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Arts and Entertainment

Live From New York - LAist @ Saturday Night Live

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LAist has had a regular column about television for almost two years now - we're not saying it's a good column, but it's been very regular, which is something to think about as you get older. While Los Angeles has been a mecca of film for the last 75 years or so the migration of TV production to Los Angeles didn't really begin until 50 years ago. For the most part, TV, like radio, started in New York City (please, no snarky comments about Philo T. Farnsworth inventing TV in San Francisco) where all the major networks are still based along with MTV, Comedy Central, HBO, and it's where more than 100 TV shows are produced.

Because of TV's origins as a live medium, for purists, the most important program on TV is "Saturday Night Live". Some of this might be lost on West Coast denizens, but on the East Coast, when a new episode of SNL hits the TV, it's broadcast live. What LA gets is a rebroadcast of a live show, which is kind of a shame because of these goddam things called time zones and advertising contracts and restricted material (although this last point is very very weak now because of the "mature" material that is broadcast 24-7 on cable). OK, so the "Today Show" and news programs are broadcast live as well, and in this day and age news is becoming more "performance" than anything else, but SNL is an hour and a half of topical comedy and music performed live, without a safety net and that's what makes it special. Does anyone remember what a big stink was made about "ER" and "Scrubs" doing a live show each? Well that's what SNL has to do every time and the show deserves more credit for it.

Every show has peaks and valleys but perhaps because of the break caused by the writers' strike, there's some great energy in this season of SNL. The sketches that have focused on the election have put the show in the news every week for several weeks and that coverage doesn't appear to be stopping after this weekend's episode (with Ashton Kutcher and Gnarls Barkley) which opened with a sketch of General David Petraeus' Capitol Hill testimony.

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LAist arrived at the historic Rockefeller Center studios at 10:30pm and got a tour of the backstage dressing rooms, green rooms, and prop staging areas and heard a little history as well as some insider info, such as the fact that bits that feature forays backstage are supposed to include showgirls, llamas, and Abraham Lincoln in them somewhere [now I'm going to have to watch my "Best of..." DVDs on frame-by-frame slo-mo] then it was time to sit down.

What the TV audience doesn't see is the crowd warm-up which starts in earnest 20 minutes before the show. Don Pardo, who is in his 90s and still totally with it, gets onstage and gets the crowd into some cheers, he's followed by erstwhile ombudsman Jason Sudeikis who riffs a few jokes and sets down the ground rules (phones off, etc.) and then cast-members Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig got onstage and backed by the house band performed a very capable cover of Blondie's "Hanging On the Telephone" with Armisen more than holding his own as a rockstar guitarist. Before we knew it the two-minute countdown to live broadcast was upon us.

Since the show is performed live everything is in "real time" with entire stage transformations occurring within a commercial break and the cast wearing more than one costume at a time. For those of you who saw the aforementioned General Petraeus sketch, which featured the cast members sitting down during "Senate" testimony, it should be noted that all the cast members were wearing the pants for their next sketch and had to cast off jackets and wigs and get into position for the next sketch while the scenery for that was being assembled - all during the opening credits and before Ashton Kutcher's opening monologue.


For those who watched Saturday, I'm not going to rehash the show, other than to say that other than the opener, the live sketches that got the best audience response were "The Cougar Show", and the "Activia commercial shoot". Weekend update is a lot of fun to watch live because there are a lot of shenanigans going on just off camera. Of course, "Death by Chocolate" was, hands down, the best of the digital shorts.

What was also interesting to see what how supportive the staff is of the musical performer. Just before the musical numbers are introduced, all the writers and other staff come out on the floor to watch the band play - which both supplemented the audience as well as demonstrated their admiration and enthusiasm for the musical performer. It seemed like it was something they must do for everyone who comes on the show and it was impressive.

Going to the show after party also illustrated Saturday Night Live as an institution that could only exist and thrive in the location of New York City. Assembling at a BBQ place a five minute cab ride away (was it even cab-worthy?), most of the cast, writers, band (house and guest), hunkered down for drinks and some tasty eats. This core group was supplemented by friends and family, which of course, included multiple chapters of the Who's Who of Show Business. Guest host Ashton Kutcher and cameo performers Demi Moore and Cameron Diaz were there of course, but soon enough Lucy Lieu appeared (we were missing one Angel) and then Sean "Puffy" Combs sat at their table. Lorne Michaels hung out with what appeared to be a lot of studio exec-types, including at least one from Warner Brothers. Jason Segel was there along with Jonah Hill, as well as a cavalcade of comedians including Demetri Martin and Aziz Ansari (from "Human Giant" as interviewed by LAist). Sure, all of these people know each other and it's a "scene" but the scene wouldn't exist outside of SNL and because New York is arranged vertically, it's easy for these people to get together and make this scene happen. The cast and writers of the show are also the heavy elements that create this gravitational pull - is there a greater concentration of talent East of the Mississippi?

It was a surreal evening to say the least and it's impressive to see how friendly and open this group of people is. Special props go to Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, and Casey Wilson who were very kind and indulgent. Season 33 of "Saturday Night Live" resumes on May 10th - I'll be tuning in.