A Rare Glimpse Inside the Empire of 'SNL's' Lorne Michaels
"God this is scary. F---!" Helen Mirren is standing in the doorway of a cramped conference room on the 17th floor of NBC's celebrated 30 Rockefeller Center, staring in surprise at a sea of producers, performers and writers who are overflowing the tiny space.
Around 70 men and women, many dressed in hoodies and jeans, are gathered at a large wooden table, on which plates of fruit slices and sandwiches sit half-eaten. With three days to go before showtime, much of the talent is exhausted on this Wednesday afternoon -- hardly surprising given that several of them, including head writer and Weekend Update anchor Seth Meyers, haven't left the building since the previous afternoon.
Within moments, Mirren has joined them at the table and is preparing for the Saturday Night Live read-through, which has been held at 30 Rock every show week since the program first aired in fall 1975. In any other setting, the Oscar winner would be the center of attention. But not here. One of the writers glances at an empty chair right next to Mirren, knowing that the person who matters most is the one who will soon fill it.
At 4:25 p.m., silver-haired and dressed in a comfortable V-neck sweater and khakis, Lorne Michaels, SNL's creator and executive producer, eases into the room without fuss or fanfare. He takes his seat next to Mirren, and immediately the group plunges into the first sketch, a spoof of the Fox News morning show Fox & Friends, with Mirren playing a convincing redneck.
In the intense four hours that follow, which are broken up by only one 15-minute break, Michaels gives no comment, no direction and almost no reaction, speaking only to read stage directions for each sequence, always in a hushed monotone. If he likes or dislikes what he hears, he says nothing, revealing only the occasional smirk or frown.
By 6:15, the first half of the read-through is over. The crowd quickly disperses, and Michaels leaves the room as invisibly as he entered.
If Johnny Carson was NBC's king of late-night, Michaels has become its all-powerful Oz -- the network's most prolific behind-the-scenes operator and shrewd judge of talent, who has launched more Hollywood stars than anyone since Louis B. Mayer in his heyday: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Dana Carvey, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, David Spade, Chris Rock, Conan O'Brien, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Jimmy Fallon, Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis -- just to name a few.
"He put me on TV, and no one else would have done that," says Fey, who's been followed by other breakout SNL female stars like Poehler and Maya Rudolph and writers such as Emily Spivey. Fey even devotes an entire chapter of her new book, Bossypants, to honoring Michaels' impact on her career: "Lorne created a show that's impacted culture for over 35 years. No one has ever really successfully been able to replicate it."
Michaels' legacy as New York's most important figure in comedy is undeniable. Since SNL first aired in 1975, he has demanded that "funny" should always provoke, never pander and sometimes just be wacky for wacky's sake. But his tastes have always stayed contemporary, never clinging to antiquated sensibilities of the comedy giants he idolized as a child. He featured short films by Albert Brooks in SNL's first season; today, SNL's digital shorts are arguably the highlight of every episode. He demanded that NBC let Richard Pryor, then comedy's most inflammatory voice, host the show; in 2010, he listened to fans who demanded via Facebook that Betty White be given her shot as host of television's most enduring comedy show.
At any given moment in American culture -- whether it's a Sandler film opening to big numbers, Ferrell guest-starring on The Office, Fey's latest book becoming an instant best-seller, a bored office worker watching, for the 26th time, the Emmy-winning SNL digital short D--- in a Box on YouTube or O'Brien reinventing himself as basic cable's newest comedy mascot -- Michaels' grasp over the business and pop culture has never felt more formidable.
"Lorne has had a seismic impact on comedy, but in my opinion his legacy, very simply, is that he has good taste," says O'Brien, whom Michaels elevated from SNL writer to host of his own late-night venture in 1993 (when Michaels' deal with NBC gave him the right to name the host of Late Night) and whom he counseled when O'Brien's run at The Tonight Show went down in flames. "All producers want success, but it's rare to find one who wants success on his own terms. He's a very well-read, good-mannered man who doesn't want his work to embarrass him."
Michaels also has been a crucial corporate player at NBC, where he is not only an executive producer on 30 Rock and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon but also a trusted adviser whose value has increased following Jeff Zucker's exit and replacement by Steve Burke as CEO of NBCUniversal.
"He was enormously respected by [former NBC chairman] Bob Wright," says former NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield. "Comcast really knows how to read a map, and if you look at the successes at NBC Entertainment, you have to point to Lorne Michaels. I am confident that is not lost on them."
Notes Michaels: "I've never actually been an NBC employee, but I think of myself as one. I've been here most of my life."
At 66, he is both corporate and uncorporate; a man who can feel comfortable in a Prada suit or khakis; a man who has counseled the highest echelons of NBC power, yet who feels beholden to nothing except the rigor of creating comedy -- and the occasional glance at ratings.
"He's perceived as highbrow, snobbish," Fallon says. "But that's the type of character that's been created for him. There was a great cold-opening bit that Steve Martin did once on SNL, where Lorne is getting his portrait painted in the hallway and drinking red wine. Lorne plays into the image that's been created for him; he gets the joke."
Joke or not, Michaels has made tough decisions to protect his image, including turning down the opportunity to make "a lot of money" hosting an Apprentice-style series for NBC. "It was the Scott Sassa era at NBC, and they wanted me to do a Trump thing," he recalls. "I would have liked the money, but I didn't want to be 'that.' I can't have cameras in here between dress and air. I need that freedom."
He has newer projects on his slate, like producing an NBC pilot with former SNL writer Spivey starring Rudolph, Christina Applegate and Will Arnett, and My Mother's Curse, a feature he's producing starring Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen. He also launched the quirky Fred Armisen vehicle Portlandia for IFC, recently renewed for a second season, and still works with Fey as an executive producer on 30 Rock.
But Michaels says SNL is his life and his legacy -- and he runs it with a ferocious authority that's a stark contrast to the mellow manner he exhibits.
One writer describes the "sweatshop and anxiety" of working on SNL. Others, like Larry David, have abruptly quit the show when their work wasn't used. (In David's case, not a single sketch he created made it to the air.)
And yet it's all helped Michaels achieve a legendary track record in television. As Jay, Dave and Jimmy fight viewer erosion, SNL is up 15 percent in ratings this season over last, with an average of 7.4 million viewers each week. What show can boast 126 Emmy nominations and 28 wins? What show helped sway an election, as SNL arguably did in 2008 with Fey's dead-on lampooning of Sarah Palin?
Michaels is responsible for all of this, and he knows it. It's quite a turnaround for a man one NBC executive remembers from his scrappy upstart years.
"He was an out-of-work comic from Canada and would sit and talk about comedy," recalls the executive, who knew Michaels in his mid-20s. "He was just an unkempt, funny, wanna-please guy."
Michaels' Other Gigs
- My Mother's Curse
Producer of the 2012 Paramount feature starring Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand
- Untitled Emily Spivey Project
Exec producer of the NBC pilot starring Christina Applegate
Exec producer of Fred Armisen's IFC sketch series
- Late Night With Jimmy Fallon
Exec producer of the show formerly hosted by Conan O'Brien
- 30 Rock
Exec producer of Tina Fey's 5-year-old Emmy winner on NBC
Born Lorne David Lipowitz to a furrier father, the oldest of three kids growing up in Toronto, Michaels' closest connection to show business came through his grandparents, who owned a movie theater.
He idolized comic greats like Sid Caesar but says his comedic aspirations were relegated mostly to youthful shenanigans. "I liked making my friends laugh and did sketches for a talent show in 10th grade," he says. "But I don't think I thought about a comedy career. I actually wanted to direct The Graduate."
After studying English at the University of Toronto, Michaels landed at the Canadian Broadcasting Co., where he developed The Hart & Lorne Terrific Hour. "I really thought I'd be the first generation of Canadians to stay in Canada," he reflects. "But they're never comfortable with you staying. They liken it to, 'If you're so good, why are you here?' " So he left and moved to Los Angeles, soon landing writing jobs on NBC's The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show and Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.
In 1974, NBC president Herb Schlosser needed to fill a late-night comedy void on Saturdays, so he turned to two young men: Michaels, then 30, and executive Dick Ebersol, 27. "Barry Diller, who was then at Paramount, called me and said, 'This is a very good guy,' " says Schlosser, who admits all he had in mind was a live, New York-based comedy show that would be a younger-skewing version of The Tonight Show. "Lorne was talented and well-liked" -- and he had deep comedy connections.
Over three weeks at L.A.'s Chateau Marmont hotel, Ebersol and Michaels hashed out the latter's blueprint for what would become the very model of the modern variety show: high-concept sketches, political satire, news spoofs, short films and exclusive music performances.
By 1975, Michaels had assembled an ace talent roster -- nicknamed the "Not Ready for Primetime Players" -- that included future comedy icons such as John Belushi, Chase, Aykroyd and Gilda Radner. Collectively, they embodied the anti-authority sensibilities of post-Watergate America.
"There was a lot of noise, a lot of 'You can't do that on television,' " says Michaels, referring to NBC brass' increased reservations before the first show aired. "But the numbers came in Sunday morning, and they were positive."
Michaels is sitting in his 17th-floor office now. (The older of the two he keeps at 30 Rock, this office is the one he uses earlier in the week.) Michaels reflects how SNL instantly became part of the cultural zeitgeist as, just outside the door, three young women are monitoring a row of Mac laptops and one of Fey's publicists breezes past, talking about her client's wardrobe for an SNL reunion on Oprah. The phones ring constantly.
He sits in an armchair, looking spring chic, comfortable and relaxed. With his close-cropped hair, navy slacks and striped shirt, he's a long way from the guy he was in the 1970s -- shaggier mane, Hawaiian shirts and comedy-rebel affect.
Behind him on the wall are two giant corkboards with SNL's 2010-11 season mapped out in notecards -- yellow for the date, green for the host and pink for the musical guest. A white mug that sits on a table near his desk reads, "World's Funniest Boss," which pairs nicely with a sign on the wall that warns, "The Captain's Rule Is Law."
It's astonishing to think that Michaels has captained this ship for more than 35 years (minus a short break in the early '80s). It's due partly to a piercing eye for talent, having compiled perhaps the most remarkable gathering of comics outside of Caesar's Your Show of Shows or the near-contemporaneous Monty Python's Flying Circus. But it's also his innate Canadian-ness: an unruffled quality that allowed him to rein in an anarchic crowd, many experimenting with alcohol and drugs, whose antics would reach their nadir with Belushi's death from a drug overdose in 1982.
"The only way you can really deal with creative people is with very loose reins," Michaels says. "It's been that way from the beginning of the show. You don't want someone standing over your shoulder saying, 'Why are you writing this?' "
The people who work for him have a different perspective.
"You'd be shocked," SNL regular Armisen says. "He even comments about the paint on the walls."
Adds Fallon, of his own show: "He's there almost every day, at 5 p.m., asking me: 'Can you cut this down? Do you really need this one?' He's obsessed with detail, even down to the words 'the' and 'with.' "
Michaels' need for creative control was such that he once resigned during SNL's first season when the network refused to allow Pryor to host. (It relented, and so did Michaels.) Then he resigned again in 1980, this time for five years. "The network was going through an upheaval," he explains, noting that SNL was "no longer a priority for the network" and that NBC had fired almost everyone associated with the show. "I was burned out from holding it together for five years. The idea of completely blowing it up and starting over again without adequate perspective or rest [was too difficult]. So I left."
He says he never watched the show during that protracted hiatus. "Not out of disrespect … it was just too emotional," he says.
Away from SNL, Michaels built a house in Amagansett, East Hampton. He made concert movies with Neil Young and his friend Paul Simon, along with Three Amigos!, a modest hit he wrote with Martin and Randy Newman. He was rich, he was established, and he had friends like Martin and Paul McCartney. But the show he had made, and that had also made him, was gone from his life.
SNL floundered under producer Jean Doumanian. Then, in 1985, NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff called Michaels and said he might have to cancel the show if he didn't come back. Michaels agreed to return.
"It was the child he created 35 years ago," Littlefield says. "So he made the decision never to leave the child again."
It's Friday night on the eighth floor of 30 Rock, and typical end-of-week activity is brewing.
Cast member Kristen Wiig is sitting inside the, well, wig room, and eating a salad ordered from a local deli. Just outside the door is a collection of head molds from previous shows that say, in bold letters, names like Ferrell and Jon Hamm. They are odd little creations custom-made for hosts to allow for constant tweaking of hairpieces when talent is otherwise unavailable throughout the week.
In an adjacent hallway, Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl is chasing his young daughter, Violet, down the hall and runs into cast member Bill Hader, with whom he swaps tales of fatherhood. Two-year cast member Abby Elliott chats with a production assistant, who asks for her parents' most current address so he might send them an end-of-season show invite. (Elliott's father is mid-1990s cast member Chris Elliott; she is the first SNL talent legacy.) Other workers shuttle set pieces in and out of the studio, with one wondering aloud to the other: "Wait, is Dame Judi Dench or Dame Helen Mirren hosting? I get them confused." Nearby, a dutiful PA writes cue cards for one of the dozen sketches they will prep for dress rehearsal tomorrow night. In its 36-year history, SNL has never used teleprompters.
Just upstairs, Michaels is sitting on a couch inside his ninth-floor office, which appropriately looms large over Studio 8H, visible below through a large window. He's recently returned from having dinner with his wife, Alice, and their daughter. The couple also has a son in high school and another in college, but Michaels declines to comment further on his private life. He reveals only that he "lives near the park."
Leaving work on a Friday night for dinner with his family is a signal that Michaels has learned to temper his workaholic tendencies.
"I'm certainly at a stage in life, and have been for a while, where you know what's important," says Michaels, admitting he "doesn't have hobbies," but enjoys traveling to Europe and spending time in the country when SNL isn't in production. "So you figure it out. I think the nocturnal thing [is hard] for them -- realizing their father isn't like other fathers. But they're OK with it."
Tonight Michaels will meet again with head writer and Weekend Update anchor Meyers, confer one more time with Mirren and check in at least a dozen times with his three female assistants (a collective station that, back in the day, carried the mantle "The Lornettes").
Staring at the giant bowl of popcorn on his coffee table -- which has been a show-week staple since the early years -- he reflects on the impossible task before him. If he had more time to get the show right, he would. He's a relentless perfectionist, but the pragmatist in him holds sway.
"We don't go on because we're ready; we go on because it's 11:30," he says. "But the cast is unbelievably disciplined and dying to get out there. There's something magical about this building, and I think the audience feels it."
It's Saturday night -- finally -- around 10:30 p.m., and dozens of audience members are waiting inside the hallway between the eighth-floor elevators and Studio 8H. The narrow space serves as a veritable comedy museum, with head shots of each of the 150 or so SNL cast members lining the wall. The sight at once evokes feelings of sadness (Phil Hartman, Chris Farley), nostalgia (Chase, Myers) and "They were on SNL?" epiphanies (Randy Quaid, Robert Downey Jr.).
At 11:20 p.m., Michaels is on the stage and huddling one last time with veteran director Don Roy King while an Oval Office set is put in place, complete with an official-looking White House rug. Michaels chose this, not the Fox News spoof, to launch the show, in order to riff on the government shutdown that never was. It's one of seven sketches that survived out of the 40 or so developed since Monday, not including a digital short and other pretaped segments.
Careful and reserved until now, Michaels is the loosest he has seemed all week, chatty and even joking with the cast and crew. He's in his element: not among the corporate titans, not in meetings or negotiations, but among the performers he loves.
At 11:25 p.m., he shakes the hand of Armisen, who's camera-ready now in his Obama suit and makeup and seated at the Oval Office desk set piece. Michaels then leaves the stage to take his seat in a director's chair directly below the studio bleachers, where he will watch, study, grouse, advise, complain and maybe even laugh a few times over the next 90 minutes.
He says it used to take him two or three days to shake off the show because he's so critical of his work. But Michaels says he's gotten better at just enjoying it.
"Sunday is never a great day. I usually walk in the park," he admits. "You're still living through it. But on Monday, there is a new host in my office, and you start all over again. There's always a chance of redemption."
The host of Michaels' Late Night, Fallon brings in nearly 2 million viewers a night with the same clean-cut hipness he used to host last year's Emmys.
The nine-year SNL alum hit solid numbers with Parks and Recreation this year (5 million a week) and deserved Emmy buzz for her nerd matriarch, Leslie Knope.
He's an indie-film icon now, but Murray's post-SNL incarnation was as topliner of the 1980s' biggest films, with box-office earnings of more than $1.4 billion.
He headlined Michaels' top-grossing film to date -- Wayne's World -- and has brought in more than $2 billion at the box office thanks largely to New Line's juggernaut Austin Powers trilogy.
The first SNL player to exit Studio 8H, Chase was an instant movie star in comedies like Vacation and Fletch. His films have earned a total of $997 million.
The Emmy-winning creator, writer and star of 30 Rock has also aced at the movies -- with such hits as Michaels' Mean Girls, which she wrote, and Baby Mama -- earning more than $427 million total at the box office.
He has raked in more than $1 billion at the box office in films like Anchorman, and is adding bittersweet hilarity to Steve Carell's exit from The Office in a four-episode arc.
The former SNL writer credits Michaels for his career and remains a popular commodity -- albeit now on basic cable -- for the more than 1 million fans who still tune in.
He was the first big star of the 1990s and has brought in more than $2 billion in receipts for films like The Waterboy, Big Daddy and 2010's Grown Ups, featuring SNL alums David Spade, Chris Rock and Rob Schneider.
The Rules of Engagement star parlayed his SNL stint into a modest film career -- including a co-starring role in Michaels' 1995 hit Tommy Boy -- and a string of TV gigs including six years on NBC's Just Shoot Me.
The comedian has enjoyed respectable movie success, a four-year run as executive producer of the CW's Everybody Hates Chris and, most impressively, a still-thriving stand-up career.
He spent four years on SNL before becoming its second-highest-grossing alum -- $2.4 billion, behind Eddie Murphy -- thanks in large part to voice-over work in such films as Antz and Yogi Bear.