This year, Marc Maron scored what at the time seemed to be considered the biggest interview of his seminal WTF podcast when President Barack Obama visited the infamous garage in East Los Angeles and managed to cause a national incident by uttering the “n-word” uncensored.
But in Maron’s world, there is a guest with even more clout than the leader of the free world. Someone who has loomed so large over the comedian’s career that the host publicly floated the idea of ending his show once he finally got him to sit down and talk.
That man is Saturday Night Live Executive Producer Lorne Michaels, who, unlike Obama, made Maron come to him. Over two separate sessions in early October, as Amy Schumer was preparing to host SNL for the first time, Maron got his chance to confront comedy’s father figure about what really happened back in 1995 when NBC was reportedly looking to replace Norm Macdonald as Weekend Update anchor and brought the alt-comic in for meeting in the 30 Rock office.
“You were here before,” Michaels can be heard telling Maron on tape as they sat down for the first of two interviews. “Of course I remember,” he added to the host’s pleasant surprise.
From there, Maron did not waste any time getting into the specifics of the decades-old meeting that stands as a major milestone in his own life but is barely a blip for Michaels, who is responsible for launching the careers of so many comedy superstars. Maron can’t help but wonder how his career, which has only blossomed later in life with WTF, might have been different had he been given that SNL launching pad by in the ‘90s.
The basics of the story from Maron’s side are this: He waited for about an hour outside Michaels’ office, seated next to a shiny-haired Tracy Morgan, who would be hired that year and go on to spend eight seasons as a cast member on the show. He was a little high on pot and made an awkward joke about monkeys throwing feces—at which Michaels decidedly did not laugh. Ultimately, he did not get the gig and Macdonald stayed behind the Update desk for another two years.
After discussing the ill-fated meeting with at least 20 different current and former SNL cast members on his show over the past six years—compiled as a podcast extra that can only be heard with a premium subscription—Maron finally got the chance on the new episode released Monday to ask Michaels, “What happened?”
Michaels described the mid-’90s as a “period in the show’s history where the critical community and the network were on the same side, which seldom happened.” They were moving away from the “baby boom” era of Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, and Adam Sandler and into uncharted territory and nobody was happy with the direction things were going. That was especially true for then-NBC President Don Ohlmeyer, who did not like Macdonald and ultimately ended up firing him years later, perhaps for making too many jokes about Ohlmeyer friend O.J. Simpson.
“I am always sort of looking for what I think are sort of original voices and, I thought—I wouldn’t have met with you if you didn’t think you had one,” Michaels told Maron. “You had a strong point of view and you were clear,” he added, suggesting he wasn’t being considered as a “replacement” for Macdonald, but rather as a cast member who could perhaps one day succeed him.
“In retrospect, I don’t know that I was necessarily ready for the show,” Maron admitted, but Michaels disagreed.
“I think you were ready,” he said, using an analogy about David Spade struggling in his first years because he was too similar to Dana Carvey to explain why Maron might not have been a good fit for the cast at the time. Assuming the show wasn’t going to fire Macdonald yet, perhaps they could not afford to take on another strong-willed, opinionated, angry young male comedian.
“Writers will always go to whoever came through for them on the last show,” Michaels said. “And so they will go with the performer that they know can deliver and it’s just harder—unless you play some other kind of part or unless you 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.”
Listen to a clip from the podcast below:
The rest of their nearly two-hour conversation covered the more standard WTF fare, from Michaels’ start as the self-described “tall and handsome” straight man in the The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour to the early years of Saturday Night Live, when he simply rounded up the funniest people he knew and made history by letting them do more or less whatever they wanted on television every week, to his more recent job as producer of The Tonight Show and Late Night for NBC.
In the end, Maron confirmed that he had achieved the “closure” he has been seeking all these years and came away with the conclusion that Michaels is a “great guy” who is dedicated to producing the best comedy he can on a week-to-week basis.
At the top of his podcast game, Maron has now put himself in the uncomfortable position of needing to find something entirely new to obsess over.