NEW YORK — It's a holly, jolly Christmas for "Saturday Night Live" chief Lorne Michaels as he marks another holiday edition of the show he created 36 years ago, and as he welcomes back "SNL" alum Jimmy Fallon as guest host for this special yuletide bash.
Boasting singer Michael Buble as its musical guest, the program airs, of course, Saturday on NBC at 11:30 p.m. EST.
But on Thursday night, as Michaels welcomed a reporter to his Rockefeller Center office — overlooking Studio 8H, from where "SNL" originates — the clock was ticking: little more than two days until show time.
In the studio, a sketch was being blocked for the cameras: Denver Broncos quarterback (and famously devout Christian) Tim Tebow confronts Jesus in the locker room.
"It's been rewritten since last night when we read it," Michaels said. "We read 40-some-odd sketches yesterday, and narrowed them down to the pieces over there" — he pointed to a board with a tentative rundown — "and that's about 15 minutes (too) long. By the time '(Weekend) Update' gets done, the show will be maybe 25 minutes long, which is what we'll go into dress rehearsal with."
Dress rehearsal takes place in front of a live audience on Saturday evening, after which, according to the audience's response, the show is rearranged, cut and otherwise revamped during a crash session to whip it into shape to perform a couple hours later for the world.
For Michaels, dress brings pain every week.
"Things you were certain would work, don't," he sighed. "Things that were really bright flatten and fall apart."
So does this mean that, even after all these years of executive-producing "SNL," Michaels, the old hand at 67, is still caught by surprise at how an audience reacts?
"Every week," he nodded. "I think it's why I'm still here. It's not a thing you ever master."
Or do you?
"Lorne has done this for 36 years, and he knows what will work," Fallon had insisted during an interview earlier in the week. "He's a pro. He's a Beatle."
Fallon was an "SNL" cast member for six seasons before leaving in 2004. Then, in 2009, he was tapped by Michaels, who also executive-produces NBC's "Late Night," to fill its hosting job when Conan O'Brien graduated to "The Tonight Show."
Now, for the first time, Fallon has been invited back by Michaels to his old haunts at "SNL" to serve as host.
"There will be holiday-themed sketches for different religions," said Fallon, who said he arrived with "about 300 ideas" on Monday. "I'm working on some impressions that I haven't done before. I've got some surprises: Some old friends might be coming back for a cameo or two. And then I want to see if can dust off my 'Update' suit."
Fallon was asked if any of the special demands of "SNL" had been hard to face again.
"Staying up late," he instantly replied. "I don't do that anymore. I have a 9-to-5 job now with 'Late Night.' I got to work on keeping my energy up, so I'm ready to go on Saturday. Which I will be."
Once he steps onstage at the top of the show, "it's going to be an adrenaline rush," he predicted. It will also be an emotional rush to be back, in a proud guest-host role on the show he has loved all his life.
"I just hope I don't break down and cry," he said. "My mom and dad are going to be there. I got to make sure I don't make eye contact with them. I'd be a mess, a blubbering mess."
"I was down in Jimmy's dressing room a half-hour ago," Michaels said Thursday night, relaxing for a moment on a sofa in his office. "We were going over the monologue, and I could see he looked anxious about it. He's putting so much pressure on himself for this to be the greatest show of all time!
"I found myself saying, 'You know, it's Thursday. It's NOT Friday. That means there's the rest of tonight and all day tomorrow for that missing piece to be written.'"
It's the step-by-step, day-by-day "SNL" process, a week-long evolution that's hard to keep in mind when you're in the middle of the stampede for Saturday.
"For a returning cast member or past host, the very last memory of having done the show is the party," Michaels said, "and, before that, how the show felt on the air, and the goodnights when it's ending.
"But you don't remember that on Monday there was nothing: 'Really?! THOSE are the ideas?!' And then came the writing, and choosing which pieces, and the rewrites. It's rare that you're excited about the show on Tuesday, or even Thursday. But the process is all about it getting better.
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"By the time Jimmy leaves here tomorrow night at 1 or 2 in the morning," Michaels said, "we'll know kind of what's looking good."
It's that process that keeps Michaels challenged, and fired up, and still very much in love with the job he said he has no thoughts of ever leaving.
"There's no other way to do it," he declared, and smiled resolutely as Saturday night loomed. "If there was, I would have figured it out. Trust me."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier