Lorne Michaels Talks Jimmy Fallon, Conan O'Brien and His Eddie Murphy Mistake

Martin Short Lorne Michaels - H 2013
Chyna Photography

Martin Short Lorne Michaels - H 2013

Saturday Night Live mastermind Lorne Michaels isn’t going anywhere -- and neither is his long-running sketch comedy show.

“As long as it’s relevant, it should be on,” the veteran producer said of SNL, now in its 38th season, during a wide-reaching conversation with one-time castmember Martin Short as part of the Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s newsmaker luncheon series Tuesday. “I’ll do it as long as I possibly can,” he added. “I think that there will be a day when I’ll look at it and say, 'I don’t have the edge I used to.'”

Michaels was far less vocal about The Tonight Show, which he will assume control of next spring when another former SNL comedian, Jimmy Fallon, slips into Jay Leno’s chair. In fact, despite myriad headlines in recent weeks, the conversation touched on Fallon only briefly. Michaels was asked why he and his Late Night star had chosen to move The Tonight Show to New York, to which he quipped: “Now, with air travel, stars come to New York as well.”

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Michaels then noted that Fallon is from New York and that he will have the energy of the city behind him. “I think New York is different from when [Johnny] Carson left and New York was on its ass,” he added from the Beverly Hilton stage. No follow-up questions were asked -- nor was he asked any questions pertaining to Fallon’s still unknown Late Night successor, a missed opportunity given Michaels’ involvement in both shows. (Current SNL head writer Seth Meyers is said to be the front-runner.)

Though Michaels is no longer involved with Conan O'Brien's late-night act, more airtime was devoted to the TBS host. He used the former Late Night host  -- and short-lived Tonight Show host -- as an example of someone with the three ingredients he looks for in talent. The first is something that Michaels can’t quite put his finger on, though he acknowledges that it is some combination of being able to make him laugh and come at comedy from a different direction; the second is discipline and the ability to be both devoted and serious about the craft; and the third and final one is luck. “With Conan, I knew he’s not going to sleep until he figures it out,” said Michaels, noting that former NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer doesn’t get enough credit for ultimately deciding to stick with O’Brien despite almost canceling his then low-rated Late Night during its first year on the air.

The remainder of the discussion was devoted to Michaels' history with SNL, including the talent he regrettably passed on (Jim Carrey, via his producers) and the advice he gives to newcomers (“'It’s not fair' won’t work here”). He acknowledged that the latter can make for uncomfortable situations since skits are often unevenly split among the show's cast. “I’m not sitting there going, 'What’s the fairest way to do these shows?' because if we were doing that, we’d be off the air during the first season,” he explained, noting that quality trumps all else.

At one point, he was asked if there was anything -- or perhaps anyone -- that is off-limits, to which he was quick with his answer: “His own.” Michaels confessed that he had made that mistake years earlier with former castmember Eddie Murphy, who at that time had had a string of box-office disappointments. Though SNL had stayed away from some of Murphy’s more personal stumbles, he and his writers had David Spade take a jab at his professional fumble. “I figured it was kind of a clean hit. I didn’t really think about it, but Eddie did,” he said to big laughs, recalling how Murphy then got hold of Spade by phone to voice his frustration. “You’re standing on my shoulders, you didn’t get to be there unless I was there,” Michaels remembered Murphy telling Spade, before adding of the decision to include the jab on his show, “It was a mistake on our part.”

Email: Lacey.Rose@THR.com; Twitter: @LaceyVRose