COVER

WISE GUYS

LORNE MICHAELS CHAMPIONS CANADIAN COMEDY

Brian D. Johnson July 26 1993
COVER

WISE GUYS

LORNE MICHAELS CHAMPIONS CANADIAN COMEDY

Brian D. Johnson July 26 1993

Canadian humor? To some, it’s an oxymoron, like British cuisine or Yankee modesty. After all, our idea of a joke is spending a year debating a constitutional accord as if it were a matter of life and death, then changing the subject. Canada is a nation without a punch line. And laughter is apparently in such danger of extinction that Montreal built a $21-million humor museum to preserve it. But perhaps that’s just the point: sobriety is the mother of comic invention. Canada serves as straight man to the States. And for a country that gets to watch the riotous adventures of America through the wide screen of the 49th parallel, a sense of humor becomes indispensable.

In Canada, comedy is serious business.

It is our biggest cultural export. We produce comedy stars almost as prolifically as we produce hockey players: Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, Michael J. Fox, Leslie Nielsen, Martin Short, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Jim Carrey, Alan Thicke, Catherine O’Hara, Howie Mandel, André-Philippe Gagnon, the Kids in the Hall. . . . Canadians seem to have a hammerlock on the American funny-bone. And the shadowy figure behind this comic conspiracy, the man who knows where all the bad jokes are buried, is Canadian producer Lome Michaels, godfather of NBC’s Saturday Night Live.

Since Michaels launched SNL in 1975, it has incubated some of the biggest comedy stars of the past two decades, including Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal. And Uncle Lome has become the Walt Disney of late-night television. As well as continuing to run SNL and producing two SNL-movie spinoffs (Coneheads and Wayne’s World II), he is producing a new NBC talk show to replace Late Night with David Letterman. For its host, he had the chutzpah to pick an unknown, Conan O’Brien—a 30-year-old writer who had scarcely performed for anyone but his friends.

It was a typical Michaels move. The Toronto-born producer has proven himself by gambling on unproven talents. And his career now spans two generations of comedy stars, from Aykroyd to Myers—two Canadians adept at submerging themselves in character-driven comedy. Last summer, Michaels and Myers parlayed an SNL sketch about a couple of heavy-metal yahoos into the hit movie Wayne’s World. To everyone’s surprise, the picture went through the roof, ranking fifth in North America for 1992 with a gross of more than $150 million—of which 23 per cent, curiously enough, was earned in Canada. Now, Michaels and Myers are filming the sequel, due for Christmas release (page 40).

With Aykroyd, meanwhile, Michaels has revived a classic SNL sketch about extra-terrestrial immigrants to create Coneheads, the movie. It sounds too silly for words, but Coneheads is surprisingly good, with Aykroyd sustaining an outrageous performance in a role that he seems born to play (page 36). And the movie unites two generations of SNL stars in a parade of cameos and clever gags. Like Wayne’s World, it has a Suburban Gothic scenario. The Coneheads are from another planet; the metal-heads of Wayne’s World might as well be. They are all aliens stuck in the suburbs, invading Middle America with jargon and attitude.

Canada, of course, is the ultimate suburb of the United States—which might explain why Canadians find America funny. They grow up watching the dominant culture while laughing behind its back. “For me,” says Michaels, “people start to be funny early in their lives, when they notice the difference between the official version and what their eyes and ears tell them. The official version tends to be south of the border. It’s like living next to Imperial Rome.”

Michaels grew up in the affluent Toronto neighborhood of Forest Hill during the 1950s. “I remember these endless days sitting on the curb in front of my house waiting for something to happen,” he recalls. Eventually, something did. In Grade 2, he cracked a joke. “The teacher, whom I had an enormous crush on, had told a girl that she was talking too much, and she was going to put her in one of the lockers at the back of the class. I said she wouldn’t fit. It was a remarkably insensitive thing to say. But it got a big laugh. I was sent to the principal’s office and given the strap. So I guess I learned early that there was an enormous price to be paid for comedy.”

That investment has paid off. With the longevity of SNL, he has a track record unmatched by almost any producer in TV comedy. (In 1992, NBC renewed his contract for another four years.) After handholding 175 celebrity hosts through the terrors of live television, Michaels is at ease among stars. His close friends include Paul Simon, Steve Martin and Jack Nicholson. But, remaining stubbornly based in New York City, he has always kept Hollywood at a droll distance. And although he has finally created a big-screen franchise for SNL with Wayne’s World and Coneheads, his first loyalty is to the show that started it all.

The program has had its ups and downs. SNL started out as a ground-breaking adventure, the first show that really delivered the 1960s sensibility of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll to network television. Although it still draws some 25 million viewers a week, it seems tamer now. And Michaels is the first to admit that it fails as often as it succeeds. But that has always been the case—it is live. And the capacity to fail is the secret of its success. “It doesn’t go on because it’s ready,” says Michaels. “It goes on because it’s 11:30.”

A Friday night in May, 9:30 p.m. On the eighth floor of the Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, the set of Saturday Night Live is buzzing with activity. The show goes to air in 26 hours. But the crew is still hammering, painting and wallpapering the sets into existence. Over the din, cast members rehearse the sketches with the cameras for the first time. Upstairs, in a spacious office overlooking the studio, Michaels conducts back-to-back meetings, finally breaking for an interview at 11:15 p.m.

Despite the frenzied activity that goes on around him, Michaels is a picture of civility and calm. “He doesn’t fit the mould of the wild, crazy comedy guy,” observes Canadian-born cast member Phil Hartman. “He is quite reserved and dignified. Perhaps it’s because he has the eye of a hawk—he’s focused on everything we do around here. But he guides the ship with a loose hand on the tiller.”

Michaels’s office is a plush suite. The walls are ringed with photographs of the staff. Taking a seat on the sofa, he explains the conundrum of playing elder statesman to a young cast. ‘The problem I have is this. It’s 3 a.m. on a Tuesday. I’m 48 and I’m talking to writers who are 23. They’re suggesting an idea, and I’m thinking, We’ve done that five or six times and it hasn’t worked ever.’ I’m just about to say the dreaded phrase, ‘I don’t think it will work.’ But if I say that, they’re thinking, ‘He just doesn’t get it.’ So then you think you should let them do it and make their own mistakes. But then my friends will say, ‘I can’t believe you’re still trying that thing. It has never worked.’ ”

The interview is interrupted as the show’s host, Christina Applegate (the blonde who plays the bimbo daughter on TV’s Married... with children) timidly steps into the office to say goodbye.

“You okay?” asks Michaels.

“Yes, fine.”

“I thought the monologue was funny,” he says, without betraying a lot of enthusiasm.

“Yeah, the monologue was funny.”

“We’ll probably make some cuts after dress.”

Michaels, who changed his name from Lome Lipowitz in the 1960s, grew up infatuated with show business. His grandparents owned a small movie theatre in Toronto, the College Playhouse, where his mother ran the box office. His father, a furrier, died when Lome was 14. His high-school sweetheart was Rosie Shuster. And her father, comedian Frank Shuster, became a surrogate dad, a mentor and, eventually, a father-in-law. (Twice divorced, Michaels is now married to Alice Barry, his former assistant at SNL. They have a 15-month-old son.)

Frank Shuster originally tried to dissuade Michaels from entering show business. “I discourage the world from going into show business,” Shuster, 76, told Maclean’s. “But anybody who wants it badly enough is going to do it anyway.” In fact, Shuster was “a tremendous influence,” says Michaels. “He introduced me to the films of Preston Sturges. He could explain how Jack Benny played a pause. I think it’s almost impossible to succeed in these fields without mentors.”

After attracting some notice in 1964 by producing U. C. Follies, a successful revue at the University of Toronto, Michaels graduated with a BA in English and never looked back. Like Wayne and Shuster, he performed on CBC Radio, doing satirical sketches with partner Hart Pomerantz in 1967. Taking his talent south, Michaels wrote for Woody Allen and Joan Rivers, and spent a year writing for TV’s Laugh-In, churning out jokes as part of a large pool of writers.

“What I began to realize,” recalls Michaels, “is that comedy was way too important to be left to professionals. What had always made me laugh was hanging with my friends.”

Returning to Toronto in 1969, he and Pomerantz co-hosted a TV variety show, The Hart and Lome Terrific Hour. Then, returning to the United States in 1973, he co-produced a series of Emmy-winning TV specials for Lily Tomlin. Their success led NBC to consider his radical proposal for Saturday Night Live. Michaels got the network to agree to 17 shows. He insisted that the program be live and that there be no pilot—“If they saw it beforehand, they’d say, ‘You can’t do that on television.’ ”

Michaels built a cast of young writer-performers, most with no TV experience. From Canada, he recruited Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and bandleader Paul Shaffer. Bill Murray and John Belushi, both Second City theatre veterans, came from the National Lampoon stage show. And Michaels met Chevy Chase in a lineup to see a Monty Python film. Since then, the show’s cast has changed many times over. But aside from a five-year absence (1980 to 1985, when he produced various projects, including the movie The Three Amigos), Michaels has remained at its helm. The SNL legend, meanwhile, now has a life of its own. The younger staffers “have a greater orthodoxy about the show than I have,” says Michaels, “because they grew up watching it.”

SNL helped usher in the age of irony—television about television. During the show’s second season, in 1976, a Killer Bees sketch ended with the camera dropping to the floor and Michaels stepping onstage to fire the director. Now, in the post-Letterman era, self-referential TV is everywhere. “Like everything else,” says Michaels, “brilliant people do it, then less brilliant people, then everyone does it and you get tired of it.”

Now, if Michaels has anything to do with it, sincerity may be the next big thing. He says that Conan O’Brien, his replacement for Letterman on NBC, “will, oddly enough, be a return to straight performance, the exuberance of the old Steve Allen show.” In choosing O’Brien, he adds, “I think it was important to drop down a generation. The baby boom has dominated too long.” A lot of obvious candidates did not want to interrupt their movie careers. “It isn’t like you do a talk show for 10 years and then get the lead in Indecent Proposal.”

O’Brien, a writer who has worked for SNL and The Simpsons, does not have stand-up experience. “But club comics are everywhere on TV. When I was growing up there was Jack Parr, who was just a great conversationalist. I thought to bring conversation back would be the original move now. Conan is fresh. He’ll try really hard. And he’s not mean-spirited. He’s just as happy if someone else is interesting and funny.” He sounds almost Canadian. “Well, he’s from Massachusetts,” says Michaels. “So it’s not that far.”

As a talent scout, Michaels made another audacious move with Kids in the Hall. He first saw the group performing at The Rivoli, a small Toronto nightclub. He convinced CBC executive Ivan Fecan to give them a show. And he found a U.S. audience for it, first through HBO, then on late-night CBS. “What I liked about them,” says Michaels, “is that they didn’t hide the fact that they were a Canadian show. They’ve found their audience— they’re on in Australia, they’re on in England. I talked with Sean Penn about it at one point, and he said, ‘God, Kids in the Hall is great! I never miss it.’ ”

Saturday night, 8:30 p.m. SNL dress rehearsal, with a live audience. Michaels sits in front of a TV monitor at the side of the stage. Wearing headphones and drumming a pencil nervously on his knee, he dictates a steady stream of notes to his assistant. It is his last chance to make changes. During the opening monologue, Christina Applegate looks stiff. “Hands behind back,” says Michaels, commenting on her posture. He appears relieved when her first joke gets a laugh. “She’ll be more confident on air,” he says.

During a sketch about a Gap store, with men playing saleswomen, Michaels calls for better hair and makeup: “They’re so scraggly, too much like guys in drag.” On Weekend Update’s newscast: “Limit the number of Clinton sex jokes.” After Adam Sandler’s white man’s impersonation of Bill Cosby: “Lose the wig, wear bifocals and get to the cigar earlier—and anything he can do to look more like Cosby.” On the word “dumb” in a cheerleader sketch: “Dumb? Who wrote ‘dumb?’ Cheerleaders-as-dumb is not an original insight.’ ”

After the dress rehearsal, the writers and performers crowd into Michaels’s office. As airtime approaches, there is a frenzy of last-minute cuts and changes. Michaels announces the final lineup. He axes three sketches, including the cheerleader item.

It is 11:30. Myers, playing a Jewish mother opens the show with Coffee Talk, concluding with the familiar kicker: “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” Applegate’s monologue is OK. The show itself is uneven. But it contains one devastating sketch, a parody of the Cher hair-care advertorial, featuring a cross-dressed Chris Farley as hairdresser Laurie Davis. It is SNL at its best: television holding a funhouse mirror up to itself.

For the studio audience, the show unfolds as a feat of logistics. Changing sets during commercial breaks, crew members literally run back and forth across the stage, wheeling cameras around like field artillery. The atmosphere is intoxicating. Live theatre for millions.

Sunday, 1:30 a.m. SNL cast party at the Planet Hollywood restaurant in Manhattan. Michaels sits at a comer booth and orders a beer and a turkey burger. Throughout the party, cast members come by to pay their respects. Michaels later confides that one of them is recovering from a big cocaine habit. After watching so many stars come and go, the father of Saturday Night Live tends to view celebrity with a mixture of skepticism and empathy.

The show is like a finishing school. If his SNL children do well, inevitably they want to leave. “It’s hard to play on a team,” he says. “At first, you’re just very happy to be chosen. Then, after a success you look around and say, ‘I don’t know what those other six people are there for,’ or ‘Why did he cut my sketch?’ The whole world is kissing their ass, and I’m the person saying, ‘This isn’t good enough.’”

On the other hand, Michaels knows that handling sudden fame is not easy. “Mike Myers is trying very hard to keep his values—to be an artist,” he says, “and I think it’s hard when you’re under tremendous scrutiny. In the early days, before we went on the air, Chevy Chase and I would be sitting in a restaurant in Little Italy having dinner and he’d say, ‘I bet you I can fall across that table there.’ He wouldn’t hurt anybody, but it would be unbelievably funny. No one knew who we were. Then, after six months of the show, if he did that in a restaurant, people would say, ‘Oh, how pathetic, look at Chevy Chase.’ ” Adds Michaels: “In the same sense, at the party tonight, if Mike Myers doesn’t tip enough, somebody will say, ‘Mike Myers, with all his money, I can’t believe it.’ ”

So far, Myers seems miraculously unspoiled. He still dresses like a suburban mall rat, in jeans and T-shirts, and displays an earnest affection for Canada. For his part, Michaels does not spend a lot of time thinking about Canada. But he visits Toronto about twice a year. “After living in New York for so long,” he muses, “I’m always surprised at how slowly people walk on the sidewalk. Then I realize that they’re not really in a hurry.”

On the sound system at Planet Hollywood, Petula Clark is singing Downtown. The waiter removes the remains of the turkey burger. ‘The Toronto I grew up in doesn’t exist any more,” says Michaels. “I remember going to the CNE [Canadian National Exhibition] when it was an overgrown country fair. It was during the polio scare of the 1950s. You could go and catch polio there. I went and I loved it. When it was strip shows and freak shows and all the stuff that Toronto became embarrassed about. And the Food Building, which was a purely Canadian thing—to have a food building!”

Now, Michaels has brought his own sideshow to America, his world of Coneheads and metal-heads and cross-dressing comedians. But, as ringmaster, he presides over it with the cool discrimination that is the very soul of Canadian humor. Perhaps the key to “CanWit” is an affection for the absurd, the sense of detachment that reflects our ironic distance from America—and from each other. Mort Sahl had it. So did Marshall McLuhan and Pierre Trudeau. They messed with the medium and the message. Whenever interviewers ask Mike Myers what’s so funny about Canadians, he likes to quote a line from Martin Short: “Americans watch television, while Canadians watch American television.” It is a fine distinction, like the gap between a laugh track and a laugh. You don’t have to be Canadian. But it helps.