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Guest Commentary: Michaels Is the Man When Show’s in Trouble

Sep 28, 2008  •  Post A Comment

In the wake of an incredibly strong showing by the sitcom “30 Rock” at the Primetime Emmy Awards last week, it’s worth remembering that a few short years ago, heads were being scratched all over town as to why NBC executives would order up two pilots both set backstage at a comedy show, particularly when one of them was being penned by none other than the vaunted Aaron Sorkin.
The wonderment only increased after the pilots were completed: Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” boasted a stellar cast and sharp dialogue; the “30 Rock” pilot was pronounced DOA by many of those who saw it.
Likewise, it would be perfectly understandable to look at “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” now and forget that O’Brien nearly didn’t make it past his first trimester. NBC came very close to firing him. During those not-so-funny first months, there were two basic schools of thought on O’Brien: He should be yanked off the air immediately, or he should be offered the most limited of contracts (less than three months) until a replacement could be found.
Today, of course, “30 Rock” is swimming in Emmys, including comedy series and actress for Fey, while O’Brien is set to move into none other than Johnny Carson’s chair, replacing Jay Leno next May.
Ratings aside, there is no greater measure of success for either show. Both have traveled far beyond even the most optimistic expectations that anyone could have had when they first stumbled out of their starting gates.
How did all this come about? In the former case, it certainly helped to have not only Fey but also Alec Baldwin aboard. As for “Late Night,” neither O’Brien nor his executive producer Jeff Ross ever should have been counted out.
But these two shows have one more important thing in common: The connective tissue between them, and the key to their dramatic rebirths, is Lorne Michaels. It’s not over-reaching to say that without Michaels, neither show would be where it is today. He isn’t a miracle-worker—but he comes darn close.
Being a mogul with a rich development deal at NBC certainly helped get Michaels his second chances, you might say, but that belies the fact that virtually every year there are wobbly pilots that get retooled because a studio or a network believes enough in the executive producer to throw more money or time at the project with the hopes that the show will be carried to some higher level. Many of those attempts fall flat; sometimes a great team has a great idea yet still can’t deliver a great television show.
A better explanation lies in Michaels’ DNA as creator and executive producer of “Saturday Night Live.” After being launched in 1975 and surviving many a cry for its extermination, “SNL” is still on the air in 2008—first and foremost because Michaels may be the best producer in television when it comes to never giving up and making the unworkable work.
Michaels has stayed at the forefront of recasting, redeveloping and reappraising “SNL” from the second-ever show—when the network hated “the bee sketch” so much that Michaels was told to kill it forever (he ignored the network and did it again the very next week, and it was much improved)—to the challenge of going into season two without cover-boy Chevy Chase, who’d been quickly acclaimed the most popular cast member, to virtually every few years from 1985 on, when somebody somewhere has continued to long loudly for the show’s good old days.
Michaels knows success comes to those who stay calm under fire—he is the master of calm and cool—and he never lets the writers or the cast think the game is over. Thus he is always willing to look at a sketch, a writer or a cast member from a different angle. Case in point: Conan, as well as Tina Fey, were both writers on “Saturday Night Live,” and it’s fair to say neither was being hounded by agents or networks to transition into acting. It was Michaels who made the risky but brilliant decision to put both of them on camera.
That’s why every time there has been a “Dead From New York” reference in some critic’s review of the first show of a new season, Michaels has had the last laugh.
Lorne Michaels, king of the turn-arounds, certainly deserves to be laughing now.
James Andrew Miller is the co-author with Tom Shales of “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of ‘Saturday Night Live’” and was the executive VP of original programming at USA Network.

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