×

Lorne Michaels on 40 Years of ‘Saturday Night Live’ and What the Future Holds

If you pitched a weekly sketch comedy series with elements like raunchy Muppets and a cast member who does an impersonation of the president without looking much like him, would you expect that show to stay on the air for 40 years? From unorthodox beginnings, “Saturday Night Live” has grown into an indelible part of the popular culture.

There’s still one guiding force orchestrating every cold open, every off-kilter sketch in the last 10 minutes and every “Weekend Update.” That’s Lorne Michaels, who created the program and has supervised every episode excepting a notorious five-season stretch in the 1980s. He talked to Variety about what viewers will see when they tune in to the 40th anniversary special Feb. 15 on NBC, maintaining a vision for the show in the face of armchair critics, and “SNL’s” future:

How will this special compare to past anniversary celebrations?
More live performance, not so much clips. All the generations are coming, and so there’s a little bit of a mash-up between different casts, people who have never really worked together before. I think we’re going to do “The Californians,” but we’ll do it with different people. We will also have some live music performances: Paul McCartney, Kanye West, Paul Simon, two or three other big numbers. Everything is subject to change. … Most (cast members) from over the years are coming back, and an enormous number of people who hosted. It’s like any other reunion. It’s both (a feeling of) dread and “You know what? This is happening.”

You have longtime fans who expect something unconventional, a crowd who knows “SNL” as entertainment, and a new group watching via streaming and viral videos. Which aud do you have in mind?
I think we get the baby-boomers and high numbers of people between 18 and 34. We are still the No. 1-rated show on the air (at that time). I think people understand the show after this many years. They know there’s going to be something for them.

People are excited about Eddie Murphy coming back for the special, but what place do you think the Dick Ebersol and Jean Doumanian years (in 1980-85, when Michaels wasn’t at the helm) have in the show’s history?
It was a really important time, and Eddie Murphy may be the biggest star ever to come out of here. I think we’ll pay a huge amount of respect to it, and a lot of the other people from that era. … The show went on, and I wasn’t doing it. There were an enormous amount of good things that came out of the show then.

Social media is a platform for “SNL” critics. How do you balance what those voices want and your own vision for the show?
It comes down to the 400 people at dress rehearsal. You are not in an editing room cherry picking. It’s all of a piece, and you can’t make that constant change. It’s not just sitting down and targeting a demo. I think it’s about a certain taste and, hopefully, a certain level of intelligence.

If NBC came to you and said, “This is a franchise just like ‘The Tonight Show’ and we want to figure out a way to keep it going,” would you be interested?
I would not be happy to see it go off the air, and I would also expect at some fundamental level that they would leave it as is. It’s a very expensive show to do, but it’s necessary to get to the next step.

Any thought about which of your many protégés would be up to the task?
There are so many people here who do so many different things. When the time comes, when it just makes sense to make the decision, that’s when we will make it.

More TV

  • DNC

    Mike Bloomberg to Join Democratic Presidential Contenders at Wednesday's Debate

    Democratic presidential contender Mike Bloomberg will take the stage alongside his rivals at a primary debate for the first time on Wednesday night after a poll released today allowed him to qualify for the event. Bloomberg commanded 19% support in the poll conducted by NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist, second only to Sen. Bernie Sanders [...]

  • 'The Bachelor' Recap: Finding Love Among

    'The Bachelor' Recap: Finding Love Among Hometown Dates

    SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the eighth episode of Season 24 of “The Bachelor.” For the first glimpse of the real world in weeks, titular bachelor Peter Weber took his women back home. With only four women remaining — Hannah Ann Sluss, Kelsey Weier, Madison Prewett and Victoria Fuller — [...]

  • Drew Carey Price Is Right

    'Price Is Right' Tapings Delayed After Drew Carey's Ex-Fiance Killed

    “The Price Is Right” tapings have been postponed following news that host Drew Carey’s ex-fiance was killed last week. Family and sex therapist Amie Harwick, 38, was found Saturday morning at her home in Los Angeles with injuries consistent with a fall. She later died at the hospital. Her ex-boyfriend Gareth Pursehouse has been arrested [...]

  • Caroline Flack

    'Love Island' Returns to Air As ITV Defends Treatment of Caroline Flack

    ‘Love Island’ was back on air Monday for the first time since the death of former host Caroline Flack on Feb. 15. Amid the reality series’ return, broadcaster ITV insists it supported the star after she was removed from the show. Monday night’s episode began somberly with narrator Iain Stirling providing voiceover over scenes of [...]

  • Tiffany BooneEntertainment Weekly Pre-SAG Party, Arrivals,

    Actor Tiffany Boone Addresses Her Decision to Quit 'The Chi'

    Actor Tiffany Boone addressed her exit from “The Chi,” the Showtime series she departed in November 2018 after making harassment allegations against her former co-star Jason Mitchell. Mitchell was fired from the show last May as a result of intimidation and abuse accusations made by Boone and showrunner Ayanna Floyd Davis. Mitchell was subsequently dismissed [...]

  • Amazon Prime nabs ‘Russian Affairs’ for

    Amazon Prime Nabs ‘Russian Affairs’ for Germany, France and the Netherlands

    Amazon Prime Video has acquired the first season of series “Russian Affairs” for distribution in Germany, France and the Netherlands, from Russia’s Start Studios. The eight-part drama that follows the lives of Russia’s elite and those who aspire to that position is set in contemporary Moscow. Under the title “Gold Diggers,” the series was broadcast [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content