Live from New York, it’s the “Saturday Night Live” Standby Line
It was an unusually warm Friday on April 13 and I was getting a number of strange looks as I lugged a large red canvas Target shopping bag overflowing with blankets and snacks through the Rockefeller Center subway station at about noon. As I made my way through the turnstile and up to the building’s main floor, however, no one batted an eye at my bedding — there were already 18 people camped out behind barricades outside 30 Rockefeller Center on the 49th Street side, under the NBC Studios marquee. Some of them were there since Thursday night.
Anyone who visits Rockefeller Center certain Friday afternoons between September and May is greeted with the same sight I was that Friday the 13th. A row of steely barricades run down the middle of the sidewalk, from the NBC Studios marquee to the plaza end of the block, splitting the sidewalk into two sections. On one side of the sidewalk, tourists, NBC employees with their dark blue IDs clipped to their pockets, New Yorkers, and even the occasional celebrity walk past the barricades. On the other side, a row of people bundled up in multiple layers of sweaters and jackets sit or stand behind the barricades. The pavement is barely visible; a dark, muted rainbow of blankets, air mattresses, beach chairs, and even the occasional tent cover the sidewalk. Some weeks, a bright bubblegum pink Disney Princesses tent — complete with toddler-sized images of Belle, Cinderella and Pocahontas printed on the front — stands tall among the sleeping bags and pillows. A white paper sign with black block letters scrawled across it proclaiming “KRISTEN WIIG IS OUR SPIRIT ANIMAL” black marker is taped to the tent’s pointy castle-shaped tip. If the slightest bit of rain or snow falls, a sea of blue tarps suddenly appears over everyone’s heads.
Consistently through the afternoon, evening and night, passersby wonder out loud who the people camped out under the NBC Studios marquee are. “Does NBC barricade their homeless?” one woman in an ankle-length black coat asks her companion. “Are they trying to occupy NBC?” another boy in a puffy navy blue coat asks his friends. Some people are slightly more brave and lean over the barricade to ask what the line is for.
“We’re waiting in line for ‘Saturday Night Live’ standby tickets” is always the answer. The long-running television show, which has been on the air since October 1975, commentates on politics and pop culture. It is known for digital shorts like “Jizz in My Pants,” classic sketches like “Wayne’s World” and “Bronx Beat,” and iconic impressions, like Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin and Darrell Hammond’s Donald Trump.
Many of the show’s fans like to “camp out” in front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza to get a standby ticket — it’s the only way someone who doesn’t have a connection to the show can attend a taping. Standby tickets aren’t guaranteed, however; the number of standbys let in to each taping depends on the number of empty seats in the “SNL” studio, Studio 8H, after all guaranteed and VIP ticketholders arrive. It can range anywhere from nobody making it up to Studio 8H, like the Jesse Eisenberg-hosted episode on January 29, 2011 with musical guest Nicki Minaj, to as many as 120 standbys getting in, like the December 17, 2011 episode with host (and former cast member) Jimmy Fallon and musical guest Michael Buble.
For some fans, it is their first or second time doing standby, and they are fans of “SNL” or the host/musical guest, and just want to attend a taping. For some other fans, however, standby is an almost weekly routine during the season. The “does not ensure admission” disclaimer printed on the ticket means nothing to them. They will arrange their life around the standby line and wait as long as they can to attend multiple tapings. For these fans, the standby line experience is less about the show and more about the standby line’s culture — meeting new fans, seeing old faces, sharing “SNL” stories, and chasing after cast members and celebrities. Each experience is meaningful for them. It’s a way of life.
At around noon on Friday, April 13, I squeezed through Rockefeller Center’s revolving doors, oversized Target bag in tow, and took my place behind the barricades. There were already almost 20 people ahead of me for standby tickets to the April 14 episode with guest host Josh Brolin (there to promote the upcoming movie “Men in Black III”) with musical guest Gotye.
I pulled out my blankets and laid them exactly as my roommate, Andrea (who is a six-time standby line attendee, but does not consider herself a regular), instructed me to. I ripped two garbage bags open along one side and the bottom and laid them on the ground (“to prevent the blankets from getting too wet in case it rains,” she told me). Then, I placed a heavy gray blanket over them, positioning it so I had enough room to curl up. I laid a thick purple blanket over the gray one for added comfort. Lastly, I folded two smaller red fleece blankets and placed them towards the top of the makeshift bed, to act as pillows until it got colder.
Almost immediately, a girl arrived and took her place behind me. She threw a brown blanket and white pillow, without a pillowcase, on the ground, and plugged herself into her iPod headphones. Britney Spears’ “Toxic” blasted through her ear buds as she curled up with a copy of Michael Caine’s “Acting in Film” and a pencil to mark the book, her head dangerously close to the barricade, ignoring everyone around her.
I stood up, facing to the people in front of me. “Welcome!” said a 20-something boy two people ahead of me in line wearing aviators and a gray hooded sweatshirt. Later I learned his name is Chase and that he was there with is wife, Leslie.
The woman immediately ahead of me turned to me. The prominent wrinkles on her pale, round face showed she was older than most of the line. She must have been in her 50s, with short curly black hair and a dark red coat on. She was sitting in a lawn chair with only a thin green plaid blanket under her. Her thin, pursed lips were painted the same red as her coat, but she was wearing little other makeup. “My daughter, Lisa, is here with me. She’s getting something to eat right now,” she told me.
Lisa and her mother did not anticipate waiting in the standby line. They traveled from Youngstown, Ohio for a weeklong vacation in New York City and planned to leave Friday evening. When Lisa, 16, a “Saturday Night Live” fan, found out about the standby line, however, her family decided to stay in NYC until Sunday. Her mother waited in the line with her to make sure she was safe.
I glanced at the line ahead of Chase and Leslie. Directly in front of them was a tall, thin blonde with a cast in a red zip-up hoodie sitting on a pile of blankets. Next to her were two girls laying on black garbage bags that were cut open and taped to the ground with masking tape. They were both laying on the barely-covered pavement wrapped in colorful blankets; one was rainbow stripes, while the other was a bright blue with clouds printed all over it. They both had light brown hair that was almost matching pulled up in buns.
At the very head of the line was a girl sitting in a lawn chair with long red hair that looked like it had not been washed for days; her blunt bangs stuck together in pieces. She was wearing a pair of navy blue and gray pajama pants tucked into black ankle boots without care. She was sitting next to a blue full-size air mattress that lacked any bedding. On the other side of the mattress was her friend, who sat in a matching lawn chair. She was wearing Ray Bans even though it was not very sunny, and her frizzy black hair was pulled into pigtails.
Lisa eventually returned with a Duane Reade bag full of snacks and magazines. They peppered me with questions about the school I attend, life in New York City (both were surprised I don’t have my license, and didn’t know state IDs even existed), and Lisa’s favorite topic — running into celebrities all over the city.
“If I lived here, or next time I visit, I would just stay in one place where a bunch of celebrities go,” Lisa said firmly, “and just wait for them all to come to me.”
You can’t talk about the line without talking about one man: Louis Klein. Louis is what some people refer to as the “‘SNL’ legend,” the “ultimate fan” — he’s been doing standby since the first episode in 1975, even though he has no need to. He has a permanent ticket. He still chooses to visit the standby line with his wife Jamie each week, however.
I met Louis and his wife Jamie for the first time several weeks before I camped out, on a blustery March afternoon at the standby line for the March 10 episode hosted by Jonah Hill with musical guest The Shins. Louis and Jamie were waiting in the line to save a spot for Chris — their best friend — since Chris didn’t get out of work until 5 p.m. (“You cannot hold a place in line,” Louis wrote to me in an email the night before. “However, since we are not staying, this rule would not apply.” This rule may not actually exist, however — according to a May 2005 petition titled “Bye Bye Louis Klein” on GoPetition.com, Klein falsely “claims that people ‘break the rules,’ when in fact he himself is guilty of ‘breaking’ them.” There are no actual set rules about holding spots in line, but it is possible some people would be unhappy and try to get the line-saver kicked out for fairness. So far, that has yet to happen to Chris, since, as Louis put it, “We are trading two for one. Everyone behind him has a better chance.”)
That March afternoon, Jamie stood next to an overcrowded bike rack, bundled up in a black sweatshirt with “Saturday Night Live” printed across the front in white block text. Her dark shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail covering her ears. Standing, Jamie was the same height as Louis, who was sitting on his metallic blue walker. Louis wore an olive green coat, unzipped enough to show a gray Broadway Video sweatshirt underneath. His black wire frame glasses slipped down his large, flat nose as he recalled his experiences, but he did not bother to push them back in place, too caught up in his stories. His low, rumbling voice was sometimes difficult to hear above the horns and beeps of the busy street, and his wispy ash gray hair haphazardly blew in the afternoon’s heavy winds. Jamie stood quietly the entire time, playing with her iPhone, and only addressed me when Louis asked her to answer a question. When I came home that afternoon, she had added me on Facebook.
It all started, Louis said, at the very first episode in 1975. Louis read about a new comedy show in the newspaper several months earlier, and asked NBC’s Guest Relations how to get a ticket because he “had nothing better to do on Saturday nights.” He ended up attending a rehearsal to test sound, the dress rehearsal, and then the very first episode, which aired live on October 11, 1975.
“I got to see a full-fledged comedy routine by George Carlin, and a full-fledged comedy routine by Billy Crystal [which was cut after the dress rehearsal],” Louis said. “I got to see music by Janis Ian and Billy Preston, and comedy by the Not Ready for Prime Time Players — for free! So of course I wanted to come back.”
Louis received his permanent ticket to “Saturday Night Live” at the beginning of the 1990–1991 season. In April of 1990, Al Franken happened to walk past him in the standby line wearing a Broadway Video T-shirt. Louis stopped Franken and asked how he could get one. Unfortunately, there were no sweatshirts until the next season.
At the beginning of the new season, Louis new cast member Sibohan Fallon told Louis they had a sweatshirt up for him. He was surprised with her familiarity, since she was new and that the “SNL” offices remembered. Per instruction, on Friday, he went to the security desk and was cleared to visit Studio 8H.
When Louis reached the studio, he was met with several cast members and producer Marci Klein. “As I’m facing the studio, Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider or David Spade were eating sandwiches,” Louis said. They greeted him as he waited for Erin Maroney to get his sweatshirt. As Louis waited, he struck up a conversation with Marci Klein, who was sitting at a nearby desk, and told her he had been doing standby since 1975. “[Klein] said, ‘You’ve been going for 15 years?’” Louis recalled. “‘You have to be going every week.’” Klein instructed Louis to go to the 50th Street side of Rockefeller Center the next night and give his name. They would have a ticket waiting for him each week — and they have stuck to their word. Louis recalled one experience where there was no ticket for him, so he had the guard call Marci Klein, who promptly got Louis a ticket for that night’s taping. Since then, he has not had any problems.
“When I married Jamie,” Louis added, “she was automatically included.”
Eventually, somewhat out of boredom from staring at the window to the candy section of the NBC Experience store directly in front of me, I ventured toward the end of the line — which was about halfway down the block — to speak to Chris Bligh, Louis’s protégé. You can tell Chris is a “SNL” fan just by looking at him — his signature look is a pair of jeans, an “SNL” t-shirt, with a short-sleeve unbuttoned Hawaiian-print shirt over it, and a leather fedora. That night, however, Chris, who was fairly short, about 5’5, and round all over, with a belly protruding out like the Pillsbury Doughboy, his short dark hair was covered by his leather fedora, and he was wearing black pants and a black zip-up hoodie. Around his neck was the Tribeca Film Festival press pass he got to cover the events on his blog, the bright green of the Heineken lanyard standing out sharply against his black clothes.
Chris learned about the standby line through Louis, whom he met at a party in 2006. About a year later, when he had enough free time, he decided to camp out for the Brian Williams-hosted episode in 2007. He got in, but unfortunately the writer’s strike happened almost immediately after, and there were no new “SNL”s for several months.
The writer’s strike didn’t deter Chris, however. After the strike, he started a new job six blocks away from NBC, and decided to continue standby. Chris visits the line on Fridays when he’s at work, but his bosses don’t mind, because Chris tries to keep his “SNL” life separate from his work life. “I try not to let [standby] distract from my work,” he said, “because work is an important thing, and you need to have the finances coming in to make sure all of this stuff gets to happen.”
On the weekends there is no new “SNL” episode, Chris likes to go out around Manhattan and Staten Island, where he resides, to attend movie screenings and do karaoke, or watch whatever re-run of “SNL” NBC airs that weekend. “[The free time] gives me a little more reflection on [the ‘SNL’ episode] they’re re-running,” he said. “I don’t like to waste a Friday or Saturday. I go out, and I just see where the rest of the world takes me in terms of adventure.”
After speaking to Chris, I was curious how long the people ahead of me had been waiting in line, since I knew Chase, Leslie, Lisa and her mother all arrived less than an hour before I did. I approached the two girls with garbage bags taped to the ground. They told me their names are Amelia and Cathy, and freshmen at Emerson. They invited me to sit down and chat with them.
Cathy was a first-timer to the standby line, while Amelia did standby for the Jason Segel episode and attended the dress rehearsal. Amelia was excited when talking about her experience last time — she got to meet some cast members — and Cathy, who is a big fan of the show, decided to tag along because seeing an episode is on her bucket list. I sat down with them and we talked for about 45 minutes about the line, its regulars, and the commute there.
“I’m so jealous you just got to ride the subway!” Amelia said. They took a 3 a.m. bus from Boston to New York City, and arrived at the line at almost 8 a.m. They couldn’t fit many items in their luggage, like adequate bedding — hence the garbage bags.
Eventually, the conversation turned to the people I talked to earlier. I told Amelia and Cathy about Louis and Jamie’s history, and how many episodes they attended. I wasn’t sure how they would react, remembering that there was a petition online rallying for Louis to leave the standby line.
Cathy’s reaction was that Louis and Jamie’s relationship was sweet, not that it is frustrating they have a connection to the show and still do standby. “It seems like [‘Saturday Night Live’ is] what keeps the relationship special,” Cathy said of their story. “They have that connection with ‘SNL.’”
After talking to Amelia and Cathy, I approached the two girls at the head of the line. I had seen the first girl in line, Diana, walking around the concourse in her pajama pants during my food/phone charging breaks. I presumed she must waiting in the standby line from her greasy hair and attire. I hadn’t seen the second girl, Annie, who still had her sunglasses on even though the sun wasn’t out and the marquee gave them a little shade, though.
I awkwardly stood in front of their air mattress, on the edge of the curb, as their suitcases and chairs took up most of the sidewalk space. They were freshmen at NYU studying television, with the hopes of one day writing for “Saturday Night Live.” This was Diana’s ninth time in line (she waited in line eight times earlier this season, and was successful “five or six” times, she said), and Annie’s second (she didn’t get into the Jason Segel episode). They arrived Thursday around 7 p.m., and skipped their Friday classes to get a good spot in line. I got the impression they didn’t care about skipping classes though; “SNL” was more important to them than good grades.
Although most people wait in line with the hopes of attending a dress rehearsal or live taping of “Saturday Night Live,” the experience of waiting in line overnight almost trumps the live show.
“This is a big social event for anybody here,” Louis told me during an interview at the line on March 9, several weeks earlier. “You meet people. You’re all here for the same purpose. If you’re alone, you’re going to sit here and read a book — no, that’s not going to happen. You’re going to start talking to the person in front of you, the person behind you.”
After experiencing the line for only several hours, it was clear that Louis’s words rang true. Everyone was sitting on the pavement with at least one shared goal, one common interest — and it was almost always the topic of conversation. Everyone discussed the show in-depth, from what sketches worked and flopped in recent episodes to who were the best cast members of all time. Regulars often hopped around the line, offering up their experiences of both attending episodes and waiting in line, as if they were telling gruesome war stories.
“Have you talked to Arlene?” Chase asked me at one point. “She’s been going since 1995, and she has some awesome stories.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to hear Arlene’s awesome stories that night. During the day, I saw her speaking to some of the regulars in the line, including Louis and Chris. She has cropped, black hair that was sticking up in all directions, and a baggy olive green coat that seemed to serve more function than fashion. Not only did it look warm, but the pockets were large enough to fit a worn paperback novel she would read during her downtime. Shortly after 7 p.m., I ventured up to her place in line only to discover she was lying on the ground next to her folding chair, zipped into a green sleeping bag that matched her coat, her feet dangerously close to the edge of the curb. I wasn’t sure if she was an early sleeper, or just trying to block herself from the noisy line. Either way, she was ignoring the world around her.
Later in the evening, after the sun set, Chris walked up and down the line, chatting with newcomers. Standbys are allowed to move around the line to chat with other people waiting, as long as they intend to eventually return to their rightful place in line. Many regulars, like Chris and Arlene, tend to wander along the line and talk to old faces and newcomers alike, making small talk about the show.
Chris leaned over the barricade in front of Lisa and her mother, standing on the side of the sidewalk meant for pedestrians, with his leather fedora tipping forward, and told Lisa, Chase, Leslie, Amelia, Cathy and me his stories, from how Lady Gaga almost set fire to the studio the previous season, forcing “SNL” cast member and head writer Seth Meyers to do the “Weekend Update” segment in smoke, to how at least 10 people cut the line in the previous week’s episode. He included the tiniest, seemingly mundane details that wowed everyone, like how many seats he was away from “Parks and Recreation” actress Rashida Jones, or an unfunny sketch that Lorne Michaels cut from the dress rehearsal. Everyone was so wrapped up in his stories, it was more like a father telling his children stories of his younger days than a 36-year-old man talking about a television show.
The line seemed to split into little cliques over the course of the day and evening, organized by the order of the line. I belonged to a little group beginning with Cathy and Amelia, ending with me, while Kitty, the girl behind me, formed a little group with the four people immediately behind her. Ahead of my group were two groups, one semi-regular and the other regulars, who all intended to get tickets to the live show. It felt like a little family; you are sharing this experience with these strangers, and you want everyone ahead of you to succeed in attending a taping and meeting their favorite cast members.
“We’re all in this together to get in,” Chris said, “and sometimes we get along and sometimes not. When you have a good line, you get along with everyone here, I’m like, ‘Hey, I want to see everyone on this line get in’ and you know what? A lot of times when you get a line like that, you see a lot of people get in.”
The “SNL” standby line brings in three types of fans: the hardcore “SNL”-obsessed fan whose entire life is about the show, the fan that enjoys “SNL” but just wants to attend an episode or two, and the celebrity chasers that just want to brag, brag, brag.
Louis, Jamie and Chris all fall into the first category. For Louis and Jamie, their entire lives revolve around “Saturday Night Live.” Their email addresses both have “SNL” in them, and Jamie runs a blog with Chris, where she writes about each “SNL” weekend, from what she had for dinner on Saturday night to grading each sketch on an A-F scale.
Louis and Jamie even met through the show — Jamie was intrigued by Louis’s “SNL” stories on an online forum dedicated to the show, so they began to email back and forth. Emails eventually turned into phone calls, which turned into Louis visiting Jamie in Denver, Colorado, and Jamie visiting Louis in New York City. About a year later, Jamie moved in with Louis, and they married. The couple even invited the current “SNL” cast to their wedding, but unfortunately no one could make it because “SNL” was taping a mother’s day special. Instead, two pages and an NBC Guest Relations manager that now works for “SNL” attended, and the show sent Louis and Jamie a video that included Jimmy Fallon singing Coldplay’s “Yellow,” Ana Gasteyer and Maya Rudolph singing “You Light Up My Life,” and congratulatory messages from the cast and writers.
The fans in the second category are more like Amelia, Cathy, Chase, Leslie and Lisa — they enjoy the show and watch as many episodes as possible, and just want to attend an episode. For these fans, attending is a meaningful experience, but they have other things in their lives that fulfill them, like their work (Chase is a youth pastor and getting his Masters in ministry, which he will excitedly tell anyone) or other shows.
The third type of fan is a unique breed: celebrity chasers. These fans do enjoy the show, but they are more drawn to the line for the glamour. Being in a Midtown location with lots of television shows filmed in the area, many celebrities tend to pass by the standby line. For these fans, getting a photo or autograph and bragging rights that they attended many episodes is meaningful.
When I was talking to Annie and Diana, they pointed out two guys behind them on a large hunter green air mattress who were celebrity chasers. “They come every week — someone told me they’ve been to at least 60 episodes,” Diana said. “But they don’t care about the comedy. All they care about is how many wristbands they collect and celebrities they take photos with.” She seemed disgusted with them; they were there for all the wrong reasons.
In his 1992 book “Textual Poachers,” media scholar Henry Jenkins includes a quote from a Trekkie in response to a “Saturday Night Live” sketch poking fun at the obsessive fans that speaks true to “SNL” fans as well” “‘A hobby is necessary for mental health,’” the quote reads. “‘“Star Trek” helps me to keep from burning out in all the ‘important’ things I do. It helps me relax. It is not my religion… And I suspect that the majority of fans are more like me than the stereotype.’”
By 8 p.m., I had left the line a total of four times for food and coffee, bathroom breaks, and to stealthily charge my cell phone in the Starbucks in Rockefeller Center’s concourse.
Standbys are only allowed to leave the line for “minimal, necessary breaks” according to the rules set by NBC’s Guest Relations. Standbys are allowed breaks to use the restrooms in the Rockefeller Center concourse or at the 24-hour McDonald’s around the corner, to get dinner, or, like I did, to charge their cell phone.
This rule is not always put into effect, however. Almost every week, according to Louis, people leave the line for extended periods of time to attend classes, go to work, or even in the case of two 20-something boys that are fairly regular to the line, to attend The Strokes concert at Madison Square Garden last April. Once the person or group returns, they are usually reported to the guard or guest relations by the people around them in line and kicked out. Although everyone knew the boys cut that evening, no one said anything — they have waited in the line so many times that people let them come and go as they please, according to Louis.
Recently, NBC had an issue with scalpers selling standby tickets, and was forced to change the policy. In the past, standbys received a blue or white card, depending on whether the ticket was for dress or live, with the show’s information and the ticket policy printed on it, and the number of the ticket handwritten on the back in black marker. No names were recorded, however, which allowed people to sell their tickets for $100 each and up, according to Louis. At the beginning of the current season, a group of men “who were quite noticeable by appearance” according to Louis, started camping out in the standby line. Many believed them to be homeless. The group grew from two to four to eventually six men. “[The men] never showed up [in the standby ticket line before the episode] Saturday night,” Louis said. Some weeks those who purchased scalped standby tickets did not get into an episode. Many of the line regulars, he said, complained to NBC’s Guest Relations. Eventually, Guest Relations banned the group from the building.
Many of the line’s regulars see scalping and cutting as a serious offense — it isn’t fair to the people who put in the hours to wait on line.
“It’s criminal and sad for people to be that desperate,” Chris said, speaking of both the scalpers and the people who purchase scalped tickets. “I don’t approve, because if [the ticket purchasers] get caught [the scalpers] have the money and the person who was stupid enough to pay [for scalped tickets] won’t get in.”
Now, you must present a valid photo ID to get a standby ticket, and a page records your full name both on the back of the card and on a sheet with ticket numbers listed. You must show your ID again upon arriving to 30 Rock to ensure your ID matches both the name on the back of your ticket card and on the page’s ticket sheet.
Perhaps the biggest problem in the standby line, however, is cutting. The line is very self-sufficient; a guard for 30 Rockefeller Plaza stands outside the revolving doors during the day and evening, ensuring no illegal activity occurs outside the building. However, he does not actually monitor the line. Any cutters are left to the mercy of the people waiting in line, and whether they are willing to ask the person to leave or report the activity to Guest Relations if the building is open. Sometime after midnight, two NYPD officers and one NBC guard stand towards the middle of the line to arrange the barricades and answer any questions they are asked. They did not, however, seem to be monitoring the line very closely.
Because of NBC’s lax attitude towards the standby line, Louis acts as a “warden” of the line, reporting people who cut or scalp consistently. Although some people in the line seem to be frustrated by Louis’s actions (as evidenced by the 2005 petition), people do not seem to hesitate when Louis goes into action. It seems everyone would rather a cutter leave the line rather than ruin their chances of attending a taping.
At around 6 p.m. on April 13, there was a cutting scare near me at the head of the line. A tourist came behind the barricade and posed with a standby, lying on his bedding, while the tourist’s companion took the photo. Amelia, Cathy, Chase and Arlene all hopped up immediately and stood by the tourist, ready to kick him out of the line. As soon as the photo was taken, everyone began to grill the tourist, their voices overlapping. “How long have you been here?” “You weren’t here earlier; I would have noticed.” “Are you actually trying to cut?”
The man got up, and quickly stood by his family on the other side of the barricade. “I just wanted a photo, this is pretty funny,” he said, and left. The situation was over, and everyone returned to their place in line.
Later on, at about 8 p.m., a tall, blonde girl joined Kitty, the girl immediately behind me in line. She laid a white down blanket on the ground as if she had been there since noon, like us, slipped off her sneakers, and pulled out a book to read. The group behind her was understandably angry, and asked her to leave. Somewhat standoffish, she ignored their request and asked which show they planned to get tickets for. “Oh, dress? I’m getting a ticket for live,” she said. The group behind immediately softened, seeing no threat, and agreed not to kick her out, since she didn’t technically affect them — just everyone waiting in line behind that group.
Soon after her arrival, the celebrity chasers were on alert; “SNL” rehearsals were close to ending for the night, and the cast members would be going home soon. At around 10 p.m., cast member Bill Hader came out to the standby line in a blue hooded zip-up sweatshirt and glasses. He walked quickly past the line, saying “Hi” to us standbys every few feet. “I don’t have any time, sorry,” he said to anyone who asked him for a photo.
Almost immediately after he left, there was commotion towards the end of the line. A group of about 15 people formed around a barricade, and people kept shouting “Snoop Dogg!” Amelia, Cathy, Lisa and I went down to investigate, our phones in our hands. Snoop Dogg himself was standing behind the barricade, wearing a white fedora with a black stripe around the middle, sunglasses on and iPhone ear buds in, wordlessly taking photos with anyone who asked him to. After around 20 photos, Cathy and Amelia asked him for a photo. Amelia handed me her camera, and Snoop looked in my direction. “Last one,” he whispered to me, indicating he would not take any more photos.
Snoop Dogg wasn’t the first celebrity to visit the standby line — whether accidentally or intentionally. When Dane Cook hosted the December 3, 2005 episode, Louis recalled he came down to the line at 2 a.m. and yelled at the standbys to wake up before running away. Other times, celebrities — like Snoop Dogg — just happen to be in the area. One week, Chris Brown greeted the standbys, according to Chris, and on another occasion Joaquin Phoenix “in his beard period” asked a girl what the line was for when he walked by.
After the excitement over Snoop Dogg subsided, the celebrity chasers went back to hunting down anyone associated with “SNL.” Some regulars, like Kitty, waited outside the revolving doors to catch people coming home. Amelia, Cathy, Lisa and Chase joined in, their excitement contagious. Everyone traded stories of what celebrities they already met, trying to one-up each other. It was easy to get caught up in it — before I realized it, I found myself telling the story of how I attended a midnight screening of Kristen Wiig’s movie “Bridesmaids” last spring and almost the entire “SNL” cast came out to see the movie. Everyone was excited by my story, and no one could top it, making me feel successful and ashamed at the same time — almost like I was selling out the cast to make myself look cooler to these fans.
After a few minutes, Lorne Michaels walked past the group and entered the building, speaking to someone on his cell phone. It seemed to take everyone a minute to realize the man responsible for why we were sleeping on the sidewalk walked by.
“Oh my God, that was Lorne Michaels,” Lisa said. “The man who created this show. I want to meet him so, so badly, and just… thank him.”
The group, minus Kitty, followed Lorne into the building, hoping to meet a cast member. They were successful in their venture — they waited outside the studio elevators and met cast members Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, Bobby Moynihan and Jay Pharoah, who joked about the other cast members with the group. “He said Andy Samberg probably wouldn’t come out because he had wings and could fly home,” Lisa said. They also ran into Lorne again and each person shook his hand.
After the excitement from meeting Snoop and cast members died down, many people began to go to bed. They bundled themselves up in sweatshirts and coats, layered blankets, and attempted to fall asleep, despite the honking horns, horse-drawn carriages, and party buses thumping lout music, causing the sidewalk to vibrate.
Tucking myself into bed on a very public sidewalk was a tricky endeavor. I forgot to bring a pillow; would a blanket and scarf folded up suffice, or would I need both for warmth, since the temperature was steadily dropping? Would someone rifle through my purse while I was sleeping? Would I accidentally shift on my makeshift bed and kick someone, or worse, hit my head on the small tree in front of me? What would I do with my glasses?
In the end, I wrapped the blanket acting as a pillow around myself, since I needed to keep warm, and propped my head up on my purse, both to elevate my head and keep my belongings safe. If someone were to open my bag, I would certainly notice it. I folded my scarf and placed it over my purse to give my head a little extra cushion, and kept my glasses on.
From 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. were some of the most uncomfortable hours of my life. Although the temperature was only in the 40s, it felt like I was in shorts and a t-shirt in the middle of a snowy December day. Every person that walked by sounded like they were walking directly in front of my face, the noises heightened by the quiet line. Any passersby who stopped to ask what the line was for sounded like they were shouting, and I internally willed each of them to shut up and keep moving. Each time I opened my eyes, the glow of the NBC Studios marquee stared back at me. Although the allure of Studio 8H kept me on the sidewalk, I fell asleep fantasizing about getting up and leaving the line forever.
During one point, at around 3 a.m., I sat up, unable to keep my body stiffly contorted in the fetal position for any longer. Lisa’s mother was still awake, sitting in the beach chair, while Lisa was wrapped in their green plaid blanket like a cocoon. “I don’t get how you’re lying on that sidewalk,” her mother said to me.
“I don’t know, either,” I replied.
The sun began to rise on Saturday morning, at around 4:45 a.m., a small turquoise bus appeared across the street, playing a loud jingle that woke almost everyone up. The sudden noise caused me to bite my tongue hard, drawing blood. “Free coffee, bagels and waffles,” a man inside the truck announced. A small line of about 10 people waited outside the truck, while everyone else tried to get a few extra minutes of sleep. I didn’t move; I was finally somewhat warm and in a semi-comfortable position.
At 6 a.m., most people began to pack up their belongings and gather their garbage, ready to get their ticket. I carefully folded each of my blankets and stuffed them in my canvas Target bag, and tied a Duane Reade bag full of the garbage I accumulated the day before, which was mostly personal pizza boxes and cans of sparkling orange juice from Pret A Manger. The line seemed to shrink considerably without the blankets and air mattresses covering the ground.
Finally, at 7 a.m., three pages came out with clipboards and a poster explaining the new rules. The line immediately split into two; one for dress rehearsal, and one for the live show. “They didn’t start doing it this way until about February,” Kitty told me. “Before that, we were all in one line.”
Selecting the correct ticket is a tricky game. A lower ticket number is preferable — you want to make sure your wait wasn’t a wasted effort (which is why many fans will arrive on Wednesday or Thursday). You don’t always want tickets one or two for standby, though — those seats are usually far stage right, and obstructed by various pieces of equipment.
“I’m on a constant see-saw battle while I’m on this line here until 7 a.m. tomorrow morning for which one I’m going to go for,” Chris said. Many fans believe getting into the live show is more difficult, as there tend to be more VIP guests, and guaranteed ticketholders who win in the lottery are more likely to come out to New York City for live tickets, even though the dress rehearsal is longer.
I weighed my options immediately; the dress rehearsal line was significantly shorter, so I followed Lisa and her mother and patiently waited behind them. When it was my turn, I handed the page my ID. He wrote my name down on the back of the ticket card as he talked to another page next to him. “You know that woman that’s always here every week?” he said, speaking of Arlene. “She keeps telling all these kids to go to the live show, because they have a better chance, but we all know she’s lying to them. It ain’t right.”
I stared at him in surprise as he copied my name, wondering if he was allowed to talk so openly about a regular. He handed me my ID and ticket. I was standby number 7 for the dress rehearsal.
When I arrived to 30 Rock at 7 p.m. Saturday evening, the lobby was crowded. There were two lines of people waiting for “Saturday Night Live” — one for the guaranteed ticket holders near the revolving doors, and one for the standby line behind Franco Hair Salon, towards the end of the lobby.
Chris, who was standing next to Jamie and Louis at the head of the line for standbys outside of the black rope, greeted me. “What are you doing here? You’re not allowed!” he joked, as if we had been friends for ages. I slipped under the rope and into my place in line, just behind Lisa and her mother. Chris followed me, staying outside the rope, as he was number 17, and talked to me about the Kraftwerk retrospective at MoMA happening that week.
Eventually, Chris took his place in line, and Lisa and I eyed the guaranteed ticket line nervously. “I hope our seven make it in!” Lisa said. The sense of community was still present; we talked about what we did during our downtime and our plans for the rest of the weekend if we knew each other longer than a day.
A page finally came by with the list from this morning and checked that our IDs matched up with the name written on the back of our tickets and her list. Once it all checked out, we resumed worrying, anxiety clouding the excitement.
“You don’t know if you got in or not until you’re sitting in your seat,” Jenna, a college student from Ottawa who was number four for standby, kept repeating to us. She had done this once before and gotten in.
Eventually, once all the guaranteed ticket holders went through security and up to Studio 8H, the page moved the first 60 people in line to the spot where the guaranteed ticket line was located. She firmly told us that this did not mean we got in; the first 30 people would go through security in advance to keep things moving quickly. It did not guarantee anything. The fact that we were moving closer 8H, the first group to go through security, felt like progress — like “SNL” was almost in sight, and we were the only ones who stood a chance.
As we passed through security and lined up in front of the elevators, awkwardly putting our belts and coats back on, a heavy tension hung in the air. There was little to no noise, except nervous hushed whispers of “Will I make it in?” and “You won’t know until you’re sitting in your seat.” It was one of the strangest feelings I’ve ever experienced — excitement mixed with dread. We were finally going to find out if we would make it upstairs after waiting for so many hours, but none of us wanted to hear that there weren’t enough seats. Lisa turned around to me and repeated, “I hope our seven make it in!”
Suddenly, out of nowhere, one of the pages behind me said, “One through 14 can go up.” Everyone who overheard looked at each other excitedly, surprised and happy we were making it in. Chris, who was standing next to me, leaned over and gave me an unexpected awkward side-hug. “I’m so happy you’re getting to go up,” he said.
We packed ourselves into the elevator, and I ended up scrunched into a corner next to Lisa and her mother. Lisa’s mother told me that if they only called the first six, she would have switched tickets with me to make sure I got up there. I didn’t know how to respond; I was so touched that someone I knew for just over 24 hours would do such a sweet thing for a stranger.
We exited the elevator and traded our tickets for paper wristbands. Everyone slowly shuffled into 8H, staring at the framed stills of iconic sketches lining the walls. We all made it up here, there was an empty seat in 8H for each of us. No need to rush now.
As I finally sat in my yellow plastic seat — top row in the far right corner, third seat in, between Cathy and Arelene — my eyes actually watered. We made it; after 19 hours, I was sitting in 8H, about to experience a little piece of “Saturday Night Live” history.
It was in that moment, as Jason Sudeikis came out to list off the studio’s rules (no recording equipment, no photos, laugh into the microphones above our heads) and make fun of the “shitty section” where we were seated, that I finally understood why these people returned to the standby line every week. Our standby section laughed harder than everyone else there, cheered loudly when regular characters came out, and even clapped when Lorne walked around the studio. You forget that you’re running on no sleep, that your body hurts in places you never imagined from a night on the sidewalk, and that your stomach is growling. You’re sitting in a seat in Studio 8H, seeing an episode of “Saturday Night Live” — and not many others can say that. You feel invincible, as if you can suddenly conquer anything you want to.
(Note: This story was previously written but didn’t have a home.)