Willie Nelson and John Belushi, SNL

Willie Nelson and John Belushi
photo: Stephanie Chernikowski

by: Paul Brownfield

“Got the boss coming!” a security worker shouted.

Lorne Michaels’s foot had hit curbside. It was around 1:30 a.m. outside Buddakan, the Asian-fusion restaurant in the meatpacking district and one of the semi-secret locales regularly used for the “Saturday Night Live” after-party.

“S.N.L.” is an institution of rituals, dating back to its first season in 1975-76: The show ends, the principals wave goodbye, and idling limos await outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza to whisk the cast and their guests to the after-party, the location of which is kept on a need-to-know basis.

On this night, after the Christmas show, Buddakan closed before midnight, or around the time the guest host Jimmy Fallon and the musical guest Justin Timberlake were reprising “The Barry Gibb Talk Show” sketch. By 1 a.m., two young men in suits took up their positions at Buddakan’s heavy door. As Mr. Michaels approached, one of them saw that his partner was in the appalling position of having his back turned to the show’s philosopher-king, and gave a prompt corrective shove.

Mr. Michaels’s entrance came amid the rapid-fire arrival of his cast. “I have six,” Taran Killam said as he entered. “They’re with cue cards, “ another guest said, legitimizing his escorts. One interloper tried the swept-in-with-the-crowd move, and was flagged by security, which nearly touched off fisticuffs behind Nasim Pedrad, still in pancake makeup.

In the confusion, a group of string musicians, all in cocktail dresses and toting their instruments, found themselves stranded. Not an hour ago, they had been live on national television providing string accompaniment on Mr. Timberlake’s performance of the bluesy ballad “Pair of Wings.” Now they were being asked to answer a question no one wants to hear in heaven: “Name?”

Even as Page Six and the like continue to report dutifully on the spirited mingling of Miley Cyrus or Lindsay Lohan, the truth is the “S.N.L.” after-party, now almost four decades into its run and much of that time with the reputation as the coolest party in town, has always been a little ersatz: a conception of an exclusive showbiz bacchanal based on the lore of the good old wild days, when the only thing that would break up this party was the coming of dawn or the depletion of the night’s supply of mind-altering substances.

The lore feels rooted in the drug habits of John Belushi and Chris Farley, both of whom proved to be a danger more to themselves than anyone’s cast party.

And the show itself, under Mr. Michaels’s long stewardship, is as much a fueling station now for other media — movies, talk shows, cable and web series — as it is an independent cultural product to which the improvisational aura of Chevy Chase, Mr. Belushi and Gilda Radner still clings.

It is worth remembering that the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players were relative showbiz newcomers, actually odd-looking or unkempt, stunned by their overnight success and, moreover, lacking iPhone service. With fame came something now out of fashion: fame-related ennui, expressed in the Fellini homage “La Dolce Gilda,” starring Ms. Radner, and shot by the “S.N.L.” writer Tom Schiller at One Fifth Avenue, an after-party hot spot in those days.

Regardless of generation, though, many former cast members and writers who were interviewed, in addition to avowing that they never personally witnessed the consumption of drugs, painted the same after-party triptych: You just had a great show and you need to blow off steam. The show was just horrible, you were barely in it, and you need to blow off steam. You’ve had 10 hours of sleep in the last four days. Family’s in town and they want to meet celebrities.

Molly Shannon developed a rule: She would invite only friends to the show and after-party who understood how hard it was to make it onto a broadcast where every week 40 to 50 sketches are reduced to the 8 or so that are performed live.

“If you had a good show you’re on cloud nine,” said Jon Lovitz. who had a lot of them in the mid-1980s. On the other hand, Mr. Lovitz recalled the forlorn night when he had appeared in only one sketch, and was sitting at the party with Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey and Mike Myers.

“It feels like your career’s over,” Mr. Lovitz said. “Honestly, they call it the after-party. In my mind, I only know one time when it actually felt like a party.” (That was in 1990, he said, when Technotronic played their hit “Pump Up the Jam” there.)

Still, the last “S.N.L.” show of 2013 had featured celebrity drop-ins by Paul McCartney, Madonna and outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Perhaps this meant, long about a boozy 3 a.m., the party would resolve into a tableau of had-to-be-there dissipation?

Alas, no. Buddakan, an upstairs-downstairs place that conveys all the hail-fellow-well-met of an Italianate spec mansion, never made it to kooky, much less crazy. They could have used another bartender upstairs. Madonna didn’t show. Penny Marshall was there, if that helps, as were Chris Rock and other comedians like Judah Friedlander and Eugene Mirman. The show’s cast members each sat at specially assigned, high-backed booths with their guests, while feature players were at A-minus tables throughout three downstairs rooms. Perhaps most surprising of all, the food and beverages were not free, even for the cast. (Mr. Lovitz, when told of this, took a long pause. “Oh,” he said finally, as though suddenly wondering if he had been walking out on checks in nice restaurants from 1985 to 1990.)

Then again, the repertory in Mr. Lovitz’s day tended to top out at eight; having to replace mainstays like Fred Armisen and Bill Hader this season, “S.N.L.” is a brood of new faces, including the most recent addition of a 17th sketch player, Sasheer Zamata (two writers, LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones, were also added).

Oddly, the most resonant image of the night at Buddakan was Seth Meyers of “Weekend Update” at last call, head bent and undoubtedly exhausted, signing his bill. Cash bar or not, at least he knew he was a welcome presence.

“It just felt like a wedding I wasn’t invited to, which is fair — I wasn’t,” the comedian Jen Kirkman said of two parties she has attended over the years, in 1998 and then again in 2011.

Ms. Kirkman, who got in the second time via one of Pee-wee Herman’s puppeteers, recalled seeing a television executive later that night, in a sequined top, weeping on the sidewalk after a cast member had her tossed out over an earlier career slight.

It is, after all, still a work party. After the low-polling Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman did a “Weekend Update” segment in 2011, a then-top aide to Mr. Huntsman told this reporter he implored Mr. Meyers to convince Mr. Huntsman’s admiring daughters to put a spoofy candidate YouTube video on ice until after the New Hampshire primary.

At Buddakan, Mr. Michaels, who declined to comment for this article, remained glued to one half-hidden spot the entire night, encased by Mr. McCartney and a coterie of female staff members.

Mr. Fallon, the imminent host of the “Tonight” show, mingled jovially while Mr. Timberlake received visitors at a corner booth. By the end of the night, though, both managed to make their way over to Mr. Michaels’s table, like a bride and groom about to leave on their honeymoon, saving the last goodbye for the paterfamilias.

“Going over to Lorne” is more the purview of the guest host than the sketch regular, though Chris Kattan, a former cast member, said there were parties when Mr. Michaels’s assistant asked him to fill out the boss’s table when it was temporarily light.

“Initially, the very first parties after the show felt like Lorne’s personal hospitality,” Laraine Newman, an original cast member, wrote in an email. She also recalled going to One Fifth Avenue, now Mario Batali’s Otto.


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But inevitably some went further. Mr. Belushi and Dan Aykroyd took over a dive on Hudson and Dominick streets and called it the Blues Bar. It was dark, with a bathroom that Ms. Newman said was “more disgusting than the one in ‘Trainspotting.’ ” But it was also a respite from the public where, on a given night, Keith Richards, James Taylor or Sam Moore might be jamming with Mr. Belushi and Mr. Aykroyd’s Stink Band, Ms. Newman said.

Apparently, too, there were drugs around the show then. “After the show, the party started up in my office on the 17th floor,” the writer and performer Tom Davis wrote in his 2009 “S.N.L.” memoir “39 Years of Short-Term Memory Loss,” in an anecdote whose details include a toy light gun, the very good aim of Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, and lines of cocaine on a mirror.

These days, with the website Splitsider doggedly reviewing each “S.N.L.” show, down to data-crunching airtime for cast members, the proceedings seem rather more professional.

Cecily Strong, a “Weekend Update” anchor, was noticeably ambulatory and beaming at the Buddakan party. Mike O’Brien, who had a bit part that night, didn’t appear to be sulking, unless that was why Mr. McCartney was seen blowing a small harmonica inches from Mr. O’Brien’s face.

“When you first get on the show, you’re so thrilled, the party is like another part of the whole Cinderella vibe of the whole thing,” Rachel Dratch (a cast member from 1999 to 2006) said on the phone. “You’re not like, ‘What’s up with this party?’ ”

“As the years go on, you know what they entail.” she said. “It’s still such a ritual. I always went to the party. I didn’t miss one party.”

Not so her cast mate Horatio Sanz. Mr. Sanz, an avuncular on-camera presence with a certain gleam in his eye, was on “S.N.L.” for eight seasons, from 1998 to 2006. Though perhaps overshadowed by the likes of Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, Mr. Sanz earned a certain heroic status inside “S.N.L.” by re-creating the show’s after-after-party Blues Bar period.

“The after-after was ours,” Mr. Sanz said defiantly. “Mad or not, you could come wasted.”

The reprobate tomfoolery and alcohol, he said, “was a part of the creative process in the beginning, and it’s been written about and talked about, and I kind of wanted to have the same thing for our generation.”

It involved securing a location in Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s New York City that would stay open past legal last-call hours and printing special tickets to be handed out to a more-select set at the after-party.

Sometimes, Mr. Sanz said, especially on nights when a sketch of his was cut at dress rehearsal, he skipped the after-party altogether and rode around in his limo with half a case of beer, listening to music and waiting for his after-after to start.

“It’s not healthy politically or emotionally to be pissed off” at the after-party, said Mr. Sanz, who was part of a budget-driven cast purge in 2006.

Finesse Mitchell, Mr. Sanz’s fellow cast mate from 2003 to 2006, recalled going to Jay Z’s 40/40 Club for a dance party or else hanging out at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater after-hours.

“Horatio Sanz was the man,” said Mr. Mitchell, adding that he had recently spoken to Kenan Thompson, a current cast member, who told him the parties haven’t been the same since Mr. Sanz left.

Mr. Sanz, for his part, gently wondered if the comedy on “S.N.L.” was better served when its cast exuded a little less polish and geniality, on-camera or in social settings.

“The whole idea of bad boys at that show is an old one,” Mr. Sanz said, because they don’t want people who are going to be too much trouble.

But Ms. Newman suggested that the idea of the bad boys might be inflated as well as old. “Pretty soon, I avoided them and I think many others did too,” she wrote of her era’s after-bashes. “Although we needed to unwind, there was another kind of pressure at that party that became, well … work, networking. And who wanted to deal with that when you’ve already been slaying the airtime dragon?”


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