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Arts and Entertainment

TV Junkie: Live From New York (Almost)

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Through an amazing fluke of luck I got on the list to see last week’s Saturday Night Live dress rehearsal. After a bit of a mixup with a friend who was supposed to join me I got escorted up to the 8th floor of 50 West 50th Street in Rockerfeller Center – this is the studio floor, not the bleachers. I sat down at 7:40 p.m. with about 20 other people lucky enough to be sitting in front of the center set while the band played. Camera dollies and boom mike cranes were doing their system checks while set carpenters continued to get the scene pieces in order.

At 7:45 p.m.announcer Don Pardo took the stage to get the show riled up for the show’s guests: Peyton Manning and Carrie Underwood. Pardo turns 90 next year godblesshim, and is the only person who has been continuously participating with the show since its inception.- for the life of me it took me a couple minutes to understand that he was talking to us and not just _announcing_ at us, his voice is so emblematic.

Cast member and erstwhile team captain Jason Sudeikis then warmed up the crowd with some more jokes as well as some pointers on no recording/photos, etc. “but you can text, there’s no rules against that.” Sudeikis also explained that the dress rehearsals include about 40 extra minutes of comedy that gets cut during about one hour of frenzied rewrites before the live show. Sudeikis introduced Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen who came out and did an excellent cover of the Selecter’s “On My Radio” with Armisen on guitar backed by the band – it was really surprisingly good, nothing like a bit of ska to get people bopping in their seats. As soon as they got off the stage Peyton Manning materialized to get his monologue position set, as soon as that was done he disappeared and the band started up the theme song – it was eight o’ clock.

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Peyton Manning did a great job as host and I’m not adding the “for a sports guy” nonsense. There was a middle-aged woman at the show whose job it was to grab Manning by the hand as soon as a sketch finished and run at top speed back to make-up and then to the next set screaming “This way Peyton! Duck Peyton!” As far as I could tell he was in every single sketch of the night other than Weekend Update which is pretty amazing. He worked hard for a couple hours during this dress rehearsal then got about an hour and fifteen minute break before the show went live and had to repeat ninety minutes of material. While watching the live show on TV later I realized that he had a lot more energy the first time around – football players aren’t built for this kind of endurance requirement. He looked comfortable for most of the evening though, and graciously accepted a “Happy Birthday Peyton” from us on his way off the set.

A good amount of the “extras” on SNL DVDs are sketches from dress rehearsals and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why some of the material I saw that evening made it to the live show vs. some material that didn’t. Amy Poehler (who is totally tiny!) is definitely the star of SNL right now but they cut a most excellent “JoJo the Valet” sketch – so this was gone but they kept the marginally funny “300” sketch? I think the reason behind this was that the makeup supervisor had invested a lot of time in the prosthetics that Peyton wore so comedy lost out to props. Kenan Thompson’s contribution to the show was eliminated since they cut his sketch - his character Virginiaca Hastings flirted with Peyton Manning's character was very very funny and probably had the biggest audience reaction in the entire show. They also cut an elaborate sketch of Peyton as a homosexual Elvis impersonator, and he pulled that one off pretty well. Maya Rudolph was consistent for the entire show and somehow I’ve developed a crush on Kristen Wiig whose “Penelope” piece was one of the funnier ones that made it to the live show.

There are at least 5 areas on the set floor where the scenes are placed, as soon as the program goes to commercial the place swarms with carpenters who bring in the next set and lights in during the break – this is no small thing, the “NCAA Tournament Pool Party” sketch had a set that was simply enormous and had lights built into it, etc. and during rehearsal it was barely set up in time during the break, all the actors were just sitting down when the cameras turned back on. All these sets are piled in the hallway, BTW, the one that you sometimes see Guest Hosts run down or where they find Lorne Michaels wandering around.

Speaking of cramped spaces, I had to give up my seat during Weekend Update because that’s where they needed to pile up all the cue cards. This meant I had to stand two rows back which is where Darrell Hammond stood next to me waiting to go on and do a Rudy Guiliani impression (which was cut) and then Will Forte waited there before going on to do his Senator Tim Calhoun character which was brilliant. The entire time this was going on a scowling Lorne Michaels paced back and forth behind me. During rehearsal, it was Andy Samberg who interrupted Weekend Update, and not Dan Akroyd and that was pretty much the only time I saw Andy Samberg the entire show but he was handy with giving us audience members high-fives after the show.

It’s been easy to nit-pick Saturday Night Live for quite a while now but seeing the show in person is impressive and to realize that they have to produce this much material week after week and that they manage to pull off these shows from the most basic technical standpoint is even more impressive. Who else is doing live TV out there these days other than news?

Another challenge that this show has now is that they’ve cut the cast down by about a third this season, making it the smallest one in at least 10 years. This means that fewer people have to come up with and stage what was already an intimidating amount of material. I have a lot more respect for anyone that’s ever been a “not-ready-for-prime-time-player” as well as a non-actor guest host do what Peyton Manning did last Saturday night. OK NBC, you’ve convinced me to keep watching this show, and to watch it live on Saturday night.