Saturday Night Live Transcripts
Saturday Night Live: Behind the Scenes
Saturday Night Live: Behind the Scenes
…..Robert M. Batscha
Broadcast as part of the “University Satellite Seminar Series” conducted by the Museum of Television & Radio, and aired exclusively on college television stations and media centers. Currently available on VHS at only 14 universities throughout the United States.
Robert M. Batscha: Good evening. I’m Bob Batscha, the President of the Museum of Television & Radio. It’s my pleasure to welcome you to our University Satellite Seminar series. Today: “Behind the Scenes: Saturday Night Live.” We have 215 universities in 44 states participating with us this evening. We’re particularly pleased to have “Saturday Night Live” — Lorne Michaels and I have been talking about doing this for several years. Not quite the 24 years that it’s been on NBC, but we’re happy to have you here today.
NBC launched this program, as I said, 24 years ago, and it’s also launched some of the brightest careers in comedy today. The program is a wonderful mix of irreverent humor, political satire, great commercial parodies, and top-notch hosts and musical guests, which continues to garner the highest ratings of any weekly late-night television program. And it’s my pleasure to welcome the cast and the creative people behind the scenes of “Saturday Night Live”.
Beginning, first, on my right, Lorne Michaels, who is the Creator and Executive Producer of “Saturday Night Live”. He’s been with the show for 19 of its 24 seasons — from 1975 to 1980, and from 1985 to the present. He has personally received eight Emmy Awards, five of them for “Saturday Night Live”. In 1979, he founded Broadway Video, which produced “The Kids in the Hall” and the series “Night Music”. He’s also served as Executive Producer of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” since its inception in 1993. And among the films that Michaels has produced are “Wayne’s World”, “Tommy Boy”, and “A Night at the Roxbury”. Before “Saturday Night Live” — let me give your WHOLE biography — he wrote for Woody Allen and “Rowen & Martin’s Laugh-In”.
Next to Lorne is Al Franken. He’s part of “Saturday Night Live”‘s original writing staff, and he wrote for the program from 1975 to 1980, and from 1985 to 1995. He has received five Emmy Awards for writing and producing. He also performed on the show as part of the comedy team of Franken & Davis, as his Al Franken Decade persona, and as the new-age cable television host Stuart Smalley.
Next to Al is James Downey. He first came to “Saturday Night Live” in 1976, as the show’s youngest writer. He stayed with the show until 1980, then served as the Head Writer of “Late Night with David Letterman”, from ’82 to ’83. He returned to “Saturday Night Live” in 1984, and served as the host [ corrects himself ] — as the show’s Head Writer and Producer from ’86 to ’95.
Next to him is Tim Herlihy, who has been with “Saturday Night Live” since 1994, serving as writer, Head Writer, and currently as Producer. He’s also written or co-written such feature films as “Happy gilmore”, “The Wedding Singer”, and “The Waterboy”.
And Tim Meadows, who is now in his eighth season as a Repertory Player on “Saturday Night Live”. In addition to impersonations of, among others, O.J. Simpson, Johnnie Cochran, Oprah Winfrey, Ike Turner, Michael Jackson, etc. [ Tim waves it on ] Uh — he’s created such popular characters as Leon Phelps, The Ladies Man, and Lionel Osborne, etc. He came from the well-known Chicago Second City comedy troupe.
Marci Klein serves as co-producer of “Saturday Night Live”. She started as an Assistant to the Talent Executive in 1988, was named Talent Executive in 1993, and later served as an Associate Producer. She heads the show’s Talent Department, booking hosts and musical guests and overseeing casting.
And Michael Shoemaker joined “Saturday Night Live” as a Production Assistant in 1986, currently serves as one of the show’s co-producers and has been producing “Weekend Update with Colin Quinn” since January 1998, and he’s held many different positions on “Saturday Night Live” including casting, hiring writers, in addition to producing many of the installments on the “Best of Saturday Night Live” series.
Before we begin asking our panel questions and taking your questions from the universities, we want to show you some representations of the show from our collection.[ dissolve to series of sketch clips, beginning with Tom Hanks’ Monologue from the 15th Anniversary Special, to a series of musical guest clips that culminates with Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years”, also from the 15th Anniversary Special ]
Robert M. Batscha: Still crazy after all these years! Uh, what were you thinking of in — [ starts laughing ] Thank you! Uh, what were you thinking of in 1975, and did you expect it to become the show it was, and why was it revolutionary in 1975?
Lorne Michaels: Uhh — I think one of the reasons it was revolutionary was because it was live, and because no one saw it before it went on the air. And, uh — what I did was, uhhh, I think everyone — in 1975, in particular, and probably many years before that — when they presented the show, they said it would be new and experimental. And, uhhh — that’s what we said it would be — and, uhhh — I was given almost six months before we went on the air to assemble a writing staff, cast, designers, musicians, and all the people who were gonna work on the show. And we all spent the better part of three months together, and, I think, by the time we went on the air, we sort of knew, uhhh — at least, we knew that something was up. I don’t think any of us knew quite what would happen, but I think we knew that what we were doing was different.
Robert M. Batscha: And it’s been an incredible place for discovering talent and giving talent a free reign. Tell us a little bit about that.
Lorne Michaels: Well, I think originally, in the design of the show, I think the idea of — having worked on a variety shows as a writer, there was a problem of, uh, of what Sonny would say to Cher every week, which was not much of a writing problem after, uh… uh… after two or three seasons. So the idea was, by having different guest hosts each week, there would be — uh, it would be a different show each week. And, I think, one of the elements was there was going to be a repertory cast, but there were — there was — Albert Brooks was making short films for the show when it began, and The Muppets had a segment, there were two musical guests, there was a segment that was just going to be the news, uhhh… and so, I think the surprise was how quickly the cast caught on, and I think once that happened, I think everything else receded. The host became less special, we cut back to one musical guest, the films were still part of it, and I think the news was still part of it. Gradually, the cast — actually, not so gradually, by, like, the third or fourth show, the cast — began coming on the news. And I think that, uh — when we, uh — when I left in 1980, I think, uhh — I don’t think anyone — some people had left, but no had been fired. I think we were pretty, uh — we were a close group. And I think — the idea that there would be a show that would continue after that, I think was sort of surprising. And then, as other casts have come and gone, I think remarkable people have, uh, have come out of it. But I think… that it is one of those places where, if you can survive for a couple of years, I think there’s almost nothing in the rest of show business that will come as a surprise.
Robert M. Batscha: Let me ask each of the panelists, one at a time, to — I mean, it is a unique format — what does it give you as a creative person, either as a writer or as an actor or as a member of the team that puts the show on. You wanna…?
Al Franken: [ clears throat ] Well, one of the advantages, of course, of the show being live was that you got to do topical humor. Though, as a writer, uh, it was — it was nice to know, very often, you didn’t really have to think of anything, uhhh, in terms of Monday coming in and, uhhh, you didn’t have to think of a Jack Handey sketch. Jack was a writer — people know him from “Deep Thoughts”, stuff like that — but all his ideas always just come out of his head. Whereas, uh, as someone who wrote a lot of the topical stuff with Jim [ he points to Downey ] uhh, we got to say, “Well, there’s a war in Kosovo, so we’ll do something about that.” So — and you don’t get to do that when you’re doing a show that’s taped, and then edited, and aired weeks later, like every other variety show.
Jim Downey: And, also, the stuff doesn’t have to be as good, and you have an excuse![ the panel laughs, as the audio equipment lets out a high-pitched squeal ]
Jim Downey: — like that, for example!
Robert M. Batscha: That’s NBC coming!
Jim Downey: We only had a week.
Lorne Michaels: I think, also, the fact that “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night” are also doing the same — are also topical shows — but they’re daily, and I think that they’ve sort of narrowed things down by the time it comes to Saturday — [ Lorne struggles to expel a thought, but stumbles mightily on his syllables and laughs ] It should have some perspective to it! And, also, it has to be fresh.
Al Franken: We’d be like a magazine show, like Newsweek or Time —
Jim Downey: And the New York Times.
Lorne Michaels: As opposed to a newspaper
Al Franken: Yeah! Very good!
Lorne Michaels: I like that![ they laugh ]
Robert M. Batscha: We can continue. This could be another one of your comedy sketches!
Jim Downey: Um — I-I said my piece, I think. [ turns to Herlihy ] [ SUPER: “CALL IN WITH YOUR QUESTIONS: 1-800-516-6628” ]
Tim Herlihy: Well, it’s, generally, kind of a leisure activity. But the show, you know, it’s 11:15 and something’s going on, and if you’re sitting around, you have to come up with something — you, or someone you could trick into doing it for you. And then that’s gonna be on TV, and there’s nothing you can do about that, and — and, uh — the challenge is that every week. It’s almost the opposite of writing. Uhh — I can’t think of a word for it.
Lorne Michaels: Non-writing?
Tim Herlihy: [ he laughs ] Non-writing would be the opposite! [ he turns to Tim Meadows ]
Tim Meadows: Uhhh — what was the question?
Robert M. Batscha: What does the show offer you as a –?
Tim Meadows: Oh, right! Here we go! I’m prepared! Um — I think, uh, for me, or the performers on the show, I think it — every week it offers the opportunity to be able to write, uh, for a variety show, as well as perform characters or sketch ideas that you might have. Uh — whereas, you don’t get that, uh — you don’t learn that while working on a sitcom, because, you know, not every actor on a sitcom, or whatever, um, have input on what they do. So… it’s rewarding. Was that the question?
Robert M. Batscha: Sure!
Marci Klein: I was just going to say you never get bored, I guess. It’s just always different and… exciting, and — for anybody. You don’t have to be a writer. Whatever you do on the show.
Jim Downey: You also, uh, would — which is important — you do see it almost immediately. I mean, it’s the faster than you see anything you write, I would say in almost any other form. I mean, if you write for a daily show, you would see it that night, but there’s not much production on shows like that. Um — but, uh — shows that have, like, a cast and big sets and so on, it’s nice to be able to, you know, write on Tuesday and see it Saturday. You know, a lot of writing in this industry is never seen at all.[ Al Franken laughs ]
Lorne Michaels: [ jumping up before Shoemaker’s turn ] I-I-I think, uh, what — just to set it up for a second. There’s something about, uh, in the topicality that we’re constantly shifting as well. What we planned to do on Wednesday, at least for the opening and sometimes the monologue, can shift, really, up until, uh, literally just before we go on. Uh — and sometimes even after that.
Al Franken: Sometimes, on Friday night, Joycelyn Elders… will get fired… for saying that masturbation can be taught in school, and then you have the cold opening.
Lorne Michaels: Yeah. They work with us, in this industry.[ everyone laughs, as Batscha acknowledges Shoemaker ]
Michael Shoemaker: Well, one of the things that, uh, besides the actual fun of putting on a show, essentially, is that we get to spend time and hang out with a lot of funny people. Which is why a lot of us…
Marci Klein: Are still there.
Michael Shoemaker: …are still there. Even afterwards, it’s not so much fun. No! Because on the off-weeks, you hang out and — and — and — and, you know, there are people who are at a certain level that, uh — uh — it — it — it makes it worthwhile not just to talk, but to put on a show.
Marci Klein: Just to hang out with friends.
Michael Shoemaker: Well, there’s that.
Lorne Michaels: Also, I think that one of the things that’s important about live production is that almost everyone is necessary, up until the last moment. Whereas, on a movie, very often the writer is somebody you meet early on, and then you meet once again at the premiere, when he’s surprised to find out there were lots of other writers who were hired! Uhhh — I think that everybody’s essential, so at least, to a sort of — people have peers, ummm — the cast… need each other, uhhh — the writers need the cast, uh — pretty much everyone works, uhh — it’s as close to egalitarian as I think you can get in an enterprise that size. And, generally, wherever, uh — I think the thing we’re most proud of is that wherever a good idea comes from, we’ll take it. Part of it is the desperation, also, just the idea of recognizing that it doesn’t matter if it comes from a writer who’s been there a couple of hours or one who’s been there a long time. Hopefully, the best ideas will drive out the worst ideas.
Robert M. Batscha: How has the show changed over 24 years? Is it still basically the — has it always been an ensemble? Has it always been writer-driven…?
Lorne Michaels: Well, Jim, you probably have the best perspective on that.
Jim Downey: Um — the, uh — I think there’s certain ways that it’s always going to be broadly similar. I mean, if it’s done live, there’s only so many sets you can fit into that studio, so you can’t — there’s not going to be sixty one-minute pieces. And, uh — it’s ’cause the set is — the studio has to function like an, uh — you know, those kind of, uh — you know, uh, galoshes that fold into a wallet, that kind of thing. It has to — you have to be able to do one sketch while you’re building a set for the other — strike one, adjust one, and quietly remove it during commercial to set something else up. And, uh — you know, just getting the thing on the air is a part that only people who see the show live can know that. And that’s a constant which tends to — tends to, uh — to show up in, uh, in the look of the show, so that there’s a certain aspect to the show that has been constant for 24 years and that is unlike anything else that you see on TV. Um — I think it does change as the casts come and go — I don’t know what the number is now, but, with the people in this cast, it must be up to, like, sixty or something.
Lorne Michaels: Yeah.
Jim Downey: Probably sixty-odd people have been in the cast at one time or another. And, uh — you know, after a while it’s like, uh — you know, a college with a good basketball program that, you know, every couple of years there’s a different character. Um — so, I’d say that’s the constant, that’s the change.
Al Franken: Some years, the writing drives it more than the cast, and some years I think the cast drives it more than the writing.
Lorne Michaels: And on the rare, rare season where the two actually work together… that’s just amazing to watch![ everyone laughs at this prospect ]
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s take a question from Youngstown State University.
Caller: Uh, yes. Which sketch do you consider to have been most controversial over the years, as far as legal troubles concerned for the show?
Robert M. Batscha: Like last week?
Lorne Michaels: Ummm — in the, uh — it varies by decade. In the 70’s, what was most difficult to get on the air and was considered controversial was religion. Uh, particularly religion and sex. Ummm — in the 80’s, I think it was drugs? Primarily, drug-related things. Political things have almost never been, uh, that controversial. I mean, they are within our audience, but I don’t think in terms of, uh, the network taking a strong stand, I think that’s less. Uhhh —
Jim Downey: I think he wants a name.
Lorne Michaels: Exactly! He probably does want a name! Uhhh — I think, if you’re asking who’s the most controversial host? Or just sketch?
Al Franken: Sketch, he asked.
Lorne Michaels: I thought you said sketch.
Al Franken: Why not just go to some…
Lorne Michaels: Yeah.
Robert M. Batscha: Who’s the most controversial host?
Lorne Michaels: Well, in the 70’s, probably Richard Pryor, because the network went to a seven-second delay. You can generally — you can check on when a seven-second delay has been used. It was also used on Andrew Dice Clay, and, uh — probably the single most controversial thing was, uh, Sinead O’Conner tearing up the, uh, picture of the Pope — uhhh, only because it was met with just complete silence. [ the audience laughs ] And, uh, we still had a — we still had a sketch to do! — uh, after it, and, uh, it wasn’t the best environment. [ the audience laughs ] Uh — to go perform comedy.
Al Franken: A lot of people wrote in letters, uh, saying “How could you let her tear up this picture of the Pope?” As if, during the week, we had done camera-blocking… [ he mimes tearing up the photo ] “Sinead, could you move the…? When you tear it, can you do it into Camera 3, because that’ll get the best shot… for… everybody in Rome.” [ the audience laughs ] I mean, it’s —
Lorne Michaels: Oddly enough, at Dress Rehearsal, I think she tore up — she had a picture from, uh, the Balkans. From Kosovo. I think.
Al Franken: [ staring intently at Lorne ] Wow! [ the audience laughs ]
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s take a question from Vincennes University. [ silence, as the panel looks at each other in great surprise ] Well, I don’t think they’re there. Vincennes University, do you have a question?
Caller: [ at last ] Yes, where do your characters come from?[ the audience laughs ]
Al Franken: Where do your what?
Robert M. Batscha: Characters.
Lorne Michaels: Characters.
Robert M. Batscha: Where do the characters come from.
Lorne Michaels: Generally, the cast, uhhh, come in with them, I’d say. Uhhhh — uhh — there’s some — sometimes — uh — uh — uh —
Al Franken: [ saving Lorne ] I think it’s more a question of the creative process, Lorne.
Lorne Michaels: Exactly! [ everyone laughs ] Uhhh — I think that, uh, sometimes a character will come out of a sketch that’s written, and, uh, who will then — people will then want to, uh, you know, write more for that character. Invariably, it’s a collaboration between cast and writers. Uh, Tim could probably answer that, clearly.
Tim Meadows: Yeah. I mean, that is pretty much it. Sometimes, you know, the cast, they have characters that they’ve worked on, and, uh, you usually, you know, show it to the different writers on the show and they — if somebody has an idea for it, they will help you with it, or — sometimes the writers, also, will have ideas for characters that they might want you to do, that they have already, uh, they already have a preconceived idea of what you can do with a certain character, or whatever. And, so, sometimes they give it to you. so it kind of works out 50-50. But I think most of the characters that you know people to be famous for, they probably created it.
Jim Downey: If I could say, one thing that has definitely never worked — and Al will back me up on this, uh — is when a writer entirely creates a character and tries to teach a performer how to do it. [ he laughs ] It doesn’t work. If a performer starts with a fragment of something, and the writer sort of — if something sparks, and, uh, if you figure out how to use that.
Tim Meadows: One example I do have is that, uh, Al Franken and Dave Mandel came up with the “Perspective” character that I did on the show, and it’s — I didn’t feel like I really got the character until the second or third time I did it. But I knew — Al explained to me what it was, and what he wanted, and, uh, you know, eventually I, uh, I started knocking it out of the park, as you all know![ everyone laughs ]
Lorne Michaels: And was your original conversation with Al kind of nurturing?
Tim Meadows: Yeah, it was. It was sort of like, “Do it, or I’ll break your arms!” [ Al Franken laughs ] But he actually explained to me, like, slow comedy, which was something I knew about, and he told me to listen to, like, Bob & Ray, and, you know, I actually learned something… from Al. [ Al Franken laughs ]
Al Franken: I was, mainly, on the show, as a teacher. [ everyone laughs ] Toward the, uh —
Jim Downey: Tim knows more about Bob & Ray than anyone in his neighborhood.[ everyone laughs ]
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s take a question from Central Missouri State University.
Caller: Um, I had a question, uh — how many skits do you come up with each week? I know there’s a lot of competition, uh, how do you decide which ones make it on the air, after you come up with all of your ideas?
Lorne Michaels: It varies from season to season, but, uh, the last few seasons we’ve been reading as many as, you know, forty-five or fifty. Uhhh — there were weeks in the 70’s when I don’t think we had — [ he laughs ] we weren’t into double-digits. [ Al Franken laughs] But, uh — I think of — we read just about everything, uh, because you never know how something’s gonna play until you read it, and, uh, it sort of, uh — writers generally, uh, they can submit as many pieces as they want, up to the point where we read a lot of pieces of theirs and everybody doesn’t like it. Uhh — at which point, that person could be actively discouraged from submitting. But, generally, people submit… two or three things? And cast also contribute and write pieces and, uh — and you’re also trying to figure out what the host will like that week. So there’s lots of pieces that are written with the cast and the host, and then there’s topical pieces, and, uh, it’s — there’s a fairly extensive variety of writing styles and kinds of pieces, and when we’re putting the show together, we try not to, you know, choose the same kind of sketch, uhh — uhh — exclusively. [ turns to Al Franken ] Do you think I articulated that well?
Al Franken: Yeah, well, sometimes the sketch you’re writing will be in the same tone, or the same — even subject matter — of another sketch that someone else write — uh, wrote. So —
Jim Downey: That’s where backstabbing comes in!
Al Franken: Yeah![ everyone laughs ]
Lorne Michaels: Both — both work.
Robert M. Batscha: Talk a little about the hosts, and the influence that has on the show and how you develop the show.
Lorne Michaels: Well, uh — uh — you know, Marci could talk about this, but I think that the hope is that we have the person you most want to see at the moment that you’re seeing him or her. And, so, we try to anticipate months of… before someone is on, uhh — uhh — what — you know — the maximum amount of interest is in that person that week. And, in some cases, it’s just, uh — problem-solving, mostly. It’s what that person — you know, some people can play comedy brilliantly, and there are hosts like, uh, John Goodman, last show, or Steve Martin or Tom Hanks or Alec Baldwin, or Buck Henry in the 70’s, and Elliot Gould, who we were always happy to have be there because they could have been cast members. Then there are people who have never done this before, and people, uh, you know, sports figures and figures from the news, and political people, and, uh — mostly movie people, I think actors are the single biggest, uhh — uhh — uhh —
Robert M. Batscha: Require the most attention? [ he laughs ]
Lorne Michaels: Well, no — that’s what we use the most often. Uhh —
Robert M. Batscha: Marcie, you want to help?
Marci Klein: I think he pretty much — [ everyone laughs lightly ] No, I do! I mean, if I had something to add, I would!
Robert M. Batscha: Same question, or what?
Marci Klein: No.
Robert M. Batscha: State University of New York in New Paltz.
Caller: Hi there — [ the sound system echoes loudly ] Oh, boy… [ the echo grows louder, so the caller laughs uproariously and makes the echo louder still ]
Robert M. Batscha: You want to try that again? [ his voice, too, begins to echo lightly ] [ no response ]
Robert M. Batscha: Alright. Let’s take a call from York College of Pennsylvania. [ no response ] Can you hear us in York College, Pennsylvania?
Caller: [ lightly ] Mmm-hmm.[ everyone laughs ]
Al Franken: New Paltz?[ everyone laughs ]
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s try Keane State College in New Hampshire.
Robert M. Batscha: Good!
Caller: [ he laughs ] Alright. My question is: In the episode, this year, when Cameron Diaz hosted the show, you guys almost seemed to push the limit with the Ladies Man skit, the cartoon by Robert Shh-migel — [ Lorne chuckles to himself at the mispronunciation ] Well, my question is: [ very obviously slurring ] Has there ever been an instance.. when you think that… skit… has ever gone too far..?
Lorne Michaels: Very, very often.[ everyone laughs ]
Lorne Michaels: Uhh — I think of people’s capacity for shock is different with, uh — I think we are, very often — because we’ve reacted to a dress rehearsal audience, which is — uhh — three or four-hundred people we haven’t met before, who come in and see it — and you go on that. But I don’t think, uh – -there are shows, very often, where you drop out or — we did a show with Ron Nessen in the 70’s, where, uh, almost everything that got cut was sort of, uh, based on something normal! [ he laughs ] And, uh, the show just seemed much, much harder on air than we’d intended, because the pieces that worked were intending to be more hard-edged
Al Franken: Ron Nessen was, uh — for those of you in college — [ everyone laughs ] Uhh — was President Ford’s press secretary. And the, uh — uh — sort of the sum total of the show , it seemed to some people at the White house that we had taken the President’s press secretary… and tried to shove him up the President’s ass.[ the crowd roars with laughter ]
Lorne Michaels: And President Ford had been courteous enough to appear on the show — [ Al Franken laughs loudly ] So it did not look, uh —
Al Franken: So, it was —
Lorne Michaels: But, every often, uh, there’s no real, uh, master-plan on that. I mean, the pieces we were fighting about, and, uh — Tim Herlihy was — I was gonna say, Tim was very involved in that show, and could probably speak about…[ Al Franken gives Lorne a curious look — if he’s still talking about the Nessen show, that was long before tim Herlihy came aboard ]
Tim Herlihy: No, we don’t plan on doing a dirty show on Monday — like, let’s really give it to ’em this week![ everyone laughs ]
Lorne Michaels: [ dryly ] That’s generally not ’til Thursday.[ everyone laughs harder ]
Tim Herlihy: The next show, we are! But, as ridiculous as it seems, sometimes, literally, it’s, like, 11:30, 12 o’clock, and we’re watching the show and we’re like, “Heeey, this is dirty.” And, uh, it just — it’s just kind of in response to the Dress audience. It’s, you know, stuff that sometimes sneaks in between Dress and Air… sometimes it’s just, uh, it’s a quantitative thing that doesn’t really stick until you sit and watch the whole thing, uh, one sketch after another.
Jim Downey: Who does that?[ everyone laughs ]
Lorne Michaels: Also, I think that one of the things that makes – -that keeps the show honest is the fact that there really isn’t a master plan. You’re responding so much, and so overwhelmed by the events each week, that you’re sort of — you’re hoping the thing’s gonna work. You’re very confident the thing’s gonna work, sometime on Friday night, and then it just completely falls apart at Dress Rehearsal and, uh, we end up cutting, and so, uh, the aftertaste of the show can be considerably worse sometimes than we would have planned or thought we were doing on Monday.
Al Franken: Prob — probably the most controversial show was, uh, I think in ’79, uh, when Steve Martin came out in, uh, full frontal nudity, and we got… [ he shakes his head ] so many letters.[ light chuckling among the crowd ]
Lorne Michaels: Yeah, they don’t show that show any more.
Al Franken: Yeah, they won’t. But it’s here at the Museum. [ everyone laughs, as Al gives a wide smile ]
Robert M. Batscha: Very frequently requested!
Lorne Michaels: Also, I think since, uh, the capacity for shock, it’s very — all of it is because we’re broadcast on network television. You can flip around and be watching something on HBO or something on cable that’s considered — I mean — or on CBS, for that matter, because, uh, Howard Stern is considerably rougher than, uh, than we are. Our goal is mostly to be as funny as possible… each week.
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s take a question from Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas.
Caller: Yeah, uh, how y’all doing? I was wondering what kind of complications does it bring to the show, with the talent and the writers constantly getting other jobs and being on other jobs while doing the show at the same time. And why Tim Meadows has stayed with the show for so long?
Al Franken: I think Lorne would speak best to that.[ the crowd laughs ]
Lorne Michaels: I think the only way you can keep really talented people is to keep very loose reigns. I think people are going to pursue what they’re going to pursue. It is, for cast, in particular, the show leads to a kind of exposure, and if they get other opportunities — you just have to rely on the fact that the show is their first priority, and, uh, I think for most people, it is.
Robert M. Batscha: Another question, from SUNY — New Paltz.
Caller: Yes. Hello. Um, I was just curious as to, uh, the writers. What are they looking for when they look for new cast members? Like, what kind of personality, what kind of ideas, what are they looking for in people?
Al Franken: Well, uh — I’ve been involved in casting, looking for new cast members. There are different kinds of things you look for. You look for somebody who can do a number of impressions — Darrell Hammond, now, is sort of someone who is that guy on the show. You look for someone who can play attitude — Kevin Nealon was kind of our attitude guy, he could play different attitudes and could do comedy that was just based on attitude. [ he laughs ] And, uh — you look for a guy who’s just funny, and has a funny energy about him — Chris Farley would be that kind of guy. Jon Lovitz, I remember, he was the last guy cast, I think coming back in ’85, right? And, uh, he was sort of everything we weren’t looking for at that time. [ the crowd laughs ]
Lorne Michaels: All in one person!
Al Franken: Yeah! But he was just funny. So, uh —
Lorne Michaels: Marci and Mike Shoemaker went looking in the last five or six years, you know, pretty much all over the country.
Michael Shoemaker: And, each time, we’re looking for something specific, but you don’t ever find that specific thing. It’s just somebody who makes you laugh, like I remember when we saw Tim or we saw — Marcie actually saw most of the current cast, almost all of them came out of The Groundlings. And, uh, sometimes it’s pretty obvious, and sometimes it’s… perhaps not.
Marci Klein: Well, we just hope Lorne is gonna like them, because, you know — [ she laughs ] We’ve done a good job, and you hope that what you see is gonna come across when they get to the major audition. We’re out there looking at stand-ups —
Michael Shoemaker: Yeah, stand-ups. We have, like, three stand-ups on the show, and we have a lot of them from sketch-comedy places. And the audition thing is the hard thing. When you get them to New York and you put them on camera, and we’re, like, “Is that a good idea? No. We shouldn’t have brought this one.” And there’s always one or two of those. But, you know, generally, you hope that, uh, that what you saw somebody else will see.
Jim Downey: One thing that’s, uh — it’s been a while since I’ve been involved in casting, but, uh, one thing that’s always great is someone with a lot of range, because, um, some of the earliest people, like Aykroyd, specifically — one of the nice things about the show that always makes it work better is when, in the course of the evening, you’ve seen someone do like three or four vastly different things, and it makes each thing more impressive because you realize what a —
Al Franken: Phil Hartman was that.
Jim Downey: Yeah. And range is something you don’t see as much of any more, and I think, over time, you see more — people seem to be more specialized. And that’s, you know, whenever you get someone like that, you take them.
Lorne Michaels: And also, because just about everybody there considers themselves funny, it’s a group of people who are funny. The transition when you get there, you know — you might have been the funniest person in your world, uh, suddenly you get there and you realize the transition between amateur and pro is tough because it isn’t necessarily about being funny, it’s about being funny at that moment in an environment which is, you know, chaotic, and you have to be very calm and being to come alive right when the camera lights up, and also adjust to all the changes that are happening both in script and lack of rehearsal and, uh — so, I think it takes people a little while to able to perform well in that environment.
Robert M. Batscha: But it must be enormously valuable for a performer to have had that experience, and what they can do with it, both during the show and afterwards?
Lorne Michaels: As I’ve said, you know: if you can do that, you can do just about anything.
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s take a question from Brigham Young University.
Caller: Hi, Al! Makin’ dittos![ Al gives the caller a thumbs-up gesture ]
Caller: My question’s for the cast members. What is your favorite sketch of all time?
Al Franken: Tim?[ the panel laughs ]
Tim Meadows: Well, I’m sure I speak for all cast members when I say — [ everyone laughs ]
Tim Herlihy: The Ladies Man!
Tim Meadows: — that it was The Ladies Man![ everyone laughs wildly, then applauds ]
Tim Meadows: Thank you. Yeah. I think in the 25 or 28 years that the show’s been on — I don’t know, I don’t really keep up with that stuff, but… No! For me, I think — can it be a sketch that I wasn’t in? Does that matter? [ silence ] Did he hang up?
Lorne Michaels: Yep.
Tim Meadows: Great. Uh — I think… the more — when I was young, watching —
Jim Downey: It was Sinead O’Conner ripping the —
Tim Meadows: [ laughing ] I don’t know. I think when I was watching the show as a fan, I always loved watching Bill Murray do the nightclub singer… always liked Bees sketches… um… I liked, uh… al Franken and Tom Davis’, uh — the Al & Tom Show — Franken & Davis — I liked that, I mean because it was different from what you, from the regular sketches. I mean, so I had a lot of favorites, so maybe I’m not a good person to ask.
Al Franken: [ jumping in quickly ] I liked Tim’s stuff. [ everyone laughs ] I-I don’t think we need everyone to tell their favorite sketches.
Robert M. Batscha: Okay. Let’s, then, take —[ Al laughs uproariously ]
Lorne Michaels: Time permitting.
Tim Meadows: I could keep going.
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s take a question from the University of West Virginia.
Caller: [ apprehensively ] Yeah, uh — I have, uh — uh — I’ve been writing for a while — my friend and I have been writing sketches for a while. I just want to know how, uh — [ Al Franken begins waving his hands in a shooing motion ] we can break in and — and — [ Al points both of his hands toward Lorne ] you know, write skits for you guys. We can live under Tim’s desk, or do whatever we can. Uh — and I have another question. Is Al Franken gonna bring out the, uh, uh, mobile command unit — command unit that used to go to, uh… Korsovo… Kosovo. Mobile… satellite…
Al Franken: [ waving his hands frantically ] Wait! Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! What was — what preceded Kosovo?
Caller: The mobile, uh, satellite uplink.
Al Franken: Oh.
Caller: You know, the, uh — are you gonna bring that out again? Al? [ Al remains silent for a moment ] You know what I’m talking about? Do you remember?
Al Franken: Yeah, yeah — no, no, no, no! [ Al grins and laughs as the crowd goes nuts ] Uhh — you’re talking about the one-man mobile uplink, you know, with the satellite dish on his head.
Al Franken: Uh —
Tim Meadows: [ quickly ] That was the one piece I didn’t like.[ everyone laughs ]
Al Franken: Uhh, if I were on the show now, I would be FIGHTING to get it on.
Caller: Even with your broken back and everything?
Al Franken: [ surprised by this follow-up ] Yeah. Yeah, you remember the, uh…
Al Franken: Very nice. [ everyone laughs wildly ] No, no! That’s great! Thank you, for, uh — uh — mentioning…
Jim Downey: Remembering.
Al Franken: Remembering! Yeah! [ he cracks up laughing ]
Jim Downey: [ whispering into Al’s ear ] Go Moutaineers.
Al Franken: Uh — and Go Mountaineers![ the crowd laughs ]
Marci Klein: Al, give them your address.[ Al laughs ]
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s take a question from Calvin College.
Caller: Yes. Hi. Do you feel that you have a social obligation to use your platform in a positive way, or a… socially-redeeming way?
Al Franken: Why don’t we just go: “Yes”, “No”… down the line?[ everyone laughs ]
Lorne Michaels: Yes!
Al Franken: No.
Jim Downey: Uh… no.
Tim Herlihy: No.
Tim Meadows: Uh — speaking on behalf of all cast members… [ everyone laughs ] we — we’re evil, so… no. It’s no, uh — no.[ the laughter turns silent, as no one else down the line gives an answer ]
Al Franken: Well, it’s a good question, and it deserves a real answer.
Jim Downey: It won’t work to do that, um — if you can do it by accident, if, um — uh — if something is funny, it generally has a good effect. But if you try to write angry, self-conscious comedy, it, uh — I’ve almost never seen it work myself, so, uh, it can’t be the leading edge of what you’re doing, it has to be being funny.
Lorne Michaels: Well, also, I think we have a bias toward intelligence — I mean, we’d rather go with an intelligent take on something, and it has to be funny, that goes without saying, but I think we’re always looking for the smartest way to get to that.
Jim Downey: We also — we do refuse to do things that we think are nasty.
Lorne Michaels: Yeah.
Jim Downey: Often. So it’s not like we have no conscious at all.[ Al cracks up ]
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s take a question from Syracuse University.
Caller: Hi, how y’all doing tonight?[ silence at first, until Al Franken gives a thumbs-up and someone yells “Pretty good!” ]
Caller: Oh. Good! Um, I just wanted to say something real quick to that guy in Austin: Tim, the reason you’ve been on the show so long is because you’re so damn funny. [ Al Franken begins to clap lightly ] Uh — I love the Ladies Man, it’s one of my favorite sketches — [ the crowd applauds ] I hope you’re not drinking Couvassier right now. Um — [ he laughs ]
Tim Meadows: Thanks.
Caller: Yeah, no problem.
Tim Meadows: I created it several years ago — [ quietly ] What?[ Al Franken laughs loudly ]
Caller: I’m sorry.
Tim Meadows: [ he laughs ] No, go ahead, I’m sorry.
Caller: This is my question, uh — you mentioned that writers independently submit sketches, but is there any roundtable writing involved, uh, can you just take us real quick through the writing process?
Tim Meadows: Uh — you’d like for me to?
Caller: If you’d like.
Tim Meadows: The camera’s on me — I don’t know.
Caller: [ he laughs ] Go for it, then!
Tim Meadows: Uh — well, I think the writers, probably, would be able to answer that a little better than I.
Lorne Michaels: [ to Tim Herlihy ] Tim, you want to do it?
Tim Herlihy: Uh, what was the question again, what was the end of it?
Robert M. Batscha: Roundtable discussions, as opposed to an individual writer sitting at a table…
Tim Herlihy: Well, on Tuesday, where most of the stuff gets written, where basically everything gets written on Tuesday, uh — it’s more informal, sometimes there’ll be two or three people, maybe six or seven people in an office writing something, sometimes it’s only one person. Wednesday, when we read them, there’s really no writing going on. But then on Thursday, we divide into two groups, uh — divide the writing staff in half, and that’s exactly what we do, we sit around and rewrite all the sketches. And it’s a free-for-all… it’s a lot of fun… it’s when the sketches get good! [ he smiles ] And, uh — yeah! It’s the best part of the week.
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s take a question from Vincennes University.
Caller: Yeah, uh — first of all, I’d like to say hello to everybody on the panel, and a shout-out to [ with an accent ] Leon Phelps, the Ladies Man! [ the crowd laughs ] And, uh — my first question is, uh, how do you go about booking acts for the show, as musical acts, and which ones have been your favorites through the years.
Al Franken: Well, I think I should be answering that. [ everyone laughs, as Al leans across his seat ] Marci?
Marci Klein: Um, okay. Uh — well, we want them to be… good at singing, you know, live, and not — you know, hopefully their live acts are… they’re good. [ she squeezes her fingers in her hair ] Um — that didn’t make any sense, but you know what I mean. Um — it should be… what’s sort of happening, I guess, in music at the moment. [ a beat ] Lorne? Right?
Lorne Michaels: Yeah. No, I think that’s — uh — uh — I don’t think we put an act on just because — you want it to be, I think, ideally you want the, uh, the host and the music to be — to — to represent the week that they’re in, so that, uh, it seems like that’s what was happening — and you hope that the topical stuff that’s in the news is the same, that you’ll be able to guess the week it was on by, uh — uh — by the host and music. And I think there’s a lot of acts — we’ve never really booked off the charts, which isn’t to say we don’t check the charts. Uh, but I think that we’re, uh — there’s hopefully some notion of, uh, that’s unique or that it’s, uh — uh — uh — you know, musically good.
Robert M. Batscha: A question from Villanova University.
Caller: [ finally, it’s a lady! ] Hi, I was wondering if you’ve ever gotten any positive feedback from any celebrities you guys have portrayed?
Lorne Michaels: Portrayed?
Robert M. Batscha: Impersonations.
Caller: Yeah, impersonated! [ she laughs ]
Lorne Michaels: Yeah. I think of… politicians have probably been the most generous that way, and probably the most thick-skinned about it. When people are attacked personally, uh, they often get upset. [ the panel laughs ] And, uh — but, generally, I think if it’s in a context, I think everybody understands, and we’re — if we’re doing a talk show parody, invariably it’s people who have already been on talk shows. But I don’t think there’s any intention to be mean, unless, of course… there is. [ everyone laughs ] Uh — [ Lorne laughs ] But we’re not — we don’t set out to be mean, Sometimes it just… shows up.
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s take a question from Central Wyoming College.
Caller: [ over excessive feedback ] Yes, I’d like to know how the original cast helped shape, uh, influence the show when it started, and what impact did they have on the show today? [ the call is cut off immediately ]
Lorne Michaels: Well, I — I think that the, uh — I’ve said this before, but the four longest years in your life in america are high school, and I think that the people who were watching that original cast, particularly the ones who were young then, I think it had a profound influence on… and I think that because they were the first people of the baby boom generation to get their own show, and to be able to do the stuff that made them laugh, I think — and, also, they were so amazingly gifted — I think that they had a very powerful impact, and I think that almost overwhelmed the show in the 80’s, but then I think the cast that Jim worked with that season with Marty Short and, uh — uh — Billy Crystal, and all that —
Al Franken: Chris Guest.
Lorne Michaels: And Chris Guest. And I think Eddie Murphy is probably, you know, the most successful person ever to come out of the show, or at least the most popular person ever to come out of the show. And I think the 80’s cast began to find — the late 80’s cast, with Dana and Phil, Mike Myers, and Jon Lovitz, and Jan Hooks, and, uh, Nora Dunn, and, uh — began to — Victoria Jackson — found a different way to make the show their own, and then, in the early 90’s, a whole other group began to dominate, and I think the cast that we have now is as good a cast as we’ve ever had. So, uh — yeah. The original cast set the standard.
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s take a question from the University of Georgia.
Caller: Lorne. What was the first spin-off that “SNL” gave birth to, and was the original plan for the show to take the big-screen, or was it just a logical evolution for the show?
Lorne Michaels: [ smiling ] I — I — I think that, uh, growing up when I did, things that were the most, uhhh — the things that interested me the most — were movies and music and politics. Television had had an enormous impact on me when I was growing up, but I didn’t — things that I was interested in were, uh, more, uh, the music and the movies, and I think that, uh — the audience for the show has always been, pretty much, the movie-going audience. You can tell it, oddly enough, by the fact that there’s more movies being advertised on the show than, probably, any other show. And I think that it was natural — there are very few people who left the show and have gone on to become television stars. Whereas, a lot of people worked pretty well in the movies.
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s take a question from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Caller: Hi! Uh, there’s a bunch of us here in Madison, Wisconsin, who would like to know about your relationship with the network over the years. Have Standards changed, have they loosened up lately, and how does that affect your creative process?
Lorne Michaels: Uh — Standards is a direct, uh — directly linked to the Sales Department. It’s to gauge — once you realize that it’s not, sort of, Oxford dons sitting there trying to figure out what’s appropriate for an audience to see, but, rather, what would most antagonize audiences, make them withdraw from the show and then leave us, you know, underfunded. I think that there are different sensitivities each week, very often because we’re fortunate to have a wide enough pool of advertisers, people do pull out after the see Dress Rehearsal. If they see something that’s offensive to them, or that they don’t want their product next to on the show. There have been times in which we’ve been granted a great deal of freedom, and times in which we’ve been much more tightly controlled. But because it’s live, and because of the nature of the show is that it’s not supposed to invest heavily mixed feelings about authority, uh… we just keep pushing.
Robert M. Batscha: A question from Muskingum College.
Caller: Yeah, I was wondering what kind of creation and writing go into the pre-recorded spots, such as the commercials you’re known for, and the animations such as the Ambiguously Gay Duo.[ the audience chuckles ]
Al Franken: Those are, uh, parts of the show that actually involve editing.
Lorne Michaels: Yeah.
Al Franken: [ he laughs ] One of the great things about doing the live show is you don’t have to edit after you’ve done it, so… Smigel does those cartoons, he’s the —
Lorne Michaels: And he writes them, and he’s on them totally. They’re entirely him. We see the scripts, but, generally, I see the cartoons at Dress Rehearsal, so, uh — uh — but Robert was a writer on the show for a decade before he started doing those, so, uh, he knows pretty much — I think he knows what works with that audience. With the commercial parodies, they’ve varied over the years. There isn’t anybody here who hasn’t had to deal with the fact that, in August, we don’t have enough commercial parodies, and we know, at least network audience research shows they’re the most popular segment on the show.
Al Franken: Jim Signorelli, of course —
Lorne Michaels: Jim Signorelli produces and oversees them. Various writers write them, and they go through an editorial process as well, and then we play them there at Dress Rehearsal and we work them into the show. Sometimes they don’t work there on the show!
Robert M. Batscha: A question from St. Scholastica.
Caller: Hello. Um — we’re just wondering about… there have been a lot of deaths in recent years from past cast members like Chris Farley and Phil Hartman, and we want to know how that affects the cast and crew as a whole, and the effect on the show.
Lorne Michaels: Uh — I think, when it happens, it’s just devastating. I don’t think you’re ever prepared for it, and I think, uh — [ he shrugs ] to see somebody die young, or particularly in a way which — [ he shakes his head ] it’s just stupid. Or when, uh, in the case of Phil’s death, you know, something that was just completely senseless. It has a profound impact, I think, on people who’ve worked with them and who cared about them. At the same time, the actual process of the show, nothing is ever… surprising. Nothing bad has ever happened at the show, or while people are doing the show. I think because the focus is required, and the commitment to the show is so enormous, that I think people are fully occupied.
Al Franken: Gilda? Didn’t she die the night before a show? The last show of the season?
Lorne Michaels: Yeah. Steve Martin was hosting. Yeah. I think, uh — it’s always there, because the people, they’re the tradition of the show, and, when you lose someone, that’s just really hard.
Robert M. Batscha: A question from West Virginia University.
Caller: Hey, how ya’ doing? My name’s Elliott, I have a question for you guys. I want you to take me through the hours leading up to the actual production. What’s going on behind the scenes? I mean, it’s always chaos, or sometimes do all the ends meet? What’s it like?
Al Franken: Well, uh, when I was there, uh, we’d do dress rehearsal around eight. [ to Lorne ] You still doing it around eight?
Lorne Michaels: Very much so.
Al Franken: Uh — dress rehearsal is usually long, anywhere from… five… ten minutes long to twenty… twenty-five… twenty-seven minutes long.
Lorne Michaels: Yeah.
Al Franken: Things have to be be CUT. If you’re really, really long, then Lorne — there are different permeations of this, but, basically, there’s sort of a war room led by Lorne, uh, between dress and air, in which the show sketches get cut, and feelings get hurt. And the show gets re-ordered, and people are brought in and told to cut a minute out of their sketch, or thirty seconds out of their sketch, or find a cut in your sketch. Then people are brought in — cast and writers, and some of the key technicians and crew people — and Lorne guides them and leads the meeting, gives everyone instructions and directions from his notes from dress, and then that’s usually over by eleven… [ he looks to Lorne ]
Lorne Michaels: Yeah.
Al Franken: And then people get into their make-up —
Jim Downey: [ interrupting ] The writers are responsible for anything that goes wrong with the piece between dress and air, so writers have to get the trims and line changes to the cast members, get them to cue cards, make sure everything’s correct… so that last half-hour is rough on the writers and cast.
Al Franken: And there’s even, during the show, Lorne has to call Audibles if things are running long, uh — uh — I used to do a lot of Stuart Smalleys toward the end of the show, and… [ light laughter from Jim Downey ] kind of go into the piece learning how much time I had to pick up. Which is really unfair. [ Jim Downey cracks up laughing ]
Robert M. Batscha: And, yet, an enormously successful character! [ Al laughs ]
Lorne Michaels: I think Marci can speak to — there are several things going on at the same time in the last hour or forty-five minutes before we go on after dress rehearsal. There’s a meeting with the, uh — you know — Marci will tend to be with the host. There are very few people who come out — particularly the cast — who come out of dress rehearsal saying, “I didn’t think my piece worked.” [ he laughs ] Just when everybody hears laughter. Sometimes we don’t, uh — those who are standing and watching, the producers, generally don’t hear as much laughter as others. And there’s a lot of contending forces — there’s the feeling of “We should do this because it’s topical”, then there’s others who think we should wait ’til next week, there’s the feeling of how do we make the host look good? Because the show doesn’t work unless we make the host look good. And then there’s making sure that everybody gets on. And so all those variables are being considered, and, at the same time, there’s: “That didn’t work at dress really well, but it might work better on air”, or “That might have peaked at dress, and that was the best we’ll ever see it — [ he laughs ] and it will unravel on air.” There’s a lot of it which is intuitive, but there’s also — there’s a fair amount of hysteria, and there’s an enormous amount of calculation.
Marci Klein: The cast, Lorne, because — wasn’t the question about cast, or was it chaotic? I’m not saying, Lorne, answer the question, but —
Lorne Michaels: Yeah.
Marci Klein: Um — but I think the make-up, the hair, people running around, you know, during the show, behind the scenes of show, is… probably — and the sets changing, you know, just — there’s a set, and, because it’s live, you have to break it down and — that’s the most chaotic I’ve ever seen anything. You know, it’s like, “Oh my God! I can’t believe this is happening!” Um — so… it’s crazy.
Robert M. Batscha: Giving yourselves so little time between dress and air, is that by intention? Does it give the show a kind of vitality, or you just can’t do the dress rehearsal by eight o’clock?
Jim Downey: We’re just irresponsible.[ everyone laughs ]
Lorne Michaels: I think, also, part of it is leaving everything to the last minute, I’m sure, but I think… it HAS to go on 11:30. If we have to do a dress rehearsal, we want to do it, at least, after you’ve rehearsed everything else. That day we start at one o’clock, in the afternoon on Saturdays, and we go to one at night. So, eight o’clock seems like a reasonable time to have a dress rehearsal, and then that leaves us an hour-an-a-half, or an hour, in between. And people are much more focused. The surprising thing is, as chaotic as it looks and certainly is, is how disciplined and professional it is, in the sense that the crew, we never think they’re not going to make a set change. I mean, we’ll ask down to the second whether or not they can — if we put this piece here — let’s say it’s on Stage Three, and the piece that’s in front of it in the running order is blocking it, or set up right in front of it — you can’t make that change, so it becomes, “Well, how could we?” And then, they feel — if the designers feel that they can do it, or very often a cast member can be in a position where, in addition to having learned the part, in addition to the words changing between dress and air, there’s also, uh, that they — that the set might or might not be there for them, or might still be shaking from having just been put up — that a beard or a moustache might not have arrived, or a wig. [ Marci Klein giggles ] And, so, it’s just — it’s somewhere between a theatrical and an athletic event.
Robert M. Batscha: And having seen the show, what is so impressive is… is exactly as you described it. It’s one thing to get the actors into place, but the scenery somehow gets there, and, as you say, it’s at the last moment. It’s an extraordinary team effort that, to the viewer seems like chaos, but everybody does seem to —
Al Franken: [ interrupting ] I like to call it “organized chaos”! [ he grins smugly and tilts his head as everyone laughs ]
Lorne Michaels: I — I — I think the other thing that is worth coming in is that people, uh — the better we are at it, and the more that it doesn’t look live, then it just kind of gets taken for granted. [ he chuckles ] So, actually, when something does slip up, it’s more stunning. The fact that it is as seamless as it is, week after week — because almost everything on television is taped and edited. When we don’t work, when a sketch just falls flat or doesn’t work, it’s not funny, and people think, “That’s a weird thing, to put on a thing that isn’t funny.” [ Al Franken laughs ] “Why are they doing it? Well, they must not be able to tell.” The idea that they never get to see anything that didn’t work, because, generally, those things are taken out or are fixed. And, because we’re live, very often you see what doesn’t work.
Robert M. Batscha: Chaos isn’t the right word. It’s frantic, it’s crazy, but it’s not chaos!
Al Franken: I call it “organized chaos”! [ he again grins smugly and tilts his head as everyone laughs again ]
Lorne Michaels: Evidently.
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s take a question from Temple University.
Caller: [ making his university proud ] Yes. Has Homer Simpson ever been asked to host the show? And, if so, why hasn’t he?[ the panel either pretends they didn’t hear the caller’s dumb question, or they really couldn’t make out the muffle in his voice; the audience chuckles lightly. ]
Al Franken: I’m sorry?
Robert M. Batscha: Can you repeat that again?
Lorne Michaels: Who we haven’t — who have we asked that hasn’t done… Marci?
Marci Klein: Um — [ thinking hard, she sighs in frustration ] Uh… we’ve probably asked everybody. So, not everybody’s done it. Um — I — you know — I guess… we’ve asked… Bill Clinton? [ she shakes her head ]
Lorne Michaels: [ saving her ] Yeah, I spent a long time in the 70’s and 80’s on Richard Nixon, but he was not as open to it.
Jim Downey: That was a complete waste of time.
Lorne Michaels: A complete waste of time, it turns out. Ummm —
Marci Klein: Harrison Ford, we were talking about.
Al Franken: When I was doing the show, people would come up to me all the time and go, like, “You know who — you know who would be a great host of the show? Tom Cruise.”
Lorne Michaels: Yeah.
Al Franken: And I go, “Yeah?” [ the panel laughs ] “You know who you really –?” “God, you know who would be great is if you got, like, uh, Clint Eastwood to host the show. That’d be great. Has anyone thought of that?” NO, you SCHMUCK! [ everyone laughs ] No! We’re not smart enough to think of Clint Eastwood! FUCK YOU!! Get the FUCK out of here![ everyone applauds wildly ]
Robert M. Batscha: [ laughing ] So much for our seven-second delay![ everyone laughs, as Al looks sternly at the camera ]
Lorne Michaels: You picked up the tone there, didn’t you![ Al laughs ]
Tim Meadows: So, it is, uh — it is okay to curse?[ everyone laughs, Al the hardest ]
Robert M. Batscha: I mean, after all, this is a museum! Uh — Central Missouri State?
Caller: Yeah. How do you, as writers and performers, feel about people imitating your skits and catch phrases, such as: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough… and, doggone it, people like me?”[ light laughter from the audience ]
Al Franken: [ deadpan ] Uhhh — I’m… always very offended. I don’t know. [ he looks amongst the panel as the crowd laughs wildly ]
Robert M. Batscha: [ laughs, knowing he’s officially lost control of the panel ] Let’s go to West Virginia University.
Caller: Hi! Hi, this is Mike from your — uh, I’m the show’s biggest fan, and I have a question regarding the fact that there’s been — throughout the years, there’s been, uh, several, several cast — several cast changes, some have, uh, lasted longer than others. I’d like to know what you think, uh, makes the cast stick together, uh, stay together for a while and be successful, as opposed to the other ones, like any cast containing Anthony Michael Hall.[ no one on the panel is quite sure what Mike is asking ]
Lorne Michaels: Uhhh — the cast, in which Anthony Michael Hall was a part of? In ’85?
Robert M. Batscha: I think we lost him.
Lorne Michaels: Oh, we lost him? Uhhh — a bunch of us came back in 1985, after having left in 1980, and I think that was one of the few in which everyone — just about everyone — in the cast was new. And, uh — [ he laughs ] lots of parts of it just didn’t mesh! Generally, I think we came out of that season with Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, and…
Al Franken: Nora.
Lorne Michaels: And Nora Dunn, and Whitney Brown. [ he turns to Al ] Is that it?
Al Franken: [ he nods ] That’s it.
Lorne Michaels: Uh — but, also, in that cast was Joan Cusack, and Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey, Jr., Randy Quaid, uh, Terry Sweeney… Uhh — it’s just really tough finding the right mix and a group in which there’s enough versatility and not a lot of displacement, in the sense that you wouldn’t cast the same person — you know, two people in the same part. Every time you see a cast member turn up in a sketch — you know, our worst kind of shows are the ones in which it’s just one or two people in every piece. The more that sketches have a lot of people in them, the more you sort of get the sense that it’s an ensemble, and you’re happy to see people work together. I hope that that answered the question.
Al Franken: [ continuing his diatribe ] Or, someone might say: “Why don’t you get Brad Pitt to host? Have you thought of that?” [ everyone laughs ] NO!! NO, we haven’t thought of THAT!! YOU IDIOT!! FUCK YOU!! You know? Something like that! [ the crowd cheers wildly ] I’m sorry. I was just back in that other question.
Lorne Michaels: Brad Pitt will be on the show this week.
Al Franken: Really?
Lorne Michaels: Yeah.
Al Franken: Oh, really?
Lorne Michaels: It’s a… it’s a repeat.
Al Franken: Oh.
Jim Downey: It was that guy in the street’s idea![ Al laughs ]
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s go to Syracuse University.
Caller: Uh, yeah — I’m calling from the fabulous Newhouse School at Syracuse University. And I was curious — that when you guys have, like, experienced and famous comedians on to host the show, do they take part in the writing process of the show?
Uh — very much so. And some of them — very often, people will bring in someone. Ray Romano brought two writers in with him when he came — people he works with on his show. Jerry Seinfeld, when he was last year, brought two writers from his show. That’s not uncommon. And people like Steve Martin would work more directly with our writing staff. But people who are going to be doing monologues, very often have the people that work with them on that,
Robert M. Batscha: A question from SUNY – New Paltz.
Caller: [ holding his composure ] Hello. Uh, we want to know: do you guys kick your own asses, or each other in the ass, for getting rid of Norm MacDonald? [ in the background, the caller’s frat brothers can be heard guffawing loudly and clapping ] [ Al Franken appears visibly stunned, as Lorne Michaels swivels in his seat with a certain smirk on his face; the audience begins to applaud ]
Al Franken: Lorne, I-I-I — the camera’s on you, but I think that the — the right person…
Lorne Michaels: [ laughing ] Would be Jim?
Al Franken: Would be Jim.
Jim Downey: Yeah!
Al Franken: [ to Jim ] Do you have any — any opinions at all…?
Jim Downey: I, uh — as a matter of fact… I do!
Al Franken: You do? Okay! [ he laughs ]
Jim Downey: I was, uh — I was kicked out along with Norm MacDonald. [ off-camera, another member of the panel claps his hands twice ] and I think it was a terrible idea that we were kicked out. [ Al Franken laughs ] But, was your question — ? It wasn’t an intra-show thing; it was the network ordering it.
Al Franken: Who particularly, uhhh…?
Jim Downey: [ thinking back ] I want to say Don Ohlmeyer, I guess.
Al Franken: Uh-huh?
Jim Downey: But I have to know how long his contract runs![ everyone laughs ]
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s talk a little about —
Al Franken: Well, he can’t hurt you. You’re not with NBC any more. So, why don’t you, uh — what do you think of Don?
Jim Downey: I — I think he made a mistake, in firing me and Norm.[ Al Franken guffaws loudly ]
Al Franken: I’m sorry.
Robert M. Batscha: Talk a little bit about “Weekend Update”, how that’s changed over time, and how important that is to the show.
Jim Downey: [ matter-of-factly ] It was working GREAT with NORM…[ everyone laughs and applauds wildly ]
Lorne Michaels: Uh, normally we were — we’ve been allowed to make our own creative decisions on these matters. Recently, it’s been more of a hands-on approach at the network. But I think, uh, that’s probably changing.
Robert M. Batscha: Let’s take a question from Morehead State University. [ silence ] Morehead State University?
Caller: [ a bit muffled ] I was wondering how the comedy has changed in the past, and what it looks like in the future. You know, like Chevy Chase and Chris Farley, and what’s it gonna be like in the future here.
Al Franken: You know, uh, before you go — the technology is such, that here on this end, we’re having a little trouble hearing you… [ snidely ] “college students”. So, if you would, uh, e-nun-ci-ate better — [ everyone laughs ] I think — I think, uh, that we will — we will have a —
Jim Downey: And, also, if you could dress a little more nicely.[ Al cracks up ]
Caller: Thank you, al!
Al Franken: But, anyway — just, could you repeat the question and really — because, really, the technology is such… that… uh… it would help.
Caller: Yeah. I was wondering: [ slowly ] Hooooww… the comedy… from… the… past… [ everyone starts laughing uproariously ] to the…
Al Franken: Wait, wait! Whoa-oa-oa-oa! [ he waves his hands frantically ]
Tim Meadows: Chris Farley!
Lorne Michaels: I think he was saying: How has comedy changed, and how will it be changed.
Al Franken: Is that — is that your question?
Caller: That’s exactly right.
Al Franken: Okay! [ he laughs ]
Lorne Michaels: Uh — I know that I’m, uh — I can tell you how it’s changed, but I don’t know if I can tell you how it will be changing. I think that, for us, the sort of constant has been: if someone is really funny up on the 17th floor, we tend to trust it more, and, more often than not, it ends up on the 8th floor in the studio. The writing offices are on the 17th floor. But I think that, generally, everyone is laughing at something, either at read-through, or because everybody has heard that somebody is doing something that’s really funny. I think it’s almost always about people responding, if something is funny. With that, there’s also always some things that everybody’s surprised at.
Al Franken: [ returning to an earlier rant ] You know what hasn’t changed, is, sometimes, somebody will come up to you and go, like, “You ever thought of Dustin Hoffman?” [ everyone cracks up ] “Dustin Hoffman would be great, because he’s done all these movies — you could do “The Graduate”, you could do “Rain Man”…” NO, YOU FUCKER!!! GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!!! [ everyone cracks up ] That’s — that’s stayed pretty much the same.
Robert M. Batscha: Is there somebody at the University of Miami who wants to recommend a host? [ Al laughs ] Go ahead, University of Miami. [ silence ] Do we have the University of Miami?
Caller: [ softly ] Helloooo.[ everyone laughs, Al especially uproariously ]
Caller: I’m not the University of Miami, I’m from West Virginia University. They copied it down wrong. My question is: What does the future hold for “Saturday Night Live”? I mean, uh, has there ever been any threat of cancellation, I mean, are you going to change your format?[ Al Franken laughs ]
Lorne Michaels: Uh, most of us here have been working on the show — uh — I think — no, I don’t think we’re gonna be changing the format that much. The fact that the cast changes as much as it does, and the fact that the writing is different every week. The format, we sort of inherited from “The Tonight Show” in the 70’s, which is just where the commercials come. And that has actually changed a couple of times, but I don’t think it has any real impact. We’re gonna be 90 minutes long. You know, we vary it sometimes in the amount of music we put on the show, but I think we’re most comfortable with more music than less. Uhhhh — [ he looks at Al ] I can’t think of — The cartoons didn’t exist… ’til a couple of years ago. I think, whenever anything works, we’ll just go with it.
Robert M. Batscha: I, unfortunately, have to bring this session to an end, but I wanted to say that, you know, 1. It’s been a pleasure, and I’m glad we could finally do this, and I think one of the great things about the show, and perhaps that last question is the right one: What is the future? Is that… after 24 years, the show truly has become an institution. But, truly, you’ve not become institutional. And as we’ve seen on this stage — I mean, you do have probably among yourselves, uhhh… it is… it is a pleasurable —
Al Franken: Well! Some should be institutionalized! [ he tilts his head back and smirks as everyone laughs ]
Robert M. Batscha: I’ll tell you what — thank you so much for being here, and thank you so much for coming.[ the crowd applauds, followed by one woman’s lone “WHOO!” before the scene fades ]