The experience of a lifetime: Being in the Saturday Night Live studio audience with host Scarlett Johannson & musical guest Lorde and…the after-party. 3.11.17

Last weekend I had one of the most memorable experiences of my entire life. This one goes into the “memorable experiences hall of fame.” It is something I’ll never forgot and something I’m unlikely to ever experience again.

On Saturday, March 11, 2017, I got to go to Saturday Night Live. As in the NBC show. As in LIVE. As in I was in the studio audience. And what’s more, I also got to go to the private after-party.

If I’m going to tell this story, I’m going to tell it right so I’m going to start where it all began: With a Tweet.

PART I: How it all happened

On Thursday, February 23 I hopped on Twitter to see what’s what as one often does. When what to my wondering eyes should appear but this AMAZING Tweet

SNL original tweet Feb 23

It was a two-fold heart-stopping moment because I love Scarlet Johansson immensely and am also a GIANT Lorde fan.

Without hesitation I replied to SNL’s Tweet with a full-scale five-alarm gushing declaration of my joy that BOTH of these women were going to be on the SAME episode.

Then I got on with my day.

A little while later that same day, I got a Twitter notification. The standard ones we all get when someone either likes or reTweets you. NBD normally right?
Except this wasn’t just ANY notification. This one told me that SNL had freaking RETWEETED me!

SNL 2017 tweet.jpg

Call me cynical, but one of the first things I did was to check to see if they ReTweet everyone. Nope. Kind of a rarity in fact.

So I did what one does in these situations. Screen-snapped it and posted it on Facebook telling people that I would allow myself to feel some semblance of cool for about five minutes. And it did feel cool. They have about two million followers.

Later that day, SNL Tweeted that they were giving away tickets to upcoming shows. You had to email them why you’re they’re biggest fan. Whatever. I’d never win so I had no intention of entering.

But then a few days later, on Tuesday, February 28th the SNL thing came back into my mind and I decided, on an absolute whim, to enter their contest. Someone had to win right?
Here’s an excerpt from the email I sent them:

“SNL is my Northern Star. It’s my rock. It makes me laugh likes nothing else and even, when it’s necesary, makes me cry (Sandy Hook “Silent Night” tribute not to mention Kate McKinnon’s Leonard Cohen moment).
SNL has been the one consistent, reliable thread throughout my entire life. I’ve celebrated with you, laughed myself senseless during opening monologues, mourned the loss of some of your cast members (Gilda, Phil, Chris…etc). I’ve cheered my heart out for some of the musical guests throughout the years. (the 1979 Bowie performance, The Replacements in ’86, St. Vincent in 2014, ETC ETC ETC.
Through every milestone in my life, every celebration, every sorrowful moment, ALL OF IT, Saturday Night Live has been there. I truly love you and I’ll be watching. Forever.
Did I mention I’m free on March 11th?”
About four hours later I was away from my office on an assignment and, because I’m glued to my phone, checked my Yahoo email.
AND THIS HAD ARRIVED:
SNL 2017 Win Notification

It had instructions on what to do, where to go and when. Honestly, I couldn’t believe it. When I couldn’t reach my gal Tracy I called my parents and almost hyper-ventilating told them the news. Then I called -and reached- my three older siblings and told them. They all freaked out. I still can’t believe they had chosen me.

Fast-forward to the morning of Saturday, March 11. Tracy and I got on the 6:30 direct bus from Portland to Manhattan and were on our way. Our friend Maayan let us crash with her and after meeting her for lunch, we repaired to her place for what I referred to as a massive Scarlett Johnappson because we knew it was going to be a late night.

PART II: Going to the show

The confirmation email instructed us to arrive by ten o’clock at the latest with I.D. and a print-out of said confirmation.

Although I’d been to New York City many times, I’m not sure if I’d ever made it down to  30 Rockefeller Plaza before. Super fun seeing the skating rink. Super fun seeing the marquis for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

I of course was a nervous, anxious and excited wreck so we got there at 9 and figured out where the “Grand Stair” was. The guy at that, for lack of a better term, security checkpoint was super friendly and admired my purple velvet motorcycle jacket. He suggested we take a stroll around and come back in a bit. So we did but it was downright freezing out at this point so we didn’t stray too far.

By 9:45 we were let in and ascended the “Grand Stair” and came upon another “checkpoint” were I had to show my confirmation letter. From there it was onto a check-in area where they checked my I.D. , looked at the letter, and put dated SNL wristbands on both of us.  Then I was handed a tiny, numbered envelope containing the two tickets and was told to be sure to keep the envelope. Let me just say that this is a very well buttoned-up operation. No one who isn’t supposed to be there will be let in. It’s a huge dealio, that was made abundantly clear.

We were sent into a large, lobby-like area and were told the general area to sit in. It was segregated into three sections, according to what your envelope said. I soon starting chatting with a mother and daughter from Atlanta. The daughter had also won tix via the Twitter contest and we all bonded and obsessed over what the numbers on the envelope meant. Well the three of us did, Tracy was as cool as a cucumber, but I was spazz enough for both of us. There were numerous signs, along with sporadic announcements, that photos weren’t allowed from this point forward. Not even in that lobby area. The space was comfortable with large screens showing classic SNL clips.

What came next was a bit of “hurry up and wait” but at least we knew that it was going to start on time. (haha)

The first group of “envelopes” were called at about 10:30. The next a little after that. And so on. My “group” was summoned at about 10:50 and we were sent to another line to await word to board the elevators. While in that line, I spotted St. Vincent milling around and then she waltzed by us into what I can only assume was “cool peopleville.”  BTW, I love St. Vincent (Annie Clark) and seeing her out in the world was one of many noteable moments.

Time marched on. It was just about 11 when we were ushered in groups of about 15 into the elevators. By this time my excitement was at such a fever pitch I could barely function. It was kind of an out-of-body experience knowing that I was about to witness Saturday Night Live in the flesh. I mean WTF? What was I doing there? This was bananas.

I have no idea what floor we went to, I was too wired to take note of that. But soon enough we were out in a hallway and shit was getting very real in a hurry.

I do remember passing a sign that said the capacity of the studio was 398 persons. This sounds about right because the actual seats were probably around 250 if I had to guess. Plus those 20 or so right-up front ones. BTW, people in those seats are the ones you see the most during the opening monologue. I assume they have upper level hardcore VIP friends.

And just like that…we were in the studio and I felt like a cross Charlie Bucket when he arrived at Willy Wonka’s factory and Dorothy when she landed in Oz. There it was. The set one of my my favorite shows. The set of one of the most well-loved, longest-running and most famous shows in the history of television. And I was about to see how all the magic happened.

The Saturday Night Live Band was already playing and sounded spectacular. A few minutes later Keenan Thompson walked out on stage with three back-up singers including Kate McKinnon. I’m mortified to admit that I can’t remember who the other two of them were,though they were for sure cast members. Keep in mind, that at this point I’m completely overwhelmed by pretty much everything. The sets, the crew members, the cameras, the lights. All of it. Speaking of lights…one thing that I didn’t expect but that makes complete sense is that the studio was an absolute ice-box. I mean it was effing freezing  in there. I’m assuming this is because the stage lights are so hot that if they had the actual heat on, the cast, band and anyone else under those lights would pretty much melt. So where was I? Oh yes, Keenan Thompson busted out into The Knack’s “My Sharona” and as you can imagine, he and the band and the ladies all sounded dynamite.

Then Michael Che, Weekend Update co-anchor came out and slayed us for a couple of minutes. When you’re not on the air, f-bombs can fly freely and they sure  did and he was hilarious.

I kept checking my Fitbit for the time (phone was long shut off by this point) and as it got closer to 11:30 I started smiling. I still am.

As for the seats, there are about six or so rows that more or less stretch across the studio and off to one side. There aren’t any “bad” seats but at any given time you might not be able to see everything because the sketches happen all over the place. But you can hear everything and there are also several monitors. It was very surreal to one minute be looking at the monitor, as if I was home watching the show and then looking over to see the not-ready-for Primetime Players actually there. Again I say…holy bananas.

When I got home on Sunday I played the recorded show and snapped a pic during the opening. This pic is weird for sure, but it does show you where we were. Tracy on the left and yours truly on the right.

SNL Seats 2017.jpg

It got very quiet just before it went live. But there was also a countdown that started at the 30-second mark and whoever was doing it made it fun and a little silly.

And then BOOM! We were live. The show opened with a sketch led by Keenan Thompson about an alien invasion. It was set on a military base. And oh my god…Alec Baldwin was on as Trump. We had NO IDEA this was happening until the moment it happened and I think I screamed louder than Tippi Hedren in “Psycho.”  There he was. Alec freaking Baldwin. It’s been reported that he won’t be portraying Trump for much longer. Was this his swan song? Let’s hope not.

Here’s the clip:

I laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time. When the sketch ended it gave way to the intro. Everyone cheered as each cast member’s name was said aloud.

And then came this line… “Ladies and Gentlemen…Scarlett Johansson!”
Again, I screamed bloody murder and then just like that…there she was. Clear as day.

She was charming and funny and the opening was classic SNL. ICYMI, here’s the clip:

After her opening the show went to commercial and it was like a hive of bees had been released. Backdrops were rolled in, props brought out and set up, lights and boom mics were moved all about. It was one of the most well-orchestrated and exciting things I’ve ever witnesses and it happened during every break.

BTW, Lorne Michaels was there the entire time. Sharply dressed and looking so fine, he walked around and mostly just observed without much interaction with anyone. The man’s a living legend. He can do whatever the hell he wants and it was clear that the respect for this man was without end.

More sketches followed and of course the now famous “Complicit”commercial starring Johansson as Ivanka Trump.  It just doesn’t get much funnier than this.

Behold:

Weekend Update was, as always, completely on point with anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che. The SNL writers are some of the most brilliant, hilarious, sharp-witted and creative minds on this planet.

AND THEN IT WAS TIME FOR LORDE! (damn right I’m using bolded caps for this)

At 20-years-old New Zealand singer Lorde is a force of nature. Her voice is so unique and her songs are , and I have to use profanity here, fucking brilliant. But you already know this. As I write this, her new single “Green Light” has racked up more than 25 million YouTube plays in less than two weeks. I love the song and was SO EXCITED to hear her play it live. But I wondered, how would it sound in the studio? I’ll tell you how it sounded and again, sorry for the profanity, it sounded fucking awesome! I was beside myself. Jaw dropped, ears and eyes as open as they could possibly be. The song was co-written by Lorde, Joel Little and a fella named Jack Antonoff. (um, hello, Jack’s in Bleachers (they’re awesome, saw ’em in 2014 at Boston Calling and also he’s also in a tiny little band called fun.) More on Jack in a minute.

I still can’t believe I was THERE FOR THIS:

Right before Lorde was introduced, after 50ish people were brought in. Likely some cast members but also some others who were granted access for the performance. This happened with both songs. Although I didn’t see her, I suspect St. Vincent was among them. It was actually great to have the extra people in there for the songs. It added to the excitement.

So the show continued, some sketches were funnier than others and the entire show sensational.

THEN LORDE DID HER SECOND SONG. “Liability” is even newer and what a heart-breaker. In other words, I LOVE IT. Gorgeous, sad, emotional. All the things. And that voice..

AND…Jack Antanoff accompanied Lorde on piano. 

“So I guess I’ll go home
Into the arms of the girl that I love
The only love I haven’t screwed up
She’s so hard to please
But she’s a forest fire
I do my best to meet her demands
Play at romance, we slow dance
In the living room, but all that a stranger would see
Is one girl swaying alone
Stroking her cheek”

I mention these lyrics because they come up later. Hold that thought and watch this!

The show ended on its usual note with Scarlett, Lorde and the entire cast on the main stage waving and hugging and we were soon told it was time to vamoose.

We were brought back to the elevators and taken back from whence we came. At one point I looked at Tracy and said something to the effect of “Did that all just really happen?”

Unsure of which door to go out, we made our way through the 30 Rock maze and emerged at apparently the door the cast uses because once we got outside there were barriers with excited fans behind them (about 50 or so on each side of the entrance) along with a row of running cars and limos. Michael Che had mentioned that some of the cast would come out afterwards to meet people. But it was bitter cold out there and we knew he had somewhere to be which brings me to the third and final act of this story…

PART III: The After-Party

The Saturday Night Live after-parties have been happening pretty much since the show began in 1975. They’re the stuff of legends. Just read this New York Times story and you’ll get an idea.

They’re in a different secret location every week and getting into them is apparently harder then breaking into Fort Knox. You have to know where they’re happening, but more importantly, your name HAS TO BE ON THE LIST. Well I mean that’s not entirely true, I don’t think Scarlett Johannson’s name was on the list. But for anyone not directly involved with the show, if you’re not on the list, you’re not getting in. It’s that simple.

Here’s where my friend Dinah Minot comes in. Dinah and I met about a year and a half ago. She and her husband Whip Hubley (super deluxe fun fact: Whip played “Hollywood” in “Top Gun” moved to Maine a couple of years ago and she’s now the Executive Director of Creative Portland. More on that here.

But Dinah had another really great job. She worked for Lorne Michaels for a dozen years. She started as a talent coordinator than associate producer then co-producer at Saturday Night Live and was a co-producer at Paramount Pictures. She  worked on “Wayne’s World” and “Wayne’s World II” for pete’s sake. She and Michaels are still close friends.

Here’s how awesome Dinah is. When she was my Facebook post telling everyone that I had won tickets to the show, she reached out to Lorne’s assistant. HOW AWESOME IS THAT?

The day before we left, I had pulled into the CVS parking lot to grab a few last minute things for the trip when my phone chirped with a text. It was a text from Dinah with word from Lorne’s assistant that Tracy and I were on the after-party list. It also told me the location of the restaurant with instructions not to share it with anyone.

Back to post-show out in the freezing cold. We walked to the corner, hailed a cab, gave the driver the name and cross streets of the place and were off.

There was part of me that fully expected our names not to be on the list. These things happen. And I knew I was going to be totally OK with this because I just been at THE SHOW and that was enough. It really was. But sure enough, we were on the list.

The restaurant, a Mexican place, was classy. The lighting (low) was perfect and the music was more or less blaring. We did a quick walk through. Reserved signs were on many of the tables. Some were labelled “Cast” others “Writers” and others “Producers” and many just straight-up “reserved.”

We ponied up the bar and I ordered the rare margarita and we devoured some chips and salsa (it was 1:30 a.m. or so at this point and we were starving). That’s when Beck Bennett showed up. He’s the cast member who portrays the bare-chested Putin so very well. He’s super handsome and very friendly, though I didn’t talk to him. He was with people he knew. It was all good.

Then a parade of stars started. Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones and Bobby Moynihan were there. They all landed at their own big, round tables in the back part of the restaurant. A few other SNLers were there as well. I knew I wasn’t going to talk to them unless something random like running into one of them in the bathroom happened.

Then Scarlett Johansson arrived. She’s drop-dead gorgeous. There are no two ways about it. She headed to the back part as well and sat with a small group of friends. I also knew I wasn’t going to talk to her. I didn’t need to. Do I adore her as actor? Hell yes. But I just didn’t need to have a conversation with her. It wouldn’t have meant anything and that would have felt weird to me.

There was really one person there that night that I truly hoped to chat with and that was Lorde. She showed up in a funky red dress with Jack Antanoff and a few other people. By then Tra and I had found a perch , I had downed another margarita and with the spring forward time thing, it was suddenly an hour later.
I sat there and just observed. It was, and  I know I’ve used this word already, surreal in an almost unprecedented way.

Finally I decided to just walk over to Lorde’s table and say hello. Was I nervous? Of course. But music’s my favorite thing and her music is fucking spectacular and I was so moved by her performance and  I just wanted to tell her that. I didn’t want or need a selfie, I certainly didn’t need or want an autograph, I just wanted to say “hey.”

And so I did. Jack was off somewhere else but she was sitting with two other guys. I walked over, careful to not interrupt anyone mid-sentence and said “Hi.” She said Hi back with a smile and  I explained (calmly, y’all would have been proud of me) that despite my presence at this party that I was not any kind of VIP. I told her I was a music writer from Maine who had very nerdily replied to an SNL Tweet and then had been re-Tweeted and by some bizarre lightning bolt of luck, had  won tickets to the show. And then wound up at the party thanks to a friend with connections. I told her that “Green Light” was spectacular, that I had seen her incredible performance at Boston Calling in 2014 and was so thankful that her slot hadn’t been cancelled because of the monsoon-esque storm that had caused a two-hour evacuation of the festival. She remembered that as well. Then I said to she and one of the guys she was with (the other guy was talking to someone else) that I would soon be out of their hair. I shook her friend’s hand and asked his name then I shook her hand and told her my name. She told me she loved it. (!!!) Then I asked her about “Liability.”  I said something like “the girl’s totally alone isn’t she, there’s no one in that room?” Lorde said yes she was indeed all by her lonesome. I told her the song was devastating and gorgeous (or something to that effect). Then I said my goodbyes, she said bye as well and that was that. I can’t say enough how INCREDIBLY kind and humble she was. I didn’t feel humored or patronized to,  I felt genuinely heard. I can’t wait to hear the rest of her “Melodrama” album when it comes out later this year.

After the Lorde chat, I knew it was time to go. I was just a visitor on this strange after-party planet. The planet was fun and weird and magical but I was happy to go back to my own little corner of it.

And so there you have it. As I sit here and write this all down less than 48-hours later it still all seems like a dream.

Thanks, NBC for the tickets. Thanks, Dinah for the after-party access and thanks Tracy for remaining 100 % calm 100% of the time during my many moments of freaking the fuck out.

We had to turn in the tickets but that wristband is now in my ticket stub jar where it will swirl around with all of the other souvenirs of experiences that I’m so thankful for.

Live from New York it’s Saturday Night!

And live from my kitchen table, it’s a still sleep-deprived but still smiling Aimsel Ponti.

9 thoughts on “The experience of a lifetime: Being in the Saturday Night Live studio audience with host Scarlett Johannson & musical guest Lorde and…the after-party. 3.11.17

  1. Aimsel – thank you so much for sharing your experience! This is as close to being near your experience from 3,000+ miles away in southern California. Thank you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your awesome adventure! I enjoyed living vicariously through you as I could really feel your excitement and joy! So happy that you got this amazing opportunity. You certainly deserved it!

    Liked by 1 person

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