The ebbs and flows of Saturday Night Live’s comic genius can and will be debated until the end of time, even though the show was obviously funniest in [whatever decade it was when you were 14]. But, comedy aside, the successes and failures of the graphic design on NBC’s long-running sketch show are worthy of scrutiny, too. To that end, video editor Dominick Nero assembled 40 years’ worth of SNL intro sequences to track the evolution of the show’s look. (You might remember Dominick from his Louie-as-silent-film video last month.) After seeing Dominick’s handiwork, A.V. Club editor-in-chief John Teti talked with two graphic designers from the Onion, Inc. product team, Kristi-Lynn Jacovino and Kelly Pratt, about the many guises of the SNL opener. Dominick’s video is above—check it out, and then read an edited transcript of our panel discussion below. (Note: The dates in the video indicate the year that each design debuted.)
John Teti: We’ll start with the 1975 opener. This one makes me nostalgic for an era when you could just put letters up on a screen, and that was enough. But this is not a typeface you see very much anymore, I don’t think. I couldn’t begin to identify it.
Kristi-Lynn Jacovino: No, I don’t know what it is.
Kelly Pratt: It reminds me—it’s something that’s coming back, with those big chunky letters. When you go into Lost Type, it kind of reminds me of Sullivan. Do you know which one I’m talking about, Kristi-Lynn?
JT: What’s Lost Type?
KP: Lost Type is a type foundry that anyone—like, if Kristi-Lynn or I designed a font, we could submit it to them, and people could purchase it from there instead of us having to belong to a type foundry. But they have this certain level of polish, rather than a Font Squirrel or free fonts like that.
JT: Type aside, what strikes me about this first opening is the imagery—how they really made it about New York from the beginning, and you have this sense of the bustling “city that never sleeps” energy. That’s something that late-night talk shows have done for a long time, giving you a sense of place. But my sense is that this was pretty innovative for a sketch show in 1975.
KP: How many other sketch shows were there? I feel like Saturday Night Live is a show in its own category.
JT: I think the closest analogue to SNL, before it launched, would have been Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which was a cultural phenomenon in the late ’60s and into the early ’70s. It feels like Saturday Night Live—or “NBC’s Saturday Night” as it was called here—it feels like Lorne Michaels set it up in opposition to the camp of Laugh-In. He wanted to give it a sophisticated, nighttime air that this opening achieves, as basic as it is.
KP: I’ve never really liked the SNL intro—it has always made me dizzy. But that plays into what they wanted to achieve here. What they wanted to say was, “Instead of going out to a sketch show in the city, here’s a way to get that same feel.” When you walk into a sketch show, it’s not—people are jumbled, you’re trying to find a seat, people are taking orders, all of these things. You really get that movement and sensation of being in a live audience. The more I think about it—they kept that energy throughout all of their openers, and it’s really successful for their show. And it makes me want to change my tune about how much I like their opener!
JT: Going ahead to the 1977 opening, now it’s Saturday Night Live, and we have this Times Square marquee theme with the dot-matrix renderings of the cast. This one evolved a bit over the course of the season, but the marquee idea stuck around for a while.
KJ: It definitely is a Broadway feel. It seems like they’re making it up to be a bit bigger than it actually is. It’s the “marquee on the side of the theater” feeling, and maybe that was the point. Maybe they wanted it to be the beginning of something bigger than it was at the time.
KP: It’s always been Saturday Night Live with no one person’s name on it—it’s not Saturday Night Live “with Amy Poehler” or “with Kenan Thompson.” But this feels like an early effort to make the cast members into stars that people will come back for. Because there’s no real—there are sketches that repeat, but there’s no storyline that you’re coming back for. So what you’re coming back for is the performers who you know.
JT: That’s a good observation, especially in light of the fact that these guys were called The Not Ready For Prime Time Players at the outset. Don Pardo, the announcer, would say that in the opening. But here, we have them rendered with this Times Square screen effect, or something you might see at a sports stadium in the era—like the baseball player’s face up on the scoreboard. And that gets at what you’re talking about, Kelly, a sort of pivot away from this low-rent, off-the-map sketch show vibe. It does start to turn them into stars, instead of mocking their lack of “primetime” stardom.
JT: 1978 brings such a striking change from the marquees.
KJ: It’s almost the opposite of a marquee, right? The graffiti goes back to this sense of doing things by hand, where you’re making it up as you go. It has that feeling of, “Yeah, we threw this together one day, and we decided to put it on TV.” Which is such a change from that marquee. They went from “top-dollar ticket on Broadway” to “accessible back-alley show.”
KP: They went away from the street and New York shots, but they’re bringing in the neon lights of the night. That’s what I picked up on with the coloring. It’s almost like these people are caught with flash at night, where it’s this overexposure on their skin, but the look is anchored by those neon colors of the city. This looks like Saved By The Bell to me. Like, straight out of Saved By The Bell. All I can see is the vibrant colors. And the hair.
KJ: Are we looking at the same one? The 1978 pictures? I don’t know if I see Saved By The Bell style. But I definitely agree that it has the orange-y feeling of street lights. It’s interesting that they’re all serious. I have these friends who do improv, and they get their headshots done, and they always have a sort of serious face. I’m like, “But you’re in comedy? Maybe you should look like you’re having a little fun.”
KJ: This one is called back later on, but with a different typeface.
JT: Interesting. I guess we’ll get to that. For now, this is just a mouthful of Helvetica.
KP: Helvetica’s back “in” at this time.
KJ: It sure is. But you know what? Yes, Helvetica is an of-the-time thing, but it’s also specific to New York. This is the early ’80s. With Massimo Vignelli’s help, the whole New York subway system was switched over to Helvetica by the ’70s. [This is basically correct, although the reality is somewhat more complicated. —ed.] When you think of New York City now, it’s hard not to think of Helvetica, because the entire system of subway signage is written in it. So the timing for this seems appropriate considering they had just switched over the whole thing in the ’70s.
JT: That fits, too, because they have this type logo over the steam rising out from underneath the street. Even though we’re not in the subway there, it does give you that feel of the city infrastructure, of the living city.
KP: This shot, where they’re lighting her cigarette—I love that it went to black and white with just the red text. It’s bold. This year is my favorite. And I think that—Kristi-Lynn mentioned it—this style comes back in 2006 because I imagine everyone realized that it works. This is their voice. It’s strong. It’s live. That’s what’s important. They’re excited to be there, so you should be too.
JT: When the cast members’ names come up, you know, we have this shot of Eddie Murphy, it almost feels like an applause sign. It feels like I’m sitting two feet from an applause sign that’s just flashing in my face. It’s hard not to get energized by this unapologetic, bold “use every inch of the frame” treatment.
JT: And now in 1985, we’re back to more of a graffiti vibe again.
KJ: This looks like graffiti still. Yes, it’s a hand writing the title into glass, but it’s got that same splattery feeling to it. It’s funny that both of these “sloppy” looks came after more traditional logos right before them.
JT: Yeah, right? We went from the Times Square marquee to the graffiti, and then we went from the bold Helvetica—again, a sort of marquee treatment—to this, which, what could be more lo-fi than writing with your finger on a windshield? It’s like they’re always reacting to the previous logo in these early years of the show.
KP: In 1985, they brought in a new and younger cast. If you’re looking at how they’re presenting peoples’ names the year before, the text was placed over their face, so there’s less of a chance for recognition. That worked fine for the old cast—you already know who Eddie Murphy is, so you don’t need to see his face as much. In this one, instead of going with the obscuring text and artistic black and white photography—like, “You already know these people”—they’re now saying, “Hey, we’re bringing new life into the show.” Does it work? I don’t think so, not as much.
KJ: It’s just so bland.
JT: They look like they’re posing for the Sears catalog.
JT: It’s hard to find footage of the ’87 opening. We looked and looked, but because of the haphazard way that SNL is put online, or isn’t put online, all we have is the snippet in Dominick’s video. What’s striking about this logo, though, is—no matter what the style, every SNL title treatment we’ve seen so far has emphasized the city, whereas this one emphasizes the televisuality of the show.
KJ: Yes! I had the same thought. This one is just so “broadcast design.” There’s nothing that stands out about it being from Saturday Night Live. It could be a radio station design! If you put a little radio antenna behind it, it would fit just as well. It’s so generically broadcast.
KP: Yeah, this one I just don’t get. I also can’t stand their spacing of “Saturday” versus “Live.” If you’re going to go with a separate typeface and make it larger, make it mean something. In this state, it’s unfinished. Maybe they were trying to go with the iconography of New York, so this could be the colors of a taxi cab. But you don’t get any feel whatsoever for the show in this one.
JT: We might be too hard on it, because we don’t have the rest of the sequence here to examine.
JT: But maybe the show’s producers didn’t like the ’87 logo, either, because in ’88, we get to this logo, which stayed in place for quite a while. I was surprised to see that this debuted in 1988 because it feels five years later. This looks like it belongs on the cover of an early-’90s alt-rock CD.
KP: It looks to me like it’s on the door of a comedy club. You’re walking in, and it’s dimly lit, where the lighting is hitting on the type, and it’s kind of like—you have to know where it is. It’s a back alley club.
JT: I like that.
KJ: I agree. Even in the first version that you see, it looks like it’s spray-painted on that door. It doesn’t look like it’s a print or a vinyl or anything like that, it’s just, “Yeah, we just put this here, because that’s where this place is,” you know?
KJ: Like you said, John, I do think the 1988 logo is the first example of design in SNL that’s clearly before its time. If we move on to the 1995 logo, that’s my first thought on that one, too. It’s so much before its time. That style of writing became much more popular in the 2000s, and as part of the internet age. It’s funny to see it as early as 1995 on here.
JT: I remember these wonderful dancing stripes. This is one of my favorites of all time. The animation here looks like it was a lot of work.
KJ: To me, the dancing colored lines are the part of the design that says “’90s.” It’s still surprisingly classy today, though, given how well it seems to fit into that era. They still manage to make it look good.
JT: It feels dated but not in a bad way. Is that what you’re saying?
KJ: Yeah, it feels nostalgic more than it feels dated. They did such a good job with it, in that it sort of looks almost like colored paper more than it looks like these typical neon lines that you would see on a show like Saved By The Bell—it’s a time where everything sprang from that really bright, super-saturated palette, and SNL was like, “We think we could do it a little better.”
JT: You know what it reminds me of—with the rough edges and this papery, tactile quality it has—it reminds me of Rocky And Bullwinkle cartoons from the ’60s. This jittery energy—the stripes don’t have to line up just right—it has the feeling of a zany comedy.
KP: I immediately thought of The Matrix here, which came out in 1999. This just feels like they’re trying to go a little more “techy.” I don’t know why this reminds me so much of The Matrix, though—maybe the light treatments in the back, and the shifting.
JT: I’m not crazy about the lowercase cast member names. What do you think of that?
KJ: I think that was sort of a fad, where you had the lightweight for one thing and then the heavier one. You saw that a lot in movies in the late ’90s. She’s All That comes to mind. That was a fashionable design pattern of the late ’90s, to go all-lowercase.
JT: It hasn’t aged well.
JT: I’m jumping ahead to 2003 because I want to talk about this terrible design for the cast members’ names. This is the worst look ever for the cast names.
KP: I feel drunk watching this.
KJ: Okay, wait a second. What was that movie—Panic Room? I want to look up the opening credits for Panic Room. [We look them up.]
KJ: See, the opening sequence here is in that same vein as SNL 2003, where there’s type in the world—giant pieces of type that almost look like they’re attached to buildings.
JT: You’re so right. This is the same thing.
KJ: So on SNL too, it looks like the type is semi-attached to some part of the picture. Jeff Richards is attached to his arm, and Amy Poehler is attached to the cab.
KP: They come back to that even more in later years, where in this one they were attempting a style, but they’re not executing it well. So it’s just making everyone nauseous.
JT: The thing with the Panic Room opening is the text has some heft to it. I think that in the SNL version of the idea, you have these spindly lines of Helvetica, sometimes distorted, which is never a good thing to do with a typeface—to stretch it one way or another. I like what you said, Kelly, that it makes you feel drunk, or jittery.
KP: But I do feel like they get to a successful take on the Panic Room opening down the road.
JT: I see. This is the callback to ’81 that you mentioned earlier, right, Kelly? This is a gorgeous one.
KJ: The company who did this was a design house called Number 17. Emily Oberman was probably involved. She’s now a designer at Pentagram, and Pentagram has done other logo designs for SNL later on, so she’s one of the big names in late-night television branding. I love this one, personally. It’s one of their better setups.
Also, I had a sort of chicken-and-egg question on this one—this was the introduction of SNL using Gotham in its on-screen branding, which was also the typeface for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. So which came first? I know this was 2006, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t presidential campaigning going on in 2006, either. I wasn’t quite sure about that. It’s one of those things that a candidate like Obama, who’s trying to be a readable, youngish figure in politics, would either grab on to something like that, or vice versa.
JT: This title definitely came before the “HOPE” poster and probably preceded the heavy use of Gotham in the Obama campaign. I would guess that this logo is at the forefront of the Gotham wave, but you saw Gotham everywhere by the end of the 2000s.
KP: Gotham was released in 2000, commissioned by GQ magazine—I just looked this stuff up on Wikipedia. It was prominently featured in 2004 on the cornerstone of the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site. And going from back to when we were talking about Helvetica and the subway signs—type is so tied to New York City. I feel like Gotham, had it not been introduced into Obama’s campaign, it would just have been the new typeface for New York City, and it would have been ingrained in that place. But now it’s really everywhere—and it was all over the country with Obama’s campaign—so it’s spread beyond New York into a wider popularity, just like how Helvetica is tied to New York but is also ubiquitous.
JT: It does have a similar feel to Helvetica. But Helvetica has this sterility, this generic feel, whereas Gotham possesses a certain warmth—I would almost call it cuteness. It’s relatable, which is one reason I think it became so popular. Well, that and it’s versatile enough to serve in so many contexts. The fact that it’s called Gotham is so funny to me. Before this font, if you said “Gotham,” I would either think of Batman, or in terms of New York, I would think of gargoyles and gothic design—arched exteriors on churches and such. It’s so counter-intuitive that this font is “Gotham,” and yet it works for modern, post-9/11 New York, with a youthful energy.
KP: Compared to Helvetica, Gotham has a shorter X-height and a little bit wider breathing room. It’s not what you expect from New York, but it captures that sense of the city where anything can happen, as opposed to that stodgy gargoyle kind of theme. People go to New York for opportunity—that’s where they think these big things are going to happen.
JT: “Anything can happen,” that’s perfect. That captures the appeal of Gotham for me. Now, it’s been incorporated into so many different products and corporate logos that it’s lost some of that energy, but yeah, that’s what it had at first.
JT: And now Dominick’s video brings us to the latest look, which debuted in 2014 and was tweaked just a bit for the current season.
KJ: Here we get the tall and skinny. I don’t know if it’s Knockout or something similar to it. It has a condensed sort of squashed feeling—capturing the close quarters of New York City.
KP: If you look back at the type in SNL’s circular logo, it has those taller letterforms—if those were written out in straight lines, it’d be more condensed in this nature. For me, this is the 1988-94 look and the Gotham look married into one logo. They must revisit the past logos of SNL for a redesign, and that’s where I think their inspiration comes from—plus they finally get the Panic Room thing right.
JT: Another thing I noticed here is that the words of the title flicker in and out, and it’s done so that you see SNL at the same time you see Saturday Night Live, which gets across this notion—along with the energy of the vibrating colors, you also have this notion of SNL as an institution, as evidenced by the fact that we call it SNL now, and everybody knows what that means. The show has embraced that acronym in the last decade because it does lend that quality of, “Everybody’s talking about this! Everybody knows what this is.”
KJ: The flickering is almost like when you’re in an old theater or studio, where the lights are only working some of the time. So it still has that feeling of a subculture. Like, yeah, it’s not perfect, not all the lights work, but we still do it.
JT: Any closing thoughts?
KP: It’s impressive that over 40 years they’ve kept a sense of their roots in the various designs—mixing the glamour of New York with the messy feel of a hastily assembled live show. They’ve created a brand and maintained it, which is remarkable for a show that’s been on TV for so long and doesn’t have a set cast of characters that people can rely on.
JT: This constant upheaval and change has become part of the show—or always has been part of the show, really. The cast, after one and a half seasons, was already changing as Chevy Chase left and Bill Murray came in. It’s been smart of them to have that churn reflected in the constant updates to the visual treatment, and it also gives you a feel of the dynamic city.
KJ: That’s what is so remarkable here—with rare exceptions, each one of these is a reasonably good design that’s somewhat ahead of its time and feels very fresh.
JT: Agreed. When the designs succeed, which they usually do, they make the show feel like something of the moment—even if it’s 40 years old now. That’s a tough trick for designers to pull off. Especially when, as we discussed, we can see vestiges of so many earlier design choices being nodded at or incorporated into the latest look. I definitely have a greater appreciation for the broadcast design of SNL than I did before this exercise.