I’m certainly a fan of Saturday Night Live, but I wouldn’t exactly consider myself an SNL junkie. I imagine that’s the case with most people my age — meaning under the age of 30. We enjoy the show, and respect it. But it’s rare we ever spend a Saturday night on the couch tuning in unless there’s a guest host or performer we absolutely love.
Still, SNL remains a historic franchise, one which tapes in my backyard. So every now and then, I’ll submit my name in the lottery for tickets. Two weeks ago, I received an e-mail notifying me that I had won a pair to this past weekend’s show, hosted by Drake. Well, kind of.
The tickets, it turned out, were actually to the dress rehearsal. That was the first lesson I took away from my evening at 30 Rock: Every week, the cast puts on a full dress rehearsal just hours before the actual show goes live.
Perhaps those aforementioned SNL junkies already knew this. Others in attendance, of which there were a lot — to my eyes, it seems like they pack about 200 viewers into the studio — didn’t seem to share my surprise.
Also, when I say full dress rehearsal, I mean a full dress rehearsal. For example: Drake, both the host and musical guest, did his full opening monologue AND rapped his two songs, as well. He’d complete a sketch, scurry off, then return not too long after in a new outfit and take position on a different stage. Even stranger: Drake was introduced prior to both of his performances in the classic SNL way (“Ladies and gentleman…”), though Chris Rock only did so during the official live show.
All sketches are performed as if they’re on air. Producers shout out countdown clocks. Actors hustle off stage after bits. It’s not a dress rehearsal as much as the first of two shows. Even the signoff and post-show hugs, an SNL staple, are “rehearsed.” The whole thing is kind of bizarre. Something about these super-famous people dropping in to Rockefeller Center for a week to host SNL, then being treated like high school drama students is funny to imagine.
Anyway, intrigued by this whole process, and also a bit confused, I did some Googling afterwards to try to find out what exactly it was that I had just watched.
Here’s what I learned: Apparently, time management is one of the primary reasons the dress rehearsals are treated so seriously. The writers have to know exactly how much time every aspect of the show takes, down to the seconds, in order to make sure everything fits. That’s why musical guests perform during the rehearsal, meaning just for the studio audience, and why they are introduced beforehand. Everything needs to be clocked. The cue cards are even written by hand (I’d love to speak to the person who has that job), so that post-dress rehearsal revisions can be made easily.
Again, this might be common knowledge to many. It certainly wasn’t to me and my wife.
Additionally, more sketches are performed during the dress rehearsal than the actual show. The writers enter Saturday night with extra material and make cuts based on a number of factors, from how performers feel about the material to audience reaction. Interestingly, this seemed to backfire a bit this past Saturday night with the “Dennis Walls and the Cookies” sketch. This bit was one of the biggest hits of the dress rehearsal, only to become one of the biggest duds of the live show.
“Points to Drake for giving it his all even when the live audience didn’t seem to be feeling it, and negative points to the audience for not laughing whenever Cecily Strong’s character asked, ‘How come is this nasty?’ because that was funny, guys,” wrote HitFix’s Emilie Sowers in her recap of the show. During the dress rehearsal, that joke was met with tons of laughter.
My biggest takeaway, though, was just how hard-working and detail-oriented SNL’s behind-the-scenes folks are. This was the kind of thing I always knew to be true, but also didn’t realize what exactly went into the job. It wasn’t just seeing how efficiently the crew was able to turn the main stage into Donald Trump’s office; it was seeing three different crew members do their best to ensure that one of his fake college degrees hanging on the fake wall behind the fake desk was perfectly straight. It’s also impressive how quickly the prop guys are able to set everything up. Performers were always dressed and ready to go with at least a minute to spare.
Oh, and Michael Che is one funny dude. The Weekend Update co-host came out prior to the show to warm up the crowd. “We’re going to do some Trump jokes,” he said. “Any Trump voters here?” No one among the 200-or-so audience members spoke up or raised their hand. “Man, how’d he win?” Che asked. “Trump’s like herpes—no one has it, yet it’s still there.” Not bad considering that was, I assume, off the top of his head.
Che was also active during the Weekend Update segment, which he co-hosts with Colin Jost. He was constantly reacting to Jost’s jokes, sometimes by gleefully slapping the update desk, and often emitted a tiny laugh off-camera. It was cool to see someone getting such a kick out of what seems to be a pretty awesome job.
After just about two hours, the show came to an end. First Jerry Seinfeld, who had no part in the show and so I can only assume was in attendance as a fan of comedy, and some family members were escorted out by an NBC page. Then another page announced that it was time for the rest of us to leave. We all filed out the door. The hallways outside the studio are lined with pictures of former cast members and hosts, though we only had a few minutes beforehand and afterward to truly check them out.
“Look, there’s Eddy,” said one older white man to a friend of his. He was pointing to a picture of Kevin Hart dressed as James Brown. Outside the elevators on the mezzanine was a line of smiling people waiting to get inside. It was nearly 10:30 p.m. It was almost time for the second show of the evening to begin.