In Late Night, Wally Feresten Holds All the Cards

Wally Feresten began the off-season rehabbing his right shoulder: A cortisone shot. Eight weeks of physical therapy. Discussions with an orthopedist. (Surgery can wait. He’s got a team to lead.)

While this might sound like the life of a professional athlete, Feresten works in TV. But as the cue card supervisor for Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Seth Meyers, it’s a job that seems just as intense. And with over 30 years in the game, he’s assisted every comedic heavy-hitter who has come through the doors of Studio 8H: cast members from Chris Farley to Kate McKinnon; hosts from Charles Barkley to Ryan Gosling.

LateNighter spoke with Feresten about how he got started in the cue card game, the two companies that grew out of it, and the daunting feat of an SNL anniversary show.

Feresten had his sights set on becoming a writer. After attending the Newhouse School at Syracuse University for writing and spending three years living in Los Angeles, he moved to New York. His brother—comedy writer and former late-night host Spike Feresten—had been working at SNL as a receptionist, and heard of a job opening at the show.

“He said there was an opening in the cue card department,” Wally Feresten recalls. “And, I said, ‘Great, did you recommend me?’ And he said, ‘Nope… because I know how bad your handwriting is.’ And he wasn’t wrong.” But after urging Spike to let the cue card team decide that for themselves, Wally landed an interview, which included printing cue cards for a half-hour. 

“My handwriting was pretty bad,” Feresten admits. “But I think, nicely, they said they’d seen worse than mine, and that they could train me. So they hired me.”

Feresten took the job in the hopes of getting a foot in the door for writing opportunities—which it did. Within a year, Feresten had written shows for Nickelodeon and jokes for Norm Macdonald. But the work wasn’t steady, and Feresten quickly made a name for himself in the cue card department. “I got really good at it really fast, and it kind of shaped the direction of my career,” he says.

He trained under Tony Mendez, who handled cue cards at SNL before leaving for Late Show with David Letterman. Looking back, Feresten wonders if Mendez was trying to get him fired by throwing him into the deep end early on: “I don’t let somebody hold one card in the show until I think they’re really ready,” Feresten says of how he runs things. But Mendez had Wally hold six cards, with no backups, for a live “Sprockets” sketch with Mike Myers. While the rest of his body shook with nerves, Feresten managed to hold the cards remarkably still. Mendez took note of how well Wally handled the job, and his responsibilities grew.

When Mendez left for Letterman’s new CBS program, Feresten was chosen to head up the department, despite having several colleagues with years of experience on him. “I didn’t panic under pressure. I think that was a key trait they were looking for,” Feresten reasons now. Today, he leads a team of cue card workers that typically consists of 3 others on Thursdays, and about 10 others by show day.

In addition to SNL, Feresten began handling the cue cards for other shows. When Last Call with Carson Daly called 8H home, Wally worked on it. (He even spent six months flying between New York and California when Daly’s show moved to L.A., trying to do both shows.)

In 2004, Feresten put down roots on his cue card empire. With the company that employed SNL’s cue card handlers bouncing checks and cue cards running low, Wally formed New York City Q Cards with the help of his wife, a marketing professional and entrepreneur, and took over the operation at the show. Today, NYC Q Cards is the only cue card company in New York City, and has been enlisted for New Year’s Eve specials, the Thanksgiving Day Parade, and The Apprentice’s live finales, among others. (Through the company, Wally continues to run cue cards for Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.)

Meanwhile, like Tony Mendez would on Letterman, Feresten gradually became a familiar face in front of the cameras. In 1991, he was seen onscreen for the first time during Steve Martin’s famous “Not Gonna to Phone It in Tonight” cold open. In 1993, he was given a speaking role during Alec Baldwin’s monologue. Daly, too, put him on camera. He cameoed on 30 Rock.

Then in 2014, Seth Meyers left his post as head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor at SNL to host the Late Night franchise down the hall. With his kids now older and his cue card business trucking along smoothly, Wally felt he had the time to work in a hands-on capacity on a second show. “When I saw that Seth was going to do it, I went in and said, ‘Hey, I want to run this show,’” Feresten recounts. “I was really close with Seth. I held his cards for Update. I told the executive producer, Mike Shoemaker, that I didn’t want Seth worrying about his cue cards… So they were very happy that I was volunteering to do it. And they’ve been very, very good to me over these ten years.” 

Wallly Feresten, NBC
Photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBC

Indeed, Meyers soon worked Feresten into the cast of characters on Late Night. Wally often appears as a version of himself in extensive bits—like the time Seth taught him about the “farm” old cue cards go to. On one occasion, when scheduled guest Action Bronson dropped out at the last minute, Meyers had Wally sit in as a guest.

“At first it was surprising, then the more I was on, the more fun it got,” Feresten says of his transition from holding cue cards to reading them. “Because it’s a daily show, you really can’t think about it… You don’t find out you’re in the show until the day you go in.”

And in Feresten’s case, much of that day is devoted to his actual job. “Maybe I’d have, like, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, to look at my lines… but otherwise I’m working and I’m writing cards and I’m holding cards during rehearsal. So you don’t get a chance to think about it. Maybe that’s good because you don’t get a chance to get nervous.” 

On the other hand, it’s clear Feresten does put thought into his job holding cue cards. The job relies on him being in sync with the performers his cards are guiding — which means, in the case of SNL, knowing the rhythms and needs of every performer and host.

Typically, he says, he’ll pull down a cue card when the performer has three or four words left to recite from it. “When you’re reading, that’s already in your brain, so you don’t need to see it anymore,” he explains. “But [for] some people who are having trouble reading cue cards, maybe I can’t pull it until the second-to-last word on the card.”

He’ll print larger for hosts with poor eyesight, but fitting less words on each card means he has to pull them down faster throughout the sketch. The same goes for sketches built around characters talking fast. If Feresten isn’t on point, it could stop the performer in their tracks.

Photo: NBC

While Feresten has been at it long enough now that mistakes are rare, he remembers one mishap early on when he was still learning.

Quick edits to cue cards are made by placing white tape over words and writing the revision on top of it—but if the handler isn’t careful, the tape can cause cards to stick together. That’s exactly what happened during a Weekend Update segment, when Wally was holding cards for then-anchor Norm Macdonald. 

“I had two cards that were stuck together, and it was the setup and the punchline,” Wally describes. “I went to pull the setup and it just wouldn’t pull. So I completely ruined the joke. He didn’t even say the punchline. It was awful.”

But Norm being Norm, he made the best of the error, and created a memorable moment for Feresten in the process. “There was silence in the studio. I looked at [Norm] and I mouthed the words, ‘I’m sorry.’ And—on the live show—he goes to me, ‘Don’t worry about it, Wally. It’s okay!’”

“Kind of Seth does that, too. If I make a mistake, Seth calls it out, and does it funnily, not mean-spirited, and makes a joke out of it.”

Both moments like that and his countless onscreen appearances have made Feresten something of a ubiquitous presence in NBC late-night, causing him to be recognized by both fans and celebs. When he introduced himself to Jack White during an SNL promo shoot, he was blown away to discover that White already knew who he was from watching Late Night. When Matthew Broderick appeared on Meyers’ show, he summoned Wally backstage to request an autograph for his friend.

But the most humbling reaction Feresten received came in 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

When lockdowns halted all TV production and put Feresten out of work, he and his wife realized it was the perfect time to bring a business idea he had been kicking around to fruition. Through Cue Cards by Wally, Feresten offers fans personalized messages on the same type of cards used on SNL and Late Night, handwritten by the long-running cue card scribe himself.

With people unable to attend parties and weddings during the lockdown, Cue Cards by Wally proved to be a popular way for late-night fans to give loved ones a unique gift—and four years later, it remains in demand.

“I just did it to kind of keep myself busy during the pandemic, but the feedback I’ve been getting…,” Wally reflects. “Especially during COVID. It was just so heartwarming… People were like, ‘I couldn’t go to my daughter’s wedding, and she’s a big SNL fan, and this just made her wedding.’… It was great for me to see how much joy I was bringing people, but I also knew that it was great for these people, too. It was bringing so much joy to them and their families.”

For now, Feresten continues to run cue cards at Late Night and nurse his shoulder back to health for SNL’s landmark 50th season this fall, which is set to include a star-studded three-hour primetime live special next February. And if it’s anything like SNL40, it’s going to be a long night for Wally. 

“It was the hardest show I’ve ever done,” Feresten remembers of the show’s 40th anniversary special in 2015. “It was a three-and-a-half-hour live show, and I was in a tuxedo.” 

“I’d be out there holding a sketch, and then I’d come back, and there’s Payton Manning and Derek Jeter running cards with one of my guys,” he recalls. “And then there’s Bill Murray running cards with somebody else over in another corner. And then there’s writers making changes on another thing. It was just… It was very chaotic.”

A typical SNL sketch might run between 25 and 40 cue cards, but for SNL40, the sketches were made longer to accommodate celebrity cameos—causing them to run about 90-100 cards each.

“I couldn’t break them up. I was holding that in a tuxedo, in slippery shoes, underneath three cameras where there was no room at all. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life for a show,” Feresten says. “So I can’t imagine what the 50th’s going [to be like].”

As intense as his job can be, it’s easy to hear how grateful—and awestruck—Feresten remains about it all.

“To be working in a job at the same show for 34 years is just insane,” he notes. “No one works on a TV show that long. It’s unheard of… The experiences I’ve had as a cue card person over these 34 years, far outweigh anything I could have done as a writer.”  

For more information on Wally Feresten’s personalized cue cards, visit

1 Comment

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  1. Nancy Miller says:

    Good job, Wally. Interesting article.