“Uh!” he snorts, snapping to attention. “It wasn’t me!”
Laughs all around. “My turn,” says a senior writer. He settles onto the couch as sleeping Lorne and then is startled into consciousness. “Uhhhh—it was Jim!”
Even Jim Downey laughs. The producer and head writer of SNL for nine years, Downey, 42, joined the writing staff in SNL’s second season, in 1976. He left when Michaels quit in 1980, was head writer for the first year and a half of Late Night With David Letterman, then returned to SNL in 1984, a year before Michaels came back as executive producer. From “!?Quien es mas macho?!” to a commercial parody for the “First Citywide Change Bank,” Downey has written some of SNL’s funniest and most famous sketches. And in April of last year, weary from holding together an increasingly ragged show, Downey had learned that NBC wanted to fire him.
It was one of the few times that Downey, who has day-to-day responsibility for the show, had ever heard from NBC executives. “The network doesn’t know who runs the show!” says a recent cast member. “The only way they’d know if Jim wasn’t doing a good job is if Lorne told them!”
Downey, a moon-faced man with merry Irish eyes, has the distracted manner of an Ivy League liberal-arts professor (he majored in folklore and mythology at Harvard); when he’s had a rare eight hours of sleep, he could pass for Dylan Thomas’s younger brother. He claims there’s a less sinister corporate explanation: Don Ohlmeyer, the recently installed president of NBC’s entertainment division, simply checked the SNL staff list and decided to dispatch the most powerful person beneath Michaels. “We had a rough season; they wanted to make a change. It wasn’t personal; it was just business,” Downey says. “And Lorne said, ‘Absolutely not, I forbid it.’” As he speaks Michaels’s name for the first time in the interview, Downey unconsciously puts his right hand to his throat and pulls his shirt collar chokingly tight.
An ex–cast member says Downey was in a very different mood at the party after the final show of last season. “I went up to Jim and said, ‘Jim, I want to let you know I think you’re a genius. You’re the funniest person I’ve ever known.’ And he says, ‘Well, I’m quitting.’ And I go, ‘What?’ And of course he didn’t quit! Because Lorne and Jim are like an old married couple! They can’t quit!”
Indeed, Downey flew to Burbank in May to discuss his future with NBC executives. Michaels was there—and, Downey says, had already saved Downey’s job. Michaels, however, neglected to mention the reprieve to Downey until after the writer’s tense meeting with the suits.
“Jim is more sensitive than he is spunky,” says a friend of Downey’s, “and the more he’s beaten up, the more he shrinks away.”
As a January Thursday night slouches into Friday morning, Downey is where he’s been for nearly all of his adult working life. At 2 A.M., the sky is gray, the way it is in paperback detective novels. But no one in the Saturday Night Live writers’ room could tell you about the weather. They don’t glance out the seventeenth-floor windows or step outside the building. Many will sleep tonight on the couches in their tiny offices, if they sleep at all.
Thursday is rewrite night. Each week, the fourteen-man, three-woman writing staff stays up most of Tuesday night, churning out between 30 and 40 sketches, supplemented by a half-dozen or so written by cast members. Wednesday evening, about 50 people jam into the writers’ room, everyone from Lorne Michaels to the network censor to members of the props department, to listen as the sketches are read aloud. Michaels, Downey, and the week’s host then adjourn to Michaels’s office and select about a dozen finalists.
The choices are often hard to fathom. Michaels frequently rejects pieces that he thinks are over the heads of SNL’s teens and frat-boys demographic. His preference is for the broadest likability, not the sharpest bite—amazingly, he’s lately been trying to soften the dark humor of Norm MacDonald on “Weekend Update,” one of the few new successes on the show.
Starting at about two on Thursday afternoon, the writers reassemble around the eight-foot-long conference table, where they dissect, line by line, each of the lucky sketches. Friday is for rehearsal and for another bleary-eyed whack at rewriting bits that still aren’t working.
This has been, with minor adjustments, the schedule since the show was created in 1975. “Everybody then was on so much coke they didn’t notice it was going on until four in the morning,” wisecracks new cast member Laura Kightlinger. “We stay up, but we’re too lazy to do the drugs.”