Lorne Michaels brought me to Los Angeles for my first Hollywood writing assignment, a Lily Tomlin special which Lorne was producing. I then wrote on another Lily Tomlin special, a Flip Wilson special – with guest participants Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor and Peter Sellers, which spectacularly spruces up the “Flip Wilson” credit – and a mercifully forgotten variety special (although iconic comedian Groucho Marx stood up and waved on it) hosted by singer John Davidson, who delivered a monologue (written by yours truly) while being drowned out by an up-tempo orchestration of “That’s Entertainment.” (A relief, because the monologue was awful.)
For my entire first eight months in Hollywood, all of my employment opportunities – four assignments in total – emanated from the munificence, generosity and innate trust in my ability of Lorne Michaels. Then one day, Lorne called and informed me that he was relocating to New York, to produce a late-night sketch comedy series to replace Johnny Carson reruns on Saturday night. Lorne invited me to go with him.
I immediately said no.
When I tell people I turned down working on Saturday Night Live, a substantial number of them react as if I rejected an invitation to hook up with the Beatles, turning my back a skyrocket to immortality.
I, not surprisingly, do not see it that way.
And never did. Well maybe a couple of times when they were on the covers of national magazines, but that’s it. Why didn’t that – to others – questionable career move upset me? Partly, because I did okay staying where I was. If I had ended up failing in California and returned to Toronto, signing up at the Ontario College of Education and going on to a Third Grade assignment teaching long division and “cursive”, I might well have felt differently. Not to disparage Third Grade teachers, but how many of them are drinking tea in the Teachers’ Lounge saying, “It was Saturday Night Live or this. And look where I am.”
Why didn’t I take the job? Lots of reasons, the bulk of which will remain between me and a not insubstantial series of mental health professionals. For these purposes, I shall mention only the fact that I had recently uprooted myself from the comfort and familiarity of Toronto and I was little disposed to repeat the procedure a seconde tahm.
Regular readers can most likely infer that I do not come easily to change. I have recently spent six months agonizing over changing dentists. So changing coasts… especially from a warm and balmy one to… “This feels a lot like Toronto.”…
Thanks, but I am not into it, okay?
Before moving in a direction I forgivingly call forward, let me dwell just a moment on the implications of my behavior. When I recently revealed to a visitor that, with one uncharacteristic exception, Lorne Michaels has not spoken to me in thirty-five years, the visitor opined, “Because you betrayed him.” A rather stinging assessment, especially considering that he and his family were at the time staying gratis in my house.
And yet, his astute observation could very well have been on the money. I recall, on an early visit to Saturday Night Live, meeting the then twenty-four year-old Al Franken, who, upon our being introduced, replied,
“Oh, you’re the guy who won’t work for us.”
So I guess the word had gotten around. And it wasn’t, “I admire a man who sticks to his guns.”
Thoughts on this seminal career move – or in this case non-move – return to my mind as I am reading (on my Sony Discman) Martin Short’s entertaining memoir I Must Say, having arrived at the point early in “Disc 4” where Marty chronicles his tumultuous single season writing and performing on Saturday Night Live.
Wow, I am reminded, though not for the first time, did I ever dodge a gigantic bullet!
It is imaginable that some people would thrive on the intensity, urgency and competitiveness involved in churning out such a frightening amount of usable comedy material on a weekly basis. All of it written in one day!
You pitch the idea on Monday; you write it on Tuesday. Wednesday at one, you read that week’s script. No second drafts. No second thoughts. You write it, and you ship it. I cannot believe, working at this pace, that typewriters – and later computers – did not burst spontaneously into flame.
They worked exceptionally fast. Is what I’m saying.
Which is definitively not my style. I like to think about things. (Which I changed from “I like to consider things.”) Write them down. Rework certain parts. (Which was once “Rethink certain parts.”) Look for constant improvements. (Formerly, “Look for improvements.”)
Accommodating my process in one day? For me, that would be an extremely long day. A day other people – say, like my bosses on the show – might, more accurately, refer to as a week!
And even then, it might not be any good! (Or at least not to the taste of my employers. Or the mercurial whim of that week’s guest host.)
I could never have worked successfully on Saturday Night Live. I am simply too deliberate.
(Another example. I originally wrote “I am simply too slow.” On SNL, I would never have had the time to worry over every word. I can imagine myself watching a performance of my material from the wings, realizing, “Not ‘slow’ – ‘deliberate!’” and feeling somebody suddenly clamping their hand over my mouth because I had registered my now-too-late revision out loud.)
But I was not thinking about that at that time. My immediate concerns ran to: “Suppose I relocate to New York and the series is summarily cancelled?” Or as I explained to Lorne Michaels in the one letter I wrote him requesting assistance for a project he elected not to assist me with:
“The main reason I did not work on the show is that I was not certain it was going to last.”
Wrong reason. But still the right decision.
I guess that’s the way it works sometimes.
Or is it “That’s how it works sometimes.”