Sunday, May 17, 2015

Live, from New York...

In TV terms, Saturday Night Live — which ended its 40th season Saturday — is well beyond mid-life. Outside of news programs, soap operas and The Tonight Show, it's essentially the longest-running show out there.

But like a lot of 40-year-olds, SNL has gone through a bit of a mid-life crisis. Men who turn 40 sometimes buy a sports car and try to date women half their age. 

In SNL's case, staying virile and relevant now is staffing its most diverse cast ever, giving its writing staff room to take creative chances, and having guest hosts and musical acts bring an edge.

As with much of the show's history, that has yielded some home runs, and perhaps as many strikeouts. Both happened Saturday.

Millions of words, thousands of articles and dozens of books have been written about SNL. Few of those are from the perspective of a fan. Partly that may be because barely 250 people get tickets to see a show in Studio 8H.

To get a pair of the free tickets, NBC doesn't want to be lobbied in any way. People who want to go must email NBC in August of each year with a name, address and phone number.

I've done this for years, at first setting calendar reminders but the last several years knowing the process.

NBC doesn't acknowledge receipt of a request, and apparently draws as the season unfolds. On April 16, a notification was sent for the season finale then exactly one month distant.

At that point, get there as best you can, because the tickets are non-transferable. If you show up, you're in. If not, tickets are distributed to people on a waiting list.

It's possible to go into the city for the show only, but most likely, the best scenario will be to stay overnight. There are countless options to stay in NYC, and we looked at several: VRBO has been a reliable, affordable outlet, but most of those renters want more than a prime Saturday-only stayover.

Hotels in New York are expensive. More affordable options are either sketchy or too far from the Midtown HQ of NBCUniversal. If you're going to make this day trip, the closer the better.

We found a great option, the Mansfield Hotel in 44th street, just five blocks and an easy walk to 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Built in the early 1900s, the boutique hotel offers packages to entice. We chose one that included brunch at 30 Rock. The hotel has valet parking, a nice nightspot, the M Bar, 24-hour room service, and a great location. It was easy to access and near attractions such as Bryant Park, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and Times Square. And by NYC standards, room prices for a Saturday ($359) were competitive.

Showgoers have to be in line by 10:15 p.m. An audience is seated for a rehearsal show that ends around 10 p.m. The admission process is surprisingly lo-fi: Check in with your invitation letter and ID, at which point you get two tickets (which you won't end up being able to keep as mementos), wait in line, empty your pockets before entering a TSA-style metal detector.

If you're particularly fetching, a pert production assistant plucks you from the line and puts you in a special line. These people wind up with coveted floor seating.

The rest are soon whisked into elevators and sent to the 9th floor. At that point, final bathroom breaks are possible, a show-specific wristband is applied, and by about 45 minutes before airtime, you're seated in the C-shaped stands overlooking the set. Before getting this far, however, cellphones must be powered off. NBC doesn't want a ringtone sounding during "Weekend Update."

While waiting, Pamela Adlon — host Louis C.K.'s longtime collaborator and the voice of Bobby Hill — was ushered past the waiting crowd.

The hallway to 8H includes photos from all eras of the show, and near the studio entrance, glass cases with the outfits of a Conehead, the Church Lady and Gilly.

Once in the studio, the level of activity is impressive. 8H is actually incredibly compact — the entirety of it is about 10,000 square feet. Dozens of set workers, camera operators, staff and pages swarm about the studio floor just below the feet of the audience. Sets border the perimeter, and SNL commercial breaks are like watching Indy 500 pit stops for their changing speed and intensity as sketch sets are deconstructed, removed then replaced.

About half an hour before air, the SNL band plays a couple of songs — a hot version of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire" got the audience up. "Weekend Update" co-anchor Michael Che then came up for a few minutes to spike the warmup, sharing a few jokes well-executed about racism and crowd behavior. As soon as he left, long-standing cast member Kenan Thompson came on and sang "Gimme Some Lovin'" with Vanessa Bayer, Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong as backup singers. It was a pretty good rendition, made even better by last week's announcement that rumors of Thompson's impending departure from the show are apparently false.

By then, showtime was four minutes away. Impresario and SNL creator Lorne Michaels, in his usual dapper suit and looking none the worse at 70, strolled around the set and suddenly cast members assembled for the show's traditional cold open, this time a takedown of the relentless campaign pandering of Hillary Clinton, complete with a guest groping (of Sasheer Zamata) by potential "First Dude" Bill Clinton.

Of course, the cold open ends with some of the most iconic (and anticipated, from an audience standpoint) words in television history: "Live, from New York, it's Saturday Night!"

Louis C.K. — who spent his teen years in Newton and launched his comedy career in the Hub — did a nine-minute monologue that set social media aflame with controversial takes on racism, the Middle East and pedophilia. The opening sketch with C.K. also had a sexual bent, maybe an awkward topic given some accusations against C.K. making the rounds just last week.

Those wouldn't be the only moments of iffy subject matter: a sketch about what some wags would call "Ebonics" had a black stereotypes at its heart, and Rihanna's second song "American Oxygen" was powerful, but filmed background images included harsh moments in U.S. history, including footage of the burning Twin Towers. "Too Soon," perhaps, especially for 21-year-old cast member Pete Davidson, whose late firefighter father perished in the attacks.

As the skits end, production assistants grabbed C.K. and rushed him offstage and into his wardrobe and makeup for the next bit, as the crews whirled through a set change. After 40 years, they've got this down.

The 90 minutes go by fast, and before the band has finished the show's signature sign-off song, the crowd is being dispersed.

August 1 is less than 2 1/2 months away. I'll be trying to get tickets again.