Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Quarterback

Page 5 of 5

Will you be involved in cable or video disc?
Yes. I'm well on the road to doing that, but it's too early to discuss it. Just be certain that cable and video disc are not novelties. Frankly, I think they're going to change everything. The proliferation of cable will be amazing, and independent cable stations will someday be able to tie up as many affiliates for one of their programs as a network is able to. The networks will remain financing organizations, but there will be enormous fragmentation in terms of viewing audiences. With fifty or more stations to choose from, a certain segment of the public will be able to tune into a certain horticulture show, and other very esoteric programs. That kind of programming will be possible and profitable as TV stations emerge and assume other new services.

We're going to see an expanded popular use of videotape. Francis Coppola edited some of Apocalypse Now on videotape. It's easy to work with, very convenient and versatile. I think that the videotape camera will soon compete commercially with the home Super-8 movie camera. As for video-cassette recorders, there are approximately 1 million units in homes now, and sales are growing at about 800,000 a year. I was at a party last Sunday and many of the people there said they had watched Saturday Night Live that morning or afternoon, because they had taped the show from the night before on a Betamax. There are video-cassette stores on Broadway now, and they're selling mostly porn – I guess porn acts as an incentive to purchase the hardware – but I also know they're selling large amounts of movie cassettes like M*A*S*H. In a short while, Mr. Mike or myself will be able to make a show solely for Betamax viewing, just as Van Morrison makes a record album, and we'll have a big market for it.

And you can imagine the freedom of video disc – the artist will have direct contact with his audience. Why should Steve Martin hassle with network censors or go through all the trouble surrounding movies, when he can simply do a new video disc show and ship it directly to the record stores? It's going to happen; the hardware and software are there to do it, and the quality is high. In terms of technical possibilities, the future really is now. And just wait and see how quickly all of this becomes commonplace.

Every year I would hear or read somewhere that this is the last year for Saturday Night Live. Everybody's fed up with it, Lorne wants to do something else, the cast's contracts are up after the fifth year...
I think all of that's true. I had only signed for three years. That seemed to be right, and then it would be time to go and do some movies. That was what I always thought about – leaving television. Suddenly, at the middle of last year, I told everybody that I was leaving when my contract was up. It didn't dawn on me that Saturday Night Live is what makes me happy; it was a career move. And you answer the question, "So what's next for Lorne Michaels?" about 3000 times and you begin to think that, "Jesus, I'm an asshole for still being here." So-and-so signed with Universal, so-and-so signed with Paramount. The quickest way to kill off somebody talented is to let him do everything he wants.

Still, it's inevitable that the best of repertory companies break up.
People leave the show, but no one can be replaced. The nature of Saturday Night, and it is the very fact of the collaboration, the fact that everybody puts in everything he or she can, that makes it what it is. I got an Emmy the end of the first year for producing; I went out and I thanked the writers and the cast and my manager and the show's director, Dave Wilson, and Dick Ebersol. When I came back to the office there were a lot of hurt faces of people I hadn't thanked – there were only about sixty people on the show and that was too long.

Television is not an art. If it is, forgive me for using it. You can go into a room and write a screenplay or a novel and you don't need anyone else. In television there are hundreds of pairs of hands that help it along.

In terms of your own involvement, are you now just going on a year-to-year contract?
Yeah, I don't want to be able to relax. I keep comparing it more and more to baseball in the sense of playing the season. We're on live and the network has these three rating periods called sweeps – November, February and May. We come back each year from the summer and everything's flabby and out of shape and the first show is very seldom good. When we're in there and in harness it's real good; it's a real good feeling. But it's exhausting because you can't think or do anything else.

I think of television as a medium filled with blown opportunities, and a lot of people would not want to see talents like Don Hewitt of '60 Minutes' and yourself leave television. It happens too often, and the industry is left with a lot of morons out in Burbank writing Charlie's Angels.
I consider that, when the show works and hits on all cylinders, it's as good as it gets. I don't think that anything I'll ever do will have that same impact. I look at Woody Allen's work because certainly in film I think he's doing the best work in comedy, and I think I feel, as he's said in countless interviews, that there comes a time when you can't. You want to deal with your feelings a little more.

There have been just a few people over the years who believed in television and had some kind of impact on it – Edward R. Murrow, Cronkite, Don Hewitt; in comedy it was with Berle, Kovacs, Carson and yourself. Not many top talents bothered to even try.
In terms of high-caliber people, you're right. Maybe it's just too difficult. Dick Ebersol has this theory of the solitary passionate man, in that almost all things that get done get done because one person will not give up. But I think that there are many, many people that are passionate about what they do, and they often form extremely productive groups.

In either case, I think that obsession is a virtue.
But the pressure to give them less is so great in television because the traffic will bear almost anything. I think if I were the Fonz or if I were Chico, or Mork for that matter, well, I think it's going to be real hard to be Mork in about two years. I like diversity; I like the anonymity that I had up until we spoke.

What do you think you've contributed?
A chunk of my intestines and a large part of my brain. There was a credit in television called "created by," which I don't take because I always think that no one person does. But I certainly was present at the birth. I feel this loyalty; it's hard to describe. Loving the show is like loving humanity and yet not liking people. There's this thing called the Saturday Night Live show that is greater than any of the stars on it or greater than any of the writers or the network that it's on, in the sense that it must have its own integrity.

You seem determined, and yet very wistful.
We were off at Christmas [1978] on an island in the Caribbean; I was walking on the beach with Howard Shore, the musical director of the show, and he asked, "Are you gonna do it again?" And I said, "I don't know."

It was a time of complete agony, which I was stupid enough to play out in front of the press because I was trying to be honest. People would ask, "Are you coming back?" And I would say "I don't know," and the New York Post would go, "It's a contract ploy!" But Howard said, "It's too bad, because we're just learning how to do it." And he was, of course, right.

Such is the arrogance of winning too many awards too early because we moved television ahead about a quarter of an inch and there's dancing in the streets. I think the season that it is not better than the last one will be when I get out. And I will probably stay on too long as all people in comedy ultimately do. But I hope that I'll know. The only thing that could fuck it up now is what fucks up everything – success.

This story is from the December 27th, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone.

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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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