Why Naming SNL’s Cast Is Only The Start of Lorne Michaels’ Very Long TV Season

Late-night impresario's attention will be drawn away by launch of Jimmy Fallon in "Tonight," Seth Meyers in "Late Night"

snl Saturday Night LIve Emmy Writer

You’d think Lorne Michaels might be able to relax.

He just hired a whopping six new cast members (can anyone recall a season where he took in more than three?) to his late-night institution, “Saturday Night Live,” and one has to assume in all that talent must lie a few plugs to the holes left in the show by the departures in the past two seasons of Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, Andy Samberg and Kristen Wiig.

But there’s no sigh of relief waiting for TV’s after-hours impresario. He will have to keep focus on “SNL,” a Peacock perennial that may be in for a rocky season, even with other massive plates spinning above him.

The task of keeping NBC’s vaunted “Tonight” on its feet has also fallen to Michaels, who will be in charge of putting Jimmy Fallon into Jay Leno’s seat early next year – moving the program to New York City in the process. He is also in charge of NBC’s “Late Night,” which will see SNL’s Seth Meyers take the host’s chair as soon as Fallon starts at 11:35 p.m. It’s a wonder he hasn’t been placed in charge of figuring out what to do with “Last Call,” the Carson Daly early morning talk show, now that the host is moving to “Today.”

There may have been a time when naming the new SNL cast members could leave Michaels with the feeling of creating a fait accompli. The cast is in place and the show can go on. But in 2013, the act is merely the first in what may well be Lorne Michaels’ longest TV season ever.

He will likely be distracted by any number of details about the new Fallon program. NBC, after all, has given the New York-based Ted Harbert, chairman of NBC Broadcasting, the task of supervising both “Tonight” and “Late Night,” rather than Paul Telegdy, who was recently put in charge of late night as well as reality programming.

Where it’s hard to imagine NBC fretting overmuch about “SNL,” which is Michaels’ 39-season-old child that has survived sundry Fox attacks as well as Comedy Central, it is perfectly reasonable to believe the network will be focused on “Tonight.” Jimmy Kimmel, after all, is making waves at ABC. A recent stunt in which Kimmel  got Matt Damon to hijack his program was rebroadcast in prime time, and Kimmel’s clever video of a woman catching on fire while twerking became a viral success that fooled many established news outlets – including CNN. If Fallon is to insert himself into this emerging second generation of post-Carson late-night, he will have to start strong.

But “SNL” is in dire need of Michaels’ scrutiny this season. Will the sextet of newcomers gel? Can cast veterans Kenan Thomson, Bobby Moyinhan and Nasim Pedrad step up and provide more glue for the Not Ready for Prime Time Players? Does Fox’s new animated Saturday-night block give SNL a run for the younger audience that would presumably all its own without headier competition?

To keep things running smoothly, Michaels is likely to use what has fast become a favorite technique in recent years: Calling in favors. There are so many actors and comics who owe him their careers, giving Michaels an arsenal of talent to deploy across all fronts. Case in point: Tina Fey, the former “SNL” cast member and head writer, will host the show’s season debut on Sept. 28. How else might Michaels, as discussed in today’s New York Times, broach the idea of having a Seth Meyers continue to hold “Weekend Update” duties on the comedy show that launched him to greater heights all the while moving forward in the high-pressure effort to make “Late Night” his own?

The idea is smart and could grow even more powerful. “SNL” benefits from the guest stars. And the other programs under Michaels’ aegis get a powerful promotional megaphone during a critical time of start-up. Count on seeing surprise visits by Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig and others who are forever indebted to the producer across his portfolio of programs.

You see, once you join the cast of “Saturday Night Live,” and fare well in the aftermath, you don’t ever really leave (unless you are Eddie Murphy). Not if Michaels is to be able to keep all his plates spinning in the air, particularly in the 2013-2014 TV season. It’s a lesson Beck Bennett, John Milhiser, Kyle Mooney, Mike O’Brien, Noël Wells and Brooks Wheelan – SNL’s six new featured players – ought to learn.