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Lessons in Management from Saturday Night Live

Posted by Alex Drexel on March 26, 2011


Saturday Night Live is one of the longest running network television programs in the United States.  In its 36 years of existence, it has recruited and developed some of the best comedians of our generation, has established and protected its brand as a bedrock of comedic Americana, and to this day, continues redefine itself to remain relevant in a continuously changing social and political environment.    This long history of success is due in large part to its creator and producer, Lorne Michaels.   One of many Lorne’s brilliant hires was Tina Fey – he brought her on to be a writer for the show, and the rest…well, you know, is history.   Tina wrote an article in the March 14th New Yorker that described in an amusing way, aspects of his management style she thought drove the success of the show.  Here are a few:

1)    When hiring, mix Harvard nerds with Chicago improvisers and stir. Both of these types think and approach comedy differently; their mixture provides a balance in the show between the heady and more visceral sketches.  She notes the Harvard guys check the logic and grammatical construction of every joke and the improvisers teach them how to be human – in other words, both Kirk and Spock are required to finish off every Star Trek episode with success.

2)    Don’t hire anyone you wouldn’t want to run into in the hallway at three in the morning. There are lots of late nights writing for the show.  No matter how good the writer, if the person is too talkative, needy or angry to deal with by the printer in the middle of the night, give them the flick.

3)    Never tell a crazy person he’s crazy. Tina notes cases of eccentric writers turning in 17 minute sketches and immature performers going into fits and tears when their sketches appeared later in the show than they wanted.  Her initial instinct was to take a self righteous, direct approach in attempting to help them become more acquainted with reality – an impulse to shake them straight with “How dare you pitch a fit about what time your sketch is on? Some people don’t get to be in the show at all.”  She describes Lorne’s style in dealing with crazies by recounting the joke about a man who walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says that his brother has gone crazy. “He thinks he’s a chicken”.  And the psychiatrist replies “Have you told him he’s not a chicken”.  And the man answers, “I would, but we need the eggs”.    Some of the most exhaustive people can sometimes produce the best stuff – there are often no percentages in trying to correct human, flawed mental algorithms that in the end,  get you what you need.   And this one doesn’t conflict with 2) as all of these charming and clever people would be a pleasure to run into at the printer in the middle of the night.

Of course, these tips are not just for producing prime time television.   We all know diversity can be an asset, a hiring manager needs to feel that a candidate “fits in”, and that a manager has to be tactful when dealing with quirky, yet valuable employees.  But what resources are at an organization’s disposal to act on this advice; not everyone has a Lorne Michaels to make calls on talent.  Social networking has a role in creating that mix of perspectives to wrap creative solutions around business problems.   And during the recruiting process, social sites can be quite revealing when you’re trying to figure out whether or not you’d want to bump into someone at the printer in the middle of the night.  As for an ability for tactfully dealing with crazies, perhaps that just has to be something that needs to be added to a competency model .

3 Responses to “Lessons in Management from Saturday Night Live”

  1. Meg Bear said

    I would love to help create the “crazies” course materials😉.

  2. My advice is that we go along with what Meg says😉.

    I like the nerd/improviser observation – it kind of fits with the rider/elephant analogy from the Heath brothers’ “Switch”.

  3. […] some useful tips from Tina Fey’s experiences on SNL?  Check out Alex Drexel’s post, Lessons in Management from Saturday Night Live, over at Talented […]

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