Saturday Night Live co-creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels made his annual visit to Chicago to scope out the scene and possibly hijack some local talent for his little-known TV show which is currently in its 35th year on NBC. Charna Halpern, co-founder and director of iO Theater, arranged for Michaels to see a series of performances on Thursday July 29; the show ran long, so auditions continued the following night. Michaels also paid a visit to Second City.
According to Halpern, Michaels or other SNL representatives have been making yearly visits to Chicago to assess the talent and bring deserving comics to the bright lights and big paychecks of the Big Apple. A short list of iO performers who have sought refuge in fame and fortune includes Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Adam McKay, Rachael Dratch, David Koecher, Horatio Sanz, Seth Meyers, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, and writers John Lutz, Pat O’Brien, Ali Farahnakian, and the newest recruit Shelly Gossman formerly from iO, but currently on the main stage at Second City.
Halpern recalls that SNL reps have been coming to iO for a long long time, even before she moved to Clark Street. At first it was often a clandestine affair, where performers would be lured to New York without her knowledge. Beth Cahill might have been the first to go in the late 80’s. The process has become more formalized in recent years, and Michaels has been coming personally for the last seven or eight years.
“Seth Meyers called this year to set it up,” says Halpern. After that, she got the wheels in motion to prepare for the show. Halpern admits that it’s a huge responsibility to decide among perhaps 85 performers who are the few that are totally ready, partially ready, or not ready at all. Halpern says that 16 or 17 made it to the stage for Michaels’ viewing pleasure this year.
Various agents and certain famous iO alumni regularly ask or beg Halpern to select this or that performer to bring to Michaels’ attention. Halpern regrets that she can’t oblige these requests, as she has a responsibility to Michaels to present only those that she feels are the best and most deserving talent.
In years past, says Halpern, improv was the preferred style for the Michaels audition, but it eventually became apparent that he wanted to see much more from the talent. “He needs to see how the performers handle characters, how they generate material,” says Halpern. With this in mind, each performer is asked to present five minutes of material., which runs the gamut from monologues, to sketches with two or more people. This year, so many presentations went long, (and Halpern refused to cut them off) that they were only halfway through at 10pm when the program ended. Michaels agreed to come back Friday night to see the remainder of the comics.
Halpern says that Michaels is not one to procrastinate when it comes to assessing talent. While he is in town, he will select a number of performers that he is particularly impressed with. The next step is a private meeting, possibly for a drink; if all goes well, a plane ticket to New York will be proffered for a formal audition. Several unnamed comics were selected during this year’s visit–their fate is yet unknown.
Is Halpern at all resentful that the best of her talent is culled every year, destined to return only occasionally for special performances? “That’s why people come here,” she says. Giving them the opportunity to succeed and perform in front of people of Michaels’ caliber is what it’s all about. She admits that the SNL connection is also great publicity for her theater–and how could it not be? Having dozens of iO alumni move on to prominence on SNL or other national showcases only raises the recognition level of IO Theater and it’s training center.
Asked to recall memorable moments during the many iO / SNL auditions, Halpern chose two that stand out. “I had overlooked John Lutz a number of years ago and he begged me two minutes before the audition to put him in. The performers were already backstage ready to go on. I let him in and he is the one who got hired. Also, the year Lorne came and hired Koechner, I also put up Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in the same show, but he didn’t pay attention to them. They were hired years later, so that’s an example to show folks not to give up.”