Live from Washington, it was time to bestow one of the nation’s top comedy honors on the creator of “Saturday Night Live.”
“For the last 30 years, I’ve had the coolest job in New York City,” Lorne Michaels remarked after receiving the 2004 Mark Twain Prize at the Kennedy Center Monday night.
Michaels, 59, is acclaimed for transforming Saturday night television three decades ago and introducing generations of stars who brought their irreverent talent to his stage.
“I feel nothing but pride — not respect, not admiration, just pride,” joked Steve Martin, who made a mark as a “wild and crazy guy” and King Tut on the show.
Martin deemed his friend “one of the great comedy producers of all time.”
The Canadian-born Michaels, 59, a nine-time Emmy winner, was feted by cast members, old and new, as he looked on from the balcony of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where he was seated with his wife and three children.
“It is the primary satirical voice of the country,” said 1970s veteran Dan Aykroyd, one of many who went on to successful film careers after stints on “Saturday Night Live.” Shuffling on the stage and doing a “Blues Brothers” dance, Aykroyd told the audience the test of success was always trying to make Michaels break out laughing. “We seek approval of this man.”
Tracy Morgan, who segued from “Saturday Night Live” to his own sitcom, said he was 7 years old in 1975 when his father returned from the Vietnam War. One night his father let him stay up late to watch a show featuring John Belushi in a diner, chanting, “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger.” “Thank you for bringing laughter back into my household,” Morgan said.
Sens. John McCain and Christopher Dodd talked about how “Saturday Night Live” kept politicians from taking themselves too seriously. After all, Dodd said, “Politics is show business for ugly people.”
Tina Fey, current co-anchor of the show’s “Weekend Update” newscast, described “Saturday Night Live” as “the pinnacle of sketch comedy for 30 years.” Still, she added, Michaels’ contributions extend beyond television. He has produced 14 movies, including “Three Amigos,” “Wayne’s World” and most recently “Mean Girls,” written by Fey.
Amy Poehler, Fey’s “Weekend Update” partner, described Michaels as “a fair and loyal and funny boss. He lets people succeed and fail on their own.”
Staying true to “Saturday Night Live” form, current and former cast members, staff and hosts joined Michaels on stage at the end of the show and hugged each other. Former hosts paying tribute included Candice Bergen, Paul Simon and Christopher Walken.
Michaels moved to Los Angeles from Toronto in 1968 to work as a writer for NBC’s “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” Seven years later he shifted to New York to begin “Saturday Night Live.” Among those featured in the cast in its three decades were John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Eddie Murphy, Dana Carvey, Chris Rock and Will Ferrell.
The show, which debuted Oct. 11, 1975, has won 18 Emmy Awards and been nominated for more than 80. It continues to get the highest ratings of any late-night television program.
Michaels is also executive producer of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and has produced specials for Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, Flip Wilson and the Rolling Stones.
Previous winners of the Mark Twain Prize include Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart and Tomlin. The prize comes with a bronze reproduction of an 1884 bust of satirist Mark Twain.
The Lorne Michaels tribute was taped and will be broadcast on PBS in early 2005.