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Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Quarterback

The man who put the vision back in TV

lorne michaels 1979 saturday night livelorne michaels 1979 saturday night live

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.

 By 1975 television had become this cold, vacuous, manipulative medium. Then you came along with a canny, comedy-oriented show that had a warm, likable company – and all the headaches of live television. It was a gallant gesture, but you must have been a little nuts to have attempted it. Whenever I think of the potential hazards, I remember the time in 1977 that you booked the Sex Pistols.
Hmmm. I know what you mean. They backed out with less than a week to go. I mean, we can only pay scale. So some harsh words were exchanged, and we called Elvis Costello and he came on and did the show instead.

I heard you were quite upset when Elvis suddenly stopped at the beginning of his second number and began playing another song.
Yeah, it was a rough week, but the wonderful part was that he seized his moment. We always let the musical acts pick their own songs. But we spend a lot of time on rehearsals; we block out every camera shot, ’cause every second counts. So on the second tune, Elvis does a few bars, then stops. I thought,” Here it is, a TV hijacking. He’s gonna sing, ‘Kill all the niggers, kill all the Jews!'” Or some other apt punk statement. I was stunned, but then I smiled ’cause I knew I wouldn’t have to take the heat, and anyway, there it was in front of me – live television.

Will nothing be as good as live television?
One of the reasons I was so curious about live television was hearing about The Jack Parr Show and The Tonight Show – how they worked around the clock. It all seemed fairly romantic, which it is indeed. When I work on something, I have to do it all the way. And so far, I’ve found that the thrill of being seized by something and swept along by it is an overwhelming and exhilarating one.

Do you think the pressures of doing a live show like Saturday Night Live have a destructive quality?
Yes. The cost in human lives is great. No one can withstand the pressure. The odd part is that you can see everybody else going under; you never see yourself going under. If I paused longer than a day and thought about the toll it takes, I probably would never do it again. I don’t think any of us would.

Were you surprised when Danny and John decided to leave?
I was not surprised at John. Emotionally he was very much still tied to the show, but I think that last year right from the beginning, he had the feeling that it was his last. We had pretty much discussed that and agreed. As far as I’m concerned, John Belushi fulfilled his contract to NBC. He more than lived up to my expectations, and he did well by the show. There were times when I wanted to kill him, but there is with almost everyone on the show and I don’t mean to single him out. I also think that in an odd way, John was one of the strongest supporters the show ever really had.

Danny I was more surprised at, because even after the last show, he had, I thought, decided to come back and perform, but not to write, because he was going to be writing movies. I was surprised and upset. Danny is a highly honorable man and I think it pained him to make the decision to leave. Obviously both will be missed. John was a strong personality and Danny was a fine ensemble player, great at dialects, impersonations, characterizations. I’ve been through this before, with Chevy. But we’ll get by. Actually, I think we’ll do more than get by.

As individuals became more popular, people wanted to see more of them. The very fact that Danny and Bill and Garrett and John and Laraine were in a piece added something more to it. And so last year I felt that we got away with a lot of stuff that we would not have gotten away with if we were being judged as strangers.

As for John leaving, it was the curse of ensemble work, I think. When you work and become successful in an ensemble, you eventually want your own show, and the networks always give in to that pressure, and for good reason. By doing twenty shows a year, you get rapid growth, but you also never get to rework a piece. The cast of Saturday Night Live has done, at this point, close to 100 shows. And in those 100 shows they have experienced that bonding that comes with being there to anticipate another performer in trouble or somebody being there for you. It’s working without a net.

And yet you do provide a net, in that you’ve created a strong sense of family loyalty and support among the cast and crew. The idea of an extended family can be very consoling and very seductive. For instance, I recall Gilda telling Tom Snyder that leaving the show right now would be like slapping a parent in the face.
Ours is a more hectic process than movies, for instance, which have a much more slow and gentlemanly process, I think. The very fact that there’s a live audience and the show must go on is a theatrical tradition that dominates Saturday Night Live. Everybody – the cast, the crew, the writers – needs everybody else, so it becomes more family like.

Yes, and you’ve created a work environment that develops that team spirit, but it does not allow for the fiercely independent. I know that there was a lot of tension between you and Belushi, and he often came off as a wayward son. Tell me how you met him.
Chevy, actually, was urging me to hire John. And Chevy was a writer at that point, not a cast member. John and I have a kind of grudging respect for one another. Belushi came in for a meeting with me and he was heavily bearded at the time. And he had this stance – he was a radical actor, he wasn’t going to do television. And I said, “Thank you very much, that’s fine. Why are you here?” Well, he’d heard that I represented something new in television. But the more he would talk about how television was shit, the more I would say that I loved television. He only made me harden my position. It’s been the story of our relationship. I’m continually making him harden his position – and someday we’ll get married.

Your kidding doesn’t disguise your intense feelings about the importance of the show.
Saturday Night
is very, very hard work for very small rewards, both financial and otherwise. It requires a certain dedication that is harder and harder to maintain when somebody in films will give you $1 million or $2 million and treat you real well.

I’m trying to second-guess and it’s a stupid thing to do, but I think working on 1941, with a budget of $25 million or $30 million and different kinds of toys, was, for Danny and for John, a much more pleasurable experience than working on Saturday Night Live.

I think last year was a very confusing time for John, and I think his life was very crowded, partially because of Animal House, the Blues Brothers, being on the cover of Newsweek and signing a film deal with Universal. There just always seemed to be an entourage around him and it became very, very hard for me to penetrate that at all. I tried on a couple of occasions, but I think we both sensed it was the end.

Why do you think the Blues Brothers record did so well?
That was the very first Dan Aykroyd product. If you’ve loved Dan for four years, it was the very first opportunity to buy him. John had other things that had come out before, but I think that it was the power of them together, plus the fact that we put it on the show and we even made the distinction, which I think was significant, that they were the musical guests that week. They were not billed as themselves.

The record companies feel that the show can sell a lot of records.
You have to have the goods. All I can do – all the show can do, rather. Did I just say that I was the show? Jesus! All that you can do in presenting someone is try to present them real well. But in the same way, in a musical act, the sound can be wonderful or terrible, but a smile on a close-up that shows the person is not taking it all that seriously, or that they’re enjoying it, or some warmth comes across, then that tends to sell.

Leon Redbone has sold a lot of records as a result of an appearance on Saturday Night Live.
It’s much easier to present and shoot Leon Redbone than it is to do the Grateful Dead. Because Leon is intimate, you can get in real close. The simple music comes across great out of the small speaker. Whereas, what the Dead are trying to do is so diffused. It’s powerful and incredibly exciting in the studio, yet there’s no focus to it because the performance isn’t the star. The music is the star.

I remember Gilda telling me at one point last summer that you sometimes encourage people to take things from their personal lives and use them on the show.
Yes. In the first year we did a cold opening once where Buck Henry couldn’t get into the studio and I had to come down and get him. That was based on reality. It wasn’t Buck who it happened to, it had been Elliott Gould.

I thought the best of those were the “Judy Miller” skits. Everybody could appreciate them.
The “Judy Miller Show” was one of the best collaborations between Marilyn Miller and Gilda.

It was Gilda and Marilyn sharing their childhood experiences with the audience.
As was the slumber party, which was all the girls’ pieces. As is Todd and Lisa, the nerds, in a certain way. Those are things I tend to be proud of. It’s now to the point where those pieces get an ovation for just showing up. But the style of the show has been to kill off its successful things. It is done out of the continuing hope of taking chances and not just doing a successful variety show.

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.

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.

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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