The Coneheads may get their due. The Kennedy Center announced yesterday that Lorne Michaels, the longtime producer of "Saturday Night Live," will receive this year's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Michaels's selection marks a shift away from the prize's first six years, which recognized larger-than-life comedians whose performances in concert and on television made them visible icons. Michaels, 59, has been an innovator behind the scenes, starting with his stint as a writer for "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." But his career will be forever linked to "SNL," the longest-running and highest-rated weekly late-night program in television history.
The show is Michaels's own school of comedy, a boisterous and groundbreaking workshop with an astonishing list of alumni. To name a few: Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Mike Myers, Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Adam Sandler, Dennis Miller, Laraine Newman, Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Joe Piscopo, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Will Farrell, Dana Carvey and David Spade.
"His creation of 'Saturday Night Live,' which has become an American icon, along with his work in film and on Broadway, has provided this nation with some of its greatest comedians," said Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center's president.
"I was the first person hired," Michaels said yesterday, using Twain-like economy to sidestep the question of the show's legacy. "I'm happy to be there to represent the show. The first thing I asked is, 'When is it?' The 'Saturday Night Live' schedule is so inflexible."
The award will be formally presented in a ceremony at the Kennedy Center on Monday, Oct. 25.
The Coneheads were characters portrayed by Aykroyd, Curtin and Newman, aliens who lived in New York and tried to pretend they didn't have heads shaped like cones. "Tell them you're from France," they ordered their kids. The best of "SNL" also includes Crystal's rib-splitting turn as Fernando and his catchphrase "You look mahhhhvelous!," Murphy imitating James Brown sticking his toe into a hot tub, and dead-on impersonations of Bill Clinton, George Bush and Dick Cheney.
Television host Chris Matthews, who has been portrayed on the show by cast member Darrell Hammond, delighted yesterday in recounting Michaels's advice on how to portray the shouting interviewer: "It's like a big cougar up in a tree, looking down on the guy, getting ready to pounce."
Michaels declined to name his favorite cast member, skit, or even season. "It wouldn't be right," he said.
Michaels said he had an eclectic list of influences. "When I was growing up, I remember how often Mark Twain would be quoted, Will Rogers would be quoted," said Michaels, who was born in Canada and attended the University of Toronto. He recalled watching the "Jackie Gleason Show," comedians like Phil Silvers and, as he became more interested in comedy as art, the Marx Brothers.
"I was much more influenced by styles in my twenties, when I was learning the difference between watching it and making it," he said. "The influences are all over the place. I was struck by 'The Graduate,' but who wasn't?"
His career has included television specials with Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Flip Wilson and Randy Newman. As a film producer, he did "Three Amigos," "Wayne's World" and the current hit "Mean Girls." He is also the executive producer of "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." On Broadway, he produced and directed 1979's "Gilda Radner -- Live From New York."
The movies, said Michaels, bring the satisfaction of spending considerable time with "the people, the ideas, the camera." "SNL," by contrast, "goes on because it is 11:30, not because it is ready."
On his shelf are 10 Emmys for writing and producing, including two as writer and producer of Lily Tomlin specials in 1973 and 1975. "SNL" has won about two dozen Emmys, as well as the George Foster Peabody Award from the University of Georgia. Its hosts have included Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Steve Martin, Queen Latifah, Robin Williams, Matt Damon, former vice president Al Gore, Sen. John McCain and New York Yankee Derek Jeter.
This fall, "SNL" starts its 30th season. Michaels says everyone does what they can to avoid predictability.
"The show has had to reinvent itself many times, because there are new people coming into it many times. If all the original people were working, it would get stale," he said.
At times it's become a different kind of forum. A few weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani took to the stage of "SNL" and gently encouraged people to find an outlet for sorrow in humor.
The show still manages to pull in large audiences, especially when the guest host has grabbed the headlines. In the just-completed season, Janet Jackson drew 9.4 million viewers, Jennifer Aniston 9.3 million and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen 8.8 million.