The distinct music and the famous phrase ("Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!") have become a weekend anthem for millions. That opening line was originally written by "Saturday Night Live" co-creator Lorne Michaels: "I wrote it out as a line 'cause I wanted to get the title in," he said. "It's now just part of the culture."
Michaels has been cultivating the culture at "SNL" for the past five decades. He is now one of the five artists most recently honored by the Kennedy Center for their immense contributions to American culture.
Michaels co-created "Saturday Night Live" in 1975, and he's still the show's executive producer. He has won 20 Emmys and received 94 nominations – more than anyone else in history – and in the process helped jump-start dozens of famous comedy careers, from Bill Murray to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
"CBS Mornings" co-host Gayle King recently went behind the scenes of "SNL" at Studio 8H in New York's Rockefeller Center, where she learned that, even as a kid, Michaels says he was the funny guy in the room.
"But not in any kind of aspirational or professional way," he said. "The way I went to school in Canada, you could get into trouble being funny. So, you sort of had to watch that."
"You don't strike me as somebody that got into trouble much," said King.
"Well, looks can be deceiving!"
Michaels got his start in television writing for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1975 he teamed up with then-director of weekend late night programming at NBC, Dick Ebersol, to create a "contemporary comedy variety show," first named "NBC's Saturday Night."
The first sketch of "NBC's Saturday Night," which premiered October 11, 1975:
"It was gonna have music, it was gonna have news, it was gonna have pretty much the format that we have," he said. "It's been reinvented many times."
"And it would be topical?" asked King.
"Yeah. It'd be topical, 'cause it's live. And for me, live, I'd done theatre, but I'd never done live television. But live meant no pilot, you know, so that the audience would see it at the same time we would see it."
"You put it out there, whatever happens, happens?"
"Yes. Exactly. When you see a mistake, it's a mistake. You hear the sound of people not laughing!"
"Wait, say that again – you hear the sound of people not laughing?"
"Yes. And I hear it very loudly!" he laughed.
But laughs driven by decades of legendary casts have drowned out everything else.
From Nov. 5, 1983: Eddie Murphy in "James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub Party":
From April 8, 2000: Will Farrell and Christopher Walken on the need for "more cowbell":
From September 13, 2008: Sarah Palin (Tina Fey) and Hillary Clinton (Amy Poehler) address the nation:
King asked, "I wonder what it means to you, the effect and the impact that you've had on so many careers?"
"I think it really, for the first time, really hit me on the 40th anniversary," said Michaels, "just seeing all the generations of the show. You can't put anyone in the cast that you don't have complete faith in. You may not know how it'll turn out, but you want that decision to have been pure of heart."
"Are there some lines in comedy you don't think should be crossed?"
"I think it's up to the writer or the performer to figure out how to do it. There are lots of things that when you hear the idea, sounds awful. But if they can do, I don't think anything's out of bounds, is what I'm saying, if there's enough talent to figure out how to get it across."
King watched Michaels make comedy magic behind the scenes during a dress rehearsal in November.
She said, "Lorne, this is my favorite part of what you do – you come out and you stand, and it's always so comforting because it makes me think, 'All is right with the world.' But it's organized chaos. Everyone has a thing to do."
King spoke to cast member Bowen Yang backstage about Michaels' real-time feedback.
"I would sit next to him as a writer when my sketch was on, and he'd turn to me and give me the note that I never would have thought of, that always ended up being right," Yang said.
And we caught up with Kenan Thompson, who currently holds the record for longest-serving cast member. "If it wasn't for 'SNL' and Lorne Michaels, like, I don't know where I would be floating in-between the kid universe and the adult universe," he said.
Michaels makes post-rehearsal decisions in an office just above Studio 8H. We got a glimpse of the board showing which sketches made the final lineup … and which ones got dropped.
Three got cut after dress rehearsal. "Do you use dress to determine what's working, what's not?" asked King.
"A hundred percent, yeah," Michael replied. "It's in front of an audience. And with comedy, you can't really judge anything unless you see it in front of an audience."
Andy Samberg and Bill Hader in the "SNL" Digital Short, "Every Laser Cats Ever" ("an epic story that combines two things that everyone loves: cats and lasers"):
Michaels' resume features more than "SNL." He executive produces "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," and "Late Night With Seth Meyers." He's behind the hit series "30 Rock," and cult classics like "Three Amigos," "Wayne's World," and "Mean Girls." The Kennedy Center is honoring him for it all.
King asked, "When you found out you were getting a Kennedy Center Honor, what did you think?"
"I was thrilled," he replied.
"I know the beauty of this whole thing is that you don't have to say a word."
"No, that's the part I was thrilled about," Michaels said.
"All you have to do is go and just let people love you up."
Among the testimonials to Michaels at the Kennedy Center ceremony were from Colin Jost ("When I think of some of the biggest names in comedy over the past 40 years I'm just like, 'Wow, I can't believe Lorne fired all of them'"), and Kristin Wiig ("And I think it's safe to say without you, Lorne, there's a good chance we would be living in a van down by the river").
King asked, "I've heard you say that retiring – the R-word – isn't even something you kind of think about. Is that still true?"
"I think I'm committed to doing this show until its 50th anniversary, which is in three years," he said. "I'd like to see that through, and I have a feeling that'd be a really good time to leave. But here's the point: I won't want the show ever to be bad. I care too deeply about it. It's been my life's work. So, I'm gonna do everything I can to see it carry on and carry on well."
"Could there be a 'Saturday Night Live' without Lorne Michaels?"
"Yeah. of course."
"You have some suggestions on who that would be?"
"I have a sense of where we're headed with that, you know."
"Go ahead …"
"No. I'm not gonna go on about it – it's three years away!" he laughed.
"And the initials are?"
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