(Credit: Peabody Awards)

How Lorne Michaels created Saturday Night Live

Sometimes the wheel turns slowly, but it turns.– Lorne Michaels

Television producer Lorne Michaels is best known for creating and producing Saturday Night Live, as well as producing the Late Night series, The Kids in the Hall, and The Tonight Show; Michaels has received 19 Primetime Emmy Awards from 91 nominations, holding the record for being the most nominated individual in the award show’s history. He is also credited for launching the careers of some of the biggest names in entertainment and is recognised as one of the most influential comedy producers of all-time.

Born on 17th November 1944 on a kibbutz in Israel, his family immigrated to Toronto, Canada, when he was a child. With a clear creative vision, Michaels began to write fiction as a teenager and, soon after graduating from the University of Toronto, he set his sights on an entertainment career. He began his career as a writer and broadcaster for CBC Radio but moved to Los Angeles from Toronto in 1968 to work as a writer for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show. Later, he starred with Hart Pomerantz in The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour, a Canadian comedy series that ran briefly in the early 1970s and solidified his role within the industry.

In 1975, NBC hired the 30-year-old Michaels and a 27-year-old executive named Dick Ebersol to create a replacement for the reruns of The Tonight Show that were airing on Saturday nights. The pair developed the idea of a sketch comedy show that was filmed in front of a live audience and pulled together a group of writers and actors, nicknamed the ‘Not Ready for Prime Time Players’, that included talents such as Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and John Belushi. It was this choice of non-conforming performer that would set the show on its collision course with cult status.

The show, which is performed live in front of a studio audience, immediately established a reputation for being cutting-edge and unpredictable and became a vehicle for launching the careers of some of the most successful comedians in the United States. Equally, its use of musical guest, often giving the valuable national spots to some of the more avant-garde bands and artists, would see the show become a talking point every week. Beginning around the same time murmurs of punk began to surface in the music world, the show did a great job of matching the energy of the music world in everything it did — fast, furious and utterly unadulterated. Except, of course, for Michaels himself.

“I think the role of being in charge — when you’re in charge, you have to take responsibility for all of it,” Michaels once said. “And that means you’re going to hurt people’s feelings. But the only way you can sort of live with yourself — or at least if you’re brought up in Canada, live with yourself — is that you have to believe that you’re doing it to put on the best possible show each week, and that nothing is going to get in the way of that…and that there’s next week. And that it may be hurtful, but it was the right decision at that time.”

Saturday Night Live made its debut on October 11, 1975, with comedian George Carlin appearing as the show’s first host. The 1975 season featured the short films of Albert Brooks and multiple appearances by Jim Henson’s Muppets. SNL, which always ends its opening sketch with the announcement, “Live from New York! It’s Saturday Night!” became a sensation. Following its first season, the series earned four Emmy Awards as well as a fanatic audience captivated by its unique style.

Originally the producer of the show, Michaels was also a writer and later became executive producer for SNL. He occasionally appears on-screen as well, a place in which he is known for his deadpan humour. Throughout the show’s history, SNL has been nominated for more than 156 Emmy Awards and has won 36 all while consistently triumphing as one of the highest-rated late-night television programs.

Perhaps Michaels’ best-known appearance occurred in the first season when he offered the Beatles $3,000 to reunite on the show. He later comically increased his offer to $3,200, but the money was never claimed. According to an interview in Playboy magazine, John Lennon and Paul McCartney happened to be in New York City that night and wanted to see the show. They very nearly went but changed their minds as it was getting too late to get to the show on time, and they were both tired. This near-reunion was the basis for the TV movie Two of Us.

Michaels left SNL in 1980 for five years until NBC’s then-chief of programming, Brandon Tartikoff, recruited him to return and nurse the failing show back to national prominence. Michaels returned as executive producer in 1985—a title he still holds today and earns with repeated success on the biggest stage.

For Michaels though, television triumph has been the skeleton of his career with credits that include the series 30 Rock, The Kids in the Hall and Night Music as well as specials with Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, Paul Simon, The Rutles, Flip Wilson, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Randy Newman, Neil Young and Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park. On Broadway, he produced and directed Gilda Radner Live from New York and produced the subsequent motion picture Gilda Live.

At the 2004 Kennedy Center Honors, Michaels received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and, to determine his influence, in 2008 TIME magazine named him to its “100 most influential people” list. Shortly after, in 2012, Michaels was awarded an Individual Peabody Award and displaying his signature humour, Michaels was awarded the Webby for Film & Video Lifetime Achievement. With the allotted five words allowed to each recipient, his five-word acceptance speech was: “Five words is not enough.” He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honour in 2016.

“I’m not quite like J.K. Simmons is in Whiplash, but I can be direct,” he once famously said. “Sometimes people don’t hear it unless you’re blunter. But just because you’re rough on yourself doesn’t mean you can be rough on others, so I’m much more aware of that than I was when I was very young.” On asked if he planned to retire anytime soon, Michaels added: “I don’t know. I’m going to keep doing it as long as I possibly can because I love it and because it’s what I do.”

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