Before the coronavirus outbreak, tickets to join the studio audience of “Saturday Night Live” were a precious commodity — offered free by NBC but so hard to obtain that some comedy fans were willing to pay money for them.

But now the tickets to this long-running sketch show — still free, and still scarce — come with an added bonus: Members of its studio audience have been paid to attend.

The payments are the result of new guidelines implemented by the state of New York, which has been regulating the reopening of businesses and industries during the pandemic.

On Monday night, the state’s health department confirmed that “SNL” had followed its reopening guidelines by “casting” members of the live audience for its season premiere Saturday — the show’s first live episode since March 7 — and paying them for their time. (It is not clear how many audience members were paid guests.)

Sean Ludwig, who attended the “SNL” season premiere over the weekend, said that he and seven friends who had gone with him each received a check for $150 from Universal Television, a division of NBC’s parent company, when the show was over.

“We had no idea we would be paid before we were handed checks,” Ludwig said. “We were all very pleasantly surprised.”


In the days leading up to the “SNL” season premiere, it was unclear whether the show would be able to draw its studio audience from the general public, as it has done in past years, because of state restrictions around reopening during the pandemic. In an earlier statement, the state’s health department said that ticketed events had been prohibited since March 16, and that the restriction had not changed.

A spokesman for the state health department, Jonah Bruno, said in a statement Monday night that “SNL” had confirmed to them that it had followed the state’s reopening guidance by selecting audience members through a third-party screening and casting process and by compensating them for their time.

A portion of the tickets to the show were reserved for health care workers, who received a humorous shout-out at the start of Saturday’s show. In his opening monologue, Chris Rock addressed the front section of audience members, whom he identified as first responders, and joked, “They’re so good, we let people die tonight so they could see a good show.”