How Lorne Michaels Outmaneuvered Donald Trump

Donald Trump SNL
Dana Edelson/NBC

Analysis: Donald Trump has gained much leverage over how he's covered by TV, but Michaels' shows don't live by his rules

Seth Meyers is engaged in a battle with Republican candidate Donald Trump. His boss, Lorne Michaels, has already won the war.

Trump last week vowed he will not appear on “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” the wee-hours NBC program, in the wake of Meyers joking that the presumptive Republican candidate for U.S. President was banned from his show for taking away press credentials from The Washington Post and making it harder for that outlet to cover his campaign. “I only like doing shows with good ratings,” Trump said via a Twitter retort.

In some circles, this might be cause for concern. Lack of access to Trump might prove devastating for the modern news outlet, so dependent on topics that drive clicks and viral buzz. Trump is one of those topics, and the mouse-reaction he drives has allowed him to wield something of a stick over a media industry repeatedly thwarted in its efforts to make reporting the news into a sustainable economic model. Little wonder that Trump can literally phone it in to CNN and NBC’s “Today,” among other outlets.

Lorne Michaels isn’t a newsman. His shows need ratings just like MSNBC and the rest, but they can nab audience in other ways. Michaels has already enjoyed the access to Trump that he needs. The real-estate mogul hosted Michaels’ “Saturday Night Live” in November and drew 9.3 million people, the show’s best in four years, even though he was only on screen for about 12 minutes. He also visited Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” to great effect, interviewing a mirror image of himself (Fallon played one of the two Trumps) in mid-September of last year.

So who needs Trump in the flesh anymore? Meyers is likely to get more mileage out of the candidate without having him come on the show, as will Fallon and “Saturday Night Live.” Besides, now that the guy is the presumptive Republican nominee, rather than one among a pack of them, NBC needs to be even more cognizant of FCC-mandated “equal time” rules. Having Trump on the air during an entertainment program might be less than desirable, though the ratings that would likely ensue would be tough to resist.

To be sure, Michaels’ shows don’t want to sunder ties to the Trump campaign. There could come a day when the real-estate mogul sits in the Oval Office, and getting him to appear on either late-night talk show or “SNL” would be a welcome coup.

But they can’t live or die waiting for that kind of visit. If they did, they’d probably do the latter. Viewers are counting on Fallon, Meyers and “SNL” to poke fun at Trump. They want to hear Michael Che and Colin Jost tag-team a few jokes about him on “Weekend Update.’ They want to see Darrell Hammond, the one-time “SNL” cast member who did a hard-to-forget impression of Trump, trot it out all over again from behind the stage, where he now serves as the announcer for the program. And they expect Meyers to lampoon the politician regularly in his “Closer Look” segments.

Michaels snared Trump at just the right moment. When he appeared on “SNL” he was more of a curiosity than an obvious front-runner. When he arrived on Fallon, Trump was just one player in a field of many. If a viewer wanted to get a different view of Trump, tuning in to that “SNL” was hard to resist. Now the outspoken candidate lives life in public, more or less. He is almost ubiquitous.

By lampooning Trump endlessly, Michaels’ shows are staying on brand. Viewers expect to hear lines like, “Ultimately, it does make sense that the NRA would endorse Trump, because Trump himself is kind of like a gun. We think he’s going to make us feel safe and strong, but he might end up accidentally killing us.” It’s a joke Colin Jost made during “Weekend Update” on “SNL” a few weeks ago – and it’s the sort of salvo the show’s staff would have to think twice about if they were always currying Trump’s favor in the hopes of snagging another appearance.

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That’s why Seth Meyers’ ban on Trump continues. The host knows a Trump booking is kind of moot.

Michaels’ shows thrive on popular culture. Whatever is in the national ether becomes grist for the mill. If the programs began to reconsider the ingredients for their humor, they’d probably make a lot fewer people laugh.

If Donald Trump has proven anything in this eyebrow-raising election cycle, it’s that he can take on all kinds of opponents, and beat them, no matter the conventional wisdom. But Michaels and his cohorts have tilted at Presidents, world leaders, blue-chip corporations and billionaire celebrities for decades. Trump may cast aspersions on Seth Meyers’ ratings, but it’s a fair bet he’d come on the show – or any under Michaels’ aegis – if it worked to his advantage.

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  1. Seth M. Fool says:

    NBC uses their media position in a disgraceful way to promote their agenda. Seth Myers used to be funny but I can not sit through another one of his stupid monologues promoting his make believe political views. Comedy shows are for all peoples entertainment and should not be a forum for a pea brain. Boycott NBC!

  2. Becky says:

    Let me start out by saying I’m an independent voter and at the moment I don’t like Trump or Clinton. Now, having said that, it still makes me so irritated at the increasingly hostile comments being made by not only Meyers but Stephen Colbert (he’s even worse) I’ve stopped watching both. The two Jimmys are still pretty fair, I think, with their jokes. Whatever happened to the good old days of Johnny Carson or even Jay Leno who poked fun at both candidates or whoever won the White House without being one-sided, preachy and downright ugly against just one side? That’s how it got with Letterman against George W. Bush. When did you ever hear him make one single joke – even a mild one – against Obama? When it gets to the point your blood pressure goes up by watching a stupid late night host it’s time to change the channel or turn off the TV. And I have.

    • Dave J says:

      Where have you been, perhaps the reason President Obama has not been made fun is because he has not done nor had said anything stupid, childish nor racist! Nor is he even in the running anymore! As a matter of fact, Obama has always been status quo unless he were to cheat on his wife or admitted using illegal drugs! Are you really that fixated on to scandals!

      • Becky says:

        It has nothing to do with scandals, for Pete’s sake. In the seven years he was president Obama never stumbled on a word? Never hesitated while speaking to collect his thoughts? Anything, no matter how small or trivial that Bush did, was used by Letterman over and over and over to make him look silly. I believe Letterman was afraid to do this to Obama for fear he’d be called a racist. And if the definition of a racist is treating someone differently because of their race then Letterman was a prime example for treating Obama different from Bush, Bill Clinton and every other president before him.

      • Becky says:

        I watched Letterman every single night and he made maybe ONE Obama joke in seven years. I don’t know what planet you’ve been on but what you wrote is ridiculous.

    • Cath says:

      Letterman made Obama jokes all the time. Did you stop watching and miss them? Colbert makes Clinton jokes but quite frankly Trump is just funnier than Clinton. Don’t know about Meyers because I don’t watch. Trump doesn’t mind the jokes. He minds being ignored. As long as the jokes keep coming he’ll be fine.

  3. Not a cuck says:

    I wonder how anyone still supports Lorne Michaels. Have you tuned into SNL lately? Basically teens and 20 somethings lecturing the country on liberalism and sodomy and how wonderful they are. He’s agist, communist, and a propagandist.

    • Ken says:

      LOL. Hardly a communist. Michaels is very much a mega-wealthy entertainment capitalist worth several hundreds of millions of dollars. Bone up on your political terminology, please.

      • Not a cuck says:

        That’s how the elite function in communism, in constant contradiction of the ideals.

  4. Jo Mama says:

    One egomaniac speaks his mind and is incredibly popular with Americans but has silly hair, the other egomaniac is a poster boy for Botox and cosmetic surgery and aims irresponsible levels of liberalism directly at our youth. I’ll go with the guy with silly hair over a vain, morally bankrupt propagandist.

    • Dave J says:

      Speaking about vain, morally bankrupt propagandist, what do you call a candidate who defrauds unsuspecting students of Trump University as well as tax evading!

      • Bobbi says:

        What do you call THAT candidate, Dave J? Probably one that will do very well, during the debates, when the public is reminded of similar lawlessness on her part.

    • John H says:

      Michaels isn’t running for President, thank God.

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