Why Does “Saturday Night Live” Creator Lorne Michaels Dislike Improvising?


Why would Lorne Michaels hire so many performers brought up in the world of improv and then proceed to not use their skills on Saturday Night Live (1975)? It’s not because Lorne Michaels truly despises improv; he even commended Amy Poehler’s improv school/factory - the Upright Citizens Brigade - as “great training”). Rather, Lorne has commented that improv does not gel with the live nature of the show. Specifically, if an actor improvises a line without warning they can throw off the timing and placement of the other performers. Every line has a specific camera cut linked to it and if the sketch performers aren’t in the right places, the planned shot will be missed and it cannot be fixed. Producing a live show means walking a tightrope between complete disaster (you can’t redo a live show) and greatness; and in order to produce the best show possible, Lorne Michaels feels that it is essential to cut out the ad-libbing and the improvising even if it means hamstringing a performer’s strong suit.

When the occasional intentional ad-lib has broken out on Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels has swiftly laid down the hammer. Damon Wayans, who was a cast member during the ill-fated 1985-86 season, was frustrated with his lack of air time and decided to change a minor role of a straight male cop during the “Mr. Monopoly” into an effeminate gay character without warning any of the other participants. Lorne Michaels fired him after the show saying “he broke the big rule”. Even hosts aren’t immune to the no ad-libbing rule. In 2003, Adrian Brody tried his hand at the improvising game and predictably, he lost. While introducing musical guest Sean Paul, Brody donned a Rastafarian get-up with a jamaican accent without letting the cast know beforehand. The bit was unfunny and awkward and led to Lorne Michaels making the simple choice to ban him from any feature shows. At this point it was just muscle memory for Michaels to just hand down a banning.

But fear not, not all departures from the script are treated as fireable offenses. When Samuel L. Jackson appeared as one of the guests on the “What Up with That” sketch, he blurted out the all-powerful and forbidden “fuck” which prompted Kenan Thompson to nervously ad-lib the lines “Eh?...C’Mon Sam! C’mon now! That costs money.” Nothing happened to Kenan Thompson as he was just deftly responding to a quip and proceeded to end the skit on a high note. Since it was not intentional, Kenan Thompson was given a rightly deserved ad-lib pass. Otherwise Saturday Night Live is not the place for performers to test their improv skills unless they also want to play “test the patience of Lorne Michaels”. As history proves, that is a game that the players seldom win.