With less than two hours before dress rehearsal for the Mother’s Day edition of “Saturday Night Live,” the mood seemed relaxed. Studio 8H at NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where guest host Reese Witherspoon would soon preside, was almost deserted. And Lorne Michaels, “SNL” creator and executive producer, exuded mellowness as he welcomed a reporter to his office just past 6 p.m. to chat about the 40th season (which concludes Saturday at 11:30 p.m. EDT, with Louis C.K. hosting) as well as late-night TV in general and what lies ahead.
Here’s an edited version of that conversation:
AP: Things appear remarkably calm around here!
Michaels: It will become less calm in about half an hour.
AP: Any particular concerns about the show right now?
Michaels (laughs): Let’s start with being 26 minutes (too) long! And we have most of the cast’s mothers performing, and I don’t think you want to cut anyone’s mother on Mother’s Day!
AP: You’re in the home stretch of a remarkable season.
Michaels: It’s been an odd season. The high point came in February, with our doing the 40th (anniversary special). There were so many moving parts, and all the emotion. When it turned out as well as it did, I think we were all stunned. Then I, for one, was very happy to get back to doing the normal shows.
AP: But the season finale won’t be exactly normal, will it?
Michaels: It’s always complicated, because you have a feeling of, ‘I’d like to go into the summer with a great memory of that show,’ so you feel a different kind of pressure. The way you get through the season is: There’s always next week. And then, with the finale, there’s three months of summer. But it always works out.
AP: There’s been some turnover in the cast the last couple of seasons, especially after the loss of Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, Andy Samberg and Jason Sudeikis. Is the dust beginning to settle?
Michaels: What I’m most pleased with this season is this cast. It FEELS like it’s a cast. I think they feel good about themselves, like it’s their time, and that the audience is completely behind them. (Weekend) Update was the hardest transition (with last season’s departure of longtime anchor Seth Meyers). But now it’s in a really good place with Colin (Jost) and Michael (Che).
AP: As executive producer of ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon‘ and ‘Late Night with Seth Meyers’ you’ve been leading elsewhere on NBC’s late-night lineup, while things are in flux for your competition at CBS, where ‘The Late Late Show with James Corden‘ only premiered in March and Stephen Colbert won’t be taking over ‘Late Show’ from David Letterman until September.
Michaels: I think Corden is a wonderful performer and that he will figure it out. Almost everything before you go on the air is conceptual — and then, there’s the doing it. The doing it is what you learn from. And if you follow your successes, if you see the things that are working for you and that viewers are responding to, I think you generally get to a place that’s successful.
But I don’t think you’ll be able to tell what Corden’s show is until Colbert is in front of it. Once that lineup is in place, Colbert is formidable. He stands for intelligence and he’s a wonderful performer.
I think Jimmy is killing it, and Seth’s show gets better and better. But I don’t think any of us underestimate what the fall could be like, so we just want to go in prepared and doing our best work.
AP: What are your thoughts about Letterman’s retirement from ‘Late Show’ next week?
Michaels: He has the highest level of integrity. I watch his show, and there’s something very honest about it, and truly funny. Because he’s been in New York, and he used to be in this same building (hosting ‘Late Night’ from 1982-93), and because his bandleader (Paul Shaffer) used to be here (in the early years of ‘SNL’) there’s been a kinship. His last show will be a difficult thing to watch.
AP: Letterman is leaving after a total of 33 years in late-night talk, at age 68. You’ve been running ‘Saturday Night Live’ for 40 years, along with many other projects, and this season you observed your 70th birthday. Do you have an exit strategy?
Michaels: I have no plans not to be here. It’s what I do, I love it, and I feel really strong and clear about what I want to do. In terms of the hours, and how hard it is, well, the schedule is the schedule. I leave here on Tuesday nights around 2 o’clock in the morning. That hasn’t changed, although there are many, many people who, when I leave, are still here writing.
To use a tennis metaphor, after a certain point you can’t keep charging the net, and you fall back to the lob game. But you still can win. I think I care just as much as I did at the beginning, and I think, at lots of levels, I’m better at it now. You learn to trust signs that something isn’t going to work earlier than you used to, or that this person is talking nonsense earlier than you used to, and you’re confident enough to say ‘We’ve got it. Let’s move on.’
But it’s still scary every week. Dress rehearsal is always still a mess. You go, ‘How did I think this was going to work?’ And then you scramble, and everybody pulls it together.
And with that, Michaels excused himself. Just an hour-and-change until dress rehearsal. A long evening lay in store for him and everybody else to pull another one together. And, of course, they did.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.