Saturday Night Live: When Lorne Michaels Got Creative Firing The Cast
Lorne Michaels had failed.
After a five-year hiatus from the show in the early 1980s (he’d missed both the Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal eras), Lorne returned with a new cast for season 11, one dramatically different from his original unknown but talented ensemble group. Instead, he hired an all-star team of comedy names, including Randy Quaid, Robert Downey Jr., Joan Cusack, and Anthony Michael Hall. Here’s how that went for him:
Only a few of the new cast members were succeeding -- and none of the famous ones. Jon Lovitz and his oily Liar was the unlikely breakout star. Dennis Miller breathed life back into the nearly comatose Weekend Update. Terry Sweeney got noticed for his Nancy Reagan impression but the writers, hopelessly stuck in the 1980s, didn’t know how to write for an openly gay actor.
Michaels had no choice -- he had to clean house and start over. There was only one problem:
“Lorne couldn’t fire anybody,” says frequent guest host Buck Henry. “He was constitutionally unable to do it, at least early on. I think Lorne felt it was an admission of failure if you have to fire somebody you’ve hired.”
Lucky for Lorne, writer Robert Smigel came up with a solution.
“By the end of the season, the show was still a disaster,” says Smigel. “I had this idea to do a cliff-hanger like Dallas— one of those obnoxious cliff-hangers that really were new at the time— and I wrote one where Billy Martin sets the studio on fire.”
Season 11’s final sketch ends in the dressing room with the cast congratulating each other on a great show. High fives are flying around until Randy Quaid stops and sniffs:
“Hey, hey – uh, does anybody smell gasoline?”
Cut to Martin pouring unleaded on the studio walls and lighting a match.
Lorne half-heartedly tries to stop him. “Billy, are you crazy? If you set the cast on fire, they won’t be able to do the show next year.”
You can see where this is going.
Lorne rushes into the flaming dressing room and emerges with only Lovitz. “Don’t ask any questions,” Lorne tells him. “Just go downstairs to my limousine and wait for me there.”
(Lorne saving Lovitz and only Lovitz -- on the air! -- “infuriated a few people in the cast,” concedes Smigel.)
But it wasn’t just the cast. Lorne waves over a few of the show’s writers as well, tells them they did a great job, then ushers them into the dressing room for hors d’oeuvres and a fiery death.
Yeah, it was a little dark but Rick Shefchik, a critic for the Chicago Tribune, loved the bit and put odds on who would survive to return for another season. He pretty much nailed it.
Shefchik gave the best chance of returning to Lovitz (obviously), setting the odds at even money. “(Lovitz) emerged as the strongest performer in the cast by midseason.”
Dennis Miller, who did return, was given 7-5 odds of survival. “Since Chevy Chase left the show, Miller is by far the best ''Weekend Update'' anchor SNL has ever had.”
The worst odds of returning at 20-1 went to the floundering Anthony Michael Hall, who was indeed left to smolder. “His work in 16 Candles and The Breakfast Club made him seem like a cinch for early stardom … but Hall is not an ensemble comic, and it looks like he wasted a year.”
Stefchik didn’t get it all right. Nora Dunn made it back for Season 12, despite the critic saying, “I don`t remember her doing or saying anything funny all season.”
Hand it to Lorne -- for a guy who didn’t like to fire people, he found a pretty horrific way to bring down the ax.
“I remember Terry Sweeney the day before (saying) he didn't like the sketch,” Lovitz recently said on Dana Carvey and David Spade’s Fly on the Wall podcast. “I said, ‘Terry it's not a real fire. It's a sketch, it's not real. And then I thought about it: Well, what if I was the one being set on fire?”
David Spade understood the reality: “You would have cried.”
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Top image: NBC