It Worked Better: Dress Rehearsal Replacements in ‘SNL’ Reruns

The first Debbie Downer sketch on Saturday Night Live in May 2004 was a surprise hit, largely because of the cast’s inability to finish the sketch without breaking character, so it was expected that the character would be brought backch for SNL’s season premiere in October. Unlike the first time around, the cast and host Ben Affleck managed to get through the sketch without laughing; the audience response was also comparatively tepid and the sketch came across as a disappointment. When the show was repeated, the rehearsal take was used, featuring the corpsing that made the first Debbie Downer sketch so enjoyable and a better response from the audience.

Unusually, a disclaimer preceded the sketch: “The following is from Dress Rehearsal, simply because it worked better.” While it was the first time SNL preceded a sketch with this explanation, the replacement of sketches with their dress rehearsal counterparts has been standard practice at SNL for years.

Saturday Night Live puts on two shows for studio audiences every week it airs live: the actual live show which airs on NBC at 11:30 pm, and a dress rehearsal that’s performed in front of an audience earlier that night.  The dress rehearsal helps gauge audience responses to sketches, and helps the producers pare down the amount of material to fit in the 90 minutes allotted for the air show. This rehearsal is also videotaped. Since 1985, dress rehearsal footage has been edited into the SNL repeats, creating a version of the show that uses, arguably, the best of both shows.

If part of a sketch got a stronger laugh during the dress rehearsal, or if something happened during the live show that derailed a performance, the dress rehearsal may be used to replace either a part of or the entire segment. Sometimes the replacement is obvious, such as a monologue segment in the seasons where the stage had a clock visible in the background. The dress and air versions may be near-identical to each other, or they can have changes in hair, wardrobe, or even dialogue. On occasion, the dress rehearsal version has been used in repeats when the originally aired sketch had to be cut off due to the show running long. Even a few musical performances have been replaced with their rehearsal counterparts: Sinead O’Connor’s picture-rip at the end of “War” is probably the most famous of these substitutions.

Here are eight examples of some of the material replaced, in whole or in part, with a dress rehearsal take in an SNL rerun.

Sam Kinison standup (John Lithgow / Mr. Mister, 12/07/1985)

One of the earliest uses of dress rehearsal footage in an SNL rerun was Sam Kinison’s first standup performance on the show in December 1985. The dress rehearsal is the superior take, with better delivery from Kinison, and some different material than what made it into the air show. The original airing suffers in part from an audience interaction where Kinison has to repeatedly prompt the audience member to answer, as well as a routine on wearing his coat to intimidate store clerks with a disappointing payoff. The dress rehearsal also ends with a better joke, as Kinison notes that anyone in history who tries to help gets shot: “That’s why they only wounded Reagan.”

The Cliffhanger Finale (Anjelica Huston & Billy Martin / George Clinton & The Parliament Funkadelic, 05/24/1986)

SNL’s disappointing 1985-86 season ended with a parody of cliffhangers used on night time soaps at the time. In SNL’s case, a runner throughout the show culminates in Billy Martin gets relieved of his hosting duties due to his drinking, and gets revenge by setting the season-ending cast party ablaze. The original live broadcast was rife with technical errors: smoke starts being pumped into the scene too early; a folding chair is visible the green-screened flames superimposed over the scene; and when Martin runs back to the home base set, his still-mic’ed footsteps are heard stomping all the way from where he had been, at which point co-host Anjelica Huston laughs and does the “cut” gesture. This particular show had four dress rehearsal performances used for the repeat, the last of an error-free take of goodnights, with a noticeable edit at the beginning of the final credit roll.

Chippendales (Patrick Swayze / Mariah Carey, 10/27/1990)

Chris Farley’s performance in the Chippendales Auditions is widely considered his breakout on the show, and the first demonstration of how strong a physical comedian he was. However, the familiar version is a mixture of dress rehearsal and the air show; the dance routine segment in the repeat version is taken from dress. The most obvious difference between the takes is that Farley’s moves are a little different in each version: he dances with a bit more abandon in dress (his shirt opens to reveal his flab earlier as well), while the air show dance is a bit more controlled and polished.

Monologue (Sharon Stone / Pearl Jam, 04/11/1992)

Sharon Stone hosted SNL in April 1992 to promote Basic Instinct, which some gay rights activists criticized for its negative portrayal of LGBT characters.  During the original live broadcast, six members of the audience begin to shout and chant at the beginning of the monologue, which spoofs the famous leg-crossing scene in the film. Someone can be heard calling for security, and the protestors were escorted out of the studio; it was later revealed that the loud audience members began to surge for the stage. The excitement was kept off camera as Stone and the cast pushed through, but, for obvious reasons, the repeat version of the show uses the calmer dress rehearsal take for the first half of the monologue.

Little League (John Goodman / Jewel, 05/10/1997)

A few segments ran a bit long in the original airing (the obvious culprit: the audience reaction to Norm MacDonald tasting some of Will Ferrell’s fake vomit in Weekend Update), which forced severe cuts to the show’s 10-to-1 sketch, featuring the drunk buddies of Bill Brasky (Goodman, Ferrell, Mark McKinney and Tim Meadows) at a little league game. The originally aired version is rushed to fit into two minutes and ends abruptly; the full three-and-a-half minute dress rehearsal version used in the repeat (and Netflix version) includes more stories and confessions from the drunken businessmen characters, and a smoother transition to Brasky’s appearance at the end.

Jeffrey’s (Sean Hayes / Shaggy, 02/17/2001)

The first appearance of Jimmy Fallon’s snippy, snobby Jeffrey’s store clerk was a hit during the original broadcast, and was performed without incident or any of the character-breaking that would become a regular occurrence during Jimmy Fallon’s later years on SNL. The dress rehearsal version used in the rerun has Fallon start to lose composure during the part with Horatio Sanz’s character; by the time Sanz leaves the scene, Fallon has to turn and hide his face. When Will Ferrell enters on the motorized scooter, though, both Fallon and guest host Sean Hayes are reduced to giggling their remaining lines.

Fairmount Suites Inn (Peter Sarsgaard / The Strokes, 01/21/2006)

A sketch revolving around an endlessly-looping pre-recorded hotel TV message (played live on a different set by Rachel Dratch) was plagued by so many technical issues in the live show that using dress for the rerun was a logical decision. When Sarsgaard bangs on the TV set early in the sketch, something jostles loose and the set loses the video feed. It becomes clear this wasn’t planned when the camera angle deliberately obscures the dark screen before Dratch’s feed is switched in as a regular camera feed, and both actors begin to break character. At one point, Dratch is seen making a face as the booth switches back to her camera. Even when the TV set feed is restored, the technical issues don’t stop: a stagehand is seen on-camera several times.

Great Moments in Guidance Counselling (LeBron James / Kanye West, 09/29/2007)

Another case of a 10-to-1 sketch cut down because of the show running behind schedule. The pacing of this sketch featuring Jason Sudeikis advising young LeBron James to forgo college and go straight into the NBA was rushed in the live version; when the show repeated a few weeks later, the dress rehearsal performance was used, featuring better timing, performances and audience reaction throughout. There’s also an extra scene that was cut from the original airing: Kenan Thompson advising Kanye West to “go to college for one year, drop out, [and] write songs about it.”

Honorable Mentions

-The Pat Stevens Show (Jerry Hall / Stevie Ray Vaughn, 02/15/1986)

-The Devil & Ed Grimley (Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short, 12/06/86)

-Monologue (Garry Shandling / Los Lobos, 05/16/1987)

-Maxwell House (Kathleen Turner / Billy Joel, 10/21/1989)

-Buddy Songs (Brendan Fraser / Bjork, 10/18/1997)

-Crossing Over with John Edward (Drew Barrymore / Macy Gray, 10/13/2001)

-Hardball (Christopher Walken / Foo Fighters, 02/22/2003)

-Wine Tasters (Antonio Banderas / Mary J. Blige, 04/08/2006)

-Marti Goes Gay (Ellen Page / Wilco, 03/01/2008)

-Deep House Dish (Ryan Reynolds / Lady Gaga, 10/03/2009)

Ben Douwsma is a freelance writer and photographer. His sole motivation to seek fame and fortune is a burrito.

It Worked Better: Dress Rehearsal Replacements in […]