Film Editor Kelly Lyon Dishes on Crafting Saturday Night Live Parodies

The Portlander describes what it’s like to help create some of SNL’s most viral clips, from the family Thanksgiving saved by Adele to Kristen Wiig’s perfume-ad spoof.

By Eden Dawn April 15, 2016 Published in the May 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Boris Zharkov

She gave us a glimpse into the minds of Fred and Carrie with the Inside Portlandia documentary. She transformed hours of footage shot from a train window into a cinematic meditation for Laura Gibson’s “Empire Builder” video. But 34-year-old editor Kelly Lyon may be best known for crafting the sharp parody clips that have become Saturday Night Live’s widest-reaching viral hits: the family Thanksgiving saved by Adele; the ladies of SNL shimmying around Jimmy Fallon and belting out, “Let’s do it in my twin bed”; Kristen Wiig’s spot-on brand of crazy in the perfume-ad parody “Red Flag.” Here, the Portlander talks about the bicoastal lifestyle—and getting intimate with MC Hammer. (For more, check out our podcast interview with Lyon.)

My high school had a TV station, and I took the television class my senior year. I had a really great teacher. I asked him, “This isn’t really a job, is it?” He said, “No, it is! And not a lot of women do it, and you should go out there and give ’em hell! Go to Hollywood!” So I went to film school.

I moved to New York and got a job as a receptionist at a place called Crew Cuts. It just so happened they were editing all the pretaped video for Saturday Night Live. The woman editing all those parodies was Debbie McMurtrey—an amazing editor. I told myself, I am going to get off this reception desk and become Debbie’s assistant. And I’m going to learn the ropes and comedy editing from her. And that’s what happened.

Tuesday night, the SNL writers write the scripts. Wednesday night, there is a read-through with the cast, the host, and Lorne Michaels. They pick what scripts are being produced, and I get the scripts around 11 p.m. As soon as I get them, I start pulling music and sound effects, and thinking about graphics. If we’re lucky, they shoot pieces on Friday morning. If we’re not lucky, they shoot Friday night. There have been some I’ve worked on where I’ve come in at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, and have less than a day to get it ready for live TV. It’s crazy.

I get on a plane on Thursday morning and I come back to Portland Sunday. I work out of 30 Rock, on the 17th floor, so the writers and actors can just come into the suite. It’s not possible to do it from afar. For the Christmas episode, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey were hosting, and since they were both previous writers of the show, they wanted to see their piece before it aired. We were in the edit room and all of a sudden we got the notice, “Tina and Amy are coming in!”

If our piece is airing after Weekend Update at 12:35 a.m., I’ll be working on it during the live show. So the show is on live and I’m still working. I’m editing, making changes, we’re sending down to the mix, we’re still editing sound effects. It goes into the show minutes, or sometimes seconds before it goes live.

The 40th anniversary special was insane. It was just so strange to be in a room with every famous person from SNL history you can think of. Like, there’s Dan Aykroyd, there’s Bill Murray, there’s Adam Sandler, and each person is more famous than the person sitting next to them. Meanwhile, Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney are up on stage playing a duet, and then Miley Cyrus gets up. And then I met MC Hammer, which blew my mind. As a kid “Can’t Touch This” was my absolute favorite song. He was sweet as can be. He kissed my hand.

Being a good editor is hard to explain. But I think rhythm and pacing are the most important things—having an innate sense of when to pause and when to speed things up. Another important thing is deciding when to deliver pertinent information. I think something that’s well edited will feel, to the viewers, that it’s how it was always supposed to be. Which is almost never true. We change things drastically from how they are scripted.

Pretaped comedy involves a lot of improvisation. You have the script, and then you riff on that. Portlandia is almost completely improvised, and Fred [Armisen] and Carrie [Brownstein] are some of the best improvisers I’ve ever edited. It’s incredibly difficult to edit, because they’ll improvise for an hour on something that’s going to end up being a two-minute piece. The possibilities are almost infinite. The editor is going to completely shape that piece.

Editor Kelly Lyon’s 5 Favorite SNL Clips (Plus a Bonus Portlandia Sketch)

1. SNL, "A Thanksgiving Miracle" 

"This was an extremely difficult shoot because it involved so many cast members, all with multiple hair and make up changes in two different locations (the dining room and the park). There wasn't time to bring Matthew McConaughey to the park location, so the director, Oz Rodriguez, quickly filmed him under a tree outside of the house location. This footage made me laugh so hard that I literally fell under my desk."

2. SNL, "Do It On My Twin Bed" 

"We loved Aidy Bryant's 7th grade photo so much, that whenever we got in a tough spot in the edit, I would just put it up on screen for a second, and it would make the whole room smile and relax."

3. SNL, "Red Flag" 

"Red Flag was filmed at the National Museum of the Native American, which is a government building with very strict security. I was editing in the basement and, unbeknownst to me, the museum shut down and locked up precisely at 6 p.m. I was locked in the basement with all of the footage, and my cell phone had no service. Luckily I had a walkie-talkie and was able to contact the producer, Justus McLarty, who got a security guard to help me. The guard had to personally escort me out of the building, and the piece made it on air the next night."

4. SNL, "When Will The Bass Drop?" 

"The art production team actually created fake heads of some of the cast members, and blew them up in front of a green screen. Then our VFX wizards comped the fake heads into our scene to make it look like the cast members' heads were exploding." 

5. SNL, "The Jay Z Story" 

"It was too expensive to get the rights to Jay Z's real music for this piece, so Mike O'Brien wrote and recorded vocals for his lame rap just hours before the show aired live."

6. Portlandia, "Timid Driver" 

"Fred Armisen told me this sketch was inspired by the way his mother drives. I really wanted to edit it because my husband also drives in this notoriously Portland fashion. We constantly quote bits of this sketch to each other whenever he drives me around town."

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