Who would have thought a kid from Toronto would go on to become the most important man in the history of American comedy? In 1975, NBC invited a 30-year-old comedy writer named Lorne Michaels to pitch a show to accomplish the minor feat of giving Johnny Carson Tonight reruns a rest at 11:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Appealing to younger audiences would be a plus.
From this seed, Michaels gave birth to a late-night sketch show initially called NBC’s Saturday Night. (After a Howard Cosell-hosted variety show with a similar name tanked, Mr. Michaels’s show became Saturday Night Live.) SNL introduced the world to the original cast of “The Not Ready for Prime-Time Players,” including Chevy Chase, Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi and Gilda Radner. All became comedic icons.
His show, which has remained firmly under his creative control for nearly 40 years—save a brief blip in the early ’80s—would go on to redefine late-night television, create a national comedic institution and remake American comedy. Most remarkably, SNL accomplished the impossible feat of making it cool to stay in on Saturday nights.
Over the years, SNL’s supremacy would establish New York as the definitive comedian’s mecca. Even as Mr. Michaels conducted frequent talent raids in Chicago, L.A. and Toronto and at The Harvard Lampoon, the talent thrived and grew in the SNL environment. His impeccable eye for potential would only grow more acute as the years went on, with the show launching the careers of some of the biggest stars of our time—from Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers to Will Ferrell and Tina Fey—and spawning numerous TV shows and films, from Wayne’s World to 30 Rock.
The show’s spot-on lampooning of politics, most notably during election years, would entrench its role as a pivotal cultural catalyst and political tastemaker. In many instances, SNL’s take on politics influenced the public perception of our leaders more than their words and deeds themselves. (For instance: Dana Carvey’s goofy George H.W. Bush; Darrell Hammond’s smooth-talking Bill Clinton; Will Ferrell’s bumbling George W. Bush; Tina Fey’s lovably laughable Sarah Palin.)
The list of hosts and musical guests alone reads like a who’s who of four decades of American culture, with leading actors, musicians, athletes and even presidents taking turns lighting up the now-world-famous stage at 30 Rockefeller Center.
Yet while hosts and cast members have come and gone, Mr. Michaels has remained firmly enthroned as SNL’s supreme ruler. The man himself has become a legendary character in his own right, with his acerbic personality becoming the fodder for many satires by his cast over the years, but always with the deference and respect accorded the man behind it all. Lorne Michaels is the undisputed godfather of modern American comedy.