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Why Tina Fey Would Be the Perfect Person to Replace Lorne Michaels on 'SNL' (Sooner, Rather than Later)

By Steven Lloyd Wilson and Dustin Rowles | Saturday Night Live | October 23, 2014 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson and Dustin Rowles | Saturday Night Live | October 23, 2014 |

Dustin made an offhand joke last week about how one comedian or another couldn’t be the presumptive heir to Lorne Michaels because that seat was Tina Fey’s and no one else had any claim to it. That got us thinking about what exactly would change if Fey took over the throne.

Saturday Night Live has this stereotypical pattern we’re all aware of: it’s funny for about five years in your late teens and early twenties, then it gradually fades away. Just about everyone between 25 and 55 in America has the same opinion of SNL: “I remember when it used to be funny.” The catch is that the five year stretch you think was funny is just a function of your age.

Remember how The Daily Show was just sort of a fluff take on the news under Kilborn? When Jon Stewart came on board, there was a sea change. It’s not that he disrespected what came before, but that the first few years of his tenure were ones of constant change away from that format and to the sad clown exercise in real journalism that came fully into its own with the 2000 election. What had been fluff was turned into something both much funnier and of actual societal substance, to the point that a decade and a half later, Stewart is a journalistic institution.

And here’s where I think that Tina Fey might just make the biggest difference. Look at her work on 30 Rock, her book, her hammering of Sarah Palin, especially with the experiments of doing small SNL bits during the week during election season. Look at her co-conspirator Amy Poehler’s Parks and Rec take on American politics and society. I think these things highlight a desire and an ability to do something more substantial than another few decades of lowest-common-denominator sketches on Saturday nights.

So for Fey to take over? I think we’d see a Jon Stewart on The Daily Show style transition. Not in the exact same way. Not turning SNL into Daily Show: Weekend Edition. But in the metaphorical sense of bringing a focus to the show and a commitment to the idea that what the show airs matters. That being the laugh track of America is a serious, though not somber, responsibility of contributing an irreverent undercurrent to the societal narrative and not just air comedy without context.

Moreover, while Tina Fey also ushered in the new, more diverse cast during her time on Saturday Night Live, under Fey we might also see the show better embrace that spirit of diversity instead of being dragged into it, as has often appeared the case with Lorne Michaels. That may also mean a show that is no longer ran by the men of the Seth Meyers’ mold: Genial, nice white guys, like Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon; John Mulaney, and more recently, head writer Colin Jost. These are mostly likable guys, but they’re not exactly transgressive comedians (and the sooner women take over positions of power on SNL, the sooner they spread into the late-night landscape). Fey, on the other hand, pushes boundaries, but she doesn’t overstep them.

Installing Fey as the head of Saturday Night Live would not be without its risk, however. The popularity of SNL has endured over the last 40 years, in part, because Lorne Michaels is fairly conservative in his approach to comedy, and the show inches toward progressivism but never makes radical leaps. While much of the cast on SNL is made up of liberals (save for some notable exceptions over the years like Dennis Miller and Adam Sandler, Norm McDonald, and Jon Lovitz), Michaels has been able to take a more moderate approach because he understands, as he’s stated before, that “Republicans are easier for us [to joke about] than Democrats. Democrats tend to take it personally; Republicans think it’s funny.” Fey, on the other hand, may push the shower further to the left, alienating some of the more conservative viewers. Still, while Fey may cost the show some conservative viewers, like Jon Stewart, she can bring in more liberals and make them feel more passionate about the show.

In fact, that may be Tina Fey’s biggest asset as a potential replacement for Michaels: She not only brings passion to her work, but people are passionate about her. She, along with Amy Poehler, brought the Golden Globes its best ratings in a decade earlier this year. She can sell books. She’s got a high Q-score (i.e., favorability rating), which is why she’s such a popular get for commercials: If she’s broad enough to appeal to American Express consumers, she’s broad enough to appeal to the SNL crowd.

Lorne Michaels will be 70 years old this November, and to be honest, it’s amazing that he’s managed to stay as relevant as he has for so long. It’s remarkable that he still has such a strong nose for comedic talent at an age when many people play golf in their retirement villages. But with SNL’s ratings slipping as it embarks on its fourth decade as one of the most relevant comedy shows of all time (even now), maybe it’s time to pass the baton to someone who both changed the landscape of SNL and understands the mentality of it. Tina Fey could bring a sea change to SNL, but she might be able to do so without hurting the existing fanbase.

Most importantly, Tina Fey is not just one of the best comedic voices around, she is also an exceptional role model, and the perfect person to spot talented writers and comedians, bring them in, and act as their mentors. The most important role in this job is being a good leader, being able to bring disparate voices together and make them work as a team, build chemistry and a sense of camaraderie. This, as much as anything, is why Tina Fey would be the perfect replacement for Lorne Michaels.