Television

Live from Another Country

How the CBC blew its chance to create Saturday Night Live

BY


Image courtesy of the CBC still photo collection
A terrific hour Lorne Michaels interviews a Mountie (Hart Pomerantz) in 1970.

Almost fifty years ago, a lowly radio writer named Lorne Michaels sat in a room at CBC headquarters and listened as his boss told him he no longer had a job. He’d done everything right: the ratings were okay, the jokes were landing. Yet, the executive producer explained, something wasn’t working. Three years later, the Mother Corp. hired him back to write a sketch-comedy show, only to let him go a second time. While Michaels waited in Los Angeles to find out whether his contract would be renewed, he went to all the right parties and wrote sketches for American comedians. He wasn’t invited back to the national broadcaster; his former bosses questioned his desire to return.

Five years earlier, in 1965, Michaels was a University of Toronto student directing shows at the Bohemian Embassy (the city’s version of a Greenwich Village coffeehouse), home to poetry readings and rumoured to have the first espresso machine in town. In that space, he staged a performance starring Don Cullen, the prolific Canadian actor and a regular in comedy duo Wayne and Shuster’s television sketches. Michaels was going by his birth name, Lorne Michael Lipowitz, at the time. Seeking a collaborator, he phoned his old schoolmate Hart Pomerantz. “Lorne Lipowitz came to me when I had just graduated law,” he told Steve Paikin three years ago on The Agenda. “The first thing I did for him [as a lawyer] was change his name to Lorne Michaels. He didn’t like Lipowitz. In those days you had to go to court and give reasons to the judge [to prove] you weren’t avoiding creditors. I went to the judge and said, ‘Your honour, my client’s name is Lipowitz, and he wants to change it to Michaels, and here are my reasons.’ He said, ‘I don’t need any reasons.’ I said, ‘Thank you, Judge Lipshitz.’ ”

The pair wrote sketches in their off-hours as Pomerantz practised law and Michaels worked for the underground film festival Cinethon, presenting guests such as Kenneth Anger and Shirley Clarke. They were eventually hired by CBC Radio’s The Russ Thompson Show to do phoney man-in-the-street segments. Michaels played the straight man to Pomerantz’s various characters, and their routines were collected on an LP called The Comedy of Hart and Lorne for broadcast on stations across the country. “It was like The Tonight Show,” Michaels told Alec Baldwin on the podcast Here’s the Thing in 2012. “Done every day. Full orchestra. We were hired as the writers and performed once or twice a week. At a certain point, five or six months into it, the producer of the show met with us. He said, ‘The show’s not working. We’re not sure if it’s you guys or Russ. So we thought we’d start with you guys.’ We were let go.”

With The Russ Thompson Show, Michaels and Pomerantz had achieved national exposure and an LP. Still, they were unemployed. They knew star comedian Phyllis Diller accepted unsolicited freelance jokes, so they wrote some gags, shoved them in an envelope, and sent them to her manager. Diller was in the process of prepping a new series called The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show. “When we were staffing the show, Phyllis gave us a pile of jokes different writers had sent her,” says producer Saul Turteltaub. “We went through them, and there was one written by Michaels and Pomerantz: ‘I was driving through the Catskill Mountains. I knew I was in a small town when I saw a sign that said, Sam’s Hospital . . . and Grill.’ We hired them on that joke alone.”

Michaels felt at home in Hollywood immediately. As future SNL contributor Tom Schiller describes in Live from New York: The Complete Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, “My father, Bob Schiller, was working on this show called The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show in 1968, and he said there was a junior writer on the show that he’d love me to meet. And I said, Why? And he said, Well, he knows all of the best restaurants in LA. So one day Lorne comes over wearing a Hawaiian shirt. . . . [He] lit up a joint right there in the house.”

Diller’s series lasted just thirteen episodes, but Michaels had made an impression. Backstage, he chatted up Bernie Brillstein, who was managing comedian Norm Crosby, one of the cast members. Their talk led to Brillstein taking on Michaels as a client. He managed his career for the next thirty-five years. He also immediately got Michaels and Pomerantz their next job: staff writing on Laugh-In, NBC’s hugely successful sketch comedy.

Michaels was thrilled, but the buzz didn’t last. “It wasn’t at all the romantic idea of what I thought being in show business would be,” he says. “The writers would write, and then it would be edited by a head writer. We wouldn’t go to the read-through; we were at a motel in Burbank. On one level it was the greatest credit you could have. It did wonders for self-image and career—but it wasn’t fun.” Still, it was a lucky break: An episode Michaels worked on was nominated for an Emmy. And though the team lost to Steve Martin and the scribes from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, for the future SNL kingpin the nomination opened every door.

Hollywood credits made Michaels and Pomerantz a commodity to the very network that had let them go. By 1968, Ottawa was implementing an official broadcasting policy that required a high percentage of homegrown television programming. Suddenly there was a great need for seasoned pros who could create original content in Toronto. A critic noted in Variety that the country’s comedy was “a field for which the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has allowed to shipwreck and sag to abysmal depths.” The CBC began courting Canadians in Hollywood. In order to tempt them back from sunny California, expats were offered unprecedented creative control. “I got a call from the head of the CBC asking what it would take,” Michaels says.

The pair’s initial contract was for a quartet of hour-long specials during the 1969 season. Bob Finkel, another Canadian lured back from LA, and Wayne and Shuster mastermind Barry Cranston produced the Sunday night specials—That’s Canada For You, Today Makes Me Nervous, The Students Are Coming, and I Am Curious (Maple). All four specials were successful, and the CBC green-lit a Sunday-night series for the following season called The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour.

The Toronto that Michaels returned to was undergoing a hippie renaissance. Yorkville had become this country’s version of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Joni Mitchell and Neil Young were regulars in the neighbourhood, and Michaels plucked musical guests from the scene. Lighthouse, Melanie, the Sugar Shoppe, and blues legends Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee broke up the sketch comedy on Terrific Hour—the same format later used on Saturday Night Live. “We would shoot in front of an audience,” says Michaels. “It was an ensemble with a musical guest. James Taylor was on one. Cat Stevens was on one. There was a real form then called comedy-variety, but mostly it was built in the editing room the way Laugh-In was.” Pomerantz says, “Hart and Lorne was the matrix for Saturday Night Live. If you look at The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour, Michaels used that as a model to sell himself to NBC.”

Under the tutelage of CBC editor Ron Meraska, Michaels learned how to cut and paste footage: “I spent a huge chunk of my twenties in an editing room. We came out of the first show with sixteen hours worth of tape. I was still thinking script. I wasn’t in any way thinking visually. He actually saw it. What I learned then about myself is that I am much more interested in the production than in the performing.”

The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour was the bridge between the Laugh-In quick-edit style and the Saturday Night Live template. Michaels and Pomerantz starred in the specials and subsequent series, supported by a recurring cast that included Paul Bradley of Goin’ Down the Road, actor Paul Soles of animated Spider-Man fame, and Alan Thicke. The program also featured the genesis of Weekend Update, with a fake news segment called the Lorne Report.

Even with Michaels and Pomerantz’s success, the CBC needed far more Canadian content to meet the government’s broadcasting threshold. But at the end of the season, the network waffled on renewing The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour. Brillstein called his client to ask him to return to LA and write on a summer replacement starring Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber. “It was thirteen shows in ten weeks,” says Michaels. “I went to the head of the department at the CBC, and I said, I have this other offer, but I will stay here if you renew.” The corporation hemmed and hawed while he waited and waited. The decision never came. Michaels left Canada a twenty-seven-year-old comedy veteran.

Back in LA, The Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour paid him an impressive $500 a week, but his ambitions made him restless in the writers’ room. After contributing a sketch for a Perry Como Christmas special, he received two new offers. Brillstein brought him the first, a TV special with Mama Cass, Jackie Gleason, and Art Carney. He’d be paid $10,000. The second was to write on Lily Tomlin’s second comedy special for CBS, Lily.

The hour-long Lily was a vast departure from typical variety television, exploring themes such as urban poverty and substance abuse. It was the kind of social relevance Tomlin would become known for, and the type of subversion that appealed to Michaels. However, when he and Tomlin first started working together, they clashed. In We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, producer Irene Pinn says, “About ten days into Lorne working on the show, Lily came into my office and said, I want you to fire him. I said, Okay, but what’s the problem? And she said, Well, as you know, he comes in late every day, and then he talks to everybody so none of the writers are writing, they’re all talking.” Pinn dragged Michaels in and gave him an ultimatum: work harder or leave. Michaels sat with Tomlin for three hours, talking and charming, arguing that his role was to broaden the audience, to gently subvert without alienating. His confidence was astounding.

Ultimately, Lily was an enormous success. It boosted Tomlin to a new echelon and turned Michaels into a celebrity producer. The show was nominated for an Emmy, and Michaels co-produced an adaptation for a pilot. “In the end, it didn’t get picked up,” he says. “But Dick Ebersol, who was the newly appointed head of late night, had this idea of doing many pilots—using late night as a testing ground for prime time. I agreed to do one.”

Ebersol green-lit the idea he felt had the most potential, a sketch-comedy program with musical guests. “I was excited by it,” Michaels said on Here’s the Thing. “[NBC executive] Herb Schlosser, who had a very romantic notion of production in New York, thought it should be live. For me, live meant no pilot. Somewhere in the process of doing a pilot all your most conservative instincts come out. It’s what you think will get you on the air. So the idea that I could do a show in which the audience would see it at the same time as a network was thrilling.”

Michaels again scouted underground comedy shows for his cast. Meanwhile, in order to sustain himself financially, he accepted more writing gigs. One of his last before Saturday Night Live was a John Davidson special. Davidson’s polished personality appealed to Middle America, as did his bland renditions of pop songs such as “Little Green Apples.” For a man with such a toothy smile, his TV personality was toothless. His brand of television was the antithesis of what Michaels wanted to do. Completely distracted by his SNL dreams, the writer phoned it in—and reviewers could tell. Variety observed, “Writing was zilch and originality absent.” Five years after the CBC let him walk, Michaels was focused on something more important: changing the face of American television.

Excerpted from The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy. Published by Grove Press. Copyright 2015 by Kliph Nesteroff. All rights reserved.

This appeared in the November 2015 issue.

Kliph Nesteroff is a former stand-up comedian and a frequent CBC Radio contributor.

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