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A career with 'Saturday Night Live' was in the cue cards

As a kid, Wally Feresten longed to write for television. He just never imagined that he'd be doing it with a felt marker on 14-by-22-inch pieces of recycled cardboard.

For 25 years now, Feresten has been the cue card guy at "Saturday Night Live."

An unassuming, 49-year-old father of two with short white hair and glasses, he has played a vital but largely unsung role in one of the most enduring institutions in American pop culture. Assisted by a team of 20, he supervises production of the handwritten cards and holds them, just off-camera, during every broadcast of the sketch comedy show.

The continued use of cue cards in such a high-tech industry might seem anachronistic, but demand for Feresten's services has only increased in recent years. With computers prone to glitches even in the best of times, Feresten says the cards offer a human touch no teleprompter could ever replicate.

"It's about trusting somebody," he said on a break between rehearsals for "SNL's" season finale, hosted by Louis CK, and a taping of "Late Night With Seth Meyers," where he also runs cards. "Unless I have a heart attack, nothing's going to happen."

He's not exaggerating. While on the payroll at "SNL," Feresten has sat out just one broadcast — "I just couldn't stop throwing up and they made me go home," he said, the slightest hint of regret in his voice — and has never dropped a card on camera.

Performers on other late-night programs, such as "The Daily Show" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live," use teleprompters to avoid nationally televised humiliation, but in the growing empire of "SNL" Executive Producer Lorne Michaels, the old-school, variety-show vibe of cue cards prevails.

Working six days a week, Feresten divides his duties between "SNL" and "Late Night With Seth Meyers," which tapes next door at Rockefeller Center and is also executive produced by Michaels. Under the auspices of his company, NYC Q Cards, he has teams running cue cards at "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" (another Michaels production) and the L.A.-based "Conan" (O'Brien was a Michaels protégé). Until David Letterman signed off from "Late Show" in May, he was also a client of Feresten's.

"I've missed a lot of weddings, a lot of funerals, a lot of bar mitzvahs. But to say you've worked at 'SNL' for 25 years? That goes a long way."

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Feresten, the middle of three children, grew up in a household where comedy ruled. His father, a salesman, introduced his kids to albums by George Carlin, Cheech & Chong and Steve Martin and taught them spit takes over the family dinner table.

Writing for film and television was "all I wanted to do," said Feresten, whose wife and family call him by his given name, Chris, but is known to all at "SNL" as "Wally," his childhood nickname. By the time he graduated, his older brother, Spike (nee Mike), was already writing for Letterman. (He'd go on to write the famed "Soup Nazi" episode of "Seinfeld.")

With help from his brother, Feresten landed a job working for Tony Mendez, who then ran cue cards at "Saturday Night Live." He figured it would be a good way to get his foot in the door.

There was just one problem: Feresten's handwriting was terrible.

"I grew up getting straight-A's every year, but every report card I got: 'Horrible penmanship,'" he said. What saved him was his unusual proficiency at the other half of the job, holding cards.

He made his "SNL" debut on Sept. 29, 1990, holding the first few cards in a "Sprockets" sketch featuring Mike Myers as Dieter, the West German host of an avant-garde talk show, and "Twin Peaks" star Kyle MacLachlan as his guest. Despite nerves that made his whole body shake, Feresten somehow kept the cards still and turned them without any mistakes.

"I didn't panic, and I guess the show noticed that I was calm under pressure," he said.

Feresten was soon holding cards for several major skits an episode, and with practice, his handwriting improved. When Mendez left for "Late Show With David Letterman" three years later, Feresten took over the cue-card operation.

After he got married in the late '90s, Feresten left the show to focus on writing — the kind that doesn't involve a marker — but was back within four months. "It was probably the best thing I've ever done, because they saw what life was like without me," he said, "so I got a lot of perks."

Ah, yes, the perks. Feresten has had a better-than-front-row seat for pop culture moments both solemn (the show's first broadcast after 9/11) and triumphant (he donned a tux to hold cards for "SNL's" star-studded 40th-anniversary special in February). He's been written into episodes of "30 Rock," appeared in sketches on "Late Night" and been thanked by Betty White on "The Tonight Show." He also earns a mention in the just-released "SNL" documentary "Live From New York!" and counts celebrities such as former NBA star Charles Barkley as friends.

"So many famous and nervous people have stared at Wally," said "SNL" alumna Amy Poehler. "He has a huge heart and a blue-collar work ethic and never forgets that this whole thing is supposed to be fun."

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While Feresten's job requires near-constant proximity to the rich and famous, his actual work space is about as glamour-free as it gets.

The cue cards for "SNL" are "printed," to use the in-house lingo, in a hive-like space under the bleachers of Studio 8H. Crammed with markers, rolls of the white tape used to make last-minute edits, ink-scrawled plywood desks and rectangles of cardboard, it has all the ambience of a submarine boiler room.

Old cards go in a shoulder-high pile in a corner of the studio, to be reused by "SNL's" scenic artists to catch paint splatters. Once in a while, Feresten will let a host or cast member keep a card as a memento, but they are not, technically speaking, his to give.

"Once I put NBC's words on the cards," he explained, "they're not my property anymore."

The trick to printing, Feresten said, is to think of it more like drawing than writing.

"You don't move your fingers, you use your hand," he said as he spelled out the show's signature intro — "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!!!" — using the broad side of a marker tip.

The cards, ordered from a supplier on Long Island, are surprisingly heavy; a stack of 40 weighs as much as a well-fed cat. Given that sketches can run as long as 75 cards, it's little wonder that Feresten has suffered chronic shoulder pain and tendinitis in both elbows. Paper cuts are also an unavoidable occupational hazard, though the adrenaline helps mask the pain. "You don't usually know you have them until you wake up on Sunday."

Still, the discomfort is a small price to pay for being a part of "Saturday Night Live." "I want to be able to do it for as long as it stays on the air," said Feresten. "To get to know the celebrities, to get to know the cast of 'SNL' the way I have, it's a blessing."

Other than the color of ink used for the host (always black) and the number of exclamation points at the end of "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!!!" (always three), there are few hard-and-fast rules about how the cue cards are written. Instead, Feresten relies on an understanding of each performer's particular rhythm to determine things like whether a joke's setup and a punch line should go on the same card.

Sometimes, he holds the cards in a single stack, flipping through them one by one. Other times, he'll hold two cards up simultaneously, allowing the performer to move seamlessly from one line to the next. A crew member, called a "catcher," is often at his side to collect the used cards.

"Wally has this nice way of just keeping the words in front of me and when I'm looking for them, they're there," said Seth Meyers, who persuaded Feresten to join him when he took over "Late Night" last year. The former "Weekend Update" anchor prefers cue cards to teleprompters, which he's had to use occasionally on awards shows.

"At the back of my head there is always a creeping sense of dread that the computer will stop working or that it will be the day that the robots decided to start the revolution and their first act will be to not put my jokes up," he said.

For "SNL" newbies, few of whom come to the show with experience reading cue cards, Feresten also acts as a kind of tutor. Some struggle with the new skill more than others, he said.

"When Chris Rock was on the show, it was hard for him to read cue cards. I think that's one of the reasons why he said they didn't use him enough. Chris Farley was the same way."

For hosts, who have just a few days to master the art of cue-card reading, the pressure is even more intense, especially if there are any added complications. Feresten recalled hours of intense preparation with actress Lara Flynn Boyle, who, he said, "came in nearsighted, dyslexic and colorblind. She told me up front, 'This is going to be a challenge for you.'"

Such efforts don't go unappreciated, even by the A-listers who regularly pass through "SNL."

"As soon as the act is over, they all — to a person — have stood up and given Wally a hug," Meyers said. "He is your lifeline to the piece."

meredith.blake@latimes.com

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