Airing since 1975, Saturday Night Live is an iconic TV show that has jump started the careers of many legendary TV and film comics. Broadcast live from NBC studios in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, attending a taping of the show is a definite bucket list item for any SNL fan. The studio holds about 200 audience members and will be full for every single show. Don’t expect to stroll in a couple hours beforehand and ask if they have any open seats, as the answer will be no. Getting a ticket requires knowledge of the required steps, a little bit of preparation, lots of patience, and a dose of luck. And the best part is, the tickets are free!
Here's a list of everything you need to know about getting standby tickets to SNL.
There are two ways to get tickets to SNL at NBC studios in New York: The once per year ticket lottery, or the weekly standby line. To be selected for the ticket lottery, send an email to NBC during the month of August, and if selected you will be given two tickets to a random date. There are actually two shows each evening, the dress rehearsal at 8pm and the live taping at 11:30pm. If you get tickets via the lottery, you are guaranteed a seat for the show but you don’t have any choice over the date or if it’s the dress rehearsal or the live taping. That’s ok if you live near NYC or can plan a trip around the tickets, but not so great if you can only attend on a certain date or if you want to see a specific host. If that’s the case, standby tickets are your best bet. Since the show is so popular, competition is high and standby tickets are not always a sure thing. The process is not exactly a secret, but there is definitely not a guy in a booth with a “SNL standby tickets here” flashing away in neon.
Standby tickets are distributed at 7am on the Saturday morning of a show. The location has changed over the years, but currently they are handed out on the 48th Street sidewalk of Rockefeller Plaza. Use caution for old information on the web that references lining up under the NBC studio entrance, as that is no longer the case, and be sure to check the NBC website for current information. The front of the line is not marked in any way, and seemingly begins at a random spot on the sidewalk next to a parking meter. Look for Mendy’s restaurant, which is also across from Five Guys, and that should be the general area of the front of the line, which then stretches west towards 6th Ave. NBC sets up metal barricades to split the sidewalk in half, with the line on the street side and pedestrian traffic on the building side. There is also a separate line down near the Nintendo Store for the “Today” Show, which forms in front of the studio window on Rockefeller Plaza between 48th and 49th, so make sure that you are in the correct line. There should be an NBC security guard in the area that can let you know if you are in the correct place.
This is the ultimate question. Each person that is in line at 7am will be given a numbered standby ticket for their choice of either the dress rehearsal or the live taping. You then return to NBC studios for whichever show you selected and line up again based on your ticket number. However, being given a standby ticket does not guarantee entry to the show. The first people let into the audience are the VIP guests and lottery ticket holders, and then the remaining seats are filled from the standby line just a few minutes before the show begins. If all the seats get filled by VIP and lottery ticket holders then no standby tickets will be granted entry, and that has been known to happen. The number of seats that will need to be filled depends on many things, such as the popularity of the host and musical guest, the date (holiday weekends make it easier for lottery ticket holders to come to town), and the weather. When I attended the show, it was a random weekend in December, John Cena was hosting, and it was extremely cold and snowing the night of the show. All of those factors meant that hundreds of standby ticket holders got in. There are instances when a popular host (such as any former cast member), fills the studio entirely before any standby tickets holder get in, so standby tickets are never a sure thing.
When to show up in line is not a simple question to answer. On average, you can count on the first hardcore fans showing up by 9pm on Friday night, followed by a slow trickle through the night, and then a flood of people around 5am. You can choose to spend all night in line to increase your chances, but then you may find you don’t get in anyway. Or you can get up bright and early Saturday morning and discover that there are a hundred people in front of you, then fall just a few numbers short of getting a seat for the show that night. I decided that I wanted to maximize my chances of getting a seat, and so I joined the line at about 10pm on Friday and was the 20th person there. I figured that if I didn’t get in, at least I would not regret joining the line too late.
I can honestly say that waiting in the line all through the night was actually a good time. I have always wanted to attend a taping and so lining up with other fans was exciting. The folks in front and behind me were also from out of town and we entertained ourselves by having heated debates about the all-time best cast members, the chances of us getting in, and the odds of someone freezing to death as it was just above freezing.
Most people in line were well prepared for a cold night
The night will go by quicker than you think if you prepare a few comfort items. I figured that if I was going to spend all night in line I might as well do it with some style, so I picked up a camping chair which was quite possibly the best $10 I have ever spent in my life. Being able to sit up off the ground and be comfortable made a huge difference. I got mine at Dollar Discount a few blocks away on 46th and 5th. At the very least you want to grab some cardboard or a crate (both of which seem to be available for the taking on every street corner in NYC), especially if it is a cold night as sitting on concrete will just make you hate life. I also brought a few blankets from my hotel, while some others in line brought sleeping bags. I filled up my iPad with downloaded TV shows and for a couple hours draped a blanket over my head and was in my own little world watching episodes of “Impractical Jokers.” All things put together I was pretty cozy.
I spent most of the evening just chatting with the other folks in the line. NYC is a great place for people watching, and there was no shortage of random entertainment on the street. Our favorite game was coming up with weird responses to passerby’s who ask “what are you all lining up for?” (From their point of view it’s a random unmarked line that begins at a parking meter). Our best ones were “free STD testing,” “leftover fries from Five Guys at closing time,” and “free donuts for life, but they are coconut.”
Everyone was super excited to be there and we kept an eye on each other’s belongings when we left the line for short breaks. There’s a Starbucks and a Walgreens near the front of the line if you need any supplies, and a 24hr McDonald’s around the corner on 6th if you need a late-night snack. There was also a small café on 48th across from the front of the line that was open all night and the owner did not seem to mind us using the restroom as long as we purchased something. It was super cold on the evening I camped out with a bone chilling wind most of the night. A couple spots in front of me was a guy who was in town for business and said he spontaneously decided to join the line after his dinner meeting. He was dressed in his suit and had nothing but a briefcase. He spent most of the night standing and shivering without a hat or proper coat, and it was COLD! At one point we begged him to take an extended break or to at least go buy a hat.
While the line is not officially monitored, there was always a security guard from NBC in the area keeping an eye on things. You are not allowed to save spots for other people or disappear from line for extended periods of time. At around 4am a bagel and coffee truck came down the street, which by this time was mostly deserted except for us crazy people in line. The coffee was free (paid for by NBC), and I think they made a small fortune from selling hand warming packets. At 7am sharp a couple of NBC staff members showed up with a clipboard and started the ticket process; by this time I would guess about 200 people were in the line. Turns out, most of them would get in for one of the two shows.
NBC staff assigning standby ticket numbers at 7am
When it comes time to collect your numbered standby ticket, you will have the choice of selecting a ticket for either the dress rehearsal at 8pm or the live show at 11:30pm. The NBC staff will tell you what ticket number you’ll be given for either show, so this is the second big decision of your SNL experience, and again there is no obvious correct answer. In general, the live taping is more popular, and so being number 50 on the dress rehearsal standby list may give you a better chance than being number 50 on the live taping. As far as your experience in the audience, the dress rehearsal is arguable the better show since it often contains more jokes and skits (that eventually get cut for the live show). There is however an added “cool” factor by being in the audience for a live taping, and so I decided on the tickets for the 11:30pm live show.
Whichever time you choose, you will hand over your ID and the staff will write down your name and ticket number. This means that you cannot sell or transfer your standby ticket to someone else. At this point you can experience the rare quiet streets of New York and Times Square on your way back to your hotel.
Once you have your numbered standby ticket, you’re only halfway there. You have to line up once again that evening before the show. The line is in a different place this time, so head to the NBC studios gift shop in Rockefeller Center (entrance on 6th Ave). Once again there is no signage about where to go, and also note that the standby line is in a different location than the lottery and VIP ticket holders. For the 8pm dress rehearsal they ask that you get there by 7pm, and for the 11:30pm show they ask that you arrive by 10:30pm. The line zig zags around the back of the gift shop, and when you enter they will check your ticket number and ID against their records from the clipboard that morning and give you a numbered wrist band. Once you are checked in, they prefer that you not leave the line again.
Remember that guy I mentioned who was dressed in a business suit and no coat, and who spent all night shivering in the cold? Yeah, he didn’t show up for the second line.
About 30 minutes before the show starts, the NBC staff will start to move standby ticket holders in groups up to the studio entrance. You basically progress from one holding point to the next, each time getting more excited about making the cut. The first gate includes a security check and metal detector, and they have a strict no phones policy beyond this point. Next you move up to the studio floor itself and wait along the hallway as lottery ticket holders casually stroll past. The final holding point is just before the studio door and they will have you wait until just a few minutes before the show begins, at which point they let the standby ticket holders flood in.
You don’t get to choose your seat as they quickly file you into certain rows. Generally speaking, the lottery ticket holders will get all the prime seats and the standby holders will be off to the sides. They film different parts of the show all over the studio floor, and so some seats will have a good view of one skit while others will have a better view of the next. Keep in mind that the studio is not designed for the benefit of the live audience, and no one seat can see every part of the set (there are monitors so that you can at least see what the home audience is seeing). There are definitely good and bad seats, but it’s all just luck of the draw. Those who were in line in front of me got herded all the way to end of the row on the side balcony and would not have been able to see much of the main stage. I ended up on the side about 10 seats from the end and had a decent view, and even appeared on camera for 2.3 seconds during the opening sequence!
The show itself was very entertaining to watch. It was fascinating to see the organized chaos that goes on during commercials and between segments. Performers were running here and there, camera cranes moving all over the place, and stage hands were building and tearing down sets in minutes.
I don’t actually remember very many of the skits, but I do have fond memories about camping out in a line on the NYC streets through a cold night in December. If you are a fan of SNL, you won’t regret putting in the effort to get standby tickets.