“Lorne wants people to feel insecure,” says an ex–cast member. “It’s the same techniques cults use—they keep you up for hours, they never let you know that you’re okay, and they always make you think that your spot could be taken at any moment by someone else.”
Michaels also sends messages through the Brillstein-Grey Company. The powerhouse Hollywood management-and-production team, founded by one of Michaels’s closest friends, Bernie Brillstein, handles eight of the fourteen SNL cast members as well as its executive producer. The connection makes spinning off movies much easier. “To your face, Lorne always wants to be the hero and Santa Claus. But if you try to do a movie that Lorne’s not producing, Brillstein-Grey will let you know he’s not happy,” says an ex–SNL star who’s had it happen to him. “Brillstein lets you know you’re in the doghouse. Your sketches don’t get on, or you get on in the last five minutes of the show.
“Lorne is nonconfrontative,” Brillstein confirms. “Sometimes he asks us to talk to people.”
Movie politics led to one of SNL’s biggest blunders this season. David Spade spent his summer co-starring in a Michaels-produced movie (Tommy Boy, which also stars Chris Farley and opens at the end of this month). To reward Spade in SNL’s season premiere, Michaels gave a sketch called “Buh-bye” a prime spot in the lineup. In “Buh-bye,” Spade and Ellen Cleghorne play airline flight attendants who insult departing passengers. Not only did the sketch flop on the air, but because another “Buh-bye” sketch ran last spring, TV critics had a chance to bludgeon SNL. Here they go again, columnists wrote, trying to flog another marketable catchphrase. (Michaels, insisting the sketch was funny, pushed for another “Buh-bye” piece several shows later. Only when he learned that Internet chatters judged “Buh-bye” their “most hated” sketch in memory did Michaels take it off the schedule.)
Sarah Jessica Parker got a taste of the mind games when she was an SNL guest host in November. SNL’s workweek was disorienting enough, Parker says, but she also had to worry about why Michaels was ignoring her. “I’d come into his office, and he’d put his head down and not pay attention,” Parker says. “I decided I wouldn’t take it personally that he wasn’t talking to me. If I had been my normal self, I would have really flipped out, because I would have thought, He doesn’t like me at all.”
Veterans of SNL’s glorious first five years saw Michaels becoming aloof way back then. “Lorne always wanted to be admired—revered, even. Which is different from being famous. Different from being rich. And different from being sexy,” says a man who knows Michaels well from those years. “He wants to be a legend, and he would have LEGENDARY tattooed in his underwear if it were possible.” Each week, Michaels poses for dozens of photos with the guest host, adding to his enormous collection.
But there’s a sadness, too, when the original crew talks about how Michaels has changed, and it isn’t just obligatory nostalgia. “There’s a real difference between running a kind of rebel outfit and running an institution,” says one famous player. “Castro is not one of my main heroes, but I think I would rather have known him in the hills than in the palace.”
Michaels waves off such complaints. He has millions in the bank and has survived more SATURDAY NIGHT DEAD headlines than he can count. His confidence seems genuine, and even when he says the show is “fighting for its life,” the words sound more like what he’s expected to say than like what he believes.
He takes solace in the fact that SNL is still the highest-rated show on late-night TV—Letterman included—and that the average rating for this season’s first thirteen episodes is just a shade under the numbers for the critically acclaimed shows from the late eighties. As expensive as SNL has become to produce, NBC is surely making too big a profit from beer and blue-jeans ads to seriously consider dropping the show—though Fox and CBS, sensing an opening, are planning the first direct challenges to SNL in the fall.
“I have a contract for another two years,” Michaels says. “The expectation is that I’ll be here for another two seasons after this one.” Then he’s interrupted by a knock on his office door; it’s one of the Lornettes. The doctor has returned with more anesthetic for Jeff Daniels’s tortured face. Michaels politely excuses himself and strides off to comfort tomorrow night’s host.
Very late on a Thursday night, May 1994: A punchy, sleep-deprived group of SNL writers and performers is fooling around in the seventeenth-floor writers’ conference room. Cast member Rob Schneider has an idea for an imitation. He stretches out on a couch and closes his eyes. “This is Lorne sleeping,” he says. “Okay, somebody wake me up.” A writer tugs his shoulder.