Not long ago, while enjoying the three-and-a-half hour promotional ad branded Saturday Night Live’s Fortieth Anniversary Show – the show I decided not to work on, not the Fortieth Anniversary Show, the entire series – a long-ago related anecdote popped into my head concerning SNL’s creator-Executive Producer Lorne Michaels.
I have retained this story in my “Memory Bank” because it exemplifies to me why, paraphrasing first-season SNL participant Chevy Chase, he’s Lorne Michaels and I’m not.
Here’s what went down.
The “Guest Host” that week was going to be Donald Trump. As the story has it, Lorne Michaels had agreed to allow Trump to play a classical piece on the piano during the program. Seriously. Without distraction or comedic interpolation.
I can imagine their introductory conversation going something like this:
LORNE MICHAELS: “Donald, I am calling to invite you to ‘Guest Host’ SNL.”
DONALD TRUMP: “Can I play a classical piece on the piano, without distraction or comedic interpolation?”
LORNE MICHAELS: “No problem.”
Trump signs on, and the show goes into rehearsal. Now of course, I am not nor have I ever been inside Lorne Michaels’ head. But I am assuming, based on the questionability of Mr. Trump’s request – and who knows, it could actually have been a deal-breaking demand – that Lorne Michaels had no intention of ultimately allowing Trump to perform a classical piece on the piano at any point during the show. Or any show. Ever.
All week, Lorne plays his cards close to his vest. (The writer continues to imagine.) “The Donald’s” piano solo remains scheduled on the show’s official “rundown”, the chronically attention-needy real estate developer unaware that he is almost certainly rehearsing his network classical music appearance for nothing.
(I cannot imagine a suddenly insecure little Donald seeking regular reassurances that his mini piano concert will stay in the show and Michaels continually responding, “You have my word.” A man who expects to get what he wants would inevitably expect to get what he wants. Now I don’t know about you, but at that point – and this is what makes this chronicle particularly memorable to me – my stomach would be doing interminable “flip-flops”, dreading day and night the upcoming, inevitable “Moment of Truth.”)
Finally, that “finally” occurring possibly as late as Saturday evening’s “Dress Rehearsal” at which point Donald Trump’s piano solo remains scheduled to take place – SNL’s staff members pacing helplessly on the sidelines rolling their eyes and slapping their foreheads – Lorne strategically drops the bombshell. Wise enough, however, to deliver his pronouncement in the tone and tenor of a practical and entirely impersonal decision.
LORNE MICHAELS: “I’m sorry, Donald, but this happens all the time. The show’s running terribly long. And because of that – and only because of that because it’s wonderful – your piano solo is going to have to be cut.”
It is not like Donald Trump is “The Most Important Person in the World”. He just acts like he is. Still, the man’s used to getting what he wants. And now, not only is he at the very last minute being denied what he wants, he could very easily believe that he has been duped, promised something to insure his “Guest Hosting” the show that was never, in fact, intended to be delivered. (Although, frankly, I cannot imagine Donald Trump rejecting the personally aggrandizing opportunity of hosting SNL. Or a children’s birthday party, for that matter.)
It is unfathomable to me that anyone would want to be in the position of saying “No” to Donald Trump. Especially when he’d been strung along to believe it was going to be “Yes.”
And yet, that is exactly what Lorne Michaels was required to do. He effectively told a notorious man-eating carnivore, “No meat!” And I imagine over his thirty-five seasons running SNL that was not the only carnivore he was obliged to disappoint.
How does he do that?
(Note: I am sure this became easier over time, once the emerging super-powerful Michaels was himself transformed into a man-eating carnivore. And now, back to “How does he do that?”)
Years ago, Lorne Michaels confided to me “The Secret To His Success”, his reverberating insight arriving couched less as a “Life Lesson” than as a throwaway observation.
Lorne’s “Nugget of Wisdom” came in the context of, as the Executive Producer of some long-forgotten enterprise, his making some type of risky yet obligatory “Command Decision.” When the inevitable question arose concerning that important determination,
“What if you’re wrong?”
Lorne Michaels directly, if inelegantly, replied shruggingly,
“Call me ‘Pisher.’”
Meaning, to those unfamiliar with the colorful Yiddish patios:
“So I’m wrong. Call me an insulting Yiddish epithet, involving my having humiliated myself by urinating in my trousers.”
The “Secret To Lorne Michaels’ Success”, or at least a significant portion thereof: The traditional “Sticks and Stones” philosophy. Plain and simply, if you are impervious to the confrontational consequences, you will have considerably less difficulty telling Donald Trump and his fakahkta classical piano solo to take a hike.
A Minor Disclaimer: My interpretation of that traditional Yiddishism may not be entirely accurate. But hey, if I’m wrong, call me pi…
Who am I kidding?
I could never pull that off.