If you had a choice between doing a TV commercial for a local chicken shack or performing for Saturday Night Live kingpin Lorne Michaels, which would you choose?
That’s kind of an unfair way to put it, so let’s try this: If you were a struggling performer in the 1980s, and you had been trying to land a paying gig with residuals, and one of the best-known restaurants in the area had just hired you to star in a commercial that would run throughout Chicagoland for months, and then you heard that Lorne Michaels was planning to attend Second City on the night of your shoot, would you cancel the sure thing to land the outside chance? And did you even want to be hired by SNL?
However you spin it, this is an intriguing new twist in comedy history, and it was revealed earlier this month by Robert Smigel, the creator of Let’s Get Real, Triumph the Insult Dog, Night of Too Many Stars and so many great SNL sketches.
Smigel told the story on the final episode of Mark Malkoff’s Carson Podcast, in a co-interview with Dana Carvey. After eight years Malkoff is ending his fantastic podcast, which managed to present Johnny Carson as a flawed, not very likable human being while also burnishing his reputation as one of the greatest entertainers of all time. Malkoff couldn’t have chosen two better guests than Carvey, he of the masterful Johnny impersonation, and Carvey’s longtime writing collaborator Smigel, with whom he would create an ill-fated, future-predicting ABC sketch show after leaving SNL.
The story goes that Smigel was accompanying Michaels and other SNL producers on their annual visit to comedy joints across America, looking for performers to join the show’s cast. Lorne highly valued Smigel’s opinion, and Smigel has been referred to as “the second Lorne Michaels,” though that would seem to diminish the role of SNL producer Marci Klein, who was also part of the Michaels entourage that night and would go on to produce 30 Rock.
Anyway, all the big guns came to Chicago and made their way to the venue that has birthed more SNL stars than any other: The Second City. They were there to see Bob Odenkirk perform (he was a writer at SNL at time) and some talents that, in those pre-internet days, they had only heard reports about. One was Stephen Colbert. Another was Colbert’s mentor at Second City, Steve Carell.
“We heard Carell was supposed to be the next great thing, and he wasn’t there,” Smigel told Malkoff. “And it turns out he had a commercial he had committed to shooting for Brown’s Chicken, a local chain in the Midwest, and he wasn’t available.”
When I asked Smigel about that, he clarified it a bit. “I knew a few people who’d talked about him but I’m not sure the show knew,” he said. “There probably wasn’t a huge urgency to find male cast members around then.” (SNL’s male cast members at the time included Carvey, Phil Hartman, Kevin Nealon, Mike Myers, Dennis Miller and Jon Lovitz.)
So here is what Steve Carell passed up his chance at SNL to do:
That led to this even more storied commercial for Chicagoland McDonald's restaurants:
As you can see, Carell was an excellent pitchman. This talent may explain how he got the gig as a Daily Show correspondent, since so much of the comedy in fake news comes from selling the story as actual news, deadpan.
Carell’s advertising career culminated with these 2001 FedEx commercials that our Mark Blankenship compared to “a sitcom … created by Samuel Beckett,” a foretaste of Carell’s role as Michael Scott on The Office.
The SNL producers may not have seen Carell perform that night in 1989, but it was hardly a wasted evening. They saw Chris Farley for the first time; he would join the cast the next season. Smigel remembers Colbert “blew me away, not in the show but in the improv session.” Smigel would bring him on board the Carvey show in 1996, along with Carell.
From what we can tell, Carell has never commented on the missed opportunity to perform for SNL’s producers in Chicago or his commercial debut. That might have something to do with the unfortunate legacy of that particular restaurant chain. In 1993 two men killed seven employees at a Brown’s franchise, then stowed their bodies in the freezer. The crime went unsolved for years, resulting in endless bad publicity for Brown’s Chicken and forcing the company to close more than 100 stores.
Or maybe it’s because there is no point talking trash about Lorne Michaels, one of the most powerful producers in the business. But it is hard to see how Carell would have scored the Daily Show job after SNL, or how the sketch comedy might have affected his shift to more dramatic roles, like his recent creepily great star turn in FX’s The Patient. As Carson Podcast host Mark Malkoff put it, Steve Carell missing that chance to perform in front of Lorne Michaels was “the best thing that ever happened to his career.”
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.