RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
American comedy as we know it would not exist without a man named Lorne Michaels. He created "Saturday Night Live" four decades ago. And you see his hand all over late-night television. Our colleague David Greene spoke with Michaels just before the new season premiere. And he picks up that conversation this morning.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: We visited "30 Rock" as they were getting ready to put on this season's premiere of "Saturday Night Live," which aired last weekend. The guest host was Miley Cyrus. The surprise guest was Hillary Clinton.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: (As Val) Donald Trump? Isn't he the one that's like (imitating Donald Trump) you're all losers.
GREENE: Now, following "SNL" tradition, they were reading off cue cards that were written in magic marker. And we met the man backstage who does much of that writing. Wally Feresten has been doing this for 26 seasons of "SNL."
WALLY FERESTEN: We probably go through about a thousand cue cards a show.
GREENE: One reason he stays is Lorne Michaels. You really get the sense hanging out here that people fear Lorne Michaels and also love working for him. Now, in the season premiere, Miley Cyrus did 11 costume changes. They were wild and complex to execute, removing and putting on layers of clothing. All those costumes were put together around the corner from Wally's writing station in here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I can bring you guys to the wardrobe room.
GREENE: Lorne Michaels presides over "Saturday Night Live" - literally over. His office has a glass door that opens up overlooking the stage. It's a cozy space in a 1970s way. He hasn't changed much since then. There's wall-to-wall carpeting, index cards on the wall with the names of the people hosting this season and a giant bowl of the boss's favorite snack - popcorn. We sat down on brown leather chairs, and we chatted for 40 minutes or so about things Lorne Michaels loves - comedy and his successes.
And also things he doesn't love so much, like the recent controversy over whether there's enough diversity on the show. After criticism about that first erupted in 2013, the show added a third black cast member and hired two black writers. But the issue didn't fizzle out, partly because one veteran black cast member, Kenan Thompson, added fuel to the fire. He said there weren't enough black female comedians who were quote, "ready." So when I sat down with Lorne Michaels, I asked whether all that criticism bothered him.
LORNE MICHAELS: For me, it was just tiresome. The intent is always just to find the most talented people there are. We go all over the country, just as you can play baseball, but can you play baseball at Yankees Stadium? It's a different set of challenges. And if they're not ready yet, they just flail. We're not a government institution. We're not an academic institution. We're a show that's talent-based. So sometimes - I think right now we have four African-American cast members. It wasn't a plan. If they have it, it's undeniable. But it really helps if they've had experience on stage.
And so by the time we get them, they should have had three or four years minimum of being in front of an audience, so that that part doesn't fall apart when you also add a script that's ever-changing, lights that are blinding you, cameras that you have to pay attention to, a live audience, other cast members. That's a lot to integrate to be able to soar and be brilliant.
GREENE: Well, let me - what would you say to someone who said, you know, that there might be just not enough black men, black women who are coming up through the pipeline of comedy for whatever reason?
GREENE: And that Lorne Michaels actually - you know, just because of the influence you have, by bringing people in and making sure you have a diverse cast, that would help sort of the system...
MICHAELS: But writers tend to write to archetypes and parts. This guy is the boss - you know, whatever the scene is. So you go who's going to be cast? If there's three people who basically do the same thing, the one who's the most ahead of the other two is going to continue to get cast 'cause the audience likes them and because it works. And people will always chase what works. So it's more complicated than putting together a rainbow coalition.
GREENE: I think about Jimmy Fallon. I think about Seth Meyers. I think about Tina Fey. I think about the people in the world of comedy whose careers and lives have been touched by you.
MICHAELS: Right. You're not going to count, like, people, like, from the first five years or...
GREENE: I mean - we would be sitting here all day if we talked about the stars...
MICHAELS: My point is that there were - I wasn't looking for any of them. I didn't put an ad out and describe what I was looking for. You recognize it when you see it - I mean, hopefully.
GREENE: But do you feel like a mentor to all of them?
MICHAELS: Yeah - well, I mean, the role is definitely parental because people are vulnerable and they have to trust. And they're going to get knocked down, you know? And that's always hard to watch. You have to believe that you're doing it to put on the best possible show each week and that nothing is going to get in the way of that and that there's next week. And that it may be hurtful, but it was the right decision at that time. So when you see people in auditions, if you think - it's not like we have - we were having whites-only auditions.
GREENE: I was struck that you brought it back to all-white auditions. I mean...
MICHAELS: Well, because that's what you were asking about...
GREENE: No, I mean, I kind of moved on. I guess I just wanted - I mean, did that whole sort of criticism wound you...
MICHAELS: Oh, no, no, no, it was just that it - no, it didn't wound me. It just took up my time for three months. You know, it started on a podcast, and then it was an editorial in The New York Times. And you go, no, we've been breaking those barriers from the very beginning. And it's - but I understand perception is everything, and I live in a world of perception. And if that was how we were perceived, then it had to be addressed, which is what I did.
GREENE: I just want to turn to this parental theme. I just want to - I mean, you can sit here on a given night and watch monologues and shows with Jimmy Fallon, with Seth Meyers. When you...
MICHAELS: Right, which is my job.
GREENE: You're still involved in those shows.
MICHAELS: I was down at Jimmy earlier, yeah.
GREENE: But when you see them, I mean, is there sort of a parental pride that you're feeling?
MICHAELS: Oh, yeah, watching people get better and better at it is fantastic. There's never been a cast that anybody liked at the beginning.
MICHAELS: It just is the way it is. If I say to you, come on over to my house tomorrow night. We're having, like, a dinner. I think you'd have fun. It's 14 people you don't know. You go, yeah, no, maybe. Yeah. It's all people I don't know? Yeah. I think you'll really like them when you get to know them. Well, am I going to get to know them that first night? Probably not.
GREENE: Do you still get starstruck?
MICHAELS: A question I've never been asked - yeah, I mean, it would be different kinds of stars.
GREENE: Is there someone who comes to mind who you were like - I mean, I've seen - I thought I met everyone?
MICHAELS: Well, I saw the Pope, you know, at Madison Square Garden. That was unbelievably moving and powerful.
GREENE: Lorne Michaels, thanks a lot.
MICHAELS: Oh, thanks.
GREENE: Thanks for the time.
MONTAGNE: That's was MORNING EDITION's David Greene speaking to "Saturday Night Live's" Lorne Michaels on NPR News.
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