Revenge of the NBC Nerds

As he sat hunched and smiling beside David Letterman on Jan. 7, Saturday Night Live cast member Norm Macdonald had this to say about NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer: “He’s a good man.”

Mr. Letterman, perched sideways at his desk, feigned apoplexy. “He just fired you!” said the host. “What do you mean he’s a good … What is wrong with you?”

It was great TV. Instead of the usual celebrity plugging a product, Mr. Macdonald was practically breaking the news of his own firing, and what he had to say was at variance with the NBC press release. Mr. Letterman, whose misadventures with NBC executives has filled a book, was the perfect audience for Mr. Macdonald’s low-key telling of how Mr. Ohlmeyer told him he was being demoted because he, Don Ohlmeyer, simply didn’t think he was funny. Cagily pretending not to be all that bothered by getting the boot, Mr. Macdonald seemed amused by the turn his career was taking. So Mr. Letterman, who loved to make sport of TV executives when he was at NBC, calling them weasels and pinheads at every opportunity, got outraged on the younger comedian’s behalf.

During the 10 or so minutes that the two men had their semiprivate conversation on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater, Mr. Letterman seemed freed of the funk that has hung over his show lately. It was payback time and Mr. Letterman was more than willing to do the heavy slashing. “I know Don Ohlmeyer,” he told Mr. Macdonald, “and between you and me, he’s an idiot.”

In further outbursts, he gave Mr. Ohlmeyer two impromptu nicknames: Happy Hour Ohlmeyer (that one was cut from the version of Late Show With David Letterman that aired that night) and Don “Cologne and Cufflinks” Ohlmeyer. Mr. Letterman also found a moment to dub Lorne Michaels, the founder of Saturday Night Live , as Lorne “Table-at-Orso’s” Michaels.

These televised moments of clear-eyed defiance were a reminder in this time of Jay Leno and Must-See TV that the best comedy is born of anger and resistance to the status quo. And during his three and a half seasons as the “Weekend Update” anchor, Mr. Macdonald and his writing partners had focused their defiance on our society’s obsession with political correctness and its tendency to shroud the truth with layers of equivocation. Their jokes stripped away the P.C. veneer and got at what we really think. Next to a picture of Bill Clinton honoring the victims of the Tuskeegee experiment on syphilis, for instance, Mr. Macdonald reported that the President said: “Without the sacrifice of these brave men, I would not be alive today.” And when he wasn’t reminding viewers that Michael Jackson was not a pedophile, he was a “homosexual pedophile,” Mr. Macdonald was contending that the King of Pop had taken home a hunk of his newborn son’s umbilical cord so that the “Elephant Man’s remains would have a new play friend.”

Mr. Macdonald was much more than good at his job, which is why his removal from what he called “the fake news” is much more than a routine personnel change. When Mr. Macdonald appeared behind the “Weekend Update” desk, a mixture of sweetness and evil on that waxy, apple-cheeked face of his, we knew that he was going to say-on national television-what so many of us really think about President Clinton, O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, Gloria Allred and a host of other characters. The thing is, too, Mr. Macdonald wasn’t making fun of Republicans and forgotten stars of yesteryear like Gallagher or Gary Coleman; he was going after people in power. And even when he didn’t get a laugh, Mr. Macdonald just stared out there, never averting his gaze. Each week, he hung it out there, until he got it chopped off.

“We don’t want you to like us for any reason except that we’re funny, not because we’re warm or our hearts are in the right place,” said James Downey, until recently a writer and producer of “Weekend Update” and another recipient of Mr. Ohlmeyer’s wrath.

Mr. Downey was not exactly surprised by what happened. “They have fought me and Norm doing ‘Update’ for three and a half years. Every week,” said Mr. Downey. “It took three and a half years to wear Lorne down.”

On the Letterman show, Mr. Macdonald claimed he was no good at sketch material, but anyone who saw his dead-on impersonation of Quentin Tarantino on the Jan. 10 Saturday Night Live would disagree. Still, Mr. Macdonald managed to sum up all that’s wrong with the show’s sketches when he told Mr. Letterman of what he would have to do in his post-“Weekend Update” role: “Now they’re saying, we’ll put you in a whole bunch of sketches which I don’t want to be in because they’re like, here, you’re the scientist … you’re the scientist in charge of Monkey Boy, or some damn thing. And you know, and, uh, I’m like running in going, ‘Hey, cheerleaders, what’s going on, I haven’t seen Monkey Boy!'”

The morning after his Late Show appearance, Mr. Macdonald demonstrated his Zen-like impenitence in a 50-minute appearance for another comedian who had been hosed by NBC, Howard Stern. Like Mr. Letterman, Mr. Stern also seemed puzzled by Mr. Macdonald’s apparent reluctance to lay into the man who had axed him-until Mr. Macdonald, while maintaining that Mr. Ohlmeyer was a “good man,” started making allusions to the executive’s alleged problems with alcohol and the sexual harassment complaint filed against him by his former underling, Jamie Tarses, who’s now at ABC.

And following those two performances, Mr. Macdonald seemed to ratchet back his bad-boy instincts. His subsequent public remarks were fairly benign comments made to TV beat reporters, and he did not return our numerous calls. Nothing he could say would change the fact that Mr. Ohlmeyer had stepped in and erased essentially the last vestige of dangerous comedy from a show increasingly driven by repetitions of catch phrases and the trotting out of the same “zany” characters episode after episode.

Mr. Macdonald was not the only victim of Mr. Ohlmeyer’s New Year’s crusade. Mr. Downey, who has a 20-year history with Saturday Night Live (seven as its producer) was also reportedly removed as producer of “Weekend Update.”

Mr. Downey, who, along with Frank Sebastiano and Ross Abrash, formed the close-knit writing team for “Weekend Update,” said he has yet to hear anything “definitive” about his job status; but on the other hand, he told The Observer : “I would expect it would be awkward for me to be involved with ‘Update’ any time soon from their perspective.”

One person with ties to the show said that Mr. Downey was really the guy Mr. Ohlmeyer wanted removed; when Mr. Macdonald refused to go along with that, he took a bullet, too. Mr. Downey said he didn’t know if this was true, but added, “It’s certainly plausible. It makes a lot more sense than the theory that he had equal problems with both of us … I can’t believe there’s anyone in our group that Don dislikes more than me.”

Aside from that, Mr. Downey has a very distinct theory as to why Norm Macdonald is no longer doing “Weekend Update.” He calls his theory “The Revenge of the Nerds” and said it has its roots in the late-night war of 1993 that saw Mr. Letterman pitted against his onetime friend, Mr. Leno.

NBC executives such as Mr. Ohlmeyer “were the guys who picked Leno over Letterman,” said Mr. Downey. “We are clearly Letterman people. I was head writer of Late Night for two years. Norm is one of Dave’s favorite guests. Jay is their guy. He’s warm, up. Letterman is more aloof.”

For almost two years after NBC selected Mr. Leno for The Tonight Show , David Letterman was the late-night ratings champ. But since the summer of 1995, when viewers decided to check out Mr. Leno’s show on the night Hugh Grant offered up his apology after being busted for soliciting a prostitute, Mr. Leno has been the clear winner, and an increasingly demoralized Late Show With David Letterman has slipped to third place. The victory over Mr. Letterman has made the NBC executives cocky.

Back when the NBC suits chose Mr. Leno, recalled Mr. Downey, “They were reviled. They wore the goat horns and the dunce hats and were mocked in the village square. And it’s as if they secretly held hands and hunkered down and said: ‘Our time will come. History will vindicate our judgment.'”

And with the success of Leno, “they’ve got this swagger now,” said Mr. Downey. “It used to be, ‘Hi, do you have a second?’ And we were glowering at them like, you dare speak! Nowadays, it’s, ‘Hey, motherfucker, I got some notes here. Sit down.’

“They moved in on The Tonight Show ,” concluded Mr. Downey. “They got it back from Carson. I think they would like to do that to this show.”

Statements made by Conan O’Brien, host of NBC’s Late Night With Conan O’Brien , in a recent interview with Playboy suggest that Mr. Downey’s theory is not so far-fetched. Mr. O’Brien described the network’s tracking of his show during its difficult first years as “specific and tactical.”

“Say there was a drop in the ratings between 12:44 and 12:48 when I was talking to Jon Bon Jovi,” Mr. O’Brien said. “I’ll be told, ‘Don’t ever talk to him again.'”

Mr. O’Brien, who revealed in the interview that NBC canceled his show for 24 hours before realizing they had nothing to replace it with, also said he “will always be indebted” to Mr. Ohlmeyer. He described Mr. Ohlmeyer as “brutally honest. He came to me and said, ‘Give me about a 15 percent bump in the ratings and you’ll stay on the air. If not, we’re going to move on.'”

Sources close to Saturday Night Live said that NBC executives were concerned that the ratings fell off a bit for Saturday Night Live at around midnight, just before Mr. Macdonald’s “Weekend Update” came on.

Like Mr. Macdonald and Mr. O’Brien, Mr. Downey also said he had a high opinion of Mr. Ohlmeyer’s frankness. “I wish most people in show business were as direct as Don Ohlmeyer,” he said. “He is a straight shooter. He never says anything worse about you behind your back than he says to your face. At great cost, he’s loyal to his friends. These are admirable qualities. He’s also a fighter. I just wish he were on my side.”

Mr. Downey’s reference to Mr. Ohlmeyer’s loyalty is, of course, a veiled allusion to the NBC executive’s longtime friendship with O.J. Simpson. Since Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Downey began collaborating on “Weekend Update,” Mr. Simpson’s travails during his criminal trial for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and since then have proved ample fodder for jokes. Mr. Downey estimated that in the last three seasons, there has been only one “Weekend Update” segment that was O.J.-free, and that usually Mr. Simpson was skewered more than once on the phony newscast.

“To me the relentlessness of the O.J. stuff is what’s funny about it,” said Mr. Downey.

Although the executive never said anything directly to him, Mr. Downey said he is certain that the blizzard of Simpson jokes played a role in Mr. Ohlmeyer’s purge of the segment. “I would say it’s a minor part [of the decision],” said Mr. Downey, “but it is there.”

The Saturday Night Live broadcast that aired before the holiday break-and just before Mr. Ohlmeyer made his decision to clean up “Weekend Update”-contained two such jokes. The first one dealt with Latrell Sprewell of the Golden State Warriors, who had been suspended for choking his coach. Mr. Sprewell had hired attorney Johnnie Cochran and the “Weekend Update” gag was that Mr. Cochran had held a press conference to insist that his client had not throttled his coach and “even offered a reward to help find the real chokers.” The second bit involved an incident in which Mr. Simpson had been refused a seat at a Los Angeles restaurant because he was upsetting the patrons. Mr. Macdonald reported that Mr. Simpson had sicced Mr. Cochran on the restaurant and that the restaurant now had to institute “separate ‘murderer’ and ‘non-murderer’ sections.”

In their interviews with Mr. Macdonald, both Mr. Letterman and Mr. Stern asked why Lorne Michaels didn’t do more to fend off Mr. Ohlmeyer. Granted, Mr. Michaels was occupied by domestic matters (his wife just gave birth Jan. 12), but as one person familiar with the situation put it, Saturday Night Live is his real baby, and the Michaels camp has been utterly silent on the whole incident.

“You think Lorne digs you, right?” Mr. Stern said to Mr. Macdonald on his radio show. “You think Lorne is against what Don Ohlmeyer is doing?”

“Well, that’s what he told me,” Mr. Macdonald replied.

The sound of derisive laughter, real or taped, filled the WXRK-FM studio.

“Boy, are you naïve!” Mr. Stern said. “Lorne doesn’t have the balls to tell you you’re off ‘Weekend Update.'”

“Wait a minute,” said Mr. Macdonald. “Lorne doesn’t want me on ‘Weekend Update’?”

“Right,” said Mr. Stern

“That’s horrible ,” said Mr. Macdonald. “He told me he wanted me.”

Mr. Michaels has long enjoyed a sort of hybrid reputation as both someone who inspires intense loyalty from his troops and someone whose well-developed sense of self-preservation would prompt him to sacrifice an acolyte or two to save his own hide. The “Weekend Update” mess has revealed the inherent contradiction in Mr. Michaels’ desire to play mentor to up-and-coming comedians and be a Hollywood player. According to one insider, “Lorne had a really, really tough time with this because it makes Lorne look like an idiot.” Nonetheless, the source said, “Lorne was ordered to do this, that’s really what happened. Now Lorne could have said, Hey, listen, then I quit. Yeah, he could. He didn’t, and he’ll have to deal with that.”

Mr. Michaels certainly wasn’t shy about speaking his mind in 1995, the last time that Saturday Night Live (and Mr. Downey, in particular) came under real fire from the network. In March of that year, both Mr. Ohlmeyer and NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield, criticized the show, with Mr. Littlefield going so far as to tell Broadcasting & Cable magazine that the only two things about the show that wouldn’t be subject to change “are live and from New York.” A few weeks later, Mr. Michaels shot back that he had been working with Mr. Ohlmeyer to make changes in the show, and added that Mr. Littlefield’s comments were “infuriating to me and, I believe, uncalled for.”

This time around, Mr. Littlefield has been virtually invisible, perhaps because of all the potential problems that loom for NBC’s prime-time schedule. As for Mr. Michaels, last year he signed a new deal with NBC and those familiar with it say that it may be a big part of the reason he has held his tongue.

The deal, which was announced last July, put Mr. Michaels as the chairman of SNL Studios, a new partnership with NBC Enterprises, which would produce programming for NBC. Mr. Michaels also signed a deal to remain with Saturday Night Live for four more years.

But sources familiar with the deal characterized it as one in which NBC essentially bought out, for millions of dollars, much of Mr. Michaels’ control over the show, including such ancillary areas as home video, foreign rights and merchandising, which were once handled by Mr. Michaels’ Broadway Video.

As for Mr. Downey, he said that he has “no reason” to be angry at Mr. Michaels. “I do feel he has protected me,” said Mr. Downey. “I told him during one of our conversations regarding this, when he said this might happen, I said, ‘Hey, man, you gave me my first job. It’s not your job to save my job.”

It must be ironic, though, for Mr. Michaels to be kowtowing to Mr. Ohlmeyer’s creative decision making. According to Jeff Weingrad’s and Doug Hill’s Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, there were only two candidates on Dick Ebersol’s list to spearhead the network’s concept for a Saturday late night program: Mr. Michaels and a guy that Mr. Ebersol, NBC’s director of weekend late-night programming, had worked with (under Roone Arledge) over at ABC: Don Ohlmeyer. But, according to the book, Mr. Ohlmeyer turned the gig down because he sensed that NBC was not really behind the show.

The line on Mr. Ohlmeyer is that, according to one insider, “he’s a major pain in the ass now that he’s sober.” But up to the intervention that led to him checking himself in to the Betty Ford Clinic, Mr. Ohlmeyer posed a bit of a P.R. problem for the upright folks at NBC and its parent company, General Electric. This can’t be lost on Mr. Macdonald who has often been perceive by those around him as a bit of an oddity. “To know Norm is to love him, but to know him is not to understand him,” said one media executive who has worked with the comedian.

“He’s a freaky guy, unpredictable and strange,” said one Saturday Night Live staff member, who accused him of being “homophobic … he’s always calling people ‘gay’ and ‘homo'” and of harboring an “attitude about women.” On a recent “Weekend Update,” for instance, Mr. Macdonald offered a joke about how Mattel was redesigning its Barbie doll with more human proportions, explaining that were Barbie 6 feet tall she’d have a 40-inch chest. Mr. Macdonald’s punch line: “Why not just make her 6 feet tall?”

Network executives have also accused the “Weekend Update” writers of being insensitive. Mr. Downey’s response? “We’re just being goofy and cheeky.” Said one Saturday Night Live cast member of Mr. Macdonald and his crew: “They’re just silly boys.”

Of course, other cast members might not be inclined to agree. In a recent Rolling Stone cover story on the show, Mr. Macdonald was not so charitable toward his fellow cast members, saying Chris Kattan (who plays Monkey Boy) was not funny and also “gay.” “Norm was being a wiseass,” said Mr. Downey, “using the term in the precise sense that 15-year-olds in high school use it.” (Mr. Kattan was not happy to hear Mr. Macdonald accusing him of being unfunny, and denied he was gay.)

Mr. Macdonald may not be much of a team player, but as one friend pointed out, while many of the cast members come from comedy troupes, “Norm comes from the world of standup where you’re sort of a loner in charge of your own stuff.” All of which could explain what one Saturday Night Live staff member explained as the general reaction to his being replaced on “Weekend Update”: “In general, people didn’t like him, but they thought he was good at his job, so they were bummed that he got kicked off.”

Mr. Downey said that he and Mr. Macdonald watched Colin Quinn’s debut at the “Weekend Update” desk from Mr. Macdonald’s office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. “I think it probably hit him a little bit that he wasn’t doing ‘Update,'” said Mr. Downey.

Mr. Downey doesn’t seem chastened by any of this. “At some point it will pass,” he said. “If I’ve learned anything in 20 years of television, it’s that their way of thinking cannot prevail.”

-Additional reporting by Nikki Finke.

Revenge of the NBC Nerds