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How to Get on Saturday Night Live

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.)

http://youtu.be/u1aKiolG2CA

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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The 10 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
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Disney/Marvel

If you’re in the mood for some speculative fiction and your pile of Arthur C. Clarke books has been exhausted, you could do worse than to tune in to Netflix. The streaming service is constantly acquiring new films in the sci-fi and fantasy genres that should satisfy most fans of alternative futures. Here are ten of the best sci-fi movies on Netflix right now.

1. CUBE (1997)

This low-budget independent film may have helped inspire the current "escape room" attraction fad. Six strangers wake up in a strange room that leads only to other rooms—all of them equipped with increasingly sadistic ways of murdering occupants.

2. METROPOLIS (1927)

Inspiring everything from Star Wars to Lady Gaga, Fritz Lang’s silent epic about a revolt among the oppressed people who help power an upper-class city remains just as visually impressive today as it did nearly 100 years ago.

3. TROLL HUNTER (2010)

A Norwegian fairy tale with bite, Troll Hunter follows college-aged filmmakers who convince a bear trapper to take them along on his exploits. But the trapper fails to disclose one crucial detail: He hunts towering, aggressive trolls.

4. NEXT (2007)

Nic Cage stars as a magician who can see a few minutes into the future. He's looking to profit with the skill; the FBI and others are looking to exploit it.

5. THE HOST (2006)

A slow-burn monster movie from South Korea, The Host has plenty of tense scenes coupled with a message about environmental action: The river-dwelling beast who stalks a waterfront town is the product of chemical dumping.  

6. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2 (2017)

Marvel's tale of a misfit band of space jockeys was a surprise hit in 2014. The sequel offers more Groot, more Rocket Raccoon, and the addition of Kurt Russell as a human manifestation of an entire sentient planet.

7. STARDUST (2007)

Director Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel features Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro as supporting players in the tale of a man (a pre-Daredevil Charlie Cox) in search of a fallen star to gift to his love.

8. KING KONG (2005)

Director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) set his considerable sights on a remake of the 1933 classic, with the title gorilla pestered and exploited by opportunistic humans.

9. DONNIE DARKO (2001)

What will a teenage mope do when a giant rabbit tells him the world is about to end? The answer comes in this critical and cult hit, which drew attention for its moody cinematography and an arresting performance by a then-unknown Jake Gyllenhaal.  

10. ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

Soon we'll have a movie for every single major or minor incident ever depicted in the Star Wars universe. For now, we'll have to settle for this one-off that explains how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the plans for the Death Star.

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15 Surprising Facts About Hill Street Blues
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NBC

Until the impressive record was surpassed by The West Wing in 2000, Hill Street Blues held the title of most Emmy-awarded freshman series, with eight trophies for its debut season alone (despite its basement-level ratings). The drama that chronicled the lives of the men and women working the Hill Street police station beat has been credited with changing television ever since its debut in 1981.

Among Hill Street Blues's innovations are the use of handheld cameras, a large ensemble cast, multi-episode story arcs, and a mix of high drama and comedy—elements which still permeate the small screen today. Here are 15 facts about the groundbreaking series.

1. STEVEN BOCHCO AND MICHAEL KOZOLL CREATED IT, DESPITE NOT WANTING TO DO ANOTHER COP SHOW.

MTM Enterprises was specifically hired by NBC to create a cop show, so Steven Bochco (who later co-created L.A. Law and NYPD Blue) and Michael Kozoll (co-writer of First Blood) agreed to do it—as long as the network left them “completely alone to do whatever we want,” according to Bochco. NBC agreed, and the two wrote the pilot script in 10 days.

2. IT WAS INFLUENCED BY A 1977 DOCUMENTARY.

The show's creators looked to The Police Tapes, a 1977 documentary that chronicled a South Bronx police precinct during a particularly hostile time in New York City's history, for inspiration. NBC's then-president Fred Silverman was inspired to create a cop show in the first place after seeing Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981), which stars Paul Newman as a veteran cop in a South Bronx police district.

3. BRUCE WEITZ HAD AN AGGRESSIVE AUDITION.

Bruce Weitz landed the role of undercover officer Mick Belker by playing the part. "I went to the audition dressed as how I thought the character should dress—and loud and pushy," Weitz recalled. "When I got into the room, I jumped up on [MTM co-founder] Grant Tinker's desk and went after his nose. I heard he said afterwards, 'There's no way I can't offer him the job.'"

4. JOE SPANO THOUGHT HE WAS MISCAST.

Joe Spano in 'Hill Street Blues'
NBC

Joe Spano auditioned for the role of Officer Andrew Renko, but ended up playing Lieutenant Henry Goldblume. “I was always disappointed that I didn’t end up playing Renko,” Spano told Playboy in 1983. Spano also wasn't a fan of his character's penchant for bow ties, which he claimed was Michael Kozoll's idea. "I fought it all the way," he said. "I thought it was a stereotypical thing to do. But it actually turned out to be right. You don’t play into the bow tie—you fight against it."

5. BARBARA BOSSON WAS BOCHCO’S WIFE, BUT WASN’T PLANNING ON BEING A SERIES REGULAR.

Barbara Bosson played Fay, Captain Frank Furillo’s ex-wife, who was only supposed to appear in the first episode in order to “contextualize” the captain, according to Bochco. But when Silverman watched the episode, he asked, “She’s going to be a regular, right?”

6. IT TOOK MIKE POST TWO HOURS TO WRITE THE ICONIC THEME SONG.

The composer—who also wrote the themes for The Greatest American Hero, Magnum, P.I., The A-Team, NYPD Blue, and Law & Order—was instructed by Bochco to write something “antithetical” to the visuals. Post wanted to add more orchestration to the piano piece; Bochco disagreed.

Post also spent four to five hours writing five minutes of new music for each episode of Hill Street Blues.

7. THE PILOT TESTED POORLY.

According to a network memo, among the many problems test audiences noted were that "the main characters were perceived as being not capable and having flawed personalities ... Audiences found the ending unsatisfying. There are too many loose ends ... 'Hill Street' did not come off as a real police station ... There was too much chaos in the station house, again reflecting that the police were incapable of maintaining control even on their home ground." NBC picked it up anyway.

8. RENKO WAS SUPPOSED TO DIE IN THE FIRST EPISODE, AND COFFEY WAS SUPPOSED TO DIE AT THE END OF THE FIRST SEASON.

Charles Haid had other projects lined up, so he agreed to take the part of Renko, a man destined to die almost immediately. But another series Haid was relying on didn’t get picked up, and NBC claimed Renko tested too well for him to meet an early end. Ed Marinaro's Coffey was meant to be shot and killed in “Jungle Madness,” the final episode of the first season. The ending was changed to make it a cliffhanger, and Marinaro’s character survived.

9. THEY HAD HISTORICALLY BAD SEASON ONE RATINGS.

A 'Hill Street Blues' cast photo
NBC Television/Getty Images

In its first season, Hill Street Blues show finished 87th out of 96 shows, making it the lowest-rated drama in television history to get a second season. Bochco credited the show’s renewal to two things: NBC being a last place network at the time, and the NBC sales department noticing that high-end advertisers were buying commercial time during the show.

10. THEY NEVER SPECIFIED WHERE THE SHOW WAS LOCATED, BUT IT’S PROBABLY CHICAGO.

The exterior of the Maxwell Street police station in Chicago filled in for the fictitious Hill Street precinct for the opening credits and background footage. It was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1996 and is currently the University of Illinois at Chicago police department headquarters.

11. PLENTY OF FUTURE STARS MADE EARLY APPEARANCES.

Don Cheadle, James Cromwell, Laurence Fishburne, Tim Robbins, Andy Garcia, Cuba Gooding Jr., Danny Glover, Frances McDormand, and Michael Richards all found early work on the series.

12. SAMMY DAVIS JR. WANTED ON THE SHOW.

Sammy Davis Jr.
Michael Fresco, Evening Standard, Getty Images

Unfortunately, it never happened. Sometime after Bochco wrote in a reference to the singer, Davis and Bochco ran into each other. Davis said he loved it and started jumping up and down.

13. BOCHCO HAD A WAR WITH THE CENSORS.

Loving to use puns for titles, Bochco wanted to title an episode “Moon Over Uranus,” after Cape Canaveral was just in the news. Standards and Practices said no. Bochco eventually got his way, and proceeded to name the next two season three episodes “Moon Over Uranus: The Sequel” and “Moon Over Uranus: The Final Legacy.”

14. DAVID MILCH AND DICK WOLF’S CAREERS WERE LAUNCHED FROM IT.

David Milch (co-creator of NYPD Blue and creator of Deadwood) went from Yale writing teacher to a TV script writer through his former Yale roommate, Jeff Lewis. His first script for the show was season three's “Trial by Fury” episode, which won an Emmy, a WGA Award, and a Humanitas Prize. He later became an executive producer on the show. The first TV script credited to Dick Wolf (creator of the Law & Order franchise) was the season six episode, "Somewhere Over the Rambow." His first sole credit, for “What Are Friends For?,” earned Wolf an Emmy nomination in 1986.

It’s also worth noting that journalist and author Bob Woodward received a writing credit for season seven's “Der Roachenkavalier” and David Mamet penned the same season's “A Wasted Weekend” for his first television credit.

15. DENNIS FRANZ’S CHARACTER HAD A BRIEF, COMEDIC SPIN-OFF.

Dennis Franz (later Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue) first played corrupt cop Sal Benedetto in five episodes, before reappearing for the final two seasons as Lt. Norman Buntz. After Hill Street Blues ended its seven-season run, Franz reprised the latter character in Beverly Hills Buntz, which ran for one season beginning in 1987. In the 30-minute dramedy, Buntz was a private investigator after quitting the police force. Only nine episodes were broadcast by NBC.

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