What separates the women from the men.
In 1997, I realized one of my childhood dreams. (Not the one where I’m being chased by Count Chocula.) I flew to New York from Chicago, where I was working as a performer at Second City, to interview for a writing position at “Saturday Night Live.” It seemed promising, because I’d heard that the show was looking to diversify. Only in comedy, by the way, does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity. I arrived for my job interview in the only decent clothes I had: my “show clothes”—black pants and a lavender chenille sweater from Contempo Casuals. I went up to the security guard at the elevator and I heard myself say, “I’m here to see Lorne Michaels.” I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of my mouth. This must be how people feel when they really do go to school naked by accident.
I went up to the seventeenth-floor offices, whose walls were lined with archival photographs from the show—Jane Curtin ripping her shirt open on “Weekend Update,” Gilda Radner in a “Beach Blanket Bingo” sketch, Al Franken’s head shot! Then I sat on a couch and waited for my meeting with Lorne. About an hour into the wait, some assistants started making popcorn in a movie-theatre popcorn machine—something that I would later learn signalled Lorne’s imminent arrival. To this day, the smell of fresh popcorn causes me to experience stress, hunger, and sketch ideas for John Goodman.
The only advice anyone had given me about meeting with Lorne was “Whatever you do, don’t finish his sentences.” A Chicago actress I knew had apparently made that mistake, and she believed it had cost her the job. So, when I was finally ushered into his office, I sat down, determined not to blow it.
Lorne said, “So, you’re from . . .”
The words seemed to hang there forever. Why wasn’t he finishing the sentence? If I answered now, would it count as talking over him? I couldn’t remember how normal human speech patterns worked. Another five seconds went by, and still no more sentence from Lorne. Oh, God! When I flew back to Chicago the next day, they were going to say, “How was your meeting with Lorne Michaels?” And I would have to reply, “He said, ‘So, you’re from,’ and then we sat there for an hour and then a girl came in and asked me to leave.”
After what was probably, realistically, ten seconds, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I blurted out, “Pennsylvania. I’m from Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia,” just as Lorne finally finished his thought—“Chicago.” I was sure I had blown it. I don’t remember anything else that happened in the meeting, because I just kept staring at the nameplate on his desk that said “Lorne Michaels” and thinking, This is the guy with the Beatles check! I couldn’t believe I was in his office. I could never have guessed that in a few years I’d be sitting in that office at two, three, four in the morning, thinking, If this meeting doesn’t end soon, I’m going to kill this Canadian bastard. Somehow, I got the job.
During my nine years at “Saturday Night Live,” my relationship with Lorne transitioned from Terrified Pupil and Reluctant Teacher, to Small-Town Girl and Streetwise Madam Showing Her the Ropes, to Annie and Daddy Warbucks (touring company), to a bond of mutual respect and friendship. Then it transitioned to Sullen Teen-Age Girl and Generous Stepfather, then to Mr. and Mrs. Michael Jackson, then, for a brief period, to Boy Who Doesn’t Believe in Christmas and Reclusive Neighbor Who Proves That Miracles Are Possible, then back to a bond of mutual respect and friendship.
I’ve learned many things from Lorne—in particular, a managerial style that was the opposite of my usual Bossypants mode. Here are some Things I Learned from Lorne Michaels:
(1) Producing is about discouraging creativity.
A TV show comprises many departments—costumes, props, talent, graphics, set dressing, transportation. Everyone in every department wants to show off his or her 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 in your capacity 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 people from the props department show up with a bran cake in the shape of Santa Claus sitting on a silver platter that says “Welcome to Denmark” on it. “We just thought it would be funny,” they say. 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 creating a weird glare on camera, and maybe let’s just go with the bran muffin on the white plate.
And then sometimes actors have what they call “ideas.” Usually, this involves the actor talking more, or, in the case of a more experienced actor, sitting more. When an actor has an idea, it’s very important to get to the core reason behind it.
(2) Figure out if there is something you’re asking the actor to do that’s making him or her uncomfortable.
Is the actor being asked to bare his or her midriff, or make out with a Dick Cheney look-alike? (For the record, I have asked actors to do both, and they were completely game.) Rather than say, “I’m uncomfortable breast-feeding a grown man whom I just met today,” the actor may speak in code and say something like “I don’t think my character would do that.” Or “I’ve hurt my back and I’m not coming out of my dressing room.” You have to remember that actors are human beings. Which is hard sometimes, because they look so much better than human beings. Is there someone in the room the actor is trying to impress? This is a big one and should not be overlooked. If a male actor is giving you a hard time about something, immediately scan the area for pretty interns.
(3) The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s eleven-thirty.
This is something Lorne has said often about “Saturday Night Live,” but it’s a great lesson in not being too precious about your writing. You have to try your hardest to be at the top of your game and improve every joke until the last possible second, but then you have to let it go.
You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute. (And I’m from a generation in which a lot of people died on waterslides, so this was an important lesson for me to learn.) You have to let people see what you wrote. It will never be perfect, but perfect is overrated. Perfect is boring on live television.
What I learned about bombing as an improviser at Second City was that, while bombing is painful, it doesn’t kill you. What I learned about bombing as a writer for “Saturday Night Live” is that you can’t be too worried about your permanent record. Yes, you’re going to write some sketches that you love and are proud of forever—your golden nuggets. But you’re also going to write some real shit nuggets. You can’t worry about it. As long as you know the difference, you can go back to panning for gold on Monday.
(4) When hiring, mix Harvard nerds with Chicago improvisers and stir.
The staff of “Saturday Night Live” has always been a blend of hyper-intelligent Harvard boys1 (Jim Downey, Al Franken, Conan O’Brien) and gifted, visceral, fun performers (John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Jan Hooks, Horatio Sanz, Bill Murray, Maya Rudolph). Lorne somehow knew that too many of one or the other would knock the show out of balance. To generalize with abandon, if you had nothing but Harvard guys the whole show would be made up of commercial parodies about people wearing barrels after the 1929 stock-market crash. “Flenderson’s Poverty Barrels: Replacing Clothes Despite Being More Expensive Since . . . Right Now. Formerly known as Flenderson’s Pickles and Suspenders: A Semiotic Exegesis of Jazz Age Excess and the Failings of the Sherman Antitrust Act.”
If you had nothing but improvisers, the whole show would be made up of loud drag characters named Vicki and Staci screaming their catchphrase over and over: “you kiss your mutha with that face?”
Harvard boys and improv people think differently because their comedy upbringing is so different. If you’re sitting in the Harvard Lampoon Castle with your friends, you can perfect a piece of writing so that it is exactly what you want and you can avoid the feeling of red-hot flop sweat—especially because you won’t even be there when someone reads it. But when you’re improvising eight shows a week in front of drunk, meat-eating Chicagoans you experience highs and lows. You will be heckled, or, worse, you will hear your heartbeat over the audience’s silence. You will be bombing so hard that you will be able to hear a lady in the back putting her gum in a napkin. You may have a point to make about the health-care system in America, but you’ll find out that you need to present it through a legally blind bus-driver character or an exotic dancer whose boobs are running for mayor. (I would like to see that sketch, actually.) Ultimately, you will do whatever it takes to win the audience over.
If Harvard is Classical Military Theory, Improv is Vietnam.
This is all to say that Harvard boys and people from Second City or the Groundlings (the L.A. improv group) make beautiful comedy marriages. The Harvard guys check the logic and grammatical construction of every joke, and the improvisers teach them how to be human. It’s Spock and Kirk. (I guess if you want to tie all my metaphors together it would be Spock wearing a baldric and staying up all night to write a talk-show sketch with a mentally ravaged Rambo Kirk.)
I have tried to apply this lesson when hiring people for “30 Rock,” and it has worked well so far. Our current staff makeup is four Harvard nerds, four performers turned writers, two regular nerds, and two dirtbags.
(5) Television is a visual medium.
Lorne has said this to me a lot. It basically means “Go to bed. You look tired.” You may want to be diligent and stay up with the writers all night, but if you’re going to be on the show you can’t. Your street cred with the staff won’t help anybody if you look like a cadaver on camera.
(6) Don’t make any big decisions right after the season ends.