How SNL Spends Its Money

And other odds and ends.

How SNL Spends Its Money
Image via YouTube

Here’s something fun. Through a Freedom of Information request, I recently obtained SNL’s film tax credit applications for its 44th (2018-2019) and 45th (2019-2020) seasons. These contain budget documents and massive spreadsheets of everything the show spent its money on during those four years, from payroll to airfare to maintenance fees for Lorne Michaels’ office aquarium. Even though actual dollar amounts are generally redacted or omitted, these documents are still a fascinating peek under the hood. There are even a few places where actual dollar amounts aren’t omitted, offering brief glimpses of what the most powerful institution in American comedy pays its talent. 

For instance, here's a field in the Season 44 final budget that appears to reveal Kenan Thompson's per-episode fee of $25,000 (which honestly strikes me as a bit low, though it's not necessarily reflective of his total compensation):

SNL budget doc. In a section for cast members, row descriptions include "Mikey Day," "Melissa Villaseñor," "Leslie Jones," and "Kenan Thompson." A row under Kenan's name reads "22 ep guarantee 25k x22/21."

And here's another field listing Kate McKinnon's bonus structure: $50,000 if she got an Emmy nomination (she did), $150,000 if she won.

SNL budget document. Section titled "cast." Individual rows for Aidy Bryant, "Aidy Signing Bonus," Cecily Strong, "Cecily Signing Bonus," Kate McKinnon, and "Emmy Nom 50k additional 150k for win"

Elsewhere we find Michaels' assistants' salaries: $200,000 for his first assistant, $100,000 for his second, $850/week for his third and $800/week for his fourth. Their names are unredacted in the document, and obviously they're in the show's credits every Saturday, but since they're not exactly public figures I'm gonna redact them here:

Then there are the show's expense ledgers, which contain thousands and thousands of entries. Most are pretty much what you'd expect: payroll, office supplies, rights and licensing fees, cabs, wardrobe costs, props, and so on. This is a TV show, after all. At the same time, hidden among these mundane line items are occasional reminders that this isn't just a TV show. It's a Hollywood powerhouse, an elite social club designed to dole out patronages and keep its beneficiaries happy. Consider a small sampling (and note that dates refer to when payments were processed, not when they were made):

November 7, 2018: "Pete Davidson massage"
November 14 and 20, 2018: "Charter jet- Dan Crenshaw" and "Dan Crenshaw hotel" (the GOP Congressman appeared on the 11/10/2018 episode so Pete Davidson could apologize for making fun of him the previous week; SNL put Crenshaw up at the Four Seasons.)
February 7, 2019: "snl swag for host" purchased at the NBC gift shop (lol)
October 2, 2019: "Larry David private plane"
November 3, 2019: "Helicopter- Alec Baldwin"
November 20, 2019: "Charter plane- Alec Baldwin"
December 23, 2019: "Jet travel- Larry David/Maya Rudolph"
Similarly, on January 15, 2020: "Larry David/Maya Rudolph jet" and "David/Rudolph jet catering" (presumably these are all related to their appearances in the 12/21/19 cold open)
December 2, 2019, January 1, 2020, and March 24, 2020: "Meal penalty," "Extra meal penalty," and "Salad meal penalty," respectively, indicating that the production failed to provide union-mandated meal breaks.

I'm still working my way through all these files, but for now I'll make one last observation: they really hammer home how much of Lorne Michaels' life is intertwined with this show. Dinners at fancy restaurants, stays at luxurious hotels, private jet travel (the "producers travel" section of the season 44 budget contains a row for "LM jets," plural), Yankees tickets, liquor, endless meals and drinks with "clients," laundry, dry cleaning, errands, wine glasses, ear buds, an Amazon Prime subscription—SNL pays for it all.

Screenshot of SNL's budget. In a section titled "travel and living," a subsection "producers travel" contains a field for "LM Jets," with two rows of figures redacted.

I know this is par for the course in corporate America, but it's still a useful reminder that SNL is corporate America. And Lorne Michaels is just another CEO living like a king while his employees work through their meal breaks.

Here’s something interesting. Last week this came across my inbox—a call for audience members for a taping of Comedy Central’s new roast show, Rule the Roast:

FEATURING: Anthony Jeselnik, Yamaneika Saunders, Megan Gailey, Kyle Kinane, Sherry Cola, Clayton English... PLUS MORE TO COME!
SHOW DESCRIPTION: Rule The Roast is the big new half-hour roast comedy show from Comedy Central. Master of roasters, Anthony Jeselnik, serves as host and judge over two teams of three comedians and wildcards from our League Of Roasters. In front of a live studio audience, the teams battle through edgy roast games, skewering everything, from trends to celebrities to each other. In the final round, Anthony picks his favorite player from each team to go head-to-head for the win.

A couple years back I speculated that Jeff Ross’s absence from Comedy Central’s “Hall of Flame” roast special suggested that the network was distancing itself from him in the wake of Vulture’s report on his alleged sexual relationship with a teenager. It appears that wasn’t a fluke; he’s not involved in this new iteration of the franchise either. (I will eat crow if he's part of the "more to come," but let's be realistic here.)

This is notable for the same reason it was notable before; forgive me for repeating myself, but nobody else out there seems to care. Ross suffered virtually zero fallout from the Vulture exposé. He’s a regular everywhere he’s always been a regular, he does corporate gigs, he tours the country. In the lawsuit he filed against Jessica Radtke a few years ago (which doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere), he managed to get her father to claim that he lied to Vulture when he corroborated Radtke’s story. Elon Gold, a comedian and friend of Ross, told me in 2021 that Ross’s lawyer, powerful Hollywood attorney Bryan Freedman, had distributed “a mountain of evidence” that persuaded news outlets not to pursue the story. Which coincidentally none of them did.

Call me cynical, but it seems to me that if Comedy Central wanted to stick with Ross, it would have had ample pretext to do so. If a mountain of evidence in Ross's favor exists, surely the network would have considered it. And yet here it is producing a brand new roast series without the guy whose brand is so wedded to roast comedy that he literally trademarked the title “Roastmaster General." One simply has to wonder if Comedy Central came to the conclusion nobody else in comedy came to: that Jessica Radtke was telling the truth.

Per usual, Comedy Central did not respond to my inquiries about the nature of its relationship with Jeff Ross. Per usual, if you have any insight I’d love to hear it.

I forgot to mention last month: I have a new poem in the online mag Old Pal. It’s called “Pandemic Variations” and you can read it here

I would like to recommend some things I’ve enjoyed recently:

-Cole Escola’s “Our Home Out West.” Beautiful, funny, pitch perfect.

-My friend Charlie Walden’s animated short Legend of the Cornpone Kid, which contains both laugh-out-loud jokes and a truly catchy rendition of “There Is Power in a Union.” 

-Graham Mason’s lovely, crackling animated short “The Quarry." I love the sense of atmosphere in this piece—the music, the animation style (the way the characters shimmer!), how warm and lived-in it all feels. 

-The new Simple Town video, particularly the bit where Caroline calls the cops: 

-Joe Pera’s WaterfallTV. The man does not miss. 

-BD McClay’s newsletter Notebook, from which I've learned quite a bit about Taylor Swift (among other things). 

Do you want to know how much money Dave Chappelle makes in one show? I’ll tell you how much money Dave Chappelle makes in one show, specifically a show at the Charleston Coliseum in West Virginia this past May. The amount of money is $339,737.63.

Event settlement listing "Presenter Earnings" as "$339,737.63."

Netflix announced yesterday that it will drop Chappelle’s next special—his seventh with the streamer—on the 31st. Steel yourself. 

Thanks as always for reading. If this kind of stuff interests you, please consider upgrading to a monthly or annual subscription, or just tossing a few bucks in the tip jar below. I couldn't do this sort of research and writing without reader support.

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