It’s fitting that few people are aware of the work that Saturday Night Live creator and producer Lorne Michaels put in before he broke-through with the legendary sketch show and the Not Ready for Primetime Players more than 40 years ago.
Michaels isn’t the first name or even the 10th name you think of when you think about Saturday Night Live. He’s a behind-the-scenes kind of guy who went from being a writer on Canadian radio to a joke writer for Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In before it became his responsibility to hand-pick the cast, keep the lights on, and keep the trains running on time for Saturday Night Live. It’s not the sexiest job, but it’s the most important one and it’s seemingly perfect for Michaels and the show, two entities that experienced a concurrent five-year down period that began when Michaels left the show prior to the 1980 season.
Before Michaels settled into his role as unseen ringleader, though, he did try his hand at being an on-camera talent with the CBC’s The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour, a show similar to Laugh-In that was hosted by Michaels and his comedy partner, Hart Pomerantz.
The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour is a minor footnote in Michaels’ career now, but he has credited it as being the place where he “learned how to do television” and it’s also the place where he realized that he was “more interested in the production” than in “the performing.” Despite that realization, though, Michaels briefly considered hosting Weekend Update while the show was in its planning stages. He’s also spent a fair amount of time in front of the camera on SNL, playing himself — or a heightened version of himself. As these clips show, he’s not half bad at either.
Lorne Michaels’ most famous on-camera appearance on SNL has to be his mock offer to pay The Beatles $3,000 to reunite on the show after a promoter had offered the legendary band $50 million to reunite. It was ballsy, irreverent, and a perfect bit for the show’s thumb-in-the-eye style. It also nearly worked a week later when John Lennon and Paul McCartney pondered showing up to claim half the money.
While that legendary moment never came to be, Michaels did stretch the bit out over the years, upping the offer to $3,500, discussing it with George Harrison, and telling McCartney years later that Harrison had the money.
The 1985-1986 Season
When Michaels returned to the show after his five-year absence in 1985, the old magic didn’t automatically return with him. If anything, Michaels’ return season felt inferior to the previous star-studded season that had featured Billy Crystal and Martin Short.
Aware that the show was hemorrhaging, Michaels didn’t bullsh*t the audience. At season’s end, former New York Yankees manager and co-guest host Billy Martin lit the cast on fire as part of a cliffhanger before Michaels came in to rescue Jon Lovitz from the burning dressing room while everyone else was essentially left to die.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a clip of that sketch, but this wasn’t the first time that Michaels had some fun with the show’s woes in 1986. A few episodes prior, Michaels resigned to go take over a pro wrestling show. Replacing Lorne at SNL was Francis Ford Coppola, who came aboard to direct the show and deliver one of the strangest episodes in Saturday Night Live’s history, with new opening credits, theme music, and a different feel.
Above is a clip of Michaels explaining the change to a resistant cast that included Robert Downey Jr., Joan Cusack, Randy Quaid, and Anthony Michael Hall.
Entering The ’90s
When the show transitioned to the ’90s, Michaels was there to introduce viewers to a brave new world of jetpacks, Don Pardo baby tortoises, android Phil Hartmans, and a robot that spewed Jon Lovitz’s catchphrases. The effects and Michaels’ sorta-mullet are both terrible, but it’s worth it to see Michaels pop a “Re-Run Pill” and proclaim, “Mmm, Tony Danza!”
Steve Martin Sings and Cares
With rare exception, I’m not a big fan of Saturday Night Live‘s reliance on musical numbers during the monologue. They’re usually lifeless and overly goofy, but this grand Steve Martin-led song about not mailing in an episode is charming for the way that it includes the entire cast and allows longtime stage manager Joe Disco and a few other crew members a chance to get in on the action. It’s Michaels who steals the show, though, urging Martin to coast while getting a manicure before revealing a lovely fake voice that encourages Martin.
The whole thing is goofy as hell, but it certainly has a pulse.
Dennis Miller’s Last Show
Miller was one of the best Weekend Update anchors in the history of Saturday Night Live and someone I personally idolized as a kid, but this isn’t on the list because it was his last show. It’s here for Michaels’ uncharacteristically aggressive put-down of Jon Lovitz, who had left before the season to make Mom and Dad Save the World but who had come back on multiple occasions. I’m sure these remarks were all in good fun, but it was a hell of an elbow from the boss man.
This clip is also here because of Abraham Lincoln. I never noticed it before, but after going through a ton of Lorne Michaels clips, there is often a man dressed up as Abraham Lincoln in the background just hanging around backstage. That’s just another brilliant quirk about Michaels’ appearances, like the Beatles check running gag and Tracy Morgan’s demands for Lorne to get him a soda.
Chris Farley’s Vow Of Sobriety
In hindsight, it’s a gut-punch to see Chris Farley swearing a vow of sobriety to Lorne Michaels in an effort to host the show just two months before his untimely death, but I wouldn’t say that this is the show making fun of Farley’s self-destructive ways. To me, this is sketch is about the show addressing a real question about Farley’s ability to reign in his demons and perform, and they did that through comedy because that’s what the show does.
Bath Time With Tom Green
Once upon a time, Tom Green built his fame on the sturdy foundation of cow udder sucking. This fame eventually got him on Saturday Night Live and, for some reason, it was decided that Lorne Michaels should get into a bath tub with him so the audience could get a cheap laugh.
This is another example of Michaels briefly pulling away from the detached and occasionally evil on-screen on-screen boss persona that he had developed over the years.
“Can We Be Funny?”
From one of Michaels’ weirdest moments to his most important. Following the 9/11 attacks, late night comedy shows slowly staggered back to the airwaves, unsure of how they should address a shaken audience. David Letterman and Jon Stewart both took on that challenge head-on, but with Saturday Night Live‘s rotating host structure and Lorne’s mostly behind-the-scenes role, they didn’t have someone on-hand to speak for New York’s signature TV series. Instead, Michaels asked old friend Paul Simon to sing “The Boxer” while New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and a group of police officers and firefighters looked on.
After that stirring performance, Michaels approached Giuliani and asked for permission to be funny. “Why start now?” deadpanned the mayor, and it sounded like a starting gun for many who use comedy to get through troubling moments.
Goodbye Ruby Tuesday
Saturday Night Live had never set off firecrackers to call attention to one of their departing cast members before, but Kristen Wiig is in-arguably one of the show’s most legendary players and her exit clearly hit the cast hard. When you watch the video, it seems like Jason Sudeikis is near tears watching the sendoff, and it’s easy to feel a frog in your throat when you watch Lorne come out to have a dance with his star.
It’s hard for outsiders to get a firm grasp on the relationship that Michaels has with his cast, but it seems like he has morphed from a peer, to a boss, to someone who is a father figure to these comics over the decades. Perhaps this is why it feels like Michaels is giving away a daughter, not saying goodbye to an employee, in this video.
New Cast Member or Member of Arcade Fire
Andy Samberg, Sudeikis, Fred Armisen, and Bill Hader all followed Wiig out the door in 2012 and 2013, leaving a huge hole in the cast that Michaels is still trying to fill. At the start of last season, he brought in a group of six featured players who, together, looked like a pasty indie rock band. Responding to that observation, the writers came up with this game show that featured a quick cameo by Michaels, who spoke to the cast’s lack of a true star by asking 36-season veteran Keenan Thompson if he was the new cast member.
Though Saturday Night Live doesn’t often poke fun at itself, this was a nice shot, as was the infinite McConaugheys sketch that poked fun at the show’s lack of diversity later in the season.
The Halloween Party
Kate McKinnon still has the potential to be a huge star and she’s probably the most talented person in the current cast. That was on full display a couple of weeks ago when she teamed up with Jim Carrey for an insane sketch that saw the two of them run, roll, and undulate through Studio 8H, at one point settling next to Lorne Michaels, whom they unsuccessfully tried to work into the routine.
I want to believe that there was once a time when Michaels would have joined them for a brief moment in an effort to satiate any residual need to perform and act out, but that probably isn’t so. He has shown a willingness to make a dry appearance here and there, but Lorne Michaels isn’t a performer, he’s just the guy who makes the performance possible. And while that doesn’t come with the spotlight, it does come with a lot more longevity and the chance to make more of an impact.