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Sitting in the audience at SNL is the still best ticket in town. When the elevators open onto studio 8H it’s like walking inside your TV. The NBC pages showing you down the hall are dressed just like Kenneth from 30 Rock. Cast members and random celebrities walk the halls chatting to the writers and staff. Pictures of great SNL moments line the walls, Mary Katherine Gallagher’s catholic school girl outfit and a Conehead costume are ghosts in glass museum cases.

Before the show the cast and crew looked amped but exhausted. Michael Che, who’s been brought over from the Daily Show as a writer and update anchor, warms the crowd up with a few jokes and Keenan Thompson does a pumped up version of Give Me Some Lovin’ with back up singers from the cast. The energy’s flowing.

It’s 11:30. The countdown begins to the cold opening. We’ve seen SNL a million times, but what exactly is about to happen? “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”

SNL has had a love/hate relationship with critics and viewers since the moment it first broadcast 40 seasons ago. New York Magazine famously declared it dead in a cover story in 1995 and Ian Crouch at the New Yorker gave it a flick in the balls just last fall. He begrudgingly admitted that somehow it’s managed to stay on the air despite its failings. Crouch represents a popular but unfounded narrative about the show: It’s more misses than hits and there’s better comedy elsewhere on TV these days. I would put almost any amateur’s ranking of their favorite SNL sketches up there with any other comedy show of the past 40 years. It’s a live show, written in one week, that lives or dies many times on how good the host is. But what critics miss most is that when SNL is good, it’s really good.

The golden first season’s cast went on to become some of the biggest stars in Hollywood and the writers and guests were a who’s who of comedy’s greatest. Andy Kaufman, George Carlin, Michael O’Donoghue, Albert Brooks and Terry Southern to name a few.

But the show has always been the minor leagues in a certain sense despite its high profile. Its list of famous alumni is exhausting just to think about and everyone working in comedy, whether they were on the show or not, has an SNL story. Larry David famously quit as a writer on the show only to come back the next Monday as if nothing happened (he later made the incident into a Seinfeld episode).

Or when Louis CK was overlooked at a showcase for job on SNL but ended up writing for Conan’s first show and launching a career that brought him full circle to hosting, making some of the best SNL moments in recent years. The show is only as good as the cast and hosts. Many of the five timers club, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin or even Justin Timberlake would’ve made great cast members if they weren’t already famous.

The show has become so entwined in culture that the behind the scenes drama has spawned shows as wide ranging as the Aaron Sorkin disaster Studio 60 and the now classic 30 Rock, which Michaels produced.

What most TV critics fail to see is, yes, perpetually the show isn’t what it used to be, but it’s now almost an incubator for Michael’s other projects. To see the reach of the show into mainstream culture one need only to think of something like the House of Blues chain. It’s a corporate echo of the SNL Blues Brothers sketch that was also a hit soundtrack and two movies. A franchise of its own. The Coneheads, Wayne’s World, the list of Lorne Michaels productions is a mile long with many failures and few blockbusters. Not to labor the sports metaphors too much, but the show has down years and up years like any great team dynasty. But Lorne Michaels would hands down be the winningest coach on TV. The only comedy show that has run longer is the Tonight Show, which Michaels now produces. And yes, there’s also a SNL Korea.

Love it or hate it, SNL has created some of the funniest moments of the last 40 years. As any great live broadcast like politics or sports, much of the fun is in the day after watercooler talk. These days there are bloggers whose sole column on sites consists of SNL recaps. New generations have watched SNL in different ways. The show gained a whole new audience in the 90’s through syndication and during the Loney Island days, Lazy Sunday and Dick in a Box became shareable content, perfectly bite sized for the Internet. People still watch SNL. They just watch it differently, and they watch a lot of other things too. But it’s always remained nimble. This year it’s even releasing an app.

Darrell Hammond announces in Don Pardo’s place now. (Pardo died last year at 96). Hammond was one of the show’s journeymen, who never had a breakout movie role but is suited as SNL’s elder statesman.

Lorne romes the floor checking each detail as a team of people moves the ornate and often cumbersome sets. It’s a complicated ballet that somehow manages to work by the time it goes to air. Between breaks the crew frantically clears one set and readies the next.

This season is a rebuilding year but it’s already seeing its next batch of stars coming to into their own. Unlikely 47 year-old breakout Leslie Jones and long time cast member Kate McKinnon are joining the female Ghostbusters cast. Michael Che is breathing life back into Weekend Update and the Good Neighbor crew is primed to go big.

Read the great oral history Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live to get a good sense of the show’s historical ups and downs. And James Franco made a film school B minus behind-the-scenes documentary of an episode that came out last year. It’s clunky but gives a good insight into the stresses and successes on the cast member’s shoulders. Put the book and documentary together and a pattern starts to emerge. “Will my sketch get cut at the last minute? Will I get any air time?” The push and pull of writers and Lorne always battling to to make the show ediger. It’s a matter of finding that line that the fly-over states will laugh at as well as the urbanites. It’s been the same fight since the beginning of the show.

The SNL after parties are at various undisclosed Midtown restaurants where the cast and writers party until late. It’s a much more formal affair these days than when Aykroyd and Belushi owned a bar. But the younger cast members still go to a small bar downtown that stays open for the after-after party, which is much more relaxed. One of the newest cast members buys a round for the whole bar. His sketch was cut that night. It’s on the internet the next morning and it turns out to be better than anything else on that night’s broadcast. The party goes until the early morning hours. The cast finally goes home to get some sleep. Monday morning they’ve got another show to make. There’s always another Saturday night.

Images via Wikipedia/YouTube