The Shady Side Of Lorne Michaels

It's not an overstatement to say that without Lorne Michaels, American TV comedy would be in a very different place. The funnyman has achieved the highest number of individual nominations in Emmy Awards history — 95 and counting — thanks to his executive producer roles on the likes of "The Tonight Show," "30 Rock" and "Portlandia" and far more notably, his creation of the star-making institution that is "Saturday Night Live."

But you don't get so far ahead in the world of comedy being Mr. Nice Guy. Yes, Michaels, who apparently inspired the characters of Austin Powers' nemesis Dr. Evil and Alec Baldwin's scrupulous TV boss Jack Donaghy, certainly hasn't been afraid to throw his fair amount of shade during his glittering career.

From Fab Four putdowns to mass firings, here's a look at some examples which illustrate why Michaels is just as much feared within the industry as he is respected.

Lorne Michaels made a dig at Ringo Starr

In 1976, Lorne Michaels tried to achieve the impossible: reuniting The Beatles. The Fab Four had split in apparently acrimonious circumstances six years earlier, but that didn't stop the producer from addressing the "Saturday Night Live" cameras directly and issuing an offer he hoped they couldn't refuse.

Per Far Out, Michaels first tried the charm offensive, telling the Merseysiders, "In my book, The Beatles are the best thing that ever happened to music. It goes even deeper than that — you're not just a musical group, you're a part of us. We grew up with you." After appealing to their egos, the funnyman then switched his attention to their bank balances, adding, "But it's also been said that no one has yet to come up with enough money to satisfy you. Well, if it's money you want, there's no problem here."

But instead of the multimillion dollar sum expected, Michaels then revealed he could only pony up a paltry $3,000. He joked, "'She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah' — that's $1,000 right there. You know the words. It'll be easy. Like I said, this is made out to 'The Beatles.' You divide it any way you want. If you want to give Ringo [Starr] less, that's up to you. I'd rather not get involved." John Lennon later told Playboy that after watching Michaels make the offer, he and Paul McCartney seriously considered heading down to 30 Rockefeller Plaza to accept half the money.

Lorne Michaels called out SNL's worst host

Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, and Elon Musk are just a few of the famous faces to have been labeled the worst ever "Saturday Night Live" guest hosts. But according to creator Lorne Michaels, the title of all-time nadir deserves to go to one of the biggest a**-kicking stars of the VHS rental era.

Michaels revealed all in 1992 when he interrupted guest host Nicolas Cage's monologue for a meta sketch. The "National Treasure" actor was in the process of "apologizing" for his opening spiel ("Well, they probably think I'm the biggest jerk who's ever been on the show") being reassured that there was someone who'd disgraced himself far more: Steven Seagal.

David Spade can certainly vouch for that. The "SNL" regular said on "Watch What Happens Live" that Seagal didn't exactly ingratiate himself with the cast. "He was actually tough and he was tough to work with," Spade recalled. "It was hard. He did not want to play along." And in the retrospective "Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live," castmate Tim Meadows revealed, "He just wasn't funny and he was very critical of the cast and writing staff. He didn't realize that you can't tell somebody they're stupid on Wednesday and expect them to continue writing for you on Saturday."

Several cast members were literally fired

After a disappointing 11th season of "Saturday Night Live," Lorne Michaels was left with no option but to give some of its cast members their marching orders. However, as regular guest host Buck Henry said in "Live From New York," the impresario was incredibly uncomfortable with delivering such bad news.

Instead of letting the likes of Anthony Michael Hall know that he was surplus to requirements in person, Michaels essentially did so in the form of a sketch. As the Chicago Tribune recounted, the late-night institution bowed out for another year with a "Dallas"-esque cliffhanger in which comedian Billy Martin lights the studio on fire.

Michaels actually makes a cameo in the skit, asking, "Billy, are you crazy? If you set the cast on fire, they won't be able to do the show next year." The creator then saves Jon Lovitz from the blaze, leaving everyone else behind, telling the chosen one, "Don't ask any questions. Just go downstairs to my limousine and wait for me there." If that wasn't enough, Michaels also guides several writers into the smoke-filled dressing room. Nora Dunn, A. Whitney Brown and Dennis Miller were the only other cast members who "survived" for the following season. Brutal.

Lorne Michaels keeps rookie writers on their toes

Larry David, John Mulaney, and Adam McKay are just a handful of the hundreds of writers that have been employed by "Saturday Night Live" since its premiere in 1975. And no doubt the majority had, um, memorable interactions with co-creator Lorne Michaels at some point or other.

In the book "Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live," Conan O'Brien, a former "SNL" scribe who went on to become a beloved talk show host, recalled how Michaels liked to keep newly-recruited staff on their toes back when he was a part of the roster. "Lorne is very aloof," he said. "He has a standard joke if you're a rookie writer and he doesn't know you that well. He passed me in the hall once, and he said, 'Still with the show?' Then he acted mildly surprised, as if to say, 'I thought we got rid of you.' And that's his little joke: 'Still with the show?'" Nothing like a casual ribbing about employment status to keep your confidence up.

Of course, O'Brien eventually managed to make more of an impression on the head honcho. It was Michaels who executive produced the well-coiffed funnyman's long-running series "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." As a source told New York Daily News, "Lorne was the guy who hand-plucked Conan for NBC's 'Late Night' back in the '90s. He certainly saw something in Conan."

Lorne Michaels refused to replay Milton Berle episode

Lorne Michaels may consider tough guy Steven Seagal to be the worst "Saturday Night Live" host of all time. But when it comes to the worst "Saturday Night Live" show of all time, then that's a completely different story.

In 1979, beloved TV icon Milton Berle was chosen to front an episode of the late-night comic institution, much to Michaels' dismay. As the series creator and producer said in "Live From New York," "I knew we were headed for disaster from minute one." His instinct proved to be right. Berle repeatedly went off-script, clashed with both cast and crew members, and essentially used the honor as a promotional tool for a new book. He even manufactured a standing ovation by having the live audience made up of relatives and pals. Michaels was so embarrassed by the whole thing that he not only barred Berle from returning but reportedly banned the episode from being rerun for years. 

Recalling the ending of the episode in an 2014 interview with Vulture, Michaels shared, "[Berle] said, 'Don't worry, the standing ovation is all set.' ... It was just bizarre. The idea of the arranged standing ovation is just a part of show business that we were trying to separate ourselves from. We all get there eventually, I guess."

Louis C.K.was put in his place by Lorne Michaels

Back before he was more renowned for his acerbic sense of humor than acts of sexual misconduct, Louis C.K. was something of a "Saturday Night Live" favorite. The multiple Emmy Award winner hosted the comic institution on no fewer than four occasions, although judging by the following story it's surprising he was asked back after his second.

In 2014, C.K. expressed his intention to perform an opening monologue that would last an incredibly lengthy 12 minutes. This would have been a show record at the time, but it wasn't a record that co-creator Lorne Michaels wanted to break. In fact, the head honcho made it clear in no uncertain terms that he wasn't prepared to put audiences through so much C.K. stand-up.

In an interview about his post-rehearsal clash with Michaels for Judd Apatow's book "Sick in the Head" (via Salon), C.K. recalled, "I was like, 'Well, I don't know. I thought it was pretty good. And f*** you.' I was really mad." The producer then tried to compromise by offering him a still-unprecedented seven minutes, but this didn't placate the stage-hogging C.K. Michaels then responded, "[If you go long] we'll know that you're very undisciplined and unprofessional." In the end, the guest host's monologue clocked in just under the eight-minute mark.

Colin Jost had to re-audition for his job

Lorne Michaels definitely appears to subscribe to the "treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen" approach as an employer. In his memoir "A Very Punchable Face," "Saturday Night Live" regular Colin Jost revealed that in order to keep him on his toes, the show's co-creator made him audition for a job he already had. Yes, having already aced his first season as the host of the "Weekend Update" segment, Jost was understandably surprised when he was asked to compete with several other contenders to retain his position for a second. And to make matters worse, Michaels canceled an important rehearsal without much notice, too.

Jost admitted in his book that Michaels' treatment angered him so much that he actually performed better in the auditions and was subsequently told his job was safe. But he still remains bewildered about the whole process: "I don't know what Lorne and the producers wanted from those auditions, or what they learned from them. I just know it felt like I'd failed."

Speaking feeling like a failure, Jost thought he botched his first interview with Michaels, too. As he recalled to Jimmy Fallon, when asked if he had any questions for the comedy legend, an understandably flustered Jost could only think to ask Michaels where he's from — a factoid that's common knowledge to any "SNL" fan. Needless to say, Jost was embarrassed. "It's really bad," he laughed. 

Lorne Michaels had 'little sympathy' for John Belushi

It seems fair to say that Lorne Michaels wasn't the most sympathetic individual when it came to John Belushi's struggles with drugs. As he freely admitted in the documentary simply titled "Belushi" (via Page Six), Michaels had become so impatient with the Blues Brothers icon that he completely disregarded medical orders for one particular episode: "He'd been out with Ronnie Wood and he was a mess. He was coughing, he looked terrible and the doctor says, 'John can't go on,' and I was somewhere between rage and very little sympathy."

Michaels continued, "So I said, 'What happens if he does it?' He says, 'Well, he could die?' And I said, 'What are the odds of that?' And he said, '50/50,' and I said, 'I can live with that.'" Belushi did manage to get through the Kate Jackson-hosted episode. However, he sadly did die just a few years on after taking a lethal combination of cocaine and heroin.

On a 2018 episode of "Watch What Happens Live," "Saturday Night Live" alum Jane Curtin told Andy Cohen that when she asked Michaels to intervene and try to help Belushi, the series creator replied, "What can I do?" This response did not sit well with her. "So, I stopped talking to him, because there was no point in communicating," Curtin said. 

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Lorne Michaels has used 'anti-fan mail' as a tool

Another curious Lorne Michaels tidbit emerged during an interview Janeane Garofalo gave to retrospective "Live From New York: An Uncensored History Of Saturday Night Live." The comedian, who was a cast member for the show's 1994-95 season, revealed that the big boss didn't appreciate negativity from his employees but that he embraced it from viewers.

Garofalo said, "There was so much pressure not to complain ... If anybody got anti–fan mail or a disparaging note, it would be posted. I didn't understand that. It was another tactic of breaking you. Lorne enjoys the house divided syndrome. I think he prefers the house divided." In the same book, "SNL" veteran Jane Curtin also acknowledged Michaels' antagonizing approach to work: "I think he picked the right profession, because he gets to lord over people who want to kneel at his feet and he doesn't acknowledge them — which makes them work."

In a 1995 New York Magazine feature about the series, an unnamed former cast member derided Michaels' approach to leadership, going so far as to claim, "Lorne wants people to feel insecure."

Sam Richardson was left standing

Who doesn't like Sam Richardson? The funnyman has established himself as one of the comedy scene's nicest guys thanks to roles in the likes of the sorely-missed "Detroiters," Apple TV+ murder mystery "The Afterparty," and political satire "Veep." But Lorne Michaels doesn't seem to be concerned with amiability.

Admittedly, Richardson did impress the "Saturday Night Live" creator with a Second City performance enough to be offered an audition. However, as he explained to "The Off Camera Show," their subsequent encounter didn't exactly leave him confident this would lead to a job on the NBC institution. Referring to his chosen impressions, Richards explained, "I did Barack Obama ... I did Dr. MLK, D.D.S., who was just Martin Luther King if he was a dentist ... I just barreled through and afterwards I was like, 'Oh, fine, cool, I did it.' I remember afterwards Lorne Michaels came up to me and he was like, 'Oh, Sam, that was really funny; how do you feel?' I was like, 'I feel great, how do you feel?' And then he just looked at me and then walked off ... I was like, I think I failed the crazy test." Yes, unlike his regular collaborator Tim Robinson, who served as performer and staff writer, Richardson never got the chance to work on America's most famous sketch show.

Even though "SNL" didn't work out, The Hollywood Reporter observed that Richardson seems to be okay with the way things unfolded. 

Sarah Jessica Parker says she was snubbed

"Sex and the City" may still have been several years away, but as the star of hits such as "Honeymoon in Vegas," "Hocus Pocus" and "L.A. Story," Sarah Jessica Parker was still very much an A-lister when she was chosen to front an episode of "Saturday Night Live" in late 1995. However, the future Carrie Bradshaw's impressive resume seemed to mean little to the show's head honcho.

Indeed, as Parker explained to New York Magazine after her hosting stint, she was entirely ignored by boss Lorne Michaels throughout the whole process: "I'd come into his office and he'd put his head down and not pay any attention. I decided I wouldn't take it personally that he wasn't talking to me. If I had been my normal self, I would have really flipped out, because I would have thought, 'He doesn't like me at all.'"

Parker was perhaps right not to take things too personally. Rosie Shuster, Michaels' first wife and a one-time "SNL" writer, told the same publication, "Talking to Lorne is like talking to tundra." It sounds like a polarizing management style, to say the least. As Janeane Garofalo said in "Live From New York," "He was always very nice to me, but I just presumed that he had to have been aware that the environment was toxic."

Lorne Michaels ignored striking writers

In 2007, Lorne Michaels attended a special "Saturday Night Live" event at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in support of those staff members who had been affected by the writers' strike. But apparently the show's creator hasn't always been that concerned with keeping those behind-the-scenes happy.

In retrospective "Live From New York: An Uncensored History Of Saturday Night Live," scribe Neil Levy recalled the moment during the third season when the writing team discovered that their pay packets weren't as big as promised. A riot on the 30 Rock building's 17th floor then started as a result, but even this didn't persuade Michaels to placate the disgruntled.

Levy said, "There was an insurrection, really. Somebody kicked a hole in a wall and then Lorne came in and said, 'What's going on here?' And he was confronted by this mob. And he didn't say a word — he just turned and walked away and went back into his office and closed the door. And then there was dead silence, and then en masse, all the writers stood in front of Lorne's door begging his forgiveness, banging on the door and pleading." The writer then revealed that Michaels did eventually meet with the baying mob but only on his own terms. 

Lorne Michaels didn't tell Jenny Slate she'd been fired

It's one thing to get fired from America's premier sketch show after just a single season. It's another to have to find out not from anyone connected with the series but an online news article.

Yes, that's how Jenny Slate discovered she'd become surplus to requirements after a 35th season stint which began in the most inauspicious of circumstances. You may remember that the comedian accidentally blurted out the F-word in her very first episode. But Slate told InStyle magazine that her explicit language wasn't to blame for her dismissal. The "Obvious Child" star said, "Everyone always thinks I got fired for saying f***: I didn't, that's not why I got fired. I just didn't belong there. I didn't do a good job, I didn't click. I have no idea how Lorne felt about me. All I know is, it didn't work for me, and I got fired." Slate did, however, confirm in another chat with Glamour that her one-time boss didn't even have the decency to give her the boot in person: "Lorne and I never talked when I was fired at the end of the season; I got the news online."

Lorne Michaels not jolly meeting with Marc Maron

It seems fair to say that Marc Maron's 1995 "Saturday Night Live" audition stuck with him, and his feelings about Lorne Michaels have been fraught. In his book "Attempting Normal," the stand-up recalled how the night previously he'd appeared on another Michaels production, "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." But this didn't appear to hold much weight with the impresario.

According to Maron, Michaels kept him waiting for 90 minutes. And then, he apparently failed to even acknowledge the comedian when he walked into the room. And thirdly, he appeared to give him some kind of random challenge. Maron explained, "In front of me, right behind a picture facing him, there's a little bowl of candy. I was freaking out about the whole situation. So everything became very loaded and I was thinking, 'I'm not going to take any f***ing candy. It's a test of some kind.'" Unfortunately, the lure of some Jolly Ranchers proved too hard to resist. The funnyman added, "As soon as I took the candy I swear to God Lorne shot a look at the head writer that clearly connoted to me that I had failed the test."

In 2015, Maron invited Michaels onto his "WTF" podcast specifically to address the experience (via Flavorwire). Michaels not only said the bowl of candy had nothing to do with Maron not landing the gig, but noted that the candy was actually Tootsie Rolls.