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A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Saturday Night Live launched on Oct. 11, 1975, its producer, Lorne Michaels, was a 30-year-old Canadian with no live TV experience. Four decades later, he’s an institution, having outlasted multiple NBC owners and grown his creation — a 90-minute live sketch-comedy show with a new host and musical guest each week — from a counterculture upstart to a mainstream touchstone. In that time, Michaels’ imprint has stretched far beyond SNL, too, with a comedy empire that currently includes The Tonight Show, Late Night and Portlandia.
With SNL‘s star-studded 40th anniversary live special set to air on Feb. 15 on NBC, Michaels, 70, reflects on the highs and the lows, his late-night legacy and the ways in which he booked an unprecedented batch of vets, including Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell and Dana Carvey.
How did you pick the guest list and audience for the 40th anniversary show?
The rules we used were these: Every host was invited. Every musical guest was invited. Any castmember and writer who had been here longer than a year was invited. Not everybody is going to come. The other rule we used, which was just the simplest way to go, was if people sent back their RSVP, they were in the mix of people we could write for. On the 25th anniversary — which turned out remarkably well and was the first time I thought, “I could stop now and be good” — we did mostly live moments with tape and clips. This time, we have some of that, but we’re doing more performances.
What advice would present-day you give to Lorne of season one?
Work expands to the amount of time that’s available.
NBC used to give heavy notes, including “Fire Adam Sandler!” What’s the last meaningful note you got?
There was a period under Warren Littlefield that they did a lot of testing and found that music didn’t test as well as comedy. I’d say music was for pace, and it gave us a level of coolness and relevance. So, first it was, “Could you get rid of it?” When we disagreed, it was, “Could you move it later in the show?” There was a two- or three-show period where they prevailed and it had to come after “[Weekend] Update,” which threw off the rhythm of the show. When things are going really, really well in Burbank, they tend to have more confidence in terms of making suggestions. They’re on a streak, so they want to fix us.
You said the 25th anniversary show was the first time you felt proud of the show. What took so long?
Yeah. I used to say that on my tombstone would be the word ‘uneven’ because [the show has] never been described any other way in a review. It’s only cumulatively that you sort of go, “Oh yeah, that.” You can’t be perfect for 90 minutes. We don’t do spectacle and don’t have much of a wide shot, so when you see somebody going into lens and taking it to some level that you hadn’t seen even at dress rehearsal, it’s a magical thing. I believe there’s at least one or two of those in almost every show. But I tend to leave only seeing the mistakes or the things that didn’t quite work. Fortunately, at the end of the night, there is alcohol, and that takes away a lot of the mistakes, or at least makes you focus less on them. Then on Monday, you do it all again.
Have you given any more thought to your succession plan? Should the show go on without you?
I don’t know. I’m going to keep doing it as long as I possibly can because I love it and because it’s what I do. But there is more niche stuff [now]. Us doing “Update” and giving it 10 minutes in a 90-minute show was a big deal, but Comedy Central and Jon Stewart, none of that existed then. So things have fragmented. The thing that I always find difficult about criticism of the show is that we’re broadcast, which means there are people who like us in all 50 states. I’m incredibly proud of the show Portlandia that I do, but it’s designed for an audience that just wants that and loves that. So I don’t know how long.
What’s the sketch that made you most nervous?
Some time in the ’90s, I was overseas and there was a bunch of people who had kids there. I didn’t have kids then, but they talked about watching the show — they were baby boomers — with their kids, and I went, “Really?” I got back from the trip and we were doing a “Wayne’s World” truth-or-dare skit with Madonna, and I watched it at dress and I went, “That’s going to be a real squirm moment for parents and kids, so let’s pull that back a little bit,” which we did. So it morphed into a family show, without having to compromise that much, frankly.
Is there any sketch that you regret doing because it did push those boundaries?
We did a sketch which used the word “penis” about 60 times, and we were boycotted by the Reverend [Donald] Wildmon, and that caused a lot of sponsors to flee and all that. I don’t regret having done it, but I wish it had worked better.
Who’s the host who made you most nervous because he or she wanted to push it further than you did?
The thing about hosts is that the smart ones, and there are mostly those, know that we know this room better. Sometimes somebody is determined to do something because they feel it’s bold or it goes after something that they really feel should be dealt with, and you’ll say, “I’m not sure it will play. We can still do it if you like, but you’ll see how you feel at dress.” Things can feel wrong or inappropriate, not because they’re shocking but because they’re not for this room. There’s a formality to the show, weirdly, and when people betray that in some way or turn it into something that it’s not, the audience reaction is not good.
Any examples come to mind?
When Sinead O’Connor tore up the picture of the Pope, you could hear a pin drop. I didn’t know it was coming, obviously, because at dress, she had held up a picture of Balkan orphans, which I thought was really meaningful and what she wanted to do. I’m sort of all right with people taking chances and risks and all that, but I think everybody from the beginning has known that we were on the honor system, we went live and there was an understanding of trust that we had built up at the network that we would play by the rules, which we have. So I think most people don’t want to be the person [who defies that trust]. They had that unfortunate thing with [castmember] Charlie Rocket [who got fired for saying “f—” on the show], which was during the period I wasn’t there. It wasn’t like it was bold or it wasn’t like there was any shortage of places that you couldn’t hear that language.
If you could get a do-over on any one season, which would you choose?
1985 [Michaels’ first year back after a five-year hiatus]. I wanted to recapture what [we had had]. Dan Aykroyd was 22 [in 1975], I believe, and so was Laraine Newman. I think Bill Murray was, too. Gilda [Radner] and John [Belushi] were like 24. I was 30, Chevy [Chase] was 31. … We were just younger, and so I wanted to get back to that and I maybe went too young. I think it wasn’t thought through as much as I would have liked it to have been. But good things came out of that season, and then we adjusted the following year.
Even the best guts in the business can miss. Whom did you overlook that you kicked yourself over later?
Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell auditioned. There were lots of people who you’d see how brilliant they were, but you knew on some level that it wasn’t going to work. Lisa Kudrow gave a brilliant audition, but it was at the time when it was Jan Hooks and Nora [Dunn]. I wasn’t at the Jim Carrey audition, but somebody who was there said, “I don’t think Lorne would like it,” and they were probably wrong, but it doesn’t matter. Or maybe they were right — who knows? No one gets it all right.
You’re in a tricky spot: The better your castmembers do, the more likely you are to lose them. How do you advise people on the right time to leave?
The clumsy metaphor I like to use is you build a bridge to the next thing, and when it’s solid enough, you walk across. You can’t just react to the first thing, because it’s not solid enough yet. So, for someone like Kristen [Wiig], God bless her, she did Bridesmaids, which was a huge hit, and then she came back and did another season. Will Ferrell did the same. They also have a pact with the people who watch the show: They were there, they loved you at the beginning, they told everyone else about you and they showed up for everything you did. So you have to make sure that you honor that because if you don’t, you look as if you’re just about ambition, which there is more than enough of in the real world. And we don’t represent only the real world; we represent some level of what you hope people would be like.
What about you as a boss?
Beloved. (Laughs.) No, I can be unbelievably rough on people, which sometimes is just the pressure spilling over. Everybody works so hard and nobody wants to let down everyone else.
Some of the cast has said you’ve mellowed. Fair?
It would depend on who you ask. (Laughs.) For some people, I realize that that’s not the most effective way to encourage. I’m not quite like J.K. [Simmons] is in Whiplash, but I can be direct. Sometimes people don’t hear it unless you’re more blunt. But just because you’re rough on yourself doesn’t mean you can be rough on others, so I’m much more aware of that than I was when I was very young.
Which surprises you more: that presidential candidates come on or that Al Franken is a senator?
It is stunning that Al is there, but he’s certainly smart enough and certainly cared enough about it and was passionate enough about it when he was here. I think the times have changed for the better. When you see even Sarah [Palin] … It’s one of the things that we’re proudest of: that this is a country that allows that level of disrespect and that people accept it as part of what we do. The Charlie Hebdo thing brought it into clearer relief, where you went, “Oh, right.” And not to get into the issue of whether or not people should portray this or that … but people just accept that that’s part of what running for anything in America is. I think it probably was always there, but we amplify it a little bit.
There are people who would call you one of the most feared men in Hollywood.
“Feared” was never my goal. “Funny” might have been. But I think you get wise, and I think you also get way more forgiving.
THR.com will be rolling out SNL-related content from THR’s special issue leading up to NBC’s 40th anniversary broadcast on Sunday, Feb. 15. Keep checking back for more.
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