We Saw 'Saturday Night Live' in Person. Any Questions??
Whoa, you went to SNL?! How did you get tickets?
Every year, throughout the month of August, NBC opens the ticket lottery for Saturday Night Live. And every year, my husband and I enter it with fingers crossed that we’ll finally be able to check this experience off our bucket list.
Then, three weeks ago, I was at work showing someone a video of our son on my phone when I saw an email notification drop down. Subject line: “RESERVATION CONFIRMED: SNL582609.” At first glance, I thought to myself, “Reservation? I haven’t booked any flights.” Then the SNL part registered and I blurted out “Oh my god!” I totally forgot about the cuteness of the video I had just seconds ago been so proud to share and yelled for anyone to hear:
“I THINK I JUST GOT TICKETS TO SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE!!!”
Heads popped up from cubicles to see what was going on. I literally jumped up and down. I couldn’t believe it!
I opened the email and processed the information as quickly as I could: 11:30 p.m.–not rehearsal, the live show! October 22–that was only two weeks away!
My husband and I scrambled to find someone who could watch our son for the weekend and planned our last-minute trip to New York. We still didn’t know who the host and musical guest would be, but we knew we’d see Alec Baldwin play Trump. That alone would be amazing!
Then over lunch with a friend, I decided to check online to see if the host had been announced yet. I saw the names and dropped my phone onto the table like it was an exploding Galaxy Note 7. TOM HANKS. LADY GAGA. We scored the jackpot!
I mean, seriously, wow, SNL! You’ve wanted to do that forever!
I know, right? It wasn’t until we were physically at Rockefeller Center that it started to hit me. After 35 years of watching the show almost every week, I was about to be inside Studio 8H. Coincidentally, I had also spent 35 years as a Cubs fan, and as we waited in line at NBC, they were winning Game 6 of the NLCS to advance to the World Series. And the reason I missed it is because I was about to be in the audience for Saturday Night Live. My 14-year-old self would never have believed that two of her life dreams would come true on the same night.
So… how was it?! Was it AMAZING?
It was amazing…ish. Unfortunately, as with most dreams, reality didn’t quite live up. The Cubs are down 3-1 in the Series, and our “SNL” experience was ultimately disappointing, as much as it pains me to say it.
Oh no, why?
When we arrived at 30 Rock, it became clear there was a caste system among the audience members. After being given our tickets and wristbands (and being instructed to take no photos), we were told to go to the middle room of the Peacock Lounge.
What’s the Peacock Lounge?
So then what?
After about a half-hour, a woman’s voice came on the PA. “OK, if your ticket envelope has the letter ‘S,’ the letters ‘TH’ or a star, we’re ready for you now.” We looked down. Our envelope had the number 2.
A few minutes later: “OK, if you have a green wristband, we’re ready for you now.” Our wristbands were black.
Finally, with only a few of us left: “OK, everyone with a black wristband, please come to the front.” As we all stood in the elevator, I said, “We’re assuming they saved the best for last,” and the group laughed. But it was that “Heh, we know we’re all screwed” laugh.
When we walked into the studio, we could see it all. There was home base! And the band! And that’s where Lady Gaga will be! Then, like a flight attendant closing the curtain between coach and first class, an NBC page pointed to our right and said, “OK, I need you to go all the way down to the end there.”
How were your seats?
Actually, the worst. The literal worst. We couldn’t see the band. We wouldn’t be able to see Lady Gaga. What we could see was blocked by lights and monitors. It was a real bummer. This was what we had dropped everything for? This was our reward for a lifetime of fandom? We definitely felt like a couple of number 2’s.
Oh no, that sucks! But at least you were there, right?
Ha, ha. So then what?
Around 11:15, Michael Che came out to warm up the audience, which is tough to do when you act like you’re way too cool for the room. We’ve been lucky enough to attend tapings of Conan, Live! With Kelly and Michael and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and at each of those, the warm-up guy knew he had one job: make the audience feel special. Acknowledge that it’s exciting for them to be at a TV show. Let them know you really, really appreciate having them there, and remind them that they are an essential part of the show.
Che, on the other hand, casually pointed out the exits and half-heartedly reminded us not to take pictures. He brought no energy to the room, and worse, seemed to chastise the audience for not being more excited. It felt like he couldn’t get off stage fast enough.
Fortunately, he turned it over to Kenan Thompson, who came out in a suit with Vanessa Bayer, Kate McKinnon and Sasheer Zamata in sequined black dresses as his back-up singers. They got the crowd going with “Gimme Some Lovin’,” and Sasheer had the presence of mind to turn and wave to the audience, including us corner dwellers. As they left the stage, the crew immediately began setting up home base for the first debate sketch. As it got close to showtime, we could see Baldwin and McKinnon in the wings.
Then the studio got dark and the stage manager announced “30 seconds to air!”
Sometimes, when the cold open starts at home, you can hear some residual giggling from the crowd. What are they laughing at?
At the end of the countdown, the stage manager calmly says “Ten seconds!” Then he yells “FIVE SECONDS!!” as if he’s suddenly in a panic. He must do it every week, and it got a good laugh from the crowd.
So then the show started!
Yes! That was exciting, knowing they were now on the air LIVE. We were surprised to see Tom Hanks in the cold open on the monitor and couldn’t place where he was on the stage. Then Alan noticed he was right below us.
Does the crowd applaud through the opening titles?
Yes, but we realized at home that you don’t hear any actual crowd noise on the broadcast. In the studio, there was a swell with every cast member name that you don’t hear on TV. We think any applause you hear in the open is pre-recorded as part of the audio mix.
Were the sketches funnier in person?
Yes and no. I was definitely laughing out loud more at jokes than I would at home. But whenever I’ve been at other TV tapings, I’ve made a concerted effort not to simply watch the show on the monitors. After all, I can do that at home! If I’m in the studio, I want to take advantage of that experience and watch the real people, not the TVs.
But I found for SNL, that didn’t quite work. The sketches were all funnier when I watched them at home because I could see the nuance of a facial expression or the timing of a cutaway on a punchline. In the studio, I found myself reading ahead on the cue cards and becoming more engrossed in the production than in the sketches themselves.
Oh, the cue cards–did you know SNL uses cue cards? So many cue cards! It seriously is the most critical job on the show, to be the person holding the words people are saying on live television. And it’s a six-person job! All three cameras have someone holding cards above them, which all include the full script of the sketch. Next to the person holding the cards is another person whose job it is to be handed the cards as they’re used. (I guess I had always assumed they just dropped them on the floor?) And the first person can only hold so many cards at a time, so there are actually several separate groups of cards on a table next to each camera. SHOW BUSINESS.
Where in the studio do they do the sketches?
I’ve always assumed they had dedicated spaces just for sketches, and for some reason I always thought Weekend Update had its own permanent mini-set. But they really sort of use whatever space there is on the floor around those lucky VIP bastards who get the floor seats. It seems like they use home base as much as they can.
Most importantly, where did they do David S. Pumpkins?
Some people will remember where they were when man walked on the moon or when Barack Obama was elected President. Us, we’ll always remember that we were in Studio 8H on the night the world met David S. Pumpkins.
This was a sketch nobody in the audience could see, because it was tucked under the main balcony.
I’m sure this was intentional, since the final punchline relied on the element of surprise, and it got a huge laugh in the studio. At the time, we thought it was one of the funnier sketches of the night, so silly in its randomness, but we had no idea it would become the viral hit it did. My husband managed to get one of the last suits for his Halloween costume before they sold out, and when non-SNL fans at parties ask who he is, he simply replies, “My own thing!”
Which sketches could you see?
We had a decent view of Hanks coming out after the intro, but couldn’t really see his “Dad Talk” monologue. “Black Jeopardy!” was set up across from us on the other side of the studio, so we had a decent view of that.
We couldn’t really see the “Sully” sketch, which was on home base inside two set pieces that joined together to form the cockpit, so our view was only of the outside of the “plane.”
We had a slightly better view of “America’s Funniest Pets,” which was also on home base, but that one depended on video clips, so we ended up mostly watching it on the monitors.
Omg, how was Lady Gaga??
Well, she sounded great. But because we were even with the proscenium, we couldn’t see her at all. At one point, she did a kick and we briefly saw her foot. Which was incredibly unique and eclectic and just so “Gaga,” you know?
What happens during the commercials?
It was fascinating to see how quickly the crew turns over sets for the next sketch. After “Black Jeopardy!” ended, we saw Leslie and Tom dash off set the second the camera light went off. They (along with Kenan) were in the next sketch, the “Block Party” one that was kind of a dud. I noticed both of the first sketches had sets that were already set up before the show, and both were more dressed than some of the others. For example, the “Block Party” one had fake trees you could see through the window, and that was about the only thing we could see from our seats. (We did get a good view of Melissa Villaseñor at the top of stairs before she entered, since she was up at our eye level.)
What do you see when they’re playing the video segments?
They have monitors all throughout the studio, and the lights are all down while the video plays. Both video pieces were definitely placed strategically within the show structure to give the cast time for costume changes and the crew a chance to move sets.
What happens after the goodnights? Does the cast just hang out and chat onstage?
Nope. As soon as the cameras were off, someone came up to escort Lady Gaga off first, then Hanks, then the cast walked off single file. The audience is then corralled out through the gift shop (which was open late just for us because NBC knows we’re suckers who will pay $34 for a T-shirt at one o’clock in the morning).
Side note: On the way down from the studio, we were in the elevator with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. I had just recently seen her on Real Time with Bill Maher, so I recognized her voice immediately when she asked the man with her, “Do we need tickets or what?” He answered, “I know where to go,” so we assume they were headed to the after-party.
As we walked out of the elevator, I heard my mom’s voice in my head: Tell her you’re a writer, too! Maybe she’ll invite you to the party!
So did you get to see anyone from the cast after the show?
We had been told by one of our seatmates to go out on the 50th Street side across from Radio City Music Hall to see the cast members as they leave the building. We saw a line of limos, but no crowd of people, and we assumed we’d missed everyone. But then Lorne came out!
As we waited a few more minutes, one of the security guards turned to us and said, “You guys waiting for the cast? They’re over on the other side!” Sure enough, on 49th Street there were barricades set up for the crowd of about 50 or so waiting for people to leave. As we heard the chatter, we quickly realized they were all 20-somethings desperate for a glimpse of Lady Gaga. But alas, she never emerged, nor did Hanks, which makes me think we were better off on the 50th Street side. After all, if that’s where Lorne leaves, it’s probably where the other A-listers go, too.
BUT I did get pics with Sasheer and Colin Jost, who both came over to the barricades. I loved how neither of them pretended anybody wanted to talk to them, and instead just opened with, “Anybody want a picture?”
Did you guys get on TV? I looked for you!
What, you didn’t see us??
So are you glad you did it? Because this post is really long and detailed for someone who claims to have been disappointed.
Oh, we definitely are thrilled to have had the opportunity, and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for it. We said it’s probably a case of “Don’t meet your heroes,” because our expectations were always going to be impossibly high. Like so many people, I grew up watching SNL, to the point that being inside the studio in a way felt like going home. And the chance to be at a show with Tom Hanks and Alec Baldwin–two of the best hosts in SNL history–made the night extra special.
But overall, the trip also reminded me that it’s just a show. For these cast and crew members, it’s a job. Their office happens to be a TV studio. Even for Lorne, it’s all in a week’s work. I had gone in thinking my lifelong fandom had entitled me to an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience, when in reality that night was simply another 90 minutes for these guys to crank out before starting all over again on the next episode.
While some of the magic might be gone, I do have a renewed appreciation for the level of comedy that team produces in just six days. SNL has given me hundreds, maybe thousands, of laughs over the years, and I know I can rely on it for many more laughs to come. The way the Cubs are playing right now, lord knows I’m going to need them.