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Lorne Michaels, 'Saturday Night Live'... And a Legacy that Nearly Died

Updated on November 20, 2013

Saturday Night Live in the 21st Century:

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1975: The original 'Not Ready For Prime Time' SNL players.
1975: The original 'Not Ready For Prime Time' SNL players.

Can anyone imagine a world without Saturday Night Live?

... The mere thought boarders on entertainment heresy. But as SNL's founding captain, Lorne Michaels, celebrates another birthday, does he continue to represent arts, entertainment, and commentary on contemporary America in the most honest manner?

To assess the creator who founded the SNL legend, one must know the core of what exactly is Saturday Night Live; both 'technically', as well as "theoretically."

Enter the 'Not Ready For Prime-Time'... Phenomenon!

For the most part, SNL has always talked a good globally inclusive, social-correctness game; it still does in fact... Outwardly at least. It is that same sense of global inclusivity -all bounded by the element of humor- which has kept Saturday Night Live afloat, not only through its most popular days, but also through the days when SNL came precariously close to being cancelled.

Technically, three traditional pillars have always comprised the base "core elements" of Saturday Night Live. The first, obviously, has been on-the-fringe risk taking sketch comedy, the likes of which has launched so many comic careers that there is no point in attempting to list them.

Next, SNL provides the ultimate live music performance venue where, twice per show typically (sometimes more, though rarely), stage right draws the live broadcast cameras and the world is treated to either the hottest musical act in entertainment at the time, or, an act en route to becoming same said hottest musical act. Rarely is there a dud. In SNL's near forty year run, the show has its selection of musical guests practically down to a science of audience and viewer anticipation.

Finally, there is the Saturday Night Live's masterful employment of the short film. Whereas the show has not always 'hit its comedic mark', particularly early on, with all of its short film selections, SNL's short film story-telling has remained steadfast over SNL's entire life-cycle.

Notably, there are three core styles of SNL short-films:

With few exceptions, NBC has pretty much always locked in "branding" of their short films. The purpose as to why shorts have become so integral to SNL's show and culture has, of course, evolved steadily however.

Originally -and by "originally" I'm going back to the very first seasons circa '75 through '78ish- when Lorne was given the latitude to take a "dead" time slot and essentially 'run free' with it, Lorne utilized the short film for exploratory development, as time-filler, and as good ol' fashioned "what-the-hell" risk taking.

But SNL is a machine. Michaels figured this out sometime around 1981 as SNL's disastrous sixth season almost made the writing-on-the-wall suggesting the show's demise, a reality. Can anyone imagine a society without the influence of Saturday Night Live? Lorne Michaels, and the entire arts and entertainment community came precariously close to seeing the now legendary 'Not Ready For Prime-time' program evaporate.

Enter the 'Not Ready For Prime-Time'... Disasters!

By season six, being 'confrontational' and 'edgy' wasn't as safe as it was in 1975 when Viet Nam and Watergate and, later cultural phenomena like Star Wars, forever changed society. Enter also the murder of John Lennon, and then the well-received Presidential election of conservative hero Ronald Reagan at a time when American 'confidence' levels were a mess, and Lorne Michael's job of keeping SNL off of NBC's chopping-block became immensely more difficult.

To make matters worse, MTV's arrival on the scene eventually upped the ante for everyone, and certainly didn't help Lorne's cause much as everywhere -executives at all networks- were scrambling to harness their own lightening in a bottle, just as MTV had done.

Michaels saw the writing on the wall and realized he had to up his game, particularly in response to Season 5 (some would include Season 6 as well) which was almost the show's undoing. Simply put, the SNL machine had allowed some mediocre acting talents and terrible writing to permeate the show.

Enter the 'Not Ready For Prime-Time'... Saviors!

What took SNL off of life support was a collection of factors brought about by Michaels: the insertion of master comedians, like Joe Piscopo and Eddy Murphy, powerhouse musical guests like Rod Stewart and Elton John, the and of course raising the quality and high-brow appeal of SNL's short films.

It's funny... Michaels is such a pillar of the 21st Century arts and entertainment landscape that it is easy to coast through life and not give him, or today's SNL, much thought... Or due credit. But, as queried earlier, can anyone imagine a world without Saturday Night Live? One just sort of 'assumes' he is carte-blanche beloved by all, 'impresses' everyone, and has always/will always be there, delivering SNL effortlessly to late night pop culture.

In many ways SNL, and in particular Michaels, is sort of like a brand new car... only noticed when a flat tire occurs: There you stand, on the side of the road with just 77 miles on the odometer as you stare at the flaccid tire in surreal disbelief mumbling "what a minute.... This shouldn't be happening!"

In case you're wondering about the above analogy, yes, the brand new car with immediate flat tire scenario has happened in my life... Twice. Such an analogy is the same with SNL.

We now have such high hopes and assumptions about the show -now a pop culture standard- that when something misfires or, "goes flat" on SNL, that's when it is noticed. True, it's rare nowadays, but it does happen on occasion. Still though, SNL misfires come in stark contrast to SNL's "dark days" back when the show with nothing to prove, nearly lost it all; circa 1980 through 1983.

I'll admit it... As an entertainment investor myself, I probably would have pulled the plug on SNL following Season 6.

However, with the success of SNL since, over its near 40 year run, is the new elephant in the room now the question, not of cancellation, but rather (for several reasons) Lorne Michael's retirement, if not... uh... replacement? What would, or rather, who could follow? When will the ship that sailed in 1975, nearly sank in 1981, and now presses successfully full steam ahead, lose its founding, lifelong captain?

Today, SNL is a bankable 'sure bet'. Advertisers know that, networks know that, and Lorne Michaels -SNL's sole reigning, flagship admiral- knows that too. However, even though Saturday Night Live remains the longest running sketch comedy program in broadcast television history, by Lorne's own admission, SNL is a ship that can not sail on forever... Or can it? More aptly put, could SNL continue its voyage with, daresay, some other captain at the helm?

To know SNL's success is to know not only the pillars on which the comic showcase is built, but also the foundation of the framing leader's vision. Though capable of offering up top shelf entertainment, barbed political commentary, antidotal insight into issues of the day, has the time come for the iconic show to consider a new executive producer, particularly since many of Michaels' personal actions simply do not seem in sync with the overtly progressive overtones of the show he built in 1975.

As perplexing as the aforementioned question of 'what would contemporary arts and entertainment look like without SNL' might be, just as surreal a question is 'what would SNL look like eventually without...[gasp!]... Lorne Michaels?'

This, however, is now the more viable question at hand.

Enter the 'Not Ready For Prime-Time'... Honkeys?

Staring out upon a horizon of nearly forty broadcast years, 21st Century entertainment cash cow Saturday Night Live shows no sign of ending the maiden 'not ready for prime time' voyage it began on October 11th, 1975. But how long can the often stodgy Michaels -born in World War Two and who celebrates his 70th birthday on November 17th- continue to snub the inclusionary culture of contemporary today's Generation O?

Yes, Michaels founded and has led the SNL phenomenon for nearly four decades, and clearly the show will go on -it must, as the adage goes. However, is Michaels now himself an irrelevant symbol of yesteryear antiquity, when racism, sexism and homophobia were more the punch-lines of our World War Two era grandparent's stale old jokes?

Having come under continued, ever-increasing accusations of sexism and racism for his flagrant snub of African American female comedians, his general resistance to people of color on his beloved SNL, and defiant opposition to diversity, does the SNL creator best represent the show's best interests?

If Lorne Michaels ever does steer his ship back to port, what would the continuing SNL voyage look like under the stewardship of a 'new skipper' at the helm? Further who would it be? Writers, cast, crew, although integral and talented, are ultimately all transient. Further, with Michaels set in his ways, who will yield? Michaels? The network? Advertisers? ...[gasp!] Viewers!?

In this new Generation O society the iconic program now is facing three core decisions: return to port, get a new skipper, or moor forever in the archives of pop culture folklore.

Live... from New York!! It's the reality of 21st Century Saturday Night Live!



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    • R. Martin Basso profile image

      R. Martin Basso 3 years ago from Tennessee

      Well said, sir!

    • adecourv profile image

      Alex deCourville 3 years ago

      I agree: Imagining a world without SNL is like imagining a world without the Simpsons or the Rolling Stones.

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