Many of the current writers talk tough about quitting if Downey is fired. One of the writers closest to Downey says he’d have quit last year if Downey had been let go—but…“That’s like saying, ‘If I’d been in World War II, I would have been in the French Resistance, man, ’cause that’s where all the cool stuff was. As far as collaborating, no way!’ And then it comes down to doing it, and it’s like, ‘Well, you know, I’ve talked to these Nazis—they have a lot of plans, and this Vichy thing sounds great!’”
Bill Murray has come to bury and to praise Michael O’Donoghue. Easily the nastiest and one of the funniest writers ever to work at Saturday Night Live, O’Donoghue died suddenly in November of a cerebral hemorrhage. Four nights later, as the Sarah Jessica Parker show slogs on uptown, a raucous party in O’Donoghue’s Chelsea apartment celebrates his life. At the end of Saturday Night, Murray appears onstage and politely eulogizes his friend; at about three on Sunday morning, Murray stands on a chair in O’Donoghue’s living room and delivers his better material.
“I got along with Michael O’Donoghue,” Murray says slowly, “only after he realized that he should be physically afraid of me. Until that time, he was not fair. He was unkind. He was mean. And I finally let him know that I was gonna hurt him. He was kind to me when he knew I was gonna fuckin’ hit him.” When the laughter quiets down, Murray continues. “The thing about Michael that was interesting was that he taught you how to hate. He hated the horrible things in life, and the horrible people in life—he hated them so good.”
Other close friends tell anecdotes about O’Donoghue. Then Chris Farley peels himself off Duff, the actress and perfume spokeswoman, and takes the floor. “Uh, I didn’t really know Michael O’Donoghue,” Farley begins, “and I don’t really have a story about him, but I’m honored to be here.”
Murray, standing nearby, feeds Farley a meaty setup line. “Okay, what would you have said to Michael if you’d met him?”
Here’s Farley’s chance to make a roomful of his idols laugh. Instead, he whimpers. “That I loved him,” Farley says. “I loved everything he did. I loved him. I loved you guys, and it’s why I always wanted to be on the show.”
It’s a paradigmatic moment: Murray’s cockiness devolved to Farley’s pleading. “Right now the show doesn’t have anybody who is compelling to watch,” says one of the best writers from the recent past. Mike Myers bailed out at the end of January—even though he had nowhere to go, since his “Coffee Talk” movie deal had collapsed. The mid-season shuffling continues, with the addition of stand-up (and Sandler pal) Molly Shannon two weeks ago: British comic Morwenna Banks joins on March 25, boosting the cast to fourteen.
Good chemistry is nearly impossible in so big a troupe. “You’ve got this gigantic split in the cast,” Dana Carvey says. “You’ve got 22-year-olds and 50-year-olds. You’ve got millionaires, and you’ve got paupers. You’ve got people who are famous all over the world, and completely obscure people like Jay…uh—see what I mean? I was gonna say Jay North. Jay Mohr.”
Michaels, though he goes on at great length about the overstuffed cast’s being part of his strategy, admits that a big reason for the logjam is that a complete overhaul is too much work for him. He did it once, changing nearly the entire cast—including Anthony Michael Hall, Terry Sweeney, and Joan Cusack—after the wipeout season of 1985–’86, when SNL was on the brink of cancellation. “The, ah, task of replacing an entire cast was very hard,” Michaels says. “And I think that maybe the trauma of that had this impact, had this effect on me, the effect that I did not want to ever be in the position of having to replace everyone.” Never mind that when he did exert himself and bring in Carvey, Nealon, Jan Hooks, and Phil Hartman, the show rebounded almost instantly.
“After last year,” says one exasperated current writer, “all of America was waiting for a brand-new look, like ‘Hey, what is this show? Oh, it’s Saturday Night! Wow, it’s changed!’ And instead, it’s ‘Hey, Julia Sweeney and Rob Schneider and Phil Hartman are gone! And wow, it’s a black-and-white opening montage! Wooooohoooo! Break out the champagne!’” He sighs deeply. “The show’s still slipping. You sort of want to say to Lorne and Jim. ‘Hey, guys, you’re on the Titanic!’”
For someone so concerned with nurturing his power, Michaels casts himself as amazingly passive. “When the time is right for people to leave, they generally figure out that that’s the time they want to leave,” he says, grabbing a handful of popcorn. “I think we’ll probably have a smaller group next season. And I think it will become clear by the end of this season the direction that we’re going in.”