Bill Carter on Covering 'SNL' and Lorne Michaels: "Many Lost Their Minds in Pursuit" of His Approval
Writing for THR, with insight from Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey and Conan O'Brien, the longtime New York Times writer recounts 40 years of covering the show and its brash producer's bravado, taste and power over his talent.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
I first encountered Lorne Michaels during Saturday Night Live's first year on the air. I had just started writing about television for The Baltimore Sun a few weeks before the show's premiere in October 1975, and I had the good sense to recognize it immediately as a breakthrough program — "the best thing NBC has done this year," I wrote. That was hardly a genius assessment; television in the mid-'70s, with some exceptions, was consistently wretched. SNL provided a jolt of excitement, as though NBC had attached shock paddles to the television business.
Nobody knew much about TV producers in that era except Roone Arledge, who had his name plastered across every ABC Sports broadcast. Within weeks of the launch of SNL, its 30-year-old producer was a celebrity, the man who managed to bring the iconoclastic humor of the '60s generation to network television. Lorne also was a sometime presence on SNL, even before that April 1976 show when he famously appeared and offered The Beatles $3,000 to perform three songs on the show ("If you want to give Ringo less, that's up to you").
Michaels was exalted enough, even at that early stage, to have little need to chat up a TV-beat journalist not long out of college. Except for one thing: The NBC station in Baltimore had pre-empted SNL that first year. About a third of NBC's stations did, likely because a live comedy show stocked with what looked like bomb-throwing revolutionaries did not instill enthusiasm in a bunch of middle-aged station managers. I was forced to watch that first season through snowy interference, wrestling with a pair of rabbit ears until the antenna could locate the signal of the NBC station in Washington. Filled with righteous outrage, I began a campaign to shame WBAL in Baltimore into carrying what I called "the most innovative piece of television entertainment this year." (After one season, it worked.)
Michaels needed to get station clearances up fast or face ratings doom. So he agreed to talk to me — initially on the phone. One thing he said illustrated how sure he was of his mission: "When we do well, we do the best comedy on TV. That's not ego; that's just the way it is."
Subsequently, Lorne agreed to have me up to New York to meet with him and spend a few days watching the show being stitched together. Having observed the process on several occasions since, it is striking how much has remained intact for four decades: one day of intense writing; another of blocking and set-building; a table read with a guest host; two days of run-throughs; a dress rehearsal; and, finally, "Live from New York!"
That's one reason Michaels is given so much personal credit for the phenomenon of Saturday Night Live. He conceived a supremely effective formula, perhaps the only one that successfully could have sustained a live sketch-comedy/music show inside a landmark skyscraper, housed in a retrofitted radio studio originally built for a symphony orchestra. Even today, if you hang out in the narrow hallway outside Studio 8H when the show is in progress, you take your life in your hands from all of the castmembers, makeup artists, wig fitters, technicians and stagehands flying by, as well as the hulking sections of sets being shoved past you on dollies. And that has nothing to do with supervising the writing and performing and the periodic demands of recasting the thing. The show was, and is, a production marvel. "That's Lorne as Einstein — the formula was his E = MC2," says Jimmy Fallon, one of the dozens and dozens of breakout stars and writers Michaels has birthed.
At our first meeting, Lorne was thoroughly intimidating. He was, after all, the embodiment of '60s counterculture: TV producer as rock star. His hair was longish, dark and fashionably flyaway; he favored Hawaiian shirts, corduroy jackets and jeans. (During recent years, I only have seen him wearing designer suits, an eminence in tightly cropped silver hair.) The Lorne of the mid-'70s was both a hip presence and a detached conversationalist. His comments were carefully measured, though he frequently was as deadpan funny as his on-air persona. Your instant sense was that this was a man who did not suffer fools — peremptorily. And his attitude conveyed that he was encountering far too many fools.
Guest host Ron Nessen, the White House press secretary (left), and Michaels (right) in 1976 with (background, from left) Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Garrett Morris
What stood out most was his unflappable self-confidence. It seems obvious now that without it, a kid from Canada with a thin résumé in American television never could have convinced NBC — or Dick Ebersol, the young NBC executive who insisted Michaels be hired as producer — to hand him 90 minutes of network airtime three Saturdays a month, nor wrangled groundbreaking work out of a writing staff and cast stocked with wildly idiosyncratic talent.
In that first interview, Lorne was generous with his time, clearly precious during a production week. Assistants and NBC PR executives hovered like anxious drones; Lorne didn't seem to hear the buzzing. At one point he described how the show worked: "The incredible part is, the very fact that there is so little time means there is this incredible discipline — no matter what the fights are during the week. I mean, you'll find somebody yelling at somebody else here at any given moment. That's what makes the show exciting. When everyone likes everyone else, when everyone is smiling, then you have The Tonight Show."
Boom. Michaels, riding high on the adulation SNL quickly had attracted, regularly conveyed the message that his show was the hip and unruly upstart, not intended for the Johnny Carson generation. I witnessed the show's male castmembers wandering the halls between run-throughs like bulls outside the ring in Pamplona. John Belushi — smoking ferociously, wearing jeans with a hole through the entire crotch — looked like, if anyone approached him, he would, in the fashion of the show's famous opening sketch, "feed their fingertips to the wolverines."
Of course, Michaels now produces The Tonight Show himself, with Fallon, a popular host who has a smile for everyone. During the 1970s, Lorne might not have anticipated that development in his career — but you can never be sure. The empire he has built during the past 40 years, which now encompasses all three of NBC's big late-night franchises, is testament to his range, his work ethic and his epic-level ambition. Fallon likens him to a mythic figure: "He's like a dragon. Have you ever met a dragon? Well, I have. It's amazing to see one in real life."
Still, even with a résumé overflowing with movies and network and cable TV shows, Michaels never has wavered on his primary commitment. On the numerous occasions I have interviewed him through the years — maybe approaching three figures at this point — he has said some version of: "Saturday Night Live is always first, before anything else."
The fights and friction — and the danger — of the early days have become rare during recent years. SNL is more iconic than iconoclastic now. Michaels is more often a warm presence, an engaging raconteur and showbiz savant. As I was leaving the night of Fallon's debut on Tonight in February 2014, I ran into Lorne in the 30 Rock lobby. He was saying goodbye to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, but he stopped me to introduce me to his wife, Alice. When I said it looked like he had managed another coup with Tonight, he looked chuffed, like a man aware of his long legacy who had dared himself again and pulled it off.
But if there is now a somewhat gentler version of the driven young visionary of the '70s, that does not mean writers and performers do not still experience the intimidation factor. Tina Fey felt it. "It was like The Paper Chase," she says. "People endowed Lorne with all this power. People wanted his approval in a personal way, but you literally needed his approval to get airtime — and many people lost their minds in pursuit of it." Indeed, as often as SNL has broken stars, it has left other performers broken. Michaels likes to say that until a performer is asked to stand on stage live in Studio 8H, nobody knows how good they really are.
"It is inherently built on competition and disappointment," says Fey. "It's a very competitive environment, which I always enjoyed because I have that part of myself. Lorne does step back and let things play out."
Conan O'Brien, who got his career break as an SNL writer, recalls being occasionally wrong-footed by Michaels' habit of walking by in the hallway and saying jovially, "Still with the show?" Says Seth Meyers, a former head writer whose Late Night also is under Lorne's aegis: "He is intimidating, but we had a feeling he was looking out for us. His door is still closed, but he'll open it for the right reasons."
What surely has not changed is the show's defining sensibility. Every participant can identify its wellspring. "It comes down to his taste and his personality and his trusting his instincts about what's funny," says Fey. Descriptions of the sensibility Michaels has imposed on SNL always include such words as taste, quality and intelligence. Michaels likes smart comedy, which means smart writers like Fey, who led the writing staff during one of its high periods in the 2000s. The credits always have been littered with Harvard-trained talent, including Jim Downey, O'Brien, Al Franken, Greg Daniels and current co-head writer Colin Jost. At times that has invited criticism from some who see too much of the Harvard Lampoon's brand of elitist comedy, a style that does not easily invite diversity. But the show never has been loath to plumb the depths of low comedy.
Michaels (left) and Mick Jagger backstage Feb. 15, 1986
Meyers says Michaels highly values intelligent comedy, but at table reads, "The stuff that really makes him cackle is the sort of silly comedy that has always worked on the show." (See "Wishin' Boot," from Jan. 24's Blake Shelton-hosted show.)
He also is a master manager, of his show and his bosses. NBC regimes have come and gone: RCA, General Electric, now Comcast. Michaels has navigated through all of them, as well as the ever-present threat of disaster.
Chaos is a weekly presence, often settling in during the 90 minutes between dress rehearsal and the live show. I was there the Saturday after the first presidential debate in 2012. The opening debate parody fell so flat at dress, Michaels considered scrapping it entirely, leaving him with no cold open. But in a series of short, intense meetings, he led the writers to a revise just good enough to survive.
Fallon recalls a night when a "Jarret's Room" sketch was seconds from going on live and a picture fell off a wall of the set. The crew was apoplectic: There was no time to nail it back in place. Michaels told them to throw a sheet over the wall. "It's a dorm room, after all," said Michaels, unconcerned.
Lorne has understandable pride of authorship in his creation. During the more fallow periods, when critics lament writing and performers not up to the "old days" and editors again dust off the headline "Saturday Night Dead," Michaels grimaces and rolls with it. He notes that the show rides out inevitable cycles — casts and writers change. His conclusion: Fans always believe the show was at its best when they were in high school.
He himself has realistic expectations: Some shows will be better than others. "It will never get there, never be as good as I am hoping it will be or people imagine it used to be," Michaels told me during a more recent interview. "But every week, even in the worst weeks, there's always been something I'm proud of."
Will he ever let go of it? Michaels, who turned 70 in November, frequently has said he wants to continue as long as he can — or until they shut down 30 Rock. Just about everyone who has worked on the show begs off any consideration of SNL with a different leader. Says Fey, "It should be up to him — if it would bring him happiness to continue without him or if he wants to turn the lights off." She adds adamantly, "But we're talking about 20 years from now."
O'Brien cannot fathom SNL without Lorne Michaels. "I think the show goes with him — and it should," he says. "There will be people who just don't understand: 'Hey, that's a great property — good name recognition. We could cut costs, get Skip Whitley in to produce, and it'll be just fine.' But if you've been on it, and you know Lorne isn't in the back of the restaurant at the corner table, testing the soup before it goes out, it's just not that restaurant anymore."
Bill Carter has covered television for more than 40 years, including from 1989 to 2014 for The New York Times.
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