In a TV guide saturated with a dizzying number of late-night TV programs and actors, some better than others, there is one that stands out. Saturday Night Live is a staple of TV in the United States, and its influence on culture here lasts far longer than the hour and a half it airs every Saturday. I would be surprised to find someone who doesn’t recognize at least one of the famous skits that has aired during the show’s 42 seasons, or someone who doesn’t know even one of the many stars that gained his or her fame as a cast member or writer on the famous program.
Brainchild of Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Live is a unique blend of light-hearted comedy and serious political messages, often combining both into the same skit. SNL both honors pop culture, featuring celebrity hosts and musical guests, and critiques it with honesty. The live nature of the show means that viewers see when the cast members crack and hear the audience’s reaction to bad jokes and controversial statements. No other show manages such an ambitious format, especially with as much caliber, as SNL. It has won 50 Emmys (with more Emmy nominations than any other show on TV), two Peabody Awards, and three Screenwriter’s Guild Awards.
In 1974, Johnny Carson decided he wanted the reruns of his popular late night show aired during the week instead of the weekend, and NBC found itself in need of a new show to fill the spot. Dick Ebersol, VP of late night programming at the time, approached Lorne Michaels and SNL was soon born. While the show was quickly popular with baby-boomers, NBC found itself receiving angry letters and calls from people offended by some of the sketches, especially with the addition of the “Weekend Update” segment, which made light of news and politics.
Though the show has always been a collaborative work, Michaels is the heart of its production. In 1980 he tried to take time off to pursue other projects, but most of the cast and writers followed him. Drama ensued and the production team faced turmoil as it attempted to find someone who could replace Michaels. The show suffered- Michaels returned in 1985, but his first season back did not go well and the show was slated to be cancelled. Executives gave him one more chance and he quickly revived SNL. In the mid-90s the show hit another round of intense criticism and CBS offered Michaels a role developing a Saturday night variety show, but he stuck with SNL. His loyalty to the network has been essential for the success of the show.
So how has Michaels managed to develop the concept of such a one of a kind show, then continue running it almost every week for several decades? He claims: “There’s a mantra that I have, which is fatigue is your friend. There’s a point at which, in anything artistic, at least from my perspective, the critical faculty can overwhelm the creative faculty… When you’re tired, you just write it, and all sorts of different kinds of work comes out.” The lack of inhibition that comes with fatigue brings a greater willingness to take a risk, which is an essential part of the creative process. Scientific studies back this up: one study by Wieth and Zacks shows “consistently greater insight problem solving performance during non-optimal times of day.” Van Steenburgh et. al. describe insight as the “aha!” moment of problem solving, contrasting it with analytical thinking. It involves a break in the analytical thought process that causes the mind to become almost distracted, which is when the solution suddenly comes to the thinker. This is essential for creating good comedy- a good joke is usually not one that you think about for hours, rather, something clever that comes naturally.
However, this lack of inhibition must be coupled with a rigid adherence to rules when necessary. To produce a TV show as successful as SNL, the producer must be on top of everything. Cast member Tina Fey wrote in her book Bossypants of SNL:
‘“A TV show comprises many departments — Costumes, Props, Talent, Graphics, Set Dressing, Transportation. Everyone in every department wants to show off their skills and contribute creatively to the show, which is a blessing. You’re grateful to work with people who are talented and enthusiastic about their jobs.
You would think that as a producer, your job would be to churn up creativity, but mostly your job is to police enthusiasm. You may have an occasion where the script calls for a bran muffin on a white plate and the Props Department shows up with a bran cake in the shape of Santa Claus sitting on a silver platter that says “Welcome to Denmark.”
“We just thought it would be funny.”
And you have to find a polite way to explain that the character is Jewish, so her eating Santa’s face might have negative connotations, and the silver tray, while beautiful, is giving a weird glare on camera and maybe let’s go with the bran muffin on the white plate.
And then sometimes Actors have what they call “ideas.” Usually it involves them talking more, or, in the case of more experienced actors, sitting more. When Actors have ideas it’s very important to get to the core reason behind their idea. Is there something you’re asking them to do that is making them uncomfortable… is there someone in the room the actor is trying to impress?”’
SNL is not all taking risks and suddenly coming up with funny jokes on a few hours of sleep. It is an enormous production, and as one that is presented on live television, is one where everything must go smoothly. This takes concentration and thoughtfulness, and an ability to see what the consequences of a decision will be. To recognize these things, mastery of the domain is necessary, and Lorne definitely exceeds the 10,000 hours needed to achieve it. Michaels has a firm grasp of cinematography, pop culture, politics, directing, and many other disciplines to make sure the show goes smoothly each week.
And here we find the genius of Lorne Michaels’ creative process, which allowed him to create a late-night empire (He also manages several other late-night programs, many of them staring SNL alumni). Few can combine uninhibited insight and risk-taking with a high level of control and foresight the way Michaels has. His process is a blend of mastery and putting aside everything that is known and has been done before, a process that has worked with most of Gardner’s major creators. This seems to be the key to producing high-level comedy, especially on a live show to an incredibly diverse audience.
Tina Fey has also said of Michaels, "He put me on TV, and no one else would have done that. Lorne created a show that's impacted culture for over 35 years. No one has ever really successfully been able to replicate it." SNL is incredibly unique thanks to the creativity of Lorne Michaels. Next time you’re debating whether or not to stay up to watch the show, consider that with a little bit of experience and studying, the sleep lost might contribute to you coming up with an idea as innovative as Saturday Night Live.