Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Quarterback

Page 4 of 5

How did you pick the cast and format for Saturday Night Live?
I already knew about Bill and Danny and Gilda and John from Second City and I wanted them all. The key for me, surprisingly, and the success of the show… was the girls, because just as many women as men watch television.

I signed the Saturday Night Live contract on April 1st, 1975, but I didn't know quite what the show was going to be. The first thing that I did when I agreed to do it was, Tom Schiller – who was then my assistant, later to be a writer and filmmaker on the show – and I went to a place outside Los Angeles in the desert, Joshua Tree. This was in June. And I just sat there and just thought a lot. I came back and I knew the format I wanted. A repertory company, musical guests, the Muppets, all of it.

I recall someone saying that you two took acid.
You heard those stories? I was doing a lot of mushrooms at the time. Yes, there were some psychedelics ingested. But you're relating the two things as if it all happened in some sort of vision.

Oh no I'm not. All I'm asking is what you did.
Aw, now I'm fucked. It was scary. And I later talked to NBC a lot about the show discovering itself on the air and that with comedy shows it was necessary to see what to emphasize, where the hit was, as it were. I think the brass at NBC were real open to it. Television executives are not morons. They are generally bright people who are caught in an economic system that demands a certain kind of meat-and-potatoes approach. [NBC President Herbert] Schlosser said, "When will it be ready?" And I said, "Show ten." And he came to show ten, which was the Elliott Gould show, and he sat there. He laughed and he was wonderful. Right from the beginning, I had the support of him and the board and everyone. After the very first show, there was a panic, but it was always from the younger people on the board…thinking that you can't do this. But we did.

The basic sets for the show are an odd cross between Gasoline Alley and a high-school gym. How did they come about?
Eugene and Franne Lee saw the studio [8-H] and came up with the design, which is now the design of the show, although we've changed it every year for four years. But the balcony was there because, with comedy, it's real important that there be that eye contact and proximity. The NBC shop came up with a cost of a couple hundred thousand dollars for this set, which was way out of the league. I couldn't do the show I wanted without that set. Dick and I went in to Schlosser's office with the model of the set. I explained why I wanted it and he said, "You've got it." It wasn't quite a wave of the hand, but he understood the problems in gearing up to do a live show and the risk involved.

Why did you want that kind of set?
Because I wanted the show to look like nothing else had ever looked before.

But what I'm asking is, how does the show look to you?
The show looks a little rundown and ragged. That's the look I wanted. Not terribly slick. It's what New York was at that time and still is, by and large. Deteriorated, run-down and loved because of it. It has the feeling of an old shoe.

I went to the theater for a designer because I wanted a theatrical presentation. Television is almost always shot from pedestals on the floor, pedestal cameras, so that the camera men and the actors are at eye level. I wanted a stage because stages are real important psychologically for performing. That you not be at the same eye level of the audience, that you'd be above the audience.

I'm a big believer in hardball reality in terms of sketches. If it's supposed to be an office it should look like an office; if it's supposed to be a restaurant let it look like a restaurant. Lily Tomlin used to go to the extent that, if she was in a kitchen, all the appliances would be practical, if she was supposed to be cooking she would cook. That may not be necessary in everything, but I would rather put that as the ideal than the look of the old Flip Wilson Show, which was the suggestions of the set. The cuteness of a cutout of a tree or all of that style.

Let's talk about the actual preparation for a show. Give me an example of the nuts and bolts of this process.
No matter how good or how bad the show has been the Saturday night before, on the following Monday there's no show. I go in early or late in the afternoon because Monday morning is my morning of rest. There will generally be an earlier meeting between myself and whoever the host is that week. Because the show is not done on tape, I can give none of the traditional guarantees that make people feel secure. I can't say, "When we have the music and the laugh track, the mistakes won't show," or whatever. I can only say that I'll try and tell the truth and they'll see what I see, and it could be the most humiliating night of your life. Those who are brave enough come along anyway. Candice Bergen once compared it to being kidnapped.

On Monday I begin to get a sense of the shape of the show, just the barest sense of it. And the hosts generally get terrified; he or she tends to lose heart at that meeting because the ideas then are in very raw form, but generally people have freedom to present any idea that they want and also the freedom to go write it if they believe in it. I have to listen on about five or ten levels. Is it achievable? Can a set be built? How do you present it? What cast members does it involve? How much time does it take? What end of the studio will it be set up in? Somebody says he has a scene and it takes place in a hotel room, and it really turns out that the hotel room could have been a restaurant or an apartment or a park bench. So you have to make those things clearer, because you suddenly have five sketches in offices or whatever, and the show looks the same. What I try to do, to use a particularly clumsy metaphor, is find enough colors to make a rainbow. And hopefully, it isn't just a black rainbow.

There are some new people on the team this year. How did Peter Aykroyd and Harry Shearer get hired?
Peter and Harry are new writers. I don't believe in replacing people. I just never have. When Chevy left, Chevy left. I didn't look for a tall guy who falls. Six, seven shows later Billy came into the picture – he was not there as Chevy's replacement. Harry and Peter are not being brought in to replace Dan and John. There are six or seven people I will draw on as the next generation of performers on the show, and I hope that they will be allowed to grow gradually.

People loved John and Danny, and you can't just say, "Now here are their replacements." You have to dislike anybody who comes in that way.

Incidentally, we have four other new writers on the show [bringing the total number to eighteen]: Tom Gammill and Max Pross, who worked on The Harvard Lampoon; Sarah Paley, a local writer who has written for The New Yorker; and a seasoned TV pro named Matt Neuman, who worked with me on the Lily Tomlin specials.

What is the show to you?
I wanted it to be devoid of definition, much the way I wanted my life to be. I didn't want it to be a comedy show, a political show; I didn't want it to be a musical show. The mandate was to keep pushing it and to keep finding new areas that it belonged in. Whenever it was getting to the point where smugness was about to creep in, I tried to kick it around a little. The hardest part was that it was a secret the world found out about. So when a movie studio was telling John Belushi that he was the biggest star in the world, it was impossible to say to him, "John you've gotta push it, you've gotta try something new here or you're going to be yesterday's news."

In my heart of hearts I truly believe that the people at NBC do not know what they have there. No more than RCA knew what they had when they had Elvis Presley years ago. Hopefully Saturday Night Live will just keep growing and growing. And if I leave it, whoever takes it over will hopefully do likewise, because if they keep any of the same people around and try to make it the same old way, the audience will kill them.

What's supposed to happen? Is the show going on for another few years?
It's going on. As far as NBC is concerned it's going on for another twenty years. But as far as I'm concerned it's one week at a time.

Reviewing the projects you've been involved in during the last year, are you happy with them, overall?
My experience as an executive producer hasn't been terribly pleasant because I'm not real good with money. As a producer you look out for the show, but as executive producer you look out for your friends. Trying to executive produce Michael O'Donoghue's Mr. Mike's Mondo Video and the shows Garry Weis did last year in the Saturday Night Live time period wasn't in any way a fulfilling or pleasant experience for me because what I love is the work, what I love doing is the show. I don't like running interference for other people. And I don't like making money that way.

Mondo Video posed some censorship problems. Have there been problems with censors in doing Saturday Night Live?
If you work in television you accept certain rules. You also accept a lot of money. For instance, you can't say "fuck," although you probably can in Rolling Stone. So if you want to say "fuck," do it for Rolling Stone or do it on cable or do it on video cassettes or whatever. I'm not saying I agree with those rules. But as Edmund Carpenter wrote, "One medium, when it bears the burden of mass communication, liberates the ones that don't." For example, the printing press liberated the letter. Television liberated movies. I think cable and video disc will liberate television. And suddenly there will be more freedom.

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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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