Whether you think “Saturday Night Live” is on an upswing or in a downturn, change is coming to the long-running NBC sketch comedy show.
Four of its veteran performers — Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Pete Davidson and Kyle Mooney — made it known ahead of the 47th season finale in May that they were leaving “S.N.L.” Three more cast members — Melissa Villaseñor, Alex Moffat and Aristotle Athari — exited at the start of this month and another, Chris Redd, announced his departure on Monday.
While four new featured players will join the ensemble for its 48th season premiere, on Oct. 1, the show is experiencing one of its biggest transitions since 1995, when the cast was almost completely overhauled.
These are moments that Lorne Michaels, the creator and executive producer of “S.N.L.,” has experienced before. As he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, “This is a year of reinvention. And change is exhilarating.”
The latest shift is also one that Michaels said he saw coming and that could not be put off any longer. As he explained, “The pandemic had put us in this position where no one could really leave, because there were no jobs. And at the same time, if I don’t add new people every year, then the show isn’t the show. There have to be new people, for both our sake and also for the audience.”
“S.N.L.,” which won the Emmy this month for variety sketch series, has usually found a way to revitalize itself, era after era. But Michaels, 77, knows that these junctures can also be perplexing and even perilous for the show. He spoke further about how he approached this most recent changeover, why it was necessary and what he plans to do when the show turns 50. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
There’s turnover at “S.N.L.” every year, but losing eight cast members before a new season — that’s a lot, right?
Yes, but we were also at 23 or 24. We got to a point where we had a lot of people, and people weren’t getting enough playing time. The way the series has survived is by that level of renewal. The price of success is that people go off and do other things; their primary obligation is to their talent and to keep pushing that. And there’s something so much better about the show when all that matters is the show. There’s a time to say goodbye and there’s a natural time for it, but the natural time just got interfered with by the pandemic.
So under normal circumstances, those departures would have happened more gradually?
Yeah, or [when cast members had side projects on] streaming, people didn’t have to leave in the same way that if they were going to do a movie, they’d be gone for three months. We try to do the best with the cast that was there, and at the same time, my first responsibility is to keep the show fresh. Things grow stale. I don’t think we’d gotten stale, because the people we had were so gifted and at their peak.
If this is an opportunity for reinventing the show, what do you want its spirit to be?
What I want it to be is, there’s a reason to watch it live, because you don’t know what we’re going to do. Something big happened in the news, and you want to see how we’re going to deal with it and you know the people you’re hoping to see deal with it.
Do you pay attention to criticism from people who say they don’t feel represented by the show’s politics anymore? Is that something you try to take into account?
I won’t get into the party system, but there are lots of people that I get to meet and get to like. And when someone calls me after a show and says, “So-and-so was really hurt by what you did,” I go, Have they seen the show? That’s what we do, and that’s why I can’t be everyone’s friend. That’s been the position since the beginning and it’s not fair. But the first priority can’t be not offending people you like or who are powerful. It’s the reverse. And if someone does something stupid, it would be glaring to not deal with it.
So if there is a perception that the show is tougher on one party or one team than the other, you don’t feel that’s anything you have to adjust for?
I think what’s happened in the last four years, between the pandemic and the presidency, people were truly frightened. And that was reflected in the show. In a worthwhile way, in a way that I’m proud of. But it’s much easier when everything is normal in politics and it’s just the two parties hate each other. We went through really scary times, the last four years. Hopefully we’re coming out of it and it’s just the old scary things like a depression or war.
How did you approach casting the featured performers who are joining this season?
I think all four are fresh. They bring things we don’t have and they’re complementary to the people we already have. In people like Kate and Aidy, we had superstars, and it’s only because you got to know them over the years, and then they grew in stature. The new people could last for years. They’re not load-bearing walls. They’re not yet what they’re going to be, but at least half of the fun of watching the show is watching people that are beginning and discovering them.
You’ve also had new hires who stepped up pretty quickly, like James Austin Johnson, who was playing both Biden and Trump in his first season.
What I love about James’s Trump is, it’s the diminished Trump. It’s the guy at the back of the hardware store with a lot of opinions. He’s not this giant existential threat.
“Weekend Update,” with Colin Jost and Michael Che, will also remain intact?
Yes, particularly, coming into a midterm election, I just need that part to be as solid as it is.
Going by your history at “S.N.L.,” is there also potential peril in these moments of reinvention?
Rebirth, that period, it’s painful. I’ve lived through it five or six times. Most people haven’t lived through it more than once or twice. But it’s always bumpy. I did Dana Carvey and David Spade’s podcast while I was out in L.A. for the Emmys, and it was one of the first times I’d really gone through [that era of “S.N.L.”] with Dana and David and was able to go, Oh right, this was a remarkable period and a great deal of it holds up.
But that period started in ’85, fresh out of the gate with a new cast, and ’86 added Dana and Phil [Hartman] and Jan [Hooks], with the best of the ’85 cast. Then there was a change in administration at the network, ’94, ’95. They didn’t like the choices and so there was pressure there. But then look where we were by ’97, ’98. That’s what we’re going through.
“Saturday Night Live” is nearing its 50th anniversary, which puts it ahead of almost everything except “Meet the Press” — —
And their sketches don’t really compare to ours.
When you hit a milestone like that, do you think of it as an opportunity to tip your hat and say goodbye?
I have no plans to retire. I’m not a big person for celebrating. Even the 40th [anniversary show], in the end, the only way I got through it was because I knew I was doing a show, and at a certain point, the credits would roll and we’d be off the air. The 50th will be a big event. We’ll bring everyone back from all 50 years and hosts and all of that. It will be a very emotional and very strong thing. There won’t be as many plus-ones, I can tell you that much.