The show was over, Saturday Night Live had just celebrated a milestone on television with an awards ceremony for itself—a live, clip-heavy, two-and-a-half-hour prime-time special. NBC’s Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center, from which the show had been broadcast live for the past fifteen years, had been refitted to accommodate a black-tie audience three times the program’s normal seating. It was an audience that seemed to include almost every famous, and at one time hip, person from New York or Los Angeles from the past two decades—or at least every famous and at one time hip person who also hap-pens to be currently in favor with Lorne Michaels. There were actors and actresses, rock stars and rock stars’ wives, flesh peddlers, managers, television pooh-bahs, restaurateurs, and a murmuration of tycoons and statesmen. The man is not short on friends.

When the final credit had rolled up on the monitors, members of this cheering section rose stiffly from their seats and began herding toward elevators that would take them to the Rainbow Room upstairs, where post show celebrations and toilets awaited them. As they did, they filed past Michaels and his closest friend, Paul Simon. The two stood off by themselves, their backs to the throbbing, self-satisfied, canape-starved crowd, and just looked out over the empty stage. They didn’t appear to be saying anything to each other, but then they probably didn’t have to, such are the depth and tenure of their friendship.

Michaels and Simon still live across the hall from each other in an apartment building on Central Park West, as they have for much of the decade. Carrie Fisher told me that when she was still married to Simon, and Michaels and Susan Forristal were still together, the relationship between the two neighboring couples was like that between the Mertzes and the Ricardos. Somebody else—I don’t remember who—said that they were often referred to as the Crab Pack.

“Some people have a skill to provide a home for people and to nurture them,” says Michaels. “And without being grand about it, I think that it’s about how, if people feel appreciated, they pretty much stay.”

The marriages are long gone, but then so are feverish memories of perilous early-’80s career stalls. Michaels and Simon now have a rosy spring in their steps—the bounce of a couple of active, vital show-business seniors happiest in each other’s company. “When they get going,” says Chevy Chase, “the two of them are like a couple of old ladies.” Sometime after Simon’s magnificent Graceland was released to great acclaim, he was out in Los Angeles talking on the telephone to Michaels, who was in New York. As sweet as the immediate success of the album was, Simon told his old friend, “You don’t get happy out here. You only get hot.” Now in his mid-forties, Michaels is, it can definitely be said, sort of happy and sort of hot.

And sort of Gatsbyesque, as I was to discover. Many people resorted to just such an allusion in their attempts to describe Michaels and his facility for fashioning around himself dramatic backdrops, for surrounding himself with a movable feast of famous friends and admirers, for being part of the proceedings yet apart from them. The White Party probably has a lot to do with it. Twelve years ago, Michaels rented a ten-bedroom house in East Hampton for the summer for $7,000. It had lawns, he said, that just went on forever, and he and Simon, Chase, and Michael O’Donoghue decided to throw a lawn party for their friends. With one caveat: everybody had to wear white. “It was the first flush of success and the first time there was any money, and everybody was sharing it with all the people who worked on the show,” Michaels says. Let’s see: A relative newcomer in town? Check. An enormous house? Check. A garden party built around a Newport-in-the-twenties aesthetic? Check. Gatsbyesque? Sort of.

Nothing pleases Michaels so much as being able to effect a situation in which his friends can meet one another and just run around being really famous and creative. It’s part of being a good producer. “Some people have a skill to provide a home for people and to nurture them,” says Michaels. “And without being grand about it, I think that it’s about how, if people feel appreciated, they pretty much stay.”

His adult years have all along been ordered around a dorm-room-cum-clubhouse-cum-Newport-summer-party sensibility—it’s part of being a father figure to those around you; it’s part of having your own father die at forty-eight, when you were just fourteen; it’s part of having been married and divorced twice and not having children or a spouse to call your own. “Lorne definitely likes the dorm atmosphere,” says Chase. “He doesn’t have his own family, and so his family is the one from work.” During the early days of Saturday Night Live, a not insignificant part of its romance and mystique centered on the sleepover writing nights at 30 Rockefeller Plaza that turned the show’s offices into surely the most celebrated bunkhouse in the nation.

Rarely do you ever see Michaels alone. He is always leading, organizing, forging groups of people, It is both his day job as producer and his personal avocation. Former Saturday Night writer Anne Beatts used to call him “the Leader of the Lost Boys.” Three years ago, Michaels invited me to see a Yankee night game. I had fully expected that the two of us would head uptown to Yankee Stadium the way I always had in the past, careening up to the Bronx on the D train, it’s unair-conditioned cars jammed with all manner of steaming, fetid humanity, then returning after the game the same way. Rather, we traveled uptown in a typical Michaels cluster. The assembly this time included Chase; film director Paul Schrader, who rents out an office at Broadway Video, Michaels’s production company; Brian McConnachie, a former SNL writer; and Keith McNally, owner of Café Luxembourg and Nell’s. And, of course, instead of the D train, there was a stretch limousine waiting for us.

The evening of his anniversary special, all the various elements of Michaels’s life and personality were at work: a room full of famous friends and a startling stage set by Akira Yoshimura and Eugen Lee, built for the occasion to look like the front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. And although he was responsible for half an evening of live network television, Michaels retained his Gatsbyeque presence—cool and almost uncommonly unflappable, available when needed, off in the wings when not. Since he is now the executive producer of the show and no longer the producer (Jim Downey, one of Saturday Night’s longest-tenured and most talented writers, does that job now), Michaels is needed on the studio floor less and less these days and watches most of the mid-and late-week rehearsals and run-throughs from the vantage of his glass-walled office perched high above the stage, behind the bleachers.

A friend who used to write for the show once told me that Michaels rules by exclusion. It’s not so much who was invited to join in the anniversary celebrations, he said, but who wasn’t. Even those who made it to the final cut were placed in further exclusionary rings. Those who found a handwritten ”8” on the backs of their tickets, for instance, were assigned to the specially constructed grandstand on the eighth-floor stage level. Within that designation, however, was an apparent Siberia—the seats on the far left or the far right of the outermost aisles. All other seats on the eighth floor were presumably fine—until the VIPs in them noticed that the real VIPs—the V VIPs, the ones with a “9” scrawled on their tickets—were in the regular bleachers, the ones with access to the bar in Michaels’s office, which served as a sort of private box through-out the broadcast.

Such has been the show’s enormous influence, in television, in movies, and in the culture in general, that it is difficult to imagine an America in a Saturday Night Live-free universe. No John Belushi, Bill Murray, or Chevy Chase. No Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, or Eddie Murphy. No killer bees, no samurai skits, no Weekend Update, no Super Bass-O-Matic, no Roseanne Roseannadanna. No Bill Murray lounge singer, no Czechoslovakian swingers, no “but nooooooooo!,” no King Tut. No cheeseburgers, no Pepsis, no Coneheads, no land shark, no antler dance, no Hans and Franz. No Tony Orlando poking knitting needles in his eyes, no compulsive liar, no church lady, no Gumby, It can be fairly said that Saturday Night Live has had a greater Influence on America’s current sense of humor than has any other single cultural icon.

“He can always take the most manic and egotistical performer and calm him down,” says Steve Martin.

Aside from the actual special, 1989 has been much informed the shadow of Saturday Night. There was the death of Gilda Radner and the release of Wired, the movie about the death of John Belushi that was based on the book by Bob Woodward. Although Wired failed miserably, it is nevertheless in the movie theaters that Saturday Night’s influence continues to be enormous. Chevy Chase had two movies this year, Fletch Livesand National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, both of them sequels to previous hits. Ghostbusters II may not have made much for Columbia Pictures, the studio that released it, but the deals that Murray and Aykroyd arranged for themselves going into the film ensured that they would receive millions. Eddie Murphy has Harlem Nights. Every one of the top-ten-grossing comedies of all time has starred Saturday Nightalumni, and the total take from Ghostbusters, Ghostbuster II, Animal House, National Lampoon’s Vacation, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, Meatballs, Stripes, Caddyshack, Trading Places, Coming to America, The Golden Child, and 48 Hours is close to $3 billion.

Lorne Michaels should be remembered forever not only for getting Saturday Night Live on the air but for keeping it on the air during those hectic, historic first five years. With his young stars being wooed with every variety of outside temptation, Michaels managed, twenty Saturday nights a year at 11:30, to control all the diverging, dmg-fueled egos and interests to produce a show that in its day was the finest, the most original, in all of television. “He can always take the most manic and egotistical performer and calm him down,” says Steve Martin. No less an authority than Michael O’Donoghue vouchsafes Michaels’s enormous gifts as a producer. “Most of us were difficult. In the first few years. I thrive on confrontation, on chaos. Lorne is a terrific producer. You have to lie a lot. Everyone has to think that they are the most important element, and Lorne is very good at that, the schmoozing and the dealing.” Through it all, Michaels proved himself a rarity: a mentor with talent and drive, but one willing to subordinate his own ego to cull the best work from those around him. “There are some people,” he says, “who cannot look at other people’s work without feeling a pang of competitiveness. Whereas I look at it and if somebody else’s work is good, I’m so relieved. Because I have ninety minutes a week to fill or whatever, so I am always taking on a larger task than I could possibly do myself. You go, ‘Whooooo—this is fantastic. Let them succeed.’ ”

Michaels is a little like Ed Sullivan in that the apparent reasons for his success are somewhat ineffable. He stands something over five feet nine inches and still weighs the same 158 pounds that he weighed in high school. And although his hair has grayed and coarsened, and its beachhead retreated somewhat over the past fifteen years, his face is smooth and free of wrinkles or any other rustications of age. Seeing the clip on the anniversary show where he offered the Beatles $3,000 to stage a reunion, you realize just how young he was when he began producing Saturday Night. (Jann Wenner told me later that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were watching Saturday Night Live that night at Lennon’s apartment in the Dakota and very nearly decided to go down to 3o Rock to perform for the money.) Precision informs the way Michaels speaks. Sentences are measured, thoughtful, and delivered through pured, even lips. He has a poise that borders on prissiness. Even the sleeves on his shirts are turned up precisely halfway between his wrist and his elbow. Everything just so.

Ask his friends, colleagues, or former colleagues why Michaels has achieved such success and they all say the same things: a willingness to promote and celebrate the work of others, a good sense of comic timing, a near-perfect ear, great organizational gifts, and a mind capable of handling an infinite number of details. Hart Pomerantz, his comedy partner from the early days in Canada, says that he most admired Michaels’s comic timing and his facility for organizing both material and people. Bernie Brillstein, Michaels’s manager for the past seventeen years, says that when you arrive in town, a basket of flowers or fruit is there waiting in your hotel room with a note that says, “Wel-come to New York.” The job done, the visitor receives a “nice working with you” note. There is something of a cult that surrounds Michaels. Everyone calls him Lorne, in the way that other show business cults call their centers Francis or Steven or Warren. Many of the guest hosts who have appeared on Saturday Night Live either became his friends or were so already. “I think Lorne went back to the show,” says Chevy Chase, “because he missed the action of producing and because he had started a lifestyle back then in which he got to meet and know stars and have dinner with them and become friends with them, and I think that’s important to him.”

Everybody in Michaels’s world has the same sort of entry-level credentials and effects: country houses, assistants, first-class airfare, limousines, “projects.” At this level of general show business famousness, life becomes high school again. Everybody, in Michaels’s words, “connects.” Paul Simon, Chevy Chase, Mike Nichols, Candice Bergen, Steve Martin, Michaels—they are the lettermen, the in crowd with the new corduroys and the sweaters tied around their necks. People and Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone are the yearbooks of this New York-Hollywood meritocracy. We—the movie-ticket buyers, the TV viewers, the book-and-magazine readers, the theatergoers—are the appreciative rabble. And yet it is part of Michaels’s gifts as both a producer and a legendary friend that he takes great pains to draw the outsider in, to make him feel part of it all.

The Brill Building offices of Broadway Video are, in a way, the epitome of Lorne Michaels’s style. The central area is spare but comfortable and outfitted with an expensive collection of arts-and-crafts furniture. Three years ago, a twenty-foot-long theater standee for Three Amigos!, Michaels’s first major movie, which was going to be released that Christmas, was hung along a corridor wall. (A month or two later, I was waiting for a subway and happened to notice that on a poster for Three Amigos!, someone had scribbled over the heads of its three stars: “Three Big Egos.”) The offices—and their location—also reflect Michaels’s appreciation for the romance of show business, for architecture and setting, and his desire to surround himself with collegial, clubhouse ruckus.

The owner of the Brill Building had intended to make it the world’s tallest, but when his dreams outstripped his means, he settled for ten stylish stones and dedicated it to the memory of his young son, who had died of leukemia. Look over the Broadway entrance and you’ll see a likeness of the boy’s head carved in the stone facade. The building had its heyday during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, when many of the city’s song-publishing firms were located there. Broadway Video brought the Brill Building back to a prominence that it had not seen since the days of Oscar Hammerstein, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Billy Rose, E.Y. (Tip) Harburg, and Harold Arlen.

Over the past decade, Michaels has picked up leases for more and more of the building and has turned Broadway Video into one of the preeminent postproduction film facilities in the East. It is no small paradox that, on the one hand, Broadway Video represents state-of-the-art TV-and-movie production and, on the other, Saturday Night is a quaint technological throwback to the early days of live television. By renting out space to other artists and friends, Michaels has transformed the Brill Building into a sort of vertical Zoetrope. Until recently, George Harrison’s HandMade Films had offices there. Woody Allen edits his films there, and the Brill Building is where Paul Simon cut Graceland.

It is from the Broadway Video suite of offices that Michaels conducts the non-Saturday Night Live half of his life. The company was originally called Above Average Productions, in the style of the late ’70s and early ’80s, when production companies were named after their owners’ pets or were given deliberately low-tech-sounding names like, well, HandMade Films or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group. But as the production facilities were upgraded, a more fitting, less coy name was called for. After leaving Saturday Night Live in 1980, Michaels began to produce movies. He made two: Three Amigos!, cowritten by Michaels with Steve Martin and Randy Newman and based on the Disney cartoon The Three Caballeros, and Nothing Lasts Forever, which was written by Saturday Night staffer Tom Schiller and starred Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. Although the latter film has never been fully released, It Is shown from time to time at a theater in Greenwich Village. Another movie, 1985, written by Al Franken, Tom Davis, and Jim Downey, never made it beyond the script stage.

Michaels had greater luck producing a one-woman show for Broadway (Gilda Radner: Live From New York) and concerts for television (Simon & Garfunkel in Central Park, Neil Young In Berlin, Randy Newman at the Odeon). In addition to Saturday Night Live, he has NBC’s Night Music (formerly called Sunday Night), the late-night music hour hosted by David Sanborn. Four years ago, Michaels and Alan Zweibel, a former Saturday Night writer, developed a promising television series for NBC called Bigshots in America. Although the pilot was funny and starred Joe Mantegna, it wasn’t picked up by the network.

Then there was The New Show. Inspired by Your Show of Shows and The Collate Comedy Hour and widely heralded as vaudeville for the ’80s, it marked Michaels’s return to variety television after a four-year hiatus. One former employee told me that although the staff was almost completely made up of SNL hands, the spirit and mood around The New Show were wildly different from the collegelike hubbub of the old days at Saturday Night. This time around, she said, there were accounts at nearby restaurants, a fleet of town cars for the staff, and those great Nord Haggerty-designed offices. “It was like having a fellowship,” the staff member recalls. With its self-conscious name and format, The New Show seemed more concerned with its own hipness than with entertainment. Of thirteen weeks of New Shows, only eleven were original broadcasts—the remaining two were “Best Of’s.” Michaels, who financed the show himself, lost $200,000 a week on it. At season’s end, The New Show finished sixty-fourth out of sixty-seven places in the ratings and was canceled.

Anniversaries and specials are what Broadway Video seems mostly to be about these days. Michaels produced the Emmy Awards show in 1988, an assignment that Michael O’Donoghue sees as an outrageous conflict of interest. “I mean here you have Lorne producing Saturday Night Live, what should be the most hard-hitting, cutting-edge show on TV, and the Emmys—the industry’s big, wet kiss to itself.” Michaels’s anniversary shows are among the most inventive on television. He did a Looney Tunes fiftieth-anniversary special in mock-documentary, “witness” style, a special for Superman’s fiftieth anniversary, and one for Rolling Stone’s twentieth anniversary. Last spring he was on the telephone constantly, trying to batten down” details with Mick Jagger to produce a television special around one of the venues of the Rolling Stones’ tour—a thirty-five-city trek that marks the band’s twenty-fifth year together. All that, of course, was merely a prelude to the anniversary of his own show, now in the middle of its fifteenth season.

Although friends say that Michaels still dreams of someday following through on his aborted career as a film producer, it is television that has returned his favors.

And as easy as is Is, after a decade and a half, to weary of Saturday Night Live’s format, it is far from being a video relic. It has aged well, in fact. Imagine The Flip Wilson Show, a top-rated the year before Saturday Night first aired, on television today. And what’s better on TV today? Full House? Who’s the Boss? Night Court? Although people who watched the original show might find the current batch tepid by comparison, Michaels says, “I think we are more defined. We know what we’re doing. I think the show now is better written than it was in the first five years.” When I passed this information on to Michael O’Donoghue, he said, “Well, he’s just a lying whore! The show lacks all of the edge, all of the danger. You don’t say to yourself, ‘How can they do this on TV?’ but ‘Why bother to do this on TV?’” Chevy Chase says that “Michael would say that about any writing but his own. And I think the best writer the show ever had was Michael O’Donoghue. Nobody could make Lorne laugh like Michael.”

Many of the people I talked to said that Saturday Night Live increasingly demonstrates the kind of comic brilliance it did in its earliest days. In truth, the current Saturday Night may never have the impact on the present generation of viewers that those first few years did on the people who watched it then, but in its more controlled, more conservative way, it is probably every bit as representative of the times. Michaels says that when he first returned to Saturday Night Live in the mid-’80s “we needed a standby for the first show, just in case something went wrong. So I gave the network a list of ten possibilities from the first five years. And none of those shows passed NBC’s standards test in 1985.”

Michaels says that he had a major advantage in producing the original show that he didn’t when he came back, one that allowed him to be more daring than he can ever be now. It was the advantage of anonymity. He knew almost no one in New York, his experience in the United States having been largely confined to Los Angeles. And before that, Canada.

Michaels is part of the postwar generation of middle-class kids who went into show business out of choice rather than as a way of escaping poverty, as so many of his predecessors had. His father had been a furrier, and the family lived on a tree-lined street in a middle-class section of Toronto, then still a Calvinist, Old World outpost of British hegemony. “And in those days,” says Michaels, “the egg man and the milkman still delivered with a horse-drawn wagon.” He told me that he might very well have become another Broadway Danny Rose had rock ’n’ roll not entered his life. Growing up in Canada, a solemn, pious nation with a barely perceptible show business past (Canadian television, says Michaels, “didn’t even start broadcasting until the midf-’50s”), he had as close a brush with the entertainment industry as was possible in those days. His grandparents owned a small movie house, and Rosie Shuster, the daughter of Frank Shuster, who with Johnny Wayne made up Canada’s most famous comedy team, lived down the street. (A talented comedy writer herself, she later married Michaels and worked with him on SNL.) It was said that her father and his partner had made more appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show than any other single act.

It was no accident that one of the early post show hangouts for Saturday Night regulars was the Cordial Bar, a little dive next door to the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway. And it was no accident that Michaels, who grew up watching The Phil Silvers Show, The Honeymooners, The Life of Riley, and Remember Mama, made Saturday Night a live show—the first such variety program to be produced in New York in almost two decades.

Michaels’s show business initiation took place at the University of Toronto, where he cowrote and directed a “musical-comedy revue called the U.C. Follies. Then, in tandem with Hart Pomerantz, he started to write for CBC radio. After a spirited argument with the head of the CBC variety department that ended with the official saying to Michaels, “If you are that good, why are you here?” he moved to Hollywood, holed up at the Chateau Marmont, and began writing. “I lived in almost every room. I used to pay $280-a-month rent. If I got a job on a show that I liked, I would move into a larger room.” In the years before he was asked to create a television show to replace the Tonight Show reruns that NBC was then airing Saturday nights at 11:30, he wrote for Woody Alien, Rowan and Martin, Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Jack Bums and Avery Schreiber, and Lily Tomlin.

Although friends say that Michaels still dreams of someday following through on his aborted career as a film producer, it is television that has returned his favors. He has seven Emmys (three from outside Saturday Night Live and four from the show) and a welter of famous, interesting friends. He has the apartment on Central Park West and a house in Amagansett on Long Island, where he stores a 1962 MG, black with a tan interior, a gift from his second wife, Susan, and “the first car that I ever owned”; a Mustang convertible; and—a virtual cliché among show business people these days—a Ford pickup truck.

Five and a half years ago, Michaels and Paul Simon bought WWHB, an FM radio station that serves the eastern tip of Long Island. They programmed it to play mostly rock classics from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s and hired Simon’s look-alike brother, Ed, to run it. Michaels also has his assortment of offices to go to. His executive-producer’s lair on the seventeenth floor of 30 Rock has leather armchairs, a view of the Empire State Building, and oak cabinets holding tapes of every Saturday Night Live show except those from his five-year break. His desk appointments are arranged in a semicircle around him—a small porcelain statue of Bing Crosby, a photograph of a dog in a pewter frame that he bought in a Paris antiques shop (“I like it because it was somebody’s dog that they had once cared enough about to frame but then sold it”), and a photograph of his cat, Steve.

To many who know him, Michaels has made it all seem so effortless. Indeed, there are two schools of achievement: the British school, which is to work like the devil in private; and the American school, which is to work like the devil in public. Michaels is a student of the former. “Producing is an invisible art,” he says. “If you’re any good at it, you leave no fingerprints. Fred Astaire did not grunt when he danced, because he had just spent four months on that step. It’s all about making it look effortless. When I was a kid and would watch Gordie Howe skate, the guy seemed to be moving very slowly. It was only when you saw the other players around him that you realized how fast he was going.”

Bernie Brillstein recalls a birthday party that Michaels threw for himself in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont. Michaels, he says, couldn’t have been older than twenty-seven or twenty-eight and, as far as he was aware, knew almost nobody in Los Angeles. It was the first time Brillstein had ever heard of the hotel renting out its lobby for a private party. “So we decided to go to this kid’s birthday party,” he says. “And we pulled up to the Marmont at 6:30 p.m. and nobody was there but Lorne. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to be a bomb,’ and began feeling sorry for him. But by the time we left at nine that night, the lobby was jammed. Every young person who would make television or movie history in the next twenty years was there.”

The show was just beginning.

[Photo Credit: White House Photographic Office via Wikimedia Commons]

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