Politics of 'SNL' 40th Seating: How Taylor Swift Ended Up Next to Sarah Palin

Lorne Michaels - P 2015
AP Images/Invision

Lorne Michaels - P 2015

Lorne Michaels spent longest next to Jack Nicholson in the audience, as A-listers jockeyed for prime real estate.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

While SNL’s 40th anniversary was a ratings hit (more than 23 million tuned in), the action offscreen was also entertaining — especially considering the space constraints of packing the horde of celebrities and alumni into Studio 8H.

Young NBC staffers, carrying lists with names and seat assignments, rushed to get everyone seated in time for the 8 p.m. live show — a task that made the seating plan at an inauguration look like a child's birthday party. Performers had to be seated reasonably close to an aisle seat, prime real estate claimed by A-listers like Jack Nicholson.

Meanwhile, political figures were not segregated: Three New York mayors — David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani and Bill de Blasio — sat widely separated while Sarah Palin had an excellent seat on the aisle next to Taylor Swift. A few rows up, sports fans stopped to shake hands with Derek Jeter. (Lorne Michaels, who is a Yankee season-ticket holder, also found room for others with pinstriped histories, including Joe Torre, David Cone and David Wells.)

Giuliani recalled that the show was not especially noticed in Washington during its first season. But by the second year, a presidential election year, "Everybody was watching," he said. That continued during the Reagan administration, which he worked for.

"Reagan would watch and critique everything," Giuliani noted. "He would say things like: 'Well, they didn't get Howard Baker's voice right.'"

His take was that it was almost always a good thing when SNL chose to pick on a politician. "It meant you were on the map," Giuliani said, recalling his first time as a target, when the show did a sketch about his mayoral inauguration, when his then-7-year-old son Andrew famously mugged all the way through his dad's speech.

"They had Chris Farley playing Andrew and climbing all over me," Giuliani said. "I thought it was very funny; my wife didn't."

For the anniversary special, with its length and the demand to work in so many performers, the show's production magic was also quite serious. Stage hands — all in black tie instead of their usual workman's outfits — flew about during commercials, their task made even more difficult because, unlike every regular edition of SNL, this one was produced with no dress rehearsal. The rousing ovation inspired by Wayne and Garth choosing "the crew" as the top item on their Wayne's World list of SNL strengths, was not the least bit forced or fake. 

Back to the anniversary audience: The most unexpected face in the seats belonged to Michaels himself. He made some of his usual strolls around the sets during breaks, but he also sat with his many guests for long stretches, including most of the show's last half-hour when he dropped into a seat next to Nicholson. 

Afterward at the high-octane afterparty at the Plaza Hotel, Michaels accepted congratulations with relief: "The show happened."