Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Quarterback

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You seem to have a philosophy about the importance of accuracy in comedy, and in television entertainment.
I respond to whatever is happening at the time to keep the show fresh and topical. I think people look forward to us going after the big story of the week. So when Three Mile Island happened, we had to do the Pepsi Syndrome. In those situations, I pull out the stops. The show tends to go over budget those weeks, but I think the audience is forever grateful – forever in television being about six months.

There was a piece that Tom [Davis] and Al [Franken] did for Laraine years ago about Howard Hughes, and we took it right out of Newsweek. There were, unfortunately, references that no one would know unless you read Time or Newsweek that week, because the book [that Newsweek excerpted] hadn't come out yet. We used just the facts of the last days of the man's life, particularly his long fingernails and the bottles of urine around his bed. It was, to those who knew it, forever locked as accurate. I always felt that the show at its best was a record of what had gone on that week in the country, the world and the lives of the people doing the show.

We talked earlier about sincerity. And about how it had been so devalued in modern-American show business that somebody on television would say "my very, very best friend" about some guest whom he had been introduced to about twenty minutes before by two William Morris agents. So sincerity could no longer belong in introductions or in gushing enthusiasm for a musical guest because that moment had, in most shows, been cheapened. Affection and sincerity had to come out in other ways so that by the end of the show, you could actually tell, you could feel, the warmth that the cast might have felt toward the host. If you watch the good-nights on Saturday Night Live carefully, you can see how they relate to each other. I don't mean just hugging and kissing or any of that shit. You can tell that there's been, say, tension, or whatever.

Personal interaction on TV is rarely that genuine.
Working on The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show [1968] was an eye-opening experience. It was the first time I'd encountered hype. It wasn't called that then. And people just kept saying, "It's great, it's great." As we drew closer to taping, it began to look pretty good and it was getting laughs. Phyllis came out to do the first warm-up. Her opening line in the first audience warm-up was, "What's brown and has holes in it? Swiss shit." Well, needless to say, after that warm-up it was smooth sailing. "What has hair and hangs from a wall? Humpty Cunt." That was the second joke. It went on till four in the morning and people were congratulating everyone, and Rosie Shuster, whom I was then married to, said, "You know it's garbage, don't you?" I didn't. This was the beginning of the realization that I had to pay very close attention to that.

If Bob Hope was doing a sketch on marijuana on TV at that time, the people acted like they were drunk. I was outraged. The Smothers Brothers broke through, I thought, to some degree. That was a much hipper show than Laugh-In was at that time. I was very envious of the people who worked on the Smothers Brothers' show because they were people of my generation who were working in television. Laugh-In had that appearance because it had performers of my generation, but the writers and the style were very much from another time and another place.

So, there was a period in the Sixties when it seemed as if the kind of show business that I wanted to be part of was over. It belonged to Milton Berle or to some relics from the past; it was in a museum someplace. Not that I love the excesses of that kind of show business – its false notes – but there was something very honest in coming out and facing the audience. And people like Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor or Steve Martin, for that matter, carried it on, representing us and articulating for us.

As you get more successful, no friend will tell you when it all really blows. But it wasn't that it was good or bad or anything. What I learned from experience is that it all rests on conception. Because if you're wrong at point A, it never gets any better.

What single thing on television have you seen, as an adult, that deeply moved you? A show, a moment?
I was fairly lonely and bottomed out at a certain time and I remember watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show and crying.

What happened on the show?
Nothing. It was just a particularly good episode; it had to do with the friendship between her and Rhoda. But I don't want to be remembered as the guy who cried over The Mary Tyler Moore Show. When I've been working too hard and haven't had a chance to feel anything because I've lived in my brain for too long, then I can be touched or moved by something, not necessarily sentimental, but something sweet or tender or any kind of generosity.

What I'm talking about is not so much the entertainment part of TV as the immediacy of it. I can remember being enormously moved when I was just sitting there eating a hamburger a thousand miles away and I saw Lee Harvey Oswald being shot on television. Or I can think of a few other times I was moved, like when my brother was in Vietnam and I saw a soldier get seriously injured on the evening news film. Also, while watching an interview with a woman whose family had just died in afire out in Brooklyn. Life is so frail. TV was reminding me what real life is like, and that's a strange experience.
And the American tradition that I most identify with and loved as a kid is the one where we know how overwhelmingly sad and mean life is, and so we tend to deal with it with humor. So you get the hard-boiled reporter, you get the people who develop an edge in order to protect themselves against the very things you're talking about.

I think we're seeing subtle indications that for the first time, people are truly losing interest in conventional network television.
I think that's true. But you're talking about the difference between 51 million and 49 million people.

Yes, at this point...
I think that's the fault of the Justice Department, which is now saying to the networks, "You can't make shows, you can only buy shows." It's a legal, antimonopoly battle currently going on to see if the networks will be allowed to create their own shows.* I think they should be.

You can't be a producer at the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] – or couldn't when I was there – without knowing how TV shows are made from beginning to end, and also knowing the things that least affect the quality of the show. And you were rewarded with high quality. And so, in terms of news, sports and especially straight information programming, I think that things that the networks produce are almost universally of a higher standard technically than the shows they buy. But an independent packager, if it has a big hit and a couple of successful spinoffs, can get enough money to give a show the look that the networks are capable of.

In the power groups that exist, such as MTM Productions, there is a certain quality and a standard. The Mary Tyler Moore Show would lead to Phyllis, would lead to Lou Grant, would lead to shows like Taxi or The Associates. Norman Lear shows were that way as well. You got a sense of a studio system. In a sense, that's what I am doing at NBC. But I believe in creating the structure and the way of doing the show first, rather than just having a great idea and then putting the people together for it. So Saturday Night Live and its production people might theoretically be able to expand and do another show. But it would have to be done slowly so that nothing is sacrificed in terms of quality.

Are Gilda's album and stage show an example of this evolutionary process? How did the show come about?
Briefly, out of the desire Gilda and I had to work together on something longer. Also, we both love theater. As kids we were both more drawn to Broadway than Hollywood. We had worked on an album for Gilda during the year and I thought that much of the material in it could be staged. They bring back vaudeville or burlesque all the time, and they always bring back the exact same sketches and the same people who did them. What we were trying to do was a new form of vaudeville, that style of revue comedy. Father Guido [Sarducci] was in it, and there was a wonderfully talented group called Rouge. And Paul Shaffer was part of it and Howard Shore, and Gilda was the centerpiece.

*The U.S. Justice Department filed an antitrust suit during the Ford administration, seeking to limit the number of hours of programming that networks can produce on their own. Independent producers, such as Universal or Paramount, would supply the bulk of programming (as they already do). The case is currently being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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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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