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September 01, 2009

Lorne Michaels

By Rip Rense

You can sum up Lorne Michaels' talents and accomplishments with any number of superlatives, as those who know him are quick to do. But no words better describe Michaels' contribution to television — and mirth — than these:

John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, Bill Murray, Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Cheri Oteri, Eddie Murphy, Christopher Guest, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Norm Macdonald, Steve Martin, Mike Myers, Nora Dunn, Jan Hooks, Jon Lovitz, Kevin Nealon, Molly Shannon, Tim Meadows, Al Franken, David Spade and Don “Father Guido Sarducci” Novello .

Michaels took these names and many others, mixed them together with the middle of the night, and created an American event. It isn't enough to make sterile observations about how he perpetuated the nearly extinct phenomenon of live television comedy, or won x-number of Emmys, or got this-share or that-rating. Michaels is the creator of a sociological institution — an irascible thing that is sometimes brilliant, sometimes juvenile, sometimes achingly funny, and always, apparently, just about indestructible. Well into the next century, it's a good bet that at 11:30 p.m. on the seventh day of the week, someone will show up on your TV screen, screaming that verbal equivalent of a rim-shot: “It's Saturday Niiiiight!”

Say what you will about the adroit wits who have decorated Saturday Night Live for nearly a quarter of a century, it's Lorne Michaels who gave them a platform. It's Lorne Michaels' sense of what's funny that made blunt, broad political satire and madcap goofs not tried since Your Show of Shows viable again. It's Michaels who made the Not Ready For Prime Time Players ready for prime time. By one reckoning, movies made by SNL alumnae have grossed somewhere around $7 billion. It's Michaels who allowed the world to experience the Bass-O-Matic, Bad Theater, Samurai Deli, Wayne's World, Weekend Update, Church Chat, Hollywood Minute, Roseanne Roseannadanna, and Mary Katherine Gallagher. Imitation SNLs have come and gone, but Michaels' brainchild endures, despite critics who have declared it brain-dead, tumultuous cast changes, tragic deaths — even Michaels' absence.Why?

“Lorne brings both the new and the old,” said Michaels' longtime manager and friend, Bernie Brillstein. “What he brings of the old is respect for the old comedy and old traditions of show business. He has a style that's reminiscent of the old great producers, like Ziegfeld. He's [Irving] Thalberg, as far as I'm concerned. He's stylish and classy, and can get down and dirty — he can do it all. He is certainly an individual in this business today of people who are pack rats.”

Chevy Chase put it more simply:

“This is not just a `producer' who has to deal with networks. This is a creative animal. There's a genius there that I'm sure nobody would want to admit. Everybody's probably always angry at him — well, I didn't get enough money, or I wasn't in enough skits, all of that crap. But in the end, it's Lorne who's making tough comedic decisions. And I don't think anybody can ever take that credit away from him.”

Steve Martin put it even more simply:

“Well, his people skills are unbelievable. To be dealing with mostly young people who are very headstrong and way demanding — to be able to coordinate all that, and deal with the egos of talent, I mean, it's an amazing skill. And he's a calm guy. Kind of non-confrontational. So it's not a natural for him, he has to do it. He's also very wise. I don't know how to say it any other way than that. He's a wise guy!”

Michaels is also, of course, a very funny guy, if in a sort of dry, low-key way. (“He's Canadian,” quips Brillstein.) A man known to most of the world as a behind-the-scenes type; the unseen SNL hand that Belushi and Aykroyd sometimes mock-confronted in sketches, Michaels started out very much in front of the cameras and microphones. He and partner Hart Pomerantz were a comedy team. A seminal influence was Michaels' first father-in-law, Frank Shuster of the Ed Sullivan Show funnymen staple, Wayne and Shuster. In the mid-60s, Hart and Lorne hosted a CBC political satire show, Five Nights a Week at This Time, and ultimately had their own show in Canada, The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour, for three seasons. Michaels once made a short film, The Great Hockey Puck Crisis, detailing a drought that paralyzed all the hockey puck trees in Canada, sending the citizenry into a panic.

The Toronto-born writer-producer entered the workaday world with one fixed goal: “I didn't,” he said, “want to go to law school.” Instead, after graduating with a degree in English from the University of Toronto, where he wrote and directed the annual revue, UC Follies, Michaels did the next most logical thing. He went straight to England and sold Jeeps. What? “It was sort of formative for me,” he says enigmatically.

Returning to Canada in late 1966, he teamed with Pomerantz and started appearing on CBC radio, and a little TV. The pair next headed south to New York City, where they performed at the Improvisation on West 44th, and wrote for stand-up comics including a very encouraging Woody Allen, Dick Cavett, and Joan Rivers. At the beginning of 1967, Hart and Lorne found themselves under contract to the William Morris Agency. A year later, they took an offer to head for Hollywood and write for the summer replacement,The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show, on NBC. Career breaks, it seems, were just lining up and fainting in front of this 24-year-old.

“There were very few people my age working in television at that time,” Michaels remembered, pried loose from an SNL rehearsal. “I was mentored by a lot of the writers of the time. Bob Schiller, Bob Weiskopf, who wrote I Love Lucy, to name a couple. On one level, I was kind of connecting to a tradition of variety television. Bob Finkel was the producer, who had done incredible things: The Colgate Comedy Hour, Perry Como, Dinah Shore — all the shows I watched as a kid.”

One day he arrived for work and found his parking space gone, and someone measuring his office. Diller, it turned out, had been cancelled after the first six weeks, but Michaels and Pomerantz hadn't been told. “We were the only ones showing up for work, eager to take on more.” Next stop: more journeyman training for Michaels, in the form of monologues for Rowan &

Martin's Laugh-In.

“I felt as if I was learning the craft of it,” he said. “This is looking back — I'm not sure what I thought then. I was trying to write in other people's voices. I did whatever I was asked to do and tried to be conscientious and not make mistakes. But by 1970, I was sort of itching to connect with what I was really interested 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. It was a time of turmoil, and this was very traditional television. So I had some frustration. I wanted to be doing the kind of comedy that was making me and my friends laugh.”

He didn't know it, but that discontent would eventually give rise to Saturday Night Live. The CBC called again, enticing Hart and Lorne back to the frozen north for four self-penned TV specials per year. During the second year, Michaels realized that while performing was fun, writing and producing liked him a lot more. A pivotal moment, quaint as it sounds, was when he produced a James Taylor segment, and changed the lighting from deep green to blue as Taylor sang “deep greens and blues are the colors I choose” from “Sweet Baby James.”

“I'm not sure it was extraordinarily innovative,” he said, “but it seemed more like what was happening; closer to the television that my friends and I would have liked.”

Hart and/or Lorne continued their peripatetic ways between Toronto and Hollywood, before Brillstein — whom he'd met while wandering the NBC hallways during Laugh-In tapings—offered Michaels $500 a week to write for the Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour, 13 shows in ten weeks. It turned out to be a life-changing break, because fellow Burns and Schreiber writer Ann Elder suggested he meet a friend of hers named Lily Tomlin. Returning to Hollywood, this time without Hart, Michaels wrote two specials for Tomlin, the first of which won him an Emmy and cemented Tomlin's reputation as a creative force.

More jobs lined up and fainted: a movie script or two, a Flip Wilson special, etc.— enough to allow Michaels to afford a room at the Chateau Marmont on the Sunset Strip (the $508 room when he was in the chips; the $280 room when he wasn't.) Then came that offer that ultimately would have allowed him to buy the Chateau Marmont, if he wanted. Dick Ebersol, new head of late night TV for NBC, told him they were taking Tonight Show reruns out of the Saturday night time period, and were looking for pilots.

“He and I got along really well,” said Michaels. “I showed him and other NBC execs a lot of shows I liked, like Monty Python. Lots of stuff that was happening in comedy, but wasn't yet on American television. I told him the kind of show I wanted to do and we agreed I'd do a pilot. When someone would say, `this won't play in the middle of the country,' I'd say, `I come from Canada, which is the middle of the country, and we always got it!'”

It was early 1975 when Michaels, a notorious late sleeper, roused himself to join NBC talent director David Tebet and programming chief Marvin Antonowksi at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a 7 a.m. breakfast meeting. Seems they no longer wanted the pilot — they wanted the show. Three months later, after “hundreds and hundreds” of meetings, Michaels had put together a group of “remarkable” writers and performers. He says he set only two rules for himself in formulating the original SNL crew: don't do a show you wouldn't watch, because you're going to end up watching it a lot; and don't work with anyone you wouldn't have dinner with, because you're going to end up having lots of dinners with them.

The original concept was for Albert Brooks to host, but he didn't want a live gig, and instead contributed a number of short films that became part of the show's hallmark. The Muppets were also in the lineup, and did the first few shows, along with a whole bunch of people Michaels wouldn't mind having dinner with. People named Radner, Chase, etc.

“As the air date got closer, suddenly people who had never worked together were comfortable working with each other. And we still didn't know what we were doing. I think I knew all the ingredients of the show, but I didn't have the recipe. And you can see, if you look at the first few shows, we kind of lurched towards success. The reason we went on and stayed on was that we were not tested! There was no pilot. The audience saw it when the network saw it. After the first show, it turned out that western civilization, as we know it, had not ended. The ratings were okay, the reviews were okay, and suddenly we were on to show number two. We had six months for show one and then six days for show two. Suddenly we were like, `oh, I hadn't really thought this through.'” In that momentous first season, now syndicated to the point of American iconography through Michaels' Broadway Video, Michaels wrote “everything I had ever thought I could write — a couple of times.” It paid off. Chase, who did a lot of that first-season writing along with Michael O'Donoghue, remembered:

“There's something that I don't think anybody knows, and after all these years, probably nobody would admit it, but this guy was a great writer himself. To pull that show together in that first year, I would say Lorne and I, with the help of Michael O'Donoghue, wrote at least half of the shows. Even Lorne would say that. He is the best editor — or certainly was at the time — of other people's writing. Sketches would come in at 12 or 15 pages, and Lorne would cut to the quick, and get to what is this about, what's a good punch-line for it, and how can we move the cameras from there to the next stage, for the next bit? All of those little things that appear little are huge in making a live show work. And we wrote the shows that got the Emmys. Those were, I think, the Elliott Gould and Buck Henry shows.”

The first season, Michaels said, was exhilarating. The Emmys were an “official sanction.” During the second, the cast hit its stride. By the third, the whole country had embraced SNL. By the fifth, having weathered the vagaries of the skyrocketing fame of his cast, “I was exhausted, spent, and I left.” (A Weekend Update reference to NBC chief Fred Silverman as “Freddie the Lame-O” that someone forgot to screen through Silverman didn't help matters.) In the next several years, SNL drifted (some would say foundered) — despite incipient stars like Murphy and Crystal — while Michaels produced Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park, a Gilda Radner special, and various other projects. A new comedy series done at Brandon Tartikoff's request, The New Show, didn't work. In 1985, Tartikoff phoned to ask Michaels to “save” the almost-ready-for-cancellation players, and he came back. Today, as SNL enters its 25th anniversary in 1999, the gray, 54-year-old father of three (Henry, 6, Eddie, 4, and Sophie, 1, with wife Alice, whom he met in 1990 when she worked on the show) says of SNL's longevity, and his entering the Hall of Fame:“You know, I'm still wearing khakis. I'm proud of that fact.”

If pressed to comment on SNL's success, Michaels doesn't say much beyond “It's a show they'll never make again,” and lavishes love and praise on Belushi, Aykroyd, Curtin, et al. If pressed to comment on his own role in the show's success, he is even more restrained. One quality that he will allow has served both him and SNLwell, however, is far more elemental than wit or ambition. The man loves to talk. A lot. And if he's long-winded, he comes by it honestly: “I have this incredible faith in conversation,”he once said. “I recently had a physical checkup, and my doctor told me that I have 35 percent more lung capacity than the average.”

A person who loves to talk, it naturally follows, loves people — and this quality has worked to the better, and probably the worse, of SNL. Some seasons might be better referred to as Saturnalia Live.

“In many ways, his best quality and his worst quality is his inability to say no,” Chase said. “The casts and writers and the size of those groups would get larger and larger over the years because Lorne is such a nice person. He doesn't like to meddle in others' private lives. He doesn't like to hurt people's feelings.”

To the extent that, Chase remembered with some chagrin, Michaels held no grudge when the comedian abandoned SNL after that classic, Emmy-winning first season. (Chase won for comedy performance.) Seems the pratfall specialist-originator of Weekend Update had fallen for a woman who wanted him full-time in L.A.

“Lorne knew that she wasn't the right girl, and it turned out she wasn't. The marriage lasted all of minutes. It was a very tough decision. And in many ways, I think it separated Lorne and me as friends, because I felt I let him down. But he's such a good friend that he's the last guy in the world who would say, `Chevy, you can't do this to me.' He let me go.”

Michaels' rare melange of comic skills, people skills, and nice-guy skills is never more in evidence than in that weekly moment of controlled chaos between the SNL dress rehearsal and the show itself, when writers, directors, guest host and actors all sardine into his office on the 9th floor at 30 Rock. To watch the man juggle it all, you wonder how far he might have gone in the military.

“The brilliance of Lorne,” said Brillstein, “is between dress rehearsal and air, when he has over a hundred people in his office on the 9th floor, and he's changing the running order, changing the camera shots, changing the logos, shortening sketches, lengthening sketches — and it's all done in forty minutes, During this hour, Lorne, being the gentleman he is, is also remembering whose sketch he cancelled the week before. He doesn't want to hurt an actor or writer who was hurt the week before because their sketch was cancelled. And remember, he also has to take care of the host, who's a visitor that week and often new to the whole thing. So it's amazing. I've never seen anything like that in all my days of show business. That's as arduous as it can get. He's amazing, amazing, amazing.”

How amazing? Ask Chase.

“Lorne stole all my material and robbed me blind, and I still love him like a brother,” he said.

(It's Saturday Niiiiiiiight.)

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