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Here's The Thing (Mary Ellen Matthews)

< Lorne Michaels

Transcript

Monday, January 30, 2012

This is Alec Baldwin and you’re listening to Here’s the Thing. 

Lorne Michaels is one of the most influential figures in American entertainment.

I went to visit him at his corner office in Rockefeller Center. It’s 17 floors above the skating rink and there’s a huge fish tank in the corner.  It’s the same office he’s had since 1975 when he started "Saturday Night Live" and proceeded to launch the careers of some of the biggest names in comedy. Belushi, Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Chris Rock, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey… the list goes on and on and on.

He’s a rare producer in that he’s truly involved in all aspects of production, yet he says when he does his job right, he leaves no fingerprints.

Lorne Michael’s life in comedy began in the late 1960s, when he worked at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto -- alongside his writing and performing partner Hart Pomerantz. But it wasn’t in television.
    
Lorne Michaels started out...in RADIO.

Lorne Michaels: It was a show called "Five Nights a Week at This Time" and we did political satire. Every week we thought we were potentially bringing down the government, and the fact that no one was listening didn’t occur to us for at least the first year but we loved doing it. It was just a chance to write and perform every week. Radio had a larger budget at that point than television.

Alec Baldwin: ‘Cause people had more radios than television in general?

Lorne Michaels: I think it was just – it’s a government system.

Alec Baldwin: Right.

Lorne Michaels: And they’d allocated based on fairness which is a very Canadian thing to do, not necessarily on the edge of technological change, but there was a radio show produced like "The Tonight Show," full orchestra done every day in Toronto, which was called "The Russ Thomson Show" and we were hired as the writers on that and we performed once or twice a week.

Alec Baldwin: Now where did that begin though for you? Did you go to school for that or did you?

Lorne Michaels: No, no, no, no, I went – when I graduated from University of Toronto I had taken nothing that was of any practical use.

Alec Baldwin: No drama, no theatre, no writing?

Lorne Michaels: Oh I’d worked in theatre there but it was more – there was a review that University College, UC Follies, which was a satirical review, music and comedy and I’d co-wrote that and directed it.

Alec Baldwin:  So it was – so from the beginning, I mean even before you go into CBC Radio and before Hart Pomerantz –

Lorne Michaels: Right.

Alec Baldwin: Even in college when you’d characterize a satiric review, comedy review –

Lorne Michaels: Yeah.

Alec Baldwin: That was your bailiwick from the beginning.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, I think it was what was in the air at the time. It was just the beginning of the questioning of authority which was – the year I did it was 1964. We were no longer talking about World War II, and the first part of my childhood that’s all anyone talked about. Every teacher I had at school had been in the war. It was pretty much the gloom of that hung over most of the ‘50s.

Alec Baldwin: And the survival of the –

Lorne Michaels: Yeah and then we – television came into our lives and everything changed.

Alec Baldwin: And so the CBC – how long are the radio years?

Lorne Michaels: The radio years – think three years. The funny part about the show, "The Russ Thomson Show," was at a certain point five or six months into it the producer of the show came in and met with us and he said the show’s not working. We don’t know whether it’s you guys or Russ, so we thought we’d start with you guys.  [laughter]  So we were let go.

Alec Baldwin: Your first show – lesson about show business.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah and then we began writing for comedians, Woody Allen and Joan Rivers and a little bit Dick Cavett.

Alec Baldwin: And how do you get into that door?

Lorne Michaels: Hart – Hart did that.  He was very good at approaching people. We would come down to New York to write for people, and Woody was incredibly generous and encouraging and we had no impact at all on his career but he was very helpful. Then we got hired on a television show in 1968 as writers called, "The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show."

Alec Baldwin: Right. [Laughter]

Lorne Michaels: And which was a variety show at NBC in Burbank, and then from there when that was cancelled we were hired on "Laugh-In" which was in its first season.

Alec Baldwin: For George.

Lorne Michaels: For George Schlatter, yeah.

Alec Baldwin: What was the dynamic when you go to Los Angeles in the late ‘60s and you’re writing for network television? Did you feel like that was –

Lorne Michaels: It wasn’t at all the romantic idea of what I thought being in show business would be.

Alec Baldwin: Why?

Lorne Michaels: Well, on "Laugh-In" the writers would write and then it would be edited by a head writer and then we did not go to the read-through. We were at a motel in Burbank and we would all have lunch together and that was fun and –

Alec Baldwin: You didn’t even have offices.

Lorne Michaels: No, we had offices but they were in a motel.

Alec Baldwin: [Laughter]

Lorne Michaels: Which was, you know, it was the boom period of Burbank and so –

Alec Baldwin: Uh-huh. Let’s not let NBC know that we’ve used offices that are motels before.

Lorne Michaels:  Exactly. Yeah and what was interesting about it was that it was the number one show, and on one level it was like the greatest credit you could have and it certainly did wonders for like self-image and career but it wasn’t fun. You’d write you know monologues for Dan and Dick who were really nice to us –

Alec Baldwin: Did you get to go to the tapings of the show?

Lorne Michaels: We’d go to the studio if they were doing the monologues and they would read it from the cards. They would see it for the first time. [Laughter]

Alec Baldwin: They were some of the most shameless card readers in history. I remember that show, yeah.

Lorne Michaels: No but they also just – they would just see it for the first time on the cards.

Alec Baldwin: Yeah, they were like Dean Martin.

Lorne Michaels: They did not want their work to in any way interfere with their life.

Alec Baldwin: Yeah.

Lorne Michaels:  And we worked there for a year and then I got a call from the head of the CBC, asking what it would take to bring us back to do shows on television.

Alec Baldwin: You were still with Hart then.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah and that’s where I learned how to do television.

Alec Baldwin: Why do you say that?

Lorne Michaels: Because I spent a huge chunk of my 20s you know in an editing room.  We would shoot in the studio, we’d be in front of an audience, and then we would –

Alec Baldwin: What show were you doing?

Lorne Michaels: It was called "The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour."

Alec Baldwin: Right.

Lorne Michaels: And –

Alec Baldwin: And the two of you were the, were the –

Lorne Michaels: We were the stars of the bits and cast –

Alec Baldwin: Rowan and Martin of that show.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah and there was, you know an ensemble and a musical guest.  James Taylor was on one.  Cat Stevens was on one –

Alec Baldwin: Is that where you birthed the idea for the other show that you eventually wound up doing?

Lorne Michaels: I don’t know whether, you know, there was a real form then called variety and it was comedy variety and it had you know music and comedy, and we would perform in front of an audience but mostly it was built in the editing room in the way that "Laugh-In" was. I remember that we came out of the first show with like 16 hours’ worth of tape, and I met with the editor.  I had no experience of it at all, and he said well we just – why don’t we just watch it, so we watched the first four hours. We were discussing a sketch. He said I think in that piece we could pull out that part and I was still thinking script.  I wasn’t in any way thinking visually, and he said no, your arm there is by your temple and then you put it down.

Alec Baldwin: He was looking for continuity.

Lorne Michaels: He was an editor. He actually saw it. I said 'How did you do that?' And he said 'I can teach your eye to see' and he did.  I learned how things are put together and how – what to look for in composition and how to make something work in the role that’s sound played, ‘cause it’s all radio with pictures.  Nobody cared about sound then.  When we first did "SNL" the first five years it was a boom.  When you see Elvis on "Ed Sullivan," him and the Jordan heiress it’s just a boom.

Alec Baldwin: Right.

Lorne Michaels: They got what they got. We have better sound on this interview than I had in the first 20 years of my career, and what I realize then about myself is that I’m much more interested in the production than I am in performing.

Alec Baldwin: What changed for you? Many people go the other way.

Lorne Michaels: I saw it in the editing room one night. I looked at myself before a take, I see my eyes checking the lighting, I’m seeing where the cameras are in terms of their angles and –

Alec Baldwin: And you’re seeing a guy who all his instincts are technical and directorial and producerial.

Lorne Michaels: And just kind of look – yeah and I’m seeing a guy who’s preoccupied and then the slate happens and then there’s this smiling guy.

Alec Baldwin: Artificial, yeah – snap to.

Lorne Michaels: Not artificial, I’m sure I was sincerely smiling, yeah.

Alec Baldwin: Well it’s all artificial.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, right, yeah.

Alec Baldwin: I assure you, it’s all –

Lorne Michaels: Hollow, yeah.

Alec Baldwin: In my opinion, speaking for myself, it’s all artificial.  

Lorne Michaels: [Laughter] Yes, exactly.

Alec Baldwin: We – we reached out and find –

Lorne Michaels: I had the same experience when I was on stage when I was at University of Toronto in the theatre there and we were doing a play written by Shelley, the poet, and it was called, "Cenci," I think.  Deathly dull but that’s not the point of it.  The point of it is I was in the middle of a scene with an actor and it was exciting to be on stage and all that, but I looked in his eyes and I realized oh, he’s actually that guy.  You know I knew how to do my lines with some charm –

Alec Baldwin: He’s transformed.

Lorne Michaels: But he actually had become the character.

Alec Baldwin: He’s transported.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, which I thought oh, I see.  That’s what actors are.  

Alec Baldwin: Right.

Lorne Michaels: They actually can do that you know, whereas I was –

Alec Baldwin: Well some.

Lorne Michaels: Some.

Alec Baldwin: Some.

Lorne Michaels: Yes.  For me it was like – it was fun to be in shows and I’d done them at summer camp and I’d done them in high school and –

Alec Baldwin: But you had a pure instinct at that time where you just said there’s this other thing that I’d rather be doing.

Lorne Michaels: That I was more –

Alec Baldwin: And you walked away, so you ended that situation there.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, well in Canada there was still a kind of national self-loathing, best expressed by the then head of the CBC.  We were slow in getting our start dates for production for the next season, and I had been offered by Sandy Werner and Bernie Brillstein, who I’d met when I was working in California, agent and manager respectively.  They said do you want to come back and work on a Brunson-Schreiber summer show?

Alec Baldwin: I like them – I love them.

Lorne Michaels: For like – yeah, they were and they were funny and it was like –

Alec Baldwin: They’re smart.

Lorne Michaels: Thirteen shows in ten weeks – I went to the head of the department at the CBC, and I said I have this other offer but I will stay here.  At the time I was caught up in the idea that I would be of the first generation of Canadian artists who would be able to stay in Canada.

Alec Baldwin: Now why is that?  Why did you feel that?

Lorne Michaels: Because everyone had always left, and the moment that you left in Canada people started to treat you differently and I thought well that’s idiotic.  We should be – we’re evolved enough.  We should be able to stay here and work here.  The head of the CBC that I was working for said – I said I have this offer and it’s just for you know ten weeks.  He said well if you’re that good why are you here?  And I thought I want to be here.  That’s, you know and then I realized –

Alec Baldwin: It was a grain you could never fight against.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah and also I realized is Van Gogh a Dutch painter?  He really painted in France, and I thought oh, I see.

Alec Baldwin: [Laughter]

Lorne Michaels: So nationalism isn’t the best way to – you know you go where the work is.

Alec Baldwin: Sure.

Lorne Michaels: So I went out and I did that and then I came back.

Alec Baldwin: Even as we’re talking about Canada your accent just came back.  You just said, well I went out.  [Crosstalk]

Lorne Michaels: I realized I’d come to the end of that period, and I moved back to California in 1972 and I lived at the Chateau Marmont till I moved here, which is ’75.  I had my 30th birthday in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont, which hadn’t had a party then I believe since Dorothy Parker lived there, yeah, so certainly one of the happiest periods of my life, yeah.

Alec Baldwin: You – we’re gonna get to that in a minute, but you have a real fondness for Los Angeles.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, I love Los Angeles.

Alec Baldwin: You have a, yeah, you have a very, very warm spot for Los Angeles and you who are an uber New Yorker –

Lorne Michaels: Yes.  The nice part about being Canadian is you don’t have to make that decision.  You know, you’re in California and there’s grass in February and the sun is shining, you go this is fantastic, but if you’re from New York, then LA becomes like, well no, you know it becomes that – it’s a lot of people get an entire career out of pointing out the differences.

Alec Baldwin: I think that people – that’s true and I’ve been very guilty of that myself.

Lorne Michaels: The thing about Los Angeles is if you do it in your 20’s you can find and understand Sepulveda, which is – if you grow up in a city with a grid, you’re going –

Alec Baldwin: Yeah, yeah.

Lorne Michaels: So what do you mean?  This crosses Wilshire and –

Alec Baldwin: Yeah, yeah, if you’re on that Santa Freeway and you get off at Robertson and you –

Lorne Michaels: [Laughter]

Alec Baldwin: And you think you’re up near the Beverly Center you’re wrong.

Lorne Michaels: Exactly, yes, exactly.

Alec Baldwin: It takes a lot of Thomas Guides to figure that out.

Lorne Michaels: But when you’re in your 20’s you go to a lot of parties where you’re just following somebody or somebody gives you directions and this is at a time that’s hard to recall, but it’s pre-GPS.

Alec Baldwin: No one wants to learn where they’re going anymore.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, but anyway, I had a very happy time there, and I worked for Lily Tomlin and I wrote on her show, which was like 10 or 12 weeks and at the end of it was time to go back to Canada and I realized I wasn’t –

Alec Baldwin: Visa-wise.

Lorne Michaels: I wasn’t going back.  No, it wasn’t that.  It was that the CBC wanted me to do something, but they wanted me back six months in advance.

Alec Baldwin: It was still that nagging I’m gonna be the Norman Lear of Canada thing.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah or no, not even Norman Lear.  I think it was just that you’d be able to work there, but here’s what I realized – it’s the 10,000 hours.  In doing 12 shows in 10 weeks, working at that pace you get better.  In Canada working on a show every 4 months or 5 months, you overthink everything.  There’s so much at stake and there was something about working at that pace and working in a system that was really clear-cut, like if the numbers were there and you had ratings, then you were a hit and if they weren’t there, then you were a flop.  Whereas in Canada you could be sustained by (quote-unquote) “critical approval” or the fact that what you were doing was (quote-unquote) “worthwhile” and at that point in my life I kind of needed clarity, which is one of the reasons I’m drawn to comedy ‘cause you’re trying really hard to make people laugh.  If they don’t laugh it’s really –

Alec Baldwin: Very binary – it works or it doesn’t work.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, so I do "Lily Tomlin Show," it gets nominated for an Emmy.  It was a pilot special for a series, and I’m co-producing with Jane Wagner and we spent forever on it and then at the end it didn’t get picked up, but Dick Ebersol who was the new – newly appointed head of late night, who’d come from ABC Sports and had met Herb Schlosser on a plane and by the time they landed he was the director of late night television and he had this idea of doing many pilots in late night using late night to be a testing ground for primetime.  It was actually kind of prophetic because now when you look at primetime on all the networks, almost all the creative talent came from late night.  I agreed to do one for Dick and I was, as I said, living at the Marmont and I came home one night 2:00 in the morning which was not unusual for me, and there was a message from Dick, can you be at the Polo Lounge at 7:00 in morning for breakfast?  No better for me then than it is now, and I went oh okay, what’s it about?  And he said they’ve decided to do one show as opposed to 20 pilots and yours is one of the ones and they all want to meet you.  So I came and it was Dick and the head of programming, the head of research, and the head of talent.  I could kind of tell that they were like tribal elders in a way.  They were just sort of looking at me like is he all right?  You know it was just basically an approval process.  Did I seem normal enough and was I, you know trouble?  I had long hair.

Alec Baldwin: Someone you could – well that’s interesting, because that’s twas ever thus in the business where I mean talent is not the only coin of the realm.  

Lorne Michaels: Oh totally.

Alec Baldwin: They want to realize, can we hand you a lot of money and you’re gonna get the job done.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah and will you –

Alec Baldwin: Are you a grownup?

Lorne Michaels: And does he seem like a plague or whatever.

Alec Baldwin: Yeah.

Lorne Michaels: And I was – I’d just turned 30 but I did have credits.

Alec Baldwin: Sure.

Lorne Michaels: And I had been nominated for stuff and Dick called me and he said it went well and then they wanted me to fly to New York and to –

Alec Baldwin: How’d you feel about that?

Lorne Michaels: Oh I was excited about it, but Herb Schlosser who had a very romantic notion of production in New York thought it should be live.

Alec Baldwin: [Laughter]

Lorne Michaels: Well, I’d never done live.

Alec Baldwin: Right.

Lorne Michaels: Except for radio and I said –

Alec Baldwin: What was everybody else in the processing?  Was he the lone voice?  Argument for –

Lorne Michaels: He was the lone voice.  He decided that it should be in 8H, ‘cause 8H was the big NBC studio and it was lying vacant, and all the production had moved to LA.  All variety was in LA.

Alec Baldwin: Carson, everything.

Lorne Michaels: All of that crap, "Music Hall," all of those variety series which were done in New York in this building was all in Burbank.

Alec Baldwin: Everything went to Los Angeles.  

Lorne Michaels: Yeah.

Alec Baldwin: Except daytime.

Lorne Michaels: So – yeah exactly.  For me live meant this – no pilot.  Having done three pilots that everybody thought were great but then somewhere in the process of making a pilot, all your most conservative instincts come out and you find yourself doing the thing that you think is going to be – it’s like a college essay.  It isn’t what you really think or feel, it’s what you think will get you in or get you on the air.  So the idea that I could do a show in which the audience would see it at the same time as the network was thrilling, and also I was a point in my career where I really thought I had nothing to lose.  So I was gonna take one more shot at television.  I was gonna see if I could do it the way I wanted to do it and I pretty much did.

Alec Baldwin:  The very first broadcast of the show live was when – in September or October?

Lorne Michaels: October 11, 1975.

Alec Baldwin: October 11, 1975 is the first broadcast of the show and was the structure virtually the same as it is now of full dress at 8:00?

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, the – yeah.  That part was –

Alec Baldwin: All of it’s the same.

Lorne Michaels: Although I think for the first show we did a dress rehearsal with the audience on Friday night.

Alec Baldwin: Oh.

Lorne Michaels: Just so that we’d have an extra one ‘cause we’d never actually done anything.  

Alec Baldwin: Right.

Lorne Michaels: And the crew – it was very funny.  The crew was like an original old New York crew.  They were all mildly overweight, they had doughnuts, we had crudités ‘cause we were from California.

Alec Baldwin: Right. They had Jets jackets on.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah and until we saw them move the cameras around in the way that they could ‘cause they knew that world.  

Alec Baldwin: Yeah.

Lorne Michaels: I once did a show at CBS in their big studio and they have no tradition of this over at CBS, and I realized when I’d taken the tour that all the cameras had stools beside them.  It was only later when I realized the show was a complete mess – oh right, they haven’t moved cameras there.  They just sort of aimed it at Cronkite for the last 40 years.  

Alec Baldwin: Right, yeah.

Lorne Michaels: It was – they set up their camera and then they’d sit on their stool.  

Alec Baldwin: Right.

Lorne Michaels: The 8H crew – that crane flew around the studio.

Alec Baldwin: Sure.

Lorne Michaels: They learned that we knew what we were doing in terms of the content and –

Alec Baldwin: They sensed there was a fit there.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah.

Alec Baldwin: This is gonna be interesting for them, as well.

Lorne Michaels: Exactly.

Alec Baldwin: This wasn’t somebody at a desk and static camera.

Lorne Michaels: And work was coming back to New York.  There’s a wonderful story when Eugene Lee, who’s the designer I hired who had just done Candide on Broadway, we did the very first set, you know and it was like a $200,000.00 set.  I couldn’t get approval, like they wouldn’t authorize the budget for it.  I went up to Herb Schlosser’s office.  I just assumed being Canadian that I was just supposed to do the right thing and make a show that he would be proud of since he had authorized it.  So we took it to his office, you know very high up in the building, and it was a little model and I don’t think he’d ever seen a model and suddenly we’re moving little cameras around and all that and he said well what’s the problem?  I said well they, you know it’s expensive, they didn’t – oh fine, and we got the approval and it was very paternal in the best sense of it, but Eugene had a very clear sense of what he wanted.  We were showing New York City as it then was, which was kind of in decay and crumbly.

Alec Baldwin: Yes.

Lorne Michaels: So –

Alec Baldwin: Forward to New York, drop dead – die.

Lorne Michaels: Exactly, yes.  So when Herb came down to the studio the first time to see it and looked at the cracked paint, you know thinking – which was where all the money was of course in terms of getting that exactly right, he said I can’t – I don’t know what – you know I don’t know what I was thinking.  I just thought – the shop did this?  You know, ‘cause he just assumed it was a really bad paint job.  [Laughter]

Alec Baldwin: We have people who –

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, no it was just that nobody knew whether production could gear up again in New York and, of course, it did and still does.

Alec Baldwin: So when you do the show –

Lorne Michaels: Uh-huh.

Alec Baldwin: October 11, 1975, the first show –

Lorne Michaels: Uh-huh.

Alec Baldwin: Is broadcast live, it airs –

Lorne Michaels: Yes.

Alec Baldwin: And when it’s over, describe how you feel after the very first show.

Lorne Michaels: I was the same way then that I am now.  I only see the mistakes and I tend to wear that up until about the second drink at the party.  Even last week’s show takes me really through midway through Sunday.  It used to take me a couple days.  I can get over it now in a day, ‘cause you’re always hoping that everything’s gonna work the way you were hoping it was gonna work.

Alec Baldwin: Right.  

Lorne Michaels: You know and you –

Alec Baldwin: Or conceive of something –

Lorne Michaels: Yeah and you see –

Alec Baldwin: Come Wednesday or Thursday –

Lorne Michaels: Somebody enter on, you know on the left foot instead of the right foot or the camera cut is late or that cue gets screwed up or that – or somebody stumbles –

Alec Baldwin: It’s that guy right before the slate was looking at things.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, never – he’s still here.

Alec Baldwin: He’s not going anywhere.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, yeah.

Alec Baldwin: We’re in your office here at NBC, which has been your office from day one.

Lorne Michaels: From day one yes.

Alec Baldwin: From day one.

Lorne Michaels: And most of the furniture’s exactly the same.

Alec Baldwin: Most of the furniture’s exactly the same.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, uh-huh.

Alec Baldwin: The joke is we hope that the people who run the network never really find out that where this office is and how good you have it here.

Lorne Michaels: Well you know, this desk we didn’t have budget for that so we – there was a maintenance guy here who said well there’s a lot of furniture you know that’s in storage, so we said could we see it?

Alec Baldwin: Sure, yeah.

Lorne Michaels: So it was all the stuff from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and this desk –

Alec Baldwin: A box of batons for Toscanini.

Lorne Michaels: Belonged to the then head of programming, and in the desk was a couple copies of like the racing form and Gelusil and Maalox, and I thought what am I getting myself into. [Laughter] It was so – it was the reverse of kind of holistic view of California which I’d come here with.

Alec Baldwin:  Yeah.  Now, you look at the board, for those people who don’t know, the arc of the whole season is on this infamous cork board on the wall.

Lorne Michaels: Right.

Alec Baldwin: And there are the dates of each broadcast, the names of the confirmed hosts, some prospective hosts and their musical guests and so forth.

Lorne Michaels: Uh-huh.

Alec Baldwin: And the names of the people are still, not all of them but many of them, the biggest names in the business.  The biggest names in the business are coming here 30-something years later to host the show.  I mean you have Ben Stiller and Melissa McCarthy won the Emmy Award, and Katy Perry is coming and Jimmy Fallon who is obviously double-dipping on your payroll.  

Lorne Michaels: Yes.

Alec Baldwin: Jonah Hill and I don’t want to ruin any other names –

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, yeah.

Alec Baldwin: Bieber’s confirmed.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah.

Alec Baldwin: And he’s the music on that thing.  I mean the people that are the biggest names in the business are still coming here to host the show. Why do you think that that’s stayed that way – what?

Lorne Michaels: Well, I think first of all, the best part is host.  You get the best parts in most scenes, and we work really, really hard.  Tonight ‘cause it’s Tuesday I will leave here probably around 3:00.  I used to do what the younger ones do which was pretty much go through the night but I don’t anymore.

Alec Baldwin: Yeah, neither do I.

Lorne Michaels: No, and, and I go –

Alec Baldwin: I used to stay here with Smigel till 3:00 in the morning.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, exactly.

Alec Baldwin: And yeah, with those guys.

Lorne Michaels: And you go –

Alec Baldwin: And Conan.

Lorne Michaels: And I go to work, okay, and –

Alec Baldwin: Now I look at ‘em I go you good?  And they’re like, yeah, like I’m good and I go home 1:00.

Lorne Michaels: And that’s the commitment to it being the best it possibly can be.

Alec Baldwin: But I think, also, to inject my own perspective having done it many times.

Lorne Michaels: Many, many times.

Alec Baldwin: Many, many times.

Lorne Michaels: Possibly too many times.

Alec Baldwin: Well possibly, [Laughter] yeah, there is – that’s out there.  People do feel that way.  But –

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, yeah.  That was just me tweeting.

Alec Baldwin: This replaces a live component that is missing in most people’s careers.  They don’t do theatre a lot of them.  

Lorne Michaels: Yeah.

Alec Baldwin: This is a chance for them to have a kind of a – it’s much more loose and kind of deconstructed and it can get a little sloppy if they’re not like spot on in rehearsal.  It doesn’t have the – it doesn’t have the kind of the gleaming perfection of movie making under pressure.  

Lorne Michaels: No and also, Seth Meyers – Norm MacDonald was at the show on Saturday, and so we were sitting at the party and Seth pointed out that Norm had given an interview somewhere recently where he’s talking about the show and he said in what I thought was a nice way, it’s now the only place left where you can be bad.  You know, there’s no laugh track.  When something doesn’t work it’s such a clear –

Alec Baldwin: Yeah, a glaze there.

Lorne Michaels: Silence and whereas you walk out in a situation comedy in front of a live audience, they’re already cheering.

Alec Baldwin: No.

Lorne Michaels: You know, even the theatre now –

Alec Baldwin: They’re not taking any chances.

Lorne Michaels: The theatre people stand. The audience thinks they’re supposed to do a standing ovation.

Alec Baldwin: Right.

Lorne Michaels: You know and you go –

Alec Baldwin: Reflexively.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah.

Alec Baldwin: For a stand-up comic talent like Norm, I think one thing he might be reacting to is it gives people, the hosts, whether they are comic performers or not, it gives them the recreation of like a club, being at a club.  

Lorne Michaels: Yeah and it’s stripped down so that it’s only at the end, talent writing into a lens.  There’s no spectacle.  We don’t have, you know much of a wide shot.

Alec Baldwin: Yeah.

Lorne Michaels: You’re watching pure performance.

Alec Baldwin: Yeah.

Lorne Michaels: And for people to be able to soar like that and when you see it happen it is always amazing.  You know, amazing to be standing there being me, having seen it as many times as I have and the fact that every week we don’t know how it’s gonna turn out and the fact that I’m still as scared as I am every dress rehearsal, and honestly I don’t mean like we’ll be drummed out of the business.  I just mean that it is part of the process that people have to be bad before they can be good.  When we have a great dress rehearsal, when the audience is way too hot, invariably something gets lost on air.

Alec Baldwin: When you come and do the show, I’ve never felt more raped and more violated then by the writers of your show.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, well that’s – that’s the original design, yeah.

Alec Baldwin: Yeah, I mean I’ve come on here you know seemingly weeks after I got divorced and Bill Clinton, aka Daryl Hammond is walking out telling me to put my oars in the water and set sail for the island of Punani with him.  

Lorne Michaels: Yes.

Alec Baldwin: And yeah, so I’m just wondering, I mean do you find that that’s a big part of their creative success is their – is your complete irreverence?

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, I think there’s something – they expect us to be honest.

Alec Baldwin: Yeah, is that it?

Lorne Michaels: They expect us to say what’s actually happening. [Laughter] There’s very little protection.

Alec Baldwin: Have you always been this irreverent your whole life?

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, probably.

Alec Baldwin: You have been, yeah, so this was really just meant to be.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah.

Alec Baldwin: What’s the first movie you made, post 1975?

Lorne Michaels: I guess "Wayne’s World." You know –

Alec Baldwin: "Three Amigos" wasn’t the first one?

Lorne Michaels: Oh, sorry, "Three Amigos" I wrote with Randy Newman and Steve Martin.

Alec Baldwin: I have a copy of your IMDB if you’d like to consult it before we go on netbook.

Lorne Michaels:  Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, no, but I –

Alec Baldwin: "Three Amigos" you wrote.

Lorne Michaels: Yes. We’d go to Steve’s house every day, Randy and I and Steve, we’d meet for lunch, talk it down, and then we’d spend the afternoon writing and it was a very happy time for me.

Alec Baldwin:  What about after that?  What was the next film you made?

Lorne Michaels: Then I came back to the show. I had left "SNL" in 1980.

Alec Baldwin: Right.

Lorne Michaels: And then Brandon was threatening to cancel it and he called me.

Alec Baldwin: How many years were you gone?

Lorne Michaels: Five years.

Alec Baldwin: You were gone for five years –

Lorne Michaels: ‘80 to ‘85.

Alec Baldwin: ’80 to ’85.

Lorne Michaels: I left with the original group, designers, the musicians, the cast, the writers.  Listen, in the first five years I didn’t fire one person, so when I came back I was sort of more psychologically built for that.  That it wasn’t family in that sense, that the – what William Shawn once called my pseudo-egalitarianism was not healthy.  I had to accept that some people were not gonna make it and that I’d better deal with that when it happened as opposed to just pretending –

Alec Baldwin: Painful but unavoidable.

Lorne Michaels: Yes and so I learned how to be a boss, which I think I’d learned how to lead on some level but I’d never learned how to be a boss.  And I think when I came back where –

Alec Baldwin: You were less of a peer and more of a boss.

Lorne Michaels: Yes.  

Alec Baldwin: And at some point are you tempted to stop again and just go make films?

Lorne Michaels: It is what I do.  It’s the thing that –

Alec Baldwin: But it also became, and I don’t mean to be you know glib about it, but it also became like the aircraft carrier that you launched many planes off of.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, yes, yeah.

Alec Baldwin: This is a power base for you as an entertainment producer.

Lorne Michaels: Yes, no question. "Wayne’s World" was the first of those.  

Alec Baldwin: Right.

Lorne Michaels: With "Wayne’s World" I think what I wanted to prove was that I could do a movie in the same way that sort of the Marks Brothers used to do their movies.  They’d tour them first so they knew where all the laughs were and then they could go film them quickly.

Alec Baldwin: Like a test.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah. No one believes that we do what we do here in six days ‘cause there’s not much an approval process.

Alec Baldwin: Right.

Lorne Michaels: It just heads to 11:30; whereas, in LA because –

Alec Baldwin: That was my experience when I first did the show.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah.

Alec Baldwin: It was mesmerizing.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, there’s so much money involved with movies –

Alec Baldwin: It was like Habitat for Humanity building a house.

Lorne Michaels: Exactly. With the movie business, because it’s way better run as is primetime television, every paragraph is scrutinized and reviewed and I say it every week, we don’t go on because we’re ready, we go on because it’s 11:30, and that’s just –

Alec Baldwin: [Laughter]

Lorne Michaels: It somehow focusses people and I trust that process. And so with "Wayne’s World" I think we had – I can’t remember how many days, it was like 27 or something like that.

Alec Baldwin: Fast.

Lorne Michaels: But towards the end there was a plot with a father/son, which Rob Lowe was to be the son and I was hoping for Dennis Hopper to be the father.  And as we got close to shooting, which we were like three weeks away, we went oh, so we just made it one person. We just made it Rob. You could make that kind of decision quickly.  The pace of "SNL" was like think of it, do it, and then think of something else.  

Alec Baldwin: Tina says the same thing about "30 Rock." Television conditions those muscles where you have to make fast decisions.

Lorne Michaels: Yes and that puts the creative people in charge.  I did a movie with Mick Jagger based on a book we both liked called, "Enigma," which was about code breaking in World War II, and Michael Apted directed it and it was an independent film.  It took us six years to get it made, which was longer than World War II.

Alec Baldwin: [Laughter]

Lorne Michaels: And I realized – we worked on it pretty hard, but when I finally saw it, ‘cause there was German money in it and there was I think Japanese. I’m looking at the start of the movie, we’re at the premier and all of a sudden there’s like all these names are there as producers, you know?

Alec Baldwin: Sure.

Lorne Michaels: And I go 'What? Hey, excuse me.' I was like and then I realized in movies the person who does what I do isn’t at the center.  

Alec Baldwin: Right.

Lorne Michaels: Here I am and that’s fulfilling.  In movies what I like doing is the script which I get obsessive about.

Alec Baldwin: ‘Cause you’re a writer.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah and then casting and then editing and then how to present it to the public in the sense of marketing.  

Alec Baldwin: Now you have this great success in – you have the great success in late night television and then you have success in primetime television – you produce TV shows, particularly now that have done well, and you have great success in film but you never worked in cable.  And with your career, I mean you never worked aggressively in –

Lorne Michaels: Well, I did with "Kids in the Hall," and I did with now with Fred in "Portlandia" which is on IFC.

Alec Baldwin: Do you feel that you haven’t been as aggressive in cable as you might have been?

Lorne Michaels: I think that at the end of the day, you know –

Alec Baldwin: You’re more comfortable with network, ‘cause I – I’ve grown to prefer network ‘cause you’ve got to walk that tightrope and you can’t just go blue and go crazy.

Lorne Michaels: Yes, to me there’s no creativity without boundaries.  If you’re gonna write a sonnet it’s 14 lines, so it’s solving the problem within the container and I think for me commercial television and those boundaries I like it.  I like that you can’t use certain language.  I like that you have to be bright enough to figure out how to get your ideas across in that amount of time with intelligence being the thing that you hope is showing, not officially but you want it to be, oh, that was kind of bright.  We have really good writers here.  I think I can safely say that a lot of people in comedy did their best work here.  

Alec Baldwin: Sure.

Lorne Michaels: Even though they might be more successful in the things they did after, more commercially successful.  And, also, I really believe that if you’re going to stay champ you have to take fights and that means there’s always young people, there’s always people who are hungrier and more ambitious coming in, and you’re working with people at the point of their career where nothing matters but the work.  

Alec Baldwin: Right.

Lorne Michaels: How they live, how they’re perceived, most of the people who arrive here, their office is nicer than their apartment you know, and that’s sort of what it’s always been.  And people just completely devote themselves to the show, and I think you can’t do that past a certain age.

Alec Baldwin: You know, you have become someone who when you genuinely talk to people about what a producer does in a constructive sense and you’re not trying to be – have a kind of pejorative about it, you know, meddlesome and kind of attention-seeking and credit-seeking producers.  You have become you know, like one of the most important producers in the history of television and a lot of that comes from, in my opinion –

Lorne Michaels: I would say in the history of the world.

Alec Baldwin: [Laughter] Well in history – in all other universes and all other galaxies, yeah, wherever our product is consumed around the galaxy, [laughter] but you have become – you just ruined my whole – I was trying to be so heartfelt here.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, sorry.

Alec Baldwin: But you know it’s okay.  No, you’re not sorry.

Lorne Michaels: I know you mean it.

Alec Baldwin: Well, but you have become someone who embodies to me what a great producer really, really is and that is someone who you know everyone’s job and you know when what they’re doing, even in the smallest detail, when it’s working and when it’s not working.

Lorne Michaels: I think that what I liked and maybe it’s growing up in Canada, but the actor/manager, you know I know with Shakespeare, not to put myself in the same category – that’s really for others to do but the – I know that he had to have a guy like Farley and Belushi that the audience loved and Falstaff ends up in a play that really doesn’t – but you know he was brought back by popular demand.  And I think that when you’re dealing with actors and writing and costume people and an audience and how you’re gonna get people into the Globe Theatre, it’s not much different, and the fact that there’s the greatest poetry probably ever written in the English language is also in there, that wasn’t what he was advertising.  Producing for me, anyway, is like an invisible art.  If you’re any good at it you leave no fingerprints.  If the writer wrote it you always say that was so and so’s script, the director directed it, the star had the idea in high school, and that’s kind of what it is.  And the only way you prove your worth is you leave a body of work and people go oh, that accident happened there again.  That oh, I see, so you know you try and get the best out of people.  If you look around the room and you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.

Alec Baldwin: Right.

Lorne Michaels: You know, you want to get the most talented people you can find and then –

Alec Baldwin: Bring out the best in them.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah.

Alec Baldwin: But you also have, if I may say so –

Lorne Michaels: Yes.

Alec Baldwin: A kind of Darwinian approach to this in the years I’ve been here where you’re not someone who’s sitting down.  I mean you’ve had close, personal relationships and you’ve developed lifelong or career-long friendships with some of the most important people you’ve worked with, but as a rule, I don’t see you sitting down like a father figure to the people here.

Lorne Michaels: Right.

Alec Baldwin: You tend to let them slug it out and let the cream rise to top, correct?

Lorne Michaels: Yes –

Alec Baldwin: You view it as a competitive environment.

Lorne Michaels: When somebody’s in trouble, they’re –

Alec Baldwin: Well you’re there to lend a hand.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, yeah.

Alec Baldwin: But I’m talking in term of the creative process –

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, I think that you kind of guide it.

Alec Baldwin: You don’t make it.

Lorne Michaels: Yeah, the only way you can manage creative people is with very loose reigns.  I think if you’re all over everything between dress and air, you know what that meeting is like and it’s just – there’s no more appeal then.  This is what we’re doing, this is how we’re doing it, and everyone falls into place.  But up to that point, it’s kind of fractious and everybody’s got an opinion and nobody likes anybody else’s work.  The idea that it’s a variety show, by that I mean that there’s a variety of styles and tastes, that there’s the lowest comedy and the brightest comedy and that they all coexist, or that this group doesn’t like that musical act or that group thinks that the jokes aren’t updated or they don’t agree with the politics of it, that’s kind of the community of it.

Alec Baldwin: And that’s Lorne Michaels.  He says he picked up his value system at summer camp. I wanted to make fair what is never a fair thing – show business.

Lorne Michaels: We were a community. It was just set up what was a value system – do you know what I mean?  it was not driven by economics.  It was driven by – if it’s successful there’ll be more than enough money.  

Alec Baldwin: Are you saying you’re disappointed in how you’ve done?

Lorne Michaels: No.  I’m saying I would do it exactly the same way now.  I’d, yeah; I would do it exactly –

[End of Audio]

Hosted by:

Alec Baldwin

Produced by:

Emily Botein and Kathie Russo