Will He or Won’t He? Why Lorne Michaels’ SNL Future Is TV’s Biggest (Non) Story.

Within the next year, the memories, evaluations, assessments, and historical judgements of the impact and legacy of Saturday Night Live will become like a great song you’ve always enjoyed but suddenly can’t rid from your beleaguered brain as the show approaches its 50th anniversary special in February 2025.

So let’s not get into that.

Let’s instead take note that the 49th season, which wrapped up Saturday with another fine hosting job—this one by Jake Gyllenhaal—was damn good. Meaning: a high percentage of the episodes were above average, and several, especially during a strong run of hosts this spring—Kristen Wiig, Ryan Gosling, Dua Lipa, Maya Rudolph, and Gyllenhaal—were well above average.

Such a season-long performance should not be smiled about, patted on the head, and sent on its way. It should be celebrated, because putting on a live 90-minute comedy show 20 times a year is a feat. It was a feat 49 years ago and it’s still a feat.

Yes, SNL has a number of advantages now: It has a bigger budget, a much bigger cast, more writers, far better technical assets at its disposal, and it is an institution, an unrivaled participant in late-night television’s contribution to American culture.

That means it can tap into just about any level of the entertainment world and land a host, from a hot movie star (Timothee Chalamet, Emma Stone, Adam Driver) to a hot recording artist (Bad Bunny, Lipa), to a hot  TV star (Ayo Ediberi). And of course, with all those years in the books and comedy stars created from past casts, it can frequently generate a week of guaranteed solid host performance by calling on the long roster of breakout alumni. (Pete Davidson, Kate McKinnon, Wiig, Rudolph.)

But even with all of that, the most vital part of the ongoing phenomenon that is SNL is its least-changed, really unchanged, central creative force: the creator, executive producer, and showrunner, Lorne Michaels. 

The average culturally aware person in the US would be unlikely to know the name of many—if any—showrunners of television shows. By far the most likely one they would know is Lorne Michaels, who has been the essential figure on SNL for 44 of its 49 seasons.

So closely identified with the success of SNL is Michaels that he now approaches single-name status, like Cher or Beyonce or Adele. When hosts say their end-of-show thank yous, the first name mentioned is always “Lorne,” and everybody knows who that is.

And that brings us to now, the brink of the show’s half-century celebration. Because Lorne’s association with SNL is so longstanding and so indelible, the looming mega-anniversary has inevitably stirred up a wave of speculation about his plans to maybe step down, speculation that will likely reach a crescendo sometime before February.

Lorne himself has publicly mused about that possibility. Talking about the anniversary special, he said in an interview with Entertainment Tonight last January:

“I will definitely be there for that and definitely be there until that. Sometime before that we’ll figure out what we’re gonna do.”

That was then. In January.

Now the watershed season is on the doorstep. And the buzz about Lorne retiring is noticeably more muted.

And why shouldn’t it be? Where is it written that it is imperative to exit the stage when the clock strikes a nice round number?

As January had faded in the distance, some Lorne acolytes have stepped up to dispute the inevitability of his departure after season 50.

In March, Seth Meyers, the former SNL writer and “Weekend Update” host, who had been bruited about as a potential Lorne successor (at least until he signed on for four more years as host of Late Night) said on Mike Birbiglia’s podcast, “I think this is a false narrative that Lorne is going anywhere.” 

Conan O’Brien, who wrote for SNL under Michaels and then was picked by him to begin his hosting career on Late Night said in an interview in April:

“If you took an X-ray of Lorne Michaels, you would see SNL in his bone marrow. I just don’t see it happening. And I don’t think anyone is anxious for him to go anywhere.”

Certainly NBC, which has made more missteps in its significant late-night successions—Carson to Leno; Leno to Conan; Conan back to Leno; Michaels to Jean Doumanian in 1980—than Inspector Clouseau on a bender, can’t be eager to rock one of the few boats still sailing full and free in its crumbling entertainment empire.

Lorne turns 80 in November (on a Saturday night, natch). The easy comparison is to the older gentleman now occupying the White House and seeking to soldier on, despite his age. But somehow if Lorne Michaels were President (he couldn’t be; he was born in Canada) it seems much less likely that he’d be facing persistent critiques of his gait or acuity.

The guy puts on a slew of live shows from an ancient studio in an ancient building in New York City, largely unflappable in the face of changing cue cards and pell-mell maneuvering of massive hunks of set. And the show is still a hit. And it just completed a productive, high-quality season.

Nobody is going to make the call about a plan of succession other than Lorne Michaels himself. He did comment in January about the potential for one of his favorite performer/writers to fill his shoes once he pulls his feet out of them. “It could easily be Tina Fey,” he said.

Of course it could be Tina Fey, whose comedy brilliance is unchallengeable. And it very well may be at some point.

But why now exactly? When you are still making people laugh nobody asks how old you are.

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