Arts and Culture

After SNL Sketch, Meet the Real Denver Zoo Pornographer...Er...Photographer

Denver Zoo
From left to right: Denver Zoo public-relations coordinator Marina Belisle, photographer and design and interactive manager Charlotte Bassin, and public-relations manager Sean Andersen-Vie reenact Saturday Night Live's zoo pornographer sketch.
In case anybody's wondering after the recent Saturday Night Live skit about a Denver Zoo animal, the actual Denver Zoo does not support animal porn, says public-relations manager Sean Andersen-Vie.

But that doesn't mean that he and the staff at the Denver Zoo were wounded by Saturday Night Live's March 11 parody of a nightly newscast gone horribly awry. Unlike President Donald Trump, who's pouted over his portrayal on SNL, the Denver Zoo has its messaging machine largely under control — and zoo employees have a terrific sense of humor.

Staffers say they got a kick out of the skit in which a "Good Day Denver" news show's lower-thirds graphics mistakenly identify affable zoo photographer Danny Bangs, played by Mikey Day, as an "animal pornographer," which leads to a string of foibles that makes Bangs look more and more culpable of producing animal porn.

So, does the real Denver Zoo have an actual zoo photographer? Sort of. But not Danny Bangs. Charlotte Bassin, an SNL fan herself, works as the zoo's design and interactive manager, and one of her many responsibilities is photographing the animals and their big-life events, like the recent birth of Dobby the giraffe. She also shoots the iconic photos of animals that grace zoo ads on billboards around town, and has even produced a children's book, much like the one Bangs held in the skit.

We caught up with Bassin and Andersen-Vie to talk about the Saturday Night Live sketch, a primate who masturbated in front of children, Somali wild asses and how Bassin captures the souls of animals.
Charlotte Bassin, Denver Zoo
Westword: When did you all realize this Saturday Night Live sketch had happened?

Charlotte Bassin: I got a text on Sunday, which is how I found out about it. [To Andersen-Vie] How did you find out about it?

Sean Andersen-Vie: I started getting texts from different staff members on Saturday night. We didn't know the full details. We basically knew there was something about some sort of fake news story that was about to air, and we didn't know any details. Once it got closer, we learned it was people from the East Coast that had watched the SNL skit, of course, two hours ahead of us, and that's how we found out. Then we were actually able to watch it and get a kick out of it. So it was a slow process. We didn't actually know what to make of it, because we didn't have the information. Once it became clear, it was actually sort of fun.

When you watched it, did you in any way identify with this fictional photographer?

Bassin: Yeah. I identified with everything he was saying, like, "Capture that moment." We actually have a Denver Zoo ABC book that I designed and have photos in from a couple years ago. That was just a funny coincidence. Yeah, definitely, but definitely not "the pornographer." But I've never been interviewed. Nobody's made that mistake before.
Charlotte Bassin, Denver Zoo
This is your first time, right?

Bassin: Yeah.

What's your process for shooting the animals?

Bassin: It's actually just a small portion of my job; I primarily do design work for the zoo. But I came on five years ago. I was a volunteer at the zoo before; I did volunteer photography here. When they brought me on, I said, "I can help out." Sean is our PR manager, and he's our videographer. We're a nonprofit, and we try to fill as many shoes as we can. But it's by far my favorite part of the job.

Usually, Sean and I will both be called out when there is a new arrival or a new baby, which is really exciting. We get to see it before anybody else. That's kind of the most fun, because the babies are just adorable. Otherwise, there are cool opportunities. For instance, I've photographed inside the animal hospital when they were doing a tiger's exam. I've done that a couple times. The keepers are there, and they're educating you about the animals, but they're also like, "You can touch it. It's fine." And you put your hand up to that big, huge paw or you look really closely at that tooth. Most people don't get to do that, and it's really amazing.

I like to say that when I am photographing — I mean, I love animals — but by photographing them and using a nice lens and getting up close, I get to feel this real connection with them and capture them. I even will telepathically speak to them and say, "Hey, come on, just move a little bit this way or move a little bit that way." Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don't. You've got to go with the flow of the animals. But it's really exciting when you just know you got that shot.

I've taken my kid to the zoo a few times. There certainly are awkward moments that arise with these animals.

Bassin: Oh, yeah.

I'm curious what some of those awkward experiences might be for you.

Bassin: Because I came here...[to Andersen-Vie] Can I tell the Somali ass story?

Andersen-Vie: Oh, yeah.

Bassin: So, Sean and I, when we got our Somali wild asses — there were two of them when they first arrived — and Sean and I were out there taking video. You're out there for a while waiting for good lighting, the right shot, and it was really fun. People would see the Somali wild ass, you know, and if it was a young couple, they would say, "Oh, a wild ass. I've seen some of those in my day." Or then there were the parents with kids who can't read, and they see the sign, and they say, "Oh, it's Somali donkeys."

Otherwise, yeah, stuff happens at the zoo. I don't always capture those moments. I like eavesdropping [on our guests], and they're like, "Well, this is maybe the best time to teach them about the birds and the bees, right? It's all nature."
Charlotte Bassin, Denver Zoo
The masturbating primates are the ones that always get me. It's like, "Oh, God, please, stop."

Bassin: I have not witnessed that, and I'm kind of glad I haven't.

There were maybe fifteen kids congregated around one of the primates. I can't remember which type.

Bassin: Was that here in Denver Zoo?

Oh, yeah.

Andersen-Vie: Which species? I've never seen it either.

It was a pretty remarkable, distinct-looking one with a kind of long face.

Bassin: Was it one of the larger monkeys?

It was definitely larger. Unfortunately, I was so distracted by what was happening, I didn't jot the species down.

Bassin: Yeah, that's pretty awkward.
Charlotte Bassin, Denver Zoo
So much of that sketch was about how the media makes mistakes and interprets things. I'm curious if you've had experience with that as well.

Bassin: Well, honestly, this is the first time I've been in the limelight. Sean can maybe respond to that. I haven't had that experience at all.

What I've really enjoyed about the whole experience is how humorous it all is, and everybody's got a great sense of humor.

At first, you're told, "Well, wait a minute, we can't do anything, because it's not family-friendly." Sean and I were really disappointed. We were really super-excited to come in on Monday and reenact the whole thing, because Sean's a PR guy. He does video, you know. We did get to do that — just stills — but we had to hold on to those photos and hold off and make sure people were cool with it. Finally, they just let go. It became more about the jest, the fun of it, and less about pornography. That was pushed to the side.

Andersen-Vie: More "The Denver Zoo was featured on Saturday Night Live" — which was a kick.

Bassin: Right. My husband and I, we're all pretty big fans here. So you kind of feel honored in this bizarre way.

Totally! You're the closest person to the character in that skit.

Bassin: Exactly. So my husband and I have tickets to see Michael Che on Saturday. I forgot about that. I'm like, "I'm gonna go there with my zoo shirt and my camera and get a picture with Michael Che. You know, let's make this thing last!" [Laughs.]

Did Saturday Night Live work with anybody at the zoo to pull that off?

Andersen-Vie: No. We were surprised. They got the logo and branding pretty accurately correct. Everyone else was like, "Oh, did you know ahead of time? Did you work with them? Did you know this?" I said, "No. Not at all." We were shocked at how closely they actually got everything correct. Charlotte's kind of in charge of our brand visuals. There were small things, of course, we noticed. But it was remarkable how accurate the look was.
What did they get wrong?

Bassin: It's funny. We have a horizontal logo. I guess when they created his shirt, they wanted a horizontal logo, but they didn't find one. What they did is kind of butcher our logo and took Denver Zoo from the bottom and cut it off and put it over to the side with the lion. Which is kind of cool. It's close, but it's also sort of butchering our logo. As the brand manager, I don't love that. But it was tiny. I was like, "It's fine. They tried."

Have patrons been responding to the video? Have they talked to you about it at all?

Sean-Andersen: We've had some conversation on social media. Mostly, people were positive, and they got a kick out of it. I think that's overwhelmingly the response — that people thought it was a funny thing. Obviously, some people thought it was not the greatest topic to be joking about. Of course, we do not support animal pornography in the real world. But we just got a kick. We thought it was fun to be roasted, as well. We thought it was kind of fun to have our name on a national comedy show.

The people who were grumpy about it — what was their take?

Andersen-Vie: They don't think animal pornography is something to joke about. And we certainly understand that. We would never truly advocate that.

In terms of day-to-day folks at the zoo, have people been talking about it? Or not so much?

Andersen-Vie: Day-to-day in terms of guests?

Yeah. Guests.

Andersen-Vie: I don't know. It's a good question. What I was just telling you was just all we've heard on social media. I've been out to the zoo a couple times since that's happened, and I think most of the conversation has been about Dobby, the new giraffe. I think that's the overwhelming topic, when you're actually on zoo grounds. I haven't heard any whispers of SNL, fortunately.

Dobby may have been put in the shadows briefly. It's sad.

Andersen-Vie: Yeah. He had his moment in the sun.

Did anyone have any contact with Saturday Night Live afterward?

Andersen-Vie: No, we didn't reach out at all. They didn't reach out. We tried to make light about it by posting on our Twitter pretty frequently the next morning. I forgot how we phrased it, but it was something to the effect of, "Just so you all know, Danny Bangs is not an official employee or does not work at Denver Zoo," something to that effect. We want to have fun with it but also put people at ease. Since then, we've not responded to SNL. I think there was some talk about our vice-president reaching out to Olive Garden, because they were also spoofed. But I'm not sure it actually happened.

Bassin: I tagged them on my Instagram.

Andersen-Vie: SNL?

Bassin: Yeah, I took a picture. I haven't checked, but I don't think there was any response. The next morning, because I knew we were going to reenact it, before heading to work, I had my husband take a picture. Actually, I had a few, but there was a fun one. I Instagrammed it. "This is the real Zoo photographer," and tagged at SNL and then hashtagged it, #Cooljobalert, which was part of their skit, which I agree. I do have a really cool job.
Charlotte Bassin, Denver Zoo
What are the highlights of that job?

Bassin: Honestly, and I've said it before, I just love the photography. I love the design work I do, too, but primarily with the photography, I really do feel this connection with the animals.

When you're watching them, you look at them, and you're like, "Oh, they're cute," and you kind of keep on walking, right? When trying to capture a moment, you're really focused on their behavior, trying to capture a glint in their eyes, trying to get the light. I'm connecting with them.

And because I get to be the zoo's photographer, I'm actually having an opportunity to share those photos, right? I'm not just taking pictures on my computer. We use them on social media. We use them for press releases. We use them in our marketing material, on billboards. When you get to see your photo printed really huge, it's a really good feeling. My hope is as I'm capturing these really great photos of the animals and guests see them, when they're not on site, that they experience that sort of connection, too. Does that make sense?


Bassin: I'm just really passionate about what I do, and I hope that by capturing the soul of the animal, guests get to experience that too.