How Lorne Michaels Outmaneuvered Donald Trump

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

Donald Trump SNL
Dana Edelson/NBC

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.

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.