This story originally appeared in the February 1993 issue of Spin, which was partially written and guest-edited by members of the SNL cast. Read interviews and stories from comedy icons of the era–Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Tim Meadows, Julia Sweeney and others–in our package of highlighted stories from the issue.
Before there was “not!” and “schwing!,” there was “you bet your bippy!” The ubiquitous catchphrase of its time, the late ’60s, was from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and was, like Wayne-and-Garth-speak, as meaningful a cultural slogan as it was meaningless language. The connection is Lorne Michaels, creator and producer and ruler of Saturday Night Live, who in 1968, at 23, was a writer on Laugh-In.
Laugh-In’s zany, rapid-fire, one-line sketches, jerky sped-up films, and goofball humor perfectly caught the zeitgeist of the flower-power era. It was to TV comedy what cubism was to painting.
In 1975, you could say the same thing about Saturday Night Live. It exploded out of the TV the way Technicolor exploded out of the black-and-white footage at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz. It startled. Its comedy celebrated the audience and skewered the enemy. Its cast of Not Ready For Prime Time Players became superstars, and at least one superstar, Steve Martin, became a de facto cast member. Chevy, Gilda, Bill Murray, Aykroyd, Belushi were, overnight, more than household names, they and their characters were cultural lexicon.
What’s most incredible is that the whole glorious ride has lasted, uninterrupted, 18 seasons, which must by now occupy some kind of TV record. Michaels’s captaincy was interrupted, however: In 1980, he decided to leave the show to do other projects, including The New Show, which wasn’t a success. In 1985, he returned to do SNL, just in time to prevent then-network head Brandon Tartikoff from canceling the show, gave it CPR, and the rest is you know what.
I met him in his office, a sort of curtained sky box one floor above the SNL studio. It’s a very warm, very lived-in room with an L-shaped couch around a glass coffee table on which about a dozen daily newspapers were laid out in an overlapping line. He sat opposite me in an armchair.
One of the key elements of SNL is live music. How have you maintained a cutting edge in that for 17 years, longer and more consistently than any other outlet?
Lorne Michaels: In ’75, when we were starting, it was rare to have this kind of music on television, so it was enough that people who didn’t perform on television came on. I think the first few shows were startling. We did a Simon and Garfunkel reunion in 1975 on the second show, and there was Janis Ian on the first show with Billy Preston. We weren’t booking far from the charts. Big-band music dominated most of television, and the World War II generation’s music taste was basically well-represented. By presenting music in a very straightforward way, people began to trust us and certain people volunteering to come on gave us a certain credibility. This is all pre-videos remember. Howard shore [musical director from 1975-80] never liked pure pop, or was distrustful of it, whereas I always had a soft spot for it, and there were always tug-of-wars. We were more defined, particularly in the ’70s, by who we said no to than yes to, I suppose.
Like putting Sun Ra on television, or the Grateful Dead in those days. The Tonight Show would have Crosby, Stills, and Nash in 1987. They would wait until there was no danger at all, whereas we were more in touch with music, I think, because we were just putting on the music we were listening to. We were fans. When I came back in ’85, we had a talk once about Mr. Mister. It was a transitional year, ’85-’86. I hadn’t quite found how to do the show again in a way that was satisfying because I knew I couldn’t do it the way I had in ’75 or ’80. We had this talk about Mr. Mister and somebody said, well, they have the No. 1 record on the singles chart. And I gave in on it, not to speak ill of the band — they were like, well, whatever — but that kind of thinking began to prevail because MTV was ubiquitous. It was a confusing time, and by the end of that season, as always, when I get confused, I go back to basics. Basic for me is: Can they perform live, because a lot of bands make a video which can hide them. It isn’t that they have to move, they have to sound great. There has to be some energy to it.
Are there artists that are too controversial for SNL like Ice-T, the Geto Boys?
I think that if we’d been on when “Cop Killer” was happening we might have put Ice-T on the air.
Would you have let him sing “Cop Killer?”
I don’t know. I expect so, yeah. I would assume so. I think what he does is mostly theater. I mean not to, in any way, underestimate his message, which I think is strong, and I think he’s very committed. But that song was written in character. And it was smart and interesting and therefore should probably be on Saturday Night Live.
What about the Geto Boys?
I think it’s funny because I think the people we wouldn’t put on tend not to be the people you’d think of as controversial. The people we wouldn’t put on you tend to think of as popular, an excess.
I understand you hate ad-libbing in the show.
Well, I don’t so much hate ad-libbing. We try to give the impression that the show is sort of made up as we go along. And I’m always surprised when people who should know better think that’s what the show is. I mean, certainly a lot of the writing is improvisational, but things are pretty thought through before they go on on the air. There are lots of spontaneous things that happen that I adore. I grew up in a time where on things like The Red Skeleton Show or even to a certain extent on The Carol Burnett Show, people wrote in the breakouts or ad-libs. They were scripted to look spontaneous. So I always had a dislike of that kind of thing. I like spontaneous moments. Once Bill Murray and Steve Martin were doing an opening monologue where Steve had pulled Billy out of the audience as just an audience member, and was about to do a magic trick on him, remove either his belt or his wallet or something. And he said to him, “Have you ever been on television before?” which he hadn’t asked in the dress rehearsal. And Billy, faster than is imaginable said, “Once on a long shot at a ball game.” It was so fast and so smart and so funny. Those kinds of moments are precious.
The impression that you hate ad-libbing comes from the time you fired Damon Wayans for it.
Oh no, I didn’t mind that Damon ad-libbed, what Damon did – which was unfortunate, because I don’t think I was clear enough with Damon, I’ve had some regrets since – was he went out in a sketch that had been done in rehearsal one way. It was a setup to Jon Lovitz coming in as Mr. Monopoly, which was an Andy Breckman piece on “get out of jail free,” it was like four lines of support dialogue to set up Griffin Dunne who was the convict. And Damon suddenly chose to do it gay, the character he had done in Beverly Hills Cop. So everyone in the scene was suddenly surprised. It’s like a choice. The show has to function between dress rehearsal and the air show. There are a lot of notes and people have to know what the other person is going to be doing, so something that throws that off, or skews it in a whole other way, I don’t support.
Is there actually a lot of spontaneity in the show like that Steve Martin example?
Yeah, well, as you saw with Sinead O’Connor – there was a spontaneous moment. There is a lot, there are moments that are fortuitous. Last year Dana Carvey had a piece called “Massive Head Wound Harry” where a dog ate a bandage off his head [the dog was only supposed to lick the bandage but started to unravel it and Carvey had to struggle to keep his wig on]. Those kinds of things happen, you know.
How do you feel about moments like Elvis Costello changing a song in midsong?
I remember exactly where I was at the time, I was sitting at home base, here, with Dan Aykroyd. Costello had, of course, picked his own two songs to do, so it wasn’t as if we’d forced him. And all he did was another song from the same record. I guess when he started to perform, he just decided that he didn’t want to do that song. And the only reason we rehearse them is so that we can set shots and lighting so that they look decent. But we never coerce people, we don’t say, you must do your hit, or whatever. But I remember Danny and I sitting there and he looked at me and I said, “I think we’re being hijacked here.” And my attitude was there’s nothing I can do about this. You know, he didn’t burst into some right- or left-wing advocacy, he didn’t sing “kill all the niggers” or “kill all the Jews,” he just sang another song from his album. There have been incidents where people have behaved badly on the show. I don’t consider his behavior bad.
What do you consider bad – Sinead?
Sinead I thought was sort of the wrong place for it, I thought her behavior was inappropriate. Because it was difficult to do two comedy sketches after it, and also it was dishonest because she didn’t tell us she was going to do it, she told us she was going to be holding up a picture of a war refugee child from Bosnia, which she’d done at dress rehearsal. And even that was really stretching it because her album was just a big-band classics album. So we had 42 musicians, strings, all these things which she’d required, which we don’t normally do for someone. And suddenly she wanted to sing a Marley tune a cappella. This is an album which features “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” twice. So you keep walking further down the road with her. It’s not a hot album. I have a real respect for her as an artist, I think she’s a great singer. And then the final moment was, of course, stunning. I know that what she does plays differently in Ireland than it does in America. I know she has what she sees as very valid reasons for doing it, and I have to admire her for doing the exact same thing at the Dylan concert. So no one can question that there’s anything cynical about what she did. I find at the end of the day we treated it as if things were normal. We asked her to come up for the “good nights,” we didn’t shun her. We were sort of shocked, the way you would be shocked at a houseguest pissing on a flower arrangement in the dining room.
I interviewed her a year ago, and in that were definitely the seeds of great anger with Catholicism.
Listen, she made her case very clearly in subsequent press things, we just didn’t know about it at the time so it came more as a surprise. And as I said, the audience reaction, which was complete silence, which I don’t think we’ve ever had here, was more like, sort of, we don’t know what this is so we’re not touching it. Then Al Franken had to come out and do the comedy stylings of Stuart Smalley, and it was just very, very uphill. Maybe she doesn’t know we’re a comedy show, that could well be. But it’s real hard. Tearing up a picture of the Pope comes under the heading of a Comedy Killer. It kind of breaks the spirit of the evening.
I thought it was a selfish act.
All saints are selfish.
I thought was she did was brilliant up to the point of tearing the picture, because she had us all riveted, spellbound by this a cappella song. And at the end, when she did it, she diminished all that power, the magic of art, and dissolved into her own rage, which is a selfish and self-defeating act.
She gave a better performance of the song at dress because she wasn’t as worried about having to palm this picture, because the other picture was still out there as she’d requested. A lot of thought went into it on her part. The network, of course, was furious with me, because they felt that I was abetting anti-Catholic propaganda. Which of course we would love to do, it’s just so difficult to find an audience for. It got very ugly around here for a while, and I think the reason it did was that we were all so tense that week because Tim Robbins had built a very strong case against General Electric [parent company of NBC] in his film Bob Roberts, so we were dealing with that issue as well. Our job is to be funny, period.
What other bad moments were there?
I remember, years ago, Patti Smith finished her song and said, “Fuck the censor” in the microphone, even though her song hadn’t been censored.
We rely on sponsorship. People like the Reverend Wildmon have been very successful in boycotting sponsors on the show because of content. So we tread a very fine line and try and behave what we feel is responsibly. If they picket Mazda, as they did last year, and suddenly a Mazda dealer in Tennessee or Michigan finds a picket outside his dealership, he calls Mazda and Mazda says, “What’s it about?” and they say, “Well, it’s about something you sponsored: Saturday Night Live.” Enough dealers call and Mazda says, why don’t we just sponsor football because everybody loves football, why do we need this grief?
How did you start SNL?
I began doing this kind of work in Canada, then I came down to New York and worked as a comedy writer for a couple of years. I was in Los Angeles in 1968, and I was fortunate enough to be a writer on Laugh-In and a couple of other television shows. Then I went back to Canada where I produced and performed in a comedy show, The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour, and that’s where I met and began to work with Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner. That show ran for three years in Canada and I found that, of performing and writing and producing, I liked behind-the-camera stuff better. Then, in 1972, I went to California and worked with Lily Tomlin, primarily, and Richard Pryor, and a couple of other people, and that’s when I first presented SNL to NBC, in ’72, just in an informal meeting to the then head of programming, Larry White. And then I gave up on that idea, because shows like Monty Python and others had broken through, and there just seemed to be a new style of comedy happening.
In 1974, I was offered a movie at Paramount, and I was torn because Dick Ebersol, who was then the new head of late-night television, had decided they were going to do 40 pilots in this time period, which was Johnny Carson’s Saturday night repeats. I got a call one night from Dick to be at the Polo Lounge, which I had never been to, at 7:20 in the morning. I think it was like 3:30 at night when I picked up the message, because in those days, as I still do today, I stay up late – 7:00 A.M. is not a great time for me. What I gathered at the meeting was the decision had come from New York not to do 40 pilots, but to do one new series, and Dick had chosen the SNL proposal. Suddenly, there was this chance to do what I always said I thought would be a good television show, to do it in a time period which up until then hadn’t existed, and was protected, because suddenly 20 million people would be an enormous success there as opposed to the 50 million you needed in prime time. So I chose that. Now, just a quick 17 years later, I did a movie with Paramount, Wayne’s World, and that worked out well.
I heard the cast used to sleep here in bunk beds in the early days.
Some did and some didn’t. Some people had beds in their offices or couches. It was more so in the first year. I was officially hired in April of ’75, and I spent three months all over the country rounding up people to come to New York. Most of us didn’t know New York City. So, in a sense, we looked to each other as sort of like family because we didn’t know anybody else, and since most of us had sublet apartments or hotel rooms, the most interesting place to come was the office.
That camaraderie obviously created a spirit and an atmosphere on the show. Do you miss those times?
Yeah. Those times are still going on, less for me because I’m 47. I just had a new baby, and have a wife I adore, so I’m a little more into that. But I’m still here, I think, almost as much as I always was. Now, Tuesdays I don’t go to dawn, I leave around 2:30 or 3:00 A.M. Jim Downey is more central to the script. I think that was my role from ’75 to ’80. And I think Jim now brings the script up on his reqrites on Thursday to a standard that makes everything pretty solid. Jim compares the ’75-’80 period to the old NFL, where people played both offense and defense. We now have a lot more special teams, we have people who just work on “Update,” or performers will do a certain kind of work, whereas everybody did everything all the time.
Which do you think is better?
I think the writing is much better now. I think there was magic, particularly in the first and second year, that was based on sort of nerve and talent. But I’m not sure, that’s about a time when what we were doing was so rare, and it was shocking that people were doing it. Just because it was rare that somebody holding a guitar was singing on television. Those things are no longer rare. The hardest task I can set for us is to just be funny.
How do you keep the show so vital? Each season one thinks you’re not going to maintain it, yet somehow you do.
I think it’s easier – it was very difficult in the ’85 season because everything had to be replaced. Writing staff, design staff, musicians, performers, production, all of it. So when you’re trying to do everything once – which is why so few new shows succeed – it’s very hard because your most conservative impulses come to the fore. You find yourself going with what you think would be safe because the new thing hasn’t emerged. And then you come on the air and realize it’s not what you want it to be, and you get beat up in the press, or beat up by your friends, or the network, or the rating isn’t there, at which point you start to go in a spiral downward. By the end of ’85, I was able to see: Wait a minute, we need … we don’t have enough of this. So I tried bringing in two or three key performers who could balance what I already had, a couple of writers who were better writers for them. I brought in Jan Hooks, for example, in ’86, the same year I brought in Dana and Phil. It was hard getting people who could write for her, who knew how to write for her. Robert Smigel eventually turned into a very good writer for her. So did Bonnie and Terry Turner.
What kind of hosts work best for you?
I think the best ones for us are the ones that know why they’re here. There are people who are obsessed with control and don’t want to give it over to us. They’re not used to being part of a team. Those people generally, at the end of the show, after we’ve been through dress rehearsal, they go, “Oh, now I get it. I didn’t get it before.” That we know what we’re doing. We made this up. This is our business, this is what we do. You would think people would understand that coming here.
Quite often there’d be something brilliant at dress rehearsal, and you put it on the air, and it unravels, and who knows why. Somebody walked in the wrong way, somebody looked at somebody – you don’t know why. And it doesn’t get laughs. And the sets fall apart and that’s that. The audience doesn’t buy into it. And what you’re saying is, “If you’d been here two and a half hours earlier, trust me, you would have agreed [it worked].” In ’75-’80, that was more of a problem. Now, because we tape the dress rehearsal, quite often we’ll use the dress rehearsal in a repeat.
Are comedians better than politicians?
Sometimes, sometimes. Athletes I always find great because they’re brought up by coaches, and you can say to them, “Walk out here, hit this mark, turn left to the camera and say this line,” and they do it. They’re also used to being in front of large crowds and not knowing how it turns out. So they’re ideal.
Who’s your favorite of all the athletes that have been on? Who’s done the best?
Oh, God, there have been so many, I really wouldn’t know. Joe Montana was funny, Michael Jordan was brilliant.
Why was the Milton Berle-hosted show banned from repeats?
I think it’s probably repeated now. We had a difficult week with Milton. At the time it was incredibly aggravating because whenever I would say anything – he sort of just used my forehead as a welcome mat when he arrived. And anytime I’d say, “We don’t do that here,” he’d just say, “Yeah – satire.” But I’m sure he just saw us as people who’d taken themselves incredibly seriously, and who were a bit humorless about their subject. He was probably right. We were a little too fanatical.
You really think so?
I definitely was. Yeah.
Belushi didn’t seem to be.
Belushi adored Milton Berle, absolutely. Spent the whole show in his dressing room. And I loved Milton Berle when I was growing up, as had John.
At dress rehearsal, a stagehand dropped a crowbar, and Milton Berle ad-libbed, “Ah, NBC just dropped another show.” So I went in and I found the stagehand and I went, “What happened?” ’cause that never happened around our show. And he said, “Well, Milton told me to.” And I went to Milton and I said, “Milton, we don’t do planned ad-libs on the show,” and he said, “All right, all right, I’ll say CBS.”
If you could pick from history, who would you have had for hosts?
I would’ve liked to have had Richard Nixon at one point. We made offers several times. I always thought Richard Nixon and the Talking Heads at a certain period would have been one of my favorite shows. I would have loved to have Clint Eastwood at a certain point. Ronald Reagan at a certain point would have been a fine host for us, because I think he would have got it. I’m not sure we ever could do Reagan. Phil Hartman did him very well, but Reagan, it seemed like, would have been better being here himself. It seemed like he was also in show business.
Would Ross Perot ever host?
I called Ross Perot once, and we asked him to do the first show this season, and an assistant said that Mr. Perot heard the idea, and didn’t think it was a good one, but yeah, we’d love to have him.
Has any political figure ever complained about the way they were portrayed?
No, not that I know of.
You haven’t gotten any feedback from Nixon, who seemed to be paranoid, or Ford, or Carter even?
No, Ford has been very gracious to Chevy, I mean Chevy actually appeared with Ford at a symposium held at the Ford museum in Michigan, and they’ve become friends.
Is Steve Martin the quintessential host?
I think, yeah, I think he defined hosting the show in the ’70s, definitely, and I think Tom Hanks has done it more in the last few years, more regularly, but Steve is always great whenever he’s here.
Who’s been the defining host for you in the ’90s?
Too soon to tell.
What do you think caused the demise of John Belushi?
I think that John was clearly not in control of his appetites. I think that the quickest way to kill somebody talented is to give them everything they want. And I think that he just got in over his head.
Did he get everything he wanted?
I think he, you know, he just, yeah, he was just in over his head. He thought he could handle it. I’m sure he thought he could handle it. He just couldn’t handle it.
Was success a bigger problem for him than drugs?
I don’t know. I knew John very, very well when he was on Saturday Night Live. After he left, we saw each other every now and then. And I think that the show, which you can’t do unless you’re in shape – the pressures of the show kept him in shape, and kept him in line, to a certain extent, and the summers were okay, too, ’cause there wasn’t stress. I think the movie business, and more importantly the scene around the movie business, is what did him in.
When you look back to that period, do you regret anything?
Yeah, lots of regrets. I think that, at the time, we embraced, or I embraced, a more fraternal view, in the sense that “whatever got you through the night,” as long as people showed up at work and could function. And that turned out to be a kind of bogus value system. When somebody’s spilling over into your life and affecting your life, and clearly fucking up, you plunge in. Which isn’t to say that there weren’t lots of talks with John, I just think we didn’t know enough about drugs at the time, and didn’t know where it was going to end. It’s now 20 years later. At the time, people were kind of wide-eyed about drugs. Nobody thought pot could lead to heroin, ’cause the only people telling you were officials in the administration.
So some of us lived and learned, and some of us learned and died. And, you know, would I allow my child? No. I think we all just felt John was like the Timex ad – “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” We thought he was Albanian oak – indestructible. Because I had been with him so many times on the road at night where he could just really push himself hard and then be up at dawn ready to play some athletic thing. He was just stronger.
It was very pure-hearted at the beginning, and a lot of fun, an enormous amount of fun, and then it got into something. It got decadent. Because it was all about money and power and then it got outrageous. And I wasn’t in much of that part. Mostly because I wasn’t invited. I guess, but I think it was, John moved – you know, John died on the West Coast and I don’t think that’s an accident.
What relationship do you have with the players currently?
I’m their boss. I’m the guy that has to say no all the time. You can be really close to somebody but sometimes – and you hope that he knows all you’re fighting for is the show to be as good as it can be, that when you’re saying it’s cut after dress rehearsal, and it’s something he’s told his family and friends to look forward to, and now he’s marginally in the show, you can only hope that he-she understands. And I think long-term, people do. Short-term I don’t think they do.
What are the taboos on the show, things you won’t touch?
I think by trial and error we’ve pretty much covered everything at some point or another. I’m a guy who’s incredibly conscious – which most of the younger writers have a hard time with – about aftertaste. You do a joke, and you get a laugh, and afterward people just don’t like it. It leaves them with a bad feeling, or creepy feeling. And a young writer or a young performer will argue, “But it killed, it got a great laugh,” and you go, “Yeah, I know, but trust me, long-term …”
What about Andrew “Dice” Clay – when he hosted was one of the only times you’ve ever done the show on a delay. What was your take on Clay?
My take on Clay was that he took stuff that you do in a neighborhood and that you do with your friends and put it on a stage. And that, of course, held it out to looking at it more closely than most people do in their lives.
I resented the attacks that we had. On Nightline, I ended up having to justify even going on the air, for giving this person a platform. And I said, wait a minute, when we were doing stuff that the Left liked, people like Sam Kinison or Richard Pryor, or other people that we’d done in the past that were controversial, the media was totally on our side against the right wing, whoever they are, and, uh, suddenly we were doing somebody who went against the human potential movement and the sensitivity lessons that we learned over the last, you know, 10 or 15 years: It was sort of, it couldn’t be more politically incorrect.
I can understand being attacked after a show, when people say, “Hey, how dare you put him on?” We hadn’t done anything with him yet! And they didn’t have any faith in us that we would be able to deal with it intelligently, which I think we did. And then I realize who the press are, not that I have anything but the greatest appreciation for how hard they work, but it was so interesting to read the same article 70 or 80 times, almost exactly the same, and you realized how no one reads the press like the press.
How does political correctness concern you in creating a show and what do you think of it as a phenomenon?
I think parts of it are for the good but I think that it’s mostly humorless. I think it’s great to have a notion of how the world ought to be, but it shouldn’t get in the way of letting people know the way things are, which is what comedy does or putting things in perspective, which is what comedy does best.
So, does it ever prevent you from proceeding with a sketch?
It’s an older concept, but there are bounds of taste that I won’t cross into, that I would feel uncomfortable doing.
In the years you were absent, the show lost its edge and was almost cancelled in ’85. What do you think it is you give the show specifically?
I think what Jim Downey and I have is that we’re fans of a lot of different styles of comedy. If somebody’s incredibly passionate about something, I think they know that we’ll listen to them. We’ll take chances. I’m very wary – because of my own background and because of things that formed me – of authority. And so I’ve always staked out a territory. I’m very loyal to NBC and I intend to be here my entire working life, but at the same time, the network executives come and go and I’ve personally lived through six or seven administrations and I know that at the end of the day that pleasing people other than our audience and ourselves is counterproductive, that we must first and foremost commit to making it the best that it can be and protect people, and that’s a value system, and I think that if there’s anything that I’m able to do it’s to create an environment in which people can play.
What makes you personally just out-and-out belly laugh?
Physical comedy, mostly. I think something really well-observed and smart gets me.
How did “Wayne’s World” start?
Mike was doing the character of Wayne when he arrived here. We physicalized it. He met with the design department and I suggested they build a basement-as-cable show. Which he did. Then we added the sidekick, Garth, which he asked Dana to do. Most of the “Wayne’s World’s” are written by Mike Myers. Occasionally, others have helped, but they’re primarily Mike.
Were you surprised what a phenomenon it became?
I thought it was good and funny and would be a hit. I didn’t think that it would be an extraordinary hit because … that’s always a surprise – certainly a pleasant surprise.
What’s your prognosis for the ’90s?
I think that it’s going to be – I’m personally really looking forward to it. I think that it will be a time of rededication to very fundamental things, like work and making the country sing again. I think that’s sort of where, you know, people seem very clear-eyed about things, like there was this giant hangover that seems to be ending from both the ’80s and from drugs and from all of the sort of notions of pseudo-egalitarianism that prevailed over the last 20 years, which didn’t actually get the country anywhere. And I think that people are actually starting to deal with problems, at least the people I know seem to be, and I think that’s going to have a profound effect.
Is this generation a “blank generation”? Is is fair to dismiss it as “Generation X”?
No, it’s just that the baby boom generation was so unbelievably obnoxious that everybody by comparison seems void of personality.
How did you get involved with The Kids in the Hall?
When I was coming back in ’85 to do this show, when NBC was about to cancel it, I went up to Canada to look at some people I hadn’t seen in a couple of years, and I saw this troupe called the Kids in the Hall. I’ve always had a sort of taboo in my mind about breaking up comedy groups. I just know how hard it is for an ensemble to get together, and the amount of arguments and compromises that lead to it, so when one is functioning, I’m very wary, almost superstitious, of fucking with it. I felt that they were a completely different kind of sensibility, and I thought they were really funny and really talented. So the following year I asked Ivan Fecan, the head of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, if he would help me to give them a pilot, and also Michael Fuchs and Bridget Potter at HBO gave me a commitment. We developed a pilot over six months and then we did it as a series at HBO and now it’s on CBS late-nights. I think they do something different than what we do here and I think that they’re brilliant.
Are you happy with their cult status?
Yeah. I think cult status is what you deserve if you live in Canada.
A Canadian friend of mine said Canadians don’t care about Canadians. They’ll get into anything English and/or American, but they won’t support Canadians. Why is that?
They support them, but they want to make sure that Americans and the English like them first. It’s a sort of national inferiority complex. If you’re that good, why are you here?
In Canada, are you thought of as a success?
I’m probably treated better now, yeah. I think, at 20, when you probably didn’t deserve it, is when you want that kind of thing. I love Canada, it’s a great place to be born.
I have a theory, based on a few of the comedians I’ve known over the years, that comics are often incredibly sad people. Do you think that’s true?
I don’t know that I would say that they’re sad. I think that many people come from very damaged backgrounds, and have a pretty rough time in childhood or adolescence, but I find them to be generally people who’ve figured out how to survive and have no illusions about what people are about. I think they also tend to see, or noticed as children – I know I did – the gap between the official version, which school or their parents or the institutions passed on to them, versus what their eyes and ears and their brains told them. So by pointing it out, that everybody is in fact saying one thing but they’re behaving a different way, is when you first begin to comment on it, you first get in trouble with the authorities by being the person who got a laugh in school. And then of course there are those that are just cruel and heartless and they end up here as well.
Is there something about the temperament or spirit or intellect of a comic which sees how tragic the world is? Perhaps in a more sensitive way than someone who isn’t funny and therefore doesn’t know that humor is a defense.
That’s a little grand for me.
It’s a little grand for me as well, come to think of it.
You know Freud’s thing about artists wanting fame, money, and beautiful lovers? I think that applies pretty solidly.
What’s your proudest moment with the show? And saddest moment?
Proudest moment … I don’t know, I think just bringing it back to the point where I was proud of the show again, which happened in the mid-’80s, you know, about ’86, ’87, somewhere in there. That makes me very proud. The saddest I think was … probably Gilda dying. I got a call on Saturday morning, Steve Martin was hosting [that night]. It sort of began the day and it was sort of there all day. Everyone knew she was ill, but, you know – when it happens, when you find out, it’s still stunning.
How did Steve Martin handle it that night? They were really close.
We showed a clip of them dancing together and he was incredibly moving in the few words he said before he introduced it. It was very powerful.
You once said that you got stuck in adolescence. Are you still and how does that influence your work?
I was 14 when my father died and I was at sort of peak rebelliousness at about that age, and I think that I suddenly had to get serious because of economic troubles and I was in fact the head of the family. At least I felt that I was. And I think that people who had to get very serious at a very young age tend to, are doomed to, go back and re-live that period of their lives. And I think that there was something in the original group – I hired every single person who was here in 1975, and there was a shockingly high percentage of them who’d had the same kind of adolescent trauma, the death of a parent or a divorce or something which took a relatively stable home life and blew it up. So I think that that’s what I was probably getting to in terms of … there’s something about the “fuck you” of adolescence that is so important to them to hold their ground against more powerful forces. And I think it’s a mind-set that if you have it, you just never give it up. I have it.