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When he got on the phone Tuesday night to discuss the upcoming season of Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels was just getting out of a long production meeting. There was a lot to figure out. That is always the case with SNL, the show Michaels has helmed continuously since 1975 (save for a few years in the early ’80s). Once the season starts, they are caught up in a cycle of live episodes, so the big decisions need to be made during the summer. And that’s in a normal SNL season. Season 46 is not going to be normal.
For starters, Michaels is trying to figure out how to produce a show, in the middle of a pandemic, with an audience. COVID-19, having thrown off the entire entertainment industry, also means he needs to figure out how to manage cast members who likely will be shooting other projects during the season. And, last but surely not least, there is this election. As Michaels joked to me, “It’s not an original thought or statement to say that there’s a lot at stake.” SNL already had its Trump, with Alec Baldwin returning to the role he’s been playing since 2016, and its Kamala Harris, as Maya Rudolph’s impression last season proved to be a hit. But who was going to play Joe Biden?
Michaels revealed to Vulture who will imitate the former vice-president, as well as who’s joining the cast, what changes have been made to the head writers, how the show is working with Governor Cuomo’s office to make sure there can be a limited in-studio audience, and what he’s thinking and feeling with the October 3 premiere two weeks away.
I want to start with last spring and the At Home shows. Can you walk me through the thought process of doing episodes in the middle of a pandemic, and how you thought they went? What surprised you?
What surprised me the most — well, didn’t surprise me, but what I was happiest about, was the cohesiveness of all the people working in production. We were talking to people on production calls and somebody’s in Ohio, somebody’s in Massachusetts, so it was hard. Because of all the years together and that many shows — everybody just understood the shorthand. So the culture held, and I was happy about that. It was an amazing thing.
I tend to focus on the mistakes of the things that didn’t quite work the way I’d hoped, so there’s never a perfect show for me. But with these episodes, you had to lock it early or at least make all the decisions early, and then it was about if everything would get done. We’d call the running order at 5:00, so now can they make everything ready for 11:30? Because there’s so many pieces that were interconnected and needed a fix or editing. And then we say good-bye and watch it at 11:30.
There were a lot of people who answered the bell: Miley Cyrus and Chris Martin and Brad Pitt. Tom Hanks, of course, most of all for that first [At Home episode], because he’d actually had COVID-19, him and Rita [Wilson]. So having him cooperate and talk to the audience about what he’d gone through, and also just because he’s done the show so often, he could both speak for his own experience, and also for the show that this is what this is.
Why did you decide to do the At Home version at all?
Because it felt like we’d been planning on coming back. I literally went on spring break with my wife and daughter after the last show we did, which was the Daniel Craig show. We did the show, there was an after-party, then while I was gone, the world blew up. It began to dawn that we were not coming back. At first it was, We’ll be delayed a couple weeks. And then there were a lot of reasons to do the show, some economic. There are a lot of people whose job it was. We wanted to finish the season, or finish it in any way we could. But also, we’ve always been there in difficult times. People expect us to show up, and that’s another reason why we’re coming back in a couple weeks.
This summer I talked to Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong, and they both said doing the At Home shows reignited their passion for doing the traditional show. As you spent the summer thinking about last season and what you wanted from next season, how did those episodes affect how you felt about the show that you’ve been working on for 40 years? Did you come out of it being like, I’m excited to get back into doing it in the studio?
Do I feel excited? I just came out of a production meeting for two and half hours. [Laughs.] You know, there’s still a lot to figure out. We need the audience, obviously. With comedy, when you don’t hear the response, it’s just different. With the kind of comedy we do, which quite often is broad, timing gets thrown off without an audience. And for me, what is most important is when you’re absolutely certain of some piece on Wednesday, and then the dress-rehearsal audience sees it on Saturday and tells you you’re wrong.
That discipline of the audience having a voice is really important to the process. You see it play or not play. All discussions up to that point, particularly between me and the specific writer on a piece, when it doesn’t play are settled. So there’s just no time to go through it in a granular way; it just is, “Lose these two minutes. Do this.” So all of that the audience is part of, and those 400 people who are there at dress have never worked with each other before. So, how they’re knit together as an audience, and whether we’re on the right track, is much easier to see if you’ve done it once. And the cast needs them to find a level for the air show, because they can go bigger or smaller at dress, but then they can adjust.
It was announced last week that the show is coming back on October 3 live and in Studio 8H. Can you walk me through how you’re going to do the show on a practical level?
Well, there’s the sheer physical challenge of what we can do within protocols. We’ve been getting support from the governor’s office, which is important because the audience is a huge part of it. Also, us coming back and accomplishing the show will lead to — I hate to use the word normalcy — but it’s a thing that is part of our lives coming back, in whatever form it ends up coming back. So the physical problems of doing it — number of people who can be in the studio, number of people who can be in the control room, how you separate the band so that they’re not in any jeopardy — all of those are part of the meetings we’ve been having.
At the same time, I made the decision early on, or at least about a month ago, that we would do something we hadn’t done before, which was five shows in a row. Because there are four debates and then it’s Halloween, and that’s the weekend before the election. And sadly, if the election gets extended, then we’ll be doing six or seven shows in a row. Fatigue has been part of it, so we’re trying to make sure that everyone is safe and protected and looked after. The show will be compromised on some levels of production, but it will be recognizable as the show you’ve seen all these years.
Will the hosts function in the same way where they’ll be there for the whole week?
Yes. It will also be smaller. I don’t think we’ll go in 25 minutes or 30 minutes long at dress rehearsal. We’ll be tighter. We’ll try to mount fewer things, only because of the number of people who can be in the studio — the cast have to leave before stagehands can enter, those kinds of problems. Just the logistics alone will … [Laughs.] It’s going to be interesting. And you’ll see the same people. Maya Rudolph is coming back, and Alec [Baldwin] will be back. And Jim Carrey is going to do Biden.
Oh wow. How did you land on Jim for Biden?
There was some interest on his part. And then we responded, obviously, positively. But it came down to discussions about what the take was. He and Colin Jost had a bunch of talks. He and I as well. He will give the part energy and strength, and … [Laughs.] Hopefully it’s funny.
What made you decide to shift toward having the big political impressions go to celebrity cameos?
I honestly don’t think of them as celebrity cameos. I think that’s the sort of New York Times approach to thinking about things. Alec Baldwin’s probably done the show 25 or 30 times. He’s just part of an extended group in the same way that if Tina Fey has something meaningful to say on Update, we’d welcome her. It’s the same way with Maya [as Kamala] — you saw what she brought to it. So, I don’t think of it that way. Beck [Bennett] will be doing Pence because he does it brilliantly. And also, you’re talking about candidates who are in their 70s. When you put someone 28 in that makeup, it just different. Obviously Woody [Harrelson] did Biden on the first show last season and did it brilliantly. Jason [Sudeikis] has done it in the past. Part of it also is whoever does it has to basically relocate to New York because of quarantine. So, there were a lot of factors involved in that. But I’m thrilled Jim’s doing it.
This week, the show announced that all the cast from last season is returning next season. Will there be any new cast members?
Yeah. There’ll be three new featured players. There is Lauren Holt, who auditioned a year ago, and again last season, and the plan was to bring her in toward the end of the season that ended abruptly. She’s funny and fresh. Punkie Johnson, who is from New Orleans, and a stand-up. And Andrew Dismukes is the third. He was on the writing staff, but he’s a stand-up as well.
Last year you cast a young comedian named Shane Gillis, who after clips emerged from his podcast you decided to not have join the cast. How did that experience affect how you thought about and approached casting and vetting this time around?
Well, I don’t think you can start casting and the criteria is people who have never made a mistake. You start with casting people you think are funny, and then you go over them after you used your own judgment on who they are, because you can’t possibly know them for any length of time. Then you go through their past work, and … I think that’s sort of what the media now does.
All three of [the new cast members] are people with original voices and talent. They’re bringing something that we now don’t have. And also, Kate will be back for all these election shows. So many people had committed to doing projects in the summer, which then got moved. Aidy has been doing Shrill, and she’ll be here for some shows and have to go back to that for others. Cecily is doing a project in Vancouver, but we’ll green screen her for things. People will stay involved, but they may not physically be in the studio.
There are a lot of really long-running cast members.
Does that reflect a different approach? Is it something about this season in particular?
Many things have happened. One of them is that the traditional television season is now eight to ten episodes. Kenan’s show, which would have been shot over the summer, is ten episodes. Now it’ll be shot after the election shows, and he’ll go back and forth to Los Angeles. But Kenan can come in the day before and he’ll be fine; he just knows the drill so well. And certainly that’s the way it is for Cecily as well, and Aidy. Their hearts are here. I have no question about it. This is their first priority. So I’m happy about that.
Are there any changes in terms of head writer?
Anna has been added, Anna Drezen.
Oh cool! That’s great.
Yeah, no, she’s great.
You have a unique vantage point on American politics as a Canadian American running this show. Does it feel different right now? Why or how has the show tried to adapt?
With this election, it’s not an original thought or statement to say that there’s a lot at stake. Going back to Ford/Carter, we’ve had a voice, and we will try as hard as possible to maintain that voice. If anybody talks about “truth to power” or any of that, it’s tedious, because everybody says they’re doing it, and power seems to be unaffected by it entirely. So, we’ll give our point of view. There are a lot of writers, a lot of differing points of view. And the show’s tried really hard to not just be a partisan voice, but to be clear-headed about it. Over the years, I’ve had, obviously, complaints from both parties. People feel things are unfair, and I understand that. But if we’re taking shots, I hope we’re taking clean shots.
In the past, you’ve talked about how the show originally was born out of Watergate and a generation of people who were questioning institutions, be it political or cultural.
Right now, I’d say you have another generation of young people who are seriously questioning institutions.
Yeah, for sure.
The difference is SNL is arguably one of them. How do you reconcile that? How do you see your and SNL’s role now in considering that?
I think in exactly the same way. We came on in ’75, and the last helicopter of Saigon was ’75. And there was Watergate, of course. When I got here, the city felt abandoned and broke. But it was also a really exciting time to be in New York, and we were part of the rebirth. I don’t think things are nearly as bad now as they were then. But things go up and down and go through bad periods, and you just want to be able to express what you’re thinking about all of that, which comes from some place of thought.
And you feel like you can still do that sort of as outsiders, even though you are …
Yeah. Even though I’m … Well, “yeah” is the answer. But I’m sitting in — and I just realized this because I haven’t been back here since March — but I’m in the office that I’ve been in since 1975, and not much has changed there. This show is such a handmade show, and it involves so many people. And they all have to care deeply, because the job is way too hard to do for any other reason than that you believe in it and that you believe it’s important.
This summer we saw protests in historic numbers in an attempt to reckon with institutional racism in our society. Has the Black Lives Matter movement made you think differently about the show or your role as the boss?
From Minnesota on, watching that, living through that — the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter — all of it had always been under the surface, and there it sort of took center-stage, and obviously for all the best reasons. So it was officially understood as important, and time had run out on the various excuses. That said, I think we always tried to be sensitive to all of it. Considering that it’s an institution started in 1975, we’ve lived through a lot. All you can try and do is try to integrate what you learn and feel into how you cast, how you write, how you do the show.
Have you learned anything about covering Trump and politics from these last few years that you hope to apply to this election?
So much of news coverage is, “Do you believe he did this?” “Do you believe he said this?” And somehow or another, he ends up being the thing everyone’s talking about, which I have a feeling, on a show-business level, is part of his plan. We try to get to the truth of it. Same with Biden. In the nicest possible way, we’re not their friends.
I heard you talk about how certain presidential nominees and presidents are easy to impersonate or they’re interesting to impersonate. But then you have people like Obama, who are really hard.
Yeah, and Reagan. Reagan also was really hard.
How are Trump and Biden as impression targets?
Alec does his version of it, and his has more depth because he’s really doing a character. But then he’s also doing stuff that’s written by a fairly sophisticated writing staff. With Biden, I had this experience in 2000 where getting ready for the election, Darrell [Hammond] did Al Gore on Update in May before the election started, and the audience didn’t know who he was. The problem in politics is everyone they meet knows who they are. So, they don’t get the sense of how big the country is and how little anybody’s really paying attention. You know, I’m a baseball fan, but I don’t really know who’s playing for the Cincinnati Reds, but if they’re in the World Series, I’ll know. And that’ll be about the time I start to pay attention.
What I’m saying is these are national events — big and life-changing events. People are commenting on it every day for four years, but I’m not sure people pay much attention. This is the time when they pay attention. That’s why these debates will be important, and that’s why we’ll be doing all of that. It’s going to be a very, very close race. And as I said earlier, if it goes into extra innings, it’s going to be even more exhausting.
I was working on a show called Laugh In in 1968, and Richard Nixon came on. I didn’t know him, obviously, but he came on and said, “Sock it to me” — and, I don’t know, did it influence people or not? Obviously, I was the lowest end of writer there and a kid. But what I’m getting at is there’s no time that feels as divided as that period of ’68.
Speaking of having Nixon on Laugh In, are you in talks with any of the campaigns to have their candidates on?
No, there’s no time for that. And there’s just too many of them. It’s easier in the run-ups. Do you know what I mean? But it’s too tough now.
Over the years, I’ve talked to a number of cast members and writers on the show who say they didn’t get into sketch comedy to be a topical commenter or do political comedy. They’ll say this isn’t necessarily their favorite thing to do on the show. Do you like the topical stuff? Does an election year excite you?
Do you fear it ever overshadows the rest of the show?
No. We’re a topical show. And that’s what we’ve always been. I mean, the first time Chevy [Chase] did Gerald Ford or Dan [Aykroyd] did Jimmy Carter, it wasn’t less of a comedy show, you know? I can’t really explain how it evolved, but it clearly evolved, and it somehow still feels right.
And the fact that this is a time where the show particularly gets so much attention — how does that feel being in it? You’re the starting, whatever, you’re the pitcher in the seventh game of the World Series at this point in terms of comedy. How does it feel to have it be a time where people are really watching this show?
All I feel is what I’ve always felt, which is it’s really important to get it right. And laughs are the clear indicator. That’s why the audience is so important. Because you just can’t come out and express your political opinions. There has to be something, something that gets close to the truth that you’re doing and that’s honest. And that’s where the laughs come from.
This interview has been edited for clarity.