Lorne Michaels is ready to get away from it all.
Not permanently, of course. Michaels has never been more powerful in television, as he oversees NBC’s late night crown jewels and produces buzzy comedies like IFC’s “Portlandia.” But after overseeing six episodes of NBC’s “Maya and Marty,” which came straight off the “Saturday Night Live” finale, he’s ready to take a two-week vacation. Then it’s back to scouting for new “Saturday Night Live” talent and prepping for the show’s 42nd season.
But before he hit the road, Michaels talked with IndieWire about the state of his ever-growing empire, which is gearing up to take on a historic election season.
Among the highlights: “Saturday Night Live” will likely produce several live primetime “Weekend Update” editions during the lead-up to the November election, just as it did in 2008 and 2012. Also: Michaels agrees that NBC’s “The Apprentice” helped build Donald Trump into a viable presidential candidate, but doesn’t apologize for tapping Trump to host “SNL” last fall. And while Michaels is mum on where he stands contractually with NBC, he does expect to produce more episodes of “Maya & Marty” for the network later this year.
Here’s an edited version of our Friday morning chat with late night’s true king.
One of “Saturday Night Live’s” big “gets” this year was enlisting Larry David to play Bernie Sanders. How did that come together?
I was at the host dinner that week and I got a text from friends saying, “Bernie Sanders is Larry David!” Then I got back to the office and a lot of the writers were watching the debate, and one of them says, “Bernie Sanders is Larry David!” Two minutes later my phone rang and it was [WME’s] Ari Emanuel who said, “Bernie Sanders is Larry David, Larry would love to do him.”
Well, Bernie Sanders is Larry David.
And it was great with the cast. No one thought they were losing a part. We just thought this was a moment in time that we got exactly right.
Meanwhile, others had been playing Donald Trump; why did you ultimately enlist Darrell Hammond for the role? I assume it’s because he has done it for so long.
There’s an age thing too. When you’re playing someone who’s 70, and you’re in your 20s, there’s just a different feeling to it. Taran [Killam, who also played Trump] had Ted Cruz and sort of evolved him, and having Darrell there, you don’t have to worry about that.
No matter who wins the election, Darrell plays both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, so he’s guaranteed a role.
I guess, yeah!
The last few elections, you’ve done a Thursday primetime edition “Saturday Night Live Weekend Update.” Has there been talk of doing those again?
Yeah. That’s all under discussion. It’ll depend on the fall schedule, but yeah, I think we’ll definitely be there. It is an election that everyone is paying attention to and best of all, no one knows where it’s going.
Do you think it’ll be on Thursday night again, or are you guys talking about moving it around?
That’s about NBC’s schedule. Thursday would be our preference. Friday is difficult for us because we’re in the middle of “SNL” then. But earlier in the week is also fine.
Are you expecting to make many “SNL” cast changes this year? Or bring on many new people?
No one knows, least of all me, until you go see what’s around. I am very happy with the cast I have so, I don’t think it will be anything terribly [different]. We had a successful season and that’s all you can ever hope for. I think of change as just being part of the show. It has to be renewed every year, and you have to be building for the future. We’ll see the vice presidential choices. Kate and Leslie have “Ghostbusters” coming out, which I think will be a big change for them. There’s just lots of things happening.
What’s your take of the current late night landscape? Have things settled in, or do you think we’ll see more surprise moves?
I think the more shows that are on, the more people come to the neighborhood. I think Colbert is settling in, Kimmel does a really good show. People find the person that they’re most comfortable watching. I’m obviously really proud of where Jimmy is. Those shows are always who is behind the desk. I think Samantha Bee is doing a really good show. You want as many different voices as you can. The more intelligent and smart it is, the more it makes everybody improve their game.
Seth Meyers seems to be having a moment. He’s having some fun with his Donald Trump ban, and his Closer Look segments seem to really be taking off as well. Has he found his groove?
I think Seth has really come into his own. You can see that everything is now working. It’s confident, it’s strong, it’s clear that it’s like no other show on in late night. People know what to expect or what to hope to expect from him.
There is a movement towards more strong political points of view among late night hosts. Besides Seth, Stephen Colbert has also been expressing his views. Has it become OK to be partisan in late night?
That was the traditional role of cable. Particularly the Comedy Central shows were really strong because they were partisan. And designed that way. “Saturday Night Live” has always been you know, non-partisan — whoever’s in power should probably be challenged. To develop an identity that way is easier when you’re not so much guest-dependent and trying to hold a big audience. Jimmy Fallon’s task is completely different than Seth’s.
There does seem to be an elevated political conversation going on right now on some of the shows.
The most important thing is these shows work best when people actually care what’s happening to the country. There are lots of times when things are OK, and people are not terribly concerned. But this is an election that everyone senses is important. So like a sporting event, where there’s two teams, like the NBA finals, people watch.
The last few elections have been really good for “SNL,” so I assume it feels like it’s game time.
An election year is traditionally good for us. And also, with the velocity of change now, no one knows what’s happening. This is the first election in my lifetime where I can’t tell you where it’s going. For me to be able to have a voice in it is important.
And the fact that a former NBC employee is now the Republican nominee is pretty astounding.
As his resume goes, I think “NBC employee” is probably not the first thing people identify with. But he has definitely shaken things up.
Speaking of Trump, You took some grief for having him as “SNL” host.
Yeah, I did.
In hindsight is there anything you would have done differently?
Well, I think last fall, the people you thought were part of the moment, or what was happening, were Trump, Bernie and Hillary. And we had all three on the show pretty early. You catch a lot of grief for doing it but it’s what we’ve always done, and what I think the audience expects us to be doing.
“The Apprentice” gave him a lot more exposure over the past decade. Do you think it played a role in his candidacy?
Oh yeah. There’s nothing that sells stuff like television. Nothing. I think that the times tend to throw up the people that are demanded. I think he is reflective of where the country is right now, and to a large extent Hillary is as well. And Bernie Sanders was as well.
Politics aside, a Donald Trump win would be good for your shows. It will give your hosts plenty of fodder.
I think whomever wins will be good for our show. It isn’t that when Donald Trump becomes president, people would become more willing to laugh at things. It changes all the time, and how people feel about people. The only discussion about Reagan at the beginning was that he was old and that he was an actor. And that changed.
Both Jimmy and Seth are locked in at NBC until at least 2021. What about you? What’s the latest on your deal and how long you’re under contract at NBC?
Oh, I don’t know. I expect to be there for a long time to come. They have not urged me to leave.
Have you done a new deal or extended your deal there?
I’m very, very happy there. The Comcast guys, Steve Burke and Brian Roberts, have been just great. We feel supported and they’re on our side. And you saw that at the 40th anniversary.
“Portlandia” is the little show that could. What does its future look like?
I expect it will [continue] because one, the audience that wants it is very determined that it will go on. And also, I think they do a show where they can both do many other things and [also do it]. They somehow manage to renew it every year and find a new way in and make it fresh.
As “Maya & Marty” winds down its initial six-episode order, what have you learned about producing a variety show circa 2016?
I began my career writing on these kinds of shows, so I’ve got an institutional memory for them. But this is first and foremost a family show. It’s much broader in terms of the comedy. We don’t have the traditional variety elements — we’re not booking someone whose big new hit song you want to hear. That’s what late night does now. [But] the thing that’s different is there’s a real sweetness to this show. There’s a tradition of variety shows, where it’s something that people all watch together.
Are you talking to NBC now about more episodes? What’s the long-term plan?
The idea of this was always for it to be a sort of pop-up show. The most you can do are six or eight at a time, and even that’s a lot. You can’t do a traditional variety show anymore. I’m sure “Sonny and Cher” did 24, 26 episodes a year minimum. That’s not the way television works anymore. But you can become an event. And people look forward to it and know that there’s going to be a month of these, or five weeks of these and I think people would be happy.
Will you wait until next summer to do it again?
No, I think it’ll happen before then. I think it’s popular, and I think it will only grow more popular.