A profile of "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels in the Oct. 24 Arts section stated incorrectly that performer Jimmy Fallon is younger than the show itself. Although both Fallon and Michaels have stated that the show is older, Fallon was born on Sept. 19, 1974, a little more than a year before the series premiered on Oct. 11, 1975. (Published 11/2/04)
America is the land of "What's next?" Or so it's suggested to Lorne Michaels. "And it ruins the present," he says. "It just ruins the present."
What's next for Lorne Michaels, and mere hours away, is to report to the Kennedy Center tomorrow night to accept this year's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. What else is next is easy to predict. On 24 Saturday nights a year, you will find Michaels in NBC's Studio 8-H producing, pacing and agonizing over "Saturday Night Live," which is arguably the most influential comedy program in TV history.
It isn't history yet, though; it's still in there swinging, wailing, rocking, rolling, introducing new stars and raising old eyebrows, a combination L'Academie Nationale du Haha and our longest-running off-Broadway revue, performed live in a theater that on a good week accommodates 7 million people.
"Saturday Night Live" is a great show that has reached the stature of American institution, and the man behind it -- its Ziegfeld, its D.W. Griffith, its Henri Langlois, its Minsky -- is a sly, wily and unassuming Canadian-born genius who took five years off during "SNL's" 30-year history but otherwise has never missed a single show.
"No no no no no no no," he says, a single "no" rarely sufficing, as he sits at an ancient desk (recovered from outgoing NBC trash in 1975) eating a salad. "And I don't want to talk about it because I don't want it to be an observed thing. I'm just superstitious about it."
His mind has never let his body be sick enough on a Saturday night to miss a show. "I've been sick on Friday nights and once or twice left early," he says, "but never on show day, for some reason. I vomited once on a Friday night. I think it might have been undercooked chicken." There is an undercooked-chicken restaurant right downstairs in Rockefeller Center, he says.
It was 1975 when Michaels and NBC executive Dick Ebersol, now in charge of sports and such monumental undertakings as the Olympics, got permission from NBC President Herbert Schlosser to create a 90-minute late-night program to fill the space left when Johnny Carson insisted that reruns of his "Tonight" show vacate the premises.
Neither Johnny nor Herb knew what was coming. Some NBC executives imagined a nice safe musical-variety show hosted by mimic Rich Little.
They didn't expect an abrasive, eccentric, audacious series that would take satirical aim at virtually every phenomenon of the modern world, including television -- especially commercial network television -- itself. Michaels, verging on 30, was perhaps getting a late start, but he made up for it with five dazzling years of the funniest live TV since Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. "SNL" had edge before anybody even knew what edge was. And it introduced a cast of explosive unknowns that included Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray. The amazing parade of talent continues.
Michaels's reward from NBC after those five skyrockety years: cheap pettiness at contract renewal time, executives fearing he had too much control over his own show. Michaels and almost everyone who'd worked with him left, and five years of infamous failure followed -- one of those years redeemed by the returning Ebersol and a cast that included such big names as Billy Crystal and Martin Short (plus Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Larry David, who'd both later work on "Seinfeld" in the '90s).
Then, like Scarlett O'Hara returning to Tara, Lorne Michaels reclaimed "Saturday Night Live," and it's been his ever since. There've been fights with network management, in particular a bombastic Don Ohlmeyer, who wanted Adam Sandler fired because he didn't find him funny, and network-quaking shockers, like singer Sinead O'Connor's surprise decision to tear up a photo of the pope at the end of a song (and, essentially, of her career), but now "SNL" is as comfily ensconced as a guest in one of Michaels's overstuffed chairs, or the "Today" and "Tonight" shows.
But Michaels is by nature a worrier, and so he worries that the show is too comfy in its ensconcement. "Does it affect me? Totally. I live it and worry it until the end each week. That's the part that really amazes me: not so much that I care as much but that it baffles me as much as it still does."
Winning awards -- he also has 10 Emmys -- almost forces him to reminisce. In addition to the Mark Twain Prize, he won a special honorary award this year from the Directors Guild of America, even though his fame has come as a producer and writer (he wrote for "Laugh-In" and Lily Tomlin before "SNL" was born). A few years ago he got his own star on Hollywood Boulevard. And, as always a couple of decades behind where pop culture is concerned, "60 Minutes" is preparing a piece on him and the show, air date yet to be determined.
"Lesley Stahl's first question was 'Did you give drugs to John Belushi?' " Michaels says with subtle exasperation. "And I'm going, 'No,' but that period for people our age is the prism through which everything gets viewed. If you're 25, then it's when Dana Carvey was happening. When Jimmy Fallon did his audition, it was impressions of Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, and Adam Sandler, when he came here, was totally in awe of Bill Murray. They say that Chris Farley was the child that John Belushi and Danny Aykroyd almost had.
"It's like when you tap into it -- I know there are people working on the show who are not as old as the show [Fallon having been among them], and I think people within that environment, when they're working in that place, there's something different about their talent and about them than when they leave it."
Michaels and his wife, Alice, have three children: Henry, 12; Eddie, 9, and Sophie, 6. Can Michaels imagine a moment when one of them comes to Papa and asks for a chance to audition for the show? "Sure," he says. "After they finish law school."
That has to lead to questions about how long Michaels will be running the show he founded, and fought for. How long, O Lorne, how long? "If it's up to me, at least another five years." Yes, he can imagine doing it when, and even after, he is 65, about six years away. "I sort of watched Mike Nichols do 'Angels in America,' and he's past 70. Believe me, when the work's no longer good, people are going to let me know. They let me know when I was in my thirties.
"I think 'Saturday Night Live' is just one of those places where it's institutional, and I think it should be honored and preserved, and I'm going to do everything I can to make that happen."
Producing the show isn't the only thing about his glamorous life Michaels would miss. He knows so many celebrities and is known at so many chic restaurants that he's become a kind of suave honorary mayor of Manhattan. On a recent Saturday night, Jack Nicholson dropped by 8-H just to hang around during the telecast and sit in Michaels's little booze-stocked cubbyhole beneath the bleachers. Sen. Chris Dodd, Rudolph Giuliani, "SNL" alumni Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase, Paul Simon and Mick Jagger are among the gang that drops by to watch the show, running out from under the bleachers for a better view when the musical act performs. Michaels is the consummate gracious host.
Could he sit home at 11:30 on a Saturday night and watch a live satirical show with someone else's name in the credits as executive producer? People who've known him and the show since the beginning -- even allowing for the five-year sabbatical -- find it impossible to imagine. "I don't know if it would bother me," he says with his studied nonchalance.
But he must be aware of all the speculation about what will happen to "SNL" when he goes. His voice suddenly gets louder and he feigns paranoia: "Who's speculating this?!?!" Oh, uh, no one in particular (meaning the reporter is, among others). The show's three-hour prime-time 25th-anniversary special, in September 1999, was a huge hit, drawing 22 million viewers, but Michaels won't do a 30th-anniversary special and, mulling it over, thinks 35 is an odd number of years to celebrate.
"We're going quietly into this season," Michaels says. "The election is enough." He hasn't made any major cosmetic changes, like a new set, but that will come a year from now when Studio 8-H, and "SNL," are converted to HDTV ("The Tonight Show" has been in high definition for months). "The 25th anniversary show was, I think, a great night," Michaels recalls. "It was great seeing all those people in one place. But not enough time has passed for me to think about another celebration."
So is he saying the next one might be -- the 50th?
"I am," he says assertively. "I'm happy to. And if I can stand, I will be there."
Except for Fox's moderately successful, fitfully funny and younger-skewing "Mad TV," no one has ever come up with a formidable challenger to "Saturday Night Live." But someone conceivably could, the ratings could be an issue, and Michaels might have to get his saber out of its sheath to fight old battles all over again.
"I know that Jeff Zucker is a big fan of the show," Michaels says confidently, referring to the Elmer Fudd-like major-domo of NBC Universal. "I think he honors it, and there's been, in at least a decade, no attempt to alter or change the show or whatever. So I think we're good to go for a while."
Zucker has said he wants to use "SNL" as a kind of comedy farm to develop new NBC stars for its prime-time sitcoms. Michaels in his middle age doesn't object to that plan as he might have when he was 35. He says he doesn't even mind being considered a "company man," anathema to the generation he grew up with.
"My first loyalty is to making the show itself as good as possible, but I don't see that as being in conflict to being loyal to the network."
Lornie, Lornie, Lornie! What happened to the restless revolutionary who may not have given drugs to John Belushi but certainly smoked plenty of pot with him? That's just it. Michaels has always been a practical revolutionary. In pot-smoking, he exercised moderation, old friends say, and never got all that silly. When, in the earliest months of the show, he'd stay at home and pout all week, refusing to attend rehearsals because NBC brass had refused to cave in and give him the sound man he wanted, he was exercising the power of showbiz egomania, not political subversiveness.
And he won virtually all those arguments.
He's also cultivated legends about himself, which are good to have if you're in a position of power in show business. He's famous for sleeping until noon in his lavish apartment on Central Park West and then sauntering into the office at 3. He's infamous for making appointments and then letting his guests sit waiting for hours on a leather couch in the 17th-floor outer office (he has another office on the ninth floor, overlooking Studio 8-H). He is immaculately fashionable without looking as though he gives a moment's thought to clothes, and he has Old World manners and style. Gracious to a fault unless he thinks you hate him, Michaels is revered by such longtime cronies as the legendary Bernie Brillstein, Michaels's manager and the man who, a few minutes before the first show went on the air, became panicky when he saw that the band members weren't in "their tuxedos" yet.
Bernie has maintained a passion for Tab, the Coca-Cola Co.'s venerable saccharin-sweetened soda, even though it has all but disappeared from supermarket shelves. In a small refrigerator outside Michaels's ninth-floor office, thanks to the diligence of an unusually attractive band of assistants known as "The Lornettes," a few cans of Tab are always waiting in case Bernie comes by.
Though he may indeed be keenly aware of his image and style, there is almost nothing about Lorne Michaels that comes across as manufactured or appropriated. He is, in an environment where "business" increasingly eclipses "show," a true original, an authentic eccentric and, supremely, a showman.
"I am very happy that my life worked out the way it did," Michaels says. "I'm very happy that I got to do the work I got to do." Michaels could be seen as a combination of the overworked producer in "42nd Street" and the old man played by Lewis Stone in "Grand Hotel" who complains that "people come, people go" and nothing ever happens.
What hurts Michaels, even after all these years, is that people do go.
"To have the depth that we have, where people can step up and shine -- and also because we're almost everyone's first job -- I think people by definition want to go and see what's on the other side of the fence, even though I tell them it's big and scary. They don't listen.
"At one point in everyone's career it's the biggest thing that ever happened. And then interviewer after interviewer asks 'What's next?' and 'Well, I guess movies,' and then the snake is loose in the Garden of Eden because they can't think about it in the same way: 'Now I've got to start to plan a career.' And their managers tend to say, 'You can't stay in high school. You've got your whole life. You've got to move on.' It's a process that I'm resigned to, if not entirely happy about."
So we are back to the idea that "What's next?" tends to "ruin the present." And yet whether one speaks of past, present or future, Lorne Michaels seems to have things mastered, producing a near-perfect life, of which "Saturday Night Live" is only a part.
Tom Shales is the author, with James Andrew Miller, of "Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live," published in 2002.