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Seth Simons | Longreads | August 17, 2023 | 15 minutes (4,165 words)
When Hollywood studio executives refused to meet the reasonable demands of the writers who had made them richer than kings, they deprived the world of a historic spectacle: Pete Davidson’s return to the show that transformed him from a human being into a celebrity. The comedian was set to host Saturday Night Live on May 6, a booking timed to promote his semi-autobiographical TV series Bupkis, not to be confused with his semi-autobiographical film The King of Staten Island (itself not to be confused with Staten Island Summer, the semi-autobiographical film penned by fellow SNL star Colin Jost). Then again, maybe some confusion is appropriate. These works may not be particularly memorable or well-reviewed, but they represent a peculiar version of the American dream, one that very few people have realized and a great many have pursued. For those who attain it, an upper-class life awaits: fame, wealth, adoring fans, the freedom to make the art they wish to make, and to make it with their friends and peers, even if it’s not very good. All they have to do to earn this freedom is devote their lives to one strange and powerful man.
I refer, of course, to SNL creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels, who receives a writing credit on every episode of the long-running variety series and waited until more than a month into the strike to comment on it publicly—in an interview at the Cannes Lions advertising festival. Perhaps he was unaccustomed to encountering the outer limits of his power. The strike achieved something not even COVID-19 could do three years earlier, when Michaels continued producing the show with a live, unvaccinated studio audience, in seeming defiance of New York guidelines. It’s a testament to SNL’s astonishing cultural influence that he was able to game a state government’s health policy during the height of a pandemic. And it’s a testament to the power of Hollywood’s writers—and to the dire conditions they work under—that this time, the show did not go on.
Michaels is intimately acquainted with this power, having spent the last half-century using SNL to launch bankable talents and profit from their careers. Bupkis isn’t just a Pete Davidson vehicle; it’s a Lorne Michaels production. So is Staten Island Summer, for that matter, and Shrill, The Tonight Show, Schmigadoon!, and That Damn Michael Che—not to mention the recently departed The Other Two and Kenan. The promise of SNL under Michaels’ leadership is simple: If you are loyal to the family, you will reap handsome rewards. Over almost 50 years, that promise has come to justify a legacy of alleged workplace abuses ranging from the familiar to the shocking. Beyond 30 Rock’s walls, it has become the promise of the massive live comedy ecosystem feeding SNL, an amorphous network of small businesses that successfully encoded their exploitative labor practices and regressive cultural norms into the industry’s DNA. As they churned ruthlessly through generations of comedy workers, they helped create the world we’re in now, the one Hollywood writers and actors are striking to change. It’s a world where talent and hard work aren’t nearly enough to earn a stable living; a world where a few fabulously wealthy men hold the power to shape entire art forms in their image.
It’s a world where one of them already has.
The critical discourse surrounding TV’s longest-running variety series traditionally revolves around a boring question: is it funny? That’s not why we’re here. As a comedy lover and critic, I’ve come to believe that whether a work contains the mystical quality of funniness—the power to reach inside your body and give you sudden, uncontrollable pleasure—is usually the most obvious and therefore least interesting thing about it. More interesting to consider is what the thing says, and whether what it says is true. More interesting still is what it costs, and whether this cost is worthwhile.
In the age of mass media, the journey a joke takes from creator to audience is fraught with risk. It touches many people along the way, some in more vulnerable positions than others. Even the end of the journey is not really the end. Like all forms of communication, comedy has the power to influence people’s beliefs and behaviors, not least their behavior as comedy consumers. This gives it the power to earn significant capital for its creators—financial, social, cultural, even political—which they can use to enact their own desires.
This is what interests me about SNL. For almost its entire existence, its workers have been very clear about its costs. From interns to stars, they’ve described the show as an intensely discriminatory workplace run by a cold, manipulative boss. As they’ve told us this, SNL has grown into one of the most important institutions in American culture. For the last five decades, it has served as a chokepoint in the Hollywood talent pipeline, plucking writers and performers from a precarious live comedy ecosystem and giving them the capital they need to play in the big leagues. Which they have. It would not be exaggerating to say their work has defined comedy practically since SNL premiered. Animal House, Beverly Hills Cop, Three Amigos, Wayne’s World, Ghostbusters, Austin Powers, Mean Girls, Mr. Show, 3rd Rock from the Sun, That ’70s Show, The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Portlandia, Detroiters, the careers of Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Phil Hartman, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Norm Macdonald, Molly Shannon, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler, John Mulaney, Bill Hader—SNL’s contributions to the form are astounding. Not since the Hollywood studio system has one institution created so many careers.
With this in mind, I would like to discuss Lorne Michaels’ management style.
A few things to remember. One: SNL operates in the image of its executive producer. He created it, he produces every episode, he selects every cast member and every host and every sketch, and he takes pride in knowing everything that goes on in his office. (“It’s not like me to not be aware of things,” he told Alison Castle in Saturday Night Live: The Book.) When he left in 1980, the show struggled so much that NBC brought him back five years later. He’s been there ever since, with relatively little interference from network brass. “It’s Lorne’s show,” NBCUniversal’s TV and streaming operations chairman Mark Lazarus told Variety recently. “He’s calling the shots.”
Two: If late night is big business, SNL appears to be the biggest business in late night. Its budget for Season 45, in 2018-2019, was at least $101 million, or about $4.8 million per episode. (The next season, the most recent for which this data is available, cost $91 million, likely due to several “at-home” episodes during the early pandemic lowering production costs.) In the 2021-2022 season, the average 30-second ad spot during the show’s broadcast cost $164,000. Multiply by 21 episodes with 26 minutes of commercials and you’ve got over $179 million in revenue from linear advertising alone. That Variety report offers useful context: in 2022, the seven major late night shows—SNL, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Late Night with Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Daily Show, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and The Late Late Show with James Corden—made a combined $412.7 million from TV ads.
Three: Almost everything that you are about to read has been a matter of public record for years, if not decades.
As original cast member Dan Aykroyd and current cast member Colin Jost have said, SNL is a young person’s game. The show hires talented early-career artists and asks them to give it everything; all-nighters and 90-hour weeks aren’t out of the ordinary. The pressures are high, as are the potential rewards: An SNL credit is a golden ticket not only for relatively well-paid writers and performers, but also for interns, assistants, and other production staffers, whose jobs are even more precarious than their colleagues above the line. No matter where they appear in the credits, however, SNL is a workplace where everyone ends up feeling expendable. That’s because the job is ultimately much more than making comedy. It’s navigating what former cast member Harry Shearer once called “a highly complex, highly political hierarchical organization masquerading as a college dorm.” At the top of that hierarchy is SNL’s soft-spoken, 78-year-old executive producer.
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What do we know about how Michaels runs things? Quite a bit. Described in James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’ oral history Live From New York as both “a psychological terrorist” and “Daddy,” Michaels has cultivated a paternal relationship with his employees since the show’s earliest days. To be clear, paternal does not mean warm. By an astonishing number of accounts, his modus operandi is to remain distant and cold (to use Bob Odenkirk’s words in that book) toward the people under him, meticulously withholding praise to the point that they’ll do whatever it takes to earn his approval. He establishes this dynamic at the beginning of a relationship—refusing to laugh during auditions, making prospective hires wait for hours before he meets with them—and maintains it even with tenured company men. “Lorne wants people to feel insecure,” a former star told New York’s Chris Smith in 1995. “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.”
“He rules on the theory of a house divided is a house that’s more easily controlled,” Janeane Garofalo once said, echoing others who observed that Michaels is more apt to reward difficult or childish people than loyal foot soldiers. At the same time, he diligently extracts loyalty through bizarre tests and unspoken rules. According to New York, Michaels is known to punish cast members who displease him—for instance, by taking roles in movies he’s not producing—by nixing their sketches or assigning unfavorable time slots. When Bill Hader was cast, SNL flew him to New York on the same flight as a not-yet-hired Andy Samberg, from whom Hader was instructed to keep his own hiring a secret. After Colin Jost’s first season as “Weekend Update” anchor, he was invited to re-audition for the gig, learned from his manager that his audition was successful, then received a furious call from a producer who told him Michaels was angry that Jost had told his manager the news. (To recap: he hadn’t.) By that point, Jost was a nine-year SNL veteran and co-head writer. “Until you’re actually on the air,” he wrote in his memoir, “you have no idea if Lorne will change his mind and give it to someone else.”
It would be one thing if Michaels were simply a weird, old-fashioned guy who plays mind games with his employees. The problem is that SNL has an extensive history of much more hostile work conditions. “There was a certain pride taken in not treating people well,” one ’70s-era assistant said in Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s 1986 book, Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. Or, as writer Fred Wolf recalled an unidentified woman from the original cast telling him in the ’90s: “That place is evil.”
Gender-based harassment has blossomed under Michaels’ leadership since year one, when John Belushi refused to perform in sketches written by women and intentionally sabotaged them during read-throughs. The boys’ club atmosphere persisted through the ‘90s, when Chris Farley’s handsiness with women was so frequent that longtime producers Mike Shoemaker and Jim Downey pranked him with a fake sexual harassment lawsuit (while brushing aside the extra who lodged a real complaint against him). Last year, former production staffers told Insider about the demeaning sexual jokes and unwanted advances they dealt with in the early 2000s, an era when “male members of the cast and staff would hook up with female college-age interns at post-show parties.” Former cast member Jerry Minor recalled feeling “disturbed” by the presence of “obviously teenage girls” at these events. This was the same era, according to a lawsuit settled last year, when Horatio Sanz groomed and abused a teenage fan whom he brought to SNL cast parties—including one where Jimmy Fallon introduced her to Michaels himself, and another one where Sanz assaulted her as fellow cast members looked on. “If you want to metoo me you have every right,” Sanz allegedly texted her in 2019, insisting he would “swear on a stack of improv books … I’m a different person.” (His attorney denied the allegations, while NBC argued in court filings that it was not liable for actions that allegedly took place off its premises.)
Just as SNL’s maleness empowered its men to mistreat their female colleagues, the show’s whiteness made it an environment where, to name just a few examples: Black actors were given few and stereotypical characters by white writers; Michaels was unlikely to place two sketches about Black characters in succession; performers wore blackface well into the early 2000s, with Michaels defending the practice in 2008; and future The White Lotus and Insecure star Natasha Rothwell resorted to raising her hand in order to pitch jokes in the writers’ room less than a decade ago. The show’s poor record is difficult to divorce from its leadership: if SNL was ever a show by white men, for white men, it was because Michaels didn’t care to make it anything else.
One incident illuminates this clearly. In 2013, cast members Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah made headlines when they criticized SNL’s longstanding failures to hire Black women. Asked about this controversy in Live From New York, Michaels and his deputies magnanimously forgave Thompson and Pharoah for being so careless as to get suckered by the press. (Pharoah later said he was nearly fired for his remarks.) Blithely noting that SNL is not taxpayer-funded, Michaels added that he’d seen “fifty or sixty” Black women audition over the years—one or two per season—but “we’re about finding people who are funny.”
It’s an interesting thing about people in his position: They rarely seem to consider that their senses of humor might be informed by their identities: their race, for instance, or gender, age, class, or whether they’ve spent 40 years making a sketch comedy show for NBC. Nor do they seem interested in the systemic effects of the systems they run. In that same section of Live From New York, former producer Lindsay Shookus complained that even after “the flap about ethnic casting,” as Michaels called it, barely any talent representatives submitted Black women to the show. Longtime writer Paula Pell blamed the pipeline. “There were many times with auditions, you know, that we weren’t getting as many diverse people that we needed to,” she said, echoing her remarks on SNL’s failure to hire women and gay people: “A lot of times, people auditioning for SNL came from that sea of improvisational comedians—Second City and Groundlings and UCB—and oftentimes that community of people was not quite as diverse as you would wish.”
Well, yes. It was designed that way.
I am going to say something crazy: talent is not rare. Talent is plentiful. I can go to any comedy theater or club or DIY show in New York tonight and see professional-grade work by some of the funniest people I’ll ever see. Many of these comedians would kill to work at SNL, even knowing everything we know about it. I can’t blame them. SNL is a great job. It’s one of the few places you can make comedy for a large audience and make a livable income. This has always been true, but lately it matters more. It’s a network show with a massive writers’ room in an industry where rooms are shrinking; it has long seasons in a medium where they’re getting shorter; it trains writers in every aspect of TV production, a norm that’s increasingly falling out of practice; and for those who play the game well, it ensures high-paying work for life. (Colin Jost has commanded a fee of $70,000 per hour for recent college standup gigs.)
It’s also virtually the only place you can livably make sketch comedy, a rich art form that mostly exists in free web videos, family-friendly late-night talk shows (two of which are produced by Michaels), comedy theaters like the Upright Citizens Brigade (which only started paying talent last year, after decades of selling tickets to performances by comics who had themselves paid to train at UCB) and Second City (which, to its credit, has paid as far back as the 1960s), and inevitably short-lived cable or streaming series (no disrespect). If you’re a young comedian looking to make short-form work that people watch, you’d best do everything you can to work for Lorne Michaels.
And there’s the rub. Talent abounds because it occurs naturally. What’s rare are opportunities to develop talent. These are kept artificially scarce by a live comedy ecosystem that profits off comedians while telling them their work is worthless. Its low wages, pay-to-play business models, and conservative social politics act as a filter, ensuring that few are able to gain access to gatekeepers and build competitive levels of craftsmanship. (Because the industry is located in cities with high costs of living, certain demographics tend to reach these levels more easily: perhaps there is an inverse correlation between rent prices and SNL’s quality.) The survivors are then offered up to Lorne Michaels, who every year gets his pick of the country’s finest early-career comedians—remember, SNL by design hires the young and hungry—and decides which ones get the grand prize of financial stability, even entrance into the upper class. If they play their cards right, he’ll produce their post-SNL projects through his company Broadway Video, giving himself sustained influence over their careers and a respectable share of their successes. (This is not an arrangement you typically see between TV producers and the talent they discover.)
These people become proof of the system’s value to all comedians, when really it’s directly opposed to their interests. Forget the lucky ones, the stars we’re not inclined to weep for. When we zoom out and view comedy workers as a class, we see that this system functions parasitically: it sucks them dry and discards them in its quest for the ones it can turn into Amazon shills (like Colin Jost) or political satirists happy to pal around with politicians (like Dana Carvey, Jimmy Fallon, and Colin Jost). As for those few? Well, good for them, but do let me know if you ever hear an SNL alum say a single word about the Horatio Sanz case.
It’s true that there are other ways to make a living in comedy. SNL is not the end-all. It matters because it’s a uniquely powerful machine that has shaped the art form in America for almost half a century. To be specific, it has shaped the art form according to the whims of its central creative force, a “starfucker of the highest order” (per writer Tom Davis) who “wants everybody to love him” (Chris Elliott) and gets his way through tactics that his lieutenants are apparently free to emulate. This is a man who, according to Billie Eilish in 2021, ran the show while sick with COVID-19; who personally rebuked Cecily Strong for replying to sexist comments she received on Twitter; who allegedly pressured Chris Kattan to save a film project by sleeping with the director; who allegedly sat idly by while his employees brought underage girls to cast parties; who gave Donald Trump a hosting gig in 2015 and told his writers to go easy on the candidate; who only begrudgingly prioritized the hiring of Black women in 2014 after public controversy; who in 2020 referred to the George Floyd protests as “the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter;” and who, in spite of it all, remains one of Hollywood’s most revered icons, still in charge of the same show where all this shit happened, the beloved touchstone of American comedy he’s openly run like a cult for decades, his power and prestige unblemished. Immune.
Very rarely can we see an entire system reflected through one person. Lorne Michaels is such a person. Popular culture would look totally different without him. It’s tempting to imagine the same stars, with their same intrinsic talents, still rising to the top in his absence, but this presumes Hollywood operates by natural selection. Michaels is not a neutral arbiter; he is a specific man with specific tastes. Comedy is not a meritocracy; it is an anti-meritocracy that explicitly uses the promise of shows like SNL to justify its practice of systemically removing talent from the pool.
This is what I mean when I talk about costs. Every year Michaels chose not to hire a person of color, or hired only one, is a year he could have given the world any number of artists on par with the ones he did hire, potentially changing the face of comedy as we know it today. If he couldn’t find any, that’s only because he sits atop a system designed to prevent them from reaching him. The same is true for subversive, form-bending comedians who always seem to be outside the white-bread norm at SNL, even as they make some of its most lauded work. Comedy is full of Sarah Shermans and Bowen Yangs, writers like Celeste Yim and Jack Handey. They’re out there right now, grinding themselves to the bone making weird, funny work for drink tickets or cab fare or nothing at all. SNL’s function—the system’s function—is to keep them there.
Then there are the other costs. If what we’ve heard is true, many people have been hurt by this show. They’ve been tormented and harassed, abused, degraded, made to believe in their own disposability, used up, and tossed aside. And for what—comedy skits? For the Blues Brothers, for Church Lady and Stefon? For David S. Pumpkins? For a hundred or so people to live like royalty? For one man to rule an empire?
This is the question that matters most about SNL, an institution best regarded not as a comedy series but as a machine that makes people famous. For decades, Michaels has masterfully optimized it for this purpose, consolidating vast swaths of cultural production in a relatively small group of people he personally anointed. This is an astonishing achievement and a horrifying one. Whatever you may think of individual celebrities—I certainly admire a few—the phenomenon of celebrity is a grave social ill. To be a star is to lose something essential of yourself, to become divorced and insulated from the world as most people live it; to commit to a life of moral compromise and complicity in fundamentally destructive systems.
Perhaps these trade-offs are worthwhile for some who make them, but there is no denying they must be made, nor that they invite pressures the human body is not built to sustain. We can see their effects clearly in Pete Davidson’s struggles on the national stage; in the deaths of John Belushi and Chris Farley; in Jimmy Fallon’s eyes every night on The Tonight Show; in the silence of liberal icons like Tina Fey and Seth Meyers about their erstwhile colleague Horatio Sanz; in the rightward trajectories of stars across Hollywood—not only SNL alumni like Rob Schneider and Jim Breuer, but world-famous talents like Dave Chappelle and Joe Rogan. All of these people have the same affliction, and that affliction is celebrity.
At the same time, the entertainment industry’s devaluation of creativity has collapsed its middle class, giving rise to a system in which celebrity is the clearest path to financial security within it. You have to commodify yourself to succeed in Hollywood. You have to become a brand. Comedians have known this reality for a long time, which is why SNL has never lost its sway over the art form and likely never will: it does the work for them. Few have explained this power more succinctly than recent SNL breakout James Austin Johnson in an episode of WTF with Marc Maron last year. When his wife learned he got the job, Johnson told Maron, she started sobbing. She was devastated to lose the life they’d built in Los Angeles, for themselves and the child they were expecting. “That’s what she was grieving,” he said. “She had hormonal nesting grief that her bird’s nest was destroyed.” So he reassured her.
“I was like, ‘I know this is hard for us right now, but this is how I feed us for the rest of our marriage,’” he recalled. “‘Even if I flame out spectacularly, even if I fuck everything up for us, even if I become an absolute piece of shit, from now on it’ll say SNL in the corner of my poster, and some people will come to my show.’”
“Even if I ruin our lives, I’ll always be able to feed us,” the Trump impressionist told his wife. “Because that’s what SNL does.”
That’s what SNL does.