cleghorne, who started at $245 an episode. She says she made less than $1,000 an episode for her first three seasons before working her way up to $4,500 a week by the mid-1990s. 

What got Chris Elliott’s goat was that SNL performers were expected to write their own material “for nothing. It’s not a separate sort of deal,” he says in Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. “I remember mentioning that to (producer) Herb Sargent once while he was urinating. And he sort of, you know, blew me off. How does this show get away with having these guys write stuff and not pay them through the Writers Guild?”

Ah, the writers. They’ve had beef since early on, including in Season Three when they became convinced that Lorne Michaels was cheating them out of their paychecks. According to producer Neil Levy in Live From New York, the writers discovered that the show had a certain amount in its writing budget, but when they added up their salaries, the dollars didn’t match up. Where was the extra cash? Levy says the money was going into sets and the like, but that didn’t appease the writers. “There was an insurrection, really,” he remembers. “Somebody kicked a hole in a wall and then Lorne came in and said, ‘What’s going on here?’ And he was confronted by this mob. And he didn’t say a word — he just turned and walked away and went back into his office and closed the door. And then there was dead silence, and then en masse, all the writers stood in front of Lorne’s door begging his forgiveness, banging on the door and pleading, and he wouldn’t talk to them — ’til later.”

So get in line, editors. SNL has a long history of money squabbles with talent on both sides of the camera. But instead of begging for forgiveness outside Michaels’ door, we suggest you take to the picket lines instead. 

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