Saturday, February 6th 2016 was one of the most memorable experiences of my life, as I saw Saturday Night “Live,” literally…live! The whole thing was amazingly surreal and such a once in a lifetime event that I wanted to document it all; a textual time capsule that would stand the test of time, and that I could look back on when the details start to fade.
I fell in love with SNL at a pretty young age. By 13 I was hooked; watching SNL every Saturday night and recording the shows on my JVC 4-Head VCR.
This was the late 80s and early 90s: to me, the best era of SNL ever; launching the careers of such comedic icons as Dana Carvey, Dennis Miller, Mike Myers, Chris Rock, Phil Hartman, Rob Schneider and so many more. While my parents were quick to brag that “their” era was superior—with notorious names like Dan Akroyd, Eddie Murphy and Chevy Chase—I still stick to my story that my years were the best. Wayne’s World, Sprockets, Middle Aged Man, Ron Schneider “Makin’ copies,” Deep Thoughts with Jack Handy…I adored countless SNL skits during my childhood and would come to school Monday morning full of new SNL imitations to drive my teachers and classmates crazy. “Randy! The Rand-Meister! Ram-a-lama-ding-dong…makin’ copies!” I even remember once, at 13 years old, calling my best friend over to the house to watch the Wayne’s World skit—cued up on my VCR to the very beginning—and tricking him into believing that it was a real Peoria, Illinois public access TV show that I managed to get a copy of. I think he was fooled for months.
Over the years and countless cast changes, I stuck with SNL; through the show’s lows and highs, it was the comforting friend that was always there, who I could always count on; at least once a week.
FILMED IN FRONT OF A LIVE STUDIO AUDIENCE
I’ve been to more of my fair share of TV tapings in my lifetime. Growing up in Los Angeles, and later living there a second time in my 30s, game shows and talk shows aren’t that hard to get into. Usually, the tickets are given out to anyone who requests them, and the only requirement is that you show up early enough to wait in line to get a seat. The shows are overbooked, so getting in line early is the key. I’ve seen at least a dozen live tapings of shows including The Tonight Show with both Johnny Carson and Jay Leno, The Late Late Show with Craig Kilbourne, Montell Williams, Dr. Phil, Jenny Jones, Jeopardy!, and Family Feud.
One of my favorite experiences was my first: at 12 years old I was probably the youngest fanatic of It’s Gary Shandling’s Show. I remember standing in line and being nervous I’d be refused entry to the audience since the tickets stated all guests must be 16 or older. But I got in, and as a 12-year old who had a peculiar fascination with Gary Shandling, this was probably one of my favorite experiences as a kid; far cooler than any trip to Disneyland or Magic Mountain.
In 2005 I took it one step further—starring in an episode of Judge Mathis. Until then I’d only been an audience member at a TV show, now all of a sudden I was the star. In 2013 I was an entrepreneur on ABC’s Shark Tank. Both incredible stories for another time.
GETTING TICKETS TO SNL
Unlike the countless game shows and daytime talk programs that offer up tickets to anyone wanting to go, scoring tickets to SNL is nearly impossible. I’m not sure what took me so long to get it in gear and try for tickets—maybe because I lived on the West Coast and New York was so far away—but for whatever reason, I had never even made a real attempt, until 2016.
I quickly found out that it would be no easy task. Apparently, fans wanting tickets to see the show must register for an online “lottery” for a chance at getting being one of the few who get picked. That didn’t sound too reassuring. I’m the guy who buys 20 Powerball tickets and doesn’t get even one number. So I decided to go the old fashioned “it’s who you know” route. Working in radio, surely I could depend on my countless contacts of Program Director, DJ, record label and artist friends, right? Unfortunately, it wasn’t gonna be that easy.
After talking to a few insiders who knew about SNL and getting tickets for it, or lack thereof, it was disappointing to find out that even my close connections would have a hard time getting tickets. Yup, apparently getting seats for SNL was in such high demand, with such limited tickets, even someone with pretty good connections would probably not have any easy time securing tickets.
Out of respect for my source, I can’t tell you exactly who I got tickets from, but I can say that he struck out on the first and second attempt. It was only when I got a text from him that said, “You want to call me. Trust me,” did I start to get excited.
It was a done deal, he said. He had secured my tickets. It seemed too good to be true. He took my legal name and said instructions were forthcoming. It was Monday and I’d have to be in New York for this Saturday’s show. I booked my plane ticket immediately. I’d be at SNL!
Not only was I absolutely ecstatic to be going to SNL, but the timing couldn’t of been any better. One of my favorite comedians in the whole wide world was hosting: Larry David. Had I gotten tickets for the previous show, I would’ve seen Ronda Rousey, whom I could care less about. But the fact that not only was I going to SNL, but that the host was one of my idols—it just made the whole thing that much more unbelievable.
I couldn’t keep my news to myself. Those next four days consisted of me asking everyone I knew, to “Guess what I’m doing this weekend?!” I was probably more annoying that Rob Schneider “makin’ copies,” but I couldn’t help it.
Friday couldn’t get there soon enough, and finally I was on the 11PM red-eye from San Diego to Newark. I checked into my hotel around 7AM and did my best to get some sleep so I’d be awake and alert for the show.
Up around noon, I darted out of the hotel to take in some classic NYC touristy sites like Times Square and Central Park. Then it was back to the hotel for a quick power nap and up in time to get ready and arrive at the NBC studios super early. I wasn’t gonna chance doing anything to screw up my shot at watching SNL in person and being late was not an option.
Leaving my hotel, I still felt a bit uneasy. I never did receive any “hard” tickets, just the reassurance that my name would be on “the list.” If you’ve ever experienced picking up concert tickets at a “will-call” window, you know it’s always about a 50-50 shot. I can’t tell you how many times my name wasn’t “on the list,” or on the wrong list, or something else. It always ends with the person at the counter telling me they’re sorry and they just don’t have my name. I imagined this scenario happening tonight, and who I would call or what I would do if I couldn’t get in? I’d be so deflated turned away and making that trip to New York for nothing.
Confirmation email in hand, my ETA was about 10PM. I wasn’t instructed to arrive until 10:30, but what if I got lost, or there was a long line, or I got kidnapped? A million bad scenarios filled my head and I imagined what I would have done if I had got hit by a car on the way there. I envisioned me limping into the studios, in bloody clothes and with bones popping out of my skin, insisting that “I’m okay,” and stumbling to my seat watch the show if it’s the last thing I did before I bled out and died. Nothing was going to stop me!
Luckily, I arrived at 30 Rockefeller Plaza safe and sound, approaching a security guard who told me where to go. After arriving to the area I was pointed to, per my cryptic email instructions, I asked for “Grace’s line,” and the NBC staffer knew exactly where to take me. Soon I was seated inside a roped-off area on the second-floor mezzanine. I was the first to arrive in this section, where I took a seat on a long padded bench and marveled at a dozen giant digital screens displaying stills of classic SNL skits. A big sign warned that no pictures were allowed. I kept my phone in my pocket and didn’t even look at texts or facebook for fear that security would think I was trying to sneak a pic. Thought it killed me that I couldn’t take any photos, I was on my best behavior like a Catholic school student on his first day of class; I was not going to do anything that would get me kicked out.
I watched what looked like to be about 150 people walk past our area and exit down the stairs; it was apparent that these folks had just got done finished watching the rehearsal—SNL does a full practice run before going live, and there are tickets and seats for this show as well. I felt fortunate I was seeing the live TV version. NBC staffers barked at a couple of people for having their cell phone out. “No photos allowed!” I’m glad I wasn’t “that guy.” Phone stayed in my pocket!
Sitting on that bench for the next hour made me even more uneasy, as I still had not received any tickets, nor any confirmation that my name was even actually on “the list.” In fact, no one had even asked for my name or checked my ID, and I still feared that all of this was just too good to be true. Soon the area I was in started to fill up, and while at first I was feeling kind of like a V.I.P. as I sat in this roped-off section all by myself, by 10:40PM I was just a small fish in a sea of thirty and forty-something hipsters with their beards and 1920s attire.
Across the way, on the other side of the mezzanine, was a line of about a hundred people all lined up behind stanchions. Were these the “regular” people, or the “VIPs?” Were we VIPS? I didn’t know at all what was going on and being in the dark was making me crazy! I tried not to show my concern as I checked the time every 90 seconds.
Then the infamous “Grace” entered the area, and one-by-one started welcoming random couples and small groups to the show; it seemed like she knew these people personally, as there were lots of hugs and handshakes going on, followed by Grace handing over tickets and crossing names off her list. After Grace did this to most of the people in our area (except me) and left, I felt even more nervous about that “list” and the suspense was nearly killing me. Was I even on that list?
By now I saw the people in the line start to filter through security and into a hallway and wondered what would happen if all the seats were filled by the time I got called. Worry wart here!
The stranger next to me broke our silence and asked if I had received any tickets and told me he hadn’t either. We soon started conversing and I found out that he was here as a guest of Larry David—his sister had been working for Larry for over 20 years. I thought that was really cool and started daydreaming about somehow becoming BFFs with Larry all because of this chance meeting with this new connection. He asked if I was going to the “after party” with the cast, and all of sudden memories of 8th grade and being the only kid not invited to the cool kids’ party surfaced. I told him I didn’t know anything about an after party. He didn’t invite me. Yup, 8th grade all over again.
Soon Grace approached me, asked me my name, and I was so ready to be told I wasn’t on the list…but I was. Thank the Lord! She handed me my ticket and I was told to wait for a few minutes before they’d usher us in. Ticket in-hand, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Looks like this was really going to happen. I was so excited I could barely contain myself!
Minutes later an NBC staffer named Lisa ushered seven of us out of our area and over to security. There was a line of about 25 people waiting to get through what reminded me of a TSA screening, only we kept our shoes on. The guy behind me ruined the surprise as I heard him mention this was Secret Service for Bernie Sanders. This got me even more excited—I knew I was in for a treat with Larry David, but now I was going to be a part of real American history, with Bernie as a guest on SNL! Sure enough, the guards at the metal detector were Secret Service dudes which just added to my excitement. We were almost in and I was geekin’ out like a five-year-old on Christmas Day.
After clearing secret service we were walked over to the elevators and taken up to the 9th floor. This was really happening! Out of the elevator, our line of people I was with walked down a narrow hallway with pictures of classic SNL on the walls. No sooner did I count about ten pictures, than I heard the unmistakable sound of The Saturday Night Live Band coming through the door to the set. Now we were just about five feet from the door…I was so excited I could scream. What a nerd!!!
I was a little bummed that I had to hand my ticket over to the gentlemen at a podium, and when I asked if I could keep the ticket, was told no. Arrrggghhhh!!! Why didn’t I snap a photo of it?! “No Photos,” that’s why! Killer Instagram opportunity spoiled right there. But I quickly forgot all about that, as I walked through the doorway and into the stands of the studio. I was lead to my seat, far off to the left, but in the front row of the stands! There was a blue piece of tape stretched over the seat with my name written on it; the usher removed the tape and I took my seat. I was here, I was actually here!
The band was really hummin’ as I just started taking as many visual notes as I could. I knew photos weren’t allowed (although I never heard any announcements or saw any signs since the waiting area, I pretty much figured it out), so I had to do my best and use my eyes and brain as the camera, paying more attention to details than I ever had in my entire life; as if I needed to memorize every detail to recount a crime scene. This may never happen again, I thought, and I wanted to make as many vivid memories as I could. I scanned from left to right, from top to bottom, taking in every single detail, big and small. For over two decades I’d wondered what it was like on the set of Saturday Night Live, and tonight was my chance to find out. I didn’t want to leave with any questions unanswered.
First let’s talk about the seating arrangement. The majority of the seats were on stands or a “balcony” type setup of standard bleacher fold-down seats that were elevated about eight or ten feet off the floor and stretched from about 30 or 40 feet from center stage each way. I was seated just two seats away from the very left. Ahead of me was the stage where the musical guests performed, to the right of that was the stage where the house band played and the host did their monologue, and to the right of that was an empty area that I assumed they’d set up some staging skits. In fact, I wasn’t sure where the actual skits were going to take place, and spent a majority of my time before the show trying to figure out where the backdrops and sets would be set up. I could see a collection of wooden backdrops all together against the walls below us.
What did stick out was a very realistic and semi-permanent looking model of a cruise-ship deck almost directly in front of my seat facing to the right. It was a ship deck, complete with smoke stacks, port holes and a life raft hanging in front of it. I wondered if it was left there from a previous show, if it was there just for tonight, or was it a permanent fixture.
There was a small area of floor-seating below our elevated seats—maybe about 30-40 seats. These are the seats where you occasionally see the show do crowd shots and audience interaction. I wondered how those people got to sit front and center. Was it just luck, or did they all “know” someone. I figured they must be “super” VIPs.
It was about fifteen minutes from show time when all of a sudden Weekend Update host Michael Che bounces up on stage to do some quick stand up. And he was hilarious. He warmed up the crowd with about five or six minutes of jokes before Kenan Thompson took over the stage to sing a song. His private performance before us wasn’t too far off from his “What’s Up With That” songs—Vanessa Bayer, Sasheer Zamata and Kate McKinnon were dressed in sequined dresses providing back up singing. It was so fun!
I found it interesting that after Kenan and the ladies exited the stage, the crew began setting up a set directly in front of the band, the same place Larry would be walking out to do his monologue. I was a little confused.
It was almost show time as someone yelled out “One minute!” And then “Thirty seconds.” You could hear a pin drop.
I heard a producer, clearly annoyed, yell two times to someone to “shut the door!” as we neared closer to going live. “Fifteen seconds!” Then, “Ten seconds!” Then, “FIIIIIIIIIIIIIVE SECOOOOOONDS,” someone shrieked just liked you can hear in the beginning of classic SNL episodes. The crowd let out a chuckle. And we were live!
As soon as the initial skit ended with “Live from New York It’s Saturday Night,” they got that first set down in 30 seconds! They literally had a person assigned to every single item on that first set: one woman grabbed a lamp and ran away, another person rolled up the rug, people were running away with chairs, and so on. All choreographed down to the second until there was nothing left of set number one, just in time for “And now, your host, Larry David!”
The next 90 minutes were out of a dream. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, just taking everything in. Larry finished his open, we went to commercial break and then on to the first skit. Then suddenly a handful of cast members appeared on the deck of the “ship.” This boat was going to on the next scene, and it was only about four feet in front of me!
I was now looking at my favorite current cast member, Bobby Moynihan, as he was on the deck in costume. He looked at right at my section and I waved like a stalker—and he waved back! I’m such a little girl; that was so exciting! The same thing happened with Kenan Thompson. Both those dudes seem cool as hell; people I’d kill to have a beer with. Cecily Strong looked stunning! Then Larry David appeared. Stagehands were in place just below me with big orange Home Depot buckets full of water. It was obvious someone was about to get doused!
We were soon live again and two minutes into the scene Bernie Sanders came out. He was so close I could almost touch him! The crowd went nuts. Now don’t go thinking you’ve figured out what political party I belong to (I never talk politics in public)—I would have been just excited to see Trump, or Ben Carson, or Hillary. I just felt so amped up to be that close to any Presidential candidate—especially in a setting as unique as SNL. Hell, Bernie may end up being our next president and this episode will be immortalized forever—and I can say that I was just four feet from him when he was standing on that fabricated deck of the Titanic!
I continued to be in awe the entire night. I thought it was interesting that the Weekend Update set wasn’t a permanent fixture, but a set brought on and taken off stage each time; I would’ve sworn that since they do Weekend Update every single show that it would be a static set. Nope, assembled and disassembled each time! Speaking of Weekend Update, Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller were special guests—cool surprise!
Seeing Lorne Michaels in his tailor-made suit, inconspicuously popping in and out of view on the floor of the set was also a treat. I wonder if other people got as much of a kick out of that as I did—I loved seeing Lorne strolling about the set below, observing some of the scenes, and eating a cookie; that was a big deal for me. I mean, he’s the reason for SNL—he’s an icon. I just wish I could’ve taken a selfie with him. Lorne-freakin’-Michaels, wow!
While musical guest The 1975 was performing, Ben Stiller and his wife was right below me, watching the band.
Every new skit was in a different location. One was in front of the house band, one all the way at the other end of the set, one was directly below and to the right of us. Many of the skits were obstructed by the set walls—where I could just catch a glimpse of the action—but that’s when the monitors above came in handy.
The time went too fast. Before I knew it the show was over. There was the whole cast, with Larry, Bernie and musical guests, all on stage saying goodbye, hugging each other, clapping, while the band played that iconic farewell song. Next thing I know the stars all disappeared and the set folks were cleaning up. I didn’t want to leave. Please let me stay!
The audience filed out and a few folks were yelled at for taking out their phones. It was clear that even one picture was not cool. We walked back down the hall, down the elevator and out through the gift shop. I walked back to my hotel, stopping at Ray’s for a slice and a root beer to celebrate. I’d been a super fan of SNL since I was 12, and 27 years later my dream of seeing it live came true. It was one of the best nights of my life and I have no pictures on Instagram to prove it. 😉
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