Lorne Michaels on how 'SNL' cast and writers react in this ever-changing news cycle

The legendary "SNL" producer also shared why he pushed for doing the show in front of a live audience during the pandemic.
/ Source: TODAY

"Saturday Night Live" was all set for its season debut earlier this month with a focus on the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden when Trump tested positive for COVID-19 one day before "SNL" was set to air.

The cast and writers had to reconfigure on the fly, illustrating the constant challenge facing show creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels: How do you adjust in an age when the news cycle runs at hyperspeed?

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The legendary executive producer spoke with Willie Geist on Sunday TODAY about how the famed comedy show stays nimble in its 46th season, which has also included shifting gears to get musical guest Jack White on the show less than 48 hours in advance after country star Morgan Wallen violated coronavirus protocol and was dropped.

"We had that (presidential) debate on Tuesday, and then on Friday when the president tested positive, it all changed," Michaels said. "And it was being rewritten. I don't think the final version of it got to dress rehearsal.

"The script changes hadn't gotten into the control room and onto the cards. And so they just sort of rolled with it. But everybody did remarkably well, and I don't think most of it was noticed at home."

The ever-changing news means the show always has to be on its toes because something relevant on a Tuesday or Wednesday might be forgotten by Saturday.

"Because (Trump) tweets, he can change the dialogue," Michaels said. "And he knows that, obviously. So it's a very effective weapon. Now it's beginning to bite a little bit because it seems more impulsive. And so it's harder to make sense."

The result is that the cast and writers often have to hold off until very late in the week to formulate portions of the show.

"And most often, we don't even attempt until Friday," Michaels said. "We've been doing the debates or anything political Friday night. Fortunately the cast are good at it and can adapt."

In addition to dealing with the constantly changing headlines, "SNL" also has faced the challenges of returning to in-person shows at famed Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center during the pandemic. Michaels, 75, pushed for a return to having the live show in front of an audience.

"I think it was all I talked about all summer, and leading up to it was, I need an audience," he said. "Because we're taking big swings, and they're hard jokes. When you don't hear any sound, it throws the timing off. And the thing that the audience does is it's the plug that makes the circuit work."

The production has implemented safety protocols, like the crew and audience all wearing masks and the cast wearing them right up until the cameras go on. The cast also is social distanced during the read through, and everyone is regularly tested for COVID-19. The audience is also smaller than usual to allow for social distancing.

The show celebrated the 45th anniversary of its inaugural episode on Oct. 11, and Michaels has been there for all of them, except for a hiatus in the early 1980s.

"Well, I didn't sign up for this," Michaels joked about his longevity. "It just worked out that way."

The show began during a time of turmoil in 1975, in the wake of the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Michaels has endured cast upheavals, bad reviews and times of national tragedy, like when he stood with then-New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani on the show after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

"If you have an audience, you build up and earn trust," Michaels said. "They know you're gonna deliver. So I think the fact that we've always shown up, it's just — there's a connection, and because we're live, the nimbleness of that is part of the appeal."

After being with "SNL" for almost all of its 45 years, Michaels sees a day on the horizon when he may be spending a quiet Saturday night at home. Maybe.

"My plan, I'm not sure that I'll see it through, but my plan is to be here for the 50th (anniversary)," he said. "And by that point, I think I really deserve to wander off."