Marc Maron, the creator and host of the podcast “WTF,” has wanted to interview Lorne Michaels, the creator and producer of “Saturday Night Live,” for many years. Finally, he did.
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Many of us have a person from our past who’s broken our heart—personally, creatively, or professionally—and made us wonder what if. For Marc Maron, and countless others, that person is Lorne Michaels, the creator and producer of “Saturday Night Live.” Maron met with Michaels in 1995, for reasons that were unclear—a possible “Weekend Update” commentator gig, it seemed—but thrilling to imagine. Afterward, though, he never got a call, the call. Maron has talked to “S.N.L.” veterans about this meeting, and about Michaels himself, on his podcast, “WTF,” often. Everyone from Harry Shearer to Amy Poehler to Jimmy Fallon has discussed Michaels on the show; some people have weighed in on theories about the Maron meeting; most have done Lorne impressions. The Lorne story in a person’s life takes on a mythic quality because it’s often the moment at which a life changes—or, crushingly, doesn’t. Maron, now a big success himself, has wanted to interview Michaels for many years. Finally, he did. The episode, which is two hours long, posted this week.
“I didn’t know if it was ever going to happen! But it happened. Oh, it fucking happened, people,” Maron says at the beginning of the episode. In this, as with other interviews he’s done on “WTF,” Maron went in preloaded with vibes—not quite the grudge-beef vibes he’s had with other standups over the years, often rooted in jealousy, self-pity, and insecurity—but with the questions we have about someone who has made us feel slighted, rooted in the same things. Maron describes the pain of rejection in 1995, “when it was hot and new,” as feeling like “I got fucked, or Lorne doesn’t like me, or Lorne is evil, or Lorne is some sort of demonic puppet master, or I was used to pressure somebody else.” (Somebody such as Norm Macdonald.) He calls the subject “an ever-flowing rabbit hole of possibilities for me to either think I was fucked or that show business was fucked.” Talking to people about Michaels and “S.N.L.” over the years gave him perspective and empathy—which he didn’t necessarily want. “I liked keeping Lorne Michaels this evil wizard who had somehow shunned me and exiled me from a possibly much different career in show business,” he says.
Of course, the notion of Maron’s actually being on “Saturday Night Live” at any point in his career is a bit counterintuitive. He’s not a yes-and guy, an improv-team guy—he’s an unhinged garage-podcast messiah. He’s great at riffing with guests, but the idea of his fitting into someone else’s world, even as a “Weekend Update” commentator in nineties-“S.N.L.” A. Whitney Brown mode, isn’t easy. Maron’s “Saturday Night Live” dream seems more about the dream of making it than about the show itself. Because he did not get the gig, and because of similar career starts and stops, he found his way to the right thing at the right time, his ideal form: pure talk, angst, hard-won wisdom, on a podcast, using the brilliant insights and damaged relationships he’d developed along the way as fodder for great listening.
Like the President Obama episode of “WTF,” this Lorne Michaels special event comes with a sidecar: a bonus episode that reflects on it and pays respect to its magnitude. It’s called “Lorne Stories,” a collection of those clips: twenty different interviews in which Maron asked people about Michaels. Listening to “Lorne Stories” puts Maron’s obsession in perspective. Generally, the people who succeeded on “S.N.L.,” who chose to leave after many years, and who went on to make movies or to have their own shows, enjoy their relationship with Michaels. The people who were let go, or feel thwarted, are more tortured about him. (As Amy Poehler puts it, “People that cared a lot about his approval never got it.”) But just about everybody is fond of Michaels, grateful for whatever chance they got, and mildly amused by his quirks and mystified by his understated, indirect speech. “Everything is sideways,” Poehler says. “And you either take him personally or you don’t.” Will Ferrell tells a funny story about having several interviews and then attempting to bribe Michaels with a briefcase full of fake money; Jenny Slate and Michaela Watkins both sound reverent, sad, and a little stunned; Bill Hader says that telling Michaels he was leaving the show was like “breaking up with your dad.”
“I just did that!” Maron says delightedly. Maron has dad issues, we remember, and his Michaels obsession makes even more sense.
What Maron finds in 2015 is that both the show and the man are smaller and realer than he imagined: human-sized, not larger than life. If you’ve ever been to “S.N.L.” or to another TV show’s taping, you might have experienced the same thing: a combination of Wow! and This is it?
“It’s a fairly intimate space,” Maron tells us. “There’s chairs set up on the floor for people that are close to the stage. It looked an alternative-comedy venue in that way.” Many sets, dozens of people moving things around, electricity and excitement in the air. “There was a humanness to the experience that I never realized or noticed on TV,” he said. When Maron sees Michaels before their meeting, he thinks, “Oh, fuck! He’s just a guy! He’s a man! And this is his job! He works here! He runs this place.”
On the recording, we hear Michaels say, “Sorry for the delay. This is the scene of the crime! You were here before.”
This gets Maron all excited and riled up. “You remember!” he says. Soon, he launches into clearing the air. He describes it moment by moment. He does an impression of Michaels to Michaels. He explains what was going on in his head. “I was trying to exude some star quality of some kind and I was not successful,” he says.
“God, you really remember this,” Michaels says.
As with an actual crime, memories of what happened differ. Michaels’s remark about comedians being like monkeys may or may not have had the monkeys jerking off; they both remember Maron making a joke about monkeys throwing their shit at you, and Michaels not laughing. Maron thinks there were Jolly Ranchers in the candy bowl, and that he chose the wrong candy, failing the “candy test”; Michaels assures him that they would have been Tootsie Rolls, just one kind of candy, and that there was no test.
When they try to reconstruct what happened substantively, the only account that matters is Michaels’s. He reassures Maron that he respects his “original voice,” or he wouldn’t have invited him to meet in the first place; he describes the era in the show, a big upheaval, transitioning away from the baby-boomer audience to a younger audience, a period of intense critical scrutiny from the network and the media; he suggests that there might not have been a “spot” for him in the lineup, and mentions David Spade filling in for Dana Carvey in wide shots when Carvey was playing both Bush and Perot in a debate sketch; he talks about networks uniting the country as railroads once did; he explains that he likes to meet with people doing important things, like the kids who made “Bottle Rocket.” It’s both reassuring and a bit of humdrum rhetorical magic, and from there, Maron, who has probably calmed down a bit, proceeds to interview him as he would anyone else.
“You grew up in Canada,” Maron asks. “What was your family like?” They talk for an hour then and an hour later, and it’s a valuable interview for many reasons—a chance to feel like you’re sitting in Michaels’s office, gabbing about the nuts and bolts of making the show. Yet, like Maron’s interview with Obama, it’s both intimate and at arm’s length; Michaels, while not evasive, doesn’t need to truly open up, and is by nature indirect and a little aloof. He talks about Chevy Chase doing Gerald Ford, and the brilliance of his not even attempting to look like him; he explains his own specific talents, which include “encouraging people and discouraging people”; he explains the show’s allure to high-schoolers. (“In high school, you have no power. You have no money, you can’t drive. Just staying up late is exciting, and having a few friends over.”) When Maron asks him about self-destructiveness among cast members, and mentions John Belushi, Michaels says, “Well, it’s a small point of pride that nobody’s ever died doing the show. It generally happens a couple of years after they leave the show.” The intensity of the show, he says, leads to “an exhilaration and high that they want to continue.” Then they get a bit sidetracked talking about the intensity of the show. “It’s like a sport you play,” Michaels says. Its Super Bowl, perhaps, was the fortieth-anniversary episode, which Michaels thinks was “as close to perfect as it’s ever going to get,” and tremendously satisfying.
“So you’re just going to keep going until you can’t see? Or one day they find you wandering the halls looking for Chevy?” Maron asks, toward the end.
Michaels answered this by expressing admiration for Don Pardo, who died last year at age ninety-six, after having been at NBC his whole life, and by indicating the momentousness of the fortieth-anniversary show, likely “the last time that the founding generation would all be there.” So yes, basically.
If you’ve ever had such a conversation—a healing conversation in adulthood with someone who stymied or wounded you in youth—chances are that you’ve come away enlightened, relieved, amazed, empathetic, forgiving, perhaps more aware of a certain amount of hubris or naïveté in your long-held idea that talking to this person could fix it. You can’t undo the years you spent agitating about it—your only reward is maturity, awareness that you’ve grown up, and, if you’re fairly evolved, freedom from continuing to agitate. The reason Maron is so compelling, here and elsewhere, is the way he embodies and expresses the tension between these impulses, between the id and the superego. He’s matured a bit during this experience, but he’s still himself.
“I just want to say, in closing, because I’d be remiss if I didn’t: I’m ready to re-audition,” he tells Michaels. “I think that I’m at that place now. I think I’m fully formed.”
“Well, again, we’re always on the lookout,” Michaels says. Maron laughs his head off. Michaels says, “And you’ll leave your head shot, of course.”