Cue cards are more than just an assist for on-camera actors in a pinch, they’re an essential tool productions can use when their show is changing too quickly for the performers to properly acclimate. Though most frequently used in live television, its origins stem all the way back to black and white cinema. As we define what cue cards are, we’ll dive deeper into its history and how it’s evolved over the years in both TV and film. Let’s dig in.


First, let’s define cue cards

Are cue cards just an analog version of a teleprompter? Does the cue card holder have to write every single card or is that another person’s job? Before we dive too deep, let’s first define the term.


What is a cue card?

A cue card is a large sheet of paper with an on-camera host or performer’s lines written on them, as a means to help the performer remember what they have to say. They are usually held off-camera, unseen by an at-home audience. The most common use of cue cards can be found in TV variety shows, where script changes are often too rampant and down to the wire for performers to memorize the new line changes.


  • The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon
  • Saturday Night Live
  • Late Night with Seth Meyers
  • The Drew Barrymore Show


A brief history of cue cards

What may seem like a modern practice actually stretches all the way back to the 1930s. In the sections below, we’re going to go over the origins of cue cards and how it can be utilized in both TV and film.

Cue Cards in Film

In the 1930s, “Talkies” had arrived and for the first time, film actors were facing the premise of memorizing their lines for every shot. This proved especially difficult for older actors, who grew so accustomed to having either their lines read to them by an off-screen production member or relied on purely emoting with their face. 

Cue cards weren’t actually utilized by productions for these cases, but rather engineered by the performers themselves – at least that was the case for film actor John Barrymore.

Around the mid-to-late 1930s, Barrymore’s off-screen lifestyle proved difficult with maintaining his memory and focus on-set, so he started writing “little notes” so that he’d never miss a line.

John Barrymore in 1939, performing a monologue most likely aided by film cue cards

Barrymore soon became known as a “cue card artiste,” specifically for the creative ways in which he hid these cards throughout a film set, with the audience at home none the wiser.

Cue Cards in TV

At the advent of cue cards, they were mostly known as a “dirty little secret” in film production, and considered “cheating” within the acting community. It wouldn’t be until a few decades later, when cue cards would first make their appearance on a TV show set and that perception would change. 

In 1949, a CBS page named Barney McNulty was working on The Ed Wynn Show and saw that the show’s host and star was struggling with his lines. Due to his military past, McNulty was skilled at writing quickly and cleanly, and knew he could utilize these talents to craft cue cards he could hold for Wynn just off-camera.

The plan worked, and the need for cards in TV caught on, with McNulty eventually becoming the personal cue card operator for Bob Hope until he retired. Throughout his life, McNulty became known as “The Cue Card King,” applying this brand identity to his company, “Ad-Libs” which created cue cards for stars like Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Fred Astaire, Orson Welles, and more.

What Are Cue Cards Cue Cards TV Example StudioBinder

Cue cards are held for Bob Hope during his famous USO Tour shows


Cue cards vs. teleprompters

Many believe that cue cards are the predecessor to teleprompters, or that both forms are one in the same. Though they’re similar in their use, the difference lies in the end visual effect for the audience.

Teleprompters (also known as “autocues”) is a digital scroll of text that a performer reads either on a small screen or on the camera itself. Most commonly, teleprompters are either in front of or below a camera’s lens.

The words on the screen appear on a sheet of glass commonly referred to as a, “beam splitter,” placed at an angle so that it may not interfere with the footage the camera’s capturing and so the performer’s eye-line is focused directly to the camera’s lens.

Teleprompter Mastery explores teleprompters for Presidents 


Cue cards today

Since its invention, cue cards have now become ubiquitous within TV and film, but no show utilizes or celebrates cue cards more than Saturday Night Live. Their “Barry McNulty” is a cue card operator named Wally Feresten, who’s been writing lines for performers since the 1970’s.

In the clip below, Wally describes SNL’s unique way of incorporating cue cards, from his role as part of the “welcome committee” greeting every new host that enters the show, to appearing several times on-camera. In this case, cue cards aren’t just a necessity for the cast, but a way to inject more comedy.

As Wally and his cards have become more integrated into the show, it’s easy to see them both as “honorary cast members” – appearing beyond just simple necessity, sometimes even in the celebrity host’s opening monologue. 

What are cue cards in the modern era  •  SNL’s Wally Feresten gives a guide

Up Next

What Are Subtitles in Film & TV?

Now that we’ve gone over cue cards, let’s dive into another essential tool within film and TV: subtitles. How do they work and who gets to write them? Does it change for live events? In the article below, we’ll provide all the answers as well as go over a brief history. 

Up Next: Subtitles in Film & TV →
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  • Julia Mayfield is a writer/comedian from North Hollywood with a Bachelor's Degree in Film Studies from Chapman University. She's written for shows airing on Disney, Netflix, Nickelodeon, Amazon, and more.

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