On August 14, 1979, 210 Vietnamese refugees flew into an Edmonton military base aboard a Canadian Forces 707. That night they were housed in a military barracks.
Over the next 18 months, at the rate of more than 500 a week, Canada took in some 60,000 so-called boat people from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
The actions of the Joe Clark government and the arrival of the boat people were in keeping with Canada's reputation for taking in huge numbers of refugees in turbulent times of human upheaval.
Back in 1956, the people of Hungary rose up against their Communist overlords. Russian tanks brutally crushed the revolution and more than 200,000 Hungarians fled to Austria. The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration in 1956 was the hyper-powerful Liberal politician Jack Pickersgill. He ordered more than 200 chartered flights to bring to Canada any refugees who wanted to come. In less than a year, Canada took in more than 37,000 Hungarian refugees.
Years later, Pickersgill said his proudest moment in public life was bringing the entire forestry faculty of Sopron University to the campus of the University of British Columbia where they could continue teaching.
And in 1968, Canada welcomed tens of thousands of American deserters and draft dodgers, driven out of the U.S. by the disastrous Vietnam War.
The world has turned over a few times since those heady days, and things have changed. Most things about this country have changed since the mid-fifties. What has changed profoundly is Canada's attitude toward refugees.
Instead of being the open, welcoming nation we once were, we have become pinched, fearful, meaner. We have become a bit smaller.
There are something like 3.5 million Syrian refugees scattered across Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq and they are running out of food. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has called the predicament "the most dramatic humanitarian crisis the world has faced in a very long time."
Canada's response to the crisis has been lukewarm to say the least. In July, 2013, we agreed to bring in a piddling 200 government-sponsored and 1,100 privately sponsored Syrian refugees by the end of 2014.
We don't know precisely how many Syrians we really have brought in, because the government numbers are vague. We could bring in thousands more, tens of thousands more quite comfortably. And those thousands would enrich the country. They would expand the workforce, encourage investment and provide taxpayers who will be needed to support an ageing population. The success of this country could well turn on the efforts of these refugees and others, their children and grandchildren.
Besides, we should do more because it is the right thing to do.
My ancestors came to this place in the coffin ships from famine Ireland. Every one of us, except the indigenous first owners of the land, have come from somewhere else, either as refugees or immigrants.
When governments and people ask how this country could realistically bring in thousands of Syrian refugees, the answer is simple.
In 1997, I realized one of my childhood dreams. (Not the one where I’m being chased by Count Chocula.) I flew to New York from Chicago, where I was working as a performer at Second City, to interview for a writing position at “Saturday Night Live.” It seemed promising, because I’d heard that the show was looking to diversify. Only in comedy, by the way, does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity. I arrived for my job interview in the only decent clothes I had: my “show clothes”—black pants and a lavender chenille sweater from Contempo Casuals. I went up to the security guard at the elevator and I heard myself say, “I’m here to see Lorne Michaels.” I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of my mouth. This must be how people feel when they really do go to school naked by accident.
I went up to the seventeenth-floor offices, whose walls were lined with archival photographs from the show—Jane Curtin ripping her shirt open on “Weekend Update,” Gilda Radner in a “Beach Blanket Bingo” sketch, Al Franken’s head shot! Then I sat on a couch and waited for my meeting with Lorne. About an hour into the wait, some assistants started making popcorn in a movie-theatre popcorn machine—something that I would later learn signalled Lorne’s imminent arrival. To this day, the smell of fresh popcorn causes me to experience stress, hunger, and sketch ideas for John Goodman.
The only advice anyone had given me about meeting with Lorne was “Whatever you do, don’t finish his sentences.” A Chicago actress I knew had apparently made that mistake, and she believed it had cost her the job. So, when I was finally ushered into his office, I sat down, determined not to blow it.
Lorne said, “So, you’re from . . .”
The words seemed to hang there forever. Why wasn’t he finishing the sentence? If I answered now, would it count as talking over him? I couldn’t remember how normal human speech patterns worked. Another five seconds went by, and still no more sentence from Lorne. Oh, God! When I flew back to Chicago the next day, they were going to say, “How was your meeting with Lorne Michaels?” And I would have to reply, “He said, ‘So, you’re from,’ and then we sat there for an hour and then a girl came in and asked me to leave.”
After what was probably, realistically, ten seconds, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I blurted out, “Pennsylvania. I’m from Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia,” just as Lorne finally finished his thought—“Chicago.” I was sure I had blown it. I don’t remember anything else that happened in the meeting, because I just kept staring at the nameplate on his desk that said “Lorne Michaels” and thinking, This is the guy with the Beatles check! I couldn’t believe I was in his office. I could never have guessed that in a few years I’d be sitting in that office at two, three, four in the morning, thinking, If this meeting doesn’t end soon, I’m going to kill this Canadian bastard. Somehow, I got the job.
During my nine years at “Saturday Night Live,” my relationship with Lorne transitioned from Terrified Pupil and Reluctant Teacher, to Small-Town Girl and Streetwise Madam Showing Her the Ropes, to Annie and Daddy Warbucks (touring company), to a bond of mutual respect and friendship. Then it transitioned to Sullen Teen-Age Girl and Generous Stepfather, then to Mr. and Mrs. Michael Jackson, then, for a brief period, to Boy Who Doesn’t Believe in Christmas and Reclusive Neighbor Who Proves That Miracles Are Possible, then back to a bond of mutual respect and friendship.
I’ve learned many things from Lorne—in particular, a managerial style that was the opposite of my usual Bossypants mode. Here are some Things I Learned from Lorne Michaels:
(1) Producing is about discouraging creativity.
A TV show comprises many departments—costumes, props, talent, graphics, set dressing, transportation. Everyone in every department wants to show off his or her skills and contribute creatively to the show, which is a blessing. You’re grateful to work with people who are talented and enthusiastic about their jobs. You would think that in your capacity as a producer your job would be to churn up creativity, but mostly your job is to police enthusiasm. You may have an occasion where the script calls for a bran muffin on a white plate, and people from the props department show up with a bran cake in the shape of Santa Claus sitting on a silver platter that says “Welcome to Denmark” on it. “We just thought it would be funny,” they say. And you have to find a polite way to explain that the character is Jewish, so her eating Santa’s face might have negative connotations, and the silver tray, while beautiful, is creating a weird glare on camera, and maybe let’s just go with the bran muffin on the white plate.
And then sometimes actors have what they call “ideas.” Usually, this involves the actor talking more, or, in the case of a more experienced actor, sitting more. When an actor has an idea, it’s very important to get to the core reason behind it.
(2) Figure out if there is something you’re asking the actor to do that’s making him or her uncomfortable.
Is the actor being asked to bare his or her midriff, or make out with a Dick Cheney look-alike? (For the record, I have asked actors to do both, and they were completely game.) Rather than say, “I’m uncomfortable breast-feeding a grown man whom I just met today,” the actor may speak in code and say something like “I don’t think my character would do that.” Or “I’ve hurt my back and I’m not coming out of my dressing room.” You have to remember that actors are human beings. Which is hard sometimes, because they look so much better than human beings. Is there someone in the room the actor is trying to impress? This is a big one and should not be overlooked. If a male actor is giving you a hard time about something, immediately scan the area for pretty interns.
(3) The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s eleven-thirty.
This is something Lorne has said often about “Saturday Night Live,” but it’s a great lesson in not being too precious about your writing. You have to try your hardest to be at the top of your game and improve every joke until the last possible second, but then you have to let it go.
You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute. (And I’m from a generation in which a lot of people died on waterslides, so this was an important lesson for me to learn.) You have to let people see what you wrote. It will never be perfect, but perfect is overrated. Perfect is boring on live television.
What I learned about bombing as an improviser at Second City was that, while bombing is painful, it doesn’t kill you. What I learned about bombing as a writer for “Saturday Night Live” is that you can’t be too worried about your permanent record. Yes, you’re going to write some sketches that you love and are proud of forever—your golden nuggets. But you’re also going to write some real shit nuggets. You can’t worry about it. As long as you know the difference, you can go back to panning for gold on Monday.
(4) When hiring, mix Harvard nerds with Chicago improvisers and stir.
The staff of “Saturday Night Live” has always been a blend of hyper-intelligent Harvard boys1 (Jim Downey, Al Franken, Conan O’Brien) and gifted, visceral, fun performers (John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Jan Hooks, Horatio Sanz, Bill Murray, Maya Rudolph). Lorne somehow knew that too many of one or the other would knock the show out of balance. To generalize with abandon, if you had nothing but Harvard guys the whole show would be made up of commercial parodies about people wearing barrels after the 1929 stock-market crash. “Flenderson’s Poverty Barrels: Replacing Clothes Despite Being More Expensive Since . . . Right Now. Formerly known as Flenderson’s Pickles and Suspenders: A Semiotic Exegesis of Jazz Age Excess and the Failings of the Sherman Antitrust Act.”
If you had nothing but improvisers, the whole show would be made up of loud drag characters named Vicki and Staci screaming their catchphrase over and over: “YOU KISS YOUR MUTHA WITH THAT FACE?”
Harvard boys and improv people think differently because their comedy upbringing is so different. If you’re sitting in the Harvard Lampoon Castle with your friends, you can perfect a piece of writing so that it is exactly what you want and you can avoid the feeling of red-hot flop sweat—especially because you won’t even be there when someone reads it. But when you’re improvising eight shows a week in front of drunk, meat-eating Chicagoans you experience highs and lows. You will be heckled, or, worse, you will hear your heartbeat over the audience’s silence. You will be bombing so hard that you will be able to hear a lady in the back putting her gum in a napkin. You may have a point to make about the health-care system in America, but you’ll find out that you need to present it through a legally blind bus-driver character or an exotic dancer whose boobs are running for mayor. (I would like to see that sketch, actually.) Ultimately, you will do whatever it takes to win the audience over.
If Harvard is Classical Military Theory, Improv is Vietnam.
This is all to say that Harvard boys and people from Second City or the Groundlings (the L.A. improv group) make beautiful comedy marriages. The Harvard guys check the logic and grammatical construction of every joke, and the improvisers teach them how to be human. It’s Spock and Kirk. (I guess if you want to tie all my metaphors together it would be Spock wearing a baldric and staying up all night to write a talk-show sketch with a mentally ravaged Rambo Kirk.)
I have tried to apply this lesson when hiring people for “30 Rock,” and it has worked well so far. Our current staff makeup is four Harvard nerds, four performers turned writers, two regular nerds, and two dirtbags.
(5) Television is a visual medium.
Lorne has said this to me a lot. It basically means “Go to bed. You look tired.” You may want to be diligent and stay up with the writers all night, but if you’re going to be on the show you can’t. Your street cred with the staff won’t help anybody if you look like a cadaver on camera.
(6) Don’t make any big decisions right after the season ends.
This is the same advice they give people who’ve just come out of rehab. After a gruelling period of work (or what passes for gruelling work in our soft-handed world), you will crave some kind of reward. But don’t rush into a big decision, like a new house or a marriage or partial ownership of a minor-league baseball team, which you may later regret. The interesting thing about this piece of advice is that no one ever takes it.
(7) Never cut to a closed door.
Lorne said this once in exasperation over some sketch I can’t remember. The director had cut to a door a moment too soon, before the actor entered, and in that moment Lorne felt we had “lost the audience.” This can mean a lot of things. Comedy is about confidence, and if people in the audience sense a slip in confidence they’re nervous for you and they can’t laugh. Lorne would have preferred that the camera cut follow the sound of the actor knocking on the door. Which is to say that the sketch should lead the cutting pattern, which is to say that content should dictate style, which is to say that in TV the writer is king.
Or—and this is a distinct possibility—it doesn’t mean anything and he was just in a grouchy mood.
(8) Don’t hire anyone you wouldn’t want to run into in the hallway at three in the morning.
This one is incredibly helpful. We work long hours on these shows, and, no matter how funny someone’s writing sample is, if that person is too talkative or needy or angry to deal with by the printer in the middle of the night, steer clear. That must be how I got through that first job interview. I was not dynamic, but at least I wasn’t nuts.
(9) Never tell a crazy person he’s crazy.
There were many times in my nine years at the show when I couldn’t understand why Lorne didn’t just tell people to knock it off. Eccentric writers would turn in sketches that were seventeen minutes long, immature performers tried fits and tears when their sketches appeared later in the show than they’d wanted. My instinct would have been to pull these culprits aside and scold them like a schoolmarm. “Please explain to me why your sketch should get to be three times longer than everyone else’s.” “How dare you pitch a fit about what time your sketch is on? Some people didn’t get to be in the show at all.” But there is not one management course in the world that recommends self-righteousness as a tool.
Lorne has an indirect and very effective way of dealing with the crazies. It is best described by the old joke that most people know from “Annie Hall.” A man goes to a psychiatrist and says, “My brother’s gone crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.” And the psychiatrist says, “Have you told him he’s not a chicken?” The man replies, “I would, but we need the eggs.” Lorne knows that the most exhausting people occasionally turn out the best stuff. How do I explain the presence of crazy people on the staff if we’re following Rule No. 8? Easily: these crazy people are charming and brilliant and great fun to see at three in the morning. Also, some people arrive at the show sane, and the show turns them crazy.
In fairness to others, I will use myself as an example. In October, 2001, Manhattan was a tense place to work. One Friday morning, I was sitting in my tiny dressing room at 30 Rockefeller Plaza trying to write jokes for “Weekend Update.” I was reading a thick packet of newspaper clippings, looking for something fun to say about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, the anthrax postal attacks: it was grim. Then Lester Holt came on MSNBC on the TV hanging in the corner and said, “Breaking news. Anthrax has been found at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. C.D.C. officials are investigating the potentially deadly substance, which was found in a suspicious package addressed to NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw.” If you have decent reading-comprehension skills, you will remember from the beginning of this paragraph that I, too, was at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. “Nope,” I thought. “I give up.” I put on my coat, walked downstairs past my friends and co-workers without saying anything. I walked right past the host for that week, sweet Drew Barrymore, without telling her what I had heard. I just went to the elevator and left. Then I walked home and waited to die. Several hours later, Lorne called and said gently, “We’re all here. You and Drew are the only ones who left. And Drew came back a few hours ago, so . . . we’re ordering dinner, if you want to come back in.” It was the kindest way of saying, “You’re embarrassing yourself.”
I got back to work that evening just in time to find everyone assembled on the studio floor. Andy Lack, the head of NBC News, was giving the crew an emergency briefing. Nothing is scarier, by the way, than a bunch of adults being very quiet. Lack explained that the C.D.C. would be “swabbing” workers from the second floor to the sixth floor. (Remember all those fun catchphrases from 2001? “Swabbing,” “cutaneous,” “Cipro,” “I am Zoolander.”)
As I watched from the audience balcony, I felt tremendous affection for everyone there. It was as if we were all a family and, if we had to go, at least we’d all go together. I guess I forgot that just a few hours earlier I had booked it out of there, leaving them all to die. (I have a uniquely German capacity to vacillate between sentimentality and coldness.) The point is Lorne did not do what I would have done, which is to say to me, “You’re being crazy. Get back in here. Do you think you’re more important than everybody else?” He also didn’t coddle me, which is what I would have done if I were trying to overcompensate for my natural sternness. “Are you O.K.? If you need to take a couple of days off, I’m sure we can manage, blah, blah, blah.” Instead, he found a way for me to slip back in the door as if my mental breakdown had never happened. “We’re ordering dinner. What do you want?” He knew how to get the eggs.
People sometimes ask me about the difference between male and female comedians. Do men and women find different things funny? I usually attempt an answer that is so diplomatic and boring that the person will just walk away. Something like “There’s a tremendous amount of overlap in what men and women think is funny. And, I hate to generalize, but I would say that at the far ends of the spectrum men may prefer visceral, absurd elements, like sharks and robots, while women are more drawn to character-based jokes and verbal idiosyncrasies.” Have you walked away yet?
Here’s the truth: There is an actual difference between male and female comedy writers, and I’m going to reveal it now. The men urinate in cups. And sometimes jars. One of the first times I walked into the office of my old boss Steve Higgins, he was eating an apple and smoking a cigarette simultaneously. (When I started at “S.N.L.,” you could still smoke in an office building. I might not be young.) I had been there only a few weeks, and Steve had been very encouraging and supportive. I forget what we were talking about, but I went to get a reference book off a high shelf in his office. When I reached to move a paper cup that was in front of it, Steve jumped up. “Don’t touch that,” he said. “Hang on.” He grabbed the cup, and a couple of others like it around the office, and took them out of the room to dump them.
“Oh, yeah, that’s pee in those cups,” my friend Paula Pell later informed me. I could not believe it. I had come from Second City, which was by no means clean—it would not be unheard of to see a rat giving birth in an overstuffed ashtray, for example. But I had never heard of anyone peeing in a cup except at a doctor’s office. Maybe you’d do it on a road trip if it was too far between rest stops. I had definitely never heard of anyone peeing in a cup and leaving it on a bookshelf in his office to evaporate back into his body through the pores on his face.
I told a male co-worker about what I had seen. Was it not the grossest thing he had ever heard? He answered matter-of-factly that he occasionally did it, too. He said it was just something guys did when they were too lazy to go to the bathroom. The bathroom, I should point out, was about as far away as you are from this magazine. I started to feel as if I were from space.
I called my boyfriend, Jeff, back in Chicago. “You grew up way out in the country with a bunch of brothers. Did you ever pee in cups and, like, leave them around?” Jeff was incredulous. “What! No. That’s disgusting.” A thousand points for Jeff.
Once I became aware of this practice, I started noticing cups in other places. In the “Weekend Update” offices—which were like the smarter but meaner older brother of the regular writers’ offices—there weren’t any cups. There was a jar. It was a jar of piss with a lid on it, and, judging by its consistency, I suspect that the writers sometimes spat into it. Or that one of them was terribly ill. You could see it when you came in the door, backlit by the afternoon sun, and at first I thought it was a test. If you saw the piss jar and dared to ignore it and continue into the room, you were welcomed. “Welcomed” is too strong a word. You were . . . one of the guys? Nope, you know what? I’m just projecting. It couldn’t have been a test, because they really didn’t give a fuck whether you came into the room or not.
Not all the men at “S.N.L.” whizzed in cups. But four or five out of twenty did, so the men have to own that one. Anytime there’s a bad female standup somewhere, some idiot Interblogger will deduce that “women aren’t funny.” Using that same math, I can deduce that male comedy writers piss in cups.
Also, they like to pretend to rape each other. It’s . . . don’t worry about it. It’s harmless, actually.
To continue with this science of broad generalization, pissing in cups may show that men go into comedy to break rules. Conversely, the women I know in comedy are all dutiful daughters, good citizens, mild-mannered college graduates. Maybe we women gravitate toward comedy because it is a socially acceptable way to break rules. Have you left me for the cheese tray yet?
If you have not, now I will tell you the story of my proudest moment as one of the head writers at “S.N.L.” At the beginning of each season, the staff would write commercial parodies—the fake commercials that you have enjoyed over the past thirty-six years, such as “Schmitts Gay” and “Colon Blow.” I wish I had written either of those, but I didn’t. (I did write “Mom Jeans,” “Annuale,” and “Excedrin for Racial-Tension Headaches,” if that helps.)
Each writer would submit two or three commercial-parody scripts, and the producers and head writers would then pick which ones would be shot. In a normal show week, every sketch is read aloud by the cast at a “table read” in front of the whole staff. The room is packed with writers, designers, stage managers, musicians, etc., so you have a nice big audience. Everyone can hear where there are laughs, and everyone has a sense of which sketches could work. The commercial parodies didn’t get that treatment, and choosing which ones to produce always brought out the worst in people.
I would read the packet of forty scripts and pick the ones I liked. Dennis McNicholas, the other head writer, would pick the ones he liked. Not surprisingly, we each preferred the ones our friends had written. There was an unspoken rule that you never pushed for your own pieces, ever.
Then we would each separately corner the producers—Steve Higgins and Tim Herlihy—and try to get them to agree with us. We would continue this square dance of selling each other out for a week or so, only to find that Jim Signorelli, the long-standing director of the commercial parodies, had already started shooting the ones he liked, without asking us. It’s a miracle anything ever got done.
There was one parody script that I really fought for. It was back when “classic” was a big advertising trend. Coke Classic. Reebok Classic. The very funny Paula Pell had written a script called “Kotex Classic.” The idea was that Kotex was trying to revive those old nineteen-sixties sanitary napkins that hooked to an elastic belt. It featured the women in the cast enjoying fun “modern gal” activities with giant sanitary napkins poking out of the tops of their low-rise jeans. It seemed to me to be an excellent parody of nostalgia-based marketing while also being a little shocking and silly. I kept bringing it up in meetings only to be told that it would be “too difficult to produce.” Paula and I weren’t sure what that meant, so we kept pressing. Finally, Steve Higgins and Jim Signorelli sat down with us and asked us to explain the idea. “How would we see the pad? Is it a thing that comes up the front? Would we have to zoom in on it? Wouldn’t the girls have to take their pants off? Would we see blood?”
For me, this was what Oprah would call an Aha! moment. They didn’t seem to know how cumbersome a sanitary-napkin belt was. It was the moment I realized that there was no “institutionalized sexism” at this place—sometimes the guys just literally didn’t know what we were talking about. In the same way that I was not familiar with the completely normal custom of pissing in jars, they had never been handed a bulging antique Kotex product by the school nurse. But they trusted Paula and me, so we made the commercial, and the commercial worked.
Two things were reassuring about this. One, that we were heard. And, more important, I realized that during all those years when I was sure that boys could tell when I had a maxi pad the size of a loaf of bread going up the back of my pants they actually had no idea. ♦
1I say Harvard “boys” because they are almost always male, and because they are usually under twenty-five and have never done physical labor with their arms or legs. I love them very much.