The Agony and Ecstasy of the SNL Standby Line

Anyone passing by the corner of 49th Street and 6th Avenue on April 8th witnessed a makeshift village slowly taking shape. People settle into their camping chairs and cots, armed with sleeping bags and pillows. Others rely on the coats on their backs and a blanket for the concrete. Those lucky to be far enough up in the line to shelter under canopies for when the rain sets in around 2 am. might get a decent sleep. The most dedicated hopefuls set up makeshift tarps against railings and hope that their efforts will pay off.

For 12 hours, these 88 people will spend their Friday night out on the Manhattan sidewalk for a chance to make it into NBC’s Studio 8H.

The Saturday Night Live standby line has a long tradition. It’s been a staple of the show’s audience for a decade—a guarantee that seats are filled and a chance for die-hard fans to experience their favorite stars performing live. For some, the standby line is a fun experience;, a bucket list item on a trip to New York. For others, it’s their life.

Amanda Scott and Jill Goucher have been coming every week for years. The two originally met in an online forum for fans of the show back in 2017. Since then, they’ve made it through just about any conditions the line threw their way—rain, snow, and crowds of fans devoted enough to camp days in advance.

It was while waiting alongside the BTS A.R.M.Y.—stans so dedicated they started camping out as early as Monday for the K-Pop sensation’s musical-guest debut—that Scott and Goucher first started the “The SNL Standby Line,” a podcast and how-to guide of tips and etiquette for the best standby line experience.

“We kind of wanted to give the BTS fans some guidance because we knew how it was when big lines happen,” says Goucher.

Jill Goucher (left) and Amanda Scott (right) with their reservation cards for SNL dress rehearsal.

Mollie Hersh

Their website is the go-to place for any prospective standby liner on what to bring (get a good chair), where to eat (you will want that large Dunkin in the morning), and what not to do (line cutters, beware). Every show week, Goucher monitors the Standby Line Twitter and Instagram accounts, updating the number of people in line, hinting at any inside scoops on the show, and answering questions. Podcast episodes come out Monday covering any behind-the-scenes secrets from that week’s episode.

Over the course of this season, their two-person operation has grown rapidly, gaining over 7,000 followers on Twitter since the premiere in October. Their account hit 11,000 followers the night before they camped out for Jake Gyllenhaal’s April 9th show and currently rests at 13.3K. The two have become veritable standby line celebrities to those in the queue and even some walking past.

“It’s so much more of a popular thing to do now that people are researching how to do it,” shares Goucher. “We’re, like, the only current info out there. A lot of people are writing articles now and stuff, but I think it’s different when you do it more consistently and you have more solid facts.”

The experience is less extreme than it used to be. Last November, NBC changed the standby procedure to an email reservation system capped at 500 people, preventing fans from camping out longer than twelve hours. Scott and Goucher vividly remember the incident that preceded the policy change.

In the hours before musical guest Taylor Swift performed her 10-minute rendition of “All Too Well,” hundreds of her fans in search of tickets swarmed the NBC store inside 30 Rock, crowding all street entrances into the building to the point that people became trapped in the revolving doors.

“It was dangerous. It was just very chaotic. I don’t think they were prepared for it,” Goucher explains. “Right after that, they switched to the email reservation system. So I do think it had something to do with when 600 people here showed up at 10 am.”

Instead of camping out days in advance, standby-line hopefuls can send an email request at 10 am Thursday morning and receive a reservation number for their spot in line. Anyone else can join the line after 7 pm. on Friday night. Not everyone with a reservation claims their spot in time. Scott and Goucher’s line count updates can offer some reassurance if there’s still a chance for a good spot as late as the morning of.

Anyone listening to the podcast or camping out themselves knows waiting in the standby line is not for the faint of heart. With the exception of brief food and bathroom breaks, using a friend to hold the spot for the night will mean getting kicked to the back of the line. Once you’re in it, you’re there for the whole night.

The bathrooms in 30 Rock close at 11 pm., so anyone in need of a bathroom break before 7 am…good luck. Maybe the employees at the 24-hour McDonald’s down the street will take mercy on you.

Sleeping in the city that never sleeps comes with its own challenges. Trucks barrel down the road at all hours. The bright window displays never dim. At any given moment, people walking down the sidewalk stop and ask why there is a line of people camping. The few that are still awake point at the barrier covers that read “Saturday Night Live,” keeping quiet so as not to wake their neighbors.

The conditions can be cruel to the uninitiated. Now on his sixth show, Matthew Ortega, an 18-year-old NYU student, brought along a plastic folding chair where he can do his computer science homework, an umbrella for shelter, and several blankets for when the wind chill sets in. It’s been a bit of a learning curve since his first night in the line back in late November, he says.

With the exception of brief food and bathroom breaks, using a friend to hold the spot for the night will mean getting kicked to the back of the line. Once you’re in it, you’re there for the whole night.

“The first time, I only brought my backpack, and I don’t think that was the best idea,” he recalls. He spent the night with only a blanket to shelter against the 28-degree weather. “It was a cold night and the ground was pretty hard.”

There are conditions even Goucher and Scott won’t brave. Just before Willem Dafoe’s turn as host, a late January blizzard made camping in line impossible and driving into Midtown downright dangerous. That was the only show they missed so far into the season.

Goucher and Scott recommend anyone braving the elements bring a tarp for protection. “It’s the most universal item. You can sit on it. You can use it as a blanket to keep you warm, or you can use it for the rain, for the snow.”

Though the elements can be tough, there is something unifying about the standby line. People watch out for each other by sharing tarps and blankets, and trading coffee runs through the night. One standby line camper who lived around the corner offered up his apartment bathroom to his curbside neighbors during the campout for Benedict Cumberbatch earlier this month.

One security guard always singles out a lucky—or rather unlucky and underprepared—soul for a camping chair that he keeps in his car, a comfort that doesn’t go unappreciated.

The lucky guest for the April 8th line? This reporter.

The efforts of devoted SNL fans don’t go unnoticed by the cast. As they emerge from a late Friday night working in 30 Rock, many of the familiar faces on television wave hello to those in line or wish them luck.

“It’s become a little community of people camping out and hopefully, everybody’s getting along,” says cast member Alex Moffat, who joined the show in 2016. “If people do it for concerts, I guess if you’re into it, then God bless. It’s very cool of people to do it.”

Without the NBC canopies, the back half of the standby line on 6th Avenue keeps dry with makeshift shelters.

Mollie Hersh

Scott and Goucher are familiar faces to the cast thanks to their many years of experience and newfound internet fame. Before the Christmas episode hosted by Eddie Murphy, Bowen Yang and Chloe Fineman, the show’s newest featured players at the time, personally handed out tickets to fans in the standby line. Scott and Goucher mentioned that they ran the Standby Line podcast.

“[Yang] was like, ‘Oh my God, I love what you guys do.’ And he turned to Chloe, and he was explaining to her what we do on our show,” Scott remembers. “He knew what we did. So that’s pretty cool.”

Their podcast is now produced by Kenan Thompson, the longest-serving cast member in SNL history.

As the sun comes up and NBC’s employees come around to hand campers reservation cards for dress rehearsal or the live show, Goucher and Scott recommend newcomers aim for the live show. They regularly attend the slightly less competitive dress rehearsal, where the show unfolds in its entirety before sketches get cut for time, set stagings are adjusted, and final goofs are allowed without the live cameras rolling.

Reservation cards include the callback time for a given show and an updated assigned spot in line for the dress or live show. Goucher and Scott recommend asking the page how many people have chosen dress versus live to see which show has a better number available, and therefore better chance of getting in. Though the number changes constantly, an average of 30 to 40 people from the standby line will likely make it into each show.

There is still, however, no guarantee that anyone will make it inside. All a person can do is arrive at the time listed on the card and hope they make it to the elevators.

Ahead of the 9:45 pm callback time for Gyllenhaal’s turn as host, fans Brittany Darrow and her friend Sofia Graziano were the eighth and ninth people in line. The two had decided to skip their Spring Fling concert at the University of Pennsylvania to camp on a rainy New York sidewalk in the hopes of seeing their Jake. Without even a blanket, both students sat on the concrete as they worked. Darrow even attended office hours over Zoom.

Nearly 70 people trailed behind them, winding through the NBC store. Even in such a good position, Darrow was still nervous. “I’m not holding my breath even still, because I don’t want to expect it and then be really disappointed,” she says.

As the crowd passes through security in groups of ten, climbs a long stairwell, and enters the main floor of 30 Rock, the uncertainty is palpable. It isn’t until the elevator goes up to Studio 8H that it begins to sink in. They made it.

The moment the elevator doors opened for Darrow and Graziano, they practically skipped into the studio, landing front-row seats to watch Gyllenhaal host. If you squint, you can spot them during the monologue.

The standby line inside the NBC store ahead of the live show.

Mollie Hersh

Experiencing the show live can be infectious. As much as he enjoyed catching it on television, watching from the audience has been a completely different experience for Ortega.

“The energy in the studio is always fun, whether it’s a live show or a dress rehearsal,” Ortega maintains. “After I went on my first time I was like, ‘I have to do this again. And again. And again.”

For others like Darrow and Graziano, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “I think it’s really cool that I’ll be able to look back on this experience with my friend from college and be able to say that I came to SNL to see someone that I really liked perform,” Darrow offers.

“There’s something timeless about SNL,” she continues. “That’s what’s really amazing about it.” Darrow points to the fact that her mom watched SNL when she was younger and has admired the comedians of that time ever since: “I can look at the people that are in my generation and look at them in that same way. And we can still bond over that experience of loving SNL.”

Though the standby line has become a weekly part of their lives, Scott doesn’t take for granted what it means to sit in four decades worth of television history and the lengths people will go to be a part of it.

“I’m still in awe of the fact that we are in the studio where everything SNL has taken place,” Scott says. “It is so embedded in our society that everybody knows what SNL is.”

“There’s so much history in the show and in the studio, that I think anybody who’s going to [watch it live] is going to be willing to do this.”

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