Peter Bart: ‘SNL’, Which Has Always Careened From Success To Debacle, Is Back For More

snl Alec Baldwin
Colin Jost, Alec Baldwin and Michael Che on the April 11 episode of 'SNL' NBC

Lorne Michaels knows when to take cover: The April 11 “quarantine edition” of Saturday Night Live was a brave and bizarre disaster and there was no follow-up last weekend. Through the 45 years of SNL, Michaels’ shows have careened from brilliance to idiocy, success to debacle, and his beleaguered troupe will be back for more this weekend.

“Lorne seems to feast on debacles,” one of his early mentors told me (more about him later). “SNL even owes its start to a Johnny Carson debacle.”

Michaels’ formidable resilience has earned him heroic standing in Hollywood’s creative pantheon, whose denizens live with a pathological fear of failure. A star like Ben Affleck earns empathy for plunging from Argo, a giant hit, to a string of disappointments (last month’s The Way Back proved not to be). Even fabled filmmakers like Billy Wilder wrote about his despondency after a rare failure. In 1965, when Wilder’s Kiss Me Stupid bombed, he complained, “OK, so I made a bad movie, but why was I called a celluloid Rasputin?”

As a star producer in the quirky world of comedy, however, Michaels understands that if viewers laugh at one sketch, they might cringe at the next one. And the next.

Michaels, too, gives good cringe. After recently hiring a hot young comic named Shane Gillis, NBC apparatchiks urged him to review the crude ethnic slurs strewn across Gillis’ social media. Michaels cringed and fired him, knowing he’d be bashed for succumbing to political correctness.

Now, with another problem show coming up, the producer again has to deal with the absence of a live audience and of distanced contact between his players — all this before millions of viewers who are already distraught by distancing.

Over the years, Michaels’ collections of comedic miscreants often have crossed boundaries ranging from alcoholism (George Carlin) to suicide (Charlie Rocket) to drug abuse (John Belushi, who once almost burned down Michaels’ house). Still, Belushi’s death cast a pall over the show, as did Gilda Radner’s.

Michaels levitated Chevy Chase to stardom with “Weekend Update” (“I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not”), and he was crushed in 1976 when Chase abruptly walked away during SNL‘s second season for a more lucrative gig.

Michaels himself submitted his resignation several times amid early battles with the network. NBC was wary of Richard Pryor’s ad libs, demanding a five-second tape delay. The network was caught off guard by the angry protests to the announcement that Donald Trump (pre-presidential) had agreed to host a show in 2015.

Back in 1975, SNL seemed doomed to a quick death. One-third of the NBC stations refused to carry the show. Rank-and-file network executives didn’t “get” its brash young Canadian producer who wanted his cast to talk “like street people talk,” not like TV people. They felt that Carlin’s opening monologue bordered on the incoherent (they had a point).

But Michaels had two things working for him. One was the stalwart support of a courageous NBC president, Herb Schlosser, who sensed that, in 1975, defiant young comics might possibly become true pop stars — comedic Beatles. Schlosser, too, displayed a willingness to suffer through SNL’s bonehead sketches in order to get to the Conehead ones.

Michaels welcomed another unexpected ally, Carson. The megastar of late-night suddenly announced that he felt “overworked” (a translation for renewed marital problems). If his re-runs could run on an occasional weeknight, instead of on Saturday night, he said, he’d welcome a night off. Schlosser got the signal: He had to come up with a Saturday night show or risk the rage of the network’s biggest revenue producer.

There were periodic close shaves over the years. Pounded by the impatience of a new network president, Fred Silverman, Michaels took a year off, which turned into five years. SNL’s ratings tanked. Ultimately Michaels returned, bringing back some of his stars and star writers, and also his instinctive connection to the pop culture.

Lately, the show’s popularity had benefited from its anti-Trump cacophony and its withering impersonations by Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon, among others.

Does the show resonate with any consistency? As Michaels said in one recent interview, “The beauty of SNL is that you can have time to lick your wounds and start over again next week.”

Michaels, now 75, is determined to hold his own. He is not just SNL’s exec producer but also exec producer of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and of The Late Show with Seth Meyers, not to mention random other shows that have emerged from his stars. As the king of late-night, he can afford an occasional cringe.

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