- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Lorne Michaels, the mastermind behind the “Saturday Night Live” franchise, will be awarded the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for humor in October, the arts center announced yesterday.

“His creation of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ which has become an American institution, along with his work in film and on Broadway, has provided this nation with some of its greatest comedians,” said Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser.

Mr. Michaels, a Toronto native, seems an odd choice at first blush for the seventh annual prize, especially for those who have seen his stiff cameos on his long-running NBC show.

Yet consider the breadth of his contributions to comedy and think again. Not only did he create “SNL” and shepherd its success for most of its nearly three decades on the air, but his show also jump-started the careers of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy and a dozen or so other major talents.

He’s also responsible for “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” “The Kids in the Hall” and such feature films as “Mean Girls,” “Wayne’s World” and “Tommy Boy.”

Mr. Michaels, who yesterday said he’s still recovering from the just-wrapped “SNL” season, began his comedy career in the 1960s writing for “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In.” The program ran on NBC from 1968 through 1973.

“I contributed almost nothing to its success, but it was thrilling being there,” says Mr. Michaels, who was 23 when he began writing for the show.

A 10-time Emmy winner for his writing and producing, Mr. Michaels received his “SNL” opportunity when NBC asked him to create a late-night program to replace Saturday reruns of “The Tonight Show.”

Soon thereafter, “SNL” became the measuring stick against which all sketch comedy would be compared.

Some critics, however, have been cruel about cast changes over the years, often bemoaning that the revolving cast of performers will never re-create the glory days of the John Belushi-Chevy Chase-Dan Aykroyd era.

Mr. Michaels, the first Twain Prize winner not from the United States, diplomatically explains away some of the criticism by discussing how personally many younger viewers take the show.

“The audience attaches to a cast and the people who become big [during their own formative years]. They feel that was their experience,” he says. “People are very proprietary with it.”

It’s up to Mr. Michaels, 59, to select new cast members every year or so. Though no one could bat 1,000 in that capacity, his track record is stunning.

It’s hard to define what he seeks in a potential Not Ready for Prime Time player, he says.

“It’s all what you feel you’re missing… what’s not there in the cast,” says Mr. Michaels, who also produced and directed “Gilda Radner Live From New York” — a starring vehicle for the late original cast member — for Broadway. “It’s something original,” he says.

Mr. Michaels left his comic creation in 1980 to pursue other projects.

At the time, the show needed new blood, he says.

“The first five years were such a roller coaster,” says Mr. Michaels, who had a hand in every personnel decision during that time.

He returned and assumed full control five years after his sabbatical began and has no intention of stepping down any time soon.

Throughout “SNL’s” history, the program has lived and died in large part on its political humor. In an increasingly partisan country, the show remains an ideology-free zone.

“There are no axes to grind. I’m very clear about that,” Mr. Michaels says. “I don’t think we’re credible if we’re partisan.”

The key to success in general, he has learned, is to surround oneself with the best and the brightest.

“If you look around the room you’re in and you’re the smartest person there, it’s not going well,” he says.

Previous winners of the Mark Twain Prize are, in order: Richard Pryor (1998), Jonathan Winters (1999), Carl Reiner (2000),Whoopi Goldberg (2001), Bob Newhart (2002) and Lily Tomlin (2003).

The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor will be presented Oct. 25 in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets will go on sale to Kennedy Center subscribers Aug. 2 and to the general public Aug. 11.

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