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Lorne Michaels

Lorne MichaelsAKA Lorne Michael Lipowitz

Born: 17-Nov-1944
Birthplace: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Gender: Male
Religion: Jewish
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Film/TV Producer

Nationality: Canada
Executive summary: Producer of Saturday Night Live

Lorne Michaels created and produces Saturday Night Live. His other notable credits include Kids In the Hall and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and he has produced more than a dozen feature films, including Wayne's World, Three Amigos, and Mean Girls.

In 1964, when he was 20, Michaels began performing comedy in a stage team with his friend, lawyer Hart Pomerantz. Michaels was the straight man, Pomerantz was the wacky one, and they eventually wrote and performed for a Canadian radiocast called Five Nights a Week at this Time, which came to an end after crossing the line of "good taste" one time too many. Pomerantz and Michaels sold jokes to stand-up comedians including Woody Allen, Dick Cavett, and Joan Rivers, and wrote for The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show. They also wrote for Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, a program widely remembered as groundbreaking, but Michaels felt he had little creative "elbow room" there, and wanted to do comedy with fewer constraints. With Pomerantz, he co-starred in The Hart & Lorne Terrific Hour for Canadian TV, but the duo broke up in the early 1970s. Pomerantz resumed the practice of law, while Michaels produced two Lily Tomlin specials and worked as a producer in Canada.

The idea for Saturday Night Live popped into his head while reading the paper, one morning in 1974. "We should do a show in the late hour, based in New York, and have it produced live on camera." NBC bought the idea, and Michaels brought together the show's original cast and concept: Talented comedians would poke fun at the powerful and challenge taboos, with a different host and musical guest each week. To understand the impact Michaels' Saturday Night Live has had on American comedy, readers should remember the stodgy, stale television landscape of the mid-1970s. There were only three commercial networks. David Letterman's first Late Night was seven years in the future. Johnny Carson was considered the outside edge of what was acceptable for television comedy.

It seems amazing now, but prior to SNL's first telecast, controversy raged behind the scenes about whether the host, George Carlin, could wear what he wanted -- blue jeans and a T-shirt -- for his opening monologue. Network executives insisted that Carlin must wear a suit and tie, and a serious, heated argument lasted several days, as SNL's producers patiently explained that the Saturday program was going to be more relaxed than Carson's Monday-Friday Tonight Show, and that Carlin in a suit would be absurd. Network executives responded with memos and phone calls insisting in no uncertain terms that the host would be formally attired.

The program debuted on 11 October 1975, with Carlin wearing casual clothes. It was Michaels' first triumph, the first of many. Over subsequent weeks, months, years and decades, Michaels' Saturday Night Live brought television a much more adult sense of humor than it had ever shown before. It became acceptable, at least after the late-night news, to make jokes about almost any topic, from religion, politics, and ethnic humor to sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Michaels left SNL after the 1979-80 season, and under other hands the show went into a tailspin. Michaels, meanwhile, produced TV specials for Steve Martin and Simon & Garfunkel, and helmed a cartoon series of SNL's The Coneheads. In 1985, NBC President Brandon Tartikoff called Michaels to explain that the show's ratings were down, and it was going to be cancelled -- unless Michaels wanted to come back and make it work again. He did, and with SNL now entering its fourth decade, Michaels remains in charge.

Audiences argue about which casts or which seasons have been funny and which have been flat, and some critics complain that Michaels has inserted himself into too many sketches in recent years. He is rarely funny as a performer, still seeming the "straight man" he had been years earlier, but co-workers and most former cast members describe Michaels as "born to produce" SNL. He displays an innate knack for remaining calm amidst the weekly chaos, and making a diverse cast of funny people work together.

To go from blank page to a live, 90-minute telecast every week, the process begins with a Monday afternoon meeting in Michaels' office, where writers and performers meet the week's guest host. Ideas are batted around, and material is developed at writers' keyboards over the next few days. On Tuesday and Wednesday, writers refine ideas, often with little or no sleep, and as the host grows accustomed to the anarchy his opinions and ideas are given more consideration. By Wednesday afternoon's meeting, the writers may have as many as 50 sketches, usually 40 more than will actually air. Most will be rejected by Michaels or the host, and the few that remain may be rewritten. On Thursday, some skits go through a dry rehearsal, and by Friday all the skits are usually prepared, with sets and stage instructions.

Saturdays begin with a run-through that may be as long as two and a half hours, after which Michaels and the show's writers make "semi-final cuts". At 8:00 PM, there is a dress rehearsal in front of a live audience, generally an hour and fifty minutes long, leaving up to twenty minutes of "final cuts", based largely on audience reactions. The show goes on at 11:30 Eastern Time.

Michaels maintains a strict rule against ad-libs, because the show's timing must be exact -- if one skit ran 30 seconds too long, then a subsequent skit would need to be shaved by thirty seconds, and that would be dicey on live television. So every line on SNL is written on cue cards and rehearsed, and any performer who makes something up during the telecast is disciplined, whether the ad-lib is funny or not.

In a 1977 broadcast, musical guest Elvis Costello performed "Radio, Radio" when he had been scheduled to perform a different song, and in fact, Michaels had rejected "Radio, Radio" because its lyrics are unkind to corporate media. After the broadcast, Costello did not appear on SNL again until 1989. In an infamous 1992 episode, musical guest Sinead O'Connor performed an a cappella version of "War" and then dramatically ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II and shouted, "Fight the real enemy!" Unsurprisingly, in reruns the apolitical dress rehearsal is shown, and O'Connor has never been invited back. In a 1994 telecast, host Martin Lawrence delivered an opening monologue not at all like what had been rehearsed, with jokes critiquing his girlfriends' anal and vaginal hygiene, albeit cut short in reruns.

How "live" the telecast is remains a questionable matter, especially since Ashlee Simpson's famous incident on 30 October 2004. A recording of Simpson singing one song began while she was expecting to lip-sync a different song, so viewers heard her singing as she held her microphone at her hips. Michaels said later that no-one had cleared the lip-syncing with him, and that he would not have allowed it.

In reruns, segments that do not work are sometimes replaced by material taped during the dress rehearsal, or even skits from a different episode. On rare occasions when something particularly awkward has happened live, it has been edited out before the "live" episode reaches on the West coast three hours later. Additionally, episodes hosted by controversial comics Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, and Andrew Dice Clay were aired with a five-second delay. Kinison's appearance included his heartfelt plea for the legalization of marijuana, which was edited out before the West coast broadcast.

In the show's early years, drug use was rampant, and although Michaels denies it, some reports suggest he supplied some of the chemicals, and had a guard stationed outside the studio to alert cast and crew if police came on the premises. After the overdose death of John Belushi, all sources agree that Michaels has displayed a marked intolerance for drug abuse on the set. When Chris Farley showed signs of drug problems, he was suspended from the cast and sent to rehab. Of Belushi and Farley, Michaels says, "They both died at 33, they're both incredibly funny, and both got in way over their heads with drugs. I think Chris looked at John and went, 'That's what I want to do.' I think he even went to bed sometimes with his eyebrows taped up, you know, put Scotch tape on his eyebrows to see if they could stay up like Belushi's did. He perhaps romanticized what he thought was John, the way John lived."

The galaxy of stars for whom SNL was the "big break" is a Who's Who in American Comedy over recent decades. From the original cast came Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner Jane Curtin, Belushi, and Bill Murray. Over subsequent years, SNL gave us Eddie Murphy, Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell.

Spinal Tap's Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean were on SNL. Filmmakers Penelope Spheeris and Albert Brooks got early-career boosts making short films for the show. Before he was Letterman's bandleader, Paul Shaffer was SNL's musical director. Before Seinfeld, Larry David and Julia Louis-Dreyfus were at SNL. Before Air America Radio, Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo were on SNL. In 2003, Kenan Thompson joined the cast, becoming the first SNL player younger than the show itself.

Michaels has been nominated for 24 Emmys and won 10.

Wife: Rosie Shuster (junior-high sweetheart, writer, Square Pegs, m. 1973, div. 1980)
Wife: Susan Forristal (model, m. 1984, div. 1987)
Wife: Alice Barry (Michaels' former assistant, m. 2004)
Son: Henry
Son: Edward
Daughter: Sophie

    University: BA, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (1966)

    Al Franken for Senate
    John Kerry for President
    John McCain 2008
    Kerry Victory 2004
    Midwest Values PAC
    Nader 2000
    United Nations Association of the USA Advisory Board, Adopt-A-Minefield campaign
    Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame
    Emmy
    Hollywood Walk of Fame
    Canada's Walk of Fame 2003
    Roast: Lorne Michaels (2004)
    Funeral: Nora Ephron (2012)

    TELEVISION
    Saturday Night Live
    Late Night with Conan O'Brien
    The Kids in the Hall

    FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
    Under African Skies (22-Jan-2012) · Himself
    The Rutles (22-Mar-1978)


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