Any casual listeners of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast will be forgiven for presuming that the President Barack Obama, whom the comic interviewed a few months back, was the comedian’s ultimate get. His fans know better: The host has been obsessed with talking to Saturday Night Live‘s creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels. In rant after rant — and conversation after conversation with SNL alums — Maron has cursed himself, cursed the “evil wizard” he saw in Michaels and cursed showbiz itself while trying to figure out why he didn’t make it onto the show in 1995, when he was considered for a “Weekend Update” contributor position and ultimately didn’t get it.
Arguably, this meeting, and Maron’s perceived rejection because of it, was a grain of sand that helped shaped the cantankerous black pearl of his comedy over the years. After years of perceived industry indifference, the stand-up comic slowly began to from being a comedian’s comedian to more of a household name, in no short part because of the success of his podcast. During a recent conversation with jilted SNL performer Michaela Watkins, he admitted that he didn’t even know what talking to Michaels would really accomplish for him anymore.
Hard to know whether someone nudged the Saturday Night Live creator or the timing was just right, but Maron finally got his chance for closure a few weeks ago. On the evenings of October 5th and 6th, he finally sat down with Lorne Michaels to talk about everything that’s been on his mind (and gnawing at his gut) for two decades — as well as chewing the fat over showbiz and SNL history, to boot. The episode finally posted on the WTF site today, and here are 10 things we learned listening to the two-hour therapy session-cum-podcast extravaganza.
1. Lorne Michaels is not an “evil wizard” who has it in for Marc Maron
He is not a robot, the cold fish that many friendly (and unfriendly) impersonators have made him out to be over the years, and certainly not the “evil wizard” Maron has long imagined him to be. He’s simply a man who loves writers, performers, putting on shows and chasing a perfection he’ll never achieve. (You knew this already, of course, but it’s intriguing to listen to Maron come to terms with it.) Once the initial dissection of “the meeting” is over, and Maron starts asking Michaels about Canada and his upbringing, you can hear the host relax and get back in the zone. This is, after all, just another conversation. But this brings us to …
2. There is no “candy test.”
At this point, the details of Maron’s ill-fated 1995 meeting with Michaels will be more than familiar to WTF fans: Michaels’ derisive comment about the downtown comedy scene at New York’s Luna Lounge, Maron’s misstep in talking about monkey scat and — the final nail in the coffin — the comedian brazenly taking a Jolly Ranchers from Michaels’ candy dish. As the host presents each talking point as though it were a ticking time bomb, Michaels either defuses it directly or proves that there’s no big boom coming — mainly by refusing to acknowledge the existence of an explosive device whatsoever. (“God, you really remember this,” Michaels says at one point.) For years, the comic has been haunted by the candy dish: Was it some kind of trial that Maron failed when he took a piece? Michaels just corrects him: The dish contained Tootsie Rolls and not Jolly Ranchers — or any other types of sweets for that matter. “There was no alternative candy,” Michaels confirms. “There was just the one.”
3. Ultimately, Maron didn’t get SNL because the timing wasn’t right
If anything, Michaels comes across as apologetic about the fact that Maron didn’t get a job at SNL. The reason, according to the producer, has more to do with timing than talent. He explains that when he has a one-on-one with comics or other performers, it’s because he already believes in them. “I wouldn’t have met with you if I didn’t think you had [an original voice],” he tells Maron. In the mid 1990s, the show was taking a beating in the press and from the network executives — according to Michaels, everything was in a state of transition. And with so many moving pieces and masters to serve, he just failed to find the right spot for Maron. “You had a strong point-of-view, you were clear,” Michaels says. “You were just part of a mix.”
4. Michaels doesn’t idealize any era of SNL
Adjusting to new casts and new writers is always painful, Michaels confesses. Fans are likely to mention a certain era they hold near and dear to their heart —the producer predicts that a person’s favorite version of SNL usually corresponds to the time they were in high school. (As in, when they were powerless and with nothing better to do on a Saturday night.) Every cast reinvents the show — and every cast starts out as something less than great. “All babies are ugly unless they’re your baby,” Michaels says, adding that it takes three or four years before everyone agrees that said metaphorical baby is cute. But even when talking about those beloved early years, Michaels doesn’t glorify them: “I’ve been there for all the golden years, and I can tell you, they weren’t golden at the time.”
5. Michaels’ career straddles two very different eras of television
When the SNL creator started out writing for comics in New York and variety shows in Burbank, the world of TV was dominated by middle-aged men writing sitcoms such as I Love Lucy. Michaels sucked up lessons from the old guard while watching music and film adopt something of the counterculture. Then he started working for Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. (At one point, there were “40 million people watching Lucy, 40 million watching Laugh In,” Michaels says. “There have always been two Americas, in that regard.”) Not long afterward, he started taking risks as a producer and put “new wine in an old bottle” with the live format of Saturday Night Live.
6. Lily Tomlin changed Michaels’ life
When working as a writer in California in the early 1970s, he met with the character actor about doing a special together. Michaels confesses to feeling a bit lost and wondering “if I could do the things I wanted to do.” Tomlin, whom he calls “a braver spirit than I was,” not only picks him to help with the special, but vouches for him as a producer. Once the show won an Emmy, Michaels says the credibility helped him when creating the show with NBC.
7. The 40th Anniversary show will be the closest Michaels thinks he’ll get to perfection
Due to the nature of the live show, Michaels understands he’ll never achieve everything he wants. “From my side of things, you only see the mistakes. The camera cut was late, the guy was cued in too early, that joke didn’t make it to the cards and there was a stumble,” he says. “It’s like a sport, you play it.” That said, he confesses that the star-studded 40th anniversary show was the closest he’ll get to what he aims for: “The feeling in the room was so warm and so supportive. In that very clichéd sense, it’s a family.”
8. The strength of SNL, according to Michaels, “has always been the middle of the country”
Michaels designs the show not to appeal to New Yorkers or Angelenos, but those in Kansas. Though the writers may never have a consensus about what they find funny, he never wants to shut out people who seem to really need the show by “doing things that are too specific.” This is why he tries to include elements of satire, political, dry, broad and physical comedy. Regardless of personal aesthetics, Michaels feels, “If you laugh, if you give it up for somebody … we know it.”
9. Despite what it may seem, Michaels doesn’t always know what he wants from new talent
Michaels tells Maron about bringing on Leslie Jones, who came in after a recommendation from Chris Rock. While he describes her as “the real thing,” he admits that she was not initially what he was looking for. “Then you see it and you fall in love … when you see it and you’re blown away by it, you can do the right thing.”
10. The door is open, just a crack, for Maron’s triumphant return to SNL
Before the conversation ended, Maron told Michaels, “I’m ready to audition.” Michaels replied, “We’re always on the lookout … you’ll need your headshot, of course.”