Saturday Night Live had so much success airing the final four episodes of its past season live coast-to-coast — something that the iconic NBC variety show never had done before in its 42-year history — that it may continue the practice when its new season begins this fall. There were "two significant reasons" for the experiment, the show's legendary creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels tells The Hollywood Reporter's "Awards Chatter" podcast as part of a wide-ranging interview, his first in a year. Speaking from his cozy 30 Rock office, with its window looking down onto fabled Studio 8H, from which SNL has always emanated (and where Tina Fey and the SNL band were rehearsing for a summer edition of Weekend Update), Michaels explains, "One was [NBC entertainment chief] Bob Greenblatt wanted it, and the other was that social media was so [focused] on the show that if you were following Twitter you were hearing about it before you could see it."
Now the experiment, which initially caused Michaels "standards fears" (due to airing in primetime in some markets that might not be receptive to its cutting-edge humor), may become permanent. "Yeah, I think it is," he says, noting that the shift worked for the ratings. "We had the same number that we'd had when we were doing the Palin-McCain-Obama thing." In fact, the May 20 finale, hosted by Dwayne Johnson, capped off a banner season — the show's most-watched in 23 years — with an impressive 8.3 million viewers. An SNL-record 22 Emmy nominations followed, tying the series with HBO's Westworld for the most of any program this year.
"Who had any idea that it was going to be this kind of season?" says Michaels, 72, who — along with everyone else — credits the show's handling of the 2016 election and its aftermath, and particularly Alec Baldwin's portrayal of President Donald Trump, for its plaudits. Of his 37th season with the series (he stepped away between 1980 and 1985), he relishes the fact that, as in some years past, the show became a part of the national conversation. He even reveals that SNL alum Al Franken, now a U.S. senator, "still calls in with ideas." This past season, Michaels says, "It had the same quality, for me, as the first season."
SNL occasionally might have looked as if it had it in for Trump, but Michaels is quick to note that when his fellow New Yorker hosted the show back in 2015, the future president was "completely polite and open to things" and, true to his reported solo decision-making style as president, "didn't have an entourage." That being said, "He definitely likes to keep control." Michaels notes that it was back during the early days of the primary season that he "sort of sensed that [Trump] was going to be the [eventual Republican] candidate," adding that it was Fey’s suggestion that he recruit Baldwin, his friend and frequent SNL host, to play the Republican opposite Kate McKinnon's "brilliant" Hillary Clinton. Baldwin reluctantly signed on, believing he was committing to just the five episodes before the November election. "There wasn’t anyone — particularly, in this building — that thought there was any chance [Trump would win]," Michaels admits. Now, for better or worse for the country and SNL, Trump doesn't appear to be going anywhere.
Michaels, who also serves as executive producer of The Peacock Network’s late-night programs The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night With Seth Meyers and of the IFC variety sketch series Documentary Now! and Portlandia, was born and raised in Canada, and first ventured into comedy at summer camps and during high school. He co-wrote, directed and performed in a revue featuring comedy and music while an undergrad at the University of Toronto. And, after graduating in 1966, he and his friend Hart Pomerantz went to work doing political satire for CBC Radio, and also wrote jokes on the side for other comedians, including Woody Allen, Dick Cavett and Joan Rivers. Michaels' first jobs in TV were writing for, appropriately enough, NBC variety shows — first The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show, and then, after it got canceled, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which was the highest-rated program on TV at the time, and for which Michaels received his first Emmy nomination, for writing, in 1969. Subsequently, he briefly returned to the CBC and then wrote for a couple of Lily Tomlin comedy specials, one of which, Lily, brought him his first Emmy win, for writing, in 1974.
That same year, when Michaels was just 29, his life — and the trajectory of comedy history — changed forever. Dick Ebersol, NBC’s newly appointed head of late-night, had been charged with filling a 90-minute block on the network’s Saturday evening schedule that had opened up when Johnny Carson, then the host of The Tonight Show, demanded that the network stop airing weekend reruns of his nightly late-night show so that they instead could be used when he took off weeknights. NBC initially intended to fill the time slot with a bunch of different TV pilots, the best of which might be picked up for primetime, and Ebersol asked Michaels to pitch one. Michaels proposed a variety show, and shortly thereafter, when the network abandoned the idea of a bunch of shows in favor of just one, Michaels’ was the one NBC gravitated towards. Herbert Schlosser, then the president of the network, "wanted a show to come from New York, very similar or in some way like the live television that had been so big a part of New York in the '50s," Michaels recalls. "I wasn't frightened of live."
The young, then-L.A.-based Michaels flew to New York and met with network suits, won their green light, relocated his life to the Big Apple and, on Oct. 11, 1975, nearly 42 years ago, oversaw the first broadcast of what, at the time, was called NBC’s Saturday Night; ABC had a show on the air at the time called Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell, but two years later, when that show was canceled, Michaels’ show was renamed Saturday Night Live. Of SNL's early days, Michael says, "We had all the ingredients; we just didn't have the recipe." Even so, he continues, "We came on as the No. 1 show and we've been No. 1 for the entire run. I think that there was something about establishing the fact that we were gonna be honest about what we did — and current. I mean, the people in the cast looked like the people on the street." The cast, in those days, were Michaels' contemporaries. "We were all peers. We were making it up as we went along. No one knew where it was leading." (Michaels confirms that, early on, he contemplated serving as the on-air host of "Weekend Update," which resembled a show he had done in Canada.)
Over the decades since, SNL has had its ups and downs. "We don't go on because we're ready, we go on because it's 11:30," Michaels says. But, throughout the show's run, it has showcased the work of incredibly talented people — folks like Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Chris Farley, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Norm Macdonald, Mike Myers, Molly Shannon, Darrell Hammond, Maya Rudolph, Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Tracy Morgan, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Franken, Fey and McKinnon — many of whom have gone on to do other remarkable things in showbiz. And some think that its biting satire has even swung presidential elections, such as the one in 2000 between Al Gore and George W. Bush. "It's nice to think that we have influence," Michaels says. "And I think, on some level, on some part of society, maybe we do." He adds, "Maybe it's what I have to believe, but I honestly believe, even in periods that were not celebrated, there's always something in the show that's worth watching."
Michaels seems to be quietly pleased with where SNL is these days. "There's never a show where you leave going, 'Well, that one was great,'" he explains. "If you do what I do, you're just always focused on the mistakes and what didn't work." But at the same time, he emphasizes, he can appreciate the big picture. "The satisfying thing for me is watching people come into their own," he says quietly. "When you see them soaring, just taking it off the paper and making it into something else, that's always the best time for me." As for himself and his own future, Michaels suggests he doesn't often pause to take stock — but agrees to do that for the purposes of our conversation. Retirement, he makes clear, is not in his future: "I've seen my children grow up. They're the biggest part of my life — my family is really that. But I think I'm just one of those people who has to work. And when you feel you're in the middle of it, and there's 20 decisions that have to be made rapidly, and all that, that sort of makes me feel alive and makes me feel that I'm doing something that's valuable." There has been some question about what Michaels would like to see happen with SNL after he's gone; Fey and others have suggested that NBC should just shut down the show, but Michaels insists that he would like it to live on. "I'd like it to still be, in an old phrase, 'the loyal opposition,'" he says with a smile. "You just want it to be challenging authority."