NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts Crew Is Only Too Happy to Take Jokes—And Cues—From SNL

Being satirized on Saturday Night Live is a right of passage for newsmakers and institutions, and many of them consider the attention well worth having the joke on them.

OK, maybe not Sen. Katie Britt.

But for the people at NPR who produce Tiny Desk Concerts, SNL‘s March 30th episode—which featured a sketch parodying their now venerable and suitably idiosyncratic internet series—was validation worthy of celebration.

And in perfectly quirky Tiny Desk fashion, they are celebrating it by displaying a cue card from the SNL sketch as part of their familiar overstuffed desk “set.”

“I thought it was great,” says Bobby Carter, the host and producer of the signature NPR series. “It was super flattering. When SNL does anything, whether they’re making fun of you or not, it’s a form of flattery.”

Well, let’s consider what SNL did with “Tiny Desk” in the sketch. That week’s host, the comic and actor Ramy Youssef, played the lead singer of a group called the Jonah Hughes Band who confesses that his first song “usually contains a lot more synth, but since this is a Tiny Desk Concert we’ve got to be quirking it up.”

Hence the reason why his bandmate (played by Chloe Troast) is playing a milk carton shaker instead of her usual cello. Quirking it up to the max.

The joke would seem to be how self-consciously offbeat the show is, because it’s inside a cramped office—and because it’s on the infinitely quirky NPR. (SNL has been having fun with that concept for decades, never more memorably than in its celebrated “Schweddy Balls” sketch, featuring unflappably deadpan delivery by Alec Baldwin, Ana Gasteyer, and Molly Shannon.)

But Carter (no relation, I guess I should mention) said he and others involved in Tiny Desk could not have been more excited when the sketch popped up. Carter himself was “off in the desert” out in Joshua Tree without a TV set, but after a torrent of calls and texts he caught up quickly on line.

“It was a really cool moment,” he says. Even with the sketch playing a bit snarkily on the distinctive locale for the show—that cluttered office space, which is, of course, the NPR’s show’s defining feature. (The show originated when producer Bob Boilen tried to showcase singer Laura Gibson in a bar room setting in Austin at the South by Southwest Festival in 2008, and jokingly suggested she might have sounded better singing back in his office. And an idea was born.)

“What stood out to me,” Carter says, “was how perfectly they were able to recreate the space. It was jaw-dropping. They got really, really close.”

In the SNL version, the performance is rudely interrupted by a 35-year-old intern, played by Bowen Yang, who is annoyed by the band’s noise-making because he’s trying to work.

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Carter says no such irksome interruption has  impeded the performance of any of the many artists who have graced Tiny Desk. (And what an assemblage that is: U2, Phoebe Bridgers, Sting, Miley Cyrus, Dave Matthews, Megan Thee Stallion, Smokey Robinson, Lizzo, Leslie Odom, Jr., John Legend and so many more–yes, including that Swift chanteuse, who came solo four years ago and drew an ecstatic mob to the Tiny corner.)

But Carter says the irritated co-worker joke still worked for him. “There are moments when we’re preparing for the show and some of the staff on the opposite side of the camera definitely walk away to get some peace and quiet. So I felt that part.”

Obviously many of the artists visiting Tiny Desk have also performed on SNL, and sometimes it goes the other way, where an emerging artist gets noticed on Tiny Desk before being invited on SNL. One recent example: the stylish jazz/rap singer RAYE brought her sound (and seven-piece backing band) to Tiny Desk just about a year ago. She was the music act on SNL three weeks ago, during Kristen Wiig’s latest hosting effort

“I heard from her team that the Tiny Desk performance sort of helped get that ball rolling with SNL, Carter says.

That’s just one parallel Carter draws between TD and SNL.

Yes, SNL is a much longer-running franchise, he acknowledges (50 years vs 16), but on SNL he says, “The only thing that changes is the cast of characters. They don’t touch the rest of it. Look at Tiny Desk. It’s the same way. The only thing that changes is the list of artists.”

TD is a much simpler production, of course, one reason it’s already ahead in terms of total episodes—more than 1100 vs  just under 950 for SNL. The latter is way ahead in total number of sets, though: thousands vs one.

But here’s another similarity, Carter argues. “We’re both unconventional.”

Yes. And now they both have cue cards. 

Tiny Desk is happy to display that little token of recognition, passed on by SNL’s cue card department.

“We just know that SNL, they cover things that are pop culture, that are of the now,” Carter said. “It’s just great to be recognized.”

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