How Lorne Michaels' Saturday Night Live has been minting comedy gold for nearly 50 years | by Chris Lamb of Indiana University © Peabody Awards/CC BY-SA 2.0

How Lorne Michaels' Saturday Night Live has been minting comedy gold for nearly 50 years

by Chris Lamb of Indiana University

On April 24, 1976, Lorne Michaels, the creator and producer of the late-night NBC comedy program Saturday Night – it had not yet changed its name to Saturday Night Live – appeared on camera in hopes of luring the Beatles to reunite on the program.

The Fab Four’s last concert had been eight years earlier in San Francisco, and the band had stopped recording together in 1969.

Michaels addressed the band members by name – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – and then acknowledged rumors that the group might get back together.

'It’s also been said that no one has yet to come up with enough money to satisfy you,' Michaels said. "Well, if it’s money you want, there’s no problem here.'

Michaels then held up a cheque.

'Here it is right here. A cheque made out to you, the Beatles, for $3,000. All you have to do is sing three Beatles songs,' he said. '"She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah." That’s $1,000 right there. You know the words – it’ll be easy.'

Among the 22 million viewers was Lennon.

Lennon had watched the program from his home a few miles away from the NBC studio. A week later, he was watching the next episode with McCartney and told him about Michaels’ recent proposal.

'So John said, "It’s a hoot, you know what would be great, we can go down there now",' McCartney later recounted in an interview.

"For about five minutes, we were going, ‘We’ve got to do it.’ Then it was like, ‘Are you kidding, let’s stay in and watch the show,’" McCartney recalled. "It would be a great story, but we decided against it."

No television program in history has chronicled American politics, culture, fads and tastes like SNL, which has mirrored and critiqued society over its half-century run by mocking it. 'Caricatures,' Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "are often the truest history of the times."

Tina Fey, who appeared on the program from 1997 to 2006, reportedly might succeed Michaels as its producer when he retires.

'Lorne created a show that’s impacted culture for decades,' Fey said of the man who has been the programme’s producer, showrunner and mastermind for most of the program’s nearly half-century run. 'No one has ever really successfully been able to replicate it.'

Comedian Mike Myers, who served as a cast member on SNL from 1989 to 1996, is another big fan. 'It’s like he created Yale or NASA.'

Michaels grew up in Toronto before immigrating to the US, where he first worked as a writer for Laugh-In and The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show. He has received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement – Canada’s highest honour in the performing arts. He also won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the US.

He’s also been nominated for 102 Emmy Awards, setting a show business record, and he’s won more than 20 of them. SNL has won more Emmys than any other TV show.

SNL's skits and its humorous Weekend Update news segments have tracked America’s politics, fads, foibles and scandals from the era of disco fever through the Covid=19 pandemic and today’s trepidation about artificial intelligence.

Whether it was John Belushi gruffly taking orders at a dive that’s only serving cheeseburgers at breakfast time, Fey impersonating Sarah Palin or James Austin Johnson caricaturing Donald Trump, SNL has served as America's laugh track through the last half-century.

That’s in large part because Michaels recruited some of the best comic minds and actors of the last half-century to work for SNL, including, but hardly limited to, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Amy Poehler, Fred Armisen, Will Ferrell, Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig, Adam Sandler, Kate McKinnon and Kenan Thompson.

'There has never been anything in show business like his track record for discovering stars,' said Doug Hill, the author of Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live.

Gilda Radner as Emily Litella, a recurring character, and Chevy Chase, the original Weekend Update anchor.

Michaels’ enduring success is like that of a top college football coach who remains successful year after year even though his players frequently have to be replaced. But then again, how many college football coaches have remained at the top of their game for a half-century?

At some point, Michaels, who turns 80 on November 17, will retire.

When asked about retirement rumours last month, he said he intended to remain with the program for at least another year.

'We’re doing the 50th anniversary show in February of '25,'  he told Entertainment Tonight. 'I will definitely be there for that, and definitely be there until that, and sometime before that we’ll figure out what we’re going to do.'

No matter when Michaels retires, his legacy is secure. So are his contributions to comedy, beginning with the original cast, known as the Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players. The roster included Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin and Garrett Morris.

A movie about the behind-the-scenes mayhem before the show first went on the air, SNL 1975, is in the works.

It was near the end of the first season of SNL when Michaels offered the Beatles $3,000 to appear on the program.

Former Beatle Harrison did make an appearance later that year. McCartney later made several appearances, and Starr hosted an episode in 1984. But neither Saturday Night Live nor Michaels, as it turned out, needed a Beatles reunion to make their mark on popular culture.The Conversation

• Chris Lamb is a professor of journalism at Indiana UniversityThis article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Published: 15 Feb 2024

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