Attending a taping of Saturday Night Live is an exercise in masochism. While there are reserved tickets available by lottery, they are almost impossible to receive.
The only alternative (aside from being famous) is to wait in the stand-by line on the Rockefeller Center sidewalk, which offers first-come, first-served tickets at 7AM each Saturday during the season.
Those tickets, however, don’t actually guarantee you entry to the show – they simply determine the order in which you’ll be invited to fill empty seats later that night.
The first time I tried to get a ticket, I failed miserably. I showed up outside 30 Rockefeller Center at 3AM, waited in the freezing cold for four hours, and felt unbelievably stupid when I didn’t get in later that night.
Allegedly, there are three ways to improve your odds of making in to see the show:
The first is to arrive earlier — some even go so far as to camp out for days. The second is to pick a less-famous host. The third is to pick a date when the weather is abysmal.
This Saturday, I attempted all three, because I am a moron.
My friend Elisa and I arrived at the line on 48th St. around 12:45 AM, and we estimated there were about fifty or so people ahead of us. Some had been there since early Friday morning, camped out in sleeping bags and makeshift cardboard Hoovervilles. Taking their lead, we grabbed a cardboard box, and hunkered down for the night.
I can say, without any hesitation, that this was the coldest I’ve ever been in my entire life. I regretted it almost immediately — it was painful and unrelenting.
An hour or so into the proceedings, I was shaking so badly, I ducked into a nearby drugstore to warm up. I perused the aisles, trying to seem as though I was interested in buying something and not just using their central heating.
Occasionally, our neighbors in the line would strike up a chat – discussing our odds of getting in, our favorite SNL cast members, or what our lives are like outside this self-imposed hell. Somewhere around 4AM, with the wind-chill dipping to around ten degrees, we all slipped into a cold-induced state of temporary insanity. The cold was so enveloping and overbearing that I actually stopped caring. I turned my brain off and just shivered.
After hours of pain, numbness, snot, and wind, Rockefeller Center security came out and told us to pack up our stuff – ticket time was nigh.
Each episode of Saturday Night Live is actually performed twice. The first performance, earlier in the evening, is the Dress Rehearsal. Materially, it’s the same as the Live Show – the only major difference being that the Dress Rehearsal contains more sketches, the least funny of which will be cut before 11:30.
The biggest choice to make while standing in line is which performance to attend. Traditionally, more people get into the Dress Rehearsal from the stand-by line, making that the more sensible choice. But at a certain point, if you’ve waited all that time, you kind of just want to go all-in. It’s not called Saturday Night Dress Rehearsal.
At 7:45 AM, when Elisa and I got our tickets (Nos. 31 and 32, respectively), we took the gamble and went for the Live Show. That meant returning to 30 Rock at 10:30 PM – and getting some sleep in the interim.
When we made our return, the lobby of the GE Building felt like the line to a nightclub. Pages and NBC staff organized us in the numerical order on our tickets, and introduced us to what would ultimately become a refrain:
You are not guaranteed a seat until your butt is sitting in one.
The system is organized chaos, with the staff, clipboards in hand, shouting and running and in constant contact with some nebulous voice upstairs.
At 10:45, the first group of stand-by guests were let through security – 15 in total. I didn’t want to let myself get too excited, but so many people being let in that far before showtime seemed like a pretty good sign.
The next radio call came – ten more.
And another one – five more.
Finally, they made the call that let Elisa and I through.
But, as always, you are not guaranteed a seat until your butt is sitting in one.
Just beyond the metal detector lies the elevator bank, and yet another line. More pages with more radios are getting more numbers from their bosses, and things are moving progressively faster.
When the elevator doors opened, they let ten or so people in, one of which was my friend Elisa, but none of which were me. I was certainly disappointed, but still happy that at least one of us was headed upstairs. After all, it was still just 11:10 – maybe I’d make it too? At the very least, I’d be the first person to not get in – that’d be a fun story to tell, right?
Five minutes later, around 11:15, the call came to send more up – and I was the first.
When the elevator doors opened onto the eighth floor, I was amazed by how quiet it was. A nice page gathered us all, gave us wristbands, and pointed down the hallway. The closer I got to the end of the hallway, the louder the familiar sounds of SNL became.
I walked through a glass door and found myself in the balcony of Studio 8H. A staffer pointed me to the next empty seat on the balcony – front row center.
Kenan Thompson was on the iconic stage singing a song in front of the SNL band, with fellow cast members Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon and Vanessa Bayer singing backup. The crowd was absolutely electric.
I turned around and found Elisa a few sections to my left, and we waved and excitedly mouthed “WE DID IT.”
A few minutes later, the studio went dark, the countdown began, and live, from New York, it was Saturday night. Unbelievably, I was in a seat.
And, at long last, it wasn’t made of cardboard.