Comedy on TV – A Conversation with Lorne Michaels, luncheon recap
1968. Lorne Michaels leaves his native Toronto and moves to Los Angeles to become a writer on ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN. A few years later in 1975 he moves to New York to start a show called NBC’S SATURDAY NIGHT, soon to be known as SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Now in its 38th season, SNL is the longest-running and most Emmy-nominated weekly late night television program in history. Michaels is also executive producer of LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON, 30 ROCK, UP ALL NIGHT, PORTLANDIA, and starting in 2014, THE TONIGHT SHOW. He is an inductee into the TV Hall of Fame and the recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
On April 16th 2013, Lorne Michaels walked onto the HRTS stage at the Beverly Hilton stage for a fun and informative discussion with fellow Emmy winner Martin Short.
Short immediately set a humorous tone by saying “it’s a thrill to be here. Actually, it’s more than a thrill, it’s a contractual obligation”, drawing a big laugh by adding “I wasn’t the first choice to do this but I didn’t take it personally since Gary Busey is a different type”.
With the HRTS event taking place a day after the tragedy in Boston, Short noted that back in December he had hosted SNL on the day after the Newtown school shootings, saying that it fell to Lorne to try and find a way to address the events on the show. Short added that “by the end of the day, he had figured out the perfect way to deal with it, which was to have these beautiful children sing Silent Night”, going on to ask Michaels “that level of perfect choice and taste, how do you know when to make those choices and to what level to make them?” Michaels related how after the events of 9/11 “we needed some moment to give us permission to start again, and so we did a joke with Mayor Giuliani where I said ‘can we be funny?’ and he had this joke of ‘why start now’?” When it comes to dealing with tragedies, Michaels said that “there are two things going on at the same time: you’re dealing with something that’s way bigger than you can possibly comprehend and then there’s comedy and show business, which at its best puts things in perspective”.
SNL famously being ‘Live from New York’, Short asked “why is it necessary for it always to be live?” and Michaels said that “because as a producer, you would never get everyone to agree on anything. I say every week that we go on not because we’re ready but because it’s 11:30”. Michaels related that the firm deadline settles everyone, that “there’s a lot of arguing right through dress rehearsal” and then when airtime approaches everyone falls into line.
How do you cast stars? With a show like SNL that spans four decades, how do you identify new talent and otherwise keep the show fresh? Michaels said “first, you’re always fascinated by their having something, they can make you laugh, they come at it from a different direction, there’s an energy level. The second thing you look for is discipline, are they serious, will they put in the hours?” Having discovered Conan O’Brien and given him a chance to host LATE NIGHT, Michaels recognized the comic’s work ethic, saying that “with Conan, I knew that he’s not going to sleep until he’s figured it out”.
Short asked about the decision to move THE TONIGHT SHOW out of Burbank, saying “Jimmy Fallon in New York, why not Jimmy Fallon out to capitalize on all the movie stars here?” and Michaels drew a big laugh by replying that “because now with air travel, stars come to New York”.
Over the years, SNL has become known for its political comedy, from Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford to Will Ferrell as George W. Bush to Jay Pharaoh as Barack Obama. Michaels related his first visit to the real White House, saying that “it was John, Danny, Chevy and myself, we pulled up to the gate and they asked for ID” but Belushi didn’t have any. It turned out not to be a problem since the guard said “I know who you are” and waved them through, Michaels noting how much times have changed since “that does not happen anymore”. Short wondered how Michaels deals with sketches that may be contrary to his own personal politics, asking “when do you ever step in?” and Michaels replied “I never do, I think that we are meant to be non-partisan”, since regardless of who is in power “we are supposed to be the opposition”.
SNL starting in the 1970s and continuing on through the 2010s, Short asked “is it the same business or is it a very different business?” and Michaels said “on the business side it’s a completely different business, when Herb Schlosser hired me it was just him and I in the office”, drawing a knowing laugh from the audience by adding “and he was head of both Programming and Business Affairs”. On the content side, sketches today can quickly go viral and global, Michaels noting that “we can do a digital short and people in Bulgaria know it, so the influence is so much greater and you’re not just playing for this neighborhood anymore”.
Noting Michaels’ work ethic, consistent success and longevity in the business, Short said that “you are someone who seems to be not remotely interested in the idea of slowing down”, going on to ask if Michaels has ever contemplated if and when SNL might end. Michaels said that “as long as it’s relevant it should be on”, and as for his own personal plans “I’ll do it as long as I possibly can. I think there will be a moment at some point where I will look at it and go ‘I don’t have the same edge’”, drawing a big laugh by adding “and three years after that date, that’s when I’ll stop”.
In closing, Short addressed the elephant in the room, finally touching on an issue that has received an enormous amount of media attention of late, saying “the one question that Bob Greenblatt wanted me to ask you is: these toilets that flush automatically, do they know when you’re finished or are they just guessing?” Annnnd, scene.
Photos by Chyna Photography
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