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Comedy Isn’t Funny

A cold Amstel Light and a basket of popcorn are on the office table in front of him. Fresh popcorn heralds Michaels’s every entrance. Whether he’s about to arrive at his seventeenth-floor office at NBC, with its breathtaking view of the Empire State Building; the eighth-floor Saturday Night studio; this ninth-floor office overlooking the studio; or his handsome Broadway Video offices a couple of blocks west in the Brill Building, a blond wicker basket of warm kernels precedes him, usually delivered by one of several blonde female assistants in their early twenties. Cast members call these high-strung women the Lornettes. (Nearly four years ago, the 50-year-old Michaels married one of these assistants, his third wife, a woman eighteen years his junior.)

“Ahhh! Just thinking of [the Lornettes] makes me so happy I quit,” says Julia Sweeney, who left the cast last spring. “Because I could not take one fucking more Friday night, trying to get in to see Lorne, outside of Lorne’s office on the ninth floor, with this bevy of girls, and their latest outfits and their magazines and their fingernail polish, on the phone, making sure that Steve Martin got the flowers on his anniversary, even though he’s broken up with Victoria Tennant, and the hilarious note that Lorne wrote to Steve Martin that has to go with the flowers, which must be birds-of-paradise! They’d slip in and out of Lorne’s office going, ‘Shush! Lorne’s in a very bad mood today.’”

Though his helpers may be tightly wound, Michaels is unflappable. And he’s turned on his “charm beam,” as Dana Carvey puts it, for the benefit of a visiting reporter.

“If your angle is going to be that the show is decadent and out of touch,” Michaels says wryly, “we have that reduced to a press release to save time.”

Michaels’s patter is so smooth—his accent, widely imitated by acquaintances, is virtually British, though Michaels grew up in Toronto—that you’re almost lulled into believing the peculiar theory he employs to explain the harsh criticism of the show. “I think reviewers hate staying up late,” Michaels says. “On every other show, they get a cassette. They view it when they want to. With us, they have to stay up till one o’clock in the morning and then get the story in for Monday. The older ones get cranky.”

He doesn’t answer questions so much as smother them under a soothing poultice of words. He doesn’t get angry. (“Talking to Lorne,” says Rosie Shuster, an original SNL writer and Michaels’s first wife, “is like talking to tundra.”) His musings digress so widely that you don’t even notice when Michaels slips in the news that he came very close to bringing Carvey back to the cast last summer—a move that would have telegraphed a loss of will for a program traditionally intent on breaking new talent.

Michaels crosses his legs and folds his hands in exactly the way predicted by an intimate of the late William Shawn. Michaels was fascinated by the old New Yorker editor, and he gave Shawn an office at Broadway Video, Michaels’s production company, when Shawn was pushed out of the magazine in 1987. “I was amazed at how many of Shawn’s mannerisms Lorne had,” says the colleague of Shawn’s. “And they had similar sensibilities: They’re both sort of provincial guys with tremendous romantic ideas of sophistication and the city.”

According to a longtime friend of Michaels’s, the producer’s Shawnophilia went beyond shared tastes: “Lorne had this weird idea that when Shawn retired, he’d be asked to run the magazine. He thinks of himself as the fundamental sophisticated New Yorker. It’s one of the weird keys to Lorne’s real personality.”

One of Michaels’s greatest talents is creating an aura of glamour about himself and SNL. But as the show sank last year, NBC began to wonder whether Michaels was spending too much time cultivating his urbane image. “You could always tell when the Knicks or the opera were in town,” says a recently departed SNL star. “That’s the only time Lorne made sure the Wednesday-night script read-through started on schedule.”

Network executives suggested Michaels increase his “focus” on SNL this year, but Michaels stammers when asked what he’s doing differently. “Differently? Ahhhhm. Uhhhhmmmm. Just trying to keep people’s—ahh, I don’t know. Simultaneously sort of pushing people as hard as I can and trying to keep their spirits up.”

By all accounts, Michaels is more visible around SNL these days—raising the already-therapy-caliber paranoia level. Michaels’s granted everyone at SNL permission to be interviewed for this story, but when I casually say hello to one veteran writer, he lowers his eyes and his voice. “I can’t be seen talking to you,” he mumbles.