Of all the questions you could ask Lorne Michaels about Saturday Night Live, the one he may least like to answer has to do with his attendance record. He prefers not to talk about it — because it’s perfect. Since 1975, of the close to 700 live episodes with his name on them, Michaels has missed exactly zero.
Except for a five-year hiatus when Jean Doumanian and Dick Ebersol ran the store, Michaels could be spotted pacing around Studio 8H each time someone shouted, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” to begin the show. You’d think this record was something to be proud of, but Michaels worries that making too much of it could be bad karma or even tempting fate.
As SNL begins its 40th-anniversary season on television — and Michaels begins his 70th year on earth — neither the pace nor the pacing has slowed. In a famous cold-open sketch back in the 1990s, Michaels facetiously told host Steve Martin that the show was on autopilot, so self-sufficient that he could sit posing for his portrait (in oil, naturally) even as the clock ticked down to airtime. That was satirical farce, of course; for Michaels, things have actually become more demanding, and his domain vaster.
Now, coming off a so-so transition season for SNL, Michaels faces the task of rebuilding the show for the umpteenth time, a feat more difficult than it used to be because he’s now also executive-producing both The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon and Late Night With Seth Meyers. Sundays are the only night without a Lorne Michaels show after the late local news.
And the shows really amount to only part of the Michaels empire. Since he formed Broadway Video in 1979, Michaels has produced more than 20 feature films and another 20 TV series. SNL currently airs in 200 countries and has entered into licensing agreements for the show in Italy, Japan, and South Korea, so those countries can have their own versions. Broadway Video, already regarded as one of the top postproduction facilities in New York, now has digital partnerships with Yahoo and YouTube, and its own content website, Above Average, which dispenses short comic pieces much as Funny or Die does.
There are plenty of producers who have had more success in movies and episodic television than Michaels yet are by no means comparably recognizable and legendary. Within the confines of entertainment, the single name “Lorne” evokes only one man; no one else has the gallery of comics and actors imitating his speech patterns or characters like Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil modeled after him.
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What makes Michaels one of a kind? You could call him a modern-day Ziegfeld or a modern-day Barnum and still not nail it down. Indeed, the idea of seeing Michaels clearly is tricky. He long ago mastered how to remain out of focus to all but the closest of intimates, and even they may have their problems seeing him in sharp relief.
Is Michaels the way he is because that just is the way he is — or did he long ago devise the character he wanted to be and then slip nimbly into the part, never letting on that it’s as much a performance as a life?
When Dick Ebersol first began talking with Michaels in 1974 about developing a late-night show for Saturdays,1 Michaels was not quite 30 and coming off writing stints on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and a pair of Lily Tomlin comedy specials. He was hardly a veteran, but there was already a Pied Piper quality to Michaels and a ballsy, effortless self-assurance, both notable for a guy who not that long ago had come down from his native Canada to chase The Dream.
So it was that his friend and manager Bernie Brillstein marveled when he showed up that year for Lorne’s 30th birthday party at the Chateau Marmont and found a slew of boldfaced big shots in attendance — names like Tomlin, Graham Nash, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin. Who knew that Lorne knew all of them, and many more? He knew Mick Jagger before he ever imagined Saturday Night Live, and his friendship with Paul Simon goes back just as long. Few people with so many celebrity friends, however, seem less impressed by celebrities. For Michaels, they’re basically just friends. Once, he invited writers Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel to pitch an idea over dinner at a restaurant and casually told them “some friends” would also be dropping by. O’Brien was stunned when the “friends” showed up: Paul and Linda McCartney. While the writers’ mouths hung open, Michaels casually suggested they tell Paul and Linda about their idea.
Putting up a good front is, of course, a long-standing showbiz tradition, but it’s never been that simple, or that shameless, with Michaels. What helped him stand out from the crowd was that his self-confidence never came across as arrogance, as it does with so many who become Hollywood success stories. With Michaels, the worldly aplomb seemed organic, natural, part of his DNA. Walking and talking like he already was a living legend undoubtedly helped him become one; he had a certain grandeur even when his litany of accomplishments was pretty short — sort of like ESPN calling itself “the worldwide leader in sports” before anyone outside of remote Bristol, Connecticut, had even heard of it.2
There was an element of the seducer to Michaels’s charm, but as he would prove to be a reluctant tycoon, so he was a somewhat seduced seducer. He developed a stylish persona that would be his signature — an outward layer of classy cool that at times could be seen as cold and aloof. Even those who worked closely with Lorne throughout the years might tell you that they liked and respected and admired Lorne yet never felt close to him; he would hold back even as others did cartwheels and pirouettes to get his attention. Not everyone found such a relationship fulfilling, and some found it maddening, like romancing the Sphinx. Michaels didn’t invent this posture, which can be seen as a way of defending yourself against being hurt. But he perfected it.
And it served him well. The more people struggled, it seemed, the greater Michaels’s power over them. He effortlessly, and perhaps unintentionally, became the daddy figure to a coterie of talents who were far too old to be his children; they were his age or sometimes even older. An aura enveloped him, protective and yet seductive. He was impressive and illustrious without ever appearing to exert himself. And he was mindful of his image without seeming to be. If he wanted you for a big project, something dear to his heart, an intermediary would first approach you to see if you were interested, then report back to Lorne, who would then contact you. But he couldn’t stand being told “no” and so took steps to ensure that wouldn’t happen.
Early on, Michaels saw that showbiz — comedy especially — wasn’t changing nearly as fast as the rest of the world. It was dragging behind, old and stodgy, with comics still doing Jolson impressions when they should have been perfecting Bob Dylan. Michaels envisioned a “new world order” of comedy, one built on the ashes of established material that he considered “corrupt” for its pursuit of routinized laughs and applause, both so handily manufactured with machines.
The all-purpose perpetual lubricant — money — was something that Michaels put low on his list of priorities. Somehow he seemed to know he’d always have enough (though he did almost go broke financing his elegant prime-time flop, The New Show, in 1983), and what was way more important to him was being the guy to usher out the old and sneak in the new. He projected a disarming ability to get the job done while having one foot in the New Comedy and the other in whatever traditions weren’t dishonest.
It figures that he would see the purity embedded in the four simple words “Live from New York,” words that welled up from a TV past of live plays and variety shows, an era in which if it looked live, it was live, because there was no way to fake it.
From the beginning — and survivors of those early days attest to this — Michaels gave the impression of knowing exactly what he was doing and exactly what he wanted. He had everybody believing it, perhaps because it was true. He was young, but he had already been working for years in television — in L.A., but also before that in Canada. Michaels was a quick study, and compared with the novices he signed up for the show, he was already an expert.
He dazzled them with science, but he also impressed everyone with lofty projections of a future that tended to come absolutely true. He told his recruits to SNL3 that the show would start small and slowly catch on, eventually attracting new, younger members of an audience that the networks, and all of television, had largely ignored.
Television had never been “cool” until Lorne and his underlings got ahold of it. It was hugely successful, but it wasn’t cool, and cool people often made a point of saying they didn’t watch it. (John Belushi, as you may have read, was one of those.) Until then, television had been as much laughed at as with, and when the celebrated Sid Caesar and his brilliant band did satire on Saturday nights (in prime time, coincidentally also on NBC), what did they satirize? They satirized German and French movies, and Viennese operas, and quaint British plays, and American movies like From Here to Eternity. Once in a while they’d satirize TV, yes, but not all that often.
So the SNL pioneers were largely plowing virgin territory, both in what they did and how they did it. And Lorne told his revolutionaries that they were doing it exactly right and that their approach would pay off big time. Michaels was intent on reaching an elusive demographic that abandoned television once they left childhood because they felt that it had abandoned them, that it was still aiming its antics and shenanigans at their parents. The irony was that television was overlooking the television generation — those who, like Michaels, had been tube-fed since birth, not raised on radio or motion pictures as their parents had been.
His iron-clad belief was that if he and his carefully selected cohorts made themselves laugh, they would make others laugh. One crucial difference between the SNL of then and now is linked to that self-assurance. When SNL began, Michaels put on the show he wanted to put on, and let the audience find it. If the audience didn’t get it, they were too old. The SNL of yore didn’t try to be cool; it was defining cool. Today’s writers and performers, aware of past generations and the success that might come their way (while on the show and once they leave it), all too often reverse things and aim to please the audience. Aiming to please can be done to excess, and then you may find yourself doing the unthinkable: pandering.
Even Lorne Michaels has changed somewhat over the years. He certainly “changed” when, happily married, he became a father. But what about the essence of Lorne, the things that make him such an enigma? The obsessiveness over quality remains, and days when Michaels’s standards aren’t met can be grueling ones for the staff. In recent years, however, those closest to him professionally have noticed, among other things, a relaxation of the old withholding manner (he danced with Kristen Wiig on her final episode, of all things!) and a shrinkage of the long-standing buffer zone between him and those he works with. Maybe the moat’s still wide, but there are more bridges now.
In the early days, Gilda Radner did indeed confess and cry to her beloved Lorne — about boyfriends, ice cream, life itself — and leave him little notes and such. But she was the exception. He would talk to you about your career and be generous with professional advice, but you didn’t approach him on more intimate matters. As the years have flown by, Michaels has become a bit more amenable and less worried about keeping distances. It’s a cliché, yes, but the new Lorne is arguably a kinder, gentler version.
His patience, naturally, continues to be tested. Last season was a tough one for SNL. The show didn’t perform particularly well in the ratings, and had several very rough episodes and fewer breakout sketches than usual. That was, to a degree, inevitable given the number of important cast members the show had lost, a phenomenon Michaels has witnessed too many times to count. But those who thought a severe housecleaning was in store this summer for the upcoming 40th season have been surprised; there was no bloodbath, no mass firings, none of the seismic upheavals of the past. Only four cast members were voted off the island once the 39th season ended, and some insiders believe this departure from precedent can be traced to changes in Michaels’s demeanor, a mellowing evident since, roughly, the late 1990s.
It has often been said of Michaels that he hates to fire anybody, but in recent years, he seems to have been less willing than ever to usher people out the door. It’s unthinkable that he’d ever again make a joke of wholesale firings as he did during the Season 11 finale, when the final sketch of the spring showed the studio on fire and only Michaels and cast member Jon Lovitz escaping the inferno. Comedy itself may have become more cruel in recent years, but Michaels has gone the other direction. He was never the type to demand excessive displays of deference — when he did, he was probably joking, satirizing himself — and now he appears less imperial than ever.
Why? The easy answer is that he’s mellowed with age. But there’s the possibility that his burgeoning success, and the expansion of his domain, has heightened the general’s responsibility to his troops and made him warier of conflict within the ranks. It’s only natural, only human, to desire less tsuris as one becomes older and more powerful.
Perhaps not surprisingly, paradoxes abound throughout Michaels’s professional life. He set out to overthrow the old comedy establishment and make SNL a haven for some of the most irreverent, antiestablishment humor ever in mainstream media. But simultaneously, Michaels has proven himself a kind of ideal corporate employee. Not some deferential yes-man, but someone determined to have good relations with top brass. He learned how to get his own way without theatrical displays of temperament.
In the early years, he threatened to quit repeatedly, sometimes impulsively, if his demands weren’t met or if he saw threats to the autonomy he felt he needed. In past decades he faced difficult times and obstreperous regimes, and of those, perhaps none was more of a challenge to his ego or to his show than NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer, who had dominion over programming, from 1993 to 1999. The way Michaels dealt with Ohlmeyer is indicative of his growth in office.
Ohlmeyer had little faith or enthusiasm for such cast members as Adam Sandler and Norm Macdonald, and he was anything but subtle about it; he told Michaels to get rid of them. Michaels made several attempts to thwart Ohlmeyer’s micromanagement, but not all the charm or savvy he could muster seemed to work. Not this time, not with this dude. When Ohlmeyer laid down the law and ordered firings, Michaels took the punch to the gut and neither threatened to quit nor launched a palace revolt. He didn’t even seem to hate Ohlmeyer, and instead tried to “understand” his ultimatums.
Did this signal a change for the worse for Michaels? Or was it simply evidence of a practical maturing, an acknowledgment that Michaels simply couldn’t be the rebel anymore? In the case of Ohlmeyer, Michaels knew that in time even Ohlmeyer would fade into history, but Saturday Night Live would go on — for at least as long as Michaels goes on — and that’s what mattered. He grew increasingly mindful of The Big Picture.
There’s a striking duality to Michaels as a businessman. Broadway Video is more ambitious with its agenda now than ever before in its history. The development of Above Average just two years ago continues to broaden, and now there are channel partners pitching Broadway Video short-form ideas. Michaels offers no judgment on the pitches and is barely involved. The company continues to seek new opportunities in the multiplatform world and hopes to move into different types of production in the near future. Its value is certainly in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Yet Michaels doesn’t typically put Broadway Video initiatives front and center. It’s as if he thinks that being perceived as a mogul might detract from his status as a creative force and diminish what he does best.
The center of his world will always be Saturday Night Live, and he will always be more obsessed with whether it’s funny than anything else in his domain. That was true when Wayne’s World — which Michaels produced — was the no. 1 movie in the country and still true when his 30 Rock was carting home Emmys.
Indeed, Michaels is producing — along with former feature partner John Goldwyn — Loomis Fargo, a big movie being shot this summer with Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig, and Jason Sudeikis, and he did go down to the set in North Carolina and make his presence known. He does the same thing at critical times for The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon and Late Night With Seth Meyers (which both tape at 30 Rock, making things easy). But in none of those situations is Michaels as involved as he is with Saturday Night Live. One might imagine this would all be reversed, that after nearly four decades, SNL is the one that can afford a little less of Michaels and that new shows and new movies would win the triage battle.
No way. Those other things are nice, but it’s the moments that fly by on a Saturday night that matter most to the maestro — the period between “dress” (rehearsal) and the live show, when key contributors crowd into his office just off the studio balcony, as opposed to his much cozier office on the 17th floor, and hammer out what the live show at 11:30 will be, with Michaels making the final decisions on sketches and able to overrule everybody else in the room on everything — those are the supreme Michaels moments.
The ever-tense seconds leading up to a sketch when, out on the floor, he whispers something in a cast member’s ear or notices some prop that’s a tad askew — those are quintessential Michaels moments, too.
Studio 8H is still where he thrives, where he is most himself, where he is the undisputed monarch of the domain he created 40 years ago.
Michaels is very good at succession planning. He looked at Jay Leno twice — once for Conan and the second time around for Fallon, and also looked at Fallon for Conan and Meyers for Fallon. He understands the replacement game. But this is not the case with himself. He hasn’t done any apparent succession planning for his own world — not so that anyone has noticed. It’s as if it will all have to disappear when Michaels does.
Perhaps the answer is contained within the words “as long as Michaels goes on.” That is highly unlikely to be forever. Mortality has to be the cruelest imaginable concept for anyone who’s lived a life as exciting, enviable, and admired as Michaels has, and for anyone who’s managed to play the kind of fascinating character he created.
But don’t tell him that. The Michaels ecosystem looks like it is built around a 40-year-old. Not only is there no named “No. 2” or successor, there’s not even a consensus among those at SNL, NBC, or the entertainment world in general who, if anyone, would or could take over when Michaels decides he’s had enough.
Before she hit the big time as an actress and show creator, Tina Fey may have been imagined a likely successor; the same with Seth Meyers. Both would have probably been able to serve as executive producers, getting the show done every week, but whether they would have had the interest in other duties, those involving the network, the press, sensitive machinations with hosts, not to mention the financial aspects of the show, is much less clear. There are many compartments to a Michaels day, and he has created a world for himself where there are trusted employees in each of them, and yet there is no one who does all that he does, or who would have had the initial expertise or possibly even sufficient interest to run the Broadway Video enterprise.
Longevity is a hallmark within the Michaels empire. People stay for long times. Jack Sullivan, president of Broadway Video has been there for 20 years; Ken Aymong has been at SNL for decades and takes care of the studio, budgets and other logistics; Lindsay Shokus, who runs the talent department, has been on board since leaving college; Erin Doyle, another long time producer, looks protectively after all things Lorne; and Steve Higgins, despite now being better known as Jimmy Fallon’s Ed McMahon, still plays a high rabbi role on SNL, lending guidance and expertise where needed. They all share a fierce loyalty to Lorne while showing no noticeable ambitions to take over one day.
Michaels as Michaels — perhaps one of the best examples of typecasting the entertainment world has ever known. No wonder he’s said he cannot imagine retiring or having the show go on without him. In the same situation — who could? But then, no one is in the same situation. And it’s very unlikely that anyone ever will be again.
James Andrew Miller (@JimMiller) is the coauthor of the newly updated and expanded Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, which will be published on September 9. He is also the coauthor of Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN.
Photo illustration by Linsey Fields