Friday, July 13, 2012

Hey, New York, let's start the show!

This is a few months late, but there are relatively few blogs that cover this subject matter, so I thought I'd contribute one more.  At the beginning of April, Marie and I got to go to a broadcast performance of Saturday Night Live.  I've been a life-long fan of the show.  Okay, not life-long, but at least since the early 1990s when my parents would go on dates and I'd get to stay up late with the babysitter and watch Phil Hartman, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, David Spade, Mike Myers, and the rest of that generation of players when they were still current cast members.  I hadn't watched the show all season, but it was still a huge thrill to see the production of this American institution.

We've taken the NBC studio tour in NYC several times, where they always mention how difficult it is to get tickets to the show.  For the past two or three years, I've sent an email to enter the SNL ticket lottery in August.  This year, as usual, I didn't receive any word from NBC after entering the lottery.  I hadn't thought about it in months, until I received this email near the end of February:

When I received the email, the host and musical guest still had not been announced.  We didn't find out it was Sofia Vergara and One Direction until nearly a month later.  Needless to say, Marie and I were very excited.  It made sense to me, then: they don't know when shows are going to be taped, so they don't select people to attend until they have a confirmed performance.  We booked air tickets from Austin and used to find accommodations on the UES, arriving in NYC the Friday before the performance.  It's a little unnerving heading out to NYC with only a piece of paper to guarantee your entry.

We arrived at the GE Building about an hour before the 10:15 arrival time, and there was already a considerable line formed.  At one end of the hallway was the stand-by line, which was mostly tween girls (and a few boys) who were there for One Direction.  The line of ticket holders was by the elevators where they take people up for the NBC Studio tour.

I got in a separate line to exchange my email confirmation for my two tickets.  I spoke with a woman who had come from Boston with her daughter after she found out getting tickets was as unlikely as "gettin' intah Haahhvaad."  Two NBC pages near the elevators took my email, crossed my name off a list, and handed me a small envelope with these:

For spring in NYC, it was surprisingly warm in the lobby and we had to take our coats off while standing in line.  There was a group of four friends in front of us who were close to our age, perhaps a little older.  Before they started taking people up to the studio, a young, female NBC employee wearing sprayed-on jeans, a pink tank top, stripper heels and an elevated sense of self-importance pulled the four of them to the side.  They ended up sitting in the chairs they keep on the ground floor, in front of the main stage.  It was difficult to tell why they'd been selected for those seats: either they were dressed well, had paid the woman off, or knew someone.  I got the feeling it was because they were young and attractive, but that might have been a coincidence.  She also pulled a single, nerdy guy out of the line near the end, but I think that was because she needed to fill one more seat.

Eventually, they started taking us up in the elevators, where we got in another line to wait before filing into the studio.  At this point, we exchanged our purple tickets for arm bands.

It's well-documented that the majority of an SNL audience is VIP guests of the cast and guests, but this was where we saw just how many of them there were.  We stood outside the studio for another 15 minutes, watching lots of attractive women and men proceed into the studio, wearing suits and dresses and walking with the self-confidence that comes from knowing you're exempt.  Finally, us and the rest of the plebeians were permitted to take our seats.

I've been in the SNL studio before on a couple of studio tours: in 1999, when the show was on summer hiatus, and in 2010, when they were rehearsing for the Jeff Bridges Christmas episode.  This time was different.  There was a palpable energy, even though the studio was kept at about 65 degrees.  The seats in studio 8H are laid out in an L shape and begin at stage right.  Our seats were stage left, where the seats begin to curve to the side of the stage.  The studio was nearly full by the time we entered, so we were grateful that the seats we got were so good.

About 30 minutes before the show started, the band began to play.  The SNL band sounds great on TV, but they really blow the roof off the dump when they're live.  If I were a wealthy NYC business man, I'd hire them to play a wedding.  While the band played, ticket holders kept filing in.  After all the ticket holders were seated, they brought up a few stand-by kids to fill out the very tip on the base of the L, where the seats curve around so far you have a difficult time seeing the stage.

It was enjoyable watching the crew setup the stage and get things ready for the performance.  All the sets were still strewn about the studio from the dress rehearsal performance.  They didn't reset until the show was about to start, so they obviously have a lot of practice and confidence that things are going to come together correctly.  When they turned on the power to the stage lights, a guy had to climb up on a ladder and set the correct time on the faux Grand Central clock that comes down from the ceiling, since the clock stops running when the lights are off.

Just before the show began, Jason Sudeikis came on stage to warm everybody up and give some safety announcements.  He said in the event of a fire, just get the hell out, and grab whatever pieces of the set we could.  He suggested someone carry out Kristin Wiig, since she's very light.  He apologized to the people in the "shit seats" at stage left, and said for them it was "going to be a radio play."  He excused himself to "go get dressed up as Mitt Romney" as the band started playing again.  Keenan Thompson ran out on stage in a suit to perform Long Train by the Doobie Brothers, with Abby Elliot, Vanessa Bayer, and Nasim Pedrad backing him up as his "Sparklets" in sequined dresses, playing tambourines.  As soon as they finished the song, Keenan said something to the effect of "thank ya, bitches!" and they all ran off stage.

There were only a few minutes remaining before showtime, so everything kicked into high gear, the band playing over it all.  Extras started to enter the studio and file around the side of the stage, and we noticed Lorne Michaels walking around in his de rigeur suit, calmly checking on the proceedings.  A tri-fold greenscreen had been set up on the main stage, and Jason Sudeikis came out to stand in front of a podium.  At a minute to go, the band stopped playing.  The studio was utterly silent, except for a man calling out the time until broadcast.  "30 seconds!"  "20 seconds!"  "15 seconds!"  Everyone was holding their breath, and the actors composed themselves for their opening characters.

I've noticed that when episodes of SNL start, you can often hear the tail end of the audience laughing as the first shot comes up.  I always wondered what happens in those few seconds before the show starts to make people laugh.  Now I know.

At five seconds, the stage hand who had been calling out time yelled "FIVE SECONDS!" in the cracking voice of an adolescent.  Everyone laughed to relieve the tension, the cameras went live, and the show had begun.

The cold open skit involved numerous scene changes in front of the greenscreen, with title cards in between changes.  When the titles came up, every stagehand in the studio would either grab a podium to rotate it, change Jason's suit, or usher extras up on stage.  It made such a cacophony, they had to cut the stage's sound off.  The crew works together as a well-oiled machine: every time someone steps up on stage or down, someone grabs their hand in case they fall.  Things would recompose mere seconds before the camera cut back to the action.  This was the first time I'd seen the cold open broken as if a character was hosting the show.  It was a cool effect.  Bill Hader was standing offstage in a zip-up sweater and yelled the famous "Live from New York!" line to kick off the band for the opening credits.

When we'd entered the studio, I noticed that we were going to be directly visible from the camera they point towards the audience as the host walks downstage for their opening monologue.  I mentioned this to Marie, and made sure to raise my hands up, clapping, when I saw the camera cut towards us.

The first skit, "Bein' Quirky," was shot directly below us (you can see the set in the picture above), so we couldn't see anything and had to watch the action on the monitors that are hung from the ceiling around the studio.  The odd thing was hearing the people say their lines at the same time they were projected from the studio's sound system.  Because of the studio's setup, there's no way you can see all the skits directly unless you're on the ground floor.  

The skit we could see the best was the last one, a Hunger Games parody that was filmed on the stage with a fly loft, to stage left of the main stage.  Perhaps the strangest thing about that skit was Jay Pharoah.  It was his only skit of the entire episode, and he didn't even have a spoken line.  It's odd to feel sad for someone who is a cast member of a show most comedians would kill for a chance to be on.  After seeing his face as he walked off stage, I could help but feel sorry for him.  I won't comment on the content of the episode other than to say, when you watching it live, you can't help but laugh.  There is an energy in the studio that makes me think that cast members who fail to connect with the audience just weren't meant to be up there.

When the episode ended, we stayed in our seats as long as they let us.  The show cut off the air when the credits finished playing.  The cast quickly exited out the door in front of the stage, while the band continued to play as they brought the house lights up.  We stayed to listen to them finish the song, which ended with Lenny Picket playing an increasingly ear-shattering series of notes, before the entire band cut back in for one last hit.  And then it was over.

On our way out the back of 8H, we saw a few cast members come out to greet guests.  Bobby Moynihan was hugging a girl, who appeared to be there with her boyfriend.  When she introduced him, he said, "Hi, I'm Bobby!"  I wanted to tell him that everyone in the building knew who he was right now.

The NBC pages got us back into the elevators and we left the GE Building to walk around Rockefeller Plaza.  At 1:00 in the morning, it was deserted.  We went for a leisurely stroll, soaking up the very surreal experience we'd just had.  On our way back to 49th to catch a cab, I saw a group of four or five girls, which I immediately assumed were escorts based on what they were wearing.  I was about to point them out to Marie when I realized that Keenan Thompson was in the center of them.  They were his entourage, and he was waiting to cross the street.  We were the only people there and I had a split second thought to tell him we enjoyed the episode before I thought better of it.  He was "off duty" and heading home and I didn't want to bug him.

At 49th street, a few groups of people had gathered at the door to the GE Building to wait for One Direction to come down.  We didn't see them leave the building, but we did see quite a few cast members come out: Abby Elliot, Kate McKinnon, Seth Meyers, Bobby Moynihan, Fred Armisen, Nasim Pedrad, and of course, Lorne.  A few of them had cars waiting, but I was surprised by how receptive and friendly the cast members were to their fans.  Most of them posed for pictures, signed autographs, or stopped to talk.  It's always a pleasant surprise when famous people act like regular people.  Seeing Seth Meyers walking home with a backpack made me appreciate just how different NYC is from where I live.

The next day was Easter, and was another beautiful day in the city as we started back to Texas.  Even then, it was hard to believe what had happened the night before.  It was a great experience, and I'm glad we were there for one of the last Kristin Wiig/Andy Samberg episodes.  I hope we get to do it again some day.