Lorne Michaels, creator and executive producer of “Saturday Night Live." (Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post)

Lorne Michaels still lives for Saturday night

The showbiz impresario steers SNL toward the half-century mark

17 min

NEW YORK — Episode 4. Season 47.

“I got a lot of notes here.”

It’s 10:37 p.m.

“Chloe, you’ve got to play it to camera.”

Fifty-three minutes to showtime.

“James, can we get you up in the seat?”

You can’t see Lorne Michaels behind the army of cast and crew, but you can hear him, buffing the show in the free fall between dress rehearsal and air. Studio 8H, his claustrophobic kingdom, is all wires and wigs and wheels and lumber, craftsmanship and ego, raw nerves and unresolved daddy issues. The actor Oscar Isaac, a surprise guest, is tucked with his script in a cubby near the prosthetics room, with its small pile of Biden flesh. Scooching through the tight hallway is Donna Richards, dresser for the hosts, who’s been with the show 28 seasons. “He doesn’t miss a trick,” she says of the “most loyal boss.” Around a few corners is Wally Feresten, the cue-card guy of 32 seasons, with last-minute edits to the cold-open sketch and a damp, stamp-size sponge hanging from his glasses. “I can’t lick my finger,” he says, tapping the sponge. “Lorne forbids it.”

And then it’s 11:15 and co-head writer Michael Che is warming up the audience, name-checking host Jason Sudeikis, a former cast member, and musical guest Brandi Carlile, and remarking: “This is a pretty White show.”

At 13 minutes to showtime, Kenan Thompson, who’s been on SNL since the first term of the second Bush, is onstage singing “Gimme Some Lovin’,” a Blues Brothers favorite, and Studio 8H starts to feel like a time warp, strapped to the past but always barreling toward the future, or at least toward 11:30.

At 11:23, the Oval Office materializes in a swish of curtains.

At 11:28 Lorne, in a blue suit and red tie, shakes the hands of cast members as they take their positions for the cold open. When a crew member calls “Thirty seconds!” the studio audience of 321 people is silent. With 15 seconds to airtime, Lorne gives a final, muttered instruction to rookie cast member James Austin Johnson, who is playing President Biden: Take your time with the lines. Get around the desk as fast as possible. Face forward, not to Jason.

And then Lorne drifts just off camera as the 914th episode of “Saturday Night Live” hits the airwaves.

After the cold open Sudeikis — the latest Son of Lorne to graduate to sitcom stardom — steers his monologue away from humor toward reverence.

“All of our collective comedy heroes have run around through here … Farley, Gilda, Eddie, Tina,” he says to the audience, and to the 9.1 million viewers at home, according to NBCUniversal. Sudeikis goes on: “This place changed my life, twice. Twice. Once as a cast member, as a writer, here. But most importantly: as a kid, watching from home.”

Ten days later and nine floors up, we ask Lorne how he felt watching Sudeikis’s tribute.

“I was moved by it,” Lorne says after some prodding, happy to leave it at that.

Can you elaborate?

With history’s slightest smile, he says, in his wry and implacable tone: “Are you asking if I still feel anything?”

Sudeikis was describing the feelings of generations of Americans. The show shaped us. That’s incredible power, and a profound legacy.

“First of all,” he says, evading, “you’re in the moment. Is the show working?” And then he’s back to the particulars of the 914th episode: timing and pacing, what you cut, whom you center, when you intervene, why you don’t — the particular voodoo of a producer, although this producer is more of a monarch, a comedy sovereign. At 77, on the occasion of the Kennedy Center Honors, Lorne will allow a little grandiosity on behalf of the show, not himself.

“I think this is as important as anything else, any other art form,” he says of his life’s work. “I won’t want to see it go down. That’s important. On the other hand: 50 years is, for a television show …”

It’s a long time. “Saturday Night Live” has been on the air for more than 46 years, longer than any late-night or comedy program in American history except for “The Tonight Show,” which Lorne now also produces, having fathered the career of its current host, SNL alum Jimmy Fallon.

It’s impossible to list every memorable moment, every flourished talent, every dent of Lorne’s impact in television and movies, and in the lexicon and sensibilities of most anyone alive today. Lorne’s kingdom is directly or indirectly responsible for movies and shows such as “Tommy Boy” and “30 Rock,” for the stardom of Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler and Chris Rock and Tina Fey, for the perception of politicians from Gerald Ford to Sarah Palin.

So: Is the show still working? It is, except when it isn’t, but then there’s always next week, next season, next breakout cast member. That’s one of the beauties of SNL: There’s always been next Saturday, since Oct. 11, 1975, when John Belushi and writer Michael O’Donoghue took their places for the first cold open, and “Weekend Update” anchor Chevy Chase got off not one but three digs at President Ford, and host George Carlin planted a flag for the counterculture on a white-haired slot of television previously reserved for Johnny Carson’s reruns.

Before SNL, Lorne had been writing for Phyllis Diller, Lily Tomlin and “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”

“The kind of comedy and work we were doing was so disconnected from what people my age were going through — you know, in the streets, universities,” Lorne told an interviewer when he was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in 1999. “It was a time of turmoil, and this was very traditional television. … I wanted to do the kind of comedy that was making me and my friends laugh.”

As the show debuted, Lorne was about to turn 31. Both Nixon and Saigon had fallen in the preceding 14 months. The United States was stagflating; New York teetered on bankruptcy. “Saturday Night,” as the show was first called, was designed to give rebellious voice to young baby boomers and revolutionize comedy the way the Beatles had blown up pop music.

The show “impacted the way people over a certain age think,” says Candice Bergen, who hosted the fourth-ever episode (and four more since). “It shaped the culture, and how the culture responds to politics, to important figures. Nobody’s ever had an impact like that on our society.”

The show quickly turned from experiment to institution, from trailblazer to starmaker. Lorne the bratty upstart from Toronto — who at 14 lost his father and gained a distrust of authority — became Lorne the New York power broker, the man with the magic Rolodex, an eminence of showbiz.

“Obi-Wan Kenobi,” former cast member Tracy Morgan has called him.

“Somewhere between Hitchcock and Stan Lee,” says Melanie McFarland, TV critic for Salon, plotting him on the scale of visionaries who make cameos in the worlds they’ve built.

“I would use the term ‘benevolent despot,’ ” says Conan O’Brien, ​who wrote for SNL from 1987 to 1991 and then hosted his own late-night show produced by Lorne.

SNL is canon for comedy fans and a crucible for its collaborators. It sharpens talent, and it yields casualties. Sudeikis, during his recent monologue, described the show as “fueled for its first 25 years by cocaine and adrenaline, its next 15 years by Starbucks and unhealthy comparisons, and the last six years by Adderall and fear.” Some cast members compare Lorne’s intense arena to professional sports; Sudeikis has described him as “like a coach.” Earlier eras felt like combat, to some. “Traumatic,” Nora Dunn told Salon of her 1985-to-1990 stretch. Like “World War I,” said original cast member Jane Curtin, who by Season 3 wasn’t speaking to Lorne, she told Andy Cohen, because he wouldn’t confront Belushi over his bad behavior. (Curtin and Dunn declined to comment for this article but have expressed joy at attending the show’s 40th-anniversary festivities, which Curtin called a “generous” gesture by Lorne.)

The show has stayed relevant, or just relevant enough, by reflecting and satirizing the changing times using a crew of long-standing veterans and a revolving stable of young writers and performers that Lorne picks, nurtures, manipulates and sometimes discards, like a tough-love dad tending to an heirloom that he shares with — but never quite leaves to — the next generation. Lorne describes his mission as “trying to find the most talented people of my time.” In recent years, some critics said, the show didn’t fully reflect America, and Lorne responded by prioritizing the hiring of actors and writers of color, especially Black women.

“Lorne has an incredible amount of control and power but he also finds these voices — like a Tina Fey and, to this day, a Bowen Yang,” O’Brien says. “He’ll find these different voices, and he always has. And he lets them do their thing.”

Born in Australia to a Chinese family, Yang didn’t know English when he arrived in North America as a child. SNL, at the turn of the millennium, was his teacher on the news, on celebrities, on language and timing and attitude.

“Lorne understands there’s something very popular about a general audience discovering new talent at the same time,” says Yang, himself an example of this. “He’s sketched out the vague parameters of this space where everyone can sort of try their hands at some form of comedic expression.”

In the first season, Lorne featured the absurdist, experimental humor of Andy Kaufman and allowed Albert Brooks ample airtime to exhibit his avant-garde short films. ​​​In the current season, he’s centered the witty queerness of Yang, the versatility of Ego Nwodim and Cecily Strong, and the niche wackiness of rookie cast member Sarah Sherman, who danced circles around Che and co-head writer Colin Jost during a hilarious “Weekend Update” appearance Nov. 13.

​Plenty of new cast members never find their place in Lorne’s kingdom, and are sent back into the real world. But if Lorne likes you, you’re golden.

“You feel understood,” says former cast member Molly Shannon, who fell for Gilda Radner and Bill Murray in 1977, and whom Yang grew up watching 20 years later. “Hollywood people are more afraid, or they’re looking to see what’s popular or not. Lorne just does what he wants and follows his own instincts. I was struggling for a long time in Hollywood, and when I finally made a big splash on SNL, some casting director said, ‘Molly’s grown so much.’ No. I was the same person, but Lorne took a chance.”

It’s Lorne’s taste and discernment that Jerry Seinfeld identifies as his ultimate skill. Twice a host, Seinfeld calls SNL amoeba-like in its ability to shift and react and survive in the “toxic and self-correcting ecosystem of comedy” — all due to one man’s vision and work ethic.

“It’s one thing to create. The other is you have to choose,” Seinfeld says. “‘What are we going to do, and what are we not going to do?’ This is a gigantic aspect of show-business survival. It’s kind of unseen, what’s picked and what is discarded, but mastering that is how you stay alive.”

The elevator opens. The popcorn smell is instant and total. The way to his office, on the 17th floor of 30 Rock, is lined with framed photos of each cast and of classic sketches: Dan Aykroyd as a severely wounded Julia Child, Dunn and Jan Hooks as the hammy Sweeney Sisters, Maya Rudolph as an ethereal Beyoncé, Will Ferrell struggling to supply adequate cowbell. The writers’ room is flanked by black-and-white headshots of every cast member, frozen in their not-ready-for-primetime youth, in order of their appearance on the show. The effect is nostalgic, but the subtext is unsentimental: Time marches forward. Talent is replaceable. The show goes on.

Jost’s ample liquor cart is visible down the hall from the office shared by Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon. Upcoming host Kieran Culkin is introducing himself to cast member Heidi Gardner, who’s busy on her laptop. And in the southeastern corner of the floor, his office bathed in spotlight from the plaza below, is Dad — or, at this point, Grandpa.

On the walls of Lorne’s office are movie posters for “Three Amigos” and “Wayne’s World,” which he produced using talent cultivated on SNL. Surrounding him are cabinets and credenzas crammed with three-quarter-inch tapes of episodes going back decades, labeled with host and musical guest: “JIM CARREY and Soundgarden.” “ELLE MACPHERSON and Sting.” Within reach: a large bottle of Tums, a basket of Orville Redenbacher popcorn, a yellow brick from London that Fred Armisen gave him, for whatever reason, as a birthday gift. Gurgling to his right is a coffin-size fish tank with bulbous parrot cichlids. No, the fish don’t have names.

“We’re not that close,” Lorne deadpans.

He’s back from a week off after the Sudeikis episode, but already tired. Last night was another banquet, and another bauble — this one from Al Sharpton, for “upholding the fight for civil rights and social justice,” at Carnegie Hall. (“Lorne’s got a tuxedo in the glove compartment of his car,” Alec Baldwin once told the New Yorker.)

Today is a Tuesday, a writing sprint, and by tomorrow his team will have the beginnings of a show. Wednesday afternoon, at the table read, Lorne will sit at the head and, in the voice of God, mumble aloud the stage directions of each sketch. He’ll be at least 30 years older than anyone else at the table; everyone will look to him for the slightest sign of approval.

At the moment, though, he is enduring a third attempt at a question he has already evaded twice: But what about the power of the show, the power you’ve created for yourself —

“Uh huh …”

— not to just start and stop careers —

“Yesss …”

We can tell you might be resisting this question a bit.

“I am, a little, yes …”

But the power to tell a mass audience, directly or indirectly, how to think, and what is funny and —

Lorne sidesteps again. He prefers not to talk about his own power; he’ll focus on the power of the voices he chooses to elevate. He prizes truth-tellers, he says, especially in moments of national unease or confusion, and so he talks about two particular comedians he showcased to America, 41 years apart, at times when he believed America should hear from them.

The first is the profane maestro Richard Pryor, whom Lorne crusaded to have host the show back in 1975 despite resistance from nervous NBC executives.

“They said I couldn’t have him,” Lorne says, “and I said, ‘I can’t do a contemporary comedy show without him, because he’s the funniest person working today.’ ”

The other comedian he mentions is Dave Chappelle, whom Lorne persuaded to host the first show after Donald Trump’s election. Lorne had given Trump the SNL stage early in the campaign and, amid furious backlash, defended him as a kind of truth-teller in his own right. “Donald’s giving voice to what polite society has sort of sat on for a while, things that are felt but that no one is articulating,” Lorne told Maureen Dowd in early 2016. Trump’s win that November shocked many SNL viewers — but not Chappelle, whose monologue was a bracing reality check.

“It seemed like Hillary was doing well in the polls. And yet, I know the Whites,” Chappelle said, coaxing out the night’s first real laugh. “You guys aren’t as full of surprises as you used to be.” The comedian went on to deliver a requiem for the Obama presidency and a cautious pledge to give Trump a chance, while also managing to slip in a “grab ’em by the p----” joke (“Sorry about that, Lorne”).

“He was remarkable,” Lorne says. “It was sort of what I thought was needed, and I think I was right.”

He adds, about the show’s power in general: “We’re a comedy show. We can influence, but we don’t determine.”

As for an earlier question — does he still feel anything? — the answer is yes. He still loves watching a performer come into his or her own. And he still loves when the show nails a cultural moment, in exactly the right way, at exactly the right time: He cites the pretaped country-music video from the Oct. 16 show that inserted a crooning, cash-strapped Pete Davidson into the popular Netflix show “Squid Game.”

“When we get that right,” Lorne says, “that’s thrilling.”

That’s the show working.

Could it work without Lorne? It already has, you could argue: In 1980 Lorne left the show for five years to explore other producing opportunities. So is he, too, replaceable?

“I personally do not think so,” Conan O’Brien says.

“I don’t think so,” says Kenan Thompson, the longest-tenured cast member, and the person who comes closest to having a Lorne-like grasp of the show. “That level of people who will take his call — he’s built himself up in the world to be respected.”

“In my opinion, the show is Lorne and Lorne is the show and nobody could ever replace him,” Molly Shannon says. “Nobody.”

It was only in the past decade, since Comcast swallowed NBC, that Lorne felt the show achieved a permanence, a kind of cultural tenure, after cancellation threats going back decades.

Maybe he has created something that can’t exist without him. Or maybe “Saturday Night Live” will finally, after a half-century, walk on its own. We’ll know soon.

“My plan, as of now, is to see it through to the 50th anniversary,” Lorne says, fist full of popcorn. “Because that’s a show everybody’s going to want to see. Including me.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the show hosted by Jason Sudeikis as SNL’s 917th episode in one reference. It was the 914th. This version has been updated.