‘SNL’ had a live audience. It went home with paychecks.

By Julia Jacobs and Dave Itzkoff

Before the coronavirus outbreak, tickets to join the studio audience of “Saturday Night Live” were a precious commodity — offered free by NBC but so hard to obtain that some comedy fans were willing to pay money for them.

But now the tickets to this long-running sketch show — still free, and still scarce — come with an added bonus: Members of its studio audience have been paid to attend.

The payments are the result of new guidelines implemented by the state of New York, which has been regulating the reopening of businesses and industries during the pandemic.

On Monday night, the state’s health department confirmed that “SNL” had followed its reopening guidelines by “casting” members of the live audience for its season premiere Saturday — the show’s first live episode since March 7 — and paying them for their time. (It is not clear how many audience members were paid guests.)

Sean Ludwig, who attended the “SNL” season premiere over the weekend, said that he and seven friends who had gone with him each received a check for $150 from Universal Television, a division of NBC’s parent company, when the show was over.

“We had no idea we would be paid before we were handed checks,” Ludwig said. “We were all very pleasantly surprised.”

Ludwig, a freelance writer who runs a barbecue website and newsletter, said that he and his friends had obtained the tickets through a website called 1iota that screens audiences for talk shows and other events. Ludwig said that they had been given a rapid virus test and asked to sign health forms indicating that they did not have COVID-19 or symptoms of the disease and had not come into contact with anyone who had it before they were allowed to attend the show.

In the days leading up to the “SNL” season premiere, it was unclear whether the show would be able to draw its studio audience from the general public, as it has done in past years, because of state restrictions around reopening during the pandemic. In an earlier statement, the state’s health department said that ticketed events had been prohibited since March 16, and that the restriction had not changed.

But “SNL” had already been asking live audience members to register through its 1iota page, which has since been taken down. The show had asked applicants to request between seven and nine tickets for people whom they considered to be part of their “social bubble” and had outlined the coronavirus-related precautions that the show would be taking.

(The president of 1iota Productions, Ben Biscotti, declined to comment on the company’s role regarding the show’s live audience and did not immediately respond to a question about why the “SNL” page was taken down.)

Based on the guidelines around pandemic-era media production that were released by the state, television shows are not allowed to host live audiences unless they consist of paid employees, cast and crew. And if the show decides to create an audience out of its workers, the audience can be only 25% of its typical size — and can be no more than 100 people.

That left “SNL” an option that would allow them to include members of the public in its live audiences while keeping in line with the state’s rules: Pay those audience members like employees.

A spokesman for the state health department, Jonah Bruno, said in a statement Monday night that “SNL” had confirmed to them that it had followed the state’s reopening guidance by selecting audience members through a third-party screening and casting process and by compensating them for their time.

“There is no evidence of noncompliance,” he said, “but if any is discovered, we will refer that to local authorities for follow-up.”

A spokeswoman for “Saturday Night Live” said in an email that the show was “working closely with the Department of Health and following all of their guidelines.” The spokeswoman did not say how many members of the “SNL” audience were paid.

“SNL,” which is broadcast from Studio 8H in NBC’s Rockefeller Plaza headquarters, had to halt its live episodes in March amid the spread of the pandemic. It concluded its previous season with three remotely produced episodes consisting of sketches that its cast members had filmed from their homes.

Last month, NBC announced that “SNL” would return to its traditional live format, starting with its Oct. 3 season premiere, which was hosted by Chris Rock. The show is expected to air at least four more live episodes through the end of the month.

A now-defunct registration page for “SNL” on the 1iota website outlined the coronavirus protocol for its guest audience members. All guests would be required to take a nasal antigen test upon arrival, with results available before the start of the show. They would be required to wear a face covering at all times in the building and would be asked a series of questions about their potential coronavirus exposure. And they would have to get their temperature checked at arrival; anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher would be asked to leave (along with everyone else in that person’s group).

A portion of the tickets to the show were reserved for health care workers, who received a humorous shout-out at the start of Saturday’s show. In his opening monologue, Rock addressed the front section of audience members, whom he identified as first responders, and joked, “They’re so good, we let people die tonight so they could see a good show.”

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