24 Hours Spent Camping Out for the Premiere of "Saturday Night Live": A Firsthand Account

24 Hours Spent Camping Out for the Premiere of "Saturday Night Live": A Firsthand AccountSlide photos by Tara Aquino. Insert via NBC Universal.

No one likes being told that they're what's wrong with society. Especially when you're going to be sleeping next to that person on the side of the street for the next 24 hours.

Just a box of Dunkin' Donuts away from me, an NYU sophomore is getting scolded by a balding old woman, like a bitter grandmother to a grandson who broke a vase. Only, this is the first time they've interacted. "You're never allowed to complain again about how society is ruined or how awful society," she says. "You're what made it this way." 

You'd think he just stepped on a kitten, right in front of her. But really, he just cut in line, where we're all waiting for Saturday Night Live tickets. 

It's 6:45 a.m. on Friday when I arrive at the end of the SNL line on 48th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenue, two fold-out chairs and a couple blankets in tow. I assume I'll grab the tenth spot in line, sit my ass down, and take comfort in knowing that I'll get in, no problem. I mean, come on, it's early as fuck. Wrong. The line's at least 40 people deep. Everyone else arrived on Thursday. Where did you all come from?! Why do you have this much time to waste?! I curse the world.

As if the idea of camping out on an New York City street for two nights isn't bizarre enough, consider this: We're all in line to get standby tickets to the premiere episode of SNL. Admission is not guaranteed. Everyone here is either a Tina Fey stan (she's hosting), an Arcade Fire stan (they're performing), or they've literally got nothing better to do with their lives. But, like me, they're probably a mix of all of the above.

 

We're all in line to get standby tickets to the premiere episode of SNL. Admission is not guaranteed. Everyone here is either a Tina Fey stan, an Arcade Fire stan, or they've literally got nothing better to do with their lives. But, like me, they're probably a mix of all of the above.

 

An hour in, the boredom, the cold, and the urge to pee set in. I silently debate whether to leave. The line is too long; my chances are slim. The feeling isn't unfamiliar. I've waited for SNL twice before. The first was about four Novembers ago, when Taylor Swift was hosting. Don't judge me, OK?! A couple of my college roommates and I got to the lobby, until the NBC Page turned us away saying the studio was full. The second time was two Octobers ago, this time for Melissa McCarthy. It started to downpour. The fort I built out of trash bags didn't hold up, and my friend and I called it quits at 2 a.m. The following morning she got a lung infection that would for last three weeks.

Which is why I can confidently say, these are the three kinds of people you will encounter in line:

  • The lifers, which include The Old Lady in the Army Sleeping Bag (yes, the one from the "society" shpiel) and The Guy in the Batman Beanie.
  • The comedy nerds, all of whom take improv classes at one of the following: Magnet, UCB, The Pit, Second City. Their favorite topics include SNL trivia and the time when [insert comedian here] spoke to them. By the way, happy early anniversary to the girl whom Abby Elliot tweeted on Oct. 3, 2012!
  • The first-timers, whom you'll recognize in the standby line because they stick around even though they're no. 223 and 224. 

By noon, I've become line buddies with the girls in front of me. They're comedy nerds. I'm 23 but I feel old as fuck. Most people here are doing their homework to kill time. But the friendship isn't enough to quell the sting of their friend, NYU boy, cutting in front of me. The same boy who got his ass handed to him. Though I'm being totally unreasonable. My friend snuck in to join me just minutes before old Hawk Eyes spotted her prey.

Everything becomes routine—bathroom breaks at the Rockefeller Center concourse, snack runs to Duane Reade, small talk with your neighbors about the greatness of Tina Fey. The crazy hobos preaching about everything from God to education come in two-hour shifts. The nosey Nancys asking "What are you in line for?" come every two minutes. 

Here are the kinds of comments you should expect to hear when you've had to answer that question 100 times:

  • "Oh, have fun."
  • "That show's not even funny anymore!"
  • "What's SNL?" (Usually from tourists)
  • "You're going to sleep all night, on the street? Does your mother know you're here?"
  • "Good luck."

Here are some alternate answers to the question:

  • A Boyz II Men reunion concert
  • The Rapture
  • Free HIV testing

Around 2 p.m., the first two people from work pass by. The Complex office is a stone's throw away from my slab on the sidewalk. Sitting between two barricades, with people looking on amused, you can't help but feel like an animal in a zoo. Three more coworkers show up, my favorite one bearing gifts. That is, a Poland Springs bottle of whiskey. It'll be a perfect night cap.

Here's a pro tip no one tells you: Bring a friend you're comfortable with, and snuggle that person. Seriously, by midnight, when you need warmth, and the blanket you brought isn't enough, a friend is a great space heater. Also, prepare to wake up at least three times. Between the frozen cement, the glaring street lights, and the ongoing conversations of stans debating whether to see the live show or the dress rehearsal, it's difficult to get continuous sleep. For some peace of mind, security guards police the area all night.

A little before 7 a.m., I wake up to a man with a thick New Yawk accent yelling, "Last call for free breakfast!" I'm too lazy. Finally, two women with a couple NBC security guards show up at the front of the line. You can't help but wonder if they're interns. Getting up this early for a bunch of crazies is not the business. One woman is holding all the live show tickets and the other is holding all the dress rehearsal tickets. All of them are numbered. By the way, without a photo I.D., you're screwed. So take one. They jot down your entire legal name on their list, right next to your number. 

My friend and I opt for the dress rehearsal. We're numbers 26 and 27. There are better chances of getting in for this one, you get to see sketches the producers decide not to air, and they run through the entire show as if it were live anyway. 

Like it instructs on the ticket, we're back at Rockefeller Center by 7 p.m. This time, inside the actual 30 Rock building. There's already a line for the lottery winners. The lucky bastards. The standby line is way down the hall. As both lines stack up, so does my stress. My line buddies, numbers 22 through 25, show up. They look different now that they're all showered. But then they start to look worried as hell, too. Like we're never going to get in.

Eventually, around 7:30, the pages escort the first 60 standby people to the now-empty lottery line. They're already seated. Don't get your hopes up, I tell myself over and over again. A page walks over and starts counting us off, "…and 30! OK, the first 30 step on over and line up for security." This is it. No it's not. Yes it is. Sanity, gone.  

But you're not guaranteed a spot until your butt is in a seat. We're waiting at the elevators for the clearance to go up. It's all good, girl—if we don't get in, there's a pub around the corner. This is me talking to my friend, not myself. (I swear.) It's the longest 10 minutes of my life.

Just when the stress builds enough to form a migraine in my head, we get the "Send the first 30 up!" The kid who got yelled at turns to me with a thumbs up and says, "Congratulations." I want to smack him in the face because I can't bring myself to believe him yet.

The doors open: Studio 8H. As we enter and fill in the seats in the top middle row, Taran Killam, Kenan Thompson, Vanessa Bayer, Cecily Strong, and Kate McKinnon are performing "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" for the audience, backed by The Live Band. 

It all happens so quickly. The crew set up the cold opening, Jay Pharaoh does his best President Obama, the "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" happens, the opening sequence starts, and then:

"Ladies and gentleman, Tina Fey!"

There's a reason why fans fill up an entire block just for the chance to see a live taping of Saturday Night Live. There's a reason why people get protective over their space in line. Being in Studio 8H is a dream, and once you're in, it's like watching a dream unfold. It's chock full of fearless, talented people who know how to turn on in a second. The crew moves about like a gang of ninjas, constructing and deconstructing sets in a studio, no bigger than your average Broadway stage, while the comedians are on another side, taping a sketch.

The skits feel funnier live because the audience is just so stoked to be there, that giddiness has to manifest itself somehow. But there's a certain energy that's unmistakable. It's palpable. Everyone who's a part of the show moves like they know they're walking on the same stage as their heroes and the people who influenced them the most. So to the naysayers who decry the show for losing Kristin Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and eventually, Seth Meyers, let newcomers Beck Bennett, John Milhiser, Kyle Mooney, Mike O’Brien, Noel Wells, and Brooks Wheelan get less intimidated by this idea first. Then let them be great.

With jokes between takes and encouraging pats on the back, the cast and crew function like family memebers who make sure that everyone there feels comfortable and supported in the moment. This is the reason why the show has lasted 39 years. This is what the thousands of people who've slept at Rockefeller Center come to witness.

Written by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)

RELATED: 12 Reaction GIFs from the 2013 Emmys to Use for Life's Most Awkward Moments 
RELATED: 30 Things You Didn't Know About Tina Fey

Stay Connected with
Complex Pop Culture
Tags: saturday-night-live, tina-fey, arcade-fire
blog comments powered by Disqus