By Anna Merlan
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By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
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By Tessa Stuart
Watching this sketch from the floor, it was clear that the cast found it hilarious. Yet by air, it had been slashed so that the scientists were mute and nameless. " 'BearShark' is more of an attitude piece than a joke piece," says Meyers. "Everything is sort of half for time and half for choice. That was a case where the audience voted, so to speak." Despite a gag with Sudeikis's arm as a bloody stump spurting blood, the sketch failed to connect at air.
The choice of sketches doesn't reflect any one person's opinion, even that of Michaels. Dress is a brutal, ruthless democracy with only one metric: laughter. "It's one of the things I really relate to about the show," says Poehler. "It's totally democratic." This democracy pervades the process, since nothing gets past the writers' room without cracking everybody up. "I think you trust the Room with a capital R," says Meyers. "Live comedy is about making a collection of people laugh at the same thing, and we have that at the read-through table on Wednesday. It's rare that something in the room that tanks will work on air, or vice versa."
This, by the way, seems obvious to Michaels, who bristles when asked about diversity in the writers' room. "If you said to Tina, 'How do people rise here?' it's almost always because of their work," Michaels says. "If something killed at read-through, nobody goes into the room and says, 'I don't know, that was written by a woman.' " A mention is made of a recent episode of Studio 60that makes racial diversityor the lack thereofa major plot point. It's suggested to Michaels that diversity is part of an ongoing discussion. "No it isn't," says Michaels, a tad exasperated. "It is in Aaron Sorkin land, but it isn't here." He points out that Alec Baldwin is set to host on November 11, followed by Ludacris on November 18 as host and musical guest. "Now, Alec Baldwin we know is an acknowledged comedy star, and obviously a favorite here. Ludacris? . . . I think it's all about funny people. Last year it was Maya, Finesse, and Kenan. This year there's just Kenan and Mayabut you know, if Darrell's got a really good Jesse Jackson, no one's stopping him" (and no one has; it's one of his specialties).
It's 1:15 on a Wednesdaymorning and Lorne Michaels is calling. After a discussion the day before about the necessary evils of the budget cuts, tonight he is thoughtful, expansive. He is asked about a comment he made when receiving the Mark Twain Prize at Washington's Kennedy Center in 2004, that being on SNL was like living an arrested adolescence, with all the rebelliousness and questioning of authority that entails. He thinks for a moment, then notes that most of his handpicked first-season staff had had a major life event during adolescence. "In my case my father died, in Gilda's case her father diedand I think, not to put an emphasis on that, I think that there's something that if you're formed that way, you sort of connect to questioning authority." He mentions Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and how the rebellion centers around freeing a slave despite social convention: "To the extent that we're supposed to speak truth to power, you want to get back in touch with that part of yourself that always questions things."
A lofty comment. "Well, sorry for that," he says. "It's late."
But how can SNL not be a sentimental enterprise for someone like Michaels? He long ago stopped needing the money. Why is he so excited about anothernew cast, in another new season?
"I'm here because I just love it," he says. "And . . . I care about it. And on some fundamental level I think it's important to be doing it." He goes on, "There's something about when the show works, what the audience is thinking and what we're going through and where the country is and performance and writing and all of it connectsit's a certain thingthere's no parallel to it."
But for all the thousands of hours of television Michaels has produced, he acknowledges that doesn't watch much television at all, though he admits to having seen a chunk of Studio 60at the up-fronts. He does watch 30 Rock,for which he is an executive producer (though he claims never to have watched an episode of SNL after it's aired). As a businessman, Michaels seems frustrated with the presence of a creative competitor for 30 Rock on his own network.
"It's complicated now, because when she started work on it a year and a half ago it was sort of a clean shot, and when the Sorkin surprise happened in May, well it was like, well OK, there's another show," Michaels says. "And honestly, I don't have any issue with his choiceI think he's very talentedbut it sort of muddied the water. I can't tell you the number of people who've come up to me and said they saw Studio 60 and how much they're pleased with the show I'm doing. I go, 'Well, actually, I do the other one . . . ' "