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After scoring record ratings and getting tongues wagging across the nation for landing vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin as a guest star, Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels gave EW the whole scoop on how his latest coup went down — and what really happened when Sarah met Tina.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What does this performance — huge ratings, buzz, etc. — mean for Saturday Night Live?
LORNE MICHAELS: It’s always cyclical. The things we do depend on for its popularity are whether the audience is connecting with the event. In an election where 80 million people watch a debate, the straight line is established, as it were. You don’t need to explain your terms or what you’re talking about. Everyone’s interested in this election.
Do you feel like the level of interest in SNL‘s take is demonstrably higher this year than in past election years?
With the exception of 2000, because it was held over, there was another level to it. When we were doing the Bush-Gore debates, people were paying attention as well. What happened [this year] was the writers’ strike. The audience didn’t really understand what was happening, but all of a sudden we were off the air. I don’t want to say we were taken for granted. But all the shows that deal with the election were off the air with the exception of news, and we’re the people who hopefully put it in perspective. For us, the strike was incredibly frustrating on lots of levels, but it was the first time where we weren’t getting to express our feelings about things, which for people like us is not good. When we did come back, I wanted Tina [Fey] to be the first host back. One, because I thought she’d be great at it. But also because she embodied the writers’ strike. Because she is a writer and because she plays a writer. We had that first debate piece about the media’s swoon over Obama. That made people think about whether there was some validity to what he was saying, and it started from there. Then Tina’s editorial about ”bitch is the new black.” All of that at least opened up a discussion about what was going on with some intelligence. And once we were part of the debate again, the audience found us again…. The audience was right there for us and it built.
Is having the Thursday show helping you build buzz or hurting you because you’ve got to come up with even more material?
It’s hard to tell for us, because you don’t get to rewrite your Saturday show at the level you might want to. We did the debates both times so far, and those were things that really couldn’t hold. Those wouldn’t have the same impact on Saturday. But Josh Brolin was a very quick study, and I think we’ll be okay this week with Jon Hamm. The toll is more in fatigue than anything else.
Do you guys feel different when you’re getting so much buzz?
Definitely. Who doesn’t? All performers live for feedback.
NEXT PAGE: Could Sarah Palin have her own TV show?
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How incredibly fortunate was it that the election’s breakout star also happens to look exactly like Tina?
LORNE MICHAELS: There was all that, and it’s the first election with a star in a long time. The great part about the Palin thing was — and I’ve said it all too often — was that the audience cast Tina. You’d read or people would come up to you and say, what a gift. You want to point out that Tina’s no longer in the cast, that she has her own show. But I think if we had used Kristin [Wiig], who I think would’ve done a brilliant Sarah Palin, the audience would’ve been disappointed. No question about it. And Tina’s fantastic.
What do you think Palin gained from her appearance?
I think Palin will continue to be underestimated for a while. I watched the way she connected with people, and she’s powerful. Her politics aren’t my politics. But you can see that she’s a very powerful, very disciplined, incredibly gracious woman. This was her first time out and she’s had a huge impact. People connect to her.
She’s a ratings magnet, too — do you think she can land a development deal if this VP thing doesn’t work out?
She could pretty much do better than development. I think she could have her own show, yeah.
Why was her impending appearance kept so under wraps?
From the experience on the first show of last season. Hillary’s people had called to book the first show. This was in ’07. We said okay, because they called first. Then she bailed. Obama had called just after, and I had to say, no, they called first. Everybody wanted to release it, and I said, no, too many things can happen in a campaign. Then Obama was set for the first show this past season, and it got leaked by the campaign to People.com, and we said, really? Because we don’t do that. Then the hurricane happened, and we looked foolish. There were a lot of press calls, and it didn’t happen. From that moment on I said I’m not doing anything until they’re in the building.
Walk us through everything leading up to Palin’s appearance.
Palin’s people called the Monday after Tina’s first appearance [as Palin]. I think about two or three weeks ago she booked the show. We don’t talk about it. We wouldn’t confirm it. The campaign started talking about it. John McCain mentioned it, I think Letterman asked him. But I wouldn’t confirm it until she was in the building. NBC is hard to restrain on these kinds of things. Seth [Meyers] and I talked with her staff last Monday [the Monday before her appearance]. Then we met with two people from her staff at the studio Thursday afternoon. Then we showed them what we had and what we were hoping to still do. Then remember we had a show on Thursday, so we knew we wouldn’t get to most of it until Friday. Saturday at 4 she got there. I said we need her at 4, and they said it’s complicated. And I said we need her at 4, so we can guarantee to get her rehearsed and lit properly. My job on the most fundamental level is to make sure they look okay, and you can’t do that if they’re not lit properly. She got there, read everything, met with people, dealt with the writers of the pieces, and rehearsed. I think she started reading some stuff Saturday morning. Probably more like 2 in the afternoon. She had her eldest daughter and baby with her. She stayed till the end. She was in the goodnight. She had her own dressing room, where she was between her appearances. We do that.
NEXT PAGE: Why weren’t Tina Fey and Sarah Palin on screen together?
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why weren’t Palin and Fey ever on screen together?
LORNE MICHAELS: Any dialogue would’ve been a letdown. That’s not to say that if they talked as themselves it would’ve been a letdown. When someone’s doing somebody’s voice exactly, it’s an impression. So their talking wouldn’t have had the same power as them passing each other by. I thought it was the most powerful way [to do the opening skit].
Did they interact at all behind the scenes?
They talked. You’d have to ask them how it went. There was no kicking and screaming. We know how to behave.
Any other planned candidate appearances before the election?
Yes, but again, until they’re in the building I’m not going to talk about it.
Did Palin really decide not to do the rap, or was that part of the gag?
It was all part of the act. We didn’t ask her to rap. The idea was, what is the worst possible thing we could ask her to do? If her campaign were over-managed and she wasn’t making the calls herself…you know what I’m saying? But she has a good sense of humor.
Do you approach skits differently when the target is there?
We don’t tone things down. People understand that this is what we do, and it’s not personal. Well, it’s personal at some level. But people either have a sense of humor about it or they don’t. They probably wouldn’t be there if they didn’t, unless they were incredibly desperate. And we don’t make too much fun of the very desperate.
What are the challenges of writing skits for candidates instead of about them?
I think you just have to be sensitive to who they really are, because what we deal with in our work is how they are perceived. We don’t know who they really are; we just deal with the perception of them. Tina’s Sarah Palin is not the real Sarah Palin. She was fresh casting. The fact that no one knew anything about her, the fact that the audience got to go with her from Wasilla to Minneapolis. Literally six weeks ago she was in another world. I think there’s a lot of sympathy for anybody who can step forward and handle that level of pressure. That thing on a human level was fascinating to watch. She was characterized so quickly by the media. She got a really tough welcome. So when she introduced herself that way at the convention, people went, oh, I see. She gave a great performance.
How much push-back do you get from campaigns when you present what you want to do?
This is our 34th season. People know what we do.
So they don’t say, um, no, she’s definitely not doing this?
Yeah, but so do people who are hosting the show, so do people at the network. There is never any shortage of people who think something’s not a good idea.
Did you expect to be so big a part of this election?
You never expect it. But I think we’re used to being in the center of it, when we do it right.