It was, by WTF host Marc Maron’s own admission, his great white whale: a sit-down with Lorne Michaels, the powerful, enigmatic head of Saturday Night Live, for whom Maron once unsuccessfully auditioned.
The comedian’s full story is available here, but it’s a version of the basic Audition Story that will sound familiar to anyone who’s read histories of SNL or heard interviews with its alumni. In the mid-’90s, Maron, then working downtown New York’s alt comedy scene long before “alt” ironically became stand-up’s dominant discourse, was called in to a one-on-one meeting with Michaels. Presumably, Maron was up for a spot on Weekend Update, the traditional home for stand-ups in a cast dominated by actors with backgrounds in improv and sketch. Michaels made a few cryptic statements (“You know, comedians are like monkeys”), Maron got nervous, and in a move he retroactively interpreted as failing “the test,” the comedian took a candy from Michaels’ desk. Maron didn’t get the job.
Ever since announcing his Michaels interview at the New Yorker Festival over a month ago, Maron has been gradually teasing the WTF episode that came out of it with clips of the nearly two dozen SNL cast members he’s had on the show. Now, just in time for Michaels to earn some quality PR after this weekend’s Donald Trump ratings bonanza/critical fiasco, the two-hour interview is finally available in full.
Unsurprisingly, Maron brought up the audition right off the bat; equally unsurprisingly, it turned out the candy — Tootsie Rolls, not the Jolly Ranchers Maron had remembered — was not a test. Instead, Michaels said Maron was brought in during a transitional period, when the show was under pressure from both critics and NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer to find replacements for recently departed stalwarts like Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Chris Farley, and Adam Sandler:
At the time, everything then was compared to the original cast. It was like, Did [the new cast] measure up? And of course, the idea that they were listening to different music, that they were from a different time, didn’t get through… The critics were, “Saturday Night Dead.” The network was, “You have to change, you’re too set in your ways.” The simple fact was, different generations come in and make the show their own, and that they find their own way of doing it within the same tradition, as opposed to blowing it up and starting over and all that.
In true Michaels fashion, none of this relates directly to Maron and why he didn’t make the cast, though it’s an interesting look at what it’s like to be on the other side of all those comparisons to early SNL, given that the show is in the middle of yet another transitional period right now. And in true Maron fashion, the comedian brought the interview right back to the subject at hand — his two-decade strong anxiety:
Maron: So I wasn’t right. Michaels: No no, you were fine. You had a strong point of view, and you were clear. You were just part of a mix.
The real reason Maron didn’t make the cut, Michaels explains, is that he just didn’t have an obvious place in that particular SNL lineup. (Maron auditioned at the same time as Tracy Morgan, for the 1996 season; Morgan, along with Ana Gasteyer and Chris Kattan, joined a cast that included Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, Tim Meadows, Molly Shannon, and Cheri Oteri.) It’s an explanation that makes perfect sense from someone whose job is to consider the show as a whole, as Michael’s is, as opposed to a single career, like Maron’s. As Michaels elaborated:
I learned early on that if you bring people in and there’s no real spot for them… Writers will always go for whoever came through for them on the last show. They’ll go with a performer they know can deliver, and it’s just harder to, unless you play some other kind of part or bring some other kind of voice that’s clear and can withstand those first five or six shows when the audience is less than friendly.
In the second of the interview’s two halves, Maron pressed for more:
Maron: You said it was because I didn’t fit a slot in your head. Michaels: I didn’t say that! What I was saying was, I saw something when I saw you and I talked to you, so you kind of put it in your head as, when something opens [up]… The Trailblazers didn’t pick [Michael Jordan] up in the draft, they said they weren’t looking for a power forward. I think you’re just always looking for what you need to fill [a spot].
Since Ohlmeyer wouldn’t succeed in pushing Norm Macdonald out of the Update anchor’s chair for another two years, there wasn’t a spot for an acerbic stand-up like Maron at the time. And so it was that Marc Maron and his listeners got an answer of sorts to a 20-year-old question, before moving on to more general subjects like Michaels’ origin story and the day-to-day routine of running a comedy institution. (Again, the full show is very much worth a listen, and it’s available for free here.)
As for some of the more Peak Lorne Michaels moments from the audition, like when he told Maron, “I don’t know what you think you’re doing down there below 14th Street, but it doesn’t matter”?
“I was trying to be helpful and save you a few years,” Michaels explained.