This Is What It’s Like to Watch ‘Saturday Night Live’ Actually Play Out Live

In 2014, FSR editor Kate Erbland was invited to watch the dress rehearsal for an episode of ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Here’s here experience.
Saturday Night Live Snl Stage
Rex Sorgatz from New York via Wikimedia
By  · Published on May 19th, 2014

There are plenty of tough tickets in New York City, from late-night talk shows to Broadway spectaculars, and while the process of procuring tickets has eased up a bit over the years (hey, thanks, internet), that doesn’t mean the hottest of hot tickets — Saturday Night Live — is still “easy” to come by.

If you happen to Google “Saturday Night Live tickets,” you’ll be met with an official NBC website that details exactly how to go about getting tickets – which really means, “how to go about not getting tickets at all.” SNL is such a desired entertainment commodity (and no, we can’t keep calling it a “hot ticket”) that people who want to attend the show need to jump through the kind of hoops that no other live show offers. No, really — you name another show where you request tickets but can’t even request a preferred date for those tickets. Not even an exact date, just one that might work for you.

Nope. If you’re going for those SNL tickets, you have to email your requests in the month of August only (the SNL season doesn’t start until September) and basically just wait it out. If you get picked for tickets (and only if you get picked), you’ll get a pair of tickets for a show, date, and time as picked by SNL. Don’t try to game the system by putting in multiple requests. Don’t expect to hear back if you don’t get picked. Want to try standby? Line up at 30 Rock on the morning of your preferred show — at 7 AM. Even then, you might not get in.

But if you get in, it’s worth it. Man is it worth it.

(Full disclosure: I attended SNL as the guest of an attendee who was invited to the show by SNL, but I’ve certainly tried the email lottery process before and intend to again. Is this a brag? Maybe, but I hope it’s a forgivable one.)

Saturday Night Live does something that’s both pretty remarkable and absolutely necessary – the show puts on two shows each Saturday night that it’s in season. At 8 PM, they run through a full dress rehearsal (cue flashbacks to high school theatre), a jam-packed two-hour show that’s purposely overstuffed with material, because audience reaction and overall feel will help dictate what gets cut from the final show. (Often, sketches cut from dress will pop up on SNL’s website as “web exclusives.”) Dress includes everything, from the host’s monologue to the musical guest’s two performances to any cameos that pop up along the way, with all breaks measured to reflect how long actual commercial breaks will be.

It’s the only way to do it, but it’s also totally bonkers, mainly because any changes have to be made between 10 PM when dress rehearsal ends, and 11:30 PM when the live show starts. And, as was the case with this past weekend’s Andy Samberg-hosted season finale, there were a lot of changes.

But we’ll get to that.

First of all, there are a lot of lines. There’s a line downstairs in the lobby, and then a line to go through metal detectors and then up elevators. There’s a line to check in again upstairs, and then another line to stand in to actually get into the studio. There’s also plenty of waiting and anticipation and being reminded again and again to not use your phones. If you use your phone, they’ll find you (and this is something I witnessed time and again, the security team is on point at SNL). Sometimes, you’ll be standing in a line and a cast member will walk by (Aidy Bryant and Brooks Wheelan both trotted past while we waited in what ended up being the final line), and that will remind you why there is so much security and there are so many lines because the people you have come to see can just walk by.

Once you get into the studio, it’s surprisingly large (Studio 8-H is reportedly 6,339 square feet, and there are about 250 seats both downstairs on temporary chairs and upstairs on seats culled from the old Yankee Stadium), especially since the live show only ever shows those first-floor attendees, somewhat awkwardly perched in front of the stage itself. It’s comfortable, but it’s also crammed to the rafters (literally) with set pieces, props, lighting rigs, cameras, cranes, cast, crew, and anything else one would need to launch a live show.

Although the show always has a live studio audience, the production itself does not pander to that audience, and there appears to be little regard to making sure the live audience can see each sketch with their own eyes. This is not a criticism — once you see the stuffed studio, there’s no question that the set design of each sketch is done with one thing in mind: that it can actually fit in the space allotted to it. SNL does provide plenty of video screens for watching each and every sketch (and any pre-recorded materials, like Digital Shorts), so while the cast might be just below you, working on a sketch, you’ll still have to watch it on a TV screen.

It sort of doesn’t matter, because the energy of a live show, even one that’s still essentially a dress rehearsal, is infectious. It just feels different. There are no second takes. There are no do-overs. It’s all a one-shot. It’s easy to forget that this is not live television.

Watching the show in-studio also reveals all kinds of weird and wonderful things. The frenzy that accompanies set switches is just that — a total frenzy — but the stage crew is aces, and even with such a time crunch, details matter. I watched four people make sure the background wall sconces of the show’s Jay Z and Solange sketch were straight and properly lit. Three people worked to make sure a rug you can’t even see in the sketch was straight.

Still, that sense of quick turnarounds is ever-present. Although this episode was kitted out with all kinds of celebrity cameos, including Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Paul Rudd, Fred Armisen, Maya Rudolph, Seth Meyers, 2 Chainz, and Martin Short (who actually didn’t even show up at dress rehearsal, and whose presence I suspect was a true last-minute surprise), my favorite star of the entire production was the producer whose entire job during the show appeared to entail making sure that Samberg was in the right place at the right time. Even though you’ll never see it, the second Samberg completed any sketch or any intro (from his monologue to his musical guest introductions), his hand was grabbed by this SNL angel, who would then drag Samberg to the next place he needed to be, all at a breakneck speed. It was terrifying and kind of incredible.

The overstuffed nature of dress guarantees that a number of things shown to the audience don’t make it to the live show. If you watched SNL this weekend, you saw two Samberg-starring digital pieces — “Hugs” and “When Does the Bass Drop?” — but the dress audience also saw “Testicules Cologne” early on, now online as a web exclusive.


Elsewhere, the first guest segment of “Weekend Update,” one that starred Kenan Thompson as Magic Johnson, was cut. That one is online, too.

Other sketches were totally cut — maybe one day you will all get to see some version of “Italian Cheerleaders” — or radically changed. The “Legolas at Taco Bell” bit was much longer at dress, and included an entire gag about Samberg as Legolas mistaking other Taco Bell customers for Orcs, promptly shooting them in the process. The loss of the Magic Johnson gag on “Weekend Update” meant that Kyle Mooney’s Bruce Chandling spot went from playing against Colin Jost at dress to sounding off with Cecily Strong in the final show. “Camp Wicawabe,” which played late at dress, showed up early in the live show, perhaps to ensure that its littlest stars didn’t have to hang around for six hours on a crowded studio set.

Once dress rehearsal comes to an end — complete with the “good nights” and credits played over the monitors — it’s time for all of us to leave and for the SNL cast and crew to buckle down on shaping up the final show, which is happening in, yup, less than two hours.

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