I'M A CUE CARD GUY

By Wally Feresten

It's very awkward to explain to people what I do for a living. They'll tell me what their occupation is (teacher, stock broker, salesman) and then they'll politely inquire about my profession, usually expecting me to say that I work a normal 9 to 5 job…I don't. I say, "Well, I own my own cue card company (New York City Q-Cards, Inc.) And I do cue cards for television shows. They usually respond a bit confused, saying something like, "cue cards? So, you hold up pieces of card board for a living?" I'll continue to tell them that I handle all the cue card work on "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" plus many other award shows, live specials, commercials, infomercials, pilots, and sometimes even sitcoms and movies. Now, I've captured their interest, and we usually spend the better part of the evening discussing my job. But, I've gotten ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.

My name is Wally Feresten, I graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor's degree in Writing for TV, Radio and Film from the prestigious Newhouse Communications School. After graduation in 1987, I spent three years in Los Angeles trying to make it as a writer. The only writing offer I got in those three years was to write scripts for adult films. I passed, and in 1990 I moved to New York City to try my luck there. Soon after moving to NYC, my brother, Spike Feresten, who happened to work at "Saturday Night Live" as a receptionist and who was 3 months away from starting a writing job on "Late Night with David Letterman", told me of a job opportunity in the cue card department at "SNL". When he heard about the job, he didn't recommend me because he knew I had very bad penmanship (not my fault, it was hereditary, my grandfather was a doctor). I convinced him to let me at least go and meet with the cue card guys and see what happens. He set it up.

I met with Kevin Kay, who's uncle owned the company, and who had been doing cue cards on the show since it's inception in 1975. A side note: Soon after my starting in 1990, Kevin worked his way up through Nickelodeon and into Spike TV and is now the President of Spike TV. I also met with Tony Mendez who really ran the show, and you might know him as David Letterman's personal cue card guy for the last 13 years or so. They gave me a few tips about printing cards and then set me down to print some sample cue cards. My cards were awful, but they were kind and said they'd seen worse. They hired me for 10 bucks an hour and 15 for overtime hours. I now had my first job in the entertainment field. I was a cue card guy for "Saturday Night Live". I was 25 years old.

I didn't go to Syracuse University to be a cue card guy, but I saw it as an opportunity to make connections and get my foot in the door, and that's exactly what I did. Now, being a cue card guy may not sound so glamorous, but I get to work with and become friends with some of the major comedy talent working today, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Will Ferrell, Kevin Nealon, David Spade and so many more cast members past and present. I also get to work one on one with everybody who hosts "SNL". Over 17 years I have worked with most of the major movie and TV stars working today, Sports superstars and major politicians including, George Bush, George Bush jr, Al Gore, Steve Forbes, Barak Obama, Rudy Guliani, and Mayor Mike Bloomberg just to name a few.

I started working at "SNL" in September of 1990 and it was tough at first. Let me give you a quick idea of cue card work at "SNL". When I started, Tony ran the show. He blocked all the sketches on Thursday and Friday while me and four other workers printed and duped all the sketches for that week's show. Some sketches only needed one set of cards, but usually they consisted of two or three sets of identical cards. We printed from 11am on Friday to usually midnight or even 1 am. Saturday consisted of constant changes, rehearsing the sketches with all the sets, and writing and putting together Weekend Update, which was a challenge all to itself. Dress rehearsal went from 8pm to 10pm and when that was done, the writers were told which sketches were cut and which sketches made it into the show. The ones that made it into the show, still had to be rewritten, so around 11pm (a half hour before the live show) we started getting the changes to all the sketches. This is where if you show any signs of panic, stress, or freaking out you won't make it in this business as a cue card guy. From the very beginning, I loved the fast-paced energy and lived for the biggest adrenaline rush I had ever gotten.

I practiced and practiced my printing every week but I wasn't improving very fast. After six weeks of shows, none of the cards I printed were ever used. Tony ran a tough ship and he wouldn't put a card out on the studio floor if he didn't think it was of the best quality. Years later he would tell me that he was very close to firing me because of my poor printing. I had a great attitude, I was funny, everyone liked me, but my printing was holding me back. So, what saved me? How did I keep my job? Did I ever improve? Wow, so many questions from people reading this that I don't even know.

Well, there are two very important skills involved in the cue card business: Writing the cards and holding the cards. Now, to the rest of the world, holding cue cards seems to be a very simple act. You simply hold the cue cards up, the actor reads the cue cards, the audience laughs (hopefully), and everybody goes home happy, right? Wrong! Holding cards is extremely difficult, and holding cards on a 90-minute live show like"SNL" is a bitch! "SNL" is really live and not taped as I'm often asked. There is no 7-second delay. It's as live as live can be. If I make a mistake with the cards and this causes the actor to botch a punch line or miss a set-up, then I have not done my job and the actor comes off looking inept.

Holding cue cards is a stressful and physically demanding part of the job. Timing is everything in holding cards. If you flip a card one second too slow or one second too fast, then the actor is screwed. If your hand shakes from being nervous, thus shaking the cue card, then the actor is screwed. If you drop a card then the actor is screwed. If you pull 2 cards at once by mistake then the actor is screwed. There are so many more little things that can go wrong when you're holding cue cards, especially for a live show. It's the hardest part of being a cue card person and it's the hardest thing to teach as well.

My job was saved because I was really good at holding cue cards right from the start. The first "SNL" I worked on I held the first 6 cards for a Mike Myer's Sprockets sketch. I was the only one holding those first six cards. Mike Myers was the only guy reading those cards. If I made a mistake, the sketch might never recover and I would probably have been fired. Looking back, I think Tony was testing me to see if I had what it took to be a cue card guy. I flipped the cards perfectly and the sketch wasn't ruined. Kevin, who was standing behind me in case I screwed up, told me later that my entire body was shaking from nerves, but the cue cards and my hands stayed perfectly still. I had passed a crucial first test.

The next show I held three full sketches, numbering about 30 cards each. In one I was awkwardly sitting on the floor, another I was squeezed into a very tiny space and the last I was standing on top of a ladder. I held each set perfectly, no mistakes. I actually started to enjoy being out on the studio floor holding the cards and helping out the actors. It was fun. I was really good at this holding thing and it actually saved my job for me. Eventually, with much practice, my penmanship improved enough so that Tony started using my cards in live sketches.

After I finished my third season of "SNL", Tony decided to leave the very stressful atmosphere of live TV and take over the cue card reins at "Late Night with David Letterman. I must have been doing something right, cause Tony and Kevin decided that I would be his successor. I can't even begin to tell you how hard it was the first few years running that show. But I've been running "SNL" ever since (stress-free by the way) and it's the coolest job I could ever imagine. I also recently started my own cue card company where I employ 15 very cool people who help me run one of the largest and most profitable cue card companies in the United States. And by taking a job as a cue card person, I made great entertainment connections and was able to parley that into a nice freelance writing career (which I'll talk about in a future piece).

So, yes, I'm a cue card guy…One of the best in the business…and I love every minute of it!

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