In Chris Kattan’s new memoir Baby Don’t Hurt Me, he writes that during the production of the film A Night at the Roxbury producer Lorne Michaels called him with an urgent suggestion. Kattan says he had been propositioned by the film’s director Amy Heckerling (“Are we gonna have sex?” she asked him, he writes), which Kattan politely shrugged off. The next day Michaels called him “furious,” saying that Amy apparently didn’t want to direct the movie.
If he wanted to make sure the movie happened, Kattan would have to keep Amy happy, Michaels reportedly said: “Chris, I’m not saying you have to fuck her, but it wouldn’t hurt.” Kattan writes that he and Heckerling eventually did have sex, consensually, but that he was “very afraid of the power she and Lorne wielded over my career.”
Since the book was released in early May, parties involved have rejected Kattan’s story. A representative for Saturday Night Live denied that Michaels encouraged the affair to Page Six, while Heckerling’s daughter Mollie denied the claims the affair was coerced and says that it began after the film started shooting. Heckerling told Vulture that she decided to comment because her mother is a private person who didn’t want to fuel the story by commenting. “I really wish Lorne Michaels would step forward,” she added.
Of course, Lorne Michaels isn’t really the type of man to step forward. For decades, his stony, serious presence as Saturday Night Live’s creator and producer has earned him a reputation as a sort of mythic figure in comedy—one whose internal workings are both opaque and unquestioned. He doesn’t like to laugh, especially not in auditions. He won’t tell you if you’ve really been hired (“We want to bring you to New York,” he might simply say) or why you’ve been fired. He’s been slow to treat women and male cast members as equal (“It’s always been hard for funny women to carve out the parts,” Michaels said in 1992. “The traditional comedy revue has five men and one woman,” to which one might say: whose fault is that?) and has been painfully slow to address the show’s (still) largely white cast. Former cast member Taran Killam made headlines last year for revealing that Michaels apparently told cast members to go easy on President Trump.
These legendary stories have followed Michaels—that he sets appointments and keeps cast members waiting for hours before actually meeting, that he fires people on a whim—and have long been baked into the great mythology of Saturday Night Live. He’s a noted perfectionist (“He’s obsessed with detail, even down to the words ‘the’ and ‘with,’” Jimmy Fallon has said), a reality that’s chalked up to the prestige of the job and the intense working conditions of the show. He has fired cast members frivolously, from Jenny Slate cursing on air and Norm MacDonald for his scathing jokes. His toughness on performers and writers is a testament to his apparent genius. “I can be unbelievably rough on people, which sometimes is just the pressure spilling over,” Michaels told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. “Everybody works so hard and nobody wants to let down everyone else.”
But Kattan’s story casts Michael’s domineering careerism in a different light. Even casual viewers of Saturday Night Live know a spot on the show, which comes only with Michaels’s blessing, can potentially make someone’s career; Kattan’s story raises the question of how much Michaels can potentially break it. For decades, the stories of Saturday Night Live’s brutal work culture and Michaels’s cruel managerial style have manifested as quirky anecdotes from good, old-fashioned show business, with Michaels a tough, finger-wagging father figure to young comics. But as Hollywood has seen, again and again, the contours of that good, old-fashioned, cruel show business scramble into something darker; once acceptably flirty producers revealed as predators, “edgy” comedians labeled rightfully as average racists.
These details about Michaels are more than just a testament to his perfectionism, collectively they begin to assemble a portrait of the very specific ways in which he wields his power. “There was so much pressure not to complain,” Janeane Garofalo said in Live From New York: An Uncensored History Of Saturday Night Live. “If anybody got anti–fan mail or a disparaging note, it would be posted. I didn’t understand that. It was another tactic of breaking you. Lorne enjoys the house divided syndrome. I think he prefers the house divided.”
“I think he picked the right profession, because he gets to lord over people who want to kneel at his feet and he doesn’t acknowledge them—which makes them work harder,” Jane Curtin said in the same book.
“Lorne wants people to feel insecure,” an ex–cast member told New York Magazine in 2008. “It’s the same techniques cults use—they keep you up for hours, they never let you know that you’re okay, and they always make you think that your spot could be taken at any moment by someone else.” In that same story, reporter Chris Smith also found that rather than talk to cast members directly, Michaels would sometimes send messages through their management:
Michaels also sends messages through the Brillstein-Grey Company. The powerhouse Hollywood management-and-production team, founded by one of Michaels’s closest friends, Bernie Brillstein, handles eight of the fourteen SNL cast members as well as its executive producer. The connection makes spinning off movies much easier. “To your face, Lorne always wants to be the hero and Santa Claus. But if you try to do a movie that Lorne’s not producing, Brillstein-Grey will let you know he’s not happy,” says an ex–SNLstar who’s had it happen to him. “Brillstein lets you know you’re in the doghouse. Your sketches don’t get on, or you get on in the last five minutes of the show.”
The kind of fear-inducing aura that has followed Michaels has long been accepted as part of the typical Saturday Night Live gig, and it’s something he can get away with because it’s been established as a cornerstone of his creativity and work ethic. But Kattan’s story crumbles the convenient barrier between what makes a man a celebrated perfectionist in the entertainment industry, whose notorious work ethic makes him a visionary, and what might just make him an abusive boss. “He was determined to get what he wanted, to accomplish what he wanted, and do it the way that he wanted it,” associate producer Craig Kellem said in Live From New York. “If something worried him, he wasn’t overt about it. He just figured out what he wanted to do and somehow his willpower outlasted everybody else’s resistance.”