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How to Get on Saturday Night Live

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If comedy was like a run for president, then the hallowed halls of Saturday Night Live would be the White House. After all, there’s no better route to instantaneous nationwide visibility than to become an SNL cast member.

But even when a comedian makes the cut, it’s not all puppies and rainbows. Julia Sweeney once said that being on Saturday Night Live was like "having an Uncle you hate paying for all four years of Harvard." And getting in, it probably goes without saying, is tough.

In his book Gasping for Airtime: Digging through the Trenches of Saturday Night Live, SNL alum Jay Mohr summed it up like this: "Thousands of students show up every year at the doors of Harvard, but how many people walk through the turnstiles each year at SNL? A dozen? How many of that dozen, if any, are new performers? Three? Four? Zero?”

With some exceptions—like during years of high turnover, when the show has imported well-known talent like Billy Crystal and Janeane Garofalo—Saturday Night Live usually hires talented up-and-comers to show business with little to no television and film experience. Take, for example, Abby Elliot. Prior to Saturday Night Live, her entire IMDb listing was five episodes of voice work on two animated TV shows, and a role in a TV movie (starring her father, SNL alum Chris Elliott) that never aired. Jay Pharoah, who plays President Obama this season and joined the show in 2010, did not have a single IMDb credit. And the biggest star to come out of SNL in recent memory, Kristen Wiig, had just two guest appearance stints—on The Drew Carey Show and I’m with Her—on her resume (she also played a faux reality show contestant on the first season of Joe Schmo).

So where exactly do all these talented actors come from?
SNL’s talent scouts find comedians primarily from four comedy clubs: Second City, which started in Chicago and migrated to Toronto, Hollywood, and Amsterdam (there’s also a traveling show); Improv Olympic in Chicago and Los Angeles; the UCB Theater in New York and LA; and the Groundlings in Los Angeles. There’s logic in this method: Someone working with one of those companies will already have tons of training and be a seasoned performer who can better handle all the rigors of being on a live TV show.

Throughout the year, the scouts invite promising prospects to a showcase with a live, paying audience, and evaluate the contender over the course of a 10-minute set that consists either of straight stand-up or a mix of celebrity impressions and original characters. And sometimes if the performer is in another city, they ask him to send in an audition tape. Some of these audition tapes, like Will Greenberg’s and Susan Deming’s, find their way to YouTube. There are no open auditions.

Can you get on the show by putting your reel up on YouTube?
Probably not. Most audition tapes that appear online are from comedians who have established themselves as live performers or were contacted through formal channels. Even Pharoah, whose YouTube videos caught the attention of SNL’s scouts, had been performing stand-up since he was 15.

There is one other notable exception, though, from the days before YouTube. When drummer Fred Armisen’s band Trenchmouth broke up in 1996, he became frustrated with the alternative music scene. So for the 1998 South by Southwest Music Festival, he made a guerilla video, "Fred Armisen's Guide to Music and SXSW.” It became one of the most bootlegged videos among music aficionados (today we'd call this "going viral") and, just a few years later, Armisen ended up on SNL.

How tough are the auditions?
We’ll let actor Rob Huebel, who had to wait 7 hours and cut his material in half for his 2004 SNL audition, answer this one: "They really ice you out," he said. "They try to make it as scary as possible because it’s a live show, and in real life, I’m sure it is terrifying and things do go wrong, so they want you to be prepared." (Huebel wasn't selected for SNL, but he went on to a successful career in comedy on VH1's Best Week Ever, Comedy Central's The Human Giant, and the Oscar-winning film The Descendants.)

From Jimmy Fallon’s audition tape, you can tell that the audience is a pretty tough crowd. SNL creator Lorne Michaels has said that there were only two people who auditioned well enough that he was comfortable putting them on the air right then and there: Kristen Wiig and Dana Carvey.

What are some audition strategies that worked for famous SNL alums?
Many SNL cast members have used unorthodox audition techniques. For callbacks, Mohr decided to get really drunk—so drunk that when Michaels and talent agent Marci Klein came to congratulate him after the act, Mohr was too inebriated to engage them in conversation.

After being told that she wasn’t strong enough, Victoria Jackson used an appearance on The Tonight Show to impress Michaels. With Johnny Carson's permission, she told the audience that she was auditioning for SNL; then she performed various character impressions and challenged Carson to guess who they were. Michaels hired her soon thereafter.

Eddie Murphy got in the door through the most unconventional means imaginable. According to talent coordinator Neil Levy, Murphy called him daily, pleading for the chance to audition because he had 18 siblings counting on him to get a job. After a week of calls, Levy agreed to use him as an extra (the cast had already been hired). But when Levy went through Murphy’s screen test, he was so impressed that he went to producer Jean Doumanian and demanded that Murphy be hired.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]