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Roseanne Roseannadanna (Gilda Radner) with Jane Curtin in 1979. (Taschen)
Roseanne Roseannadanna (Gilda Radner) with Jane Curtin in 1979. (Taschen)

When Saturday Night Live went on the air 40 years ago, few would have guessed how many of the cast members would go on to become household names. But you've probably never heard of Edie Baskin and Mary Ellen Matthews. They're the official photographers on Saturday Night Live and their combined careers have spanned the life of the show. A collection of their work has been published to coincide with this year's anniversary broadcast on Sunday.

Baskin's career at Saturday Night Live got its start at a Los Angeles poker game where she met Lorne Michaels. After he moved to New York to start Saturday Night Live she showed him some of her photographs.

"Nobody knew what was happening," Baskin recalls. "It was all very new and I said, 'Hey do you think I can be the photographer?' and he said, 'Well, I don't see why not.'"

Baskin had no idea that she was signing up for a lifetime career with a show that would soon become an institution. Baskin's photographs captured the manic energy of the show starting with those early days when a bunch of unknowns created an unforgettable cast of characters: John Belushi as the Samurai deli guy, Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd as two wild and crazy guys and Gilda Radner as Roseanne Roseannadanna.

Baskin helped create the show's signature look with her nighttime shots of New York City and portraits of the cast and guest hosts which she colorized by hand. "I used markers, pencils, oils, colored chalk," she recalls.

The Saturday Night Live team meets for a read-through in 1994. Everyone has a designated seat: Lorne Michaels sits at the head of the table (between the windows) the host sits to his right, and the head writer to his left. Click to see a larger version of this image.
The Saturday Night Live team meets for a read-through in 1994. Everyone has a designated seat: Lorne Michaels sits at the head of the table (between the windows) the host sits to his right, and the head writer to his left. Click to see a larger version of this image.

She was also a fly on the wall during all the work that went into creating the show — the writing and design sessions, the read-throughs and rehearsals. Baskin says the structure never changed.

"When you see a picture in the writers' room in the '70s and the writer's room now, it's the same writers' room," she says. "It's the same read-through. It's the same meeting in Lorne's office.

The schedule hasn't changed either. It goes something like this:

"Monday's the pitch meeting, Tuesday's the writers are writing, Wednesday's the read-through, Thursday rehearsals start and the band comes in, and Friday just continues with rehearsals and blocking, and Saturday's the show," explains Mary Ellen Matthews.

Matthews started as Baskin's assistant in 1993 and took over when Baskin left in 2000. Of all the performers Matthews has worked with, her favorite is Will Ferrell.

Hugh Hefner poses with (from left) Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman in 1977. Edie Baskin says she remembers using "markers, pencils, oils, colored chalk" to create images like these.
Hugh Hefner poses with (from left) Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman in 1977. Edie Baskin says she remembers using "markers, pencils, oils, colored chalk" to create images like these.

"All my dreams come true when he walks in the door," Matthews says.

She says that the cowbell skit with Ferrell and guest host Christopher Walken was one of the funniest she ever shot. "Oh my god, I couldn't even really keep the camera steady," she recalls. "The laughter in the studio ... you could not believe how funny it was — no one could keep it inside."

Matthews' and Baskin's photographs capture the zeitgeist of each era — stars on the rise or at their peak, playing to the camera, sneaking a quiet moment off-set, reveling during their moment in the spotlight.

"You're right there when some great sketch is being written," says Matthews "That's always that feeling on the table that something great is being done — so let's get it."

And when new, unknown cast members have their debut, Matthews says she can always tell when they're headed for stardom.

Will Ferrell, being made up as George W. Bush in 2012, reviews dialogue for his monologue with Wally Feresten.
Will Ferrell, being made up as George W. Bush in 2012, reviews dialogue for his monologue with Wally Feresten.

"Immediately, their first time on the show you can just see it that they're going to fit in and they're going to be great," she says. "They kind of jump off the TV, don't they?"

And when they do, Matthews is there, with her camera.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When "Saturday Night Live" went on the air 40 years ago, few would have guessed how many of the cast members over the years would become household names. But you've probably never heard of Edie Baskin or Mary Ellen Matthews. They're the official photographers for "SNL" and their combined careers have spanned the life of the show. As Lynn Neary reports, a collection of their work has been published to coincide with this year's anniversary broadcast Sunday night.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Edie Baskin's career at "Saturday Night Live" got its start at an LA poker game where she met Lorne Michaels. After he moved to New York to start a new late-night TV program, she showed him some of her photographs.

EDIE BASKIN: Nobody knew what was happening. It was all very new. So I said hey, you think I can be the photographer? And he said, well, I don't see why not.

NEARY: Baskin had no idea she was signing up for a lifetime career with a show that would soon become an institution.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Live from New York, it's "Saturday Night."

NEARY: Baskin's photographs captured the manic energy of the show, starting with those early days when a bunch of unknowns created an unforgettable cast of characters. John Belushi as the samurai deli guy...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

JOHN BELUSHI: (As samurai deli guy) Can I have a sandwich, please? (Unintelligible yelling).

NEARY: Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd as two horny brothers from Eastern Europe.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

MARTIN: (As Yortuk Festrunk) We are two wild and crazy guys.

NEARY: Gilda Radner as Roseanne Rosannadanna.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

GILDA RADNER: (As Roseanne Rosannadanna) Dear Roseanne Rosannadanna, last Thursday I quit smoking. Now I'm depressed, I gained weight, my face broke out, I'm nauseous, I'm constipated, my feet swelled, my gums are bleeding, my sinuses are clogged, I've got heartburn, I'm cranky and I have gas.

NEARY: Baskin helped create the show's signature look with her nighttime shots of New York City and portraits of the cast and guest hosts, which she colorized by hand.

BASKIN: I used markers, pencils, oils, colored chalk.

NEARY: She was also a fly on the wall during all the work that went into creating the show - the writing and design sessions, the read-throughs and rehearsals. Baskin says the structure never changed.

BASKIN: So when you see a picture in the writers' room in the '70s and the writers' room now, it's the same writers' room. It's the same read-through. It's the same meeting in Lorne's office.

MARY ELLEN MATTHEWS: Monday's a pitch meeting, Tuesdays the writers are writing, Wednesday's the read-through, Thursday rehearsals start and the band comes in, and Fridays just continues with the rehearsals and blocking, and Saturday's the show.

NEARY: Mary Ellen Matthews started as Baskin's assistant in 1993 and took over when Baskin left in 2000. Of all the performers Matthews has worked with, her favorite is Will Ferrell.

MATTHEWS: All my dreams come true when he walks in the door.

NEARY: Matthews says Ferrell and guest host Christopher Walken played a musician and record producer in one of the funniest skits she ever shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

WILL FERRELL: (As Gene Frenkle) I'd be doing myself a disservice and every member of this band if I didn't perform the hell out of this.

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: (As Bruce Dickinson) Guess what? I've got a fever and the only prescription is more cowbell.

MATTHEWS: Oh, my God. I couldn't even really keep the camera steady. The laughter in the studio and just - you could not believe how funny it was. No one could keep it inside. Just too funny.

NEARY: Matthews's and Baskin's photographs capture the zeitgeist of each era. Stars on the rise or at their peak, playing to the camera, sneaking a quiet moment off set, reveling during their moment in the spotlight.

MATTHEWS: You're right there when something's being - like, some great sketch is being written. That's always that feeling on the table, that something great is being done, so let's get it.

NEARY: Among the stars to emerge in recent years is Bill Hader, who created fan-favorite Stefon.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

BILL HADER: (As Stefon) If you're looking for a place to relax with an old lady, look no further. New York's hottest club is Spicy.

(LAUGHTER)

SETH MEYERS: (As character) Spicy?

HADER: (As Stefon) Spicy.

(LAUGHTER)

NEARY: Matthews says she can always tell when an unknown cast member is headed for stardom.

MATTHEWS: Immediately, their first time on the show you can just see it, that they're going to fit in and they're going to be great. They're just - they kind of jump off the TV, don't they?

NEARY: And when they do, Matthews is there with her camera. Lynn Neary, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.