Rich Man Wants More

In a rare interview, Lorne Michaels doesn't even try to hide the reason he's bringing SNL back to the studio during a pandemic.

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Over the last year I have occasionally wondered to myself what Lorne Michaels learned from SNL’s embarrassing 45th season casting rollout. Yesterday the answer arrived like smoke from a distant fire: he learned that he should personally coordinate this year’s rollout with a flattering interview in a friendly outlet, and do everything else the same.

Here’s the interview, in Vulture. It contains a few pieces of what you might call new information, or “news”: SNL will return to the studio with a small live audience; it will produce consecutive episodes until the election is over; the cast will gain three new featured players, Andrew Dismukes, Lauren Holt, and Punkie Johnson; Anna Drezen will join Michael Che, Colin Jost, and Kent Sublette as co-head writer; and Jim Carrey will play Joe Biden. (Commence the annual ritual of feeling confused joy for comics we like getting gigs we know suck.)

The rest is a hodgepodge of gibberish and puffery. Given how rarely Michaels speaks to the press, I find it interesting how little of substance he says, though maybe not all that surprising—he's spent his entire life in the business of letting other people speak for him. Still, after 45 years you’d think he might have gained some insight into what he does, at least something a little deeper than “it’s good if the audience laughs, it’s bad if they don’t.” Instead he’s… really bad at this? Consider his response to a question about how he reconciles SNL’s antiestablishment roots with its status as a powerful cultural establishment:

I think in exactly the same way. We came on in ’75, and the last helicopter of Saigon was ’75. And there was Watergate, of course. When I got here, the city felt abandoned and broke. But it was also a really exciting time to be in New York, and we were part of the rebirth. I don’t think things are nearly as bad now as they were then. But things go up and down and go through bad periods, and you just want to be able to express what you’re thinking about all of that, which comes from some place of thought.

And you feel like you can still do that sort of as outsiders, even though you are …

Yeah. Even though I’m … Well, “yeah” is the answer. But I’m sitting in — and I just realized this because I haven’t been back here since March — but I’m in the office that I’ve been in since 1975, and not much has changed there. This show is such a handmade show, and it involves so many people. And they all have to care deeply, because the job is way too hard to do for any other reason than that you believe in it and that you believe it’s important.

Somehow he simultaneously accepts and rejects the premise, declaring that SNL still has outsider cred despite its stature. How can he believe this? Because his job, where a small empire of people do whatever it takes to keep him happy, hasn’t changed much in the 40 years he’s been doing it. Ooookay.

And what of those bad periods? What is Lorne Michaels thinking about “all that,” in his “place of thought”? Maybe we’ll find some clue in his response to a question about Black Lives Matter:

This summer we saw protests in historic numbers in an attempt to reckon with institutional racism in our society. Has the Black Lives Matter movement made you think differently about the show or your role as the boss?

From Minnesota on, watching that, living through that — the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter — all of it had always been under the surface, and there it sort of took center-stage, and obviously for all the best reasons. So it was officially understood as important, and time had run out on the various excuses. That said, I think we always tried to be sensitive to all of it. Considering that it’s an institution started in 1975, we’ve lived through a lot. All you can try and do is try to integrate what you learn and feel into how you cast, how you write, how you do the show.

It was officially understood as important, and time had run out on the various excuses. This is classic Dumb Rich Guy language. He knows there’s a right thing to say, but he doesn’t have whatever knowledge or principles are necessary to articulate it. He also employs the White Manager tic of stressing that even though racism happened, he did his best not to participate. (Never mind the very recent controversies over SNL’s overwhelmingly white casting, the super racist 1986 sketch it scrubbed from the internet, or the show’s treatment of its first Black woman cast member. Also, sorry, “the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter”?!) You can see a similar deflection of responsibility in his comments on last year’s casting debacle:

Last year you cast a young comedian named Shane Gillis, who after clips emerged from his podcast you decided to not have join the cast. How did that experience affect how you thought about and approached casting and vetting this time around?

Well, I don’t think you can start casting and the criteria is people who have never made a mistake. You start with casting people you think are funny, and then you go over them after you used your own judgment on who they are, because you can’t possibly know them for any length of time. Then you go through their past work, and … I think that’s sort of what the media now does.

Another non-answer. His implication, as in those other responses, is that SNL doesn’t need to do anything differently: the times may change, but SNL stays the same. Here’s one interesting endpoint to that philosophy:

You have a unique vantage point on American politics as a Canadian American running this show. Does it feel different right now? Why or how has the show tried to adapt?

With this election, it’s not an original thought or statement to say that there’s a lot at stake. Going back to Ford/Carter, we’ve had a voice, and we will try as hard as possible to maintain that voice. If anybody talks about “truth to power” or any of that, it’s tedious, because everybody says they’re doing it, and power seems to be unaffected by it entirely. So, we’ll give our point of view. There are a lot of writers, a lot of differing points of view. And the show’s tried really hard to not just be a partisan voice, but to be clear-headed about it. Over the years, I’ve had, obviously, complaints from both parties. People feel things are unfair, and I understand that. But if we’re taking shots, I hope we’re taking clean shots.

What you have here is the creator and executive producer of the world’s most important political comedy show saying that political comedy cannot meaningfully speak truth to power. His evidence for this is that power seems unaffected by all the comedians speaking truth to it. From one angle you might view this as willful ignorance by a guy whose employee so angered a Texas congressman that they brought him on for a televised apology, and who suspended one of his writers for joking that the white nationalist president’s son might become a mass shooter. From another you might view it as learned helplessness by a guy whose satire has been so toothless for so long that he’s reverse engineered his (and his contemporaries’) failure into the form’s intrinsic futility. Or you could combine these two perspectives and gaze upon a guy who’s rich, powerful, living in an echo chamber, and not all that interested in thinking too hard or rocking any of his various boats. Consider the trajectory of his response to the question, “How are Trump and Biden as impression targets?”

Alec does his version of it, and his has more depth because he’s really doing a character. But then he’s also doing stuff that’s written by a fairly sophisticated writing staff. With Biden, I had this experience in 2000 where getting ready for the election, Darrell [Hammond] did Al Gore on Update in May before the election started, and the audience didn’t know who he was. The problem in politics is everyone they meet knows who they are. So, they don’t get the sense of how big the country is and how little anybody’s really paying attention. You know, I’m a baseball fan, but I don’t really know who’s playing for the Cincinnati Reds, but if they’re in the World Series, I’ll know. And that’ll be about the time I start to pay attention.

What I’m saying is these are national events — big and life-changing events. People are commenting on it every day for four years, but I’m not sure people pay much attention. This is the time when they pay attention. That’s why these debates will be important, and that’s why we’ll be doing all of that. It’s going to be a very, very close race. And as I said earlier, if it goes into extra innings, it’s going to be even more exhausting.

I was working on a show called Laugh In in 1968, and Richard Nixon came on. I didn’t know him, obviously, but he came on and said, “Sock it to me” — and, I don’t know, did it influence people or not? Obviously, I was the lowest end of writer there and a kid. But what I’m getting at is there’s no time that feels as divided as that period of ’68.

This is fascinating to me. He starts by calling Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression deep and sophisticated. Then he says the audience of a May 2000 SNL episode didn’t know who the sitting, two-term vice president was; that politicians only meet people who know who they are, which is why they don’t realize that nobody else knows who they are; and that because most people only pay attention to national politics during election season, it’s important for SNL to take advantage of that attention. Then he wraps it all up by recalling Richard Nixon’s famous appearance on Laugh In, which may or may not have influenced people, he doesn’t know. The question, to recap, was what he thinks about Trump and Biden as targets of satire.

One reasonable translation of all this might be that a great many working people pay no attention to the drama of national politics, because the fortunes of one candidate or another make little difference in their daily lives. I don’t think this is what Michaels is talking about, though, because those people tend not to show up for national elections anyway, and because they’ve never stopped him from producing political material outside of election seasons. I think he’s earnestly filtering his take on American civic engagement through the lens of TV ratings. He’s saying political material gets the most attention during election season, just as baseball gets the most attention during the World Series, when the stakes are highest. This comports with the many points in this interview where he portrays SNL’s studio audience as some essential godlike force that determines what is and isn’t funny, as though no one ever made successful TV comedy without one. It also contextualizes his eagerness to bring SNL back in-studio for five or more consecutive shows:

It was announced last week that the show is coming back on October 3 live and in Studio 8H. Can you walk me through how you’re going to do the show on a practical level?

Well, there’s the sheer physical challenge of what we can do within protocols. We’ve been getting support from the governor’s office, which is important because the audience is a huge part of it. Also, us coming back and accomplishing the show will lead to — I hate to use the word normalcy — but it’s a thing that is part of our lives coming back, in whatever form it ends up coming back. So the physical problems of doing it — number of people who can be in the studio, number of people who can be in the control room, how you separate the band so that they’re not in any jeopardy — all of those are part of the meetings we’ve been having.

At the same time, I made the decision early on, or at least about a month ago, that we would do something we hadn’t done before, which was five shows in a row. Because there are four debates and then it’s Halloween, and that’s the weekend before the election. And sadly, if the election gets extended, then we’ll be doing six or seven shows in a row. Fatigue has been part of it, so we’re trying to make sure that everyone is safe and protected and looked after. The show will be compromised on some levels of production, but it will be recognizable as the show you’ve seen all these years.

You don’t have to read between any lines to see what he’s saying here. He decided to do as many consecutive episodes as it takes to get through the election, and he made this decision before his team figured out how to practically achieve it. As he says, this would be unprecedented for SNL in any year. We’re in a plague year, and no degree of rigor can change the fact that one slip-up could have fatal consequences. (Nor can it prevent cast and crew members from exercising less rigor outside 30 Rock.) Michaels runs a famously abusive workplace; you would be well within reason not to trust his ability to make his employees feel safe, protected, and looked after. Even if you do, the fact remains that SNL is not an essential business. No one needs this. We’ll be fine without it. Life isn’t normal, it won’t be for a long time, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. What Michaels has calculated, in conjunction with NBC and Andrew Cuomo, is that the ratings win of a Jim Carrey-Alec Baldwin Debate Cold Open is worth dying for.

I want to come back to that bit about Laugh In. I doubt he’s actually interested in whether the Nixon cameo influenced people, given that he’s had 52 years to do some light research and find out. If he did, he might learn that it influenced at least one person: Laugh In’s creator, George Schlatter. In a 2018 interview, Schlatter recalled how the show did well in its first season but wasn’t yet a hit, and he wanted something big to open season two. So he turned to his producer Paul Keyes, Nixon’s close friend, to invite the candidate. Where Schlatter and Keyes saw the potential for ratings, Nixon saw a chance to win over younger voters. Here’s how Schlatter reflected on the gambit half a century later:

After the episode, I thought, what did I do? I made him into a nice guy. We decided to ask Humphrey to say, "Yes, please do sock it to me," but he wouldn't do it. We followed him all over trying to get him. He often said afterward that he thinks not doing it may have cost him the election. Sometimes people say I helped get Nixon elected. I've had to live with that.

Lorne Michaels seems quite content to live with his own Nixon. What will he have to live with next?


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Header image via the Peabody Awards.