Prior to Saturday Night Live’s season-46 premiere, it was revealed that multiple changes were being made to the way the show’s live audience would work during the coronavirus pandemic. One big change, however, wasn’t disclosed until several people from the audience of Saturday’s Chris Rock episode took to social media: They got paid to be there. The New York Times reached out to one of them to confirm what multiple social-media posts were already claiming: Everyone who sat in SNL’s limited studio audience over the weekend was paid $150. “We had no idea we would be paid before we were handed checks,” Sean Ludwig, who tweeted about the payment on October 4, told the Times. “We were all very pleasantly surprised.”
So why, exactly, is SNL paying its audience this season? As the Times report notes, the change is the result of the New York State Department of Health COVID guidelines for media productions, which place restrictions on shows with live audiences. The guidelines specify that shows “must prohibit live audiences unless they consist only of paid employees, cast, and crew” and that a live audience can be “no more than 100 individuals or 25 percent of the audience capacity, whichever is lower.” In order to follow the guidelines, SNL is essentially treating a typical studio audience like its “employees” by “casting” them to be audience members, which the New York State Department of Health confirmed to the Times is the case. “There is no evidence of noncompliance,” Jonah Bruno, a spokesperson for the department, told the Times, adding that “if any is discovered, we will refer that to local authorities for follow-up.”
Also included in the guidelines is a rule that all live audiences “must maintain social distance of at least six feet in all directions,” but when SNL showed the studio audience during Chris Rock’s monologue on Saturday, there were several groups clustered together. Prior to the episode, SNL had shared links to the third-party website 1iota for fans to request tickets; these outlined the coronavirus guidelines for audience members and restricted ticket requests to groups of two, seven, eight, or nine people. According to a source close to the show, the groups shown during the SNL season premiere were those who had requested tickets and come to the show together, in what was originally described on the 1iota ticket page as “social bubbles.” Each group was placed in the studio at least six feet apart from others.
Saturday Night Live is back in action again this week, when stand-up Bill Burr will make his hosting debut.