House of (Cue) Cards: Wally Feresten & Saturday Night Live
Since he began working on Saturday Night Live over 25 years ago, Wally Feresten has done cue cards for dozens of television shows, including but not limited to: 30 Rock, Conan, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Def Comedy Jam, Ink Master, and Project Runway.
Wally and his crew also did cue cards for Late Night with David Letterman and its CBS successor Late Show with David Letterman, and most recently NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
In this interview, a supplement to PRINT’s fall 2015 issue 69.4, Feresten talked about how he got into cue cards, and explained what makes a cue card work.
Who named you Cue Card Wally? Is that your nickname? First of all, Cue Card Wally isn’t really a nickname. Cue Card Wally is my Twitter handle. People call me Wally; it’s a nickname. My real name is Christopher. My brother, Spike gave me the nickname Wally when we were kids. I had asthma and we shared a room. So, when I was sick and wheezed, he called me Wally the Wheezer. He got me the job at SNL and introduced me to everybody as Wally, so Wally stuck. The name has actually worked for me as it’s somewhat original and if I was Chris, I would be one of several Chrises that work on set, and not just one Wally.
Did you learn the art of cue cards in school? I graduated from Syracuse University in 1987 with a Bachelors of Science degree from Newhouse Communications College in writing for TV/radio/film. Since I was in the 5th grade, I aspired to be a writer, specifically a comedy writer. I had the talent at that age to write stories for class and outside of class that made my friends and my teachers laugh. I took the job doing cue cards for SNL to get my foot in the door to become a comedy writer, and over the years it opened many doors for me. I wrote three episodes for a Nickelodeon show called Weinerville. Then, I wrote the “Banjo” episode of Cartoon Network’s Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. I helped develop some early web cartoons for Cartoon Network and also consulted for a season of MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch.
The jobs I got were never enough to support myself, so I kept on doing cue cards and kept on getting better and better at it. My first job was holding and writing cards for SNL, but I would also help out on Late Night with David Letterman, the first years of Def Comedy Jam with Martin Lawrence, The Rockefeller Christmas tree lighting and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But SNL was my main job, I also bartended to make ends meet.
What was the first show you worked on? The first show I worked on was SNL. What challenged me right away and almost got me fired was my printing. It was awful. I grew up mostly a straight-A student through high school, but every marking report card had comments from all my teachers telling my parents that I had horrible penmanship. So, it went against everything I knew to try and make a living with my horrible penmanship.
I was very close to being fired because I was printing cards on SNL and my boss, Tony, wouldn’t use them because they were so messy. The only thing that saved me was my holding ability. The first SNL I did, Tony gave me six cards to hold for the “Sprockets” sketch starring Mike Myers. I was the only one holding them. If I screwed up, the sketch would be ruined and I would have probably been fired. I was quite nervous, but held the cards perfectly still and turned them perfectly as well. The cue card guy standing behind me said my whole body was shaking but the cards never did. From then on, I was holding at least three sketches per show, heavy hard sketches, and I never looked back.
Speedy corrections happen with white tape covering lettering, making the card ready for the replacement text.
Can people go to school to learn how to do cue cards? Nobody teaches cue card lettering anywhere, in high school nor college. When I went back to Syracuse University a few years ago and lectured to a large group of Newhouse students during a private speech, I spoke about cue cards during a production class. I talked to the dean, and said I would be willing to come back every year and teach the students how to do cue cards so they would have an extra skill when they went out into the entertainment world. Because I know interns and new hires that are always asked to print up cue cards to help out a small production and they have no idea how to do it. They liked the idea but nothing ever came of it. It’s a skill that I have to teach; no one ever comes in trained in any way for this job.
Has your office always been located in Rockefeller Plaza, beneath SNL’s audience seats, or was it someplace else in prior years? We have always been located underneath the SNL studio audience seats. When I started, we had a small space closer to the edge of the stages. We moved about 15 years ago, about 15 feet further underneath the bleachers and it was slightly bigger, but we took over an adjacent fire exit hallway, threw two desks in there on wheels and doubled our size. I’ve made the space work to my advantage, because I get to store my supplies there as well: cue cards, ink and pens and tape. I basically have an office at the most expensive office space in Manhattan, and I don’t pay a penny for rent.
Talk about the tools you use: the cue cards themselves and the markers. The cards are bright white, 14 inches by 22 inches, and made from recycled paper. After we use them, we give them to the scenic artists department and they use them when they paint and wallpaper to catch paint and stuff.
The markers we use vary. Up until about last year, we all used the same markers: Marsh made T99 refillable markers. They are the long thick silver markers. It was the only thing we ever used in my 25 years. Then, one of my former workers came back to work for me from LA, and she brought several different markers made by Pilot and Sharpie, and we tried them out and they were much easier to use: they were less messy, they were also refillable, but when the tips wore out, we had to throw the marker away, unlike the Marsh pens, where we just changed the tip and you were able to keep the marker. I would say, 90% of my workers including myself have changed to the Pilot markers. They are cheaper, cleaner, and you can print faster and neater with them.
At what point did you realize the best way to print cue card lettering, which you’ve referred to as more drawing than writing? I had terrible penmanship before I started printing cue cards. When I started doing cue cards, that’s how we were taught: to move our hands, not our fingers. It is more like drawing than writing. The pens I learned on, the large silver markers, were so thick in your hands, it was easy to draw and not write. When teaching new employees how to print, I tell them to draw using their hand and not their fingers. Then, I have them just print the alphabet, one letter several times on one line, and go through the whole alphabet.
Practice cards, with notes about letters that need refinement and improvement.
The real secret that you have to discover is finding the flat side of the marker’s tip and using that to make the letters thick enough so that they are neat and legible. And, it’s funny, but everybody seems to have different tips that they like better. I think it matters how you rest your hand on the cards and at what angle you’re printing at. After they get a feel for the pens and the letters, the next most important thing is spacing of the letters. The letters have to be properly spaced in each word (close enough to each other but not touching) and then there has to be proper spacing between the words so that they are easy to read and don’t look like two words are one word, so spacing is very important.
After spacing, I get them practicing writing cards from actual scripts so they can practice that, which is important as well. There is no easy way to learn how to print cue cards, it takes hours and hours of practice and it’s a process of making mistakes and learning from them. I typically train someone on printing for at least 15 to 20 hours, and even then they will still not be fully trained, but will continue to learn as they print on whatever show I have them working on. I’ve noticed that people who have a good artistic background—someone who can draw well, or paint well—it comes much easier, and they pick up things quicker than somebody with bad penmanship, like I had 25 years ago. I’m just amazed all the time, when I see my guys that work for me who write and print so well, and I’m holding up their cards it just makes me proud because a lot of time people will look at the cards and say, “Wow, that is really good printing.”
It’s been said that all caps (SUCH AS THIS) is less readable than sentence case, also known as mixed case (Such as this). Formally, it makes sense to have your cue cards in all caps, because there are no ascenders (such as the tall, straight part of a ‘d’) and descenders (the low tail on a ‘j’) hitting lines above and below. Have you ever made cards with sentence case, or had a performer request them that way? In 25 years of doing cue cards, no one has ever asked me to print in lower case for them. To the untrained eye, they can see seven cue cards written by seven different people and claim that the writing looks exactly the same. And I can look at the same cards and I can tell you which one of my employees wrote which card.
What’s one of the biggest rewards you’ve experienced over the years? Any special moments you’ve had? The rewards are many. I feel a great sense of pride in making people who host SNL and work on the other shows that I work on do well and feel comfortable about the job they have to do. Gaining the trust of so many stars, athletes, and politicians is so rewarding. Holding cards for mayor Rudy Giuliani after 9/11 was especially emotional and rewarding at the same time. Getting to meet sports heroes like Derek Jeter and Tom Brady, whom I’d admired for so long before they hosted, was truly awesome and special.
I would say a proud moment for me was after working on SNL for three seasons, I was picked to replace my boss, Tony Mendez, as the head of cue cards for SNL over other, more experienced people. I was picked because of my advanced holding skills with the cue cards and my calmness under pressure, which for SNL is something that happens all the time, and being able to handle myself under very stressful conditions, put me above my other co-workers.
What is a career or on-the-job moment you regret, or wish never happened? What did you learn from it? Whenever we make a mistake on the live SNL show, I feel awful. It doesn’t happen very often, but once in a while mistakes will happen and I feel awful. It’s a live show, so everybody will make a mistake once in a while, but the show’s producers count on us not to make mistakes and 99% of the time we are on point and I’m proud of that.
What show, shows, or event(s) have you not done cue cards for, but you would consider it your dream gig? Dream gig… would probably be doing cue cards for the original cast of SNL when the show first started. To be able to be there at the beginning and be a part of the beginning of such a special show would have been amazing. Also, maybe to have held cue cards for Monty Python’s original show would have been cool, although I did hold cards for the parrot sketch that John Cleese and Michael Palin did on SNL a few years back, so I got a little taste of that experience.
With younger generations using iPads and iPods, and smartphones and keyboards more than handwriting, how do you see that impacting the work you do? And how do you intend on helping pass on the legacy of cue cards to the next generation? I don’t see the popularity of iPads and iPods changing the world of cue cards. I have two boys, one in high school and another in middle school, and neither of them learned cursive writing. They only learned how to sign their names, which I think is pretty crazy, but my oldest son, is allowed to bring a computer or iPad to school and take notes on it in any class he wants. So, it’s just the new normal. I think everybody will still be printing or writing to some degree and as I said before, printing cue cards is a learned skill: anybody can do it if they have the patience and time to learn how to do it correctly.
If you enjoyed reading Wally Feresten’s interview at printmag.com, pick up PRINT’s Fall 2015 issue 69.4 with more about Feresten, Saturday Night Live, and the tools and techniques used for making cue cards.