“He’s just a guy! He’s just a man! This is his job!”
The minute Marc Maron said those words in his opening monologue, about seeing his longtime nemesis and SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels in person for the first time in years, I had a bad feeling about how this episode of WTF would go. The interview took place a month ago and finally aired yesterday, but the drama between the two has been building since ‘95, when they met in Michaels’ office with Maron’s SNL hopes on the line. You can read the gory details here, but the gist is that Maron was forced to wait 90 minutes (which is actually standard operating procedure for Michaels), and then had an incredibly awkward, hostile encounter with Michaels that ended in failure—Maron left without a job.
This is not the only horror story about Michaels. Read any literature about SNL, and you get the impression that he’s a psychological manipulator who encourages an unhealthy atmosphere of competition that not only makes the show worse, but makes working on it feel like a living nightmare. That ‘95 encounter affected Maron deeply, and he’s talked about it on his show over and over and over, to the point that it’s practically an idee fixe. Bitterness doesn’t begin to describe the lasting impact of that interview—not only did it deprive him of a huge career opportunity, but it hit him where he hurts the most—the ego.
Yet Maron has changed since the early days of his podcast, and certainly since 1995. He’s tasted success through WTF, and his resentments have abated in the face of the good life he once felt entitled to. All in all, he’s a healthier person, and seemingly a happier one. If there was one time to dredge up that old anger, though, it was here, in the lion’s den. Back in Michaels’ office, the scene of the crime, he needed to unleash the dogs of war and at least start a healthy argument. Which is why the early justifications—”he’s just a man!”—made me worry. Maron’s healed soul put him at a disadvantage; he’s less inclined than ever to go head-to-head with an old demon, and I feared that making excuses for Michaels meant that he’d shied from the fight.
I was right, mostly. Maron made halfhearted attempts to get answers from Michaels about that day, but Michaels dodged and ducked and evaded, and Maron didn’t press hard enough to elicit any real information. Take these examples (and thanks to Vulture for transcribing some of these exchanges so I don’t have to, even if we disagree about the quality of the episode):
Maron: What happened?
Michaels: I think what happened was it was a period in the show’s history where [the] critical community and the network were on the same side, which seldom happened. I think Don Ohlmeyer was running the network then. We were getting killed in the press. We were in a transition away from the baby boom. And people like Sandler and Farley and Spade and Mike Myers were just leaving, and Dana just left. And so there was sort of consensus. New York Magazine ran a cover on Farley – why these people weren’t funny. I think Don Ohlmeyer felt it as well. I kept saying they’re not playing to you; they’re playing, pretty much, to your kids – that we were in the middle of a change. At the time … everything then was compared to the original cast, and did they fit, did they measure up. Of course, the idea that they were listening different music, that they were from a different time didn’t get through. And, as I said, the critics were really fierce and ratings were starting to suffer … And also the movies were beginning to work – Tommy Boy was ‘94, or we shot it in ‘94. And I don’t think [Don Ohlmeyer] was a fan of Norm MacDonald. But I was, I am always looking for what I think are original voices and, I thought, I wouldn’t have met with you if you didn’t think you had one.
Maron: So it was not a – so it was just not my year.
Michaels: No, I think we were being pounded on a whole other level, which was really existential at that point. Critics were [saying] “Saturday Night Dead.” The network was “you have to change, you’re too set in your ways.” And the simple fact that different generations come in and make the show their own and they find their own way of doing it, within the same tradition, as opposed to blowing it up and starting over. And the thing about broadcast is that you’re on in all 50 states. In the way that the railroads united the country in the 1900, I think the networks did in this century. You know the show plays differently in Arkansas than it does in Hawaii.
Maron: Maybe I wasn’t right.
Michaels: No, no, no. You were fine.
Michaels: You had a strong point of view and you were clear. You were just part of a mix. There was no idea of so much replacement, as you can only do that gradually. It was whether or not to bring you [on].
What the hell is that?? It’s certainly not substantial. I’d call it barely-coherent rambling from Michaels, and the sad part is that Maron basically accepted the verbal runaround. He never made a huge attempt to nail him down, or to take him to task for the weird abusive ways he treats people. We never got an answer on whether Maron was simply there to pressure Norm MacDonald into signing a contract, or what exactly Maron lacked that Michaels didn’t like.
To be fair, Maron attempted to ask about himself, but it just led to more double- and triple-speak from Michaels.
Maron: In retrospect, I don’t know if I was necessarily ready for the show and I came in here.
Michaels: You needed to spend a certain amount of time onstage to be ready for the show. I think you were ready. I think it was, I didn’t have – I learned early on that if you bring people in and there’s no real spot for them. Spade, I think, when we did the debate with Bush, Clinton, and Perot. Dana did Bush and Perot. And David was in the wide-shot filling in for Dana, dressed as Perot, so if you see the three shot of them, it’s actually Spade because Dana can’t be in literally both places. But once we cut in, it’s Dana again. So it was just tough for David to catch a break, because Dana. Writers will always go with whoever came through for them on the last show. And so they will go with the performer that they know can deliver and it’s just harder. Unless you play some other kind of part or unless you bring some other kind of voice that’s clear and can withstand those first five or six shows when the audience is less than friendly.
That’s as close resolution, or a real answer, as Maron came before he moved on to the personal history part of the interview. He later asked him about SNL’s competitive culture, but there were no barbs to the question, and the answer was in the same vein—not worth re-printing.
The truth may simply be that Maron doesn’t have enough anger left to really pin Michaels down. And while that’s disappointing from a listener’s perspective—especially after years and years of hearing his deep analysis of that short encounter from 1995—we’ll have to console ourselves with the knowledge that it’s good news, at least, for his mental health.