Retracing Lorne Michaels’ Missing ‘Saturday Night Live’ Years
“I took my name off the show and I left.” — Lorne Michaels on his 1980 exit from Saturday Night Live
Lorne Michaels had built a monster. It’s difficult to overinflate the cultural impact of the first five years of Saturday Night Live, a show that along with Richard Pryor, George Carlin and the National Lampoon, ushered in a new wave of comedy that still resonates today. But screaming success is a double-edged sword, and the outrageous popularity that turned Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd into fireballs also promised them movie stardom and millions. SNL in its original incarnation could never last.
By its fifth season, everything about the show had changed. Cast members like Gilda Radner were complete unknowns when SNL started; now she could get applause just by entering a scene. “If we could do an old thing,” Michaels confessed, “we did.” Moving on seemed to be in the best interests of everyone.
“Fellini said that when you’re making a picture, the director is like a father,” Michaels told Playboy in 1992. “Everybody — the actors, the actresses, the designers — eat at one big table every day. They’re like the children. ‘But the moment the picture is over,’ he said, ‘you must leave the picture. Or the children, they will eat you.’ I kept from being eaten by leaving.”
You Ought to Be in Pictures
Leaving SNL after five seasons was more than mere survival for Michaels. Like Belushi and Bill Murray, Michaels was getting offers “to do all the things I’d always wanted. Studios were offering me five or six firm pictures. I was the flavor of the month. I was hot.” But with the heat came a realization — once you’re hot, the only thing you can become is less hot.
His movie deal at Warner Bros. turned into a lot of intriguing ideas that never became reality. Only one film on his proposed production slate was actually made — a gonzo sci-fi fantasy written and directed by old SNL cohort Tom Schiller. But 1984’s Nothing Lasts Forever, even with Aykroyd and Murray in supporting roles, never got a theatrical release. (Honestly, it looks like just the kind of big swing Michaels should have been taking.)
Michaels’ IMDb from this period is remarkably bare. There were projects with old friends — Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever, a special that aired in 1981, and The Concert in Central Park, a Simon and Garfunkel special in 1982. The following year, he produced an animated pilot for The Coneheads that reunited him with Aykroyd, Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman. It features an especially unconvincing laugh track, with an out-of-sync “live audience” reacting to crude animation. No surprise that the pilot didn’t become an actual series.
By Michaels’ own account, much of his missing SNL years were spent puttering around. “I built a house in the country, I got married and I went to an enormous number of baseball games,” he’s explained. “I worked on a pond at my Amagansett house. I moved trees around. I used to say that a garden is like a show that doesn’t talk back to you.”
But tending to gardens and producing the occasional Paul Simon special don’t pay the bills. Almost as a point of pride, he received no ongoing cash for his most famous creation. “Buck Henry said, ‘But you’ve still got all that money coming in from Saturday Night Live.’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t. When I left, I left clean. I didn’t want any connection to it whatsoever.’ And he said, ‘You’re a bigger fool than I thought you were.’”
Out With the Old, In With The New Show
With his movie-mogul career floundering, it’s not a huge shock that Michaels would return to television. But what might be surprising is that The New Show looked so much like the show he left in 1980.
Classic SNL guest hosts like Steve Martin and Candice Bergen? Check. A repertory company featuring old SNL and SCTV stars like Dave Thomas, Buck Henry and John Candy? Check. Drop-ins from old SNL friends like Radner and Newman? Check. A writing staff that included Al Franken, Tom Davis, Jim Downey and Alan Zweibel? Yep. Musical guests including the inevitable Paul Simon? Of course.
But unlike Saturday Night Live, few were applauding The New Show. Oral history Live From New York called it “a tastefully inert variety show” that was trounced by the critics. It was one of the lowest-rated, if not the lowest-rated, show in prime time, according to Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. Playboy summed it up best: “It bombed.”
Michaels blamed NBC and a bad time slot. Writers blamed Michaels for vacationing with Simon instead of preparing the show. Some accounts say Michaels blamed the writers and performers for letting him down; writers and performers blamed each other. The show’s vision was to not be Saturday Night Live, but no one knew exactly what it was supposed to be instead. According to one person who worked on the show, “It was a death ship.”
Maybe the only people happy about The New Show were the people working on Michaels’ old show, Saturday Night Live. Its failure proved to the new cast that Michaels and his crew weren’t infallible, maybe not much better at the comedy game than they were. “Everybody here took a big breath,” according to SNL head writer Bob Tischler, “and said, ‘We’re legitimate.’”
Writer Dennis Perrin was backstage at an SNL rehearsal around the time New Show was floundering. “I heard Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Brad Hall make fun of the show,” he says. “No one took it seriously. It was Lorne’s first real failure.” To make matters worse, Michaels lost his shirt on The New Show. His production company, Broadway Video, produced the show and Michaels was spending more than NBC was paying him.
“I was losing $200,000 an episode,” Michaels told Playboy. “I took my lumps; I took it right on the jaw. And at the end of it, I’d lost a couple million dollars.”
‘In a Way, All of Us Has an El Guapo to Face’
Michaels did have one minor success during his SNL hiatus — but with a release in 1986, he wouldn’t know it until after he returned to Saturday Night Live.
“Steve Martin asked me if I would like to come and write Three Amigos!,” Michaels told Playboy. “We spent a year doing it (with Randy Newman). During that time, my personal life began to fall apart. And when I was in the room with the two of them writing all the time, that became important to me again. I thought, This is what I do. This is the thing that makes me happy.”
Although that comedy has endured through the magic of endless basic-cable reruns, even Three Amigos! wasn’t a smash hit, earning less than $40 million at the box office. It didn’t exactly thrill critics either, with Roger Ebert giving it one star. It has a 52 percent score on Metacritic, the very definition of a “mixed review.”
Turns Out You Can Go Home Again
By the mid-1980s, Michaels said in Live From New York, “the reality hit me that I needed a job.”
And to the bosses at NBC, Saturday Night Live needed Michaels. Eddie Murphy had saved the show, but it was no longer TV’s hip comedy go-to. Writer Herb Sargent told NBC execs who were lukewarm on interim producer Dick Ebersol, “If you have Ebersol, you have a solid professional show. If you have Lorne, you have something unexpected — which is much more fun than anything.”
Even though he could use the gig, Michaels was reluctant to return, turning down NBC at least once. But when exec Brandon Tartikoff pondered canceling the show altogether, Michaels decided to return. He got at least some of the original band back together, hiring old writers and enlisting Franken and Davis as producers. Even so, it took some time to recapture the old magic. Michaels’ first season back featured a weird all-star cast (including Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, Joan Cusack and Randy Quaid) that never gelled. “It was the roughest season Lorne ever had doing the show,” said Ebersol, “and everybody came out of the woodwork to attack.” But eventually, Michaels righted the ship, jettisoning his star-laden cast and finding unknowns Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks to usher in a new era of success. Michaels hasn’t left his 17th-floor office ever since.
“I did the show for the first time in 1985, the year Lorne came back after being away for five years,” Tom Hanks says in Live From New York. “I asked him, ‘So, why did you come back?’ And he just said, ‘I missed it.’”
“When I was thinking about coming back to the show,” Michaels said, “a very powerful guy in the industry said, ‘You don’t do Saturday Night Live, somebody who wants to be you does it.’”
But ultimately, Michaels didn’t follow that advice. “I liked doing it,” he said. “I didn’t mind being me.”