‘I Would Never Host ‘Saturday Night Live’’: Inside the Carol Burnett/Lorne Michaels Cold War

Burnett’s name was an ‘SNL’ codeword for ‘lame’
‘I Would Never Host ‘Saturday Night Live’’: Inside the Carol Burnett/Lorne Michaels Cold War

We’re heading into Carol Burnett Week, with NBC hosting an all-star special in celebration of the comedy icon’s 90th birthday. So Burnett is making the talk show rounds, telling Better Call Saul stories, sharing Tim Conway memories, and dishing on her shared ancestry with lovey-dovey Bill Hader. It’s all feel-good, sepia-toned recollections — except for one sharp comment Burnett made to Fox News Digital when asked about whether or not a Saturday Night Live hosting gig is in the offing: “I would not be interested. That’s all I can say.”

Woof. Why wouldn’t Burnett want her Betty White moment, a celebration of everything she’s brought to sketch comedy over the past 60 years? Maybe it’s because in the early days of SNL, “Carol Burnett” was Lorne Michaels shorthand for “hacky laughs.” In fact, you could say the show was founded on the idea of being the Anti-Burnett Show.

When Lorne met with the original Saturday Night staff (not yet Saturday Night Live because Howard Cosell took the name first) in July 1975, he laid out his vision for the show, according to Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night would do sketches, not skits, Michaels proclaimed. Kids in talent shows do skits. The Carol Burnett Show did skits. Her show’s style was everything Saturday Night would shun — broad, smug and bougie. Michaels hated when Harvey Korman and company cracked up (which was all the time), a reason that “breaking” during a sketch was verboten on SNL for many years until Jimmy Fallon came along. When a writer or performer offered up an idea that seemed too old-fashioned, it was dismissed with a sneer: “That’s Carol Burnett.”

That attitude was made clear to early host Buck Henry. “I made a suggestion for an ending for a sketch because I came up in the school that says you end a sketch with an ending,” he said in oral history Live From New York. “And I heard one of the writers behind me say to the others, ‘Hmm, 1945.’ And I nodded inwardly. ‘I see. I get it.’ It was considered really corny to go for a joke. They thought somehow it was like Carol Burnett.”

In Saturday Night’s first season, it was nominated for Emmys for Best Comedy-Variety Program (against The Carol Burnett Show, of course — the show had 70 nominations and won 25 statues over its run). Chevy Chase also was nominated against Korman and Conway. Both Saturday Night and Chase won, and the torch was passed to a new generation of comics. 

So why wouldn’t Burnett be interested in hosting SNL? Maybe the fact that the show used her name as a synonym for “lame” had something to do with it. But at least during the 2010s, when fans were trying to drum up a Betty White-style campaign to get her on the show, she offered up a different excuse to Larry King:

“I’ve never been asked.”

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