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Can Lorne Michaels Reinvent ‘SNL’ One Last Time?

James Andrew Miller joins the podcast to discuss what’s next for the long-running sketch show after losing some key cast members

“Hangmen” Broadway Opening Night Photo by Bruce Glikas/WireImage

In the Season 47 finale, Saturday Night Live said goodbye to cast members Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Pete Davidson, and Kyle Mooney. Matt is joined by journalist, author, and longtime SNL expert James Andrew Miller to talk about what’s next for the show, cast members working on outside projects, the diversity of the cast and writers’ room, Lorne’s successor, and the looming 50-year anniversary.

In the below excerpt, Belloni and Miller debate what Lorne Michaels’s final few years helming Saturday Night Live will mean for his career legacy.

Matthew Belloni: I think this is probably one of the most important summers in SNL history, and here’s why: Because this next cast, the next two years, that’s Lorne’s legacy, right? How he leaves that show is going to be determined by the cast that he selects for the next couple years. And it’s a big test. He’s 77 years old. Does he still have that ability to bring in the next Will Ferrell, the next Kristen Wiig? It’s going to be interesting, because I think we’re going to really miss some of these cast members that are leaving.

James Andrew Miller: With all due respect, bud, I totally disagree.

Belloni: Tell me why.

Miller: Because Lorne’s legacy is about—

Belloni: Listen, Lorne doesn’t have to worry about his legacy. He’s the most important person in comedy—

Miller: You know, nobody’s gonna be judging him off the cast of the last two seasons three years from now. People can barely keep seasons in their minds or cast in their minds. I mean, look, obviously he doesn’t want—if he does leave at 50 seasons, he doesn’t want to have that last saga, that last stretch be awful. But I think that anybody looking—even if it were to be awful—it’s going to be married into a larger mosaic of 45 years, 45 seasons that he would’ve done.

Belloni: I’m not saying—that 50th-anniversary show is going to be something special—but everybody, especially guys at the top like that, who have done everything, they want to go out on top. And I think if Lorne had a very high-rated season with, you know, stuff that people were talking about in the culture and some breakout stars, I think that would be exactly where he wants to leave the show.

Miller: I think ratings matter a lot to people like you and the business; I don’t think ratings for SNL—I mean, there have been times when the numbers have been, like, friends and relatives, and they’re not going to get rid of the show. I don’t think his legacy is wrapped up in whether or not he finished his ratings. What I do think, though, is, look, I think that whether or not SNL remains part of the—there, I used the word—zeitgeist, and most importantly, [2024] is SNL going to be part of the political process in the presidential year like it has been in many years? Is it going to be vital? Is it going to have a role to play? Are people going to be, you know, consuming those sketches the next day in a vital way? I think that’s more of a measure of success, you know. Who are the new Jim Downeys? He’s got to have that writing room, like Tina and Seth and everybody else. Who’s going to write those sketches? Who’s going to write those Sarah Palin sketches and other sketches that are going to really do something during that campaign that no one else, no other show can do? And that is a big, big definition of success for SNL.

Belloni: Do you think—and we’ve talked enough, on this show, about who might succeed Lorne—but I want to ask you a specific question about the logistics. Do you think Lorne will name a successor? Or do you think they will let him go out, you know, have his big party, and then after a few months say, “This is what we’re doing with the show”?

Miller: Look, I think that they will, at the very least—first of all, they have to decide whether or not they’re going to continue the show. That’s the first big fork in the road—

Belloni: I think that’s a given. They can’t—it’d be fiscally irresponsible not to continue the show.

Miller: I’m just saying there have been many, many years—and by the way, some executives at NBC who have said through the years, “OK, it’s fine as long as Lorne’s there, but once he leaves, I don’t think we would do it again.” That has literally been said through the years. Not by necessarily people in charge, but by people involved at the show. Let’s just say they decide to do it again. It would be silly if Lorne figures out that he’s going to be leaving it after the 50th, I think he’s going to want to put somebody in place for at least the season before and probably two seasons before to have them shadow him. Even if there’s somebody who’s really familiar with the show. I mean, look, people used to think that Tina could do it. People had mentioned Seth. Seth’s got a show, you know. Who is actually capable of doing it?

Miller: And then maybe you think you get somebody to do the creative part of the show and split up the business. Because Lorne also runs the business, even though he has people like Jack Sullivan and others that kind of run the production company. He’s been the one to do a lot of things forward-facing with the executives at NBC. So I think he’s considerate enough to give them a heads-up like Johnny Carson did and say, “Look, I’m going to be leaving in two years. This is who I think can do it. I’m going to have them shadow me. I’m going to have them get considerably more responsibility or bring them in and show them where the bathrooms are and show them how this thing works.”

Belloni: I don’t know. I’m not so sure. I agree with you that that would be the better thing to do. I just don’t know. I mean, I think that everybody treats Lorne with such kid gloves and is, you know, kind of he’s this elephant in the room that if he doesn’t mention it, they’re just going to chug along and it might be, you know, he does his final show and then they say, “OK, now what?”

Miller: No, no, no, but Matt, remember you’re forgetting one thing: Lorne loves SNL. No doubt about it. Lorne wants to do what’s best for SNL. Unlike 1980, when he was pissed off and he, and Gilda and Jane and everybody else, you know, they took the keys and shut the lights off. He didn’t care. He wanted to—in many ways he didn’t care what happened to the show. He wanted it to probably go away, quite frankly, or be a disaster. If he leaves, he’s going to want it to be a success. So I think, you know, he’s not narcissistic enough to think that, you know, there isn’t somebody that’s going to need to get a running start at succeeding him. He’s going to want to do what’s best for the show.

This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity.

Host: Matt Belloni
Guest: James Andrew Miller
Producer: Craig Horlbeck
Theme Song: Devon Renaldo

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