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It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that Canadian writer-producer Lorne Michaels had on modern American TV comedy and rock music programming. Perhaps more than any other figure, he was responsible for mainstreaming so-called countercultural values - e.g., jokes about sex, drugs and rock'n'roll; left-leaning politics - through that most pervasive of mediums. As the Emmy-winning creator and producer of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ), Michaels was not only responsible for helming one of the longest-running comedy and variety programs in television history, but for shepherding a bonafide pop culture phenomenon that, with few exceptions, remained as cutting edge and relevant in its later seasons as it did during its debut 1975 season. And his knack for picking comic talent gave early exposure to a staggering amount of popular performers in film and television through the decades, including John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Molly Shannon and Will Ferrell.Born Lorne David Lipowitz on Nov. 17, 1944 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Michaels earned an English degree from the University of Toronto and took a sojourn to the...
It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that Canadian writer-producer Lorne Michaels had on modern American TV comedy and rock music programming. Perhaps more than any other figure, he was responsible for mainstreaming so-called countercultural values - e.g., jokes about sex, drugs and rock'n'roll; left-leaning politics - through that most pervasive of mediums. As the Emmy-winning creator and producer of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ), Michaels was not only responsible for helming one of the longest-running comedy and variety programs in television history, but for shepherding a bonafide pop culture phenomenon that, with few exceptions, remained as cutting edge and relevant in its later seasons as it did during its debut 1975 season. And his knack for picking comic talent gave early exposure to a staggering amount of popular performers in film and television through the decades, including John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Molly Shannon and Will Ferrell.
Born Lorne David Lipowitz on Nov. 17, 1944 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Michaels earned an English degree from the University of Toronto and took a sojourn to the United Kingdom in the mid-1960s to pursue a career in, of all things, automotive sales. It became clear relatively early on that his true talents would be wasted in that arena. Michaels' friends often described him as having a "catalytic personality;" he made things change by his very presence. He had a flair for bringing together a disparate and interesting group of people and making himself their center. Throughout his life, Michaels displayed a natural affinity for being in charge of things. Even as a teen, he would adopt the mentor role with kids only slightly younger than himself. Michaels attracted people who needed the confidence and support that he provided and was also passionate and enthusiastic about the projects on which he worked. He seemed born to be a producer of comedies: even summer camp afforded the 15-year-old Michaels a golden opportunity to gain experience as he mounted ambitious productions of "Bye Bye Birdie" and "The Fantasticks."
He returned to Canada from the UK in 1966, where he formed a popular comedy duo with writer and performer Hart Pomerantz. The duo starred on a television variety series called "The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour" (CBC, 1970-71), which also starred future "S.N.L." star Dan Aykroyd and "Alias" (ABC, 2001-06) actor, Victor Garber. They also traveled south to lend their writing skills to U.S. TV series like the short-lived "Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show" (NBC, 1968), which led to writing work for "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" (NBC, 1968-1973) and Lily Tomlin's 1973 TV special, "Lily," which earned Michaels his first Emmy in 1974.
In 1975, Michaels was tapped by NBC wunderkind Dick Ebersol and network president Herb Schlosser to create a 90-minute sketch comedy show for a late evening broadcast on Saturday evenings (at the behest of Johnny Carson, who wanted a halt to the "Best of Carson" weekend reruns so he could take off two weeknights). Michaels' choices for performers and writers showed his unerring knack for discovering talent with almost unlimited potential. In addition to his former "Hart and Lorne" co-star Dan Aykroyd, he culled actors from the cream of American sketch and improv comedy: the volatile John Belushi and lovable Gilda Radner from the Second City troupe; Chevy Chase from National Lampoon's Lemmings; Jane Curtin from New York's The Proposition; and Laraine Newman from the Groundlings in Los Angeles. For his head writer (and occasional cast member), he picked Michael O'Donoghue, who had directed the "National Lampoon Radio Hour," and filled out his bullpen with up-and-coming talent like comedy team Al Franken and Tom Davis, Herbert Sargent (who helped create the wildly popular "Weekend Update" segment), Tom Schiller (who created numerous short films for the show), Alan Zweibel (who created some of Radner's most memorable characters, including prattling newsreader Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella), and Michaels' own wife, Rosie Shuster, daughter of Canadian comedy legend Wayne Shuster. Michaels' choices for recurring segments also reflected his skill and taste for fresh talent: the first season also featured short films by comic Albert Brooks, puppetry from Jim Henson, and stop-motion animation from Walter Williams and his put-upon clay hero, Mr. Bill. Even his guest hosts and musical performers showed an eye for freshness and hip cache: the program's first guest was George Carlin, followed by Buck Henry, Steve Martin, Elliot Gould and Andy Kaufman making multiple appearances as host and in guest spots. The show also nailed the music, lining up seventies hitmakers Paul Simon (who reunited with Art Garfunkel), Patti Smith, Randy Newman, ABBA, Billy Preston, and Leon Redbone all performing during the debut season.
"NBC's Saturday Night" was originally minus the "Live" due to the fact that Howard Cosell's variety program on ABC from 1975-1976 called itself "Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell" - a show which ironically featured Bill Murray, brother Brian Doyle-Murray, and Christopher Guest among its performers; all of whom were dubbed "The Prime Time Players." With a snarky bit of a response, Michaels called his troupe the "Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players." When Cosell's show was cancelled, Michaels not only took the title for his program in 1977, but picked up the Murrays for his cast. Viewers found the cutting edge humor a welcome alternative to stale network situation comedies, and characters like Belushi's unhinged Samurai and Olympia Café owner Pete; Chase's sardonic "Weekend Update" anchor; Akyroyd's manic impersonations of Richard Nixon, Tom Snyder, and Jimmy Carter; and the aforementioned Radner characters became quotable icons of cool for younger audiences and aspiring comics. Michaels and his "S.N.L." writers even earned an Emmy for their debut season (he would win another that same year for co-writing "The Lily Tomlin Special").
Flush with success, he launched Broadway Video to expand his production horizons. Among his early efforts with that company were "The Beach Boys: It's Okay" (1976), "The Paul Simon Special" (1977), and the cult hit "The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash" (1978), a biting satire of the Beatles' music and history, written and directed by Monty Python's Eric Idle and starring much of the "S.N.L." cast. Michaels also collaborated with one of his show's first breakout stars, Gilda Radner, on her one-woman show, "Gilda Radner on Broadway," which was later filmed by Mike Nichols and released as the concert movie "Gilda Live!" (1981). And he frequently appeared on-camera on "S.N.L." as himself, delivering the driest of comedy in his much-parodied drawl. Among his most notable appearances was the infamous offer to the Beatles to reunite on "SNL" for the princely sum of $3000 - an offer John Lennon and Paul McCartney - who just happened to be together watching the show in NYC that night - almost took him up on, just for a laugh.
But by 1980, Michaels' flagship program was undergoing serious growing pains. Conflicts among the cast members were rampant: Curtin regarded the show's top stars, Belushi and Aykroyd as "bully boys" and only came into her own after they left in 1979 to pursue their movie careers; Radner and Newman had a long-running feud. Radner's Broadway obligations left her unable to commit to many sketches. Garrett Morris also frequently complained of his second-class status on the show and the unpleasant racial stereotypes he was frequently forced to portray. Even Michael O'Donoghue departed in 1978 (though he would return in 1981). The show's first breakout star, Chevy Chase, had left in 1976 under a cloud of acrimony with his castmates and eventually his close friend, Michaels. Making matters worse, the drug culture that had fueled much of the show's early bursts of creativity (and notorious post-show parties) had saturated the show's infrastructure and left performers and writers alike adrift and even jeopardized (Morris' freebase cocaine addiction resulted in public bouts of paranoia, and Newman's drug problems exacerbated her anorexia and isolation from the rest of the cast; Belushi himself would die from a drug overdose in 1982).
However, there were positive new elements as well. Chase's replacement, Second City vet Bill Murray, became popular almost overnight with his wiseguy persona (though his romantic relationship with Radner added fuel to the show's growing backstage drama). Writers Al Franken and Tom Davis' recurring on-screen appearances were attracting critical and audience acclaim and writer Don Novello scored a considerable hit with his character, Father Guido Sarducci. But the gulf between the positive and negative aspects was too much for Michaels to ignore, so he asked NBC to put the show on a six-month hiatus so that new performers and writers could be hired.The network refused, so Michaels, who was already feeling pressure from the executives in his contract negotiations, decided to leave the show. In doing so, he took most of the writing staff and comic talent with him. His replacement was "S.N.L." talent scout Jean Doumanian, whose season-long tenure was marked by some of the show's worst episodes to date - including an infamous on-air epithet by cast member Charles Rocket. Doumanian's reign was so bad, she was axed at the end of the 1980-81 season and replaced by Dick Ebersol - though her brief tenure did bring Eddie Murphy and J Piscopo to national attention.
Meanwhile, Michaels had been busy following his departure from the show, if not entirely successful in his endeavors. He served as executive producer on the concert film "Simon and Garfunkel: The Concert in Central Park" (1982), and created a new sketch show for NBC called "The New Show" (1984). Despite the presence of top comics like Dave Thomas, Buck Henry, and frequent guest star Steve Martin, the series never caught on with audiences. He also suffered a personal setback when his marriage to "S.N.L." writer Rosie Shuster (daughter of Canadian comic icon Wayne Shuster) ended in 1980. On top of all the personal and professional setbacks, Michaels truly missed his "S.N.L." baby. Fortunately, it would not be long before he would be back at the helm.
"S.N.L." had rallied somewhat under Ebersol's tenure, but when he decided to leave the series at the end of the moderately successful 1984-85 season - due mainly to the presence of Christopher Guest and Billy Crystal - NBC chief and longtime fan of the show, Brandon Tartikoff sensed that Ebersol's departure would signal another downward turn for the show. He reached out to Michaels to return to his position as producer, and Michaels accepted. The return was not a glorious one: Michaels' decision to build a new cast from Hollywood talent like Randy Quaid, Robert Downey, Jr., and Anthony Michael Hall did not catch on with audiences, though several new faces like Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, and Nora Dunn, offered some standout moments. It was bad enough, that at the end of the 1985-86 season, NBC canceled "S.N.L.," but recanted, offering Michaels six episodes to turn his series around as part of the deal.
Michaels rallied impressively for the 1986-87 season by bringing aboard seasoned improv and standup comics like Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Victoria Jackson, Kevin Nealon. His knack for picking top comedians remained untouched as the show progressed into the '90s and he brought Mike Myers, Chris Rock, Julia Sweeny, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and Molly Shannon onboard. The fresh blood helped to launch an "S.N.L." renaissance with such popular characters as teen metalhead Wayne Campbell, host of the cable access show "Wayne's World;" Carvey's Church Lady and spot-on impression of President George Bush; Lovitz's Tommy Flanagan, The Pathological Liar, Hartman's Bill Clinton and Frank Sinatra; Sandler's Opera Man and rock and pop song-parodies; and Farley's Belushi-esque intensity. He also branched into feature film production and scored several hits, starting in 1986 with "Three Amigos;" other popular Michaels-produced films included "Wayne's World" (1992) with Myers and Carvey and "Tommy Boy" (1995) with Farley and David Spade. He also launched a second sketch comedy show, "The Kids in the Hall" (CBS, HBO, CBC, 1988-1994), which in many ways, offered stronger comedy writing and performances than "S.N.L.," and served as executive producer for "Sunday Night" - a.k.a. "Michelob Presents Night Music" (NBC, 1988-1990) - a live music program that featured many eclectic musicians and bands performing solo and together.
In 1992, Michaels was brought in to help fill the void left behind when David Letterman departed "Late Night with David Letterman" (1982-1993) for a similar show on CBS. His suggestion for the show's new host was former "S.N.L." and "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ) writer Conan O'Brien, who was eventually tapped to host his own show, "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" (NBC, 1993-2009), with Michaels serving as executive producer. Michaels' endorsement of O'Brien - a virtual unknown to anyone not privy to the comic's behind-the-scenes brilliance in a writer's meeting - proved again the longtime producer not only an eye for talent, but a grasp on the public's comedic appetite. At the same time, he also maintained his producer status on "S.N.L.," which continued to enjoy a healthy audience thanks to newcomers who injected a spark back into the franchise, like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler, and produced a string of "S.N.L."-related films, including "Black Sheep" (1996), "A Night at the Roxbury" (1998) and "Superstar," as well as a "Kids in the Hall" feature - the genuinely strange "Brain Candy" (1996). The latter was notable for Mark McKinney's performance as a pharmaceutical czar whose molasses-slow drawl offered a remarkable resemblance to Michaels' own voice - as did Mike Myers' turn as Dr. Evil in the "Austin Powers" films.
Michaels' production slate outside of "S.N.L." eventually broadened to include the short-lived network series "Sons and Daughters" (NBC, 2006), "The Tracey Morgan Show" (NBC, 2003) and "The Colin Quinn Show" (NBC, 2002), as well as two genuinely pleasant hits - 2004's feature film "Mean Girls," a comic look at high school hierarchies starring Lindsay Lohan and penned by his "S.N.L." head writer Tina Fey, and "30 Rock" (NBC, 2006-2011), a clever sitcom also starring Fey with Tracy Morgan and frequent "S.N.L." guest host Alec Baldwin. Though seemingly chained to the bottom of the Nielsen charts, "30 Rock" brought home numerous awards, including the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in 2007, as well as procured a small but extremely loyal following.
As producer of "S.N.L.," Michaels saw some 60 Emmy nominations handed out to his venerable series, with at least eight of them awarded to him and his writing staff. And his work on "Kids," "Conan O'Brien" and "30 Rock" were also lauded by nearly every critical and performing association, including the Writers Guild of America, the Gemini Awards, and the CableACE Awards. In 1999, he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, and in rapid succession, was made a member of the Order of Canada (2002), got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (2002) and the Canadian Walk of Fame (2003), won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts (2004), and earned a Governor General's Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement in his native country in 2006. As "Saturday Night Live" itself turned 40 in 2015, Michaels' grip on NBC's late night programming was all but complete: he was executive producer of both "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" (NBC 2014- ) and "Late Night with Seth Meyers" (NBC 2014- ).
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