Saturday Night Live Creator Lorne Michaels: Born in Israel

November 14, 2014  

While he is best known as the longtime producer of Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels is many things to many different people. Ask one person, and they will describe him as the genius behind Saturday Night Live, a father not just of the show but also of American popular comedy. Ask another, and they will describe Michaels as a cold, mean-spirited dictator, who stifles creativity in order to produce lowbrow dreck. But while he may divide opinion, his success is irrefutable. The Hollywood Reporter named Michaels “comedy’s most important man ever” and the Emmys have awarded him no fewer than thirty-six awards.

Lorne Michaels was born seventy years ago this month as Lorne Lipowitz on a kibbutz in pre-independence Israel. But while Lorne was still an infant, the Lipowitz family relocated to Toronto, trading communal life in a farming community for suburban Canada. As a kid, Lorne loved film and TV and spent much of his time at his grandparents’ movie theater, the College Playhouse by the University of Toronto. “My grandparents owned a movie house, so my earliest memories, before TV, are of just going there and sitting there and watching feature presentations,” Michaels told New York Magazine. “It was Canada, so we say feature presentation.”

His father Henry Lipowitz, a furrier, died when Lorne was only 14; thereafter he gravitated towards father figures and would in time relish playing the role.

He attended the University of Toronto and co-wrote and directed the student comic revue. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation took notice and offered Michaels an opportunity to write for radio when he graduated in 1966 with a degree in English. Michaels was dating Rose Shuster, who was about a half-dozen years his junior and the daughter of a prominent Canadian comic actor. He says it was Rosie’s parents that encouraged him to change his name from Lipowitz—apparently the thought of a Lipowitz succeeding in show business seemed improbable to the Shusters.

Michaels teamed up with another Jewish Canadian Hart Pomerantz and together the writing partners contributing regularly to CBC Radio before heading to New York. The pair briefly wrote for the late Joan Rivers before splitting up, whereupon Michaels returned to Canada. He spent the next four years writing for Canadian television before being called up to the majors with an offer to write for Phyllis Diller’s show in Los Angeles. After working on “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show” and the sketch comedy show “Laugh-In,” Michaels had developed a strong reputation.

lorne michaels jewish

When a young NBC executive named Dick Ebersol asked Michaels to create a new show for the network, it seems fair to assume neither could have predicted the success “Saturday Night Live” would become. The show debuted on October 11, 1975 with legendary comedian George Carlin as its first host. That year its cast included Dan Akroyd and John Belushi, from Michaels’ hometown, as well as Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner, with the writing team featuring his wife Rosie Shuster, Alan Zweibel, future Senator Al Franken and Michaels himself.

In its first year the show that announced itself with “live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” went on to win four Emmy Awards and a large audience. “So much of what Saturday Night Live wanted to be, or I wanted it to be when it began, was cool,” Michaels told Vanity Fair. “Which was something television wasn’t.”
No doubt a huge amount of this success is due to Michaels’ ability not just to write but also to identify the right collaborators.

“He’s a quintessential producer,” comedian, actress and goddess Amy Poehler told the New York Daily News, “because he knows how to find talent, he knows how to encourage talent and he knows how to let people do their thing.” The former SNL cast member and author of the new memoir “Yes, Please” continued: “He always knows what he wants and he’s always comfortable surrounding himself with talented people, and I guess maybe that comes from his experience as a writer and a collaborator.”

In the past 39 years, Michaels has helped to launch the careers of Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Mike ¬Myers, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Fallon, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Mike Myers, Jimmy Fallon and Tracy Morgan, whom he discovered selling souvenirs outside Yankee stadium.

That Saturday Night Live mocks politics and politicians without the bite of satirical shows like Last Week Tonight With John Oliver or The Colbert Report might stem from Michaels’ lack of political commitment. In 2008, he gave thousands of dollars to both the campaigns of John McCain and Barack Obama. Michaels is, notoriously, similarly inscrutable to those with whom he works. SNL cast members have often complained that they had no idea whether he liked them or found them funny. Gilda Rader made light of this with the joke that she “would search through Lorne’s desk hoping that she’d find a note in there that said ‘I really like Gilda.’” Michaels was like a withholding father, writer Alan Zweibel said: “We were a bunch of kids, and if we were denied Daddy’s – his – approval, we worked harder and harder to get it.”

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The thrice-married Michaels has a dual reputation—as an ersatz father and paternal mentor to some; and as a distant, cold authority figure to others. Many have described him as a cryptic and scary while others, such as Jimmy Fallon, have spoken of him as a generous mentor. Whatever the case, Michaels has ensure he has been involved in his SNL family’s projects beyond the show, such as Fey’s “Mean Girls” and “30 Rock” Meyer’s “Wayne’s World” and Fred Armisen’s “Portlandia,” while executive producing Fallon’s “The Tonight Show.” At last check, Michaels had 147 credits as producer on IMDB.

Aside from five years away from Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s, Michaels has been as much a fixture on the show as it has been on NBC. As the executive producer of the longstanding bastion of weekend programming, Michaels, the kibbutz-born son of a furrier named Lipowitz who died too soon, has as strong a claim as any to be considered the father of American popular comedy.

By: Dan Meller

 


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2 COMMENTS

  1. By IsraeliGirl143, November 18, 2014

    Well he is a really funny guy

    Reply
  2. By HeyJules, July 6, 2015

    This I did not know.

    Reply

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