‘Burn It Down’ Explores ‘SNL’ and Its “Culture of Impunity” (Exclusive Excerpt) – The Hollywood Reporter

“For decades, SNL has been a frequently terrible, punishing experience for a lot of people who worked there or ended up in the show’s orbit.”

That’s part of how author Maureen Ryan describes the workplace culture of NBC’s Saturday Night Live in her forthcoming book, Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood.

Due June 6, the book from Ryan — a longtime journalist and critic who has contributed reporting to THR surrounding misconduct — has already revealed the toxicity that existed in the writers room on ABC’s Lost. Now, in an exclusive chapter, Ryan turns her lens on the nearly 50-year-old comedy institution that is Saturday Night Live, describing a “culture of impunity” at the Lorne Michaels series where “abuse and toxicity are not just permitted but often celebrated.”

In an exclusive chapter to The Hollywood Reporter, Ryan explores the power dynamics between Michaels, his cast, writers and the imbalances that helped lead to frequent cast and writer turnover. Ryan also interviews Jane Doe, the former fan who filed a lawsuit against Horatio Sanz that was settled last fall who reveals her “emotionally abusive” relationship with the former cast member. “He steered me into thinking that everything that happened—when he tried to rape me in the cab after that party—was my fault,” she tells Ryan.

Below, THR shares an excerpt.


She wanted to work in comedy. The mordant wit she displayed throughout our three-hour conversation, which sometimes went to dark places, showed she may have made it in that world. When she called the defendants in the civil suit she’d filed “jabronis,” it was unexpected—and funny.

Here she was, taking on a gigantic media company—NBCUniversal—and one of the most powerful and legendary men in the American entertainment industry, Lorne Michaels (among others). But Jane Doe, like so many survivors I’ve talked to, was anything but humorless.

She recalled, two decades ago, going to an official Saturday Night Live afterparty, where she chatted with Michaels about the Jimmy Fallon fan site she ran. After another such gathering, she and Horatio Sanz headed to an after-after party. She consumed alcohol at both parties, and she alleged that at the latter, cast member Sanz put his hands on her breasts and genitals, in full view of several SNL cast members.

“My control top pantyhose did more to keep me safe than any of those people that I idolized,” she said.

Later that night, she passed out in a taxi on the way to Penn Station. She told me she woke up to Sanz’s vigorous efforts to remove her pants. (I contacted Sanz’s attorney, Andrew Brettler, with questions about the allegations in this chapter; he did not reply. In other news stories, through Brettler, Sanz has denied all misconduct, and the attorney has said Doe’s allegations are “categorically false.”  

Jane Doe was seventeen. She’d been in the orbit of Sanz and SNL for more than two years.


Studio 8H was smaller than I thought it would be. That was not necessarily surprising; in three decades of covering the entertainment industry, I can only think of a few instances in which sets were larger—or people were taller—than I expected them to be.

I visited in 2008, but SNL still goes out live from the same space, which is, in my somewhat timeworn recollection, around the same size as a suburban Costco.

Like Costco, SNL deals in bulk quantities. Come 2025, the show will be fifty years old, a milestone reached by few other pop-culture commodities. SNL is close to racking up one thousand total episodes. Hundreds of people have taken its stages during that time. And like another long-running franchise, Doctor Who, SNL—a flagship property for NBC and its parent company, Comcast—has turned the cast regeneration process into a subject of fervent speculation. The interest is there because its stages and the ranks of its writers have, for decades, launched an enormous array of creators, directors, producers, and performers into the upper tiers of various comedy and entertainment industry ecosystems.

All these factors make it difficult to write about SNL as an institution. During its lifetime, it has showcased a staggering variety of performers, ideas, and comic tones. Recently, a lot of what SNL has churned out has felt more than a little tired and predictable. But a critic offering that assessment is itself predictable. “A Prosperous Saturday Night Grows Tame” is a headline from 1993.

As a comedy nerd and an observer of the industry, Grant, who wrote for the show, kept circling the idea that it was nearly impossible—no, definitely impossible—to write about SNL as an institution. As a cultural force and as a place of employment, there was simply too much to examine, synthesize, and distill. Anyone attempting to write about the show would have to find a way to slice off a smaller segment and focus on that.

I’ll attempt to do that by focusing on one person, and, to some degree, another mistake I made. For decades, I too easily accepted certain narratives surrounding SNL and its key executive producer, Lorne Michaels. I will only indict myself, but I don’t think I’m alone in having gone down a mistaken path; I believe I have a lot of company on that road. That’s how good Michaels has been at playing the game for half a century.

Michaels is one of the rare people in the entertainment industry who is far more powerful than his public image would indicate. “Executive producer” is hardly a title that does his many roles justice; it’d be like designating the late Queen Elizabeth II a “notable Briton.” For almost fifty years, Michaels has decided who got hired at SNL. Staffers advise him on who the hosts and musical guests should be, but he makes all the big calls. Generations of comedy performers have spent thousands of hours sweating where Michaels will place their sketches in the show’s lineup.

But that’s just the start of Michaels’s role as a kingmaker. He and very frequently his company, Broadway Video, have credits on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Late Night with Seth Meyers, Wayne’s World, Mean Girls, 30 Rock, Los Espookys, Portlandia, and Saturday Night Live itself. And that roster is just a tiny slice of industry projects Michaels has had a hand in the past half century.

For all these reasons, during many different NBC regimes, his power has been near-absolute. Or, depending on whom you talk to, absolute. When Grant joined the show in the ’90s, he observed that “the lighting designer was an eighty-something World War II veteran who worked there until I think he was in his nineties, and whose vision was failing. And he was the lighting designer of the show!” During Grant’s time at SNL, the rules, such as they were, were “insane.” People smoked in their offices in the early aughts, Grant said, despite the existence of a Manhattan indoor smoking ban.

This was all part of Grant’s argument that “it’s a little bit reductive” to examine the program as if it’s any other show; it’s a “weird Hollywood outcropping” that somehow lasted for a long, long time. “You can’t just say, let’s look at SNL, because SNL is fourteen different shows spread out over fifty years.” I do understand that take; it makes sense.

Yet the unifying force behind almost every iteration is Michaels. That lighting designer and others had such long tenures at SNL, which is located in Manhattan’s 30 Rockefeller Center, in large part because Michaels is, as Grant put it, “the prime minister of his own nation. He has his own laws and his own rules.” Grant and I disagreed at times, but we were in harmony on one point: the idea of Comcast or NBCUniversal executives having meaningful power over Michaels seems naive at best. “All of the current Comcast executives, when they talk about him, it’s like he’s, I don’t know, Mandela or something—you know, this figure, who looms largely over show business and entertainment and NBC,” Grant said. “He’s the last real direct connection between what we have now and what we had then, this magical, mysterious, nostalgic time—the halcyon days of television.”

All the more reason to examine the image and legacy of Michaels, who has spent many years exerting massive power within the center of the entertainment industry and who resides at the epicenter of the New York media scene. The image he has constructed, in my opinion, is the product of conscious effort and strategy. Grant did not agree.

“He likes the living in New York part of the job, and the working in 30 Rock part, and the connection to old Hollywood and old show business,” Grant said. “He has a reverence for the history and he likes the stars, and he likes being in a place that culturally matters.” But, in Grant’s view, outside of the moves Michaels makes to protect his late-night fiefdom (which, as noted, includes Fallon and Meyers’s pro- grams), “I don’t think he sits there and says, ‘Here’s how I’ll maneuver.’ He’s not a maneuverer. He’s a guy who likes wearing black Prada suits and getting recognized and eating at fancy restaurants and being a part of a cultural institution.”

Regardless of what Grant or I think, the pose struck by Michaels in the many books and articles in which he is quoted is impressively consistent: the cast are the stars, he is merely the majordomo, trying to help them make the magic happen. “It’s very hard, and you don’t really know what you’re doing ’til the day of [the broadcast]. But we have a really talented group of people and the cast has been amazing and the writing staff has come through. So I think everybody cares about it. There’s a certain pride in doing it.” That’s a quote he gave me in 2008, and it’s very typical of this subgenre of journalism.

In part because Michaels has so often been so quick to share credit, it is easy to infer that he runs a shop that reflects the public image he has built: low-key, modest, cerebral, hardworking. For nearly fifty years, Michaels has offered the US media a mild-mannered, soft-spoken, extremely Canadian image—he’s positioned himself as the anti–Scott Rudin, if you will. “Toronto in the 1950’s was a very safe and ordered place, so the chief thing to be overcome in my childhood was boredom,” Michaels told the New York Times in 1993. “Defying authority in a small way is a big Canadian thing.”

There is merit in humility, whether it’s real or a pose. If nothing else, not hogging the credit that belongs to those who write the jokes and perform the sketches is laudable. And SNL’s legacy is certainly studded with joy and wild, smart, goofy humor. “It’s a one-week performance camp where everybody’s operating from a sense of just incredible amounts of glee and manic energy as well as vast amounts of fear and flop sweat. That’s Saturday Night Live and there is absolutely nothing like it,” Tom Hanks said.

Michaels, as the ringmaster of that circus, has been a lot of things to a lot of people over the years. Live from New York is full of another ritual of SNL coverage: people trying, in dozens of ways, to describe Michaels’s influence, personality, and management style. Was he caring, pompous, helpful, supportive, a good listener, aloof, a remote father figure, arrogant, a hard worker, a distant egoist, or a cruel tyrant? Yes. All those things have been true to someone, or to multiple people, at one time or another.

I do understand that when you attempt to say a definitive thing about a film, a show, or a creative person, you risk flattening that entity. But after nearly five decades, isn’t SNL—which Michaels has run for most of its long life—ripe for an examination that bypasses the romance of its history and engages in at least a little rigor?

“Of course, yes. Any institution that’s been around as long as it has and has the power that it has—and has had intermittently, but somewhat consistently—for fifty years deserves scrutiny,” Grant replied. “There’s no question.”

SNL does receive some forms of scrutiny, but with a few exceptions, there’s not much variety or depth to it. People in the press—an overworked group at the best of times—have usually grown up with SNL and are likely to have affection for it. These days, there isn’t a ton of serious coverage of SNL; it’s sort of like a slightly tedious aged uncle you treat politely due to his sheer longevity. The coverage, what there is of it, is typically about ascendant cast members, or consists of posts aggregating SNL clips and so on.

Various books have exhaustively chronicled the making of the show, and especially the infighting and inspirations (and illegal substances) that fueled SNL’s early days. But even the yikes stuff that has come out in books, magazines, profiles, interviews, and other coverage—those revelations don’t stick to Michaels, or even the show, really. If anything, they burnish SNL’s cool-kids aura and Michaels’s legend as the gray eminence of North American comedy. By not taking credit for the show’s output, he’s cleverly divorced himself from any of the consequences for its missteps. It’s a neat trick that not many other industry kingpins have successfully managed, certainly not for this long.

Nobody wants to be the killjoy that pokes holes in the joke-makers’ stories of themselves. But I will be that killjoy, one who’ll point out that Michaels’s long tenure as a power player and SNL’s enduring importance are intertwined with a culture of impunity within the world of comedy, in which abuse and toxicity are not just permitted but often celebrated.


These days, millionaires holding forth in podcasts and on sold-out comedy tours regularly talk about how they are persecuted and silenced while holding microphones in their hands. This idea that comedians are truth-tellers who should have special status has roots in the comedy of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, when certain stand-ups—and SNL’s Not Ready for Primetime Players—made their marks as shit-stirrers. In 2020, Michaels was asked about the fact that younger people are now, as they did in the ’60s and ’70s, “seriously questioning institutions,” and about the fact that SNL is itself an institution. How does he reconcile those things?

“I think in exactly the same way,” Michaels answered. “We came on in ’75, and the last helicopter of Saigon was ’75. And there was Watergate, of course. When I got here, the city felt abandoned and broke. But it was also a really exciting time to be in New York, and we were part of the rebirth.”

That’s the myth of SNL, which is intertwined with the cultural mythology of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin and Eddie Murphy, who were among the people who did, in their heydays, test the limits of what was acceptable in the public discourse. At SNL, some sketches over the years have contained memorable political fury and bite. But the idea that a comedian, an improv performer, or a sketch writer is inherently a rebel in pursuit of noble, truth-telling goals—that is an assumption that Michaels is still putting forward, long past the point when a lot of other folks have begun to question whether it’s true.

Still, as it amplified and rode that simplistic message—that it was the admirable (and acceptable) face of rebellion—SNL produced a huge number of stars. And in both fan and media realms, “a lot of people have this mindset of, ‘Well, it has put all these great comedians into the world, which makes up for its flaws,’” said Seth Simons, who has done in-depth reporting on the comedy world. On top of that, “many people have this mindset of watching comedy as sports—you watch to see whether the sketches are funny or how the host does or what characters they do. There’s no culture of critical thinking or consumption around comedy, the way there is slightly more of that around television or film or theater.”

There are occasionally pieces that take on comedy and those who make it with searching intelligence, but Simons is largely right. And that’s troubling, given the comedy world’s reputation for inflating its importance as a force for good and downplaying its long-standing status as a haven for bigoted or abusive people. There have been some important examinations of how biased and sexist many comedy institutions have been—including the Chicago improv mainstay The Second City, which has begun reckoning with alumni who have called it to account for a legacy of entrenched racism—and many stories about assault, toxicity, and harassment in comedy circles have been published in recent years. Just one example: Gilbert Rozon, head of Toronto’s Just for Laughs festival, has faced numerous allegations of harassment and sexual assault. In 2020, he was acquitted of criminal charges in one case, but there are still several civil suits regarding women’s allegations of assault, including one woman’s allegation of being “brutally raped” by him.

Despite the many scandals and exposés of systematic misbehavior, bias, assault, and toxicity, the myth of comedy as a meritocracy full of brave, admirable rebels fighting for justice and freedom simply refuses to die. In fact, it’s not uncommon for those who’ve succeeded in comedy to describe it as an important set of harbingers, a weather forecast system that tells us what we’re going to experience next. As Jon Stewart put it when he accepted the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2022, comedy is “a bellwether. We’re the banana peel in the coal mine”; in that speech, he also warned of the dangers of authoritarianism.

These kinds of “bellwether” ideas are typically voiced in comments meant to laud the bravery of a joke, a comedian, a sketch, or the comedy profession as a whole. And we can all point to jokes, shows, and bits that have not just been funny but paradigm-shifting. But it’s not all noble; far too many comedy scenes, clubs, and mindsets are, at their roots, far from purely admirable. If we’re going to talk about the canaries sent into coal mines to see if the air is safe, we need to acknowledge that sometimes they died.

A lot of the “revolution” in comedy, especially in the past decade, has sought to cement the status and unassailability of certain comedy performers and creators—most of them heterosexual men—who want to speak, act, and conduct themselves with total impunity, no matter how harmful, actively damaging, and noxious their actions or views.

“To the extent that comedy has been the canary in the coal mine, it has been telling us exactly how bad things are going to get,” Simons told me. For pointing out that, as he put it in a 2021 essay, “comedy is a safe space for abuse”—one in which sexual assault is common, in which racism is common, in which transphobia is common, in which a number of bookers, podcasters, and club gatekeepers have strong links to inflammatory right-wing figures—Simons has been consistently harassed on social media and doxed in real life. As have members of his family. I have also been harassed when I’ve shared his work, much of which thoughtfully and deeply examines the questionable values, assumptions, and power disparities within a number of commercial comedy worlds.

“Ten years ago, the great intellectual discourse in comedy [was] about whether it was okay to make fun of Muslims and tell horrible rape jokes,” Simons told me. “Now, the last few years, the grand intellectual discourse has been about whether it is okay to say trans people are bad and not real. And we’re just going headlong into that awful direction. As a society, I think comedy has been predicting things for us—not really predicting, but it’s a preview. It’s the space where it has been okay to be a horrible person.”

What any number of comedy figures, in quite a few different realms, have consistently rebelled against in recent years is the idea that other people matter; that those other people are human beings worthy of consideration; and that those other people get to have a reaction to the harmful, shitty, and dangerous things that stand-ups and comedy performers say about them.

Of course, those doing comedy are free to say what they like. But people get to respond to those statements. And these days, if people don’t like what they hear, they’re able to communicate, on any number of platforms, that what a comedian said was dumb, poorly formulated, tired, racist, biased, sexist, or whatever. An enormous percentage of these comedy “rebels” can’t handle that. They regard communication with their audience as a one-way street. The audience is, of course, allowed to laugh and clap—but that’s it.

Some comedy elites—and those who aspire to the perches they occupy—have very much decided on a policy of “free speech for me and not for thee.” The result of all these trends in comedy cultures is a form of “liberation” that revolves around the enabling and cheering on of just about anything certain performers do—on- and off-stage. No matter how damaging, no matter how dangerous to other people’s safety.

The result is many observers feeling, as comedian and survivor Julia Wolov put it, “There has been zero change in the way comedy is run. Nobody cares.” It’s hard to refute that assertion. Somewhere along the way, the idea that those who work in comedy should be able to push boundaries and explore difficult topics morphed into something wretched: the myth became a weapon. It was transformed, over time, into the idea that those with power or status in comedy should be able to do whatever they want to anyone else they encounter, and face no consequences for their actions or words.

SNL is not solely, or even mainly, responsible for these toxic mindsets and dynamics. But within the halls of 30 Rock, I personally believe Michaels has done his share to enable them. And fuel them.


Whether or not creating an awful work environment was Michaels’s goal is irrelevant. For decades, SNL has been a frequently terrible, punishing experience for a lot of people who worked there or ended up in the show’s orbit. This fact is in full view, in any number of books, interviews, and other coverage of the show. What is wrong is systemically and institutionally wrong, and Michaels runs that institution. He has had the power to change the SNL culture for the better on a number of fronts, but the hours, the pressure, the lack of inclusion, the punishing, manipulative atmosphere—not enough changes have been made to prevent the worst excesses of all that from negatively affecting many people, for many years.

I’d challenge anyone to come up with a truthful history of the show that does not include stories of gross misconduct, racism, sexism, abusive dynamics, various forms of assault, substance abuse, and mental health struggles exacerbated by punishing working conditions. Nobody has cared much about the people affected by these things, not in general. At least that’s how it looked to me, when I spent months talking to people who have worked there and reading what many of them have said, often on the record.

A 1995 New York magazine piece on SNL quoted cast member Ellen Cleghorne as saying, “There’s no black writers on the show—this is 1995, and I feel like I’m in a really bad sci-fi movie where all the black people already got killed, and I’m next.” Colin Jost and Ellen Cleghorne don’t seem to have a lot in common, but even Jost wrote about finding the environment frightening. He felt anxiety when he talked up sketches that he liked, but that Michaels might not like; he worried about what might happen to the writers of those sketches, a fact that indicates that he couldn’t necessarily protect those people’s jobs, despite the fact that Jost was one of the show’s head writers for years. This resulted in the kind of panicked response that required medical help: “My heart was racing and skipping beats and I didn’t know what to do,” he writes in his memoir, A Very Punchable Face. “I lay down on the couch outside Lorne’s office and his assistant brought me water and called for a doctor. I remember thinking, If I die, will they mention me in the show on Saturday?

Janeane Garofalo described waiting in Michaels’s office for hours, which prompted an epiphany: “You’ve shown him your weakness. You’ve shown him that you will wait four or five hours and that you’ll take it. There’s your first mistake,” the one that will ensure that “he can’t respect you.”

Setting up a meeting and talking to Michaels “like an adult” did not produce results, cast member Harry Shearer noted—a better strategy was to “act out.” “I believe, and I think the evidence pretty much shows, that Lorne’s approach to the cast was to try to infantilize them,” Shearer said. “I was a mess my first three years.   There was no escape, so I was like crying all the time,” Cheri Oteri observed. “I had no idea that people could be so tired and miserable—because of so much pressure—and still be good and still be funny,” Darrell Hammond said. Grant said that working at SNL “sent me to therapy. My life was so weird and my anxiety levels were so high that I had to start going to therapy for the first time, in order to make sense of why it was that I felt sad. I was working at Saturday Night Live and making a good living—and I was miserable.”


In a world where there’s just so much media of almost every kind, curation systems matter more than ever. Getting hired by SNL as a writer or a performer is a message to not just the public but the industry: this person has the potential to write a good TV comedy, star in a funny movie, win Emmys and Peabodys and Oscars.

SNL jobs are not just gateways to paid work as a comedy performer, something that has always been in short supply. Once you’ve been picked by Lorne Michaels—the most important gatekeeper of commercial comedy in North America and one of the most powerful people in the industry at large—you have access to an array of possibilities and opportunities that would be much harder to find via any other route. “Instantly people respect you in a way that should maybe take you much longer,” cast member Aidy Bryant said.

She’s not wrong. People get meetings that would have been nearly impossible to get before SNL was on their résumés. Agents, managers, lawyers, creative people, and industry executives—they’re all much more likely to take a chance on and write checks to people who have been through the SNL system first. That system is not an easy one to endure.

“Everyone’s anxieties about the show and problems with the show are exactly the same, which is weirdly reassuring,” said Grant of talking to SNL vets from different eras. “You can talk to someone who worked there in 1978, and you can have the same exact conversation with a person who’s in the cast now. Which is how you know that it’s not personal.”

What is “it”? Well, this: “It’s completely and utterly Darwinian. It has no institutional interest in helping the people who work there be better at the job. You just get thrown into this pit and you kind of have to fight your way out,” Grant told me. “I was living in a sort of Mad Max: Fury Road–style sink-or-swim environment that was utterly unconcerned with my well-being and my happiness and my sense of safety and just general holistic health.”

When Grant arrived at 30 Rock, no one told him where the bathrooms were. “Nobody told you how to do the job. You either figured out how to do the job, or you washed out,” Grant said. “And because of that, the environment could be incredibly unwelcoming, even for a straight white dude. Even for me, it was an incredibly unwelcoming and unkind place to work.” He’s thought a lot about what it must have been like for the few people from historically excluded groups who made it on to SNL’s writing, performing, and producing rosters. It probably involved the fear and stress that everybody felt—but, Grant said, “times ten.”

By the time Grant arrived, Tina Fey’s SNL career was ascendant. Even though men outnumbered women in the writers’ room (and that’s consistently been the case), he recalled Fey, Ana Gasteyer, and Molly Shannon dominating the first half hour of the show, when the most high-profile sketches typically appear.

“At that time, just the fact that the show skewed female at all felt very cool,” Grant observed. “Of course, now, if you look back on it, you would think, ‘Well, every single one of those ladies is white.’ I don’t think there were maybe any people of color on the writing staff at all, or certainly no women of color.”

Things were pretty awful on multiple fronts in the ’80s, ’90s, and beyond. Terry Sweeney, the show’s first out gay cast member, lasted one season, during which Chevy Chase, a former cast member who had returned to host, “insulted everybody” and behaved like a “monster” (nothing unusual there). At one point, Chase suggested Sweeney star in a sketch where he was weighed to see if he had AIDS. Chase was “really furious” that he had to apologize to him, Sweeney said. When Chase hosted some time after that, after being introduced to a female writer, “he made some reference like, ‘Maybe you can give me a handjob later,’” Will Ferrell said.

“There’s no word for when you castrate a female,” SNL writer Rosie Shuster said of how Garofalo was treated when she was with the show for a brief time in the ’90s. “But that’s the feeling I get watching what’s happening to Janeane.” Her first few years were “fabulous” and then “my last year [at SNL] was one of the worst years of my life,” Julia Sweeney said. “I found being a writer on Saturday Night Live more nerve-wracking than being the host of Late Night and replacing Letterman,” Conan O’Brien observed.

There’s going to be pressure in any high-profile gig. But surely the show could have had a healthier culture and still been funny. The fact that the environment often is, for so many, unpleasant or even terrible seems not just unnecessary but, as Bob Odenkirk said, weird.

“I mean, the whole thing was weird to me,” former SNL writer Odenkirk said in Live from New York. “To me, what was fun about comedy and should have been exciting about Saturday Night Live was the whole generational thing, you know, a crazy bunch of people sittin’ around making each other laugh with casual chaos and a kind of democracy of chaos. And to go into a place where this one distant and cold guy is in charge and trying to run it the way he ran it decades ago is just weird to me.” That tracks with something that former employee Ben mentioned—that the SNL work processes were usually “extremely regimented.” That may have been partly necessary to keep the trains running on time, but Ben also described an overall culture where stepping out of line in any meaningful way was frowned upon.

The conversation around the show blew up in a big way in 2013, when Kenan Thompson said he no longer wanted to play Black women on SNL, and he and fellow cast member Jay Pharoah expressed “displeasure at the absence of black women in the show’s cast.” Black performers have been, for the most part, few and far between: in the ’90s, “I got hired because In Living Color was on,” Chris Rock said.

“I don’t think it’s meant to be easy. I also think that being in a forty-year-old institution that is predominantly white, as a woman of color, it’s a different journey,” Natasha Rothwell said in a 2018 interview that touched on her one-season stint on SNL’s writing staff. “I was, like, working alongside amazing, smart, funny people in an environment that wasn’t for me. Like, some people thrive there. You know, so it’s like no shade, but it just wasn’t for me.”

Just five years before Rothwell gave that interview, only one of the show’s twenty-three writers was Black. According to a 2013 New York Times piece, SNL had hired only three Black women “for its main cast . . . in four decades.”

And as comedian Kerry Coddett pointed out, not only did the show go for long stretches without Black women in the cast, it often handed them roles that traded on demeaning stereotypes. Yvonne Hudson, who worked at SNL in the 1980–81 season, played “a maid, a nurse, a slave,” writes Coddett. Danitra Vance, “a classically trained Shakespearean actor who also performed at the famed Second City Theater,” had two recurring roles. One was Cabrini Green Jackson, “a 17-year- old welfare mother who gave advice about pregnancy. In another sketch, ‘That Black Girl,’ Vance plays LaToya Marie, a black actress who will do anything to get famous.” Vance only lasted one season in part “because she resented routinely being cast as a maid or a prostitute,” according to a story written at the time of her 1994 death.

In 2018, Awkwafina became the first female Asian American SNL host in eighteen years. Two years earlier, stats compiled by IndieWire revealed that between 1975 and 2016, more than 90 percent of hosts were white. Less than 7 percent were Black and 1.2 percent were Hispanic. The most recent all-white hosting season ended in 2011. “Because it lacked Asian cast members, the show has for many years had to call on a longtime production designer, Akira Yoshimura, to play the part of Sulu in Star Trek sketches, and in one instance, he played Connie Chung,” the New York Times reported in 2019.

SNL doesn’t have a strong record of reaching out to diverse voices, either in hosting choices or in casting its ensemble,” Mark Lieberman notes in IndieWire. His piece also points out that Sasheer Zamata, who was on the show from 2014–2017, and Leslie Jones, who broke out in a big way in her 2014–19 stint, were hired around the time of the scramble to add Black women. Both are now gone from SNL.

Kate McKinnon and Bowen Yang, two out cast members, are among the most acclaimed performers in recent SNL history, but the show’s overall track record on the LGBTQ+ front is, in a word, dreadful. Vance was not out while she was on the show, which is understandable, given the environment she was in, and how homophobic the industry (and the world) could be. As Denny Dillon, a gay woman who was in the cast for a short time in the early ’80s, observed, “It wasn’t safe to be out in Hollywood for a long time.”

“We were on the show when Reagan shut off any research for AIDS or HIV. It was a real homophobic era, that time. We didn’t have any gay writers. We didn’t have any gay cast members,” late ’80s cast member Nora Dunn said in a 2015 Salon interview. As far as I can tell (NBC declined to answer my questions on this and other matters), between the departure of Terry Sweeney and the arrivals of Kate McKinnon and John Milhiser in 2012 and 2013, respectively, for around a quarter of a century there were no out LGBTQ+ people in the performer rosters of SNL.

Dunn left the show in 1990, and in her 2015 interview, she discussed what led to her exit. Working at SNL is “a traumatic experience,” Dunn said, “kind of something you have to survive.” “Women are hard to write for, that was the anthem I heard for five years,” Dunn said in 1992—many years after, the piece notes, founding cast member John Belushi was heard to yell “women aren’t funny” in the halls of SNL.

Dunn boycotted the episode Andrew Dice Clay hosted, and her analysis of that situation, which contributed to her departure, is worth quoting at length, given that it addresses how power operates at SNL. Almost any topic can be the subject of comedy, Dunn noted: even challenging “subject matters can be handled because satire is ridicule, and satire is smart. And if you’re really performing satire, you have to be intelligent. It’s how you do it. Look at All in the Family—they handled that material brilliantly. They handled racism, all of that stuff, and it was very smartly written. Andrew Dice Clay, the character, who was an abuser of women and he was a homophobe. And his material was terrible. He just wasn’t smart enough to handle that material. And our writing staff was not the writing staff to handle that material either [when he hosted the show in 1990].

“Lorne said, ‘Andrew Dice Clay was a phenomenon worth examining.’ And yeah, he was a phenomenon, but if you’re going to examine him, he shouldn’t be the host, you should write an article,” she added. “We didn’t examine the hosts of SNL. We supported them, we wrote for them, and we made them look good. Otherwise you’d never get a host. You’re there to make them look good.”

She didn’t care that Clay was foulmouthed, she added: “My objection to Andrew Dice Clay was that his character was only about one thing: abusing women and laughing about abusing women. There was nothing else behind it. There was nothing else about it except to make him look harmless.” At the time of the Clay controversy, Michaels called the protests regarding the comic’s humor “sadly humorless.”


Difficult, if not toxic, industry environments often thrive when many people in a workplace are young, powerless, or inexperienced—or all three. For people from historically excluded groups, the bias and gaslighting they come across can be even more isolating.

Patterns of mistreatment, bias in hiring, cast members and writers abusing and harassing young female employees within a “treacherous” culture, per a 2022 Business Insider article about SNL—none of it ever gets laid at the feet of Michaels. I still can’t quite figure out why. Maybe he’s just been, for decades, that skilled at portraying his long-running character—Humble Canadian Guy in New York.

“For someone so concerned with nurturing his power, Michaels casts himself as amazingly passive,” according to the 1995 New York magazine feature on SNL. There’s little difference in a 2021 Washington Post piece that came out when Michaels was feted by the Kennedy Center Honors. When asked about the show’s power, Michaels replied, “We’re a comedy show. We can influence, but we don’t determine.”

Asked three times about “the power you’ve created for yourself” to “start and stop careers,” Michaels “resists the question” and “sidesteps again. He prefers not to talk about his own power; he’ll focus on the power of the voices he chooses to elevate. He prizes truth-tellers, he says, especially in moments of national unease or confusion…”

There’s that “truth-tellers” thing again. Give me a break. Either comedy is so crucial that it must be protected at all costs, or it’s a wispy nonentity, so unimportant that no part of it needs to be held to account in any way. Just once I’d love for one of comedy’s powerful gatekeepers to tell us which of these rationales they’d like to permanently hide behind.

In any event, you’d never know that three months before that Post profile came out, Jane Doe filed her civil lawsuit against Michaels, Sanz, and NBCUniversal. “Horatio certainly is the main character here, but he didn’t abuse me in a vacuum; he abused me all over Saturday Night Live,” Doe told Laura Bradley of the Daily Beast, who wrote one of the few major pieces on her case.

Doe’s story did not get blanket coverage, but it got enough. It would certainly have come up in a Google search that you’d hope a reporter would do before talking to an important subject. But if Michaels was asked about this lawsuit—which was filed just a few months earlier— there’s no evidence of that in the Washington Post piece.

Jane Doe met Jimmy Fallon at an event for a book he wrote. Her mom drove her to the New York bookstore from their Pennsylvania home; Doe was fourteen. “It was me and some adults and some people who lived in New York and his family members,” Doe said. “I stood out—I was the only kid at that thing, and I had that energy of, like, a Beatles fan.”

That superfan energy had previously led her to create a website for SNL cast member Fallon, one that posted scoops about who upcoming hosts and musical guests would be. (She told me she got that information from Sanz.) Not long after she turned fifteen, Fallon and Sanz, using an NBC employee’s email account, got in touch with her to praise her for her efforts to promote Fallon and SNL. She told me that, over the next few years, she got swept up into the show’s world, attending parties and getting to know fellow fans and people who worked at SNL. On occasion, she would roam the halls typically occupied by writers and performers, and it was not unusual for her to attend the official after-party that follows every episode of the show. (She was not the only one to do so while underage; Ben said he did so once as well.)

At one SNL event, Jane Doe recalled, “Jimmy Fallon introduced me to Lorne after we had consumed alcohol together.” Earlier that night, Doe said, she told Fallon and his agent what Sanz already knew—that she was a high school student. Another “perk” of knowing the cast was being invited to after-after parties like the ones that were, around that time, occasionally hosted by Tracy Morgan.

The attention from cast members, other SNL people, fans, and members of the public who visited her site—it all made Doe feel special, for a time. But those years also created enormous damage that she is still trying to process.

Doe said that there was an NBC page who had been “aggressive” all season about “trying to sleep with me.” One night in the SNL offices, after she’d consumed alcohol, he got her to go into a stairwell with him. “He wanted to hook up with me, and I wasn’t sure. And then he said dismissively that he wasn’t going to rape me, so I went into the stairwell with him.” Like so many teenage girls before her, she was afraid of being disliked or being labeled a prude. The page, who was around twenty-two, she said, stuck his tongue down her throat and pushed her against a wall. Doe said that those actions and others felt like “much more than I wanted,” but her understanding of consent, like that of many teens (then or now), was very different from what it evolved into later: “Like, you just had to agree to hook up with someone and hope they weren’t going to do anything violating, you know?”

In her lawsuit, Doe states that Sanz put her “on his guest list for SNL after parties where she continued to be served alcohol and engaged in drug use,” and describes being assaulted by Sanz at one after-after party in full view of a number of SNL employees and cast members. (Two witnesses said, per the suit, “Are you f***ing serious?”). Doe told me that in a taxi on the way to the train station, she awoke to the assault that involved the attempt to remove her pantyhose.

“I just know that as an adult now in her thirties, if I saw a colleague fingering or getting a minor drunk, getting a fan drunk, and I saw that clearly unbalanced power dynamic. Sanz was clearly pursuing me, physically pursuing me across years of these parties,” Doe told me. “If I saw my colleague doing that with a teenage fan, I would absolutely intervene or I would go up the chain of command and I would want something to be done. I would want it to be handled. And I don’t think that that happened. And I don’t know if that was because no one said anything at all. And I don’t know if that’s because, maybe, Saturday Night Live selects employees who happen to be funny and also happen to be the type of people that aren’t going to say anything when bad things happen to people—they’re just going to keep their mouth closed. I don’t know if Lorne just has such a stronghold on everyone.”

Other survivors of industry wrongdoing have received statements of solidarity, but when she and I spoke in early 2022, Doe told me she had not felt supported at all. She cited the way that the cast of Sex and the City spoke out when assault allegations against costar Chris Noth came out. (He has denied the allegations but lost his job on the CBS drama The Equalizer.) In that case, Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, and Kristin Davis put out a statement that acknowledged “that it’s hard for the survivor to come forward and we support the survivor,” Doe recalled. “None of the people who were at SNL at the time have had one word to say, not one person has said, ‘Oh, I remember that—that was wrong.’”

She shut down the site she’d made for Fallon after Sanz assaulted her, but she told me that she was occasionally in touch with Sanz for a very long time afterward. In recent years, however, she has come to see his behavior not as friendship—which is how she viewed their relationship when she was in her twenties—but as another form of manipulation and even attempted damage control. In her view, Sanz wanted to shape how she saw both him and their relationship, and she said she came to see their later contact as an “emotionally abusive” relationship.

“He steered me into thinking that everything that happened—when he tried to rape me in the cab after that party—was my fault,” she said.

In the end, Doe remarked, “I forgot about that fifteen-year-old girl that used to have confidence.”

NBC responded to her suit by telling the press her allegations are “meritless,” and asked for the case to be dismissed. (The network, Comcast, Michaels, and NBCUniversal declined to answer my questions about these matters.) In late 2022, the legal action came to a close and in news coverage of this development, Doe’s attorney stated that the “parties have resolved their dispute and have moved on.”

When Doe and I spoke almost a year earlier, the concept of “moving on” sounded like a complicated, ongoing challenge for her—something I understood, given all that she’d experienced. She told me she wasn’t overly interested in money, and I learned that, regarding the legal case, she did not sign an NDA. The resolution of the legal situation does not mean that what she experienced no longer affects her life, of course, and I continue to feel compassion for her for many reasons. At least in part because I understood a topic we discussed at length: what she wanted was for people to explain themselves—to be accountable.

“When people are like, ‘Don’t you just want all this to go away?’ I’m like, ‘This has been my life,’” Doe said. “I would rather be involved in this lawsuit than let them go on being these mega-successful people who are not held accountable to anyone at all.”

From the forthcoming book BURN IT DOWN: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood by Maureen Ryan. Copyright © 2023 by Maureen Ryan. To be published by Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Excerpted by permission.

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