talking with

In Conversation: Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos

No producer in TV history has done more with an 11:30 p.m. time slot than Lorne ­Michaels. Since creating Saturday Night Live in 1975, Michaels has built the comedic universe as we know it, sparking a revolution in topical satire, redefining the limits of broadcast, and launching the careers of Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Mike ­Myers, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig, to name but a few. On February 17, another SNL grad, Jimmy Fallon, will become the sixth host of NBC’s The Tonight Show—which is being relocated from Burbank to New York to suit not just Fallon but Michaels, his executive producer, who will be picking up another five hours per week at 11:30 with the show. Shortly after that, Michaels will help another protégé, Seth Meyers, into Fallon’s old 12:30 a.m. seat, also ­under his roof at 30 Rock. In his office on the ninth floor there, Michaels discusses SNL, diversity, Lassie, and when he actually laughs.

At what point during the week do you know whether an episode of Saturday Night Live is going to be good or bad?
You don’t. If it goes well at the Monday meeting, where the writers and cast are meeting the host and telling their ideas, then it may dip when we actually read the pieces. Sometimes we have a very bad read-through, but that just means people are made more alert that new stuff has to be generated. Just before Christmas, we didn’t have a cold open when Kristen Wiig made the mistake of coming by to say hello on Friday night. I went downstairs, got a haircut, and by the time I came back fifteen minutes later they had the Sound of Music sketch. And that was the opening of that week’s show.

You’ve been dealing with crises like this for almost 40 years now.
The only show I ever really wanted to do was SNL. It was some sort of merging of my talent and my metabolism. It suited who I am and what I do really well, though whatever I was thinking it was, it kept mutating and growing. At first I didn’t even know that the cast would be the thing everybody talked about. We thought it would be the hosts.

You’re still extremely hands-on as a producer. Can you walk me through one of your typical weeks?
Monday we do that meeting, usually around 5 or 5:30 p.m. I meet the host first, and then everyone piles into my office. We go around the room and tell ideas. Most people prepare for it; a lot of people lie. But it’s my way of saying—particularly if everyone’s tired from the week before—that we’re starting again. Monday night, I’m generally either at home or at dinner by eight.

Not too bad.
Not too bad. Tuesday, around 8:30 p.m., I take the host to dinner, which is helpful, because you get a sense of them in a relaxed situation and where you’re going to go with their monologue. Then we come back here.

Until how late?
I leave around 3 a.m. Tuesday is writing night. The younger ones tend to go right through to the next afternoon.

On Wednesday, somewhere between 3 and 4 p.m., we do a read-through. Since it’s only us, the read-through is an honest audience. I was just out in L.A., and the amount of cheers and laughs at read-throughs there—they’re just in a better mood, more upbeat. In New York, we’re a little bit more fear-driven.

The sets start arriving on Thursday. We rehearse three or four sketches and shoot the filmed pieces. Thursday night I get to have dinner.

Dinners seem important to you.
Friday, I have to get out, too. I disappear for an hour around 8 p.m. Then we rehearse here until midnight.

And Saturday?
In the afternoon, we do a run-through in costumes and wigs. At five, we do the sound check. Around six, we run “Weekend Update” and the monologue, if it’s been written. Then around 7:30, the dress-rehearsal audience is in their seats, the band plays, and we start. We do an eight o’clock show, which generally runs long, to 10 or 10:10, and on bad nights, 10:20. I meet with the producers and the head writers about what’s feasible, what amount of time can come out of which piece.

An hour before showtime?
There’s no longer much discussion—it’s just orders. It’s like landing a 747. You just have to make sure it gets in on time.

This month you’re launching Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show and Late Night With Seth Meyers. How much does that add to your personal workload?
is the center and the thing that makes me happiest. Having produced Late Night With Conan O’Brien and then Jimmy and 30 Rock with Tina Fey, here’s how I’d put it: I’ve never done one of those things with someone that I thought needed me to hover over them. I know they’re good enough that I can tiptoe out of the room and just be there if they need me, and they won’t feel bad and I won’t feel guilty.

But Seth’s is a brand-new show, so you must be giving him some extra guidance.
Seth is a worrier. But in my opinion, he has until next fall to find that show. He should be taking chances. It can’t spring full-blown from Zeus’s thigh on February 24. Whereas the expectation is that Jimmy’s Tonight Show will, because he’s been doing it for five years. But I don’t want Seth to put pressure on himself or think that his show has to have that level of polish. It should find its way. I do think he’s way better prepared than Conan was when he began.

What makes Jimmy and Seth the right guys to host a late-night talk show in 2014? In 1993, with Conan, you picked someone a little more arch and cynical.
Conan was an easy decision for me. Both Jay and Dave were essentially my generation—they were boomers. I thought the smart move was to drop down a generation, but if you’re looking at 30 or 28, there’s no one with any experience. I’m more used to putting someone on who’s never been on television before than most people, and that was the bet with Conan. He got roughed up badly, but he came through. The mantra that I used to say to him was, “The longer you’re on, the longer you’re on.” After a while, he just became part of the landscape.

But I think there’s always an alpha, and Dave—he invented late night. Both Jimmy Kimmel and Conan grew up under Dave, to the extent that I grew up under Carson. With Jimmy, and to some degree Seth, I think they were much more influenced by SNL. Jimmy’s not ironic.

Why does that help? Do you think comedy has gotten nicer?
Well, when you compare it to what we were doing in the seventies or Sam Kinison in the eighties and nineties—that’s all still out there, in the clubs. But Jimmy has always just been a great entertainer—a real host. Like Carson, he wants you to be comfortable on his show. He’s looking for how to get the best out of you. He’s not looking to score off some mistake you’ve made or you misspoke. I think that’s why people relax on his show and enjoy him.

Do you think comedy has become less dependent on traditional joke writing lately? In the Times recently, Neil Genzlinger wrote a piece about the overuse of “really,” as a sort of stand-in for a punch line rather than an actual punch line, thanks in part to “Weekend Update.”
I’m always very fearful when academics get ahold of comedy. Comedy is such a clear thing—people laugh or they don’t laugh. It’s involuntary. I’m not saying it can’t be scrutinized, it’s just that they take the enjoyment out of it. [Former SNL writer] Michael O’Donoghue used to say that “sophomoric” is liberal code for “funny.” There are things in low comedy that make people uncomfortable, and there are things in high comedy that make people bored. I have a very broad taste, so I’m perfectly happy in a Wes Anderson movie and I thought Anchorman 2 was really funny last year. And SNL has always been all of it. It isn’t as if there’s any kind of agreement here that everybody likes everything that’s on the show. But I try to make room. We’re a variety show.

Reading about the early years of SNL, you hear a lot from disgruntled former cast members who remember the show as a difficult place to work. But there seem to be fewer sour grapes among the more recent casts. What changed?
First of all, I think NBC now is way more supportive than they ever were in the past. And people now make a much longer commitment to the show, which helps. I think Fred Armisen was here eleven years. Seth’s been here twelve years, thirteen years. And Kenan Thompson right now is a master. You have to get comfortable with the idea that you’re on television, you’re in a skyscraper in New York City, it’s 11:30 at night, and you have to be your best. How do you get to a level of calm and comfort, so that nothing’s bothering you, and you just know how to do it? It takes forever for them to get there.

But also I think the sour-grapes thing is much more about how life and careers turn out. We’re talking about 40 years. I don’t think there are that many people who think that their time here wasn’t one of the best periods of their life. It’s hard, and it’s competitive, but, as Dana Carvey says, “Show me one person who was funnier after SNL.

How much more concerned about being politically correct are you? The Internet is always ready to pounce when you step out of line. Do you read any of that?
No. I also don’t tweet. I don’t tweet for a very simple reason, which is that I drink.

But we couldn’t do “News for the Hard of Hearing” anymore, because that’s a handicap. When we did Governor Paterson, we were roundly criticized. But comedy is a safety valve. If a culture doesn’t allow you to laugh at the leaders or at things that your eyes and ears tell you are actually happening, that’s not good. I do get into trouble every now and then, because we’re at that level where we’re being defined as if we’re a government institution. Like with the diversity thing.

Since you bring that up: When did you first realize that SNL had a diversity problem?
We knew it going into last summer. Then we didn’t find the right person. You look at an audition and go, “Is she as good as Kate? Is she as good as Nasim? Is she going to get a writer to write for her and be taken care of and given the chance for success?” Nothing would have made my life easier than somebody popping, but nobody popped. But also, this past year, having lost Fred, Jason Sudeikis, and Bill Hader and knowing I was losing Seth, we were focused on finding guys. Nobody wrote anything about the three girls we brought in the year before.

What’s interesting to me is, show business was clearly in the lead on diversity—way before sports, way before business, way before educational institutions, way before newspapers, way before almost anything else. We’re about talent. When you see it, you’re not fussy about where you find it or who it is. You just go, “Oh my God.” I mean, you watch Jennifer Lawrence at 23 years old, and nobody’s writing an article about how she’s got a long way to go. You just go, “Oh, it’s there.”

But Sasheer Zamata is only the first black female cast member since Maya Rudolph left in 2007, and we’ve had a black First Lady since 2008.
People say, “Who’s going to play Michelle Obama?” Obama is probably the first president in a long time that we’ve been doing less of. Reagan was that way, too, oddly enough, until Jim Downey and Al Franken figured out that Reagan mastermind sketch. He was an actor, and the public already knew that, and they voted for him anyway. We couldn’t find a way in.

Are there any basic rules for what works and what doesn’t politically?
Republicans are easier for us than Democrats. Democrats tend to take it personally; Republicans think it’s funny. But we’re not sitting here every week going, “We’ve really got to do the First Family.” This week, our cold open is about three big stories. We have Piers Morgan interviewing A-Rod, Chris Christie, and Justin Bieber. We’re doing more of that kind of thing than stuff about Benghazi or the new budget agreement. The country has lost interest in it. I can’t tell you why. It’s no less important, but in some way you can’t do health care more than twice, at which point there’s just nothing left. But Jay Pharoah does a really good Obama.

Between Victoria Jackson, Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, Norm MacDonald, Colin Quinn, Jim Downey, and Adam Sandler, SNL seems to produce a lot of conservatives, which is rare for a comedy show. Why do you think that is?
Well, let’s put Victoria in a separate category. When she arrived here, she was married to a fire-eater. Then she married an old boyfriend who was a cop. She was always deeply Christian. I would say Norm is more cranky than political. I love Norm. We’re both Canadian. I think Downey grew up with parents who were Kennedy Democrats and then he evolved. But we’ve never been agenda people. Our job—and it sounds too grand to say and none of us ever say it—is speaking truth to power. I’m registered as an Independent, not because everything that we do would be undermined if we were partisan—Jon Stewart has that role. Us? Theoretically, whoever it is in power, we’re against them.

Lorne Michaels on set with Raquel Welch and Chevy Chase for Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” 1976. Photo: NBC/2012 NBCUniversal, Inc.

When do you realize that you’ve got somebody like a Jimmy or Will Ferrell or Kristen Wiig or Tina Fey? How soon do you know somebody is going to have a life beyond SNL?
Look at Kate McKinnon. She came in two years ago, and she’d peak too soon—she’d peak at dress rehearsal—and not be able to hold the character. But when they figure that out, you see them do remarkable things. When that’s happening, that’s a magic period. But, of course, at the same time, the rest of the industry goes, “That girl’s fantastic.” At which point it becomes a slippery slope—the industry seems to discover talent more on SNL than any other place. Now, the smarter ones, like Tina and Amy or whoever, know this is the place where they can do the kind of work that they’ll never be able to do when they’re subject to being cast.

Jimmy Fallon said recently that you advised him not just on professional things but who to date and when to buy an apartment.
He was just being funny.

So you’re not that involved in the lives of your cast members?
It depends who it is. I think the fact that Jimmy and I have 30 years between us means there’s naturally some level of paternal-ness to it. Seth as well. But they both have fathers that are strong and whatever. They’re not adopted.

You’ve said if all goes as planned, Jimmy will host The Tonight Show for the rest of his career.
I said that to Conan, too. There is no job after this. You stay on as long as you can and you hope, like Carson, that it’s your choice when you go. Which I think Letterman will have as well.

But Jimmy is only 39. Given all the ways in which TV is changing, do you really think that, in 30 years, there will still be a Tonight Show on at 11:30 every night? Will there even be an NBC?
Well, when all the Conan and Jay Leno stuff was going down, Jimmy almost got moved from 12:30 to 1 a.m., which he was great about. He’s from a different generation. He said, “I don’t know when Jersey Shore’s on. I just know I’m going to see it.” I watch Boardwalk Empire, Homeland, and Game of Thrones, but I’m there at nine on Sundays, physically in front of the set. My boys are not. They’re 21 and 19, and my daughter certainly isn’t, and she’s 16.

But I’m that generation—I see everything in movies too. My grandparents owned a movie house, so my earliest memories, before TV, are of just going there and sitting there and watching feature presentations. It was Canada, so we say feature presentation. And I still read the newspaper and magazines. Nothing is really ever dead in media. It’s all about whether people are prepared to spend money and support it. The moment that they started making newspapers smaller, everyone noticed. The paper quality gets worse, and then everybody goes, “No one’s spending money on it.”

But go down to see Jimmy’s new studio. It looks like it was always there, like it was part of Rockefeller Center when it was built. It’s elegant and kind of magical. I was looking at it yesterday and I went, “Oh my God, this is the first time anyone has spent money on anything.” If you look at our balcony at SNL, it is still classified as temporary. It’s scaffolding—scaffolding and some excess seats from Yankee Stadium. No one went, “Whatever you need.” Because broadcast has been in decline my entire professional career.

So, yes, I believe The Tonight Show will be around, as I believe magazines, books, and newspapers will be around. Somebody has to believe in them and reinvent them and figure out how to make them relevant again. Look at SNL—there were no live shows when we started. The last of them were in the early or mid-sixties. Herb Schlosser, who was running NBC, wanted this new show to be live. No one had done a live show in forever. Now it’s just part of the culture.

Will Jimmy’s show be any different at 11:30 than it was at 12:30?
At its core it’ll be the same. Spike Lee is shooting the new opening, but I think the boldest thing this time was allowing us to bring The Tonight Show to New York. Conan was very comfortable here and was doing a sort of show that made more sense in New York. But nobody ever thought twice that his Tonight Show had to be in L.A., because that’s where Carson had been.

You were the executive producer of Conan’s 12:30 show, but he didn’t take you with him to The Tonight Show. If he had, would you have been able to insulate him from the network better?
We’ll never know.

Do you have your own succession plan?
In terms of people who I think can do this job, I think there’s probably five or six who care enough about it. But I have no plan. It’s as if somehow thinking about it will … you know. Milton Berle, George Burns, and Bob Hope, they all made it to 100 or pretty close. So, you never know.

What do you say when a cast member comes to you and says she or he wants to leave to do movies?
The advice I give most often is, build a bridge to the next thing. When it’s solid enough, walk across it. Don’t go because somebody promised you this or somebody promised you that. You’re a star on SNL. That does not automatically mean you’ll be a star in everything else you touch. I just saw Ana Gasteyer downstairs. You see her in Wicked—that’s where she wanted to be, and she got there. I think when Will Ferrell left, he’d already had three movies that worked. Kristen did Bridesmaids. It was the biggest hit ever that summer. Then she came back and did another season. That’s Kristen.

What do you mean?
What I discovered after the first five years was that talented people tend to move on and less talented people tend to be the most loyal. It’s rare that you find both.

When you’re auditioning for new cast members now, do you look for anything different from what you did in earlier seasons?
No, it’s almost always the same. It’s somebody that you think is original and never someone who reminds you of somebody else. There was a thing that we realized in the first season of the show, which was that if somebody else of your type came in, you tended to have a light show. When Candice Bergen did the fourth show, Jane Curtin was suddenly not doing many parts. When Anthony Perkins did the show, Chevy didn’t have much to do. And you’re always looking for the sense of humor. There are a lot of very good comedy performers with very little sense of humor. It’s skill, and they’ve learned it in the same way that a magician learns tricks. They’re fine, too, but we need a different thing. It’s better if they can create comedy as opposed to execute comedy.

Since SNL debuted in 1975—
You weren’t alive when it debuted.

I was nearly alive. But since it premiered, improv comedy has become more important and stand-up less so. Does that make it easier to find new cast members?
There’s a lot of training—UCB and all of that—and it’s very good training. But what we do here is so nailed down that there’s very little improvisation. Every line, every bit of dialogue has a camera cut attached to it. If you’re not where you’re supposed to be, then they’re going to miss the shot.

How have the auditionees changed over the years?
Each generation presents itself differently. Also, people auditioning now have grown up on some part of the show, so they’ve found us. Probably 80 percent of the people who work here weren’t alive when the show began, so if I’m talking about why we did something with Bill Murray, it might as well be that I’m talking about the Battle of Appomattox.

A broader question: What’s different about the type of comedy SNL does now versus what it did in the seventies?
The things people are interested in have changed. The show came on the year after Watergate. Everyone in my generation had seen the Watergate hearings, followed the story, and seen a president resign. It was the baby-boomers’ coming of age. Now, nothing we do in politics tends to be shocking anymore. There’s not the gasp of seeing the president made fun of, because the president is on TV all the time—he does daytime, he does late night. Some of the majesty is gone.

But political references were just part of it. Michael O’Donoghue wrote a sketch about Jerry Rubin selling wallpaper based on his sixties graffiti, which we got Jerry Rubin to actually appear in. We were the beginning of the counter­reaction to the more extreme parts of the sixties.

Could the show play that kind of role now?
It was much easier to do when everyone knew the references. At that point, you had a complete unity generationally—in music, movies, politics, and sports. It’s much more fragmented now, so half the people watching Drake’s show, maybe 60 to 70 percent, didn’t know him. Even news is fragmented now. There used to be much more cohesion—everyone saw the helicopter take the people out of Saigon. I don’t know whether people know what’s going on in Fallujah right now. So it’s just harder to do comedy about that. Now we do comedy that’s more about the way we live our lives.

Is there any type of humor that you’ve gotten sick of through the years?
Oh, many. There’s a point when a joke is particularly low where I will say to the writer, “You must be very proud.” Sometimes those things get a laugh, but it’s the wrong kind of laugh. An old friend of mine would say, “Better a cheap shot than no shot at all.” But you want to aim for some level of originality.

Have you ever felt restricted by the standards of broadcast TV?
No. I believe that there’s no creativity without boundaries. If you write a sonnet, it’s got to be fourteen lines. If you write one that’s nine lines, it’s not a sonnet. So we have to be clever. We’re in a medium that goes into people’s homes, and, very often now, people watch our show with their kids.

So you’re glad you’re on a network?
Yes. In the late eighties or early nineties, I made a Lassie movie—an obscure part of my canon, it’s not worth going into the why of it. But I did love the show when I was growing up. We were shooting in the western part of Virginia in sheep country, on a 5,000-acre sheep ranch. The only place there within 100 miles was this Holiday Inn, which had a big screen. On Monday nights people came in and watched football. And on Saturday nights they came in and watched Saturday Night Live.

That’s a great story.
The middle of the country has always been our base. Chicago in the seventies—New York and L.A. were solid, but Chicago was everything.

You’ve said that Steven Seagal was the worst host in SNL history.
That was in a sketch. It’s an Al Franken joke. Nicolas Cage was hosting, and he said, “I’m going to be the worst host ever.” I just read it off a card: “No, that was Steven Seagal.” I think the Steven Seagal show was just a really hard week. I’m not sure, on an objective level, that he was necessarily the worst.

Who was worse? Milton Berle?
No, Milton Berle I was just not prepared for. I’m more sympathetic to him now than I was then, in 1979. He had ruled this place for so many years, and we were these kids telling him no. In the middle of the monologue, a steel pipe hit the floor, which had never happened before. Milton went, “Uh-oh, NBC just dropped another show.” I see the stagehand, who was an old stagehand here that Milton knew. I said, “Willy, what happened?” He said, “Milton told me to drop this pipe.” I said, “Milton, we don’t do planned ad-libs.” He put his hand on my shoulder and went, “I know. Satire. Don’t worry, I’ll make it CBS.”

He wanted to close the show with “September Song,” him and a piano. Just before he went on to do it, he treated me like I was a child again, which half made me laugh, but half was like, Hey! He said, “Don’t worry, the standing ovation is all set.” The host has ten seats, and suddenly he starts singing and ten people in the balcony stand up. No one else is standing up. It was just bizarre. The idea of the arranged standing ovation is just a part of show business that we were trying to separate ourselves from. We all get there eventually, I guess.

Do you watch much other contemporary comedy? Are there any shows you are jealous of?
Like almost everyone else in comedy, I don’t watch much comedy. I’ve been that way since the beginning. But I love South Park. I loved Chappelle’s Show. But I’m more likely to watch Game of Thrones and news and sports. Orson Welles was once quoted as saying that he had trouble going to movies, because he saw the shadow of the slate as the slate’s being pulled out of the frame—sometimes they use it right at the beginning of a take and you can see it leaving. But you’d have to know how movies are made and have to have sat in an editing room for thousands of hours to know what that was.

According to the show’s lore, auditionees are told that you won’t laugh while they’re performing—
That’s all Jimmy. He tells that story: “They say Lorne won’t laugh.” I laugh all the time. But it’s a better story if you say you’re told that I won’t laugh but then I laugh. I won’t laugh at something to be polite.

So that’s not something they say to cushion the blow for people who botch their auditions?
You’re asking the wrong guy. I’m sure that my entering a room is a bigger deal now than it was in 1975. But I think most of that is projection. Are you scared now?

That’s my point. I can’t gauge that, because I don’t see myself as scary. But clearly I am.

*This conversation has been condensed and edited from two interviews conducted on January 16 and 23.

This article originally appeared in the February 10, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

In Conversation:SNL’s Lorne Michaels