Not to knock down viewers who primarily watch Saturday Night Live on YouTube — we get it, free laughs — but all you dot-com-ites out there are deprived of one of the show’s most visually striking components, and we’re not talking about Kate McKinnon in drag. Or sentient props. Or cue cards. Bow down to the “bumpers”!
These stylized portraits have been taken of every single host and musical guest who’ve lent their time to Studio 8H for the week, and they’ve all been exclusively shot by Mary Ellen Matthews since she became SNL’s official photographer in 1999. You’d immediately recognize a bumper if you see one. Sandwiched between the end of a commercial break and the start of a sketch or performance, they create brief moments of stillness before the action picks up again and are literally impossible to miss. But more so than a definition, bumpers are feasts for the eyes, whether the final images veer toward surrealist vibrancy or black-and-white classicism. They all tell a story — you just have to figure out what it is.
“I kind of think of them as billboards. They pop off the screen,” Matthews, a self-described “one-woman circus,” told Vulture in a recent interview. “I like to make it as easy as possible for everyone. I don’t want them overthinking this part of the show. It should be super fun and super easy. It’s an open invitation to get kooky.” Matthews, along with a small team of costumers and prop assistants, have a limited time (90 minutes if they’re lucky) to shoot the bumpers for every episode, although their postproduction time usually extends to two days. “We try to find out who’s hosting as far in advance as possible so we can start thinking about it,” she added. “We do four or five different looks.” In recent years, these looks have also led to the creation of “bursts,” which are essentially the fanciest GIFs you’ll ever see.
Long admirers of Matthews, Vulture hopped on the phone with her to discuss the stories behind some of her favorite SNL work. Here are the ten bumpers and one burst that she particularly loved.
Andy Samberg (2014)
“In my portfolio, it’s my first image. It’s one of my favorites. I don’t know where I came up with that idea. I thought it would be funny if Andy was an olive in a Martini glass. Thank God our genius costume designer was able to have an olive costume made. We all had a good laugh shooting it. And postproduction was great, too, sliding him in a glass.”
John Mulaney (2019)
“It’s Patti Smith! It’s a total homage to her. Because we’re all New Yorkers, it’s nice to keep New York royalty in mind. John is such a music fan. Last time we did Lou Reed with him. So this is a thread, and we’ll do it again whenever he hosts next time. We’re keeping him in a New York state of mind. If you compare the two, his body language … he nailed it. We want to keep these photos smart. Not too funny, but smart. That’s our goal.”
Edward Norton (2013)
“Nighthawks suited him, didn’t it? I keep a folder lying around of inspiration. Knowing he was hosting, I knew he would be the guy. He was all-in with the idea. Since we didn’t have much time, we had to change him really quickly behind makeshift dressing rooms, with the costumes and wigs and all that. The support behind any idea is so important and I had it here. It takes a village!”
Sarah Silverman (2014)
“I was talking to a friend of mine in a cab on the way to work that day, and we were brainstorming ideas for Sarah. I knew I wanted to shoot her outside. We came up with this idea of dusting off the NBC sign. I ran in and it was a very last-minute idea. I rushed Sarah out the door to do it, and she was really excited. We brought a ladder out; there were some security guards around her. We completely did it guerrilla style. I nearly got fired for it. You can’t do anything with the building. You have to get permits, permission, all that. All hell broke loose after it was over because it wasn’t a good idea for me to do it without asking. [Laughs.] You can’t just put a massive ladder against their sign! But we did and it worked out.”
Tina Fey (2013)
“It wasn’t easy to convince her. She nailed it though. With someone like her, it’s all understood.”
Bradley Cooper (2009)
“I was looking to do something with him that evoked old Hollywood, but then thought, Why just make it super simple? In our SNL studio world, we’re not able to build sets for these photos and we have to do things quickly. We had even less time with him than normal. The props department got all the rainy-day looks and the special-effects team added some rain. It was a very joyful shoot, even if he couldn’t see any actual rain falling. All of his photos are just so cute.”
Foo Fighters (2017)
“This is a reversed photo. Our cameras can take up to 12 frames per second. We only had one shot at capturing this because we really prop-ed out the table with food. We just asked them to do a “rock-and-roll moment” of flipping the table over. I was gonna originally use it as an animation, but I thought this was visually a much more interesting way to do it.”
Dave Chappelle (2016)
“He’s amazing. Just amazing. What a deep and smart guy. He immediately takes you in. We were just chatting about Marvin Gaye. We’re talking; we’re shooting; he’s smoking away. Him in his element. I lived for that moment of having some time with him and sharing his brain and mind.”
Will Ferrell (2012)
“In a field of daisies, something good is gonna happen there. We originally thought of shooting something wider where we could see his entire body, but we kept going lower and lower. Before we knew it, he was cracking us all up by barely peeking through the flowers. That expression! He can’t not be funny. He’s a master of subtlety. Just look at his eyebrows.”
Benedict Cumberbatch (2016)
“I call that Considered Pear. [Laughs.] Magritte is always something fun to jump off of. I was looking at a lot of Magritte works that week. Those surreal qualities matched Benedict’s face. A very highbrow sensibility. We just gave Benedict this fruit and asked him to do whatever he wanted with it. We added the clouds in postproduction to make it even more dreamlike.”
Bill Hader (2018)
“This is Bill’s Hitchcock moment, but with some very silly, taxidermy crows. His delivery of the whole thing is so funny. It’s simple and do-it-yourself, and that’s what makes it funny, too.”