It Might Be Time for Lorne Michaels to Retire

Having Shane Gillis host "Saturday Night Live" is just the latest in a string of bad decisions

February 5, 2024 8:37 am
Lorne Michaels
Lorne Michaels attends the Clooney Foundation for Justice's 2023 Albie Awards at New York Public Library on September 28, 2023 in New York City.

There are only a handful of people who are fortunate enough to have created cultural institutions, and there are even fewer of them who have managed to become an integral part of said institutions’ identities for nearly half a century. But Lorne Michaels has been a comedy king-maker for 49 years — so much so that most diehard fans don’t consider the five years in the ’80s when he wasn’t at the helm of Saturday Night Live to really count towards the show’s legacy at all. Those non-Lorne years, which were met with pretty universally bad reviews, have an implied asterisk next to them and for decades have stood as a bleak reminder of what might happen should Michaels ever consider stepping down again.

Lately, however, the 79-year-old producer has made a string of bad decisions that indicate it may be time for him to hang it up. As the beloved sketch comedy show gears up for its big 50th anniversary next year, maybe it’s time to admit that it’s impossible to stay in a job for five decades without becoming out-of-touch. (His cast members rattle off jokes about Joe Biden and Donald Trump being too old to run for president every night, but Michaels himself is pushing 80.)

The most glaring examples came on Saturday night, when The Bear‘s Ayo Edebiri’s first time hosting was overshadowed by a cameo from Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley and the announcement that comedian Shane Gillis — you may remember him as the guy who was hired as a cast member on SNL back in 2019 but fired before his first episode after his past slur-filled, homophobic and racist comments came to light — will host the show on Feb. 24.

The Haley cameo proves that Michaels has learned nothing since he deservedly caught heat for having Donald Trump host the show in 2015. The Trump show bombed hard, and it represented a crossing the Rubicon of sorts; Saturday Night Live has a long history of having politicians on to poke fun at themselves, but since 2015 or so, we’ve been living through some of the most divisive times in our nation’s history. The lesson from having Trump on wasn’t just that it’s immoral to exploit a dangerous racist for ratings — it was that doing so isn’t particularly funny. Politicians only agree to appear on the show when they know it’ll serve their interests, humanizing them and making them seem more relatable. No matter who it is appearing on the show, Democrat or Republican, they’re only going to agree to appear in a sketch if they know it’s not going to hold their feet to the fire. Is it really worth giving someone like Haley an opportunity to laugh off her refusal to acknowledge slavery as the cause of the Civil War?

Ayo Edebiri’s First Time Hosting “SNL” Was Overshadowed by Offstage Decisions
Specifically, the announcement that Shane Gillis would be back to host

Then there’s Gillis. After his use of anti-Asian and anti-gay slurs came to light — and were dismissed by Gillis as an attempt to “push boundaries,” despite the fact that people have been racist and homophobic for literally thousands of years — Michaels did the right thing and cut him from the cast. “After talking with Shane Gillis, we have decided that he will not be joining SNL,” a spokesperson for Michaels said at the time on his behalf. “We want SNL to have a variety of voices and points of view within the show, and we hired Shane on the strength of his talent as comedian and his impressive audition for SNL. We were not aware of his prior remarks that have surfaced over the past few days. The language he used is offensive, hurtful and unacceptable. We are sorry that we did not see these clips earlier, and that our vetting process was not up to our standard.” What changed in the five years since then? Shouldn’t what was
“unacceptable” in 2019 be unacceptable in 2024?

But beyond the fact that Gillis represents a certain type of lazy, unfunny comedian who fancies himself “edgy,” having him host shows an unfathomable lack of respect for Bowen Yang, the show’s most talented (and arguably most popular) current cast member. Yang is Chinese-American and gay; you’re really going to make him share a stage with a guy who thinks it’s funny to mock Chinese accents and casually drops slurs like “chink” and “faggot” into his material? Even if we set aside the obvious HR concerns — what other job is there where someone could be fired for being racist and homophobic and then brought back to work alongside the very people his hate speech was targeting? — bringing Gillis back shows that Michaels isn’t particularly concerned about alienating his show’s biggest star.

It’s not the first time Yang has been put in an awkward position by Michaels, either. Just last week, Dave Chappelle appeared onstage during SNL‘s goodnights — despite the fact that he had not appeared in the episode at all. Chappelle has, of course, leaned hard into transphobia in recent years; Yang and fellow cast member Sarah Sherman were caught on-camera looking visibly upset by his presence and standing as far away from him as physically possible. When Chappelle hosted the show in 2022, there were rumors that some of SNL‘s writers were boycotting the episode. Yang, Sherman and their castmate Molly Kearney, who is non-binary, did not appear at all in the Chappelle episode.

Why is Chappelle seemingly roaming the halls of Studio 8H for no reason? Why is Michaels bending over backwards to accommodate problematic old guys and problematic not-so-old guys who are clinging to an incredibly stale, outdated idea of what comedy should be when he’s got an incredibly talented younger generation of comics at his fingertips? Yang and Sherman — whose avant garde body-horror brand of comedy is breathing new, weird life into the show — are two of the funniest people Michaels has had at his disposal in years. Why is he seemingly doing everything he can to push them out the door?

If he were the manager of a sports team, this kind of questionable decision-making would have fans calling for Michaels’s head. Maybe it’s time to admit that we live in a different world than we did in 1975, close the book on the show’s first 50 years and find someone who’s willing to carry it forward instead of staying stuck in the past.

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