Lorne Michaels isn’t letting those perennial ”Saturday Night Dead” jokes go on — at least not without performing major surgery. Heading into his legendary sketch-comedy show’s 32nd season, he’s slicing the cast from 16 to 11 — losing veterans Finesse Mitchell, Chris Parnell, and Horatio Sanz (plus Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch, who left to star in Fey’s series, 30 Rock, which Michaels will executive-produce). He’s keeping all of last season’s freshman class of Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, and Kristen Wiig, and he’s named his second new ”Weekend Update” anchor in two years, with one of the three head writers, Seth Meyers, replacing Tina Fey as Amy Poehler’s partner on the faux-news desk (see sidebar).
The shake-up was at least partly spurred by practical concerns — NBC budget cuts and Fey’s departure for sitcomdom — but it comes at a critical time for Saturday Night Live. Despite being the highest-rated show of the night, its popularity has been slipping (last season’s 6.6 million viewers made it the show’s second-lowest-rated in 15 years) and its topical buzz has suffered from Comedy Central’s daily Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert assault. But entering its new season, SNL finds itself more talked-about than it has been in years, thanks to two new NBC series — Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (which debuted to 13.4 million viewers) and Fey’s 30 Rock — both of which take the fictionalized backstage antics of Not Ready for Prime Time Players into, well, prime time.
Here, Michaels explains how he decided on the tough cuts and why he has faith in the leaner new season (premiering Sept. 30 with host Dane Cook and musical guest the Killers both making their second appearances).
Why so much radical change?
Last year was a transitional year — we brought in four new people, and they had a really good season. But we had way too many people. We also had significant budget cuts across the board at NBC. The goal was to cut…. I don’t want to talk specifics, but it was a very high number, many millions of dollars. [NBC declined to comment.] When you have 16 people in your cast, your budget’s going to be considerably higher. And this way, everybody gets more playing time.
Why keep the newer cast members instead of more experienced ones?
By the time somebody is really good at this — and everyone who’s leaving is a master of it — it’s really hard to give them up. But the show must change. I know it’s supposed to be ”must go on,” but ”must change” is important also. It was just sort of, On with the new.
Okay, two shows set on SNL doppelgängers? What’s up with your three-decade-old series having such a zeitgeisty moment?
I have chosen to be flattered by it.
Do you think you’ll end up parodying the shows that are essentially parodying you?
If something is worth doing, yeah. But they have to be there long enough for the audience to know them.
Would you want Tina Fey back to SNL if her new sitcom is canceled?
It would be her call. I would always be happy to work with her. It was just time for her to do this — Mean Girls was so successful, and she needed her own thing.
Is the television comedy business tougher than it used to be, with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to contend with?
No. There’s always been Letterman and Leno and Carson — somebody out there doing topical humor. They’re reacting to that day. We’re closer to the newsweeklies. Our take on politics has to be something that hasn’t been covered in eight jokes [throughout the week].
Can SNL keep going indefinitely?
I don’t know that anything is around forever. But every year you go in scared, and then the thing that calms you down is how much talent is around you. Whenever we’ve had any kind of transition, somebody always steps up. When Chevy Chase left [in 1976] there were a lot of obituaries written, but Bill Murray overwhelmed the audience.
So if the show is cyclical, how do the past few years of not-so-great buzz fit into that pattern?
It’s good when people are talking about several different cast members, and that’s what I think started to happen at the end of last season. There’s never a whole season — or even a show — where there isn’t something I like. You may have to wade through a lot of stuff to get to it, but I think that there’s always sort-of-bright spots. It’s never been a show with a master plan.
AND YOUR NEW ‘UPDATE’ TEAM IS…
They’ve played ”the couple that should be divorced,” but now they’re stuck sitting next to each other for an entire TV season. Seth Meyers will join Amy Poehler in anchoring SNL’s ”Weekend Update,” filling the void left by Tina Fey. Meyers — who’s also taking Fey’s spot as a head writer on the show — feels like the gig was tailor-made for him. ”I’m one of the few people in show business who wanted a job where I had to wear a tie,” he says. ”My goal is to be a slightly less handsome Brian Williams.” While the new gig means no more sketches, he’s happy to be spending time catching up on the (real) news. ”Have you heard about the Middle East?” he laughs. ”Man, that place is nuts.”