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In Line with Saturday Night Klein

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When there's not a writers' strike, Louis Klein usually arrives at the line for standby seats to "Saturday Night Live" by Friday afternoon. The tickets are given away at 7 am the next morning. And he's pretty used to the all-night sitting. He's been waiting on the line since the show was popular enough to merit a line. At the time of the interview he'd seen 539 out of 622 shows. He saw the first show. And over the years he's gotten pretty famous--and even a little infamous--in SNL fan circles. One night this spring Weekend America's Sean Cole spent the night, on the sidewalk, with Saturday Night Klein.

by Sean Cole

Louis Klein is 59. He has cerebral palsy and a bum knee. His wife Jamie, who's half his age, was born without ears and uses a special headset to hear. So they don't like to sit out in the rain too much. And it's raining. But they're here anyway - about 20 feet from the neon marquee that says "Rainbow Room. Observation deck. NBC studios." It's the one you see in the credits to "Saturday Night Live."

"You made it!" Louis says to me, smiling.

He sits on his walker, which doubles as a stool. Jamie's got a comfy fold-out chair, the kind I would have brought if I had half a brain. We're going to be here all night and I'm going to be standing, fourth in line behind Louis and Jamie—third and second respectively—and a kid named Danny who's been there since noon. It's 2 p.m. now. Louis tells me we have 17 hours to talk.

Talking is kind of what Louis does best. Jamie mostly keeps to herself, chiming in now and then with a weather report. But her husband talks enough for both of them—about their relationship, about his various jobs (bookkeeper, Fuller Brush man) and mainly about his purpose here. He's not just a veteran of the line. He's really the keeper of the line, enforcer of the line rules.

"Yes, you can go get some food," he says, "You can go to the bathroom if you have to, and whatever the case may be, but you have to come back. We've had people say, 'Okay, I'm gonna go to a Broadway show. I'll be back at 11:00.' You can't do that."

That would be jumping, he says, the cardinal sin of the stand-by line. If you jump the line, in the morning, Louis will tell the person who hands out the tickets not to give you one. And she won't. Because Louis has been doing this longer than anybody. If you sit anywhere long enough, people start listening to you.

Louis Klein was always in one studio audience or other. He used to go to a lot of game shows like "What's My Line?" and "To Tell the Truth." The night that "Saturday Night Live" launched, October 11, 1975, he attended the dress rehearsal, and even finagled his way into the pre-pre-performance the day before.

"And this is what I saw," he tells me, "a full-fledged comedy routine by George Carlin, a full-fledged comedy routine by Billy Crystal, music by Janis Ian and Billy Preston, and comedy by the not-ready-for-prime-time players including Jon and Gilda and everybody else. So wouldn't you want to come back? Of course you did. So I did."

And he came back again. And again. More and more people came too, and in 1976 the stand-by line was born. People waited inside back then. The rules and hierarchies just kind of developed. It was like "Lord of the Line." Louis remembers the day, in 1982, that the conch shell was handed to him.

"In fact up until 1982 I was shy," he says, "I couldn't talk to people like this. I just couldn't. And one of the reasons I got out of it was because somebody in this line asked me to watch the line for them the following week because they couldn't be here: 'Lou you're here every week why don't you watch the line!' I was like, 'Huh?!' And it means a lot to me that I'm able to give out the information that I had bottled up inside me."

He'll tell people how the ticketing process works, or just joke around with them. One of his jokes goes like this.

Q: How do you spell farm?

A: E-I-E-I-O!

That goes a long way at three in the morning.

But Louis can be harsh when he feels he needs to be. About five hours after I show up, the rain is gone and the sidewalk starts to dry. A few of the other regulars appear with sleeping bags. They're in their teens and early 20s, and Louis says he has to keep an eye on them. More than once, he says, he's caught a couple of these kids celebrity trawling on the 50th Street side of the building, another no-no. A couple of other people arrive while Louis is on a scheduled bathroom break. When he gets back, he takes it upon himself to sort out who arrived when.

"Zach!" he calls to one of the kids, "Are you doing stand-by?"

"Yeah," says Zach.

"Where are you?" Louis says, "Behind Arlene or in front of Arlene?"

"In front," Zach says.

"Does she know that?" asks Louis, "'Cause she fell asleep by the way. You better let her know that you're here."

A few of the other young regulars gently rally to Zach's side, saying that Arlene saw him arrive.

"That don't mean anything," says Louis, "She might still think you're behind her. Let her know that you're ahead of her."

"Everybody here knows," says Zach.

"That's not the point!" says Louis, raising his voice, "Let her know!"

"She trusts us," says another regular, "She trusts all of us."

"Otherwise she'll think you're jumping," Louis continues, "That's not good."

"She's not going to think he's jumping," the other regular says.

"Oh my God! Who cares?! " says a third, exasperated.

"I'm watching 'em like a hawk," Louis told me later, "What is he up to now or what is she up to now? And the minute they do something 'Whack!' You got it!"

When the kids start to cluster around the NBC entrance, waiting for cast members to come out, I walk over and ask them what they think of Louis. He's far enough away that he can't hear us. The Who Cares girl says, "We hate him." She launches into a litany of distain: he's mean, he turns people in unnecessarily. The list finally ends with, "And when he's not here, I'm psyched."

But a few seconds later the same girl says she appreciates Louis keeping order in the line, kicking out the jumpers. Still, a lot of stand-by goers just wish Louis would disappear. There have been two petitions seeking to ban him from stand-by. Louis told me about one of them. I told him about the other, an anonymous petition that accused Louis of harassing people and reporting them falsely. I hand a copy to Louis for some late night reading. He says whoever created it is probably just mad because they got caught doing something wrong. He knows who wrote the other petition.

"And I knew exactly what was going to happen to it," Louis tells me, "It wound up in file 13."

"What's file 13?" I ask.

"The garbage can," he says lightly. "You know what happened to person started it? She got banned! I think. Because ... you'll never guess why ... "

He pauses for dramatic effect, then says, "Because she wouldn't leave Jimmy Fallon alone."

Louis Klein has met every cast member except, curiously, Lorraine Newman. He says he never obsesses over them, just treats them like friendly acquaintances who happen to be on late night TV.

Around 10:30 or so, Bill Hader comes out to spend some time the kids.

"Heeeeey," Hader says to the Who Cares girl, "You got glasses?"

He might be the friendliest cast member on the show, the guy who imitates Al Pacino.

"I think my parents have a picture with them and Louis," he tells me, and that he felt anointed when Louis first said hi to him. And yes, he says, Louis is no suck up.

"There's no fawning at all. No fawning! It's very much like ... " Hader drops right into his best Louis Klein impression "'I didn't like that last week! I thought that was really bad! I didn't like that at all!' He's a good guy though."

Louis is also a strangely powerful and connected guy. He has NBC security programmed into his cell phone. He's mentioned on the studio tours. He's like an honorary uncle. And about 17 years ago, NBC told Louis he could come to the show anytime he wanted. At first, they asked him to do stand-by anyway, just in case they didn't have a ticket for him at the desk. But then they told him, and Jamie, to just walk right in.

Louis doesn't have to sit out all night. He doesn't have to enforce the rules.

He doesn't have to do stand-by.

He does it because he wants to. And because he feels obliged.

"In a way, I feel they want me here to help them out," he says, meaning NBC. "I feel that they don't say it because they probably can't, because I'm not employed by them."

This is why some of the other stand-by goers feel okay about writing petitions against him. They know he's going to get into the show anyway. And he should get in, they say, but he should also get a life.

At around midnight, I'm talking to one of Louis's young lieutenants, an 18-year-old girl named Emily who helps him keep order in the line. Unexpectedly, Louis rolls his walker over to us and, like a cloak and dagger movie, he says to her, "The guy in the blue cap."

"Yeah," says Emily in an urgent half-whisper, "They apparently said that he wasn't here."

"He wasn't here," Louis repeats. I can hear his blood-pressure rising. "Now we got somebody in the line now that jumped the line." Then he motions to me. "Help me talk to him."

"Ooooo," Emily says, "Louis is gonna lay down the law."

The guy in the blue cap is big - and young, maybe half Louis's age. He and his girlfriend are standing about 10 people back from the front. Louis asks him how long he's been here. Blue Cap Guy says they had someone hold a spot for them while they drove up from Maryland. Louis figures out the problem right away. They replaced one person with two people. You can't do that.

Louis: Now you have a choice right now to go to the back of the line and stay back there. One can stay here because they had a spot. Because the person left. But the other one has to go to the back of the line because it's not fair to the people behind you.

Blue Cap Guy: Then one of us will get a ticket, brother.

Louis: Only one gets a ticket but we gotta make sure that only one gets a ticket.

Blue Cap Guy: Yeah. That's disgusting.

Louis: No it's not disgusting. You ...

Blue Cap Guy: That's disgusting 'cause I came here from Maryland man.

Louis: I don't care where you come from, Maryland or Hawaii! It doesn't matter!

Blue Cap Guy: I see. I see how you do it. That's cool.

Louis: It doesn't matter. You wouldn't like somebody to cut in front of you would you?

Blue Cap Guy: Yeah that's why we had somebody waiting here.

Louis: I understand that but that ... that ...

Blue Cap Guy: That's why we had somebody waiting here!

Louis: But you're ...

Blue Cap Guy: Yeah!

Louis: Y-you're ...

Blue Cap Guy: Yeah!

Louis: You are ...

Blue Cap Guy: Yeah!

Louis: ... switching one person for two people.

Blue Cap Guy: That's fine man. That's fine. Thank you.

Louis: You can't do that. So it's gonna be one or the other. You need to go to the back of the line now or you won't get a ticket.

Blue Cap Guy's Girlfriend: Is that what they say?

Blue Cap Guy (to his girlfriend): No. He's been here for so long so I guess they made him leader or somethin'.

Louis: Okay?

Blue Cap Guy: Yeah, I hear you.

Louis: And we'll see to it that you don't get a ticket.

Blue Cap Guy: Yeah.

Louis: Okay. Thank you.

Blue Cap Guy: And this is what you do every weekend.

Louis: Well, we're watching.

Blue Cap Guy: Congratulations.

Louis: We're watching that people don't do that!

Blue Cap Guy: Congratulations!

Louis: It doesn't matter where you come from Maryland or ...

Blue Cap Guy: Congratulations!

Louis: ... or ...

Blue Cap Guy: This is what you do ...

Louis: ... Hawaii it doesn't matter ...

Blue Cap Guy: This is what you've done! This is what you've done. Congratulations.

Louis: You're welcome.

Blue Cap Guy: This is what you've done with your life. Congratulations, man. You see Saturday Night Live.

My stomach is so tense during this exchange that I think it's gonna snap. But Louis says fights like this don't bother him. He's heard it all before, especially the part about him not having a life.

Later on they come to a compromise: the girlfriend says she'll move back a few spots. At this point, I don't know what time it is. The line's a long snake. Its head is asleep on the sidewalk. Its tail boils with energy. Everything about me aches. I start to think that getting into Saturday Night Live requires Friday Night Death. Louis is subdued, but he's still up, still talking. He tells me about a short video that the cast made for him and his wife as a wedding present. Lorne Michaels appears at the end of it and says "Louis, Jamie ... Congratulations."

"If that's the way they feel about me," Louis says, almost coming to tears, "to do something like that, hell, I'm gonna stay here. I'm going to repay them for what they've done for me over the past 32 years. Do I have a life? Do I?! Yes I do."

In a few hours, the woman with the tickets will come. She'll be infuriatingly clean and well rested. Louis won't know her, but she'll know him and she'll ask if everybody's behaving. Louis will say, "For the most part we're behaving here. I think we're pretty good." And she'll listen to him, just like always. And then she'll hand out more than a hundred tickets.

Less than half of this line will actually get into the show.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By sue d

    From nyc, NY, 05/14/2012

    This Louis person has to be dealt with.

    By sue d

    From nyc, NY, 05/14/2012

    This Louis person has to be dealt with.

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