‘SNL’ Tribute: It’s Still Lorne Michaels’ Baby

Sep 19, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Since 1975, with a five-year break in the early 1980s, Lorne Michaels has been executive producer of “Saturday Night Live,” which NBC bills as the longest-running and highest-rated late-night show in history. He created the music and comedy sketch show and has re-created it over and over again in the years since, personally selecting cast members and approving what goes on the air.

Mr. Michaels, a native of Toronto, has helped invent a unique brand of American humor that has influenced other media, including prime-time television, music and motion pictures. He has also personally produced more than 20 movies and numerous other TV shows and comedy specials.

During his tenure, “SNL” has been nominated for 85 Emmy Awards and won 16, according to an “SNL” publicist. Mr. Michaels has personally won 10 Emmys, the publicist said.

The show has been honored with a George Foster Peabody Award and inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame, among other honors.

Mr. Michaels founded a production company, Broadway Video Entertainment, and has also been executive producer of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” since it went on the air in 1993. He was interviewed by TelevisionWeek Editor Alex Ben Block.

TelevisonWeek: After doing this for so many years, how do you stay fresh and interested week after week, season after season?

Lorne Michaels: Part of it is built in. At the very beginning, when I was putting it together, I had never done 90 minutes, so I just threw in everything I was interested in, which was comedy, news, music and films. By going to a different host every week and different music every week, it just meant on a writing level that there was always some different problem to solve. And that’s still true today. If you’re doing Christopher Walken one week and then Tom Brady, the football player, the next week, they’re just going to be different shows.

TVWeek: How do you choose the final lineup of comedy sketches each week?

Mr. Michaels: Monday we all meet in my office-the cast, the writing staff and the host. Everybody gets introduced and I go around the room and ask people what they’re going to be working on. People present the ideas, some of which are fully formed, some of which are half-baked and some which are nonexistent. But everybody knows they have to say something. And most of those things get written.

Very often someone will hear something else that somebody is working on and go, “Oh, I’d like to work on that one.” So there’s a lot of cross-pollination that comes out of that meeting. And then between Monday around 5:00 and Wednesday at 3:00, involving most of Tuesday night, part of Wednesday morning, everything gets written in its first draft.

Wednesday afternoon we read sometimes as many as 50 pieces. But we read them all because good comedy is something you don’t know until you hear it. And out of that we select 14 or 15 pieces. They are chosen to make sure the host isn’t doing the same thing in two pieces, by what’s topical and sometimes for the character work. But basically, it is what we think is the funniest 90 minutes we can put on.

And then on Thursday we go into the studio and start blocking those 15 sketches. And the music group shows up and we camera block them and rehearse them as well. And then, simultaneously, on the 17th floor (of Rockefeller Center in New York) people are rewriting the chosen sketches. Two tables do that with the two head writers.

By Friday night around midnight, when I have my production meeting, every sketch has been rehearsed in the studio, on a set, at least once, all the way through. And then from that point on, Saturday, which is at an accelerated pace, we do a run-through with costumes and wigs, but not with an audience. And then we do “(Weekend) Update.” We rehearse the music. Then we rehearse “Update,” which is mostly written between Friday night and Saturday afternoon.

TVWeek: So it all comes together at the last minute?

Mr. Michaels: Yes. And then we do a dress rehearsal in front of an audience at 8 p.m. which is generally about a half-hour long. And then between 10 and 11, we make the decisions about which of that half-hour of material is going to be cut. Sometimes it’s within pieces, internal cuts, and sometimes there are three or four whole pieces that don’t get on. But that’ll have to do with what’s working-what worked in front of the audience, what you think didn’t work in front of the audience but you think will work in front of the air audience. You know, there is a lot of decision-making.

In my experience, if you were to discuss whether something’s funny or not with a writer or a cast member, you can spend days. But right after dress rehearsal, particularly when things haven’t worked, people are very open to suggestions. We move with speed and then we go on, not because we’re ready, but because it’s 11:30, which forces everybody to do their best and to rise up to it.

TVWeek: Competition must be fierce among these highly artistic people, many with big egos, all of them ambitious, all of them the lucky few who made it this far. And then to get your stuff on the air, how do you deal with all that?

Mr. Michaels: I think anybody who does it plays the season, so they would have told everyone they know to watch because they’re going to be in four things, and then they’re in nothing. Or they thought they were going to be in nothing on Wednesday and then they’re suddenly in three things that got written on Saturday.

TVWeek: So it kind of balances out over the season?

Mr. Michaels: Yeah, and I think there’s always somebody unhappy. But generally, if the show’s good, everybody’s happy. But most people view the week through the prism of their own experience. Do you know what I mean, in the sense that, years later, people could say (about any show) that it wasn’t a very good show, but if you look at the rundown, they didn’t have much to do. If they were all over a show, they’ll say, “Yeah, that was one of the best shows this season.” I think my job is to sort of try, to the extent that it’s possible, objectively, to put the best show on in terms of topicality, intelligence and, most of all, what’s the funniest.

TVWeek: Who you hire can either give you energy or steal your energy.

Mr. Michaels: And also it’s so much easier to spend time in the hiring stage, because the firing stage is a nightmare. When you have to let people go, and particularly when you have to let people go who’ve done nothing wrong, who are loyal, dutiful, but you were wrong about their talent-that’s really hard.

TVWeek: In your mind, during the hiring period, are there criteria? What do you look for?

Mr. Michaels: Let me give you a recent example: We brought a young man named Bill Hader, and he’s starting this season. … I’d first heard about him because Megan Mullally, who had hosted the show, called me and said, “Are you looking for any talent?” And I said, “Almost always.” And she said, “My brother-in-law is in a show and I went to see the show, and there’s this guy in it who’s just really impressive. Would you see him, would you take a look at him?” And I said I’d be happy to, and so when I was in L.A. they set up a showcase at a small theater, and I went and I looked at him, and I thought he had potential but I wasn’t sure whether he was ready yet or whether or not he would fit in with our existing lineup-because there were too many guys in our cast already.

So we brought him to New York and he did a showcase in New York and a bunch of people from the show came to see him. And that was in the spring sometime, and then in July when we did our auditions, we brought him in and he did his audition, and he did really well on videotape. In each of the three times that I saw him, he was a little better.

At one point I brought h
im to the show so he could see how it was done, and then there might have been 30 people auditioned, or who we screen-tested, and he stood out, and he got hired.

TVWeek: So when you say he got better, he got funnier …?

Mr. Michaels: More polished, more assured, more comfortable. What he had before, you could tell there was a spark. But then he got, each time, you were more impressed with him.

There are people, like the stones you find at the beach that when they’re covered in water they’re beautiful and then you bring them home and they’re not, there are occasionally people that dazzle you. It’s almost never a “That’s the boy or girl I want in my next picture!” There’s never that moment. You sort of see people who are developing.

Nobody succeeds at this show unless they’re absolutely ready for it. It’s like a big wave that’ll knock you down. You get your hopes up, you think you’re doing great, and then boom. Or you miss a cue and you blow a line and the writing staff has no interest in writing for you for the next eight seasons. You know, it’s punishing. So if you’re not ready for it and seasoned a little bit-and sort of in answer to the first question about keeping it fresh-I think the fact that I’ve been working since the beginning with people at that point in their career when nothing matters but the work is always thrilling.

Later, other things happen. The career takes over and people get a certain caution because they have more to lose. But at the beginning, they know that this is their moment and nothing else matters. And that’s a pretty exciting, heady time.

TVWeek: Comedy to me is maybe the most difficult thing to do, and part of it is, what is comedy? What was funny in 1940 might not be today.

Mr. Michaels: Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. But almost invariably, subjectivity ends at the point when people laugh or they don’t laugh. If it’s really trying hard to get a laugh and it doesn’t, you can’t argue that they’re enjoying it. You can do that in a drama and you can do that in a sort of action picture. But with comedy, either they laugh or they don’t laugh, and there’s a certain clarity to that.

Sometimes you go, “They laughed, but it’s the wrong kind of laugh.” Because there’s going to be an aftertaste to it, where people are going to say, “I don’t think that was funny.” And you could show them the videotape where they laughed, but you know that they didn’t like the idea that they laughed, or they felt tricked into it, or it wasn’t the right kind of laugh. So you’re constantly looking for laughs that are clean and honest, and that make people feel great about the experience.

TVWeek: Any way to describe the kind of comedy you’re trying to achieve on “SNL”?

Mr. Michaels: Hopefully it’s smart. It can be high or low comedy but hopefully it’s got some intelligence to it. A political joke on “Update” will be different from “Corksoakers”-you know, the wine cork sketch. There are sometimes things that you can’t believe they’re doing that, because it’s just dumb and funny, and there are other things that are razor-sharp and right on, and a political debate, you know?

TVWeek: Speaking of people who are great at judging talent, Bernie Brillstein is one of my favorite people on the planet, and you’ve been with him …

Mr. Michaels: From the beginning, or relatively the beginning. First of all, he loves show business, as do I. And he’s very, very smart, very wise, and very clear about what’s really going on. Very often people are saying this but they mean that. He just has a real sense of how to navigate very choppy seas in show business-that is, really good instincts about people.

TVWeek: And he, like you, gets really intertwined in the lives of people who pass through.

Mr. Michaels: Oh, totally.

TVWeek: It must be very hard when it doesn’t work out the way you want.

Mr. Michaels: Or when you have to show up for Chris Farley’s star on Hollywood Boulevard and Chris Farley’s not showing up (Editor’s note: Mr. Farley died several years earlier).

TVWeek: What did that feel like?

Mr. Michaels: I didn’t go. Bernie went, but it was hard for him, I’m sure.

TVWeek: Do you find that after a while you kind of want to keep it at arm’s length, emotionally?

Mr. Michaels: I think it was a more confusing period for me when we were all peers. I think it’s less so now. Like when John Belushi-he died two years after he left “Saturday Night” or three years after he left, he was not really in my orbit at that point. But when Chris Farley showed the first signs of trouble, he was in rehab in a matter of days. We just don’t have that problem anymore because there’s a greater awareness of what the problems are. And you can spot it much earlier if somebody’s behaving self-destructively.

TVWeek: What has “SNL” meant for you in terms of what you’ve been able to do, what you’ve been able to accomplish professionally?

Mr. Michaels: I think it’ll end up-it probably already is-my life’s work. At the end of the first season, the Emmys were in June and I won three Emmys-one for a Lily Tomlin show that I’d written the year before-and I thought, “Well, this is the championship season.” I’d written everything I ever wanted to write at least twice in that season, and I thought, “Well, I should get out now because it’ll never be better than this.” And of course, that feeling was wrong.

I didn’t leave for a number of other reasons, mostly because everybody there I had asked to be there. I hired everyone individually for that first group, those years, and they all signed five-year contracts. I didn’t have a five-year contract, but it would have been sort of cowardly to leave, I think. So I stayed, and I’ve never regretted it.

TVWeek: You’ve done outside stuff too.

Mr. Michaels: Yeah, a lot of movies, almost 20 I think.

TVWeek: So how has NBC’s merger with Universal affected you?

Mr. Michaels: Only positively. Ron Meyer (president and chief operating officer of Universal Studios), who I know a little bit, has been incredibly supportive. The comforting thing is they’re also in show business. You don’t have to explain anything to him.

TVWeek: This is a hard thing to do, but if you were going to pick your all-star team of some of the talent you’ve worked with over the years, who are your candidates?

Mr. Michaels: I’d rather you picked the all-star team than me. They’re all my children.

TVWeek: You’ve seen network television change tremendously in the time that you’ve been there …

Mr. Michaels: I think if networks had been able to run against cable, they would have shored up their own identity. I think there’s a strong cable influence on network now, and that’s not necessarily beneficial. There’s a real strong tradition in broadcasting and what a network show should and can be. I think when you lose that, when you try to compete with cable on cable terms, it’s a losing strategy.

TVWeek: Especially if you’re trying to compete with cable and you’re not on an even playing field.

Mr. Michaels: If people were just interested in bad language, there are lots of places they can find that. I think there’s the show “Entourage” on HBO that’s close to being a show that could be on a network. It’s funny, good and interesting; the characters are good, the storytelling’s good.

TVWeek: Since the Janet Jackson/FCC thing, have you felt any impact?

Mr. Michaels: Since 1975 I’ve been making the point that we’re on at 11:30. And also, when there’s difficulty with a piece or we’re worried about it,
it’ll go on after midnight.

TVWeek: The battles with the censors in the early days used to be legend. Does that still go on?

Mr. Michaels: To some degree. Not as much because the world changed so much. Although, in the reverse, there were lots of things we could do in the ’70s that we can’t do now. Sensibilities changed. We can’t do “News for the Hard of Hearing.” It would be making fun of the handicapped.

TVWeek: Did you ever find that the restrictions of broadcast TV actually fired creativity?

Mr. Michaels: Yeah. For me, I believe that there’s no creativity without boundaries. If you want to write a sonnet, it’s 14 lines. You can write one that’s nine lines, but it’s not a sonnet. I think that the fact that we have to work within the bounds of commercial television just forces us to figure it out.

TVWeek: Maybe for comedy it worked better because the restrictions become something to run against.

Mr. Michaels: Exactly, and also, you can’t sit and write anything you want, because it’s almost impossible to do that. It’s too big a task. This adds structure.

TVWeek: Do you feel that the show has reflected society over the years?

Mr. Michaels: I think so. I think when it does it’s very successful; when it doesn’t it’s less successful. … “Weekend Update” works best when they like the people doing it. They loved Chevy, they love Tina Fey, so that’s all working. They loved Tina and Jimmy (Fallon) and I think they love Tina and Amy (Poehler).

TVWeek: You’ve been through many hosts, and I won’t ask you to name specific ones, but what do you look for in a host now?

Mr. Michaels: Sometimes there’s a level of want-to-see because at that moment it’s a person who the country wants to see. There are people who are just funny, who you do it because you think they’re just funny. Like the lead in “Napoleon Dynamite,” John Heder, is doing a second show this year. Whereas most people won’t know who he is, the audience that does know who he is, who love that movie, consider him really important. I think it’s important for us that we have someone like that on the show. Then at the same time, the show after him will be Catherine Zeta-Jones, who needs no introduction. And the show after her is Lance Armstrong.

TVWeek: So now here’s a guy who does a good job riding a bike but has no known sense of humor …

Mr. Michaels: Well, we’re not talking about him being a regular.

TVWeek: So you can just play off him for one show?

Mr. Michaels: Yeah, and whether it’s him or Donald Trump, whoever, there are lots of people-Derek Jeter-and they end up doing pretty good shows.

TVWeek: Is there anything you’d like to be able to do with the show that you haven’t been able to do yet?

Mr. Michaels: No, I’d just like to keep doing it for a lot longer, because I have a daughter in the second grade.

TVWeek: In terms of other goals or other things you’d like to do, is there anything else to share with me?

Mr. Michaels: I’m one of those people about whom it can be said my life worked out pretty well. I got to do most of what I wanted to do.

I never leave the studio thinking, “Well, this one was great.” I tend to have the kind of mind that only sees the mistakes. And whereas in the first five or six years it took me days to shake it off, now, by Monday I’m back into, “Well, we’ve got another show to do.”

When it doesn’t work, you wear it. And to the extent that you’re only as good as your last show, it’s very true in live television, because a bad show leaves a real bad taste in everyone’s mouth when it doesn’t work. The odds on it working, they’re about the same each week. You go, “What? I can’t believe we had all those elements and they didn’t come together.” Or we didn’t think it was coming together and then it did.

TVWeek: To what do you attribute the longevity of the show, ultimately?

Mr. Michaels: I think people took it to their hearts. I think it meant a lot to the people in the ’70s. I think they stayed loyal to it, and then I think their children stayed loyal to it, and it became … I don’t know. I go in as if each season is the last. I never really take it for granted, so I don’t know. On some level I think what we do is important. As long as I feel that, I’m going to be there.