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.