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Lorne Michaels: The Sinking of SNL?

Updated on June 13, 2017

Can anyone imagine a world without Saturday Night Live, or... Lorne Michaels!?

... The mere thought boarders on entertainment heresy.

But as Lorne Michaels -SNL's founding captain- steers the broadcast behemoth towards another season, does he continue to represent arts, entertainment, and political commentary in the most relevant, contemporary fashion?

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... Outwardly at least. It is that same sense of global inclusivity -all bound by an 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.

Three traditional pillars have comprised the core elements of Saturday Night Live:

The first, has been risk-taking Sketch Comedy, the likes of which has launched so many comic careers that there's no point in attempting to list them.

Next, SNL provides the ultimate live music performance venue where, twice per show, stage right treats viewers to either the hottest contemporary musical acts, or, those acts en-route and bound for stardom; rarely is there a dud. In SNL's decades long run, the showcasing of musical guests has perfected the science of viewer anticipation.

Finally, there's Saturday Night Live's masterful and steadfast employment of the short film, of which, SNL exploits three core "styles":

With few exceptions, NBC has pretty much locked-in "branding" of their short films.


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

Michaels discovered that the initially well-oiled SNL machine was capable of decay sometime around 1981; a disastrous sixth season navigated the show precariously close to demise. Simply put, the SNL machine had allowed some mediocre acting talents and terrible writing to permeate the show.

By season six, Lorne Michael's job of keeping SNL off of NBC's chopping-block became immensely more difficult:

'Confrontational' and 'edgy' wasn't as safe as it was in 1975 when Viet Nam and Watergate forever changed society. Add in the cultural phenomena of disco, Star Wars, the personal home computer, later the murder of John Lennon, as well as a landslide Presidential election of conservative hero Ronald Reagan, and the times they were clearly changing.

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.

Today, however, in stark contrast to how NBC's "Not Ready For Prime-Time" legacy began, the SNL machine is actually more noticed when something doesn't go as expected; Remember the 2004 Ashley Simpson lip-synch debacle all those years ago, yet still fresh as Spring rain to anyone who recalls it?


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

I'll admit it... As an entertainment investor myself, I probably would have pulled the plug on SNL following Season Six. However, what took SNL off of life support back then was a collection of savvy business factors and programming decisions brought about by Michaels himself: the insertion of master comedians, like Joe Piscopo and Eddy Murphy; the showcasing of musical powerhouses like Rod Stewart and Elton John; and -as noted- raising the high-brow appeal of SNL's short films.

But as time marches forward, so does the concession that the only constant... is change.

Michaels is such a pillar of the entertainment landscape that it's easy to not give him much thought. As he has seemingly always navigated SNL, one just assumes Michaels will always be there at the helm of pop culture satire. At least, that was the going premise for... Decades.

Michaels did well, indeed, to keep his show afloat during what appeared to be SNL's "sinking days" decades ago... Decades. Ago.

Today however, with each passing season as SNL inches ever-closer to the jaw-dropping notion of a 50th Season, industry mumblings and hushed cocktail party whispers ponder coyly about SNL's steadfast captain: For this brave, new, contemporary Millennial world, is Michaels still relatable, or moreover, still himself relevant?

But, as queried, can anyone imagine a world without Saturday Night Live... Or, for that matter steering the USS SNL? Hmmmmm?

Enter the 'Not Ready For Prime-Time'... Elephant In The Room.

Conversations ever increasingly find themselves turning to the new elephant in the room: Not of cancellation, but rather Lorne Michael's retirement, if not replacement? What would, or rather, who could follow? When will the ship that sailed its maiden voyage on October 11th, 1975, nearly sank in 1981, and now presses ahead, disembark its founding, lifelong captain?

Today, SNL is a bankable 'sure bet'. Advertisers know that, too. However, even though Saturday Night Live remains the longest running sketch comedy program in broadcast television history, SNL is a ship that can not sail on forever... Or can it? More aptly put, and more frequently in "casual" conversations arise the hypothetical pondering if SNL could -or now should- continue its Millennial voyage towards 50 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.

Staring out upon a horizon of potentially five decades one question increasingly pondered by executives -and advertisers- is how long can Michaels -himself born during World War Two- remain relatable to the evolving inclusionary culture of contemporary today's millennial?

Yes, Michaels founded and has led the SNL phenomenon for decades, however, is Michaels now himself an irrelevant symbol of yesteryear antiquity, when racism, sexism and homophobia were more the punch-lines of World War Two era grandparent's stale old jokes?

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' laboriously slow-to-change talent selections seem out of sync with what was once SNL's overtly progressive overtone.

Until recently, 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?

Additionally, the incendiary nature of politics over the recent years has seen the once enjoyable shining diamond of late night comedic lampooning turn sharply into divisive political venom.

Once, gently lampooning politics was Lorne Michaels greatest contribution to social commentary. Once, although clearly Left-leaning comedy, the SNL experience didn't overtly seek to humiliate opposing political -even religious- viewpoints or beliefs.

It is no secret that contemporary viewership of Saturday Night Live is plummeting... Exactly as it had back in those disastrous early days. In response, industry and advertising executives today -amidst campaigns of candid whispers- are finding it easier to question the adverse impact of Michaels' leadership upon the same global economics which fund juggernauts like NBC in the first place.

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

Increasingly, this is becoming a viable industry conversation piece.

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 and jump ship?

Michaels? The network? Advertisers?

Viewers!? [gasp!]

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!


Saturday Night Live in the 21st Century:

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

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    • R. Martin Basso profile image
      Author

      Reid Martin Basso 3 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Well said, sir!

    • adecourv profile image

      Alex deCourville 4 years ago

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