Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Quarterback

The man who put the vision back in TV

December 27, 1979
Lorne Michaels on the set of 'Saturday Night Live.'
Fred Hermansky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Image

Lorne Michaels likes to call the producing of live television comedy a "contact sport," but not because he brings a jock mentality to the game of getting a program on the air, or because he is cynical about the enormity of the task. Rather, the boyish, salt-and-pepper-haired. Michaels uses the term because he is among the few who still believe that sincerity is not a dirty word in the video village. The thirty-four-year-old creator of Saturday Night Live is well aware of the industry's knotty preconceptions about "successful" programming formulas, yet he is equally conscious of his own artistic goals and what he must do to realize them.

As we look back on the year in television, and in fact the last four years, it becomes apparent that, like it or not, there has never been another program on television to compare with Saturday Night Live. Granted, it owes as great a debt to Ernie Kovacs, Milton Berle, Red Skelton, Steve Allen, Jack Parr, Johnny Carson, Your Show of Shows and That Was the Week That Was as it does to improvisational comedy. But Saturday Night Live is truly greater than the sum of its current parts and historical appendages. It is living comedy, intensely personal, sophisticated, topical with a cutting edge and, while uneven, utterly riveting in its riskiness.

The son of a Toronto furrier, Michaels spent a sizable chunk of his boyhood watching television or hanging around the College Playhouse, a movie house owned by his grandparents. The Playhouse was just a few blocks from the University of Toronto, where Michaels enrolled after high school. In 1963, he cowrote and directed The U.C. Follies, a light comic revue that attracted the interest of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Three years later Michaels and friend Hart Pomerantz began to write for CBC Radio. The fledgling stand-up team soon grew restive with its small-fish, small-pond circumstances and headed for New York City, where the two performed at various clubs, principally the Improvisation. Noticed by Jack Rollins, Woody Allen's manager, they enjoyed a brief writing stewardship under Allen's wing.

"It was pre-Take the Money and Run," says Michaels. "I don't think that I added a single one-liner to his life, but he once called a joke I did brilliant, and that kept me going for four or five years." The gag centered on the notion that man could not have an original thought in this world. "Because whatever thought you were thinking," Michaels explains, "somewhere there was probably someone else also thinking that at the same time. And so it was a sequence of tracking that person down.

"But every time you called," Lorne concludes, "the line was busy!"

Not exactly a knee-slapper, but no worse than Woody's then-current quips about getting stoned and trying to give the Statue of Liberty a hickey.

As a team, Lorne and Hart were making little headway in the Big Apple. Shortly after an abortive writing arrangement with Joan Rivers, during which she reportedly paid them a pittance for their monologues (parts of which she used), they split up and Michaels returned to Canadian television for four more years.

At length, he was lured to Los Angeles to join the writing staff of The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show, an unmemorable mess that led to one season with Laugh-In, an equally unsatisfying experience. Michaels played no role whatsoever in the conception of the show and could rarely recognize even fragments of his own material by the time they were filtered through the rewrite staff. "I got an Emmy nomination for Laugh-In, but I felt like I was standing next to the guy who gets shot and you both get the Purple Heart," he confides.

He left Los Angeles in 1969 for Canada, only to return in the fall of 1973 as a writer for the Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour, a job that eventually led to a meeting with Lily Tomlin. "Lily looked at my stuff from Canada and asked me to work with her. The first time we met, we spent about seven hours talking. She was probably the formative influence on me. She was the first person I met who really cared about quality and getting it all right. At a point when I had very little self-confidence she said, 'I appreciate you and I appreciate your work.'"

Their writing collaboration resulted in Lily, a 1973 CBS special that won an Emmy and led to two more well-received Tomlin specials for ABC, which Michaels coproduced with Jane Wagner. These projects, and a highly rated Flip Wilson special, brought the twenty-nine-year-old Michaels to the attention of Dick Ebersol, head of late-night television programming at NBC.

Ebersol was interested in a proposal Lorne had submitted for "a comedy show, frank and intelligent, for young, urban adults." He asked Michaels to develop a pilot.

"I held out for three things, with the support of Ebersol," says Michaels. "One, no pilot, because if they saw it beforehand they'd say, 'You can't do that on television.' That was solved by the second demand – making it live. Lastly, I wanted a commitment for twenty shows." (He got eighteen.)

The possibilities were enormous but the pitfalls were terrifying. There hadn't been a live entertainment program on NBC for ten years. The brass were looking for a new, youthful audience, and Michaels seemed likely to attract it. He began contacting various talents he had encountered during his convoluted career in New York and Canada, among them Dan Aykroyd, a young actor he had worked with at CBC-TV; Gilda Radner, whom he'd met in Toronto through mutual friends; brothers Bill and Brian Doyle-Murray from Chicago's Second City company; Chevy Chase, a writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour whom Michaels first bumped into while in line to see a Monty Python film; Herb Sargent, a TV veteran who had produced the first Tomlin special; John Belushi, a standout in National Lampoon's Lemmings stage show; and Tom Schiller, an L.A.-based documentary filmmaker whose father had been a writer on The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show.

Michaels appointed Schiller to be his personal assistant, flew to New York City and began to set up shop. There was a casting call at Nola Sound Studios on Fifty-seventh Street to select the show's repertory company and the hopefuls streamed in.

The field was eventually trimmed to a handful, and a "screen test" was videotaped on September 9th, 1975, with brief appearances by Aykroyd, Murray, Laraine Newman, Radner, Belushi, Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, actor George Coe and surrealistic comic Andy Kaufman, who gave a slow, eerie recitation of the song "Mac-Arthur Park" – twice.

By this time, it had been decided that there would be a different guest host and a musical guest each week, and Jim Henson's Muppets would be regulars. Besides Michaels, Chase, Schiller and Sargent, the other people designated as writers were Morris; former National Lampoon editors Michael O'Donoghue and Anne Beatts; Al Franken and Tom Davis, two seasoned stand-up comics from Minnesota; Rosie Shuster, who had worked for the CBC and with Tomlin; Marilyn Suzanne Miller, whose credits included scripts for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda; and New York gag writer Alan Zweibel. Although not officially hired as writers, Aykroyd and Belushi immediately began contributing heavily, especially material they performed together.

"I believed the show should look, for the first few times, as if the network had closed down for the night, and these guys snuck into the studio," says Michaels. "I wanted the show always to be perceived as an underdog." But contrary to popular belief and its underdog image, Saturday Night Live has been a resounding success from the start, its ratings steadily climbing despite the often seesawing quality of the comedy and the loss, in the second season, of cynosure Chevy Chase, and most recently Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Indeed, the opening show for the 1979-1980 season was the most highly rated ever.

Some 25 million viewers now tune in on a regular basis, and two Best of Saturday Night Live specials aired on prime time last year were so successful that a new thirteen-installment series has been assembled to air each Wednesday.

As its fifth season picks up steam, it's a little difficult to imagine a world without Saturday Night Live. How Lorne Michaels helped manage this feat is still a mystery to many. A man cautious around strangers, he has rarely spoken publicly about his creation and his relationships with his celebrated coworkers. He is known in the TV industry as a workhorse, an unflappable taskmaster and a softhearted romantic who admits he cannot bear to fire anyone.

In a series of interviews conducted in his Upper West Side apartment and at the Saturday Night Live office and studio at NBC headquarters in Rockefeller Center, Michaels finally talked at length about himself and his work. When our discussion began in the spring of 1979, Michaels was immersed in several outside projects that had been sparked by the show: acting as executive producer of a live-in-the-studio album for Gilda Radner that would metamorphose into the Broadway show, Gilda Radner Live from New York (which he directed); a soundtrack LP; and a film. He also served as executive producer of the controversial Mr. Mike's Mondo Video, a ninety-minute, late-night-special-turned-movie that would be billed as "The TV Show That Can't Be Shown on Television!"

Michaels has now embarked on several other independent ventures, including an investment in new video technology and a film deal with Warner Brothers.

Still, he insists that Saturday Night Live remains his primary passion. This is easy to believe as I watch him, in his customary rumpled white shirt, jeans and sneakers, hunched over his monitor in the center of studio 8-H during the eight p.m. dress rehearsal – done before a live audience – for the season opener with Steve Martin and Blondie. As he surveys on screen the program that is unfolding around him, he dictates last-minute refinements to assistant Cherie Fortis, most of them concerned with the length of the show and staging accuracy.

"Why the fuck is Steve wearing a bathrobe and shoes?" Michaels barks as Martin is routed from an off-screen shower by Bill Murray in a sketch ("Señor Lopez") about a door-to-door volunteer Spanish teacher. "Lose that stuff," he notes. "He should be in shorts and slippers!"

Later, he demands a curly white wig for Murray in a sendup of The David Susskind Show and then decides the Mr. Bill film is too long. In a few minutes, the final run-through will be over and he will rush to a series of rapid-fire conferences with the writers, cast and camera crew that will result in his canceling three sketches. The atmosphere off-camera is unusually strained, and nail biting is the norm among the weary staff as Alan Zweibel murmurs to Rosie Shuster, "Are you scared too?"

There seems to be no relief from the awful tension. And then, a camera dolly that has been separating Michaels from the rest of us rolls back, and we can see the haggard producer bent over his TV, his tired face bathed in the blue-white glow, giggling at the latest sketch like a teenager back home in Toronto.

"A little risky, but good, very funny," he whispers to himself with a sloppy smile at the close of the segment. "Really deserves to succeed."

At this moment, I am thinking the same thing about Lorne Michaels and Saturday Night Live.

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Fred Hermansky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Image
Lorne Michaels on the set of 'Saturday Night Live.'
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