Late Night Television

Published on December 19th, 2011 | by Sharilyn Johnson


SNL from the Bleachers, Part 2: Live!

***For all the info on how we came to be inside & seated, check out part 1!***

As lucky standby folks were still being seated, Lenny Picket and the band made way for Kenan Thompson, who took to the stage at “home base” (where the monologue is always done from). He belted out a bluesy tune with the help of backup singers Nasim Pedrad, Abby Elliot, and Vanessa Bayer, all three ladies decked out in matching sequin dresses.

A page approached a couple in the row in front of me, a few seats down, and moved them to a set of seats closer to the middle. Arriving to take their place? Questlove of The Roots, with an unidentified female companion. (I don’t mean that to sound illicit, I just genuinely don’t know who she was.) I won’t lie: I’m a little relieved that ‘fro wasn’t sitting directly in front of me.

As a comedy nerd teen, I was obsessed with SNL (particularly the original cast years). But without any performing aspirations, I wasn’t as obsessed with Gilda Radner or John Belushi as I was with Lorne Michaels. I wanted to be Lorne. So when he stepped onto the studio floor with just minutes to go before air, I did gasp, but managed to keep my pokin’ finger from bruising my friend’s rib (you’re welcome, Katie).

The musical foursome was replaced at home base by Jason Sudeikis, who did a few jokes and gave us the rundown on the fire exits, the camera rules (again), and general housekeeping notes. He said that we’d see wigs and costumes flyin’ in between sketches, but I’m sorry to report there was no nudity to speak of this week.

“Enjoy the show! I have to go put on a Christmas sweater,” he said, and away he ran.

The band launched into a rendition of People Get Ready (was that supposed to pump us up?). We had no concept of what time it was. It was only when the extras assembled onstage for the cold opening that we realized we were so close to showtime.

The floor director counted down the last 10 seconds, and exclaimed “five!” as if his voice was breaking – a trick to make the show open on a smattering of laughter, so now you know what’s so funny in the first two seconds of every show.

I’m going to run down the sketches one by one, showing you where in the studio each one was shot. All sketch titles are guesses. In the diagrams, red = set pieces and green = crew and cameras.

I’m only going to bother sharing what you didn’t see on tv, so if you haven’t watched the episode, I advise doing that before going any further!

Sully & Denise

Cold Open (Sully & Denise):
We were surprised to see Jimmy in the cold open (the host generally doesn’t do this), even more surprised to see Rachel Dratch show up, and downright floored to see Amy Poehler. I was hell-bent on watching as much as I could directly, instead of looking at the monitors, which caused a bit of a delayed reaction from a few of us when Amy showed up.

The exuberance with which Jimmy delivered “live, from New York…” was pretty indicative of his energy through the whole episode, much of which didn’t make it on screen. He was genuinely ecstatic to be there.

That makes two of us. But it wasn’t until I heard Don Pardo’s voice that it all really sunk in. SNL has a special place in my little nerd heart. I’ve loved the show since Jr. High, and read the Hill/Weingrad book many times over starting at 13 years old (20 years later, I can still tell you exactly which shelf that book lived on at the St-James Assiniboia Public Library). I took Judy Belushi’s 600-page tome with me when my parents took me to Disneyworld. Blues Brothers posters in my bedroom. Dragged my friends to the Coneheads movie. You get the picture.

As the theme song started up, and Pardo’s voice rang through the studio, it’s fair to say I was officially verklempt.



The stagehands were still getting things into place when Jimmy was introduced, and if you watch carefully you can see the Christmas tree to the left of the stage being adjusted as he walked out.

For the song, there was a giant fan blowing the snow into the air from the left of the stage, falling naturally on its own.

Backstage is a bit of a maze. After Jimmy leaves Vanessa and Andy, and walks towards Lorne, he’s walking under the set of bleachers that I was in. We couldn’t see anything other than what was on the monitors – no slats in these bleachers!

As soon as the song ended, the cast scrambled – some much faster than others. When Jimmy was grabbed by one hand by his handler to run backstage, he used his free arm to pump his fist in the air and exclaim “yeeaaahhh!”, something he continued to do after every sketch.

Today Show

Today Show:

If there’s one photo I wish I could have taken during the taping, it was Jimmy waiting to go on as Regis. He stood to the right of the set, in the dark, illuminated only by the flatscreen monitor that sat at eye-level to him as his wig was being adjusted from behind. Just a wonderful image, and I’m happy to have it seared onto my brain.

When Nasim was pushed off the chair, she went into a thick black pad that was manned by a crew member.

Incidentally, on Monday morning’s Today Show, Ann Curry mentioned that she was at the taping. I didn’t spot her, but in all fairness, she doesn’t have an identifiable afro.

Buble Christmas Duets

Despite what I’ve read from other bloggers, the Michael Buble parody ad absolutely killed in the studio. Questlove was laughing particularly hard at this one. We’d gotten a brief taste of Buble’s sketch-acting abilities during the monologue, but I think our surprise of seeing him nail those reactions is what did it for us.

Mirror Image

Mirror Image

“Timberlake couldn’t make it.” You could feel the audience collectively deflate a little, because a lot of us were fantasizing about a Barry Gibb Talk Show. No Timberlake? What? But… but… (We got over it in about two seconds. Never underestimate the power of a good spit-take.)

1920s Party

1920s Party (Don’t Make Me Sing)

This is the only set that wasn’t moved throughout the course of the taping, though interestingly it was a different set when we first arrived to be seated. Initially, it was a fancy dining room with pink-upholstered high-back dining chairs around it. Clearly a sketch from Dress that was cut. If anyone was at Dress, please comment and let us know what we missed!

Lorne was hovering around at a few points in the show, before this sketch being one of them. He’s a bit of an island down there. Nobody talks to him, and he rarely says more than a few sentences to anyone else. He simply oversees as the crew goes about its business.

Half Jewish Half Italian Completely Neurotic

What sprung to my mind first was the actual off-Broadway show My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m in Therapy”. Not sure whether the similarities end with the premise, but I sure hope so! This seemed to be more of a commentary on clichéd one-man shows about unexceptional lives.

Can anyone out there identify the theatre they shot in? It’s not the actual Bleecker Street Theater (minus the “c” in the sketch), and I don’t think it’s the new PIT space or UCBEast (neither of which I’ve been able to visit yet).

Christmas Song Redux

I think it’s safe to say that none of us expected THIS! Retro ridiculousness. A thought: unless you follow improv closely, or watched Big Lake, would you even recognize Horatio Sanz? He looks so different compared to when he was a castmember. And speaking of recognition, the only lowlight of this sketch was the girl sitting behind me seeing Tracy Morgan and exclaiming “oh, it’s that guy from 30 Rock!”. (It may be hard to get tickets, but you don’t have to be an SNL genius.)

Michael Buble

“Have some fun with me, guys,” Buble said before going live. He was very engaged with us, and seemed both nervous and excited to be there.

Jimmy stood at the side of the stage with about 15 seconds to go. He got Buble’s attention and said, “so wait, is it Boo-blay or Boo-blee?”

“It’s Bubbly, actually.” Clever boy.

Weekend Update

Weekend Update

During the break, the backdrop was brought in to be placed at home base. This is the first time I’ve ever heard a set piece receive an ovation.

Seth, in black jeans, sat at the desk. The floor director said “three seconds,” to which Seth responded “three seconds still?” The margins are so thin, but nobody even blinks.

What you don’t see at home: at each side of the Update desk, there are large black screens put up to keep the guests a secret from the audience. So the surprised screams you heard when Jude Law came on were genuinely surprised. Seth reacted appropriately to the bit (laughter, confusion, etc), whether he was on camera or not.

And the complete loss of our minds when Amy Poehler and Tina Fey rolled in? We really were that close to the edge of sanity. Mouths were covered and chests were clutched. And as you could hear on the show, we simply would not shut up. Can you blame us? (From my vantage point, I could see Amy’s blonde hair in the makeshift “wings”, but she knowingly kept her back to the desk until going on.)


Beethoven’s Band

Nothing much to say about this one; another tough view from my end, and what you saw is what we got!

War Horse

War Horse

This took two staging areas, requiring more space than any other sketch. The backdrop behind the theatre seats had been rolled up in the rafters, and was brought down and untied by a few crew members who seemed to be struggling with it a bit (though I think I was more nervous about it than they were – it’s true that the crew is incredibly chill about this whole process). Extras were loaded into the “seats” during the break, and briefed by a floor director to look directly at the cue cards for the duration of the sketch. Over at home base, where the stage performance portion was done, a guy with a fog machine stood to the right and fanned the fog over with a piece of white cardboard.

Michael Buble

Jimmy came back out and asked how long he had. The response of “30 seconds” might as well have been an eternity. He told us that his parents and sister were in the audience, and pointed them out in the middle of the bleachers.

“You’d think I could’ve gotten them better seats,” he said.

Buble told us not to clap along with this one, because it’s a ballad. “Though you could try,” he joked.

With a few seconds to go, Jimmy turned and asked “so is it Michael, or Mikhail?” Big laugh.

I’ve seen a few comments from people who thought Buble forgot the words to the song. No idea if he did or if that was just his style, but I admit the thought crossed my mind as he was singing.



This was an interesting one! The backdrop was up against the wall of my side of bleachers. Meaning, if the camera had panned directly up, you would have been looking right at us. I know people bitch and moan about the sightlines at the studio, but honestly, it was great to have a view of the cue cards and read along with the sketch.

Jason Sudeikis went a touch off-script a few times (really just rephrasing sentences), and you can tell in the finished product where that didn’t turn out so hot. “It’s not a good week when every week, the son of God…” was supposed to be “It’s not good when every week…”. Minor, but just realize that the cue cards aren’t always to blame!

The band started playing the closing music over the break, and we stared at home base expectantly. Yeah, it was disappointing to not get to see the goodnights in the traditional way, and lay eyes on Fey/Poehler/everyone again. But that shot of them all on the skating rink was beautiful, and it’s truly amazing how quickly some of the cast made it down there!

I assumed, as the others likely did, that Jimmy’s bee costume was simply an homage to the original Killer Bees sketches. It wasn’t until reading his tweet later that I learned it was Bill Murray’s original costume.

Those of us in the bleachers got up and filed out before the music even ended, but those seated on the floor were still firmly planted. Nobody made any announcements that we were free to go, or thanks for coming, or any of the regular things you typically hear at the conclusion of a television taping.

On 49th St. (under the neon NBC Studios / Rainbow Room sign), gates were erected to wrangle the autograph-seekers. About 100 people were waiting for autographs and photos from the cast

It’s doubtful that anyone outside would be privy to the fact that most of the cast had already been escorted out of the building. I realize there are no guarantees, but I did feel kind of bad for them. I hope at least some of cast came through. We didn’t stick around to find out.

In all, an unbelievable experience. If you’re a fan of the show, and luck into tickets, make it your priority to get there come hell or high water. I read a lot of people on places like TripAdvisor that poo-poo the idea of actually travelling for something like this, and that “you don’t get to see much anyway”, and so on. Those people are more than welcome to not enter the lottery next August, and make room for the rest of us.

Want more? I Heart Jimmy Fallon has some great behind the scenes tidbits of their own, and this televised-view recap from the Laugh Button is one of the best I’ve read since the weekend.

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About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

10 Responses to SNL from the Bleachers, Part 2: Live!

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