Lorne Michaels on Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, and His Involvement with Late Night
4:50 pm, February 3rd | by Kady Ruth Ashcraft and Colette McIntyre
Over the weekend, Vulture published an interview with longtime Saturday Night Live producer and king of the comedy castle, Lorne Michaels. Michaels is credited for “sparking a revolution in topical satire, redefining the limits of broadcast, and launching the careers” of some of comedy’s biggest names. The entire conversation is definitely worth a read: the notoriously enigmatic Michaels opens up about what he looks for in prospective cast members, the format of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, and how he maintains such an influential institution as SNL. Below are some particularly interesting excerpts in which the SNL muckety-muck praises some of our favorite funny ladies.
On how he knows when a cast member is going to have a career beyond SNL:
Look at Kate McKinnon. She came in two years ago, and she’d peak too soon—she’d peak at dress rehearsal—and not be able to hold the character. But when they figure that out, you see them do remarkable things. When that’s happening, that’s a magic period. But, of course, at the same time, the rest of the industry goes, “That girl’s fantastic.” At which point it becomes a slippery slope—the industry seems to discover talent more on SNL than any other place. Now, the smarter ones, like Tina and Amy or whoever, know this is the place where they can do the kind of work that they’ll never be able to do when they’re subject to being cast.
On splitting his time between SNL and his many producing projects:
Having produced Late Night With Conan O’Brien and then Jimmy and 30 Rock with Tina Fey, here’s how I’d put it: I’ve never done one of those things with someone that I thought needed me to hover over them. I know they’re good enough that I can tiptoe out of the room and just be there if they need me, and they won’t feel bad and I won’t feel guilty.
On leaving Studio 8H:
The advice I give most often is, build a bridge to the next thing. When it’s solid enough, walk across it. Don’t go because somebody promised you this or somebody promised you that. You’re a star on SNL. That does not automatically mean you’ll be a star in everything else you touch. I just saw Ana Gasteyer downstairs. You see her in Wicked—that’s where she wanted to be, and she got there. I think when Will Ferrell left, he’d already had three movies that worked. Kristen did Bridesmaids. It was the biggest hit ever that summer. Then she came back and did another season. That’s Kristen.
We knew it going into last summer. Then we didn’t find the right person. You look at an audition and go, “Is she as good as Kate? Is she as good as Nasim? Is she going to get a writer to write for her and be taken care of and given the chance for success?” Nothing would have made my life easier than somebody popping, but nobody popped. But also, this past year, having lost Fred, Jason Sudeikis, and Bill Hader and knowing I was losing Seth, we were focused on finding guys. Nobody wrote anything about the three girls we brought in the year before.
What’s interesting to me is, show business was clearly in the lead on diversity—way before sports, way before business, way before educational institutions, way before newspapers, way before almost anything else. We’re about talent. When you see it, you’re not fussy about where you find it or who it is. You just go, “Oh my God.” I mean, you watch Jennifer Lawrence at 23 years old, and nobody’s writing an article about how she’s got a long way to go. You just go, “Oh, it’s there.”
Michaels runs a tight ship and treats his job with the right amount of gravitas, going so far as to liken SNL to a “government institution.” It can be easy to lose sight of the daunting magnitude of Michaels’ task — producing a weekly live show, keeping that many moving parts in motion and safe from collision — when the end result is Melissa McCarthy rubbing barbecue sauce on her face or Stefon, but have no doubt: the job is incredibly tough. Maybe that’s why Michaels is such a famously hard laugh; amidst the slapstick comedy and double entendres, it helps to have a representative who is feared by many and understood by few.