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Lorne Michaels: Words of Wisdom from SNL's Founder

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Last week, I had the privilege of covering an Emmy-sponsored panel featuring SNL stars and producers. (An Rare Inside Look at What Makes 'SNL' Tick). From that discussion, here are some choice quotes from Lorne Michaels, the show's creator, executive producer and the inspiration for Alec Baldwin's genius Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock as well as Mike Meyers' Dr. Evil. As SNL's "Serious Side," Michael's works hard for the bottom-line: laughs.

At the panel, moderator Jimmy Fallon said, when starting out on the show, he asked Adam Sandler for career/SNL advice. Sandler's response: "Listen to Lorne Michaels." Since founding the live variety show in 1975, here's some of what Michaels has learned:

On the indelible political characters that make the show famous, like Will Ferrell's George W. Bush and Tina Fey's Sarah Palin:
I think the secret always is to make them likable. They're always charming. You can't get laughs if the writing is just sad and you're pointing out a) that you have a strong opinion b) that you're really smart and c) people should agree with you.

On being mainstream:
When you leave NYC and LA and you realize how important the show is, [for] people who are not on the grid and can just check in on it...You're always aware you're doing it for the country. Unless you reach the middle of the country you haven't really succeeded.

On comedy's egalitarianism:
If there's a better joke from somebody who's been there for an hour, you take it.

Where does Lorne find cast members?
We were in Chicago for three days, then LA, then there are submissions. Basically the people who want to audition know where we are now. Most people who audition are standing in homebase. Some people wilt under the pressure. That's not a good sign, because that's the number one job requirement. We don't bring anyone in we don't think has a good chance at succeeding, or else it's awkward at the after party.

And:
I think for most people who do the show it's their first professional job. I think stage experience is essential. Not necessarily theatrical, just being on the stage. It's a job you learn once you get there. There isn't a sure route to it.

On starting out:
We used to make the cast watch the show. In the first season, we used to watch it at noon on Monday and it was bleak...The only person who I knew loved watching the show when we'd come in on Monday was Jon Lovitz.

And:
One of the hardest things in the '70s was talking to people on Sunday and they'd say, "Did you think that was funny?" Two hours before you saw it I thought it was funny!...I wasn't thinking past 1976.

Where did the idea for Weekend Update come from?
There had been this show at NBC, "That Was The Week That Was." It started as an hour then became a half hour. I always felt, at ten minutes, it would have been perfect. Let's do that...A lot of audience in those days were just joining at midnight. So if [Weekend Update] went on [then] we'd have a second start to the show.

On the "Live" in Saturday Night Live:
I think when there's no laugh track, it's agreed upon that it's not funny...The failure is a part of what keeps it honest--the fact that it's always present, it's what keeps you alert out there.

On Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer's pitches for SNL Digital Shorts:
The gentleman come in early with their idea, like Friday afternoon.

On dress rehearsal:
I don't encourage being looser in dress [rehearsal]. Sometimes I think people sort of "leave it" there in dress [rehearsal]-- you're very weary leaving it there.

As a kid, what did he dream of becoming one day?
Vaguely in the second grade I thought I was going to be a movie star. If I had been asked the question I would have said "lawyer."

Will SNL last?
[Yes]. It's a legacy thing at NBC. They've always supported the show, particularly in recent years.

On getting laughs:
When it works, you can feel it wash over you.

Is it exciting to see cast members grow into big movie stars?
Absolutely.

Quotes have been edited.

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