Jean Doumanian Replaced Lorne, Discovered Eddie and Saved Woody, So Why Don't You Know Her Name?

The New York-based producer reflects on her escape from housewife boredom and the highs (choosing between running 'SNL' or Paramount's East Coast operations) and lows (being fired from 'SNL' after just 10 months at the top) of a half-century in showbiz (and counting).
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Jean Doumanian

She discovered Eddie Murphy and gave Prince one of his first big breaks. She saved Woody Allen’s career and produced eight of his films. And she’s helped to bring to life many of the most acclaimed theatrical productions of the 21st century, from August: Osage County to The Book of Mormon. Which raises the questions: How did Jean Doumanian — daughter of a Chicago restaurateur, college dropout, onetime housewife — become a show business Zelig (not one of her Allen collaborations), looming large over the pop-cultural landscape for a half-century, and why don’t more people know her name (which rhymes with Tasmanian)?

To be sure, part of the reason is the soft-spoken, paper-thin, elegant septuagenarian has, for decades, actively avoided the press, which she feels treated her unfairly during the most contentious period in her life: when, in 1980, she was hired to replace Lorne Michaels as top dog at Saturday Night Live, sparking a 10-month rollercoaster ride. 

When Jean Karabas was young, women weren’t running anything in show business — or business, the field she aspired to enter when she enrolled at the University of Illinois. During junior year, the pretty and charismatic young woman married John Doumanian, a Capitol Records promoter who wanted her home during the day. At night, she accompanied him to clubs to scout talent, and at one they hit it off with a quirky standup, Allen. Her husband became Allen’s road manager (he recently cameoed in Café Society) and she became Allen’s closest friend for the next four decades (they spoke daily, she was one of only five guests at Allen's 1966 wedding to his first wife Louise Lasser and he once saved her life by performing the Heimlich).

Not long after, Doumanian’s husband was offered a job in California and she was contacted by another comic who had come through Chicago and was drawn to her: Dick Cavett, who asked her to move to New York to become the talent coordinator for his new show. The Doumanians divorced — he went west, she east — and for the next three years she pre-interviewed Cavett guests, building a network of agents, publicists and talent that was second to none. (Joe DiMaggio was "smitten" with her, according to a forthcoming DiMaggio biography.)

When she left the show, she explored a career in PR. Power publicist Bobby Zarem, aware of her Rolodex, hired her to work with him at Rogers & Cowan and then at his own company. But soon another friend, Howard Cosell, came calling, along with exec Roone Arledge, offering a job as associate producer on their new ABC show: Saturday Night Live. She took it.

“We were trying to reinvent Ed Sullivan,” Doumanian explains. But the original SNL was canceled after just 17 episodes, at which point Michaels, whose NBC sketch show Saturday Night was just getting off the ground, acquired its title and hired Doumanian to be his associate producer, tasked with booking hosts and musical guests. She moved in to 30 Rock — “Lorne’s office was at one end, my office was at the other,” she recalls — and “sat in on everything — writing meetings and all of that — it was a good relationship.”

Doumanian wasn’t an obvious fit for SNL’s culture — she was a lady in a frat house — but she “had a good time and learned a lot.” Most importantly, Michaels trusted her. “One week we had a host drop out, and I kept pushing Steve Martin,” she says. “I don’t think anybody else watched him on The Tonight Show, but I watched him all the time and thought he was brilliant, and I went to Lorne and said, ‘Come on, you’ve got to put this guy on.’ Steve came on and it was a huge hit. Now he’s one of Lorne’s best friends.”

At the end of the 1979-80 season, Michaels, citing burnout, left the show, and Doumanian received two offers: Michael Eisner wanted her to run Paramount’s East Coast operations and dispatched Barry Diller and Jeffrey Katzenberg to make a deal; and NBC chief Brandon Tartikoff asked her to replace Michaels — but not to discuss the offer with anyone. She chose SNL. “I’d been with it for five years, knew all the mechanisms of it and thought it’d be fun to do,” she says. “I had to call Mike Eisner and say, ‘I’m sorry, I cannot accept your position.’ He couldn’t believe it and said, ‘Unless you’re going to be president of the United States, you’re making a mistake.’”

As it turns out, Eisner was right. Michaels quickly made it known that he was displeased with her hiring — he told the authors of the SNL oral history Live From New York this was because he regarded it as “a writer-based show,” but some say he wanted the show to end when he left and didn’t appreciate being kept in the dark by Doumanian. The few castmembers and writers who had planned to remain suddenly departed — “Nobody would accept any offers I made,” Doumanian recalls — so she had to quickly replace all of them. On top of which the network gave her an operating budget significantly lower than Michaels’.

Among her hires were Joe Piscopo, Denny Dillon and an 18-year-old Murphy. “We found [Murphy] at the Comedy Strip,” she recalls. “He came in to audition for me. The minute he walked in the door, he had star power.” The problem was she already had exhausted her budget, meaning she could only hire him as a featured player. Before long, though, “the network finally realized how talented he was,” and furnished the funds to make him a regular.

By that point, though, the show had been ruthlessly reviewed (“Saturday Night Dead”) and some writers had begun circulating petitions to get “Ayatollah Doumanian” fired. “I sensed it, of course I sensed it,” she says, adding, “You don’t hear from those writers anymore, do you? God has his way.” The final straw came when one of her hires, Charlie Rocket, said “f—” on the air, after which she was fired. “That was an excuse,” she insists. “I thought, ‘How could they do that to me?‘ I just thought it was quite unfair.”

Doumanian is proud of her time as SNL’s exec producer. “I did 12 shows,” she says. “I had A-listers. I put Prince on for the first time. I had James Brown on, Aretha Franklin on. Come on!” She adds, “If you look it up, my ratings were the same as the end of Lorne’s last season.” Her defenders include Bill Murray, who said in Live From New York, “They didn’t really give her a full shot.” In hindsight, she says she’d have done just one thing differently: “I should’ve turned it down and gone with Paramount.”

A few years later, Doumanian came to the aid of Allen, whose financiers dropped him after his relationship with Mia Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn became public. “I was lucky enough to have connections,” she says, referencing her longtime “significant other” Jacqui Safra, a member of a wealthy Swiss-Lebanese banking family. Over the next eight years, she and Safra made eight films with Allen, including Oscar-winning Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite. “I think we did the best movies he’s ever done,” she states. But in 2001, Allen sued their production company, alleging he’d been cheated out of millions in profits. The parties eventually settled, but the friendship was over. “We did a very big favor for someone who was a friend at the time, and saved him, I think,” she says, before refusing to discuss the painful topic further.

Ever since, Doumanian has, through Manhattan-based Jean Doumanian Productions, kept her toes in film and TV, while largely devoting herself to theater. She has an upcoming film (Una, starring Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn), TV series (Shrink, for NBC’s comedy subscription service Seeso) and off-Broadway production (Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theatre, which she helped to put on the map). And she has no plans to slow down anytime soon.

In February 2015, SNL hosted a big 40th anniversary celebration. Many were surprised when Doumanian showed up for it. “I didn’t want them somehow to erase me from the history of that show forever,” she explains, noting that Prince, who would be dead little more than a year later, waved off his bodyguards to give her a hug. “I saw everybody there,” she says.” I congratulated Lorne. It was a very nice evening.”

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