All the Times ‘Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels Was as Bad as Dr. Evil
Let’s get one thing straight right off the top: Lorne Michaels is Dr. Evil. At the very least, they share the same voice. Mike Myers’ Austin Powers villain was such a shameless rip-off of Dana Carvey’s Michaels impression that it caused a major rift between the two comics. But why would Myers choose to pattern his malicious evildoer after the man who launched his Saturday Night Live career? Perhaps it’s because during SNL’s nearly 50-year run, Michaels has often proven himself to be “malevolent” and “sinister.”
Okay, okay, it wasn’t all sharks with laser beams attached to their heads, but Michaels can still be pretty evil nonetheless. Oh, you want examples? We’ve got frickin’ examples…
Michaels Refused to Control John Belushi — Then Put His Life on the Line
Jane Curtin stopped speaking to Michaels during SNL’s second season. “I would say, ‘Why aren’t you doing something about John? I found him going through my purse. He set your loft on fire. His behavior is reprehensible. He’s not coming to rehearsals, or if he does come, he comes three hours late. Do something!’” Curtin says in Live From New York: The Complete Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. “And he didn’t. He would just sort of throw his hands in the air. Lorne doesn’t deal with issues.”
According to Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, Michaels’ behavior was even worse in 1979 when a messed-up Belushi showed up after three straight days of partying with Keith Richards. The comic was so wasted that he told Michaels he was too sick to go on. Calling Belushi on his bullshit, a furious Michaels summoned NBC’s house doctor, who unexpectedly sided with John. “His lungs are filled with fluid,” the doctor determined. “If he goes on tonight, the odds are fifty-fifty that he’ll die.”
“I’ll accept those odds,” Michaels said, sending a sweating, pasty Belushi on-stage to struggle through the show.
Michaels Will Keep You Waiting — For Hours
In fairness, the guy’s busy. He’s producing a comedy show! What’s the big deal if he’s running 15 minutes late? But the thing is, it’s way worse than that. “Lorne Michaels makes you wait two, three hours to see him,” says Chris Rock in Live From New York. “There’s many a funny comedian that couldn’t wait. None of them are very successful now that I know of. So I waited.”
Actually, two to three hours is a best-case scenario. “I waited for Lorne for five hours,” Janeane Garofalo once said. After Bobby Moynihan’s audition, they brought him in to talk to Michaels, and Moynihan said, “I waited, like, nine hours on the couch outside his office.”
“You’ll wait a lot of hours — that’s a power thing,” Garafalo explained. “Then, when he realizes you’ll do it, he can’t respect you. How could he? You’ve shown him your weakness. You’ve shown him that you will wait four or five hours and that you’ll take it. There’s your first mistake.”
Don’t blame it on being Canadian, says Rosie Shuster, an original SNL writer and Michaels’ ex-wife. If that were the case, Michaels would take the Canadian approach of apologizing for running behind. “I don’t think Lorne ever apologized to people for keeping them waiting for a long, long time,” Shuster has said.
Michaels Thinks Insecurity Keeps You on Your Toes
“Lorne wants people to feel insecure,” an ex-cast member said in a 1995 New York Magazine article. That comic compared Michaels’ mind games to the ones used in cults: “They keep you up for hours, they never let you know that you’re okay, and they always make you think that your spot could be taken at any moment by someone else.”
The New York Magazine article and its unnamed sources are one thing, but others have gone on the record with similar stories, including Conan O’Brien. “He has a standard joke if you’re a rookie writer and he doesn’t know you that well,” O’Brien explained. “He passed me in the hall once, and he said, ‘Still with the show?’ Then he acted mildly surprised, as if to say, ‘I thought we got rid of you.’ And that’s his little joke: ‘Still with the show?’”
Even if you have a job, you might not have it for long. After Colin Jost got the gig hosting Weekend Update, he found out Michaels was going to hold tryouts for his seat the following August. “So I was going to audition for the job I already had,” Jost wrote in his memoir, A Very Punchable Face. “Call me crazy, but that didn’t sound very promising.”
The message: Don’t get too comfortable. Ever. “If anybody got anti-fan mail or a disparaging note, it would be posted,” Garofalo has explained. “I didn’t understand that. It was another tactic of breaking you.”
Michaels Set the Cast on Fire. And That Was a Healthy Example of Him Firing Someone
By anyone’s standards, Michaels hired a talented but failed cast for the 1985-86 season. He believed his crew of all-stars — Randy Quaid, Robert Downey Jr., Joan Cusack and Michael Anthony Hall — was going to set the comedy world on fire. When it didn’t, Michaels decided to set the cast on fire instead.
In the last sketch of the season’s final episode, the cast gathered to congratulate each other on a great show. It was Quaid who got a whiff of the gasoline, courtesy of host Billy Martin who was dousing the set before setting 30 Rock on fire. Michaels, appearing as himself, rushed in to tell Jon Lovitz, one of the only cast members set to return for Season 12, to hurry outside and wait in the limo. As for Downey, Cusack and the rest? Michaels practically roasted marshmallows over the charred embers of their comedy careers.
As brutal as this broadcast firing was, at least Michaels did it to their faces. Otherwise, many departed cast members report never hearing from Michaels at all. “I have no idea how Lorne felt about me,” Jenny Slate told InStyle. “All I know is, it didn’t work for me, and I got fired.”
Actually speaking to a cast member to let them know they’re not coming back? “They don’t do that,” Sarah Silverman told HuffPo, finding out she was canned via a fax to her agent. When Adam Sandler came back to host, he opened the show with an original ditty, “I Was Fired.” Here are some telling lyrics:
Between seasons, I heard a rumor
That I was getting the sack
I tried to call Lorne Michaels
But he never called me back
“Lorne couldn’t fire anybody,” early host Buck Henry once explained. “He was constitutionally unable to do it.” And so, he got other people to do it for him.
Michaels Stopped Cast Members from Going into the Movies
These days, mellowed or just plain worn out, Michaels allows cast members to leave for half-seasons at a time to pursue other creative ventures. But for the show’s first 30 or so years? That wasn’t the case. “Lorne was hysterical that Chevy was making a movie, and he refused to give me Danny (Aykroyd) for the part of D-Day in Animal House. He refused,” remembered director John Landis. “He wouldn’t release Danny, and he told him, ‘You have to be here and write or I’m going to fire you.’” (Though presumably, Michaels wouldn’t have fired Aykroyd to his face.)
The same thing happened on The Blues Brothers, claimed Landis, when Michaels wouldn’t release Paul Shaffer, even though he’d put the movie’s band together.
Fast-forward 20 years and Michaels was just as restrictive. Lovitz had signed to film Mom and Dad Save the World over the summer break, but production ran long. That meant Lovitz would have to miss two weeks of the show, but Michaels wouldn’t allow it. Forced to make a choice (and convinced the movie was going to be a hit), Lovitz quit the show. “Personally, I didn’t think it was fair, because my contract was up and I thought, you know, I did a really good job for five years and I just asked him to miss the first two shows,” remembered Lovitz. “Lorne later admitted it was a mistake and he should’ve done it that way. For me personally, it’s kind of upsetting, because I really wanted to stay.”
Perhaps Lovitz could have worked something out if only he’d offered Dr. Michaels a little something for his trouble.