Saturday Night Whiz

Last year Lorne Michaels was all that stood between NBC and disaster— but what has he done for them lately?

Ron Base November 1 1976

Saturday Night Whiz

Last year Lorne Michaels was all that stood between NBC and disaster— but what has he done for them lately?

Ron Base November 1 1976

Saturday Night Whiz

Last year Lorne Michaels was all that stood between NBC and disaster— but what has he done for them lately?

Ron Base

In the offices of the NBC television network, 17 floors above New York’s Rockefeller Centre where camera-toting tourists gawk at faded, parchment-colored murals portraying hard-muscled men at work making America great, some of television’s favorite characters are dying. Watching them is producer Norman Lear, who, with eight series on the air this season, is the paterfamilias of American situation comedy, not to mention its great innovator, the man who in 1971 introduced A ll In The Family into 60 million homes. You would think he could spot a dying joke in a minute, even if it is his own. But he can’t. Expensively dressed in casual clothes, wearing halfrimmed reading glasses that give him a gentle, Ben Franklin air, he stands gazing fondly at the monitor before him, a benevolent smile creasing his features as the figures on the screen flicker to life: Edith Bunker and Archie, the Jeffersons, Maude ... his characters, the little video people who have made him rich, and famous, and a legend in the industry. They are taking turns chatting with Norman, telling him what a great guy he is, what a genius, what a humanitarian. But as soon as he turns away, they cross their eyes in disgust or stick out their tongues at him or pick up a piece of furniture with which to hit him. It is supposed to be a very funny piece of videotape that Lear will use to introduce himself when he hosts Saturday Night, NBC’s 90-minute hit comedy show which is broadcast live from New York.

Only it isn’t funny. Lear manages to chuckle intermittently as the tape unreels, removing the Ben Franklin glasses, nudging them against his chin. But the Saturday Night gang, the writers, and a couple of performers standing and squatting around the set, all shaggy-haired and insolenteyed, are almost loud in their silence. Lome Michaels, the 31-year-old Canadian who created and now produces Saturday Night, shifts uneasily beside Lear. His face is grim. How do you tell Norman Lear that this is Saturday Night, not some dumb Dean Martin roast where the stars drive M down from Bel Air in their Porsches to g make fun of each other? Saturday Night is I supposed to be unpredictable, raunchy, ï straight-to-the-jugular satirical. It is not 7 supposed to £>e Norman Lear making bad

jokes with his employees. By the time the tape ends, the room is drum-tight with tension. No one says anything. Finally Michaels speaks up. “Well, I’m just worried about leading off the show with this much tape.”

The benevolent smile reaches even farther across Norman Lear’s face. He can read the hostile reaction on the faces of the Saturday Night production staff, now gathered almost protectively around Michaels. The last time anyone told Norman Lear something wasn’t funny, he went out and syndicated Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to stations across the country, creating a phenomenon even greater than Saturday Night. He is not about to be told what is or is not funny by a young upstart producer. The smile forces the laugh lines around Lear’s sad-bright eyes into deep furrows. “Look,” he says in his best gentle-Ben voice, “I can’t not have this on the show. These people have given their time freely.”

“I understand that,” Michaels says. Around him, his staff shifts away uneasily, as if he has suddenly contracted a severe case of leprosy.

“I think the piece works,” Lear continues. “It’s tight and it’s funny.”

Michaels is still dubious, but he backs away. Saturday Night has made him the current Wunderkind of television comedy, and his smooth, unblinking arrogance gives you the impression he could bulldoze his way through anything. Even Lear acknowledges that. “Lome was probably born congenitally secure,” he says later. Still, Wunderkinds do not lock horns with kings. Not, at any rate,one day away from the second show of the second season, when there are bigger problems to be solved.

On the surface, Saturday Night would appear to have no problems at all. Last year it quickly became NBC’s only hit in a season that saw the network fall ignominiously to third place, behind CBS and ABC, which jumped into first place thanks to the aggressiveness of its new entertainment president, Fred Silverman. Not since William S. Paley of CBS lured Jack Benny away from NBC back in the radio days had the network experienced a more wrenching crisis of confidence. Each morning NBC ex-

ecutives disgorged themselves from sleek limos in front of the canopied entrance at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, wondering whether this was the day they would get the axe. Perhaps they remembered their original response to Lome Michaels, and their faces grew even more pained.

When Dick Ebersol, the new vice-president of late night programming, hired Michaels to produce an original Saturday night comedy and variety series, there had been a lot of sneering around NBC. Who was this guy Michaels, anyway? Sure, he had won an Emmy for writing a Lily Tomlin special, but did that entitle him to walk around with that arrogant poker face of his, demanding that they repaint his offices a cream color and add potted plants? Something about creating an “atmosphere” for comedy. What’s more, the network was giving him six months to develop the show, then allowing it to go on the air without a pilot, with no regular host and with a cast of unknowns. Unheard of. Their attitude toward Michaels changed, of course, after the show won four Emmies, and the Not Yet Ready For Prime Time Players, Chevy Chase’s pratfalls, and Weekend Update’s often breath-taking viciousness (in a report on the Claudine Longet Invitational Ski Meet contestants were accidentally shot as they slalomed down the slopes) had become topics of household conversation.

Initially, the show attracted high-school and college kkN. then journalists who descended in droves. Michaels estimates that 300 to 350 stories have been written about Saturday Night. So intense was the publicity that when the show started its second season in September an audience of 12 million tuned in. By this time it had attracted its share of critics, not the least of them Johnny Carson, who regards late night television as his fiefdom and does not welcome squatters, particularly when they are getting an audience on a par with his own. “I’ve seen some very clever things on the show,” Carson says, “and they have some very bright people. But basically they do a lot of drug jokes, a lot of what I would consider sophomoric humor, and a lot of

stuff I find exceptionally cruel, under the guise of being hip.” Michaels isn’t loath to return fire: “Carson’s show has gotten fat, and lazy, and long. It’s Las Vegas every night.” But successful producers are not supposed to engage in mudslinging contests with big stars on the same network, so he adds, “don’t print that.”

But the show’s real problem was not Johnny Carson but success. Because he was attracting a larger audience, Michaels was under increasing pressure to make the show’s humor more “acceptable”—that is, less controversial. Already he had resisted NBC’s efforts to reschedule the show in prime time to offset Saturday Night-inspired pilots at CBS and ABC. He was afraid the show’s success would make everyone lazy and overconfident, and accordingly he was pushing harder, insisting that the 16hour work days and the total dedication to the show should continue. But the obscenely Herculean task of turning out a 90-minute comedy show live had already taken its toll* During the first show of the second season, Chevy Chase had wrenched his back doing one of his pratfalls. His doctor had ordered rest and Chase, the show’s biggest star, took the opportunity to announce he was leaving for good at the end of October. He had a girl friend in Los Angeles he wanted to spend more time with, and he was tired of the long working days.

With Chevy Chase gone, Saturday Night seemed in danger of losing its equilibrium. There were other talented performers— Danny Ackroyd, Gilda Radner, John Belushi—but in a show that often went off in 20 different directions Chevy Chase was the anchor, the one stable point of audience identification. This was the first show he had missed and everyone was unsettled about it. Michaels phoned Chase late Friday afternoon. “Hi, Chev,” he said, draping his legs across a desk. “Well, it’s a little tense, we didn’t get through three sketches. John and Gilda are both a little tense. They’re both carrying heavy loads this week. I’ve never seen them this tense before. Danny asked to be taken out of a sketch because it was too much... We miss you a lot here.”

The guest artist on this show is Boz Scaggs, a disco performer who has an album riding high on the charts. There is a very funny takeoff on Jimmy Carter’s remarks about sex in Playboy magazine; a satire on situation comedies called The Snake Handlers which involves the use of real snakes, a touch everyone is convinced will produce laughs; a skit involving Henry Kissinger bringing about a Rhodesian settlement by inducing Prime Minister Ian Smith and black leader Joshua Nkomo to sing various love songs; and Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman and Jane Curtin, three of the Not Ready For 1 Prime Time Players, singing a musical tribI ute to the sorely missed Chevy Chase. On

* Weekend replaces Saturday Nigh X the first Saturday I of each month, giving the stajf its only respite.

the floor of Studio 8-H, where Snooky Lanson and Gisele MacKenzie once performed Your Hit Parade, technicians are already laughing along with the tribute.

Michaels watches the rehearsal for a moment, then crosses the floor to where Lear, John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd and Garrett Morris, the only black member of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players, are rehearsing the Kissinger sketch. Lear, playing a deputy to Belushi’s very adroit Kissinger, suggests that he kiss Belushi’s hand as he enters the set. Michaels vetos the idea. Instead, he wants Belushi standing on a chair during the singing to heighten the scene’s comic possibilities.

Later, he dashes into the control room of the studio: rows of consoles facing three banks of television monitors, production assistants working over clipboards. He turns and abruptly confronts a large woman, her ample chest adorned with a huge polyester bow. She stares owlishly at him from behind heavily framed glasses. The woman has been assigned to the show by NBC standards and practices. In other words, she is the censor. She has recently received word from her superiors upstairs that some of the dialogue in the Jimmy Carter sketch must be toned down. “Well, there’s just no use goingon with the show if this is the sort of thing that is going to be cut,” Michaels tells her. “I mean with Norman Lear here and everything. This is no more or no less offensive than anything else we’ve done here.” The woman nods slightly, says nothing. “I mean,” Michaels continues, “we’ve been continually cut back for the last eight shows. We’re getting bland. My staff tells me that.” The woman is noncommittal. She will see what can be done.

Michaels hurries out of the control room, a slight darting figure in sneakers and jeans, sipping constantly from a jug of mineral water which he carries with him. His boyish face is immobile, seldom smiling. There is a director, Dave Wilson, large, amiable, his belly spilling out over the waistline of double-knit slacks, but you have only to be around the studio for a few hours to know that it’s Michaels who really directs the show. Wilson is left to call the camera shots during the telecast. “Lome always had lots of drive, lots of organizational skills,” says Nancy Oliver, who once acted as his production assistant. Everyone says the same thing about him: not a great comic performer or even a great comic writer, but a guy who can spot the talent, bring it together, and provide the atmosphere in which it can work.

“In television, you usually create the pilot for a show, then you do 26 carbons of it. But I didn’t want to do that with Saturday Night," he says. “This show is off-television; it’s supposed to be like Off-Broadway.” Yet Saturday Night is not so much a demonstration of originality as it is a tribute to Michaels’ ability to organize and bring to television for the first time various comic forms—Chicago’s Second City, Mad

magazine, National Lampoon (where Chase and several of the show’s writers once worked), Laugh-In (where Michaels toiled briefly as a writer). He also drew on his experience at the CBC, where satirical revues had been tried for years with varying degrees of success. “People ask me where the major influence for this show comes from; well I think its influence is Canadian,” says Chevy Chase.

Michaels imported his writer wife, Rosie, from Canada, as well as performers Dan Ackroyd, Gilda Radner and his cousin, Neil Levy, who is the producer’s assistant. He hired Howard Shore, formerly a saxophonist with the rock group Lighthouse, to lead the orchestra, and another Canadian, Paul Shaffer, to write special musical material. The Canadians provided him with a core of loyalty, which has spread—it is impossible to find anyone around Saturday Night who speaks ill of him. But, more important, they provided him with a strong sense of community, something he has always needed.

Michaels grew up as Lome Lipowitz in the solidly prosperous Forest Hill section of Toronto. His father died when he was young, and he was left with a mother who was a bit smothering. A production meetI ing at the CBC is still remembered as the occasion on which Mrs. Lipowitz spotted her son puffing at a short cigarette butt, leaned across the table, and in the middle of everything interrupted with the stern admonition: “Don’t smoke that past the printing!”

The community he experienced in Forest Hill had overtones of those backyard musicals Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney used to star in at MGM. The kids were always putting on a show at Forest Hill Collegiate, and when they weren’t they ate up television shows like Sgt. Bilko, The Jack Benny Program and The Honeymooners. When he was 16, Lome Lipowitz met 14-year-old Rosie Shuster. They became a Jewish Mickey and Judy. Rosie’s father was Frank Shuster, the famous comedian and he talked to Lome a lot about comedy. “He was an enormous influence,” Michaels remembers. “He taught me more than anyone else. I loved his taste, his sense of understatement.”

The musical comedy continued at the ! University of Toronto, where Lome ap1 peared in the uc Follies, the annual revue that years before had brought Wayne and Shuster together. At university Lome met j a law student, Hart Pomerantz, who was three years older, and the two began writing together. Then Lome spent a year in Europe while Hart worked as a hotel desk clerk, writing sketches at night with the hotel’s manager, Bemie Orenstein, who wanted to be a television producer. By the time Lome got back to Toronto, he had decided against law school, which was fine because he and Hart w'ere beginning to sell material to comedienne loan Rivers, and then to Woody Allen. “Woody was great

but it was a completely false experience for us because the money was always there in advance,” Lome says. “We thought that was what it was all about.”

Then musical comedy began to go sour. In 1968, Bemie Orenstein, who by that time had become a television producer, asked them to write for the Phyllis Differ show. That was followed by a stint as junior writers at Laugh-In. It was a time of sitting endlessly in airless cubbyholes, watching their material being completely rewritten. “By the time it hit the air, we barely recognized a line.”

In 1969, they escaped back to Canada, intending to become the Great Canadian Comedy Stars. Eight CBC television specials later, they realized it was not going to happen. “We thought we could be the first generation of Canadian artists who stayed at home,” Michaels says, “but the CBC thought we were too urban, too hip. In 1971, we couldn’t get approval for a show featuring Robbie Robertson and Joni Mitchell because nobody in the programmingdepartment hadheard of them.” Lome had married Rosie Shuster in 1967, but as his time at the CBC neared an end, they were fighting and separating constantly. Lome and Hart, always professionally jealous of each other and never close personal friends anyway, were not getting along, either. Finally, Lome left both Rosie and Hart in Toronto and went back to Los Angeles to write a series of

Burns and Schreiber specials. He holed up at the Chateau Marmont, an aging white elephant of a hotel that leans over Sunset Boulevard, and proceeded to endure “the worst eight months of my life. I just bottomed out.” He did not recover until he met comedienne Lily Tomlin, who turned his career around in 1973 when she asked him to write a special for her. The results won him an Emmy and a chance to co-pro-

duce Tomlin’s next special, a show for comedians Richard Pryor and Flip Wilson.

He was about to go to Paramount in 1974 to write a screenplay about a teenager who bilks the telephone company for millions of dollars, when NBC offered him a chance to develop Saturday Night. “I suddenly realized I loved television,” he says. “I know everyone is supposed to hate it. Everyone wants to make movies. But I love television. Besides, movies have a way of getting a little too serious and pompous.” He has not spoken to Hart Pomerantz for three years, and Pomerantz, now a lawyer who has little to do with show business, will barely speak of him.

Despite a salary that exceeds $ 100,000 a year, Michaels declines to live ostentatiously. He recently moved into a loft apartment in New York’s newly-hip SoHo area—without Rosie. They remain friendly, she stiff writes for the show, but they are again separated. “No relationship can withstand the kind of demands this show makes,” he shrugs. “But things have a way of coming back and renourishing themselves. Right now, I’ve made a commitment to live with this show.” And as if to demonstrate the point, he works until two o’clock Saturday morning, editing tape, rewriting the script. Then, his sallow face showing the exhaustion, he goes home to his loft for the eight hours of sleep he forces on himself each night. If he has any idea what will happen when the show goes

to air the next night, he doesn’t show it.

These kids, dressed with an awareness of chic that is far beyond their years, have waited six or seven months to sit in the swivel chairs that front the stage, and in the gallery above the studio. The NBC ushers who watch over them like prison wardens can remember a time when they couldn’t give away tickets to Saturday Night out along Sixth Avenue. Now, all tickets for the show have been allotted until January. This isn’t even the real thing these kids are witnessing, just the seven-thirty runthrough that precedes the live telecast at eleven-thirty. Even so, they are tense with the excitement of being here where Saturday Night happens. They love the lights, and the speed with which the grey, hulking cameras swirl about the floor, nudging against them to get a shot of the stage. The performers hurry across the studio, stopping momentarily to smile vaguely at the audience, and the kids call out their names as if they are old personal friends. You can see it mirrored in the porcelain shininess of their faces, a desperation not just to witness the show but to be part of it.

Which is why, a few minutes later as Saturday Night begins to unfold, their faces begin to fall into the mute, dumb expressions of people who have just witnessed a bad car accident. This is not an experience to be shared, but one to be forgotten. The fears rummaging around in the back of Lome Michaels’ mind all week—the new season, overconfidence, Chevy’s absencehave all come together in what is clearly a lousy show.

Predictably, the Norman Lear tape does not impress anyone. More surprisingly, the Snake Handlers routine, which everyone thought would be a hit, is watched in numb silence. So is an awful skit about Cornelia Wallace bugging her husband’s bedroom. The musical tribute to Chevy doesn’t work because no one can make out the lyrics. During the Kissinger sketch, the Saturday Night staff, cloistered with Michaels at the rear of the studio, breaks into outrageous laughter in an attempt to encourage the audience. The ploy fails. Their laughter sounds forced and hollow. The Jimmy Carter takeoff is performed well by Ackroyd, but much of its impact is lost to the demands of the censor. Lear turns' out to be a likable host, but he just isn’t funny. The show ends with him calling a girl from the audience onto the stage to do a joke. The girl turns out to be his daughter. It is something right out of Carol Burnett on a bad night, the sort of thing Saturday Night would have avoided last season. “Jesus,” a production assistant moans, “this is a shambles. It’s not usually this bad.”

Lome Michaels, as impassive as ever, watches the shambles recreate itself for the telecast, despite two hours of frenetic rewriting. Later, he goes quietly to a party hosted by Norman Lear. “After a bad night,” he says, “we get a little drunker than usual.” It is one of those nights.