How to get tickets to Saturday Night Live

SNL Standby Tickets

Trying to obtain tickets to a live Saturday Night Live taping has often thought to be an impossible task and from my most recent experience, I can definitely see why. NBC certainly does not provide the necessary direction to make things easy for you. Before I go on, I should heed warning in noting the irony of my blog title as I was unsuccessful in my endeavor, however, I am hoping my personal experience will help others down the line.

It is often claimed that the most effortless route to get a guaranteed SNL ticket is to send an e-mail to NBC in August and try your luck in the lottery where the reward nets you two tickets to a random taping (I have my some thoughts and skepticism on this). Keep in mind, a lottery ticket may only grant access to the 8 p.m. dress rehearsal and not necessarily the live 11:30 p.m. show.

The other option to attend an SNL taping is by means of stand-by tickets. This involves lining up in front of NBC Studios on the day of a taping and obtaining a stand-by ticket (dress or show) on a first-come, first-serve basis. These tickets only come into play when guaranteed ticket holders are no-shows. Guaranteed tickets are not confined to just lottery winners; in fact, tickets won via lottery represent a small percentage of guaranteed ticket holders. The majority of seats are reserved for VIP, which includes friends and family of the host, musical guest and cast members. The number of VIPs varies largely from show-to-show and in essence determines how many stand-by ticket holders eventually make it into a live taping.

Having been unsuccessful in the lottery, my friend and I decided to try our luck in stand-by on Saturday, April 24 for a show hosted by Gabourey Sidibe with musical guest MGMT. It was a very calculated move having selected a taping that involved an uncelebrated host and relatively unknown musical guest. This duo seemed to offer a better chance at attracting less of a crowd than say the Tina Fey/Justin Bieber combo from a few weeks earlier.

Upcoming Saturday Night Live Hosts

Our day started off leaving from Bristol, CT at 3:45 AM on Saturday morning. We arrived in NYC at 5:30 and made it to 30 Rockefeller Plaza around 5:45. A fair number of folks were already lined up on the W 49th street side of NBC Studios (later we learned there were 130 people in front of us). The majority of people in the front of the line had camped out overnight. An estimated 200 total people were in line by the time we obtained our tickets.

On a quick side bar, I have to mention an offbeat character who was in line right behind us with an unhealthy obsession with SNL. He claimed to own “over 20 episodes on VHS tape,” boasted in finding a site that listed every member who had stated the line “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” and passed along an anecdote where he “froze” when having met Jenny Slate. It was an onslaught of questions from the get-go ranging from “Who is your favorite Weekend Update anchor?”, “Who was your favorite host,” “What is your favorite skit of all-time?” While my friend was a little more engaging, I phased him out when it got to a point where he was not the type of energy I was intending on soaking in early on a Saturday morning. I’ll give the kid an “A” for effort but an “F” for the ability to detect human discomfort in social situations.

Back to my story, an NBC player (call him NBC-1) came out 10 minutes prior to 7 a.m. to indicate stand-by tickets (numbered from No. 1 onwards) are available for the dress rehearsal or the live show. He was generally approachable and the obvious question people were asking involved the chances of getting into either show. His advice was to choose the show ticket with the lowest number (while this makes sense logically, it was obviously a false claim as we found out the hard way). NBC-1 told us that only four stand-by tickets made it into the live Tina Fey/Justin Bieber show; definitely not offering a hope of confidence.

Another NBC player (call her NBC-2) distributed the tickets. By the time we got to the front of the line, we were faced with the decision to take tickets Nos. 63/64 for the live show or Nos. 69/70 for the dress rehearsal. To get a better idea of our chances, we asked how many people typically make it in and what was the most number of stand-by tickets ever earning admission. While being fairly open to questions, NBC-2 played the naive card and didn’t give us much to work with. She claimed that 40 standbys made it into a live taping during a snowstorm a few years back in a studio that holds roughly 330 people. We were able to extract the fact that “30,000 people apply for the lottery and less than 5% win.” Playing the numbers game, we ended up taking tickets 63/64 for the live show.

Over breakfast, we replayed our questions and information obtained from NBC-1 and NBC-2 and determined that we had made the best decision possible. Still, we knew our chances of making it into the live show were pretty slim. Regardless, we agreed to go back later that night to try our luck. With no shortage of things to do, we were easily able to make a day of it in NYC, surprisingly without feeling the crash and burn from the early morning mission.

Our stand-by tickets indicated that we arrive back by 10:45 p.m. for the 11:30 live show. We made our way back to NBC Studios to line up with our stand-by tickets around 10:15. This time we waited inside the GE building. We saw a line for the roughly 30 lottery winners. Another batch of folks, the VIPs, were coming from an exclusive back-door entrance. At this point, promptness is not a factor provided you arrive before 10:45 since standbys are admitted by the number on your ticket.*

In line, by means of an unknown NBC Player, word spread that “around 70″ stand-by ticket holders made it in to the dress rehearsal. Our hopes were immediately raised and an excitement spread among others in our line. What was thought to be a long shot earlier in the day appeared to be a possibility. At 10:30 p.m., the guaranteed ticket holders were ushered past security and to their seats. Then, NBC Player (call her NBC-3) had us line up based on our stand-by number. NBC-3 definitely appeared to be “in-the-know,” actively communicating with whatever activity was taking place in the studio above.

It was noted that any stand-by ticket holder arriving after 10:45 p.m. would have to go to the back of the ordered stand-by line regardless of number. To follow-up on the asterisk from earlier, this was obviously not strictly adhered to as two sets of female groups came in a bit tardy. The first two girls followed instructions and moved to the back of the line (which benefited us since they were #s 61/62). The next set came in closer to 11 — apparently the rules are slightly relaxed when you sweet talk an NBC PA wearing five-inch heels and a short skirt because the girls were allowed to retake their stand-by ticket number in line (which hurt our chances since they were about 10 numbers ahead of us).

At 11 p.m., 30 people from our line were instructed to clear security, yet were informed that this did not guarantee a seat (eventually these 30 did make it in). That left us 32 people away from glory, building anticipation. The element of unknown was painful to endure. NBC Players did not offer any indication of how many seats remained. We saw VIPs continuing to come in sporadically. Around 11:10, two more standbys got in; followed by two more at 11:15. At this point, it seemed unlikely the openings would jump from two people at a time to 30, which is where we were in line. At 11:20, one more stand-by was asked to go in. Finally at 11:22, our hopes were dashed when NBC-3 informed us that no more folks would be allowed in. In the end, 35 standbys made the cut for the live show.

As a last ditch effort, we loitered in the lobby hoping for any last minute offers. When we heard the audience noise from above, we knew the show was underway and there was no hope left. I decided to speak with another approachable NBC Player (NBC-4) in the vicinity to try and obtain further information. She claimed to not know how many people actually made it in that night’s dress rehearsal, however did state that it is always better to take your chances with the dress show since more VIP are inclined to attend the live taping. While not stated directly, it was implied to be almost a 2:1 ratio.

Earlier when we got in the building, we had actually spoke to standby #35 (the last to make it through). He mentioned that he had arrived in line at 2 a.m. and was offered either ticket number 35 in the live show or 56 in the dress rehearsal (this should give a perspective on the number of people already in line by 2 a.m.). Remembering that NBC-1 had harped on the notion of going with the lowest number, clearly folks earlier in the line knew that the dress rehearsal offered a better chance at admission than live show. Whether this tip came from prior experience or from NBC-2 remains to be seen.

What makes our experience even more intriguing is that if “around 70″ truly made it in the dress rehearsal, we could have potentially made it in had we chosen dress show ticket Nos. 69/70. Of course, if it were rounded up to 70 or even 69, that would have made for an uncomfortable situation; our pact was always both of us or none of us.

It seemed as though the four NBC Players we encountered played a villainous role throughout our endeavor. NBC-1 offered some misdirection with the “lowest number policy.” NBC-2 did not shed any perspective on the numbers game nor gave any inclination that taking No. 69 in dress is infinitely better than taking No. 63 in live. NBC-3 seemed to have the inside track on the seating arrangement inside, however never disclosed any information throughout the night to indicate our chances, potential or otherwise. NBC-4 appeared to have knowledge of general trends week-to-week yet did not offer any hard numbers to support the claim.

On some level, I believe they are instructed by execs to yield as minimal information as possible. Other shows like “Daily Show” and previously “Conan” are fairly up front with their ticket issuance policies. The “Saturday Night Live” ticket policy is very closed off and often leads people on to false hope. Why NBC chooses to go down this route of secrecy baffles me. The show is not good enough to be taking fans on an emotional roller coaster. Its ratings are consistently on the decline, and only Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin has kept “SNL” on the map in recent years. This isn’t the ’90s anymore when NBC was on top of the world and the show was consistently funny. The fact that people still want to come out and watch a live taping of any NBC show should be received with open arms and full disclosure.

I also wonder if it makes sense for the fan to decide whether to take the dress or live show stand-by ticket. From our conversations with folks in line, a large majority indicated that they would be satisfied attending either with no preference to the live show. Perhaps NBC should consider a “best ticket” number policy where stand-by tickets are simply distributed from No. 1 onwards with no distinction between dress and live shows. That way, fans who wish to attend only the live taping can skip lining up for the dress show earlier in the night. Those who simply want to get in either show can line up for the dress and if cut-off, come back later for the live show. Obviously a ticket can only be used in one show. I haven’t explored the full ramifications of this process, but it is something to consider.

The lottery system itself should also be investigated. The ticket info page on hasn’t been updated for three years, and it’s a mystery if the process is still active. I’ve applied for the past three years and have never heard back from NBC either confirming receipt or otherwise. I shouldn’t be too bitter considering NBC-2’s earlier claim that “30,000 people apply for the lottery and less than 5% win.” To crunch the numbers further:

  • At a 5% hit rate, 1500 people are lucky enough to win the lottery each year.
  • Given a 22 episode season, 68 tickets are available per show, of which half are presumably distributed evenly between the dress and live show. This leaves roughly 34 lottery tickets at hand for a given live taping; clearly slim pickings going this route.

I would be even more skeptical of the process had my friend (then living in NY) not won a dress rehearsal lottery ticket back in 2008. A few other folks in our stand-by line mentioned they knew friends in NY who had also won the lottery. Are locals more inclined to attend tapings and thereby given preference vs. say, someone from Idaho?

At the end of the day, it came down to more questions than answers:

  • If a high of 40 people got in during a winter storm a few years ago as NBC-2 claimed, did we pick one of the most opportunistic shows in recent years considering 35 standbys made it in the live show? Seems doubtful.
  • Is there no counter to know how many seats remain unfilled? In the closing minutes, it seems devious to call people in numbers of one or two, especially if you are with a group and concerned if others behind you are going to make it in.
  • Why not full disclosure with how many standbys make it in the dress and live show each week? Clearly these numbers are available and would offer guidance to fans hoping to attend the show by analyzing weekly trends.

The fact that we potentially could have made it in the rehearsal show with tickets Nos. 69/70 leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I still haven’t watched the Gabourey Sidibe show from 04/24, which I had recorded on DVR, primarily out of spite. I’ll probably come around at some point. I urge folks who decide to participate in the stand-by ticket process to ask plenty of questions to NBC players and also comment on your experience so as to help others in the future. Until then, stay classy NBC.

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