Around two on the Sunday morning after the Saturday Night Live season premiere on September 30—after the studio audience has filed out down the long photo-lined hallway outside Studio 8H and the cast has paused outside the NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza to greet fans and pose for pictures—the 11 members of this season’s slimmed-down cast and their guest host, Dane Cook, head to the after-party at McCormick & Schmick’s, a high-end seafood restaurant on Sixth Avenue a few blocks away. NBC News anchor Brian Williams is there with his family, celebrating his hilariously awkward “Weekend Update” cameo, while Kenan Thompson sits nearby in an oversize jersey with matching hat and shoes. At a table in the back sits Lorne Michaels, the show’s 61-year-old executive producer and creator, joined by Seth Meyers, Andy Samberg, and a select few. People come and go from the table; Michaels stays there, holding court.
It’s a fairly laid-back evening, wholly unlike the wild post-show parties that became the stuff of legend when Saturday Night Live exploded on the culture in the fall of 1975. Back in those days cast members Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi brought the party to their Blues Brothers Bar downtown and consumed impressive quantities of drugs and alcohol, as befitted the times and their role in shaping them. For years, SNL was synonymous with wild and crazy, not just in its comedy but also in its animating spirit; the dark side of that was discord and drug abuse—to the point where, by the late 1990s, two cast members, Belushi and Chris Farley, had died of drug overdoses.
Tonight, those days seem especially distant. No one is getting smashed. No one is in the bathroom snorting cocaine. A few cast members come outside for a cigarette—Amy Poehler with her husband, Arrested Development‘s Will Arnett, Bill Hader, Will Forte—but that’s about it. Inside, there’s conversation and camaraderie on display, not overindulgent egos or out-of-control consumption. The guest lists for these events vary, but tend toward the chill—it’s more about catching up than throwing down. At a party a few weeks later, Parker Posey, Sarah Chalke, Paul Rudd, and Nia Vardalos join the group, along with former cast member Rachel Dratch and a group from 30 Rock, the NBC sitcom created by former head writer Tina Fey in spoofing homage to her former employer.
Sometime after 3 a.m., the crowd starts to break up, and a group heads down to the after-after-party at the Plumm on West 14th Street, called for 3:30 a.m. And why not? It’s still SNL, after all, and at least until the sun comes up, it’s still Saturday night.
After 31 years of making television history, where does SNL stand now? This summer, the show had a well-publicized budget crunch, and Michaels was told by NBC brass to cut episodes or cast members. He chose the latter, firing eight-year veterans Chris Parnell and Horatio Sanz, plus recent arrival Finesse Mitchell. With the loss of Fey and Dratch, this reduced the cast by almost 30 percent, from 16 to 11. The two SNL-inspired shows launched this fall on NBC—Aaron Sorkin’s earnest Monday-night drama, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and 30 Rock—have both gotten off to a weak start, despite considerable hoopla and critical praise. Sure, network TV is in crisis everywhere (NBC itself just carved a deep swath out of the budget), but this doesn’t change the fact that SNL‘s ratings have slipped over the last five years.
Meanwhile, the increasing popularity of programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central has introduced another variable into the equation: competition. And with the proliferation of digital online content over the past couple of years in the form of viral video, blogs, and websites, plus stalwarts like The Onion (growing wildly online), there’s another variable: choice.
This clanging death knell is nothing new, of course; the media have been declaring SNL dead since its second season. “Week to week, you’re fighting it,” says Michaels. “When people refer to it as an institution or part of the landscape—that’s not the way I view it. I think every week you go up there to reinvent it.”
Right now, says Michaels, the cast is in what he calls a “rebuilding” period, with few old familiar favorites to entice viewers and no big star like a Will Ferrell or a Mike Myers. True, stalwarts like Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph are familiar veterans by now, and in his 12th season, Darrell Hammond is officially the longest-running player still on the show—but there are no Billy Madisons or Tommy Boys, at least not yet. And while last December’s “Lazy Sunday” short may have brought SNL a level of attention it has not been paid in years, Andy Samberg—one of its stars—is still frequently referred to as “Adam.” (And look where it got Parnell.) Would you recognize Kristen Wiig on the street? If so, you’re one better than all the Gawker Stalkers out there. She moves among them, invisible. Concedes Michaels: “They’re not household names yet.”
And yet these are Michaels’s chosen few to drive SNL forward into the post-Fey, pan-YouTube unknown. This season, as the cast mills around onstage at the end of the show, the downsizing is obvious—but it’s obvious, too, in the preceding hour and a half, because the same faces keep showing up in sketch after sketch. Without the Debbie Downers and Carols there’s suddenly room for a Peter O’Toole and a Kuato and a couple of A-Holes. “With the amount of people on the show, and with Seth just doing ‘Update,’ suddenly it’s allowing for these really interesting moments,” says second-year cast member Jason Sudeikis. “Everybody is scoring, everybody is getting time.” It’s also obvious offstage in their clowning and kidding around. A third of their number is gone, and whatever alliances may have existed previously, whatever complacent ruts of familiarity or easy fallback partnerships they may have enjoyed have likely been shaken up. As they run scenes during rehearsal, hang after at the cast party, or high-five each other seconds before a cold open, there’s a distinct sense of we’re-all-in-this-together fellowship.
They’re also, unusually, rather settled: Unlike most cast ensembles of the past three decades, most of them are married or in long-term partnerships. Maya Rudolph lives with movie director Paul Thomas Anderson, with whom she recently had her first child; Sudeikis is married to 30 Rock writer Kay Cannon; Bill Hader was married last summer to filmmaker Maggie Carey. The SNL cast joined to celebrate in Boise, Idaho.
It’s quite a change from the SNL chronicled in Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Live From New York: An Uncensored Oral History of Saturday Night Live, where the binge-doping, partner-swapping, backstabbing proclivities of players past were meticulously documented. “We were young, and the guys were single and the women were single and we were together twenty-four hours a day—you do the biology,” recalled former writer Marilyn Suzanne Miller in its pages. This group seems to love the job and each other in a wholesome, decidedly non-angsty manner. “There’s way less, you know, crazy everyone’s-boning-each-other kind of awesome gossip, but at the same time everyone’s much more relaxed and friendly,” says Samberg. “Everyone in the cast and all the writers too are just super-laid-back, humble, mellow people—it’s really nice.” Agrees Poehler, “We all really love each other a lot around here.”
Is this feel-good chemistry enough to keep the creative sparks flying? Aren’t artists supposed to be, you know, tortured and drama-driven? Only four episodes in, it’s hard to say; depending on which MySpace page you’re reading,
SNL is either hilarious or it sucks. Michaels, who no doubt has had enough of drama, thinks the alchemy of a new group finding its way is enough. “I think that the vitality of the show is about turnover, and about discovering new people and seeing new people develop,” he says. “When you see somebody come into their own and do something remarkable, you realize why you’re there.”
The current cast, like most of its previous incarnations, has described SNL as “a family,” with Michaels as the unofficial father figure. Which raises the question: What happens to the family when, all of the sudden, Dad fires three siblings?
“We had been pretty well warned that no matter how close you get with people and no matter how much it feels like family, it’s still a TV show on a TV station, and ultimately that means that it’s going to be cutthroat at some point or another,” says Samberg. “We were definitely bummed that Parnell’s gone. He’s a good friend of ours and we think he’s amazing and hilarious, but I don’t think that change happening is something that caught anyone off guard, just because they tell you so much ahead of time that that’s how it is.”
Hammond, the show’s elder statesman, came to success in comedy later in life after a tough slog. “I’ve always felt that show business was just brutal,” he says. “There are times in show business . . . it just seems so difficult. I just try to take everything as it comes.”
The group speaks with real fondness for Sanz and Mitchell, but a special category of reverence seems reserved for Parnell. “Somebody resubmitted a sketch that was done last year and I had to do a part that Chris Parnell had done last year, and I couldn’t do it nearly as well as he was able to do it,” says Forte. “I just remembered him doing it in my head as I was doing it, and I was like, ‘Awww, he’s so awesome.’ ” Says performer Bill Hader: “He’s one of my heroes. Just to be able to do a scene with him was amazing.”
But there’s no arguing with more playing time, and the flip side of a sad departure is a leaner, more active cast. Fred Armisen is both diplomatic and optimistic. “It’s not black-and-white,” he says. “I’ll say that I love the cast the way it is right now, and I love the cast the way it was then. And that’s the nature of the show.”
Michaels had a year to mull the decision, knowing of Fey and Dratch’s departures and deliberately bringing on players from which to carve his new cast. “It’s always hard,” he says. “But I think for me, all the people who left were sort of in a good place in their career. And I really felt that I couldn’t build the current cast unless they could get a lot of playing time.” Michaels admits he had a sense of who would be leaving, and part of it had to do with bringing in new blood. “I think with Horatio and certainly with Parnell, I’d be happy if they were all here forever,” he says. “They’re great at it.” But on SNL, even talent has its limits. “Half the fun of it is watching people who are just starting, and discovering it for yourself, and the other half is watching people who are incredibly accomplished,” Michaels says. “I mean, the tragedy for me is that when people have mastered it, it’s usually time for them to move on.”
Though it was kind of a tragedy of his own making, there were those budget cuts, rumored at $10 million. (Michaels says “it wasn’t that much” but declines to confirm a number.) As for cutting episodes instead, it was never a possibility: “Last season we did 19 episodes because of the Olympics, and it’s an easy way to solve budget problems. But part of it is, all of television is going through this.”
That doesn’t change the fact that SNL‘s ratings have dropped. The September 30 premiere with Dane Cook and the Killers pulled in 6.7 million viewers and a 3.2 rating; five years ago, the show was getting a 3.7 rating—for the full-season average, which includes lower-rated reruns. As a raw statistic, 6.7 million viewers represents a lot—Jon Stewart gets 1.4 million, and the nightly-news numbers are not that far off (8.65 million for NBC, 7.56 million for CBS, both at 6:30 p.m.).
But there have been other measures of the slide—for example, in the 12–17 category. They may not be buying cars and big-ticket items, but this demo represents an incubator for lifelong fans of the show. A common denominator between older viewers and even those who no longer watch is an affinity for the show born in early adolescence, when kids are old enough to stay up and watch SNL but young enough not to have any other alternative on a Saturday night. (Hader, Samberg, Forte, and Sudeikis all back this up; Hader even went late to his prom so he could catch a super-special episode with Monty Python, and recalls being sent to the principal’s office for refusing to stop talking like the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer in biology: “What is this photosynthesis? Your world frightens me!”) Over the past five years, the numbers for this demographic have dropped 1.3 points, from 2.4 in 2001–02 to 1.1 last season.
Still, NBC vice president Tom Bierbaum, who oversees ratings, cautions against interpreting the data too strictly. “[SNL] has kind of kept pace with the general trends in television,” he says. “Unfortunately, it’s kind of a downward trend.” Bierbaum is quick to note that SNL has more than held steady against the Saturday lineup, in prime time and running opposite the show, on all networks, and also notes that there are “now about a hundred” channels from which to choose, not to mention “the explosion of Internet options” for viewers. “Very few shows would be able to claim growth over a five-year period,” he says.
Michaels acknowledges this as well. “I think that network television is also in the process of reinventing itself—right now it’s the Web, 10 years ago it was cable that was going to destroy it,” he says. “And somehow, they all find Grey’s Anatomy or they all find the Super Bowl—there’s an audience there, but there’s more competition for it.”
But Grey’s Anatomy and the Super Bowl aren’t making Bush jokes. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are. “If we were working on something and someone said they just did it on The Daily Show we’d not go near it, obviously,” says Michaels. “But they’re daily—and we have more time on one level—it’s magazine versus newspaper.” Veteran SNL writer-performer Al Franken agrees. “SNL has writers, sets, cameramen, lighting, makeup, wigs—and really good actors,” he says. “There’s definitely a place to do the kinds of things that you can’t do anywhere else. It’s up to the writers to adjust to the realities of the other things, and do the kinds of things that only SNL can do.” Seth Meyers thinks they’re already doing that: “Those shows are incredibly cohesive, but it doesn’t really change what we do. They’re going to talk about politics and we’re going to do scenes about politics. And to me, they don’t bump that much.”
Where they do have a noticeable edge, however, is on the Web. Although their audience may have a fraction of the numbers, when it’s time to pass around YouTube clips the kids from Comedy Central are way out front. “GE/NBC’s gotta be willing to put up with a little more copyright violation to get a better Web presence,” says Alex Pareene, editor of the popular political website Wonkette. “I get sent at least one Daily Show and Colbert clip every day that some random guy uploaded to YouTube, but I never hear about it if SNL had something I could use in a post.”
It’s Friday, October 20 at 6 p.m., the night before the John C. Reilly episode. On the stage of Studio 8H , the cast is rehearsing a six-person sketch about a support group for attention-seeking celebrities, with Amy Poehler as Madonna, Rudolph as Paris Hilton, Hammond as Rumsfeld, Hader as a wild-eyed John Mark Karr, and Samberg as the suddenly famous stingray. By airtime the sketch will be gone, replaced with a Fox News parody featuring Hammond as Brit Hume grilling Forte’s George Bush over a long list of Republican blunders, which turns out to be a zing at Fox News itself (as Hammond’s Hume cheerfully supports him anyway). Michaels later said the piece, which dragged a bit, “misfired” but pointed to it as a result of high-concept writing, in this case by longtime SNL writer Jim Downey, which used a longer setup to deepen the payoff of the punch.
About five other sketches will die at dress rehearsal, maybe to get resurrected in a later show, maybe never to be heard from again. One that barely squeaked by was a sketch called “BearShark,” a goofy piece that combined sight gags, a musical number, and SNL‘s newly signature tactic of going meta at the end. In dress, the piece was epic: Reilly welcomed his scientists by each of their funny names (“Dr. Franklin Mint!”) and toasted the “BearShark Project,” their secret mission to combine bear and shark into one cuddly species. Sudeikis’s arrival to break the news of the project’s demise triggers disbelief in the group (Rudolph: “I trust the BearSharks like my own family!”), Rudolph and Reilly break into song, and Sudeikis returns to address the camera, wondering if the BearShark is really a metaphor for the war in Iraq or the debate over cloning.
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 60 that makes racial diversity—or the lack thereof—a 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 Maya—but 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 Wednesday morning 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 died—and 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 another new 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 connects—it’s a certain thing—there’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 60 at 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 choice—I think he’s very talented—but 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 . . . ‘ ”
Thirty-one years later, Michaels is still doing the other one: SNL. “You’re doing 90 minutes from blank page to on-air,” he says. “How can it be everything you’d hoped it could be? And the reason that you show up next week is that hope springs eternal and maybe this week, it’ll be that.” He mentions the Jaime Pressly show, where he’d seen “the sparks of a new cast” and he’d been “pleased.” He mentioned the A-Holes and Kuato and how Will Forte’s writing is starting to turn heads, and also seemed “pleased” that the audience might soon develop “that thing of old friends they can hold on to,” which clearly Michaels knows something about.
Forty-four minutes have passed, and at 1:59 a.m. Michaels excuses himself. “All right,” he says, “and now I’m going back to work.”
Additional reporting: Patrick Waldo