"Lorne Is Really Mad About This"

What Colin Jost's memoir reveals about Lorne Michaels.

I thought it might be interesting to look at what Colin Jost’s memoir reveals about his boss. (Bear with me.) Lorne Michaels created SNL in 1975 and has run the show for almost its entire existence, save for a five-season interlude in the ‘80s. This has earned him a great deal of power, both over the show itself, which is still very much his personal fiefdom within NBC, and throughout the entire entertainment industry. For all the fun we have roasting SNL’s terrible comedy, its true influence lies in its function as a machine that decides who will be rich and famous for the rest of their lives. Lorne runs the machine, which means he makes those decisions and profits from them handsomely.

Consider how far his tentacles have spread in the last few years alone. Los Espookys, The Other Two, Shrill, Miracle Workers, AP Bio, Documentary Now!, Detroiters, Portlandia, and of course NBC’s other late night shows, Late Night with Seth Meyers and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, all bear his imprimatur. Michaels runs an empire, and he runs it mostly from the shadows. Rarely does he give interviews; when he does, they’re with friendly outlets. As best I can tell, his most recent public comments were his statements on the firing of Shane Gillis and the allegations that he pressured Chris Kattan to sleep with Amy Heckerling. He made both through spokespeople.

This poses a challenge to anyone who wants to understand the man responsible for so much of our culture. We have to assemble an image from fleeting glimpses: the occasional revealing podcast appearance by an SNL alumnus, a line or two in an oral history, memoirs like Kattan’s or Jost’s. The aggregate is necessarily incomplete, and his status means that critical comments are few and far between. What’s interesting about Jost’s memoir is how even his rosy descriptions reflect a deeply unpleasant man in charge of a toxic office culture.

Consider his accounting of the challenges that come with SNL’s head writer gig, which Jost first assumed in the 2013-2014 season, almost a decade into his tenure at the show. (He got hired as a writer in 2005, when he was 22.) He compares the role to that of an “assistant zookeeper,” I suppose because that’s a more interesting image than “middle manager”:

The fundamental frustration of being head writer at SNL—like being the assistant zookeeper—is that it’s not your zoo. You can influence the way the zoo is run, but only so much. You can raise your hand at a meeting and say, “Hey, I think one of the anacondas ate a baby.” But it’s still up to the head zookeeper to agree to let you slice the anaconda open and take the baby out.

This puts you in the very stressful position of trying to address your boss’s concerns about the show while also defending your colleagues/friends and their vision for the sketches they wrote. It’s a more delicate situation than you might think. For example, say there’s a first-year writer at the show and she writes a sketch about Hitler Jr., and Lorne doesn’t like it. Maybe I think it’s funny and I say to Lorne: “I think we should do the Hitler Jr., sketch.” If Lorne relents and puts the sketch on the show, and he still hates it afterward (which he almost certainly will), then he won’t just be angry at me (that part I don’t really care about anymore)—he’ll be angry at the first-year writer, and that writer could lose her job at the end of the year. So you’re always making these weird calculations about what is best for the show, what is best for the individual writer, and what you think is genuinely the funniest version of a sketch.

It’s certainly not news that first-year SNL writers and performers have to walk a delicate tightrope. This is baked into the lore of the show. But I do find it noteworthy how openly Jost admits that Michaels is prone to getting so upset over a single misfire that he doesn’t renew the writer’s contract, and that Jost’s position affords him no power to protect his own staff. (Or, at least, that he feels powerless to do so.) This seems like essential context for any conversation about cancel culture and comedy. As I wrote last week, we often hear comedians describe mass criticism as a threat to comedic risk-taking. But evidently it is a matter of longstanding policy at TV’s oldest and biggest sketch comedy show to cancel comedians who take risks. This suggests that to the extent mass criticism is a new phenomenon, it might not be the stifling force itself so much as an external pressure on systems already designed to stifle. Such pressure may be fair or unfair depending on the situation, but ultimately it’s a red herring. Take it away and the systems still revolve around the arbitrary whims of their masters.

Jost does not say how often the extreme scenario he describes actually took place. But the threat was real enough that it weighed on every decision he made about each of the 50 sketches submitted each week. It weighed so heavily that when he was called to Michaels’ office after a table read one week, to decide which sketches made the cut, he started having what sounds like a panic attack. “My heart was racing and skipping beats and I didn’t know what to do,” he writes. “I lay down on the couch outside Lorne’s office and his assistant brought me water and called for a doctor. I remember thinking, If I die, will they mention me in the show on Saturday? Which sketch of mine would they show?

The doctor told him he was suffering heart palpitations brought on by the stress of his job. Jost would have to alleviate the stress. By meditation, perhaps? No: by accepting that he doesn’t actually have much control over the show he’s head writer of. Instead of trying to change it, he realized, he should keep his head down, focus on his own sketches, write the best cold opens he could write, and encourage younger writers to “work really hard” on their own material. “If I fought for a sketch and Lorne didn’t pick it,” he concludes, “I didn’t let it bother me anymore.” He succumbed to the machine, becoming the cog his boss required him to be.

This seems like an appropriate moment to quote the Taran Killam interview I linked above:

“When Seth Meyers left the show, the dynamic changed quite a bit. He was the last person there who I witnessed really collaborate with Lorne, as opposed to just kind of do what Lorne says,” Killam said. “And I also think the 40th [anniversary show] really sort of affected Lorne in that I think it was exciting and I think it was flattering and I think he was really able to sort of relish in this incredible institution that he’s responsible for and all these amazing iconic careers and all of his famous friends, and it had to have been the most potent overwhelming boost of a ‘this is your life’ experience ever. And then it all went away, and then it was back to this cast who’s all 40 years younger than you and aren’t as famous as Tina Fey or whatever, and my experience was he became very impatient.” Killam went on to say that the increasing number of pretaped sketches every week, as well as the general vibe at the show post–Seth Meyers, made SNL feel like “less of a happy place to be” and more of a “competitive, exhausting environment.”

Jost gives a sense of Michaels’ impatience in a later story. After his first, rough season as Weekend Update host, he spent the summer wondering whether he still had the gig, or any gig at SNL. In August, he finally received “a call from Lorne’s office” inviting him to audition for the job. He was dismayed to be asked to reapply for his own position, but got over his anxiety over the course of a few days writing and rehearsing with the other contenders. On the day of the audition, the group was scheduled to rehearse in-studio before formally auditioning on camera for Michaels and other producers. Michaels canceled this rehearsal at the last minute.

So there was zero rehearsal for what was probably one of the most important moments in all of our lives. I remember that halfway through the auditions, I was so angry at Lorne for not letting us rehearse that I actually got better. My skills were sharpened by rage, like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, or Mel Gibson in The Patriot, or Mel Gibson during a routine traffic stop. It snapped me back into the moment and I stopped overthinking any one joke. That may have saved my audition. 

But it was still a demoralizing exercise and, if anything, I felt further from keeping my job than I had before. To this day, I don’t know what Lorne and the producers wanted from those auditions, or what they learned from them. I just know it felt like I’d failed.

Again, it’s interesting how plainly Jost describes a toxic dynamic without naming it. Michaels made him re-audition for his job, plunging him into self-doubt. Then Michaels nixed his final opportunity to rehearse for that high-stakes audition, filling him with anger. Jost’s response to these transparently disrespectful acts is that it was actually good for his boss to make him feel that way, and in fact made him better at his job. Even though it also made him feel like a failure.

That’s not the end of the story. A week after the audition, Jost got a call from his manager, who congratulated him for getting rehired alongside Che. Jost hadn’t heard anything from SNL, and asked where this information was coming from. His manager said to forget he said anything and hung up.

Five minutes later, I got angry call from one of the producers at SNL: “DID YOU TELL YOUR MANAGER THAT YOU GOT WEEKEND UPDATE???”

To which I replied: “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT???? AM I EVEN DOING WEEKEND UPDATE??? NO ONE HAS TALKED TO ME IN A WEEK. HOW WOULD I TELL MY MANAGER INFORMATION THAT NO ONE HAS TOLD ME? I HAVEN’T TOLD MY MANAGER A SINGLE THING IN FIVE YEARS. I DON’T TELL MY THERAPIST MAJOR THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN MY LIFE. SERIOUSLY WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING?”

To which the producer said: “Lorne is really mad about this. I don’t know what’s going to happen now.” 

Suddenly it seemed like I did get the job, but then immediately lost it because of something my manager said. Which was mind-boggling to me because (a) I didn’t even think Lorne knew who my manager was, and (b) I HADN’T TOLD MY MANAGER A SINGLE THING IN FIVE YEARS.

The whole exchange was so disturbing, I thought: At this point, I don’t even care if I get Update! But of course I did care, very deeply. I was just behaving like the ‘90s emo teen I secretly dreamed of becoming.

I don’t remember how I found out that my manager’s creepy information was somehow accurate: Michael Che and I were doing Weekend Update together—question mark. Because until you’re actually on the air, you have no idea if Lorne will change his mind and give it to someone else.

This is wild, manipulative shit! Set alongside the earlier anecdote, it paints Michaels as a control freak obsessed with secrecy and quick to anger over perceived violations of unstated rules. Remember, by this point Jost had already served his first stint as head writer. This was not enough to earn him any personal communication from his boss throughout the re-audition process, nor any goodwill when word got out about his rehiring. Michaels appears to expect total loyalty—later in the book, Jost passingly notes that he often says “Don’t leave the show”—but offers no such loyalty in return, wielding the threat of unemployment to keep even longtime staffers scared and compliant. This is doubly interesting in light of Jost’s later admission that when he was rehired to the head writer gig, the promotion came with no pay raise. He doesn’t say whether he or his agent tried to negotiate for one. Just that he got the news and accepted it. When Lorne Michaels calls you to serve, you don’t refuse.

A Very Punchable Face gives a few hints about who Michaels does treat with respect: the famous and powerful. In his chapter defending Michaels’ decision to book Donald Trump, Jost stresses that SNL’s job is to make its hosts and musical guests look good. (He also recalls Michaels calling him into his office to write a joke for Mick Jagger, who was “about to go onstage in Prague.”) Taran Killam makes the same point in that interview above, describing how Michaels pressured his writers and cast to make Trump—whom he knew from the cocktail circuit—seem likable. In another chapter, Jost recalls a sketch Michaels cut after the table read. Will Ferrell, the host that week, liked the sketch, and called Michaels later to suggest he put it back in the show. Michaels assented. These are the voices he listens to, the people he cares to keep happy. I am reminded of the chapter in Chris Kattan’s memoir where he describes Michaels yelling at him for jeopardizing a film project by turning down Amy Heckerling’s advances. Kattan did everything Michaels told him to—sleep with Heckerling, keep the affair from Ferrell—and still found himself out of Michaels’ favor for the rest of his life.

I find it astonishing how much of the rare public commentary on Michaels, including by SNL alumni, makes no effort to conceal that he’s a vindictive, power-hungry man widely feared by his underlings. Sometimes you see glaring red flags cast as plain old quirks: he makes you wait for hours to meet with him, he hates when you finish his sentences, he maintains a platoon of young female assistants, one of whom he married. Other times people come right out and say it:

By all accounts, Michaels is more visible around SNL these days—raising the already-therapy-caliber paranoia level. Michaels’s granted everyone at SNL permission to be interviewed for this story, but when I casually say hello to one veteran writer, he lowers his eyes and his voice. “I can’t be seen talking to you,” he mumbles.

“Lorne wants people to feel insecure,” says an ex–cast member. “It’s the same techniques cults use—they keep you up for hours, they never let you know that you’re okay, and they always make you think that your spot could be taken at any moment by someone else.”

Michaels also sends messages through the Brillstein-Grey Company. The powerhouse Hollywood management-and-production team, founded by one of Michaels’s closest friends, Bernie Brillstein, handles eight of the fourteen SNL cast members as well as its executive producer. The connection makes spinning off movies much easier. “To your face, Lorne always wants to be the hero and Santa Claus. But if you try to do a movie that Lorne’s not producing, Brillstein-Grey will let you know he’s not happy,” says an ex–SNL star who’s had it happen to him. “Brillstein lets you know you’re in the doghouse. Your sketches don’t get on, or you get on in the last five minutes of the show.

[…]

Sarah Jessica Parker got a taste of the mind games when she was an SNL guest host in November. SNL’s workweek was disorienting enough, Parker says, but she also had to worry about why Michaels was ignoring her. “I’d come into his office, and he’d put his head down and not pay attention,” Parker says. “I decided I wouldn’t take it personally that he wasn’t talking to me. If I had been my normal self, I would have really flipped out, because I would have thought, He doesn’t like me at all.”

Veterans of SNL’s glorious first five years saw Michaels becoming aloof way back then. “Lorne always wanted to be admired—revered, even. Which is different from being famous. Different from being rich. And different from being sexy,” says a man who knows Michaels well from those years. “He wants to be a legend, and he would have LEGENDARY tattooed in his underwear if it were possible.” Each week, Michaels poses for dozens of photos with the guest host, adding to his enormous collection.

That piece was published in 1995. Jost’s and Killam’s accounts are only two of many that make clear Michaels remains a cold, controlling executive who rules by fiat and fear more than two decades later. Jost is one of his most loyal acolytes, yet even he is still subject to the boss’s emotional manipulations, and even he cannot paper them over in his own memoir.

Not that he doesn’t try. In a chapter titled “SNL FAQ,” he poses himself the question, “What’s Lorne really like?” His answer is a page-plus of over-the-top joke hagiography that reads like it’s consciously trying to laugh off any suggestion there’s more to Michaels than meets the eye. Unfortunately he goes on long enough to give the complete opposite impression:

Solid build. 6’2”. Jet-black hair. Has an accent you can never quite place. Hands that have clearly seen the handle of an axe.

He’s a quiet man. He lets his eyes do the talking. And his mouth.

Every single evening, he watches the sun kiss the horizon. And every single morning he wakes up at 11:45 A.M.

He hasn’t touched paper money since 1954. One time I mentioned the subway and he said, “Really? I’m more of a Quiznos guy.

[…]

A kind man. A generous man. In fact, I once saw him donate his most expensive knife to the belly of a vagrant. Said, “Watch this,” and just plunged it right in. Afterward he laughed for almost ten blocks. Then we ate ice cream and went figure skating.

[…]

Lorne would never admit this, but he won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and wears it around his neck twenty-four hours a day. He has a small light above it, like you would put above a painting. And when you say “hello,” he waves the medal at you. Because he wants you to say a second, smaller hello to the medal.

Lorne is truly a paradox. Half parade, half ox.

And he’s the only real father any of us have ever known.

Maybe that’s why we call him “Unkie Lorne.”

It’s deeply disturbing stuff. If this is what Lorne Michaels does to people who thrive under his leadership, you have to wonder what he does to people who don’t.