Naturally Lorne Michaels, the great impresario of sketch comedy, waited until the last minute to write his acceptance speech. He's a live-TV guy, an adrenaline junkie, someone for whom chaos and near-disaster and improvisation are part of the normal rhythm of life.
"There has to be the potential for complete humiliation to get my attention," the creator of "Saturday Night Live" said yesterday, just hours before accepting the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
The two-hour ceremony, taped for broadcast on PBS, was something of an "SNL" Greatest Hits show, a barrage of legendary jokes and catchphrases ("Jane, you ignorant slut," "Cheeburger Cheeburger Cheeburger," "Isn't that speshul??"), laser-sharp political sketches ("Hold it right there, cracker boy, I'm not finished," Dana Carvey's Ross Perot barks to Phil Hartman's Bill Clinton), and edgy TV commercial parodies (to demonstrate a luxury car's smooth ride, a driver steers it down a bumpy country road while Dan Aykroyd narrates a rabbi's circumcision of a newborn). Thrown into the mix were clips of movies that Michaels, 59, has produced, but nothing in "Wayne's World" or "The Three Amigos" can hold up to the vintage "SNL" sketches -- Steve Martin as King Tut, or Martin and Aykroyd as Two Wild and Crazy Guys. The audience was treated last night to shots of Aykroyd and John Belushi high-stepping as the Blues Brothers, singing "Soul Man," and even rare footage of the first tryouts of the comics who would become the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.
Remember this? "Drop the bass, the whole bass, into the Super Bass-O-Matic 76!"
The six previous winners of the Twain Prize were performers, while Michaels just does the occasional cameo on "SNL." But no other winner had such an entourage of talent.
Cast member Tracy Morgan told the audience what it was like to meet Michaels for the first time: "It was like when Luke Skywalker met Obi-Wan Kenobi. . . . He taught me to be a young comic Jedi."
David Spade said before the show that without Michaels "there'd be no Sandler, Farley and Rock, me, Schneider -- that's just my generation. I would still be at Arby's, giving away special sauce."
Steve Martin, who hosted "SNL" 13 times by his own count, joked that a few years ago Michaels called him and asked, "How can I get the Mark Twain Prize?" And then stamped his feet and said, "I want it, I want it, I want it!" Martin added, "It's easy to forget that Lorne Michaels is an immigrant, who came to America from Canada in 1968 with nothing but a million-five."
Backstage before the show the words about Michaels were not so jocular, but rather genuinely appreciative, and not just because, as Darrell Hammond put it, "Lorne gives people money and fame." Hammond said Michaels had been patient and supportive during his struggles with drugs and alcohol. "I can't believe how much he stood by me."
Tim Meadows talked of the rapturous feeling of going to the bank with his first "Saturday Night Live" paycheck, more money than he'd had in all his savings. Tina Fey said that when she was a young "SNL" writer, Michaels took the time to watch her perform in a small theater in a two-person show and soon offered her a chance to appear on the air as co-host of "Weekend Update."
Perhaps he's become a father figure with age, Michaels said. More than that, he knows that in the frenzied production of a weekly sketch-comedy show, where everything's changing, where an actor who thinks he's doing Donald Rumsfeld suddenly has to change to Dick Cheney, where dozens of skits are being tossed around and pared down and jettisoned completely, he, as producer, is the figure people turn to for guidance. He benefits, he said yesterday, "from the human need for structure."
The humor last night was at times more New York than Washington, more late Saturday night than Monday evening, kind of raunchy for the Concert Hall. Meadows may have scored as the Ladies' Man on "SNL," enthusiastically endorsing Viagra as the cure for "chronic fatigue syndrome of the wang," but it felt a bit odd to hear those words in the Kennedy Center.
Conan O'Brien, plucked from obscurity by Michaels to fill the time slot vacated by David Letterman, said of the guest of honor, "He is literally the equivalent of four Wayans brothers, including Shawn." Slight audience titter. "For PBS, that's a big laugh."
Throughout, Michaels sat in his box seat, no doubt mentally editing the proceedings, looking for mistakes, anticipating disasters, making notes about who would no longer be invited to guest host his show.
Hammond broke through with some political humor, talking about the night he performed for Vice President Cheney "in an undisclosed location somewhere beneath the Greenbrier hotel." Sens. Christopher Dodd and John McCain tried to add some local color, and McCain may have stolen the show with a taped performance in which he gamely attempted to sing some Barbra Streisand songs. His reason: She'd been trying to do his job for 20 years, and now he would try to do hers.
Michaels, accepting the prize, said he'd read the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain on the flight down, "and just leafing through the first few pages, you can tell he's a really good writer."
Last weekend, in a final production meeting for "SNL," he said, he wondered why he would get a prize even though everyone else was working so hard.
"And I thought, yes, that's the way it should be. When it comes to being honored, I work alone."
At night's end, all the talent took the stage, just like at the end of a "Saturday Night Live" show. Except this one was taped, and won't air until early next year.