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From WNY to 'SNL': Lindsay Shookus talks about her roots and her career ... but not her boyfriend

When Lindsay Shookus was at Williamsville South High School 20 years ago, she performed "Saturday Night Live" sketches with a classmate.

Now she heads the "SNL" department that books the hosts and the musical acts that perform on NBC's legendary late-night program.

In an interview at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in the small talent department office near Studio 8H where "SNL" is performed, Shookus talked about the role Western New York has played in the success that was visible on Emmy night. She stood behind "SNL" creator Lorne Michaels when he accepted an Emmy for best variety sketch series and she was praised by Emmy winner Alec Baldwin after he won as supporting actor in a comedy.

What she didn't talk about was the reason she suddenly draws attention from photographers and gossip writers: her relationship with actor Ben Affleck.

Shookus, a name of Lithuanian descent that is pronounced like "she shook us really hard," advanced into her producing position through the hard work learned in Western New York, a lively, comforting personality and some luck as laughable as some of the best "SNL" sketches.

The 1998 Williamsville South graduate is one of 12 people being honored as new members of the Williamsville Wall of Fame on Friday.

"It means a lot to me because I think I am who I am today based on the values my family instilled in me, my school instilled in me, my friends instilled in me," said Shookus, who discovered "SNL" castmates Kate McKinnon and Kristen Wiig and booked Grammy Award-winning singer Sam Smith before he became a sensation.

Kate McKinnon, here showing off her Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series Emmy last month, came to "Saturday Night Live" thanks in part to Lindsay Shookus. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

"I think I learned the value of hard work when I was in Buffalo," added Shookus, who is looking forward to delivering an optimistic message to South students.

"You kind of have no idea where you are going to end up 20 years later," she explained. "I'm excited for other kids to see that anything is possible."

As the interview began, the telephone rang so often that Shookus excused herself to turn off the volume. The rings illustrated how valuable Shookus is to the show's weeklong planning.

The industry has noticed her. She previously was named one of the Hollywood Reporter's Up-and-Coming Executives and has appeared twice on Billboard's Women in Music list.

She said her role is to figure out how to bring out the best parts of the hosts to produce a great show.

"And being the person they can talk to (if they say) 'I'm concerned about this sketch,' " she added. " 'I'm not comfortable with this sketch. What do you think about my monologue? What can we do to change it? What writer can I work with?' I'm trying to look out for the show and look out for the host at the same time."

Shookus joined "SNL" shortly after graduating from the University of North Carolina's journalism program.

"This sounds fake, but my first job lead when I moved to New York City, someone emailed me and asked, 'Would you want to be one of Lorne Michaels' assistants?' " recalled Shookus, laughing. "Absolutely!"

She didn't get the Michaels' job but was hired as an assistant to a talent department producer, Marci Klein. "She is the person whose job I have now," she said.

She wasn't bragging. That isn't in her DNA. Her mother Christine had to be the one to reveal Lindsay was the president of her junior and senior high school classes.

Lindsay Shookus' parents Christine and Bob Shookus, here with author Lauren Belfer, left, during a 2011 event at Buffalo Seminary. (News file photo)

Her mother also revealed that Lindsay probably watched the musical "Annie" 50 times growing up. "She just loved music and theater," her mother said.

She said she remembers during holiday gatherings that Lindsay led her younger cousins in sketches and talk shows. "I think that's kind of the start of it. I think all along, it was there for her."

One of three children raised by Christine and Robert A. Shookus, Lindsay comes off as the girl next door who instantly makes people feel comfortable. And that is part of the job description.

"To be honest, I didn't know this kind of job existed," said Shookus. "I remember when I got it, I thought 'This sounds fake.' It is not. It is not as glamorous as it all seems."

She started by answering phones, picking up talent, making them feel comfortable and planning the after-show parties.

"It was a really good lesson on the basics of show business," she explained.

After college, she thought she would go into public relations, with the ideal job being in crisis communications.

"If there were a devastating event or some crazy thing, I thought I could handle myself under pressure," she said, laughing as she finished that thought. "I do a version of that here. I'm kind of the crisis communications person at 'SNL.' If there are fires to put out, they try and find me."

Her job title changed over the years to talent coordinator, talent executive, associate producer, co-producer and now producer. She said she realized her strengths after every promotion. Working hard was at the top of the list.

"I was the first one to say, 'I'll cover that, I'll stay late. I'll go to that shoot.' Anything I could do to add to my job description … . I also found out – you can't learn this in college – but I had a knack for dealing with talent in stressful situations and knowing how to make them feel comfortable and also being fairly truthful. These six days (preparing for shows) is a fairly stressful time for people who haven't done it before."

Her mother said Lindsay's crisis skills were evident early when she enlisted her grandfather to save a high school car wash that started poorly. "Lindsay had the ability to be able to turn things around," said her mother.

Producers Erin Doyle, Lindsay Shookus, Lorne Michaels, Steve Higgins, and Erik Kenward, pose for photos after winning the Emmy for Outstanding Variety/Sketch Series for "Saturday Night Live." (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Discovering Wiig, a Rochester native, and McKinnon were feathers in her cap.

Wiig's manager sent an audition tape to Shookus, who was sold immediately and had the support of another producer. Her boss wasn't sold so Shookus asked the manager to alter the tape.

"We got it to a decent place," recalled Shookus. "She auditioned twice for us and it was clear as day."

Shookus said she would like to say she predicted the success of the Emmy-winning McKinnon – whose stardom was assured by her election-year impression of Hillary Clinton – after her audition, but said success is hard to forecast.

"Becoming really successful here is not just based on being the most talented," she said. "It is based truly on a lot of talent and your writing abilities, but also based on being able to navigate this place and work with other writers. How do you work with hosts? It is the whole thing, not just who is the most talented? Who is the funniest?"

Shookus was sure of one performer – Smith. He performed in March 2014 before his first album won multiple Grammys.

"I feel warm when I hear his voice," she explained. She said her 4-year-old daughter Madeline recognizes his voice because she has been hearing it at home since she was 2.

Shookus was immediately hooked by Smith after downloading a tune and saw him live in Austin, Texas, weeks before the end of the 2014 season.

"I called Lorne and said, 'You're going to think I'm crazy and I might be,' " she recalled. "The timing makes no sense, but I think this guy is going to be a star. If we didn't book him in March, we didn't have a spot for him that season and I know somebody else would find him and somebody would put him out there. And I wanted us to be the show that put him out there. I felt so strongly that I didn't want anyone else to beat us."

He was on the show a day after his single came out.

"Nobody knew who he was. Everybody on the show was, 'Who is this guy? What is going on'? Then he opened his mouth and everyone was, 'OK, he can sing.' Four months later his album was huge. He has one of the careers that feels so good to watch. It feels very special. It makes me happy."

She also has attracted attention for being romantically linked to Affleck, her Emmy date. A former journalism student, she knew she had to be asked about it, even in this gentle way: "How could you possibly date a fan of the New England Patriots?"

She laughed loudly before punting the question.

"Once a Bills fan, always a Bills fan," she answered.

She dismissed a follow-up question about how she deals with the attention she gets for dating a celebrity.

"I don’t really want to talk about it. I'm sorry," she said.

This may sound fake, but she was so warm and real – and so Western New York – that I almost felt sorry for asking it.

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