Last season, TV personality and comedian Seth Meyers served as the host of the 75th edition of the Golden Globes. Although the award show is completely run on teleprompters, Meyers insisted that someone hold up actual cue cards during the show as well — just in case there was some sort of technological glitch.
Not just anyone would do, though. It had to be longtime cue card holder Wally Feresten, who has worked with Meyers for a total of 14 years, beginning at NBC’s iconic comedy show “Saturday Night Live.”
“We brought out Wally and he was standing with the monologue on cue cards in a tuxedo next to the teleprompter, just in case something went wrong,” Meyers says. “And nothing did, but I was so much happier knowing that Wally was there than I would have been if I knew I was just counting on a piece of technology.”
“Timing as far as flipping cue cards, is probably the key to it. [Meyers] always says ‘Well, Wally knows my rhythms,” says Feresten, who serves as the cue card holder on NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and is the owner/operator of New York City Cue Cards.
Feresten’s memories of “SNL” begin with his father waking him up as a child if there was a good host on the show, which debuted in 1975 when Feresten was 10.
When it came time for him to go to college, Feresten chose Syracuse University — a school known for its media and communications programs — for the sole purpose of becoming a writer for TV and film. At one point, while looking for work in TV, he received a phone call from his brother — who at the time worked at “SNL” as receptionist. He said there was an opening for a cue card holder.
Feresten’s first assignment was holding six cards on Sept. 29, 1990, in a popular, ongoing sketch called “Sprockets,” in which cast member Mike Myers played a fictional host of a German talk show named Dieter. The show’s host, actor Kyle MacLachlan, also took part in the skit.
“So I was over at a camera holding [cards] and my boss was standing behind me. He was there to make sure I didn't screw up,” Feresten says. “He said to me, ‘Your entire body was shaking, but those cue cards stayed super still.’ He was like, ‘I don’t know how you did it,’” Feresten says. “And after that, they started testing me. [My boss] threw me in three sketches the next week. And for some reason I just picked up on holding naturally, And, I was good at it.”
There are three main components to constantly be aware of as a cue card holder, Feresten says: the location of the camera, the location of the actors and the location of the light on the cue cards.
In addition, one has to adapt on the fly, because something could go awry in terms of the lines or a camera not being where it should.
“Wally has such a huge job because the cue cards are the whole scene,” says Vanessa Bayer, a former “SNL” cast member who worked on the show for seven seasons. “We can't memorize stuff because the lines could change at any minute leading up to the live show, so it's really important that we all be reading off those cue cards."
“I feel like he's doing a lot of, almost, mime work behind the camera. Making sure everyone's looking at the right cards and if someone has forgotten their line, making sure they see their line.”
Some of Feresten’s most memorable moments working on “SNL” have come when he worked not with cast members, but the hosts — who arrive on Thursday before a Saturday performance. Most of the hosts, he says, have never worked with cue cards, leading to a series of obstacles.
In 2001, Feresten was faced with the task of working with actress Lara Flynn Boyle, who told him that she was colorblind, dyslexic and nearsighted.
“Basically what I was doing was going into her dressing room after every sketch, running cards with her multiple times so she would get used to it. We got through it, but it was a lot of work,” Feresten says.
All of the cue cards that Feresten holds have all of the lines in large capital letters. Each actor is assigned a certain color. Stage directions — such as sit, stand, cross — go in boxes, so an actor knows not to say the directions aloud. Still, mistakes happen.
“My buddy Charles Barkley, he read the words and then he said ‘Cross’ and I was like ‘No, you're not supposed to say cross, buddy. You walk. You cross on the cross.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, OK, thanks,” says Feresten.
One of the ongoing segments on Meyers’ show is a bit in which actual members of his crew read poems. Feresten is always the last to read.
“They're always a little disturbing. And disturbing plays well with Wally because he has a very friendly face and does not look like a person that would have a sort of dark life. And yet when he reads his disturbing poems you also buy that — oh, he's one of those people who looks like a nice person but, is actually a monster,” Meyers says.
Ultimately Feresten thinks he’s had a better career holding cue cards than he would have had in writers’ rooms.
“It’s just been an amazing position and I couldn't have envisioned it when I was a child. Working on the show and wanting to be a writer is one thing, but I think the experiences and the people I've met and worked with as a cue card guy far outshine anything I could have done as a writer and I could nowhere have the same experiences as a writer that I have had as a cue card guy."
Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.