'SNL' Guru Lorne Michaels Steps Out From Behind the Scenes -- and Spills Secrets From the Other Side of the Curtain
With the exception of his brief but fairly regular cameos on “Saturday Night Live,” executive producer Lorne Michaels is a man who prefers to work behind the scenes, someone who doesn’t normally seek the spotlight.
But as one of the most powerful producers in the business, he was the laser focus of attention at the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom, in the hot seat alongside one of the many comedic actors whose careers he has nurtured over nearly four decades, moderator Martin Short.
There were no laser cat videos being pitched by eager young comedians. The occasion was the Hollywood Radio & Television Society’s Newsmaker Luncheon, “Comedy on TV,” held April 16. Normally a confab where the wealth is spread among networks and producers, this was a one-man show, and deservedly so.
Michaels’ entire career, going back to his days as a young writer on NBC's “Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In” and projecting forward next year to his stewardship of “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” has been all about getting laughs.
Funny enough, the last time Michaels had been in the room was when two others on his multitudinous list of proteges -- Tina Fey and Amy Poehler -- killed it as hosts of this year's Golden Globe Awards.
The capacity crowd -- several of whom were heard remarking on the way in that this was the most highly anticipated HRTS luncheon conversation of the year -- was treated to an opening clip reel that featured classic “SNL” moments and characters and bits from Michaels-produced films, including "Wayne's World," "Mean Girls" and "Tommy Boy."
The clips led into more than an hour of the Michaels brand of candor and wit, along with some zingers from Short, obviously an expert himself in the comedy department.
Both men have their humor roots in Canada. Michaels first worked as a writer and producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, while Short plied his trade on Canada’s SCTV Comedy Network, which initially brought him to the attention of "SNL" producers in the early 1980s.
Michaels moved to Los Angeles from Toronto in 1968 and worked on “Laugh-In,” but left the West Coast for New York in 1975 to start “SNL” and founded his production company, Broadway Video, in 1979. He's been closely identified with the Big Apple ever since. But those hoping for any inside scoop about the new East Coast-based “Tonight Show” didn't get much, as most of the discussion focused on Michaels’ helming of NBC's long-running Saturday night comedy sketch series.
"I'm proud to call him my friend. Even if he is successful and rich," Short started in, before engaging Michaels in a discussion about how “SNL” handled tragic real-life events like Newtown and 9/11. (Left unspoken was how the Boston Marathon explosions will be handled in the next new edition, which won’t be for several weeks.)
Michaels recalled having then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani on after 9/11 and asking him, “Can we be funny?” Giuliani’s well-known retort: “Why start now?”
“It was an icebreaker, but he had started grinning in rehearsals, knowing he was going to do the joke. He couldn’t stop smiling,” Michaels said. “I had to glare at him so he wouldn’t.”
“We deal with things that are much bigger than comedy and showbiz. Gilda [Radner] used to say if you just watched cable, you wouldn’t know if World War III started, but we’re broadcast, and you have to deal with it.”
Then Short asked what seemed like a basic question: Why does the show have to be live?
“We go on not because we’re ready, but because it’s 11:30,” Michaels answered. “Everyone falls into line in service of the show. If you were doing takes, it would be endless and would spiral out of control.”
Reflecting back on “SNL’s” beginnings, he said it was about not having a pilot and all that involved. “Overthinking was eliminated,” he said, a strategy that holds to his philosophy today. “Dress rehearsal is the great leveler. We don’t sweeten anything,” he said proudly about vetoing any use of canned laugh tracks.
Short and Michaels also took a walk down memory lane with some of the great talent the show has spawned -- Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase, Will Ferrell, Fey, Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig, Poehler, Conan O’Brien, David Spade, Steve Martin, Jim Belushi, Jimmy Fallon -- the list is seemingly endless. And it was during that discussion that Michaels revealed one of his greatest regrets.
Missing out on Jim Carrey.
It seems that after giving up total control, meaning, hiring a rank of producers beneath him, said producers passed on Carrey’s audition, with Michaels being none the wiser at the time. Oops. Big oops.
Even as cast members have moved on to huge comedy careers, there is great job security for the crew -- and no age discrimination. Announcer Don Pardo is 95, Michaels said, and lighting director Phil Hyms is 90.
Although claiming that “we don’t attack our own [cast], normally,” he admitted an incident in which Eddie Murphy was criticized by David Spade during the show for one of his movies that bombed -- and how Murphy called and railed about it for half an hour. “You’re standing on my shoulders,” he told Spade. “I regret it,” Michaels said about the Murphy diss. “But there were a lot of things we didn’t do,” he admitted.
“Let’s list them,” Short interjected, to the appreciative laughter of the crowd. But no go.
As for keeping up with cultural and industry changes, Michaels said it’s hardest for him with music, a big change from the early days of the program in the late 1970s and 80s when he knew every cut off every album of each featured artist -- and noted that it was different talent than would have been booked on the “Tonight Show” of the time.
He also noted that no one had publicists then.
One thing that’s remained the same: Sketches that have been worked on all week -- or longer -- get cut at the last minute and the people in them get upset. “You’ve invited your friends and family, and then you’re not even on, until the hugs and schmoozing under the final credits.”
“It isn’t fair,” Michaels said, summing up “SNL,” showbiz -- and life. “People’s feelings get hurt.”
Short asked the question on everyone’s mind in Burbank and Hollywood, about why “The Tonight Show” is moving to New York when Fallon takes it over from Jay Leno next year.
“Now with air travel, stars come to New York,” Michaels said, drolly -- and Short retorted, “But it’s included.”
“People’s opinions of the city are different now,” Michaels said, before reflecting on how he came to Gotham as a teenager and was in the studio audience when Jack Paar hosted “Tonight” in the City That Never Sleeps.
“It was magic -- and Hugh Downs and the band did a warmup and the audience was in a frenzy.”
Looks like Michaels plans to re-create that magic, from his comfortable home of many decades at Rockefeller Center. No laugh tracks required.
Just when you thought movie awards season ended with the Oscars and kudo-attention shifted to the Emmys, along come the MTV Movie Awards to shower last year's films with golden popcorn trophies.
The awards show, which aired live from Sony Pictures Studios Sunday, April 14 -- and will be repeated numerous times on MTV -- also acts as a great promotional opportunity for upcoming blockbusters to reach their target audience.
"The Hunger Games." "Fast and Furious." "Iron Man." "Star Trek.” The sequels to those tentpoles all got prime play during the telecast with talent from each film introducing teaser trailers, nearly overshadowing the awards themselves.
The show was also an opportunity for host Rebel Wilson to become known to a wider audience. Wilson, who starred in last year’s “Pitch Perfect,” used her weight and her nationality -- some consider her the Australian Melissa McCarthy -- for a brand of Down Under humor of the below-the-belt variety.
It all got off to a fun start with a wink and a nod to the pitfalls and precipices of hosting an awards show, personified by none other than Oscar host with the least James Franco.
In a raunchy taped bit, Franco, currently starring in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” confronted Wilson in the real Oz, the Australian outback, with the offer to emcee MTV, and put her in an Iron Man suit to fly halfway across the world to Culver City.
And kaboom. She landed in a plume of smoke on a soundstage dressed and creatively set-designed for the occasion, as the cable network always does so well for its kudocasts.
Wilson herself walked away with several awards, including Breakthrough Performance, one of a series of unique categories like Best WTF Moment, Best Shirtless Performance, Best Fight and the always popular Best Kiss.
That went to Bradley Cooper and Katniss Everdeen -- oops, wrong movie -- Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Cooper also took Best Male perf for his role and during his acceptance speech, made a plea for taking better care of war veterans returning with emotional and psychological problems.
When it comes to MTV Movie’s honorary awards, things can also get pretty serious -- and even a little teary.
Emma Watson took the Trailblazer Award, reflecting on how bad her hair looked in the first “Harry Potter” movie and how she was always the girl in school to first raise her hand and was teased mercilessly. "You've allowed me to grow,” she told the crowd and advised them that anything can happen if you put your heart into something.
Jamie Foxx, anointed with the Generation Award by "Django Unchained" co-star Kerry Washington, wore a Justice for Trayvon Martin T-shirt that alluded to the recent firing of a Florida police training officer who put drawings of the slain black teenager on targets.
Foxx gave a special shout-out to director Oliver Stone, who was the first to hire him for a feature film ("Any Given Sunday") when the actor only had experience in television. “I feel like I'm just starting," Foxx said and mentioned that he was directing a new Syfy series to add to his acting and musical repertoire.
With Will Ferrell, presented with the Comedic Genius award by “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage, there was nothing serious said, and perhaps some feathers ruffled when, clad in a suit apparently fashioned of dollar bills, he called his family up to the stage and brought out an Asian woman and multiple children he said were theirs.
Unless this relates to the new “Anchorman” movie, which it very well may, it completely bombed -- and Ferrell should've stuck to his jokes like he always wanted to wake up in the morning and dress himself like Dennis Rodman. There was also a bit he did with actress Aubrey Plaza that didn't hit its mark.
It was left to Wilson to re-inject some comedy with her portrayals of an unwanted character, Head Whore, trying to upstage Anne Hathaway in "Les Miserables” and as fierce tiger Richard Parker in “Life of Pi,” battling on the boat with Pi.
The grand finale -- MTV’s version of best movie -- was presented by Brad Pitt, with the opportunity to promote his “World War Z.” The award went to another film whose sequel is also heading down the pike, "The Avengers," whose Tom Hiddleston also took the Best Villain trophy for his role as Loki.
And it was as Iron Mangina that Wilson blasted off to end the show, cementing her status as best female Australian awards show host, sometimes confused with British chanteuse Adele -- or Melissa McCarthy.
Walking Back to the Future
The resemblance was uncanny.
She looked remarkably like Payton,
A girl whom I had had a crush on
Like Forrest had on Jenny.
Back then we were both seventeen
Studying romantic poets in the spring.
She paid me no mind, of course,
Which made my uncomfortable longing even worse.
I was reminded of this last week,
While taking my son on college tours back East,
Discovering student docents walking backwards dangerously fast.
Not a job for the weak or those with the wrong technique.
How odd this backwards walking
As these undergraduate guides do their non-stop talking,
Avoiding obstacles and precipices
While explaining freshman meal choices.
It was sunny and cool in Just-spring again,
As we were in Amherst on this particular tour,
Home of not cummings but Frost and his poetic vigour
On a campus marked by hills and more than one glen.
The guide who reminded me so much of Payton
Showed us the Robert Frost Library, so-named because he had taught at the college so often,
And she told us that President Kennedy had given a moving speech in which the poet was feted
During a dedication ceremony that took place a month before JFK was assassinated.
I remembered a poem by Frost I had known in my youth, called “Wind and the Window Flower”:
Lovers, forget your love,
And list to the love of these,
She a window flower,
And he a winter breeze.
When the frosty window veil
Was melted down at noon,
And the caged yellow bird
Hung over her in tune,
He marked her through the pane,
He could not help but mark,
And only passed her by,
To come again at dark.
He was a winter wind,
Concerned with ice and snow,
Dead weeds and unmated birds,
And little of love could know.
But he sighed upon the sill,
He gave the sash a shake,
As witness all within
Who lay that night awake.
Perchance he half prevailed
To win her for the flight
From the firelit looking glass
And warm stove-window light.
But the flowers leaned aside
And thought of naught to say,
And morning found the breeze
A hundred miles away.
While I was looking up this poem again on the Internet, to get all of its words right, I found the following comment about it posted by someone in the Philippines. It’s not exactly how I had interpreted the poem:
"I think the poem talks about a man or a boy who was attracted to a very pretty woman (when we say flower, it means beauty ).. so the girl must really be beautiful. Problem was, the girl must be some kind of heavily guarded and watched.. must be a daughter of a rich couple.. never allowed to talk to anyone not of her kind.. so the boy just watched her from afar.. and the girl also just watched the boy from through her window.. eventually, they managed to talk to each other but they were caught by the guards.. thus the line: and the breeze was found the next morning a hundred miles away..The boy must have been arrested and put in prison.. A SAD ENDING to a great love story."
Payton, as I recall, hadn’t really liked the poem at all, and blew me off as well.
Now the campus tour was over and we were asked if we thought our comely guide was swell,
Including if her walking backward prowess was OK or just pell-mell.
Later my son, who, unlike me, is not a wordsmith impostor,
Confessed that yes, he had a small crush on our tour guide, the girl who walked back to the future.#