(This post originally appeared on Entrepreneur)
Milton Berle was a little before my time, but I can certainly appreciate the enormous influence he had on American culture and why so many loved him.
The comedian, actor and vaudevillian was an icon in the early days of television, with millions tuning in each week to see what crazy antics “Uncle Miltie” get up to. At the zenith of his popularity, it was reported that on the night of his weekly show, movie-ticket sales plummeted, and some theatres, restaurants and other businesses would literally shut down so that their customers wouldn’t miss the latest episode.
So what better person to host a nascent comedy program called Saturday Night Live towards the end of its fourth season? It seemed like a slam-dunk idea. But the show’s creator and producer, Lorne Michaels, had reservations. “I have a great affection for old-time show business,” he said in the book Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests. “But it had become corrupt. It wasn’t what it had been. The show was trying to get away from that.” Still, he went ahead. Unfortunately, his intuitions were correct. Berle’s hosting gig was a disaster.
Why so bad? “No matter what instructions the director gave him, he’d mug for the camera, do broad spit-takes and ad-lib jokes directly to the camera,” Kara Kovalchik wrote on Mental Floss. “He took it upon himself to give direction to the stagehands and lighting crew, since he’d been working in television since before they were born.” (Kovalchik listed Berle as one of the five most awful SNL hosts of the ’70s.)
Berle suggested comedic ideas that were inconsistent with the show’s content. He insisted on using inappropriate and dated vaudeville jokes in his opening monologue. He inserted unexpected dialogue into skits. He even provided for an “arranged standing ovation” of friends and family without warning the producers, which created a “bizarre” effect, according to Michaels. I’m not even going to go into his reported lewd behavior backstage that shocked even some cast members known for their own wild and crazy behavior.
Afterwards, disgusted with the experience, Michaels ultimately banned the comedy legend from ever appearing on the show again and forbid the episode from airing for years. He’s since reconciled with the experience, admitting that he’s “more sympathetic to Berle now than I was then, in 1979.” If you’re curious to witness the debacle, you can see it here.
But the message was clear” Berle was a prima donna. More importantly, he violated the two rules that good leaders innately understand: One person does not make a team, and you’re only as good as the last thing you’ve done.
Berle undertook a job — hosting a live, national television show — and assumed that it was his show and that he knew it all. Unfortunately, SNL was not like his show from the 1940s. Berle had around him a group of gifted writers and actors that he could’ve worked with to create something special. Instead, he ignored them. In the end, all he managed to do was be part of an inferior project and leave behind a bunch of disgruntled and frustrated talent.
It doesn’t matter how old you are or how successful you’ve been. When you take on a new project, just think of Uncle Miltie. Listen to the people around you. With all due respect, you still don’t know it all.