The Business of Being Lorne Michaels

It’s 1:01 a.m. on a Sunday morning in May, and Lorne Michaels, the creator and producer of “Saturday Night Live,” has just finished the final episode of the 49th season. He spent those 90 minutes pacing backstage, hands in pockets, surveying the actors, allowing himself only an occasional chuckle of satisfaction.

As members of the cast flood onstage to celebrate another year in the books, they enthusiastically hug one another and the evening’s host, the actor Jake Gyllenhaal, and musical guest, the pop phenom Sabrina Carpenter.

But on the floor, Michaels, 79, has just concluded his 20th show of the year with resignation: “I only see the mistakes,” he says. Some jokes could have landed better, and he is second-guessing his choice to shorten certain skits. He is likely to spend the weekend perseverating about every detail, he says. By Monday, he’ll find some degree of contentment — until he has to do it all over again.

Michaels, through “S.N.L.,” has built an entertainment empire that has survived for half a century despite the dismantling of traditional television.

He is loath to call himself a chief executive, but underneath his Canadian humility he has become something of a management guru: He spends his days recruiting supertalents, managing egos, meeting almost impossible weekly deadlines, wading into controversy — in most cases deftly — and navigating a media landscape that has put many of his peers out of business.

All the while, unlike most chief executives who have become the face of their brand, he has studiously avoided the spotlight.

“I’ve spent my life next to things in order to be more in the shadows,” Michaels said, describing what management professors might call a servant leadership style. “You’re supposed to be making other people look good.”

Recruiting may be Michaels’s superpower. He has found comedic talent across generations: Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell and Tina Fey.

“Mostly, you’re looking for whatever that spark is that says it’s original,” Michaels said. “It’s just an instinct that the way their mind works, something more interesting is going to happen.”

Part of his approach is to look beyond the usual suspects, hot comedians in Los Angeles and New York, and instead try to find new talent in the middle of America.

It has gotten harder since the pandemic ravaged many of the live venues that served as farm teams for “S.N.L.” stars. The Second City, which sprouted Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Chris Farley and Fey, faced additional pressure over its handling of race and was sold to the private equity firm ZMC in 2021, reportedly for $50 million.

This past season, Michaels leaned more on famous hosts, like Kristen Wiig, a former “S.N.L.” mainstay, to ease the pressure on its less seasoned cast, he said.

Michaels is well versed in the challenges that new stars face. “If you were the funniest kid in the class, or your school, and then you’re working professionally and everyone else in the room is that,” he said. “It can be upsetting or can be really stimulating.”

Once those talents shoot to great heights, Michaels’s job often gets harder, not easier. The hand-holding takes on a different shape.

“No one can handle the fame,” Michaels said. “Generally, we’re more tolerant of it, but you know people are going to turn into assholes. Because it’s just part of that process, because no one grew up that way.”

Some in his cast have handled the spotlight more easily than others. Both Belushi and Farley died from drugs at the age of 33 after their runs on the show. Pete Davidson, who left “S.N.L.” in 2022, has openly discussed his anxiety and time in rehab.

It’s partly Michaels’s calm, suggested Paul McCartney, a longtime friend, that makes the weekly comedy circus that is “S.N.L.” possible.

“He’s a benevolent dictator,” said McCartney, who first met Michaels at a party that McCartney hosted at Harold Lloyd’s Greenacres estate in Beverly Hills, Calif. “He’s got a lot of craziness he has to pull together and select from, and he’s got to instill in everyone the feeling that this is going to work.”

In a sea of chaos, Michaels reigns over “S.N.L.” with practiced discipline. He has never missed a Saturday night, and made it to a table read just after one of his three children was born. There’s a weekly routine, including a 6 p.m. Monday meeting at which Michaels introduces the host and Tuesday night at an Italian restaurant.

“The idea that Friday night we still don’t have an opening is no longer terrifying,” he said. “It’s not common, but it’s not unusual.”

The show often courts controversy but can also run into it by accident, turning Michaels into a sometime crisis manager, like when the musical guest Sinead O’Connor tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II in 1992.

“S.N.L.” dropped the comedian Shane Gillis in 2019 after racist slurs that he had made on a podcast came to light. Gillis is now selling out stadiums, and the show brought him back to host this year.

“I think ideas flourish in a moment,” Michaels said of the swift backlash and seemingly just as swift forgiveness. “They used to be called manias.”

Those who have hosted the show, and Michaels, say its intensity and longevity have created a culture uniquely suited to put it on: The makeup artists transformed an actor into Butt-Head (partner of Beavis) in three minutes; the costume designers created a swift replica of all the clothes from Prince Harry’s wedding; the writers grew up watching and now serve as a sounding board for Michaels, who started as a writer himself.

“He’s listening — he’s in dialogue with all of these people about what’s funny, what’s working,” the actress Emma Stone, a five-time host, said. “There’s like a brain trust over there that he cultivates.”

Unlike at most businesses, when things go well at S.N.L., the best people leave. Wiig, Ferrell, Maya Rudolph and others have gone on to huge movie and television careers.

“I met Lorne in ’91 or ’90,” said Chris Rock, whose career went on to include multiple movies with his “S.N.L.” co-star Adam Sandler. “I’ve never been broke since.”

Rather than be upset when talent departs, and the challenge the churn creates, Michaels appears to embrace it as part of the model. He says he offers the same advice to all of the biggest names who come to sit on his couch and tell him that they’re planning to leave: “Build a bridge to the next thing, and when it’s solid enough, walk across. But don’t leave on the first thing, because you don’t know what’s really out there.”

Sometimes, even as stars walk across the bridge, they stay within Michaels’s orbit. His media company, Broadway Video, produced “30 Rock,” “Mean Girls” and “Wayne’s World.” He plucked Jimmy Fallon from the “S.N.L.” cast to host “The Tonight Show,” which Broadway Video also produces, alongside the rest of the NBC late-night lineup.

Michaels’s wider remit also requires dealing with the industry’s harsh economics. NBCUniversal recently cut Seth Meyers’s late-night band amid broader industry budget cuts.

“I think everybody had to go through belt tightening,” Michaels said of the cuts. “I think the only person who really has faith in the network model right now is Ted Sarandos, who seems to be building one,” he added, referring to Netflix’s co-chief executive.

NBC has seemingly granted “S.N.L.” unusual independence. (The 46th season cost about $138 million to produce, according to public filings.) That’s likely because, beyond serving as an NBC talent factory, “S.N.L.” helps the network remain in the cultural conversation.

The show’s 50th season will look to celebrate its grip on media and pop culture. The music producer Mark Ronson and Michaels will produce, effectively, a homecoming at Radio City Music Hall on Feb. 14. There will also be a prime-time special with current and former stars that Sunday. Questlove, the musician and producer, is co-producing a documentary for the anniversary about the imprint of “S.N.L.” on music and culture, and Morgan Neville is producing five documentaries on “S.N.L.” and Michaels.

The celebration will also inevitably raise questions about Michaels’s retirement. The show has mocked the age of both presidential candidates: Donald Trump, 78, and Joseph R. Biden Jr., 81. But as Michaels gears up to spearhead a milestone season, industry insiders have wondered whether he is also preparing for his own “S.N.L.” send-off. And they’ve already begun to speculate who would take his place.

Michaels deflects the question, shifting the spotlight from him to the show: “I’m going to do it as long as I feel I can do it,” he said. “But I rely on other people and always have.”

Thanks for reading! We’ll see you Monday.

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