Harry Shearer ‘Grew to Quite Loathe’ ‘SNL’ Producer Lorne Michaels

Shearer on Michaels: ‘An expert at manipulating people and playing psychological games’
Harry Shearer ‘Grew to Quite Loathe’ ‘SNL’ Producer Lorne Michaels

It’s nice to know that not everyone mellows with age. Harry Shearer, one of comedy’s crankiest curmudgeons, has been grousing about Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels practically since he hired Shearer in the late 1970s. And the Spinal Tap star isn’t letting up now. In a new interview with The Independent, Shearer explains how he “grew to quite loathe the producer of the show.” 

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Seeing as Shearer hasn’t worked with Michaels since the 1970s (his mid-80s SNL stint was under Dick Ebersol), it’s unclear why the grudge has so much staying power. But here we are, with Shearer reminiscing about a meet-up with Michaels shortly after being hired. “The first words he said to me were, ‘I never hired a male Jew for the show before,’” Shearer remembers. “And knowing that he was Jewish gave it an extra tang.”

SNL was basically an unending fight to get on the air,” Shearer told The Independent, calling Michaels “an expert at manipulating people, and playing psychological games with people.”

Beyond the personal grievances, Shearer also believed Michaels was doing a lousy job running SNL. For instance, why did Michaels insist on the show being live? “When I started at SNL, I had produced a pilot for a network comedy show – I knew the value of having the opportunity to tape it, to get it right and make it as close to perfect as you could,” he says. “The idea of doing it live seemed absurd. ‘Let’s do it in a format that prevents it from being as good as it can be’?” He dismisses the show’s writing process as a “college dorm kind of thing.”

Shearer has never been shy about sharing his opinions about Michaels, one of the most powerful voices in comedy. In SNL oral history Live From New York, Shearer continually puts his old boss on blast. Some choice nuggets:

  • “I believed, and I think the evidence pretty much shows, that Lorne’s approach to the cast was to try to infantilize them. He wanted them to be like children; he’d be the daddy. That was his preferred way of relating to people. And I didn’t particularly want to relate that way.”
  • “I was fully prepared for a difficult situation. I wasn’t prepared for how difficult. I was pretty fucking miserable for virtually the entire season.”
  • Gilda just said, Do whatever Lorne says,’ which I understood, coming from her, but which was of no use to me.”

Interestingly, it’s Ebersol, not Michaels, who has publicly fired back at Shearer. The comic joined Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest and company in Season 10 but it didn’t take long for Shearer to make life miserable for everyone on the show. In Live From New York, Ebersol calls Shearer “a gifted performer but a pain in the butt,” “demanding,” “out of control,” and a “nightmare-to-deal-with person.” No wonder Ebersol was happy to let Shearer out of his contract midway through the season. 

Shearer points the finger back at SNL. “When I left, Dick issued a press release saying ‘creative differences,’” he remembers. “Yeah, I was creative and they were different.”

Now Shearer is working on a Spinal Tap sequel and he’s just as cranky about faux-documentary comedians who were inspired by the original. “When you’re very influential, you can’t avoid the fact that some of the people you’ve influenced aren’t that good,” he says. “I’m not mentioning Ricky (Gervais) in that context at all. But the number of people who say, ‘Well, I’ll do the poker version of that,’ or whatever... it’s (like), OK, fine. Good luck.”

Never change, Harry.

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