The legendary Lorne Michaels won a rare individual Peabody Award on Wednesday morning. The awards, announced this time via Twitter and webcast, usually recognizes the group effort of a cast, writers and crew of a show during the course of a single season. Michaels, however, is being singularly rewarded for his entire body of work. His most recent productions include “Portlandia,” “30 Rock,” “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and, of course, “Saturday Night Live,” the most influential comedy show of all time, which he created in 1975. For more than 30 years, the dapper, dour Canadian-American has launched some of the best comedians in the world, looking over their careers from his office at 30 Rockefeller Center. He has always been fiercely pro-NBC, walking the fine line between creative and executive. “… (H)e is both corporate and uncorporate; a man who can feel comfortable in a Prada suit or khakis; a man who has counseled the highest echelons of NBC power, yet who feels beholden to nothing except the rigor of creating comedy — and the occasional glance at ratings,” wrote Stacey Wilson in a profile for The Hollywood Reporter.
Though born in Toronto, it is hard to think of anyone more American-to-the-core than Michaels. Lorne is a self-made man, creating, in his own self-becoming process, a cutting edge American institution that expanded the parameters of what could be done in American sketch comedy. “SNL,” under Lorne’s soft Canadian-American paternalism, lampooned our cultural obsessions as well as our leaders; “30 Rock,” under his guidance, has parodied the dysfunctions of a comedy show (and who would know that terrain better than Lorne?). His own comedic sensibility — intelligent, brash, martini-dry but with an acute awareness of the PR angle (particularly in his youth) — is the North Star which has led several generations of performers who hope to one day appear on one of the shows that he produces. Michaels, it should also be added, comes across as hyper-fair ( a rare trait in the world of comedy), especially when he gently led Sarah Palin into the treacherous waters of an “SNL” cold open in the thick of a Presidential contest. Except for a brief period in the 1980s, Michaels has been at the helm of his creation, the all-seeing Daddy, even doing memorable cameos over the years, enhancing his reputation among the creatives.
Everyone seems to have a Lorne Michael story. The theme of almost all of these stories is the outsize power and influence of the man. Tracy Morgan first met Michaels when he was hawking overpriced Yankees merchandise. Artie Lange has a funny story about meeting Lorne Michaels, in which he comes off as a gigantic asshole. But it is Alec Baldwin, whose Jack Donaghy on “30 Rock” lovingly parodies his comedic mentor, that grasps the sweet Candian-American essence that is Michaels. “In Baldwin’s mind, ‘Jack Donaghy is Lorne, first and foremost,” he told The New Yorker. “‘What am I, a farmer?’ That is Lorne. I think he said that. Lorne’s got a tuxedo in the glove compartment of his car. Lorne is a big-ticket A-list New York water buffalo. He’s big on the Serengeti. Lorne is a person who seduces you into thinking that if you take his advice and play your cards right you’re going to end up with his life.”
The most interesting recent Lorne Michaels story involves the memorable “SNL” cold open in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. “Between dress and air (Lorne) came up with the idea of after the kids sing ‘Silent Night’ they dip to black and then they come up and say ‘Live from New York,” Martin Short, on Studio Q, told the host. This insight into such a culturally significant moment not only gives us a glimpse as to what it is exactly that Lorne Michaels does at “SNL,” but also provides us with the reason why as to why he is so culturally invaluable. The Lorne Michaels touch.
No portrait, no matter how brief, of Lorne Michaels would be accurate without referring to the man’s position in the world of comedy. Michaels, in the winter of his life, gives off an air as patrician now as he exuded was smart-alecky in the 1970s. He was more of a creative when he was younger, and now he can only be properly construed under the category of “suit.” As something of a fixer — with none of the negative connotations, I must add — Michaels has been a major reason for the success of NBC late night (with Conan and Jimmy) and Saturday night. However, at no other time has Lorne Michaels wielded as much power as he does now. The rise of Jimmy Fallon (and in his wake, Seth Meyers), the fresh nostalgia over the end of “30 Rock”, the ungodly power of the Weekend Update chair all argue that Lorne Michaels has an almost unnatural pop-cultural influence. “For decades, the host of The Tonight Show has been crowned NBC’s late-night king,” wrote Nellie Andreeva for Deadline. “But through the years, one figure has been looming larger than any host or executive in NBC’s late night, producer Lorne Michaels, and the current turmoil over the Tonight Show transition is poised to further cement his enormous clout. ” His power grows stronger and stronger.
After 36 years, after being nominated for 80 Emmys (and winning 18), Lorne Michael will be honored by the Peabody’s at the Waldorf-Astoria on May 20th. Well played, Lorne Michaels.