“What if there was a car that was so special, so beautiful, so elegant that it could maybe even show you the meaning of life?”
Jerry Seinfeld was talking about the 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing in ivory white that he chose for this week’s episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. But he may as well have been talking about his big guest: Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels.
“It’s tailored, it’s timeless, it’s enduring,” Seinfeld added of the car before saying the same could be said for his guest, who was waiting in his New York City building’s lobby to be picked up for a cup of coffee and a drive.
Though Seinfeld made his name on the taped sitcom and Michaels is the king of the live sketch show, they bonded over their shared love of a crowd’s laughter. “There’s a moment when it becomes as an audience,” Michaels said. “It’s just a group of people, who don’t know each other, and if you can get them together, and they’re working together, it doesn’t get better.”
Referencing Seinfeld’s recent Comedian in Cars episode with President Obama, Michaels talked about the first time he visited the White House: to film Chevy Chase saying “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” in the Oval Office as Gerald Ford. John Belushi, who was with him at the time, didn’t have an I.D. to show the Secret Service at the gate. But the guard said, “I know who he is,” and let them in anyway. “That was 1976,” Michaels said. “It’s not that way anymore.”
In the elegant dining room of the Monkey Bar in midtown Manhattan, the two men sipped coffee and talked business. Asked if he thinks anyone else could helm SNL, Michaels said, “I would be immodest to say no.” He reminisced about the way Adam Sandler “worshipped” Bill Murray and how Chris Farley “was the son Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi never had.”
“There’s a time that I will realize I’m no longer as good as I was,” Michaels said of his 40-plus-year reign at the show. “If things aren’t coming together as they should or the quality is going down—and then three years after that I’ll…” He laughed without finishing the rest of that sentence. “You want to do it as long as you can,” he added. “For me, being at the center, a bit, with new generations, is still exciting.”
Michaels also pushed back at the criticism that Jimmy Fallon is “overly nice,” saying instead that he is a “generous” host who has an “enormous empathy” for his guests. “That makes people relaxed and I think you get the best out of people when they’re relaxed,” he added.
Though they have both had President Obama on their respective unconventional talk shows, Seinfeld and comedian Marc Maron have never appeared as each other’s guests. But Seinfeld did Maron a favor by confronting Michaels about a line he said to Maron during his fateful, failed audition to anchor Weekend Update in the mid-1990s.
On “alternative comedy,” Michaels told Maron, “I don’t know what you’re doing down there below 14th street, but it doesn’t matter.”
Asked by Seinfeld what he meant, Michaels said, “It’s a stage, you go through it. And you can’t hide behind art. When you’re playing the real game, and you’re taking a full swing at the ball, there’s no denying that you missed.”
Moments later, Michaels was telling Seinfeld the same story about how the monkeys are the comedians of the zoo that he told Maron more than two decades earlier. “There are gold standards for what things are and then there is the ultimate gold standard of not caring,” he said. “Not having to defend whether you’re good or not good.”
Michaels still cares about making good television, but he couldn’t care less what people think.