Whether you think “Saturday Night Live” is up or down, change is coming to the long-running NBC comedy show.
Four of its veteran performers — Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Pete Davidson and Kyle Mooney — let it be known ahead of the 47th season finale in May that they were leaving “SNL.” Three other cast members – Melissa Villaseñor, Alex Moffat and Aristotle Athari – exited earlier this month, and another, Chris Redd, announced his departure on Monday.
Although four new cast members are joining the ensemble for the premiere of its 48th season on October 1, the show is going through one of its biggest transitions since 1995, when the cast was almost completely revamped.
These are moments Lorne Michaels, creator and executive producer of “SNL,” has experienced before. As he said in a phone interview on Wednesday, “It’s been a year of reinvention. And change is exhilarating.
The latest change is also one that Michaels said he saw coming and could no longer be postponed. As he explained, “The pandemic had put us in this position where nobody 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 is not the show. There must be new people, both for us and for the public.
“SNL,” which won the Emmy this month for a variety sketch series, has generally found a way to revitalize itself, era after era. But Michaels, 77, knows these moments can also be confusing and even perilous for the show. He went into more detail about how he approached this most recent change, why it was necessary, and what he plans to do when the show turns 50. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: There’s a turnover at “SNL” every year, but losing eight cast members before a new season – that’s a lot, right?
A: Yes, but we were also 23 or 24 years old. We got to a point where we had a lot of people, and people didn’t have enough game time. The way the show has survived is at that level of renewal. The price of success is that people leave and do something else; their primary obligation is to their talent and to keep pushing it. And there’s something so much better about the show when all that matters is the show. There is a time to say goodbye and there is a natural time for that, but the natural time has just been disrupted by the pandemic.
Q: So under normal circumstances these departures would have happened more gradually?
A: Yeah, or [when cast members had side projects on] streaming, people didn’t have to leave the same way that if they were going to make a movie, they would be gone for three months. We try to do our best with the cast that was there, and at the same time, my first responsibility is to keep the show fresh. Things get old. I don’t think we had become stale, because the people we had were so talented and at their peak.
Q: If this is an opportunity to reinvent the show, what do you think the spirit will be?
A: What I want is for there to be 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 hope to see deal with it.
Q: Do you pay attention to criticism from people who say they no longer feel represented by the show’s politics? Is that something you try to take into account?
A: I won’t get into the party system, but there are a lot of people I meet and like. And when someone calls me after a show and says, “So-and-so was really hurt by what you did,” I say, Did they see the show? That’s what we do, and that’s why I can’t be everyone’s friend. This has been the position from the beginning and it is not fair. But the first priority cannot be not to offend people you love or who are powerful. It’s the opposite. And if someone does something stupid, it would be blatant not to deal with it.
Q: So if there’s a perception that the show is harder for one party or team than the other, don’t you think that’s something you need to adjust to?
A: I think what happened in the last four years, between the pandemic and the presidency, people were really scared. And that was reflected in the show. In a meaningful way, in a way that I’m proud of. But it’s much easier when everything is normal in politics and it’s just that the two parties hate each other. We’ve been through some really scary times over the past four years. I hope we get out of this and it’s just the scary old things like a depression or a war.
Q: How did you approach the casting of star performers joining this season?
A: I think all four are fresh. They bring things we don’t have and they complement the people we already have. In people like Kate and Aidy, we had superstars, and that’s only because you got to know them over the years and then they grew in stature. New people could last for years. These are not load-bearing walls. They aren’t what they’re going to be yet, but at least half the fun of watching the show is watching the people who get started and learn about them.
Q: You also had new recruits who stepped up pretty quickly, like James Austin Johnson, who played both Biden and Trump in his first season.
A: What I like about James’ Trump is the diminished Trump. He’s the guy in the back of the hardware store with a lot of opinions. He is not this giant existential threat.
Q: “Weekend Update”, featuring Colin Jost and Michael Chewill also remain intact?
A: Yeah, especially as we approach a midterm election, I just need that party to be as solid as it is.
Q: Based on your history at “SNL”, is there also a potential danger in these moments of reinvention?
A: The rebirth, this period, it’s painful. I have experienced it five or six times. Most people haven’t experienced it more than once or twice. But it’s still bumpy. I did the Dana Carvey and David Spade podcast while I was in Los Angeles for the Emmys, and it was one of the first times I really lived [that era of “SNL”] with Dana and David and was able to leave, Oh right, it was a remarkable time and a lot of it holds up.
But that period started in 85, fresh out the door with a new cast, and 86 added Dana and Phil [Hartman] and January [Hooks], featuring the best of the ’85 cast. Then there was a change of administration at the network, ’94, ’95. They didn’t like the choices, and so there was pressure there. But look where we were in 97, 98. That’s what we’re going through.
Q: “Saturday Night Live” is approaching its 50th anniversary, which puts it ahead of almost anything but “Meet the press.”
A: And their sketches are not really comparable to ours.
Q: When you take a step like this, do you think it’s a chance to tip your hat and say goodbye?
A: I have no intention of retiring. I’m not a big party person. Even the 40th [anniversary show], in the end, the only way out was because I knew I was doing a show, and at some point the credits would roll and we would be off the air. The 50th will be a big event. We’ll bring back everyone from all 50s and hosts and all that. It will be a very emotional and very strong thing. There won’t be as many plus-ones, I can tell you that.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.