Marc Maron and Lorne Michaels: The Entire Two-Decade Saga
Let’s go back 20 years. Lorne Michaels, creator of SNL, is unhappy with Norm Macdonald’s sarcastic, acerbic style after one season behind the Weekend Update desk. He sees Marc Maron make a handful of appearances on another show he produces, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and invites the comedian for a meeting in his office. Maron shows up stoned, makes a few off-color remarks, and blows the biggest career opportunity he’ll ever get in just 30 minutes. The angry young man becomes a bitter young man. God help any comic who had to follow Maron on stage in the months following this blown audition.
Or maybe the story goes like this: Michaels, angered by persistent criticism that culminates with a brutally mean New York magazine cover story that paints his cast as unwashed frat boys, decides to bring in one of the leaders of NYC’s alt comedy scene to teach him a lesson. Maron arrives in Michaels’ office thinking that his life is about to change. Instead, he’s told that comedy performed below 14th St. doesn’t matter. The king throws him into the dungeon before Maron even has a chance to kiss the ring.
Or maybe it was just simple politics. NBC executives want to can Macdonald, but Michaels wants to keep him. So he comes up with a solution that will placate the higher ups while also driving Macdonald’s negotiating power down. He tells his producers to find a comic in the city who can plausibly be seen as Macdonald’s replacement. As Don Ohlmeyer smiles and Macdonald’s representation sweats, a stoned Maron heads to 30 Rockefeller Center totally unaware of his role in Michaels’ intricate scheme.
The cloudy circumstances surrounding Maron’s catastrophic meeting with Lorne Michaels has haunted the comedian/podcaster for decades. Even a casual listener of WTF has heard Maron on multiple occasions neurotically rack his brain to figure out what exactly went wrong. While President Obama was Maron’s most important guest on a professional level, this week’s episode with Michaels was far more important personally because it finally gave him closure on an anxiety-inducing obsession that bordered on a “Why didn’t Daddy ever tell me he loved me?” level of insecurity. Before this long-awaited interview, Maron interviewed nearly three dozen people who worked for Michaels on SNL, Late Night, The Kids in the Hall, or Portlandia. While most of these guests had nothing but kind words to say about Michaels, either because they genuinely have a good relationship with the producer or because they don’t want to implode their career, several cast members who felt constrained by SNL were more open about Michaels’ eccentricities and the politics of SNL. Each of these episodes helped Maron slowly peel the onion, but it wasn’t until episode #653 that we finally got the full story.
Here are several of these important episodes that helped Maron slowly piece together the puzzle:
Matt Walsh (Episode #45)
UCB co-founder Matt Walsh neither appeared on nor auditioned for SNL, but it was this episode that featured Maron’s original retelling of his meeting. Perhaps because it was the first time he let loose on Lorne, Maron goes into more detail than usual: He didn’t just meet with Michaels, he did a screen test in Conan O’Brien’s studio and had SNL producers watch him do a live set. But he ends the story with a sincere suspicion that he was only being used as a pawn to “scare Norm” during contract negotiations. This misguided belief would color his perspective of the incident for years to come.
Norm Macdonald (Episode #219)
In 2011, Maron interviewed the man he was supposed to replace, Norm Macdonald. Despite one being intensely neurotic and the other being in a constant state of insouciance, the two are kindred spirits with a shared distaste for authority. As Macdonald reveals, he and Michaels were bumping heads before Macdonald did his first Weekend Update. Michaels wanted Macdonald to have a female co-anchor, which the latter considered too close to a parody of local news. The only reason Macdonald got his way, he says, is because Steve Martin happened to walk by during the disagreement and backed up Macdonald’s view.
While Maron’s Lorne meeting was a relatively new story for us listeners, the awkward meeting was so well known behind the scenes that Macdonald corroborated specifics from Maron’s retelling. Specifically, when Michaels said that comedians are like monkeys because they make people laugh, to which Maron replied with, “Yeah, if they’re not throwing their shit at you.” You’d think an off-hand joke from a comedian would get a laugh, but this caused Michaels to stare into Maron’s eyes for so long that co-head writer Steve Higgins, who was also in the room, was forced to break the uncomfortable silence. Even though he later told The A.V. Club that Macdonald’s interview was one of his favorites, Maron did not ask Macdonald if his job behind the Update desk was seriously in danger in 1995. It’s a blown opportunity that would have helped him bury the nagging concerns in his head.
Jay Mohr (Episode #340)
During this interview, Maron complains that he has been unable to find one person who will say something negative about Michaels. That streak continues with Jay Mohr, who famously struggled so badly on SNL that he resorted to stealing standup bits for sketch material. Yet despite his failure, he is still grateful to Michaels for choosing him to be on SNL. While Mohr refuses to badmouth Michaels, he does share a similarly emasculating story. After waiting three hours to enter Michaels’ office, Mohr caught the door on the rug and was forced to get on his hands and knees to unravel the carpet. After the literal kowtow, Michaels calmly waved away Mohr’s legal pad full of ideas for the upcoming season and reassured him that he was to play a big part of the show’s future. SNL fans or those who have followed Mohr’s career know that couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
In hindsight, it’s easy to find Maron irrational at his suspicion about being used by Michaels. But Maron didn’t come to that conclusion out of thin air. Michaels has a well-earned reputation for his reliance on neglect to gain the upper hand on his employees. Nearly every SNL cast member on WTF has brought up the famous wait, ranging from three to eight hours after the designated meeting time, that has to take place before Michaels finds time for you. Surely Maron thought about Michaels opening his meeting like a Bond villain, back turned, pontificating about zoo animals as he arranged his book shelf, while pondering whether his interview was a big sham.
Jim Breuer (Episode #435)
Before the Michaels interview, this was the most revealing SNL episode of WTF. Breuer, who was forced onto SNL by NBC executives against Michaels’ wishes, had an unremarkable three-year run on the sketch show, yet he might have played a role in Maron not getting the Weekend Update gig. According to Breuer, Michaels asked his for his thoughts on Maron after the infamous meeting. Despite being passive aggressively insulted by Maron at a standup gig a few weeks earlier, Breuer told Michaels that Maron would be a “home run” for the gig, but added the caveat that he was tremendously difficult to work with. Even with this reveal, it’s hard to imagine the opinion of a featured player, one whom he didn’t even want to hire, pushed Michaels over the top, as opposed to someone like his head writers or a top lieutenant like Marci Klein.
A key takeaway from this interview is how Breuer describes the feeling he and other talented young mid-90s cast members like Mohr and Sarah Silverman felt after being axed: bitter. Let’s say Maron did get hired by SNL in 1995. How long could a filthy-mouthed comic known for stream of consciousness rants last on a show governed by the FCC and run by a boss notorious for his rigid detest of improvisation? Can we really imagine Maron leaving the show on good terms with a reputation that made development executives want to jump into the sitcom business with him? But there’s also the possibility that an SNL credit to his name could have opened doors that would’ve made his last-ditch career move as a podcaster unnecessary.
Breuer’s episode confirms two things:
1. Michaels was definitely looking to replace Macdonald. Maron was not solely being used as leverage during contract negotiations.
2. That monkey shit line really made an impact with Michaels, as he repeated it to Breuer.
So while Maron was finally assured that Michaels was not fucking with him, it unfortunately meant that he really did blow his big break. But it would take one more interview to finally lock everything down.
Lorne Michaels (Episode #653)
“I have some daddy shit to work out,” Maron told The New Yorker Festival last month after announcing that he was finally returning to Michaels’ office, this time with recording equipment in hand. And after a Lorne-esque power move where he teased the interview for over a month, the episode finally dropped this morning. If you haven’t listened to it yet, do so immediately because a simple recap won’t do it justice. But Maron finally got the full story thanks to these key facts:
1. Maron was not being used as a pawn. But it wasn’t Michaels who disliked Norm. Ohlmeyer really did want to get rid of Macdonald, well before he actually did so in 1997.
2. Michaels liked Maron’s comedy. But SNL was being attacked by both critics and network executives, the latter of whom said to the New York Times that Michaels’ job was at risk if ratings didn’t go up. Maron might’ve played well in the cities, but SNL is broadcast to all 50 states.
3. The 14th St. line? “I was being playful,” says Michaels. In his stoned stupor and the anxiety-ridden decades to follow, Maron never accepted that the dry Canadian in charge of the most successful comedy show in history could tell a joke.
4. Michaels thought Maron was ready. He just didn’t know if there was a spot for him if Macdonald stayed on as anchor.
5. The candy in Michaels’ office was Tootsie Rolls, not Jolly Ranchers. Very important.
It was that simple. After years of second guessing himself and having the story “evolve and morph in [his] mind” to something diabolical, Maron realized that his failed meeting was less about him and more about ratings and executives and the current cast and the critical climate of the mid 1990s than any stupid monkey joke. He finally got closure. Oh, and he also got a rare in-depth interview with the man whose creation has nurtured and exposed the next generation of comedic talent for forty consecutive years, a man who has changed the comedy landscape, both its peaks and valleys, more than any other individual, dead or alive.
In Maron’s interview with Macdonald, the two comics discussed The Denial of Death, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Ernest Becker. The central thesis, as Maron puts it, is that humans give themselves up to something bigger than themselves in order to define their lives and deny their mortality. The most common form of this is organized religion. Maybe Maron’s bitterness towards his failed meeting was centered around his anger in not joining this grand institution at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, a flock run by a Rabbinical figure whose congregants come to worship every week on the Sabbath, which happens to fall on Saturdays in Judaism. By not being accepted into this gathering, Maron was made fully aware of his mortality, principally that of his career. His defeat consumed him, but it didn’t destroy him. And 20 years after that disastrous sit down in midtown Manhattan, Maron finally has his own institution. His own congregation. Something larger than any one individual. And in this tabernacle, Lorne Michaels is just one of many.