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Can 'SNL' regain its audience?

Show's last live airing was November 5, 2007
February 19, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
"Saturday Night Live" has been gone for so long that you'll never know who its Mitt Romney impersonator was going to be. The writers strike-imposed absence of the NBC institution ends this weekend with the first of four straight weeks of new shows, the first time that breakneck schedule has been tried since 1976.

"The last time we did it, it almost killed us," said Lorne Michaels, the show's veteran executive producer.

Old friend Tina Fey is the first guest host, with Carrie Underwood the musical guest.

The last new "Saturday Night Live" aired on Nov. 5. It was such a generation ago politically that the opening skit was about a party at Hillary Clinton's house where she was portrayed as the presumptive president - with the real Barack Obama taking a cameo role.

That's what irritated Michaels and cast member Seth Meyers, also the show's lead writer, so much. The show prides itself on political parody and here, during one of the most exciting nomination contests in generations, they've been sidelined.

"I was in a rage for three of the four months," Michaels said, "then I sort of calmed down."

Even though shows with Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart, Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert returned without writers until the strike was settled, Michaels said it was never an option at "SNL." NBC placed no pressure on him to do so, either.

Returning before the strike ended would have been a breach of faith with the writers guild, but also with the collaborations between writers and cast members on the show, he said. It's a writers show; internally, the skits are produced and identified with whoever wrote them.

Meyers - who joined with O'Brien and David Letterman in growing a "strike beard" - shaved his off before going back to work. Some of his creative energies were burned off doing a weekly theater show with fellow cast member Amy Poehler and "a lot of wisecracks in bars," he said.

"I did that a lot," he said. "It pays almost nothing. You have to do it for hours to get people to pay for a drink."

Part of the reason Michaels picked Fey for the first show back is that she's a former head writer and cast member at "SNL" and it gives a comfort level for the expected rustiness.

Michaels said he learned from a 1988 strike that it took awhile to get viewers back in the habit of looking for the show following an absence.

"Our competition isn't other television shows," he said. "It's `Guitar Hero.' You have to re-establish the bond with the audience when you don't show up for a long time. It's like any other relationship. When you don't show up, people lose interest."

"SNL" averaged 5.8 million viewers for the four original episodes of this season, down 8 percent from the previous year. But Michaels said he felt some creative momentum building. Alec Baldwin, always a popular guest host, was booked for a show. So were Ben Affleck and Edie Falco.

Maybe the most painful missed opportunity: Amy Winehouse was the scheduled musical guest for the wiped-out show of Nov. 10.


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