There is no one who has had more success and holds more influence in late-night at the moment than Lorne Michaels. Next season will mark the 40th anniversary of the Canadian native’s signature series, Saturday Night Live, which redefined variety shows. He has executive produced NBC’s Late Night since 1993 and last year added oversight of The Tonight Show, which he helped bring back to New York. Hosted by his SNL pupils Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, the new Tonight Show and Late Night have been ratings powerhouses. In a rare interview, Michaels, 69, talks about his longtime connection to The Tonight Show that goes back over 50 years when he first saw it live, shares behind-the-scene SNL stories of how he almost became the host of Weekend Update and how his recurring cameos on the show came about and reflects on SNL’s “hard” rebuilding season and possible casting changes.
DEADLINE: When did you become interested in late-night?
LORNE MICHAELS: I think probably in high school. I would stay up to watch The Tonight Show, first with Jack Paar and later Johnny Carson. They were 90-minute shows then. I’d have early classes, so I’d watch the first 15 minutes and say, “I’m just going to watch the monologue, and then maybe I’ll see what Johnny does at the end.” And then, it’d be 1 in the morning, and credits would be rolling.
DEADLINE: When you created SNL were you influenced by any of the shows you watched when you were young?
MICHAELS: I think on every level you always are. I went to Burbank in 1968. I was young and worked on a bunch of variety shows with writers who had worked on the shows that I watched when I was growing up. So I learned a lot from people who’d done it, and when it came time to do SNL, it was a question of, “How do you reinvent (variety) so that it makes sense to a different generation?” (This) was the baby boomer generation, which had grown up on these kinds of shows, but now hopefully had one that spoke to them.
DEADLINE: You also had a background as a performer. Did you ever consider being a cast member on SNL?
MICHAELS: I think (I did) in the earliest presentation because I’d done the equivalent of Weekend Update in Canada. But as we got closer to the air show, I began to realize that I didn’t think I could be the person who cut other people’s pieces and left my own in. So I gave Weekend Update to Chevy (Chase), who was not a cast member, but a writer at the time. And that’s how all that happened. I think having been a performer, you have a much greater understanding of what people go through when they’re out there, what they’re thinking and how vulnerable they feel sometimes.
DEADLINE: How did your recurring cameos on SNL come about?
MICHAELS: In 1975, Chevy Chase, Michael O’Donoghue (SNL’s head writer), and I were working (during) the Christmas holidays since we didn’t really have anyplace else to go. We were writing a sketch about the killer bees and it just sort of morphed into a thing about my firing a director because the director was drunk. And it involved my coming out onstage, which I did. Four or five shows later, this guy, a New York promoter, offered the Beatles $50 million to reunite at Shea Stadium. There was a lot of talk that they were thinking about it, so we thought I should offer them $3,000 to do SNL. And I went on the air and did that, and that became popular. Then we did another (sketch) where we raised it to $3,500, and it just became part of the landscape. I don’t write anything for myself but occasionally the writers will put me into something. Unless it’s enormously embarrassing, I’ll do it, and even then, sometimes, when it is.
DEADLINE: You’re coming off a rebuilding season at SNL. How challenging was it?
MICHAELS: We lost four leading men at the end of last season, Fred and Bill and Andy and Jason, all of whom were very seasoned, very strong cast. We lost Kristin the year before. All have been here a long time, and you get used to how good people are. Losing the fifth leading man in Seth (in early February) was a hard thing, in the middle of a season, because there’s only one other time in the 39 years that we ever changed Update in the middle of a season, and that was Norm Macdonald to Colin Quinn. And that was more because a whole other set of reasons, but I think that that made it a much harder thing, in addition to having to focus on launching Jimmy and launching Seth. But SNL, we put a lot of pressure, a lot of new people. It was a hard season.
DEADLINE: You also faced questions about diversity last season. What do you think about the controversy and the outcome, adding Sasheer Zamata?
MICHAELS: We’d lost four men, so what we were thinking about was replacing men. We brought in three women the year before. I’m always looking for people I think have the best possible shot at succeeding, because when it doesn’t work, it’s really rough, both on them and on the show. So I was preoccupied mostly with men, and we only added one woman, and that’s because Noel [Wells] impressed everyone at the auditions in LA, and then came to the studio and did just as well. There were a lot of people that we brought in who did really well in Chicago or LA or other cities, and then when they get into the studio, they’re not ready. When we launched the season, it first happened on a website, an interview with Jay. And then it turned into a story, and I think at that moment I sort of looked at it and went, “Oh, right, this doesn’t feel right.” So, we just began to address it, which we did.
DEADLINE: Let’s switch to your other late-night shows. When did you know Jimmy Fallon had the chops to host late-night?
MICHAELS: When he was leaving SNL. We never really lost touch but we would occasionally talk about it, and I’d say, “I think you can do that.” At that point he was focused on movies and was getting offered a lot of things. And Conan (O’Brien) was still on at 12:30. But I knew Jimmy would be great at it. And then we relaunched The Tonight Show, moving it back to New York, which everyone said wouldn’t work. Conventional wisdom is that it had to be in LA for bookings. And then we did (the show in New York), and it worked.
DEADLINE: Were you part of the decision to move the show back to New York?
MICHAELS: Jimmy and I wanted it. Steve Burke [CEO of NBCUniversal] was involved in it all the way through, and supported it from the beginning, which only made me feel way more pressure for it to succeed. I didn’t even have that thing of, “The network was standing in our way.” It was 100% support and encouragement, which was great. And Jay Leno was supportive and really generous, both to Jimmy and to me, and helped us.
DEADLINE: You didn’t work on The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien despite producing Late Night with him.
MICHAELS: That’s because I think Jeff Zucker [former CEO of NBCUniversal] made the decision that the show should (stay in) LA, because I think there wasn’t any-body as old as I am who remembered (when The Tonight Show was in New York). The first time I saw a television show live was when I was 15. I came down to New York from Toronto on the bus and I have this very vivid memory of going to The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, walking into a television studio and seeing what that world was like the first time — and how much smaller it looks than it does on television. The Tonight Show was in New York and Manhattan seemed like it was an exciting place to be.
DEADLINE: What did you tell Jimmy and Seth when they got their big late-night host gigs?
MICHAELS: The advice I give on talk shows, which I gave to Conan a long time ago, is that there really is no job after this. You stay on as long as you can, and you hope that you get to say when it’s time to leave, but everyone knows you by your first name. You can’t play the third lead in a movie, or Uncle Bob in a sitcom, because everybody just knows you too well. It defines “over-exposed.”
DEADLINE: We’re heading into the 40th anniversary of SNL. Are there any moments that defined the show over the past four decades?
MICHAELS: When there are events like 9/11, or the elections, there are so many people who’ve been such a big part of it. You look at what Steve Martin did for us in the ’70s, or Tom Hanks in the ’80s, or Justin Timberlake recently, Candice Bergen at the beginning. There are a lot of people who helped define the show, and had the same sensibility and sense of humor, and added something.
DEADLINE: You have two nightly shows and primetime series. Have you considered scaling back on SNL?
MICHAELS: No. SNL takes every inch and every ounce of my talent, for whatever that’s worth. My job was to make sure that Jimmy got launched. I’ll always be there for him, but it’s his show, just as it’s Seth’s show. And if Maya [Rudolph]’s show (takes off) I will be there until it’s strong enough, but then, I’m always going to come back to SNL.
DEADLINE: Your announcer, Don Pardo, is still working on the show at age 96. Is this how long you envision your late-night career to be?
MICHAELS: I don’t know. My lighting director, Phil Hymes, is 91, and he’s out there every night for the warm-up, and he’s not lost a step. So, maybe there’s something healthy in the studio. I don’t think it’s Shangri-La, but maybe there’s something. I think feeling useful is probably the most important thing, in terms of keeping you alive and interested.
Original photograph of Lorne Michaels by Mark Mann