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‘SNL’ back on right laff track

NBC sketch laffer, Michaels will miss Ferrell

It’s been a long time since “Saturday Night Live” last sucked — and Lorne Michaels is trying to keep it that way.

Throughout its 27-year history, NBC’s landmark sketch laffer has fluctuated wildly between eras of comic brilliance and banality. Several years of genius sketches and cast members (Jim Belushi, Eddie Murphy, Dana Carvey, Cheri Oteri) have usually been followed by spurts of sub-par silliness staged by quickly forgotten faces (Gary Kroger, Charles Rocket).

But for the past five years or so, “SNL” has been on an extended winning streak.

Even as most primetime shows have been losing viewers, Michaels’ Gotham-based comedy creation has been relatively stable and has actually gained viewers some years. What’s more, critics have been mostly favorable in their notices of “SNL,” while entertainment mags and TV shows regularly go ga-ga over the likes of Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey and Chris Kattan.

“SNL” also won kudos for its return after the events of Sept. 11, taking on relevance for a city scarred as never before.

“I think that we got those non-suck devices,” quips Michaels, trying to put his finger on why “SNL” has been able to put off the once-inevitable “bad years.”

In fact, the key to “SNL’s” stability in recent years may simply be Michaels’ ability to manage the comings and goings of key cast members.

Back in 1995, “SNL” suffered badly when the show lost Mike Myers, Phil Hartman Kevin Nealon, Adam Sandler, Ellen Cleghorne and Chris Farley within the space of a year. Michaels had to scramble to find replacements; the result was several years of not-so-funny shows and more than a few media obits for the skein.

By contrast, “SNL” hasn’t missed a beat with the loss of Oteri or Molly Shannon over the past two years. New featured players and cast members had been added a few years before the vets ankled.

The show’s resilience is about to get tested again, however.

After seven seasons, Will Ferrell — who played everyone from George W. Bush to Alex Trebek — exited “SNL” in May. Thesp’s enormous range will cost “SNL” one of its most versatile players ever, not to mention several popular recurring characters.

Michaels doesn’t downplay the impact of Ferrell’s departure.

“We’re not going to be able to replace Will Ferrell,” he says. “(But) I don’t think we’ve ever been able to replace anyone.”

Michaels says he’ll “add two or three people” to the show at the start of next season. He’ll also be counting on current events to continue supplying his writers with material.

“Events have sort of worked in our favor since the (last) election,” he says. “And I think judging from this summer, both the government and the world will be on our side.”

As “SNL” approaches 30, Michaels says he has no plans to leave the show anytime soon. His Broadway Video production shingle is very active producing TV and film projects, and even the near- suicidal “SNL” production schedule shows no sign of wearing him out.

Michaels also remains a key figure in determining the comic content of “SNL,” approving and nixing sketches with producer Steve Higgins and head writer Dennis McNicholas.

“I’m still wearing khakis to work in the same way I did when (the show) began,” he says.

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