TV Funhouse

04.06.14

My Rocky Time As A Woman Writer on ‘SNL’

In 1985, Carol Leifer, who was discovered by David Letterman, became one of two female writers on Saturday Night Live, but her time there wasn’t easy, and it didn’t end so well. An excerpt from her new memoir How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying.

Saturday Night Live premiered in 1975, while I was in college, and comedy would never be the same. From the minute the show went on the air, it popped right off the screen as fresh and funny, and it immediately set a new standard for television comedy that continues today. So, in 1985 I was excited as anything when SNL’s creator, Lorne Michaels, returned to the helm after Dick Ebersol’s five-year reign. And even more excited to hear that the show was setting up auditions for new cast members at the Comic Strip, my home-base comedy club in New York City.

The night of the audition, I saw Al Franken walk into the club. Yes, that’s now Senator Al Franken. (And if you’re too young to find that disconcerting, imagine this in 20 years: Vice President Daniel Tosh.) I was familiar with Al from his appearances on the show with his comedy partner, Tom Davis, and was a huge fan. A fellow comic mentioned that he’d heard Al was going to be an occasional performer and producer on the show that year. He also mentioned that the head writer, Jim Downey, was part of the SNL posse that came to see the auditions. I had no idea if these things were true. When it comes to gossip, my fellow comics could put a couple of Boca yentas to shame. But I was excited nevertheless.

When you audition at a comedy club, it’s risky, because you’re at the mercy of two mercurial variables: the crowd and the performance order. You never know what audience is going to show up. They might be friendly and supportive. Or they might be drunk and hostile (aka. every comedy club audience in Trenton, New Jersey). On the one hand, if you go on stage too early in the lineup, the crowd may not be warmed up enough to respond well. On the other hand, when you go on too late, your audience is leaning toward “tired” and/or “one cocktail too many.”

It turns out I had some good karma the night of my SNL audition. I went on near the early middle of the lineup, a great spot. And as luck would have it, a warm and receptive audience showed up that night. (Little did those 200 people know they were going to have a big say in the comedic fates of a dozen comedians.) I did better than I’d hoped.

After my set, I hung out at the bar, relieved and happy it had gone well. A few other comics had stand-out sets that night, too. Then, as the Saturday Night Live crew was leaving the club, Al Franken and Jim Downey came over to me, telling me that they thought I was funny and did a great job. They said I’d hear from them soon.

140404-leifer-cover
'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying' by Carol Leifer ()

“You’ll hear from us soon” is to show business what “I’ll call you” is to one-night stands. But a week later my agent got a call: they liked my audition and now wanted me to meet Lorne Michaels. I was ecstatic! I was gonna meet Lorne over at a rehearsal studio on the West Side of Manhattan. I walked into the room, said hello, and shook hands with him. He told me that Al Franken and Jim Downey had highly recommended me to be a writer on the show, and I said I was glad to hear it. Then Lorne asked, “You know the hours are crazy on this show, don’t you? Oftentimes, writers sleep in their offices the night before the read-throughs. Are you okay with that?” I emphatically assured him that I was, even though I wasn’t exactly certain what a “read-through” was. And that was it. The meeting lasted maybe two minutes. I wasn’t sure if that was good or not, until the next day when they called my agent and said that SNL did indeed want to hire me as a writer. I’ll admit I was disappointed not to be offered a spot as a cast member, but I was also thrilled as hell to be offered any kind of job from this comedic institution. (The job also couldn’t have come at a better time. I was recently separated from my husband, a fellow comic, and the SNL hire got me out of Los Angeles and back to New York. The distance away from my impending divorce helped enormously.)

I found an apartment in New York within walking distance to the show. To this day, I’ve had few experiences that rivaled working in Manhattan at legendary 30 Rock, and simply putting on a pair of sneakers to get there. The job got me into the union, the Writers Guild, and I was making their minimum, $1,500 a week, which was a fortune to me at the time.

I’ll call the season that I worked on SNL the “weird cast” one. Totally out-of-the-box hires like Joan Cusack, Randy Quaid, Robert Downey Jr., Jon Lovitz. The only comedians hired whom I knew were A. Whitney Brown and Dennis Miller. (Whitney was hired as a supporting player, and Dennis was a full-time player).

Once I started writing for the show, a clear pattern emerged. I had been hired by Al Franken and Jim Downey, not Lorne Michaels. Which was strange; it felt like being asked to play on a Beatles album by Ringo. No disrespect at all to Al and Jim. They’re great guys with great comic minds. But it was clear that there was one leader at SNL. Period.

So, from day one I was never really part of Lorne Michael’s “group.” He had clear favorites among the performers and writers, the ones whom he invited to dinner and events. Subtlety was never Lorne’s forte. You’d walk out of a meeting with him and 20 other people, and Lorne pretty much signled out those he wanted to join him to eat afterward. I always felt left out because, well, I was.

And not just socially. Lorne never really responded to many of my pitches, and when I handed in my sketches I didn’t get much feedback from him. But I wasn’t too concerned, since Franken and Downey remained huge supporters. They approved a lot of my pitches, so much so that Al and I wound up writing a few sketches together. And they were both very complimentary of the sketches that I did get on the air (although there weren’t a ton of them).

What made matters worse was that the more I felt Lorne rebuke me, the more I pulled away. I’d even purposely avoid him if I saw him coming down the hall or chatting with people. I felt the best way to handle his indifference toward me was to just stay out of his way.

Lorne Michaels has a small sign on his desk at SNL, and it reads “The Captain’s Word Is Law.” It’s a fitting nautical reference, since at times working there felt like being caught in a perfect storm. (From what I hear, it still graces his desk 28 years later.) I really should have gotten the clear message from that sign. Instead of running away, I should have tried to penetrate his inner circle and draw out of him more thoughts on my work and how to make an impact at the show. Basically, I should not have taken his “no” for answer. Plain and simple, pleasing Al and Jim didn’t mean I was pleasing Lorne. I should have been more aware of that, instead of foolishly thinking I was somehow protected by being liked by his Number Twos.

I would end up getting fired at the end of the season. (Well, not really “fired.” It’s a weird system there. They simply never call your agent and ask you back.) But no hard feelings. I wasn’t fully ready to become a writer then, and I did long to get back to my stand-up full-time. That turned out to be the right decision, because my act really grew and flourished most after my writing job at SNL. After all, I’d been part of an all-star team of writers that included Jack Handey, Don Novello, John Swartzlander, George Meyer, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, and Robert Smigel, who was an “apprentice” writer at the time (I used to tease him that it was a guild regulation that he always wear safety goggles while writing sketches).

Still, I wish I knew then what I know now, and I hope you’ll benefit from knowing now what I didn’t know then. Whatever workplace you’re in, always aim to please the captain. It matters, even if the first mate is ecstatic with your performance, because it’s the captain who ultimately decides who stays onboard. If, like I did, you sense that the one person in charge isn’t thrilled with what you’re doing, ask for feedback and figure out how to correct your course. Because flying under the radar is a passive tactic that will eventually get you tossed off the ship.

Excerpted from the book How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying by Carol Leifer. Copyright © 2014 Carol Leifer. Reprinted with permission from Quirk Books.