By Chuck Ross
“‘Saturday Night Live’ is more than just a television show,” TelevisionWeek columnist Tom Shales and co-author James A. Miller wrote in their 2002 best seller “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live.” “Since its premiere in 1975 the show has served as a trendsetter in American humor and has had a remarkable effect on American mores, manners, music, politics and even fashion.”
In their book, the authors quote Herb Schlosser, who was NBC Network president in 1975, as saying, “No matter what anyone else tells you, the guy who created the show, and what it is, is Lorne Michaels.”
Now, 30 years after “Saturday Night Live” first debuted, TelevisionWeek has the privilege of honoring Mr. Michaels with our 2005 Television Producer Lifetime Achievement Award.
The impact of “SNL” on American pop culture over the past three decades is inestimable. And, almost unbelievably, for all but five years (1980-85) of the show’s incredible run, Mr. Michaels has been at its helm.
In reading “Live From New York,” one discovers that those who have worked with Mr. Michaels over the years describe him as everything from a sweetheart to a man with no heart. The major impression one might take away from all the descriptions is that Mr. Michaels is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” It’s a line that one might think Woody Allen came up with-and appropriately so, since Mr. Michaels is said to be a big fan of Mr. Allen’s work-but, surprisingly, it was that old wit Winston Churchill who said it, in another context.
That those who have worked with Mr. Michaels over the years have such a wide range of opinions about him shouldn’t be surprising. Many of the most impressive icons in the history of TV-the ones, who, like Mr. Michaels, have made defining contributions, such as Lucille Ball and Ed Sullivan, William Paley and David Sarnoff-are also people who elicited a wide range of emotions and opinions from their colleagues and co-workers.
What is clear is that Mr. Michaels has had a vision and a persistence and consistency of getting that vision executed that has created one of the most influential programs ever shown on that most influential of media, television.
“SNL” director Dave Wilson told Mr. Shales and Mr. Miller about a renowned composer who, when asked by a reporter to describe Irving Berlin’s place in American music, responded, “Irving Berlin was American music.” That’s the way I feel about Lorne Michaels. Lorne Michaels is “Saturday Night Live.” He made it a legendary hit. And then he kept reinventing it to reflect the young audience’s tastes in topical comedy and popular music.
So, a toast to you, Lorne, for all that you have accomplished and a rousing hurrah for all of your colleagues who have given us, for the past 30 years, one of the great joys of television.