So. If you’re wondering what it’s like to see a taping of Saturday Night Live, I can fill you in. Because that’s what I did this weekend.
First of all, you will apply for tickets to SNL in August. They’re free; you just fill out a form with your contact information and hit “send.”
Next, you will forget about it, because what are the chances you’ll actually get seats?
Then, in early April you’ll get notification by email that you have tickets for the following Saturday night, about eight days away. If you live in Washington, D.C., you are happy about this, because it’s easy to take the bus up to Manhattan. If you live on the other side of the country, you may be annoyed because it’s a long haul to New York on short notice. If you don’t go, they give your seat to one of the stand-by people waiting outside. And it might be a good seat — some center seats were filled at last minute last night by people who were standing by.
When you go to Manhattan for your SNL weekend, if you have worked an overnight shift in a newsroom the night before, you may plan to sleep on the Bolt bus to NY but find you’re too excited to do so. This will bite you in the ass later. But It’s understandable, as you’ve been working a lot and didn’t realize how much you would relish a break.
When you get to Manhattan you schlep your bag across town, a long way on foot, because you want to look at everything and by the time you decide you really should have taken a cab, you are like five blocks from your hotel. You vow never to travel with a non-wheelie bag again.
If you are nuts, you do not sleep when you check into your hotel. You drop your bags and go out on the town to see and do as much as possible before you collapse. That evening, you hit a Broadway show, and get home around 11:30.
Of course, you sleep from like 1am to 7am, and then you are too jazzed to sleep anymore. So you take a walk. You eat breakfast at a cafe across from Grand Central Terminal, because not one of the many food vendors at the train station serve a breakfast with any protein in it, just bagels and pastries and etc. And you are starving. So you hit the cafe and you wolf down a couple eggs, toast, potatoes, and three pieces of bacon, and then you are astonished and ashamed. But it’s just food guilt, and you were distracted by the very talky California native chatting at you from the next table, and after all if you were that hungry, you needed to eat. So you move on.
You decide to walk off this delicious breakfast with a two-hour walk up Manhattan’s east Midtown and Upper East Side, which must be capitalized because it is the land of the rich and impressive. You admire many dogs at dog parks, and miss your own companion animals, and then by the time you reach your destination, the mayor’s Gracie Mansion, you are gritting your teeth and wincing at the blister on your left foot.
You take a cab back to the hotel. This has become a favorite sight-seeing method of yours, the one-way walk followed by a cab ride. You would be smarter, of course, to walk half as far and then take a different route back home on foot. But inevitably your compulsion to keep going gets the better of you.
After some rest, you go see a matinee performance of a Broadway play, “That Championship Season,” if you’re lucky, which reunites Brat Packers Kiefer Sutherland and Jason Patric, who happens to be the son of the guy who wrote the play, who happens to be the guy who played the young priest in The Exorcist, and this happens to be his only play, and it is magnificent. Afterward, you might catch Kiefer Sutherland outside the theater, signing autographs, and he is shorter than you expected but how nice of him to come out to see his fans. He is mobbed, of course, and the most you see is the back of his head.
Once you have established that you would have to climb over about fifty people to get a good look at Mr. Sutherland and opt not to, you meet a couple of friends for dinner and coffee and then you and your plus-one head to Rockefeller Center.
Where you get in line and wait for a very long time. And your lack of sleep and long walk make you a sore, punchy, and way too talkative conversation partner with your plus-one. He, being a new dad, is tolerant. Your conversation may be inane, but at least if you need to pee you’ll do it yourself, and new parents appreciate that.
Eventually, you get in line to show your ID and claim your two purple tickets, which list the show host and band. Your plus-one takes a picture of the tickets to post on Facebook, and you’re mighty glad it’s just your hand and the ticket in the picture because you’re feeling pretty darn ragged.
You stand in line some more. Eventually, you are broken into groups, which tempts you to make a Holocaust joke and you refrain but admit to your plus-one that you were thinking of it, and he is probably horrified but he doesn’t show it. You take the elevator upstairs, and you get in line and wait some more. There are pictures of SNL sketches in the hallway where you’re standing, and you’re distressed to see that they have one of the infamous Jenny Slate sketch where she’s supposed to be uttering a euphemism for a four-letter word not allowed on broadcast TV by the FCC, and she messes up and utters the actual word, and then afterward she kind of disappears from the broadcasts and you feel really really bad for her because anybody could have done that.
Also, you make a quick nervous-pee run to the restroom, and lots of other women are doing the same, and you have a “can’t spare a square” moment except that everybody’s equally nervous and excited and nice and you actually have a little square-train running all down the four cubicles so everybody is saved by the one or two booths that have some squares left. The thing about New Yorkers being mean and tourists being dumb is pretty much a myth, and I’ve been wanting to say that for a really long time. If you are proactively nice, people are usually nice back. And we’re all tourists at some point.
When you get into the studio, you’ll be seated in a very specific seat, and, as the gay couple next to us found out, no amount of arguing will get you moved to a better seat. You are stuck, and you’d better like it, because the fact that you own a house in the Hamptons doesn’t mean squat to these NBC pages.
You are in a balcony area looking down on the SNL set, which is actually a number of three-sided backdrops facing in all directions around the room. You can’t see any backdrop perfectly, because of the angle or the cameras in the way or the rail in front of you or the fact that the whole thing has its back to you. It totally reminds you of playing-card houses scattered across a coffee table.
While you are waiting for the program to start (and your plus-one notes that they can’t start late since it’s live TV — although that never stopped any Democratic president in recent history, and I say that with love) you are jittery, annoyed by the guy beside you who keeps hitting you while gesturing dramatically, and worried you will cough during the performance. You grip an entire tin of Altoids in your sweaty little palms and finally speak to the guy next to you about his bumping you. Turns out that, because you are nice about it, he is nice back. (I use this often when trying to get to a conformable viewing space at concerts. I’m 5’2″; if I weasel my way to the front, I ridiculously ask the people behind me “Can you see over me?” which pretty much guarantees a space for the entire show.)
The band plays warm-up music starting at 11pm. Does anybody not like this happy funky sound with all the brass instruments? More about the SNL band, which was started with help from Paul Schaffer, here. Before the program starts, Jason Sudeikis comes out to ask you to turn off your cell phones. He makes some jokes and makes fun of the section nearest yours for having the worst sight lines and also being in the most danger if there’s a fire in the studio. Then he introduces Kenan Thompson to come out and sing a number with Abbey Elliott, Nasim Pedrad, and Vanessa Bayar singing backup. The song is “Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting” which is super-fun because it’s an Elton John song and Elton was the guest host last week.
When Kenan and the girls leave, the crowd is pumped, and then it’s tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock and you’re so excited and the stagehands bring out the Oval Office set and you know the opener will be about the budget crisis. Fred Armisen enters, dressed appropriately, and yells hey to the crowd, and people love him. Lorne Michaels also comes out to eyeball the set, and it’s almost as difficult to keep one’s cool watching Lorne Michaels as it is watching the actors. He’s a force of nature.
It’s funny; when you perform, you feel so indebted to your audience for paying attention to you, and when you’re part of an audience, you are so grateful for the distraction and the good work. SNL has my gratitude for making me laugh at the worst moments of my life. That’s not nothing.
And then the show starts. You have a number of monitor screens above your head, so you can see what the TV audience sees, but sitting in the studio you’re struck by the nearness of the famous people and the mechanics of the production and you’re very very glad you are DVR-ing the show at home. Helen Mirren is a little nervous, but the intro is great and she pulls off includes a costume change while hiding behind six of the guys in the cast. It’s a take on “There is Nothing Like a Dame” which is kind of an easy joke, but of course everyone’s wonderful. Here’s the opening number. You note that during scene changes, even though there’s at least 90 seconds of commercials, the cast runs like hell out of the studio after skits, presumably to change and warm up for the next one. No wonder they’re so flushed and happy after the show. That’s a lot of running.
And here’s a funny thing: as a recovering theater geek, I think of every set as having a backstage. But in TV, you don’t, necessarily. The cast is running away from the set, right past the audience, back to a center door across the studio. Except for the permanent stage where the band plays, there’s no backstage at all. And even there, it’s for show. Everybody who takes the stage comes from the back of the room, right past the audience, except for Helen Mirren’s first entrance.
You have trouble not watching the monitor screens, because the real-live show is happening in front of you, and the set changes and etc are so interesting, but the camera view is funnier.
When there is a fake commercial for a photography service for one’s unmentionables, you watch that on the monitor. When a skit is performed outside your frame of vision, you watch that on the monitor too.
And of course when one of your boyfriends, Bill Hader or Seth Meyers, comes out, you are starstruck and craning your neck to look at them as long and closely as possible. When Seth does Weekend Update, which you have loved since the days of Dennis Miller, you are thrilled to find out how the guests roll on and off the set so quickly. It’s so smooth and quick that one might (foolishly, and for years) think that there was some kind of track with a motor, but it’s really just a stagehand pushing a rolling chair on and dragging it back off again, or the guest himself kicking his chair off. Things are so much more low-tech than one might guess.
The Foo Fighters play a musical number. You realize the TV audience is hearing a different mix than you are, because the vocals in the studio are unusually loud. Regardless, they rock. And the Foo Fighters fan club over on the side of the studio where they are playing goes crazy. And, surprisingly, they don’t play in the same space as the house band; it’s another permanent backdrop next to the main stage. How had you never noticed the different backdrop on TV?
As the show launches into its final half-hour, you look at your watch and realize the minutes are ticking down, and you haven’t been there long enough. You start to dread the end of the show and crane your neck even harder to make sure you see everything. A few sketches are done at angles where you can’t see them and you watch that monitor like you’re studying for a college-entrance exam.
The band plays its final number, “Walk,” from their June 2011 album Wasting Light. Here it is. It’s even better than the first one, but you’re already sad, anticipating having to leave. By the time they do the last sketch, which drags a little until Dave Grohl takes a role and makes it funnier — here’s a bit of it — you are antsy and feeling a sense of dread. And then there’s another commercial, and you are wondering where in the studio you can hide overnight so you don’t have to go. And then after a hugely long break, during which the band plays the closing theme and urges you to clap-clap, clap-clap, so the TV audience can hear it and know it’s almost time to go to bed, the cast and Helen Mirren run out and take the stage.
And then it’s ending, and Helen Mirren is thanking the audience and the cast and — for a moment she hesitates, trying not to preface the band name with the word “the,” because they don’t use it, and she finally blurts out “Foo Fightahs!” and then there is more theme music and you’ve forgotten to keep clapping and the cast and band and Helen Mirren are hugging each other and you just want more than anything to be one of them. You really do. You want it so much it hurts.
Yet, when it’s time you leave, you do not try to hide under your chair or in a corner hoping to remain unnoticed until everyone returns on Monday. You shuffle out, obediently, sadly, momentarily cheered by the sight of Bobby Moynihan standing near the exiting crowd, chatting with a crew member. You almost go over to talk to him and then decide to leave him alone. You try to make peace with the fact that Bill Hader will probably never be your boyfriend. (And as that thought strikes you, you wonder if you are a potential stalker just waiting to explode into Full Blown Crazy.) And when you exit 30 Rock, you note that security has set up barricades outside the door you are exiting and fans are gathered and it appears that the stars might exit this door and sign autographs before they leave for the after-party. But it’s late and you’re exhausted and your plus-one has a long drive back home. So he drops you off at your hotel and you are up until 4 am, wondering what the heck you are doing with your life.
And you are so grateful you applied for those tickets. And you wonder how you’re going to change your life and move up to New York, where you always wanted to live in the first place, and do what you always planned to do, which is a thing you cannot admit to yourself just yet. And the answer, you know, is to write and promote yourself and hope. So you write. And you try to get your stuff out there. And you hope. Against hope, really.