Get unlimited digital access to $0.99 for 4 weeks.

Comedy Maven Lorne Michaels Widens His Empire Beyond 'SNL'

When Maya Rudolph, Martin Short and Seth Meyers show up on "Saturday Night Live," viewers might see it as just another instance of the comedy institution tapping its famous alumni. But it's also part of the latest business foray by producer Lorne Michaels.

The "Saturday Night Live" impresario cultivated an outsider's image when he launched the latenight program, using it to tilt at TV business conventions and American popular culture. Now, nearing 70, he has become the consummate insider -- and his empire is growing.

As "SNL" approaches its 40th season, Michaels controls nearly all of the Peacock's latenight properties including "The Tonight Show" and "Late Night"; he's in the midst of testing a variety-show concept featuring Rudolph; and he's steering "Mulaney," a comedy set to launch on Fox in the fall.

"He's not feeling a need to just expand his portfolio for the sake of it," said Kevin Reilly, Fox entertainment chairman. Rather, he added, Michaels tends to stick with "his talent, his brand and his circle of trust," launching projects with people in whom he has faith.

Michaels declined to comment, but his plan - using familiar shows under his command to promote new concepts and programs - has become readily apparent in recent months.

Meyers, Rudolph and Short -- included as guest stars in the first 11 minutes of this season's finale of "SNL" -- are each featured in one of Michaels' new projects (Meyers in NBC's "Late Night," Rudolph in "The Maya Rudolph Show" and Short in "Mulaney").

All stand to benefit from the spotlight cast by the producer's flagship creation. Most new latenight hosts would take time off to develop a fresh project; Meyers stuck with "SNL's" Weekend Update almost up until the launch of "Late Night," the better to keep him in the public eye. Rudolph's variety program, broadcast May 19, used former "SNL" cohorts Chris Parnell, Fred Armisen and Andy Samberg (Armisen also is leader of the "Late Night" band).

Now, Michaels has the opportunity to expand even further. His ability to get "Mulaney" (from NBCU's Universal Television and Michaels' Broadway Video) on Fox stands to help NBCU's studio and distribution units, which already have "The Mindy Project" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" on the air at the 21st Century Fox-owned outlet. Considering Michaels' range of projects and the number of NBC hours he controls, Ted Harbert, chairman of NBC Broadcasting, is duly appreciative. "It would be impossible to overstate the importance (of Michaels to NBCUniversal)," he said.

Michaels' edge, executives said, is a sound understanding of what makes people laugh, something he has honed over the decades. "He knows funny. He knows what's funny. And when you have that instinct, it enables him to be very efficient," said Harbert. "He can be very clear and precise about what he's looking for."

Indeed, Michaels' presence on "Mulaney" made the difference between offering the lead actor, comedian John Mulaney, a development deal and putting the show on the air, said Fox's Reilly. "Had Lorne not been involved, I might not have had that reaction, even though I believe in John," Reilly said.

Reilly recalls Michaels' guiding hand in the early days of getting "30 Rock" on the air at NBC. The writers on the show had to flex new muscles, moving from writing jokes for SNL's "Weekend Update" to something with more narrative. "The first step was a wobbly one," Reilly recalled, but Michaels saw what would result after a little work. "As anyone who knows Lorne will attest, he' s not one to pass out complements freely. He doesn't attach an endorsement liberally, and that's an understatement," Reilly said. But the producer expressed his faith in Fey: "He said, 'Trust me. She's a star. She'll get us there.'" He offered a similar backing of Mulaney, the Fox executive said.

"Ultimately, he knows the real deal from somebody who is not going to go the distance and he also knows that the distance is not going to necessarily be a straight line," Reilly added. "It's a discovery."

To be sure, Michaels has long juggled an array of projects, including comedy series "Kids in the Hall," the Conan O'Brien-era "Late Night," NBC sitcoms like "30 Rock" and "Up All Night" or any number of movies based on "SNL" characters. But his current asset lineup (don't forget offbeat comedy "Portlandia" on IFC) arguably has the most heft and potential to steer the national conversation.

The combination of experience and access to talent makes the producer a resource that is in short supply in the creative community, both Reilly and Harbert noted. Michaels has helped shape TV for decades, but his accumulated skill and insight -- which he didn't have in the 1970s -- make him an increasingly formidable force.

Related storiesVirtual Reality Poised for Mass Entertainment, but Can Hollywood Make It Happen?Appreciation: TrailBlazing D.P. Gordon Willis Didn't Suffer Fools GladlyBryan Cranston: All the World's His Stage 2014 Variety Media, LLC, a subsidiary of Penske Business Media; Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun