NEW YORK CITY – Lindsay Shookus can be intimidating. She’s heard that from people, and though she doesn’t totally believe it, she doesn’t totally disbelieve it, either.
“It just makes me laugh,” said Shookus, a Williamsville native who is one of the top producers for “Saturday Night Live.” Shookus oversees “SNL’s” talent department, a job that positions her at the nexus of seminal pop culture moments. She scouts comedians for the NBC show, and she books the celebrity host, musical artists and other guests each week. Shookus reports directly to Lorne Michaels, “SNL’s” creator and a show-business legend. That job description coupled with her direct access to power can project intimidation, even if it’s not Shookus’ intent.
“I just feel if everyone could sit down and talk to me, they’d be like, ‘Oh, she’s not scary at all,’ ” said Shookus, who spoke with The News for an hour in the library located off the lobby of the Central Park-area apartment building where she lives. It was an early Sunday afternoon on an “SNL” off-week. A group of her college friends were in town and staying at her apartment upstairs. Her 6-year-old daughter, Maddie, was out with Shookus’ ex-husband, the TV producer Kevin Miller, at a birthday party.
That was today. Tomorrow, she would be back at work at NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Much of her week would be spent working with Adam Sandler, whom she booked to host the following Saturday’s “SNL.”
Though Shookus is constantly working in rooms full of famous people, she has largely managed to cultivate an air of privacy over her 17 years at “SNL.” The show’s ethos is to keep the focus on the people on camera, and not let it shift to the producers behind the scenes, however influential they may be. For that reason, Shookus has done few interviews; one of the exceptions was an October 2017 profile in The Buffalo News.
Shookus’ ability to maintain a low public profile has been challenged in the last few years by her then-relationship with the actor Ben Affleck. The couple’s dating status has become the focus of Hollywood gossip media and the paparazzi lenses, and though Shookus hasn’t – and still won’t – talk about Affleck publicly, it further reinforced her desire for privacy.
“I have been trained to think, ‘Don’t look at me. It’s not about me,’ ” Shookus said, “and so I don’t want people to think I think it’s about me, which is always what makes me very wary of interviews, and then with my relationship it made me even more wary of interviews.”
Shookus agreed to this interview because she’s coming back to Buffalo as the keynote speaker at a May 20 event hosted by the WNY Women’s Foundation. (The reception, called “What She’s Made Of” and hosted at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, is sold out.) Shookus was deeply introspective during the hourlong conversation, and in a series of texts and calls that followed. She was open and eager to talk about her struggles and strategies in balancing a high-powered career with a nontraditional family. (She and her ex-husband Miller have maintained a close relationship as they “co-parent” their daughter, to borrow Shookus’ term.)
The 38-year-old graduate of Williamsville South High School began at “SNL” shortly after graduating from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She started as a talent department assistant and worked her way up. Today, she is one of Michaels’ top four producers, and one of her primary job responsibilities is simply getting things done.
In September, when the “SNL” writers were working on a cold open parodying the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in the U.S. Senate, one of them suggested getting Matt Damon to play the soon-to-be justice, who was defiant as senators questioned him about sexual abuse allegations. It was Shookus’ job to open up her contacts and dial Damon, whom she already knew. She reached him at 10:30 p.m. on Friday in Los Angeles, where he was filming a movie. After about 15 minutes of conversation, Damon agreed to play the role, and was on a plane to New York at 6 o’clock the following morning.
That’s getting things done, quickly and gracefully, which is what Shookus does. But she also realizes why people sometimes take that as intimidating.
“When you’re in a business where you’re surrounded by celebrity a lot – and I can go into a room and those are a lot of the people that I know, and know very well – that in itself can be intimidating,” Shookus said. “People think if you can go into that room and fit in, that you somehow are like them. And the truth is, I am. What I’ve realized is celebrities are regular people. Just like I am, and just like you are.”
Shookus is the reflective type, and she started digging deeper into how people could perceive her from the outside.
“I work for Lorne Michaels,” she said. “I work at a big show. I’m a female executive. I guess I don’t give it enough credit sometimes. I can see how people would just assume I am a no-nonsense kind of girl, you know? But the truth is, it’s not who I am.”
She thought for a beat, then continued: “But when I need to be, I can be tough. I mean, I’ve definitely gotten in arguments and tough ones and I can fight. I stick up for myself, especially in business. It’s not completely unfounded, I guess, if I break it down.”
She laughed lightly. “It’s like therapy, we just did,” she said.
That’s OK by her. Shookus has used therapy, meditation, exercise and reading as tools to strengthen herself. She’s currently reading a book called “The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence,” by Rachel Simmons. It has made her think back on her long-held desire to make people happy and project an image of perfection to the world. It’s a valuable trait, and one that has made her a calming influence on the “SNL” set. Shookus is responsible for handling problems both big and small, especially when they arise with the celebrity hosts, who have one intense week of work to perfect a monologue, participate in sketches, and promote the show. She’s also the go-to person for cast members who want to talk through anything on their minds, from ideas to problems.
That makes Shookus a thoughtful listener and confidante, but she’s grasping now that it doesn’t mean she needs to make everyone happy. “The people-pleasing thing is something I’m finally learning that doesn’t always suit me,” she said. “My job is a little bit about being a people-pleaser. It’s part of what got me in my career and made me successful, but in my whole course of my life, I’m finally starting to realize that making everybody else happy isn’t always the best course of action for your life, and I’m finally kind of starting to conquer that.”
The birth of her daughter six years ago started Shookus on a path toward that change. When she told Michaels she wanted to come back to work after five-and-a-half weeks, he gave her a raise so she could get a good nanny, which she did. Michaels also gave Shookus “a great piece of advice,” she said, “that I give to a lot of new working moms, which is, ‘Figure out the thing that makes you feel like a good mom, and make sure you do it.’ Not what makes you a good mom, but what makes you feel like a good mom.”
For Shookus, that is being home to put Maddie to bed at night. Though “SNL” hours tend to run long and late, she takes the 10-minute subway ride home to her apartment to tuck in Maddie, and then returns to the office if she’s needed.
“I have figured out what fills me, what makes me feel OK as a mom,” said Shookus, who also takes pride in her relationship with Miller. The couple split years ago, but remains close. In the middle of her News interview, Shookus heard voices in the hallway and excused herself. She walked back in moments later and introduced Miller and Maddie, who were returning from the birthday party.
“Mommy, look!” said Maddie, who has her mother’s light blond hair. She had a half-twisted balloon animal, among other trinkets.
“That’s so cool!” Shookus told her daughter, before chatting briefly with Miller, who took Maddie up to the apartment.
Shookus’ at-home priority right now is helping Maddie build a strong, resilient sense of character. Lately, she has made a practice of talking to her daughter about the good and tough things that happened during the day. Rather than discussing just the positives – and thus crafting the illusion that life should be perfect – she’s filling Maddie in on small examples of mistakes, stumbles and challenges. “I want to teach her those things,” Shookus said. “It’s OK to feel feelings like embarrassment or regret or anger, and to learn how to deal with them.”
Shookus has been doing that at her office, too. She’s trying to be more open about how she’s feeling, and show her staff – most of whom are younger, and many of whom are women – that having flaws and frustrations doesn’t make you weak.
“I’m living a much more honest life, which means saying, ‘I’m having a bad day,’ or, ‘There are some challenging things in my life going on,’ or, ‘Today is great and I’m grateful for how lucky I am,’ ” Shookus said. “I try and hold myself accountable to how I actually feel, and for the most part, express that in my life.”
It’s working. Heidi Gardner, a second-year “SNL” cast member whom Shookus discovered at the Groundlings comedy theater in Los Angeles, marvels at her boss’ ability to stay composed and kind under the fast-paced pressure of casting, developing and broadcasting a live comedy show each week. Shookus and Gardner have talked about their shared zen-like lens on life.
The conversation, Gardner told The News, was about “meeting every interaction from a place of love. Whoever you’re interacting with, they’re doing the best they can, and just (approach it as), ‘I’m going to love this person no matter what.’ ”
Gardner added, “For me, she is a really good example of a successful, powerful woman who is killing it in life, in my opinion, and just doing it in such a graceful and kind way.”
For Shookus, that’s been an evolution, and one she reflects on often. A few weeks after her initial interview with The News, she was thinking about it during a SoulCycle spinning class on a Thursday morning in Manhattan. She composed these thoughts on her phone directly after:
“I spent my entire life thinking everything/everyone was black and white,” she wrote in an email. “You’re good. Or you’re bad. You’re perfect. Or you’re inherently flawed. It took having a child, and having some real personal challenges to finally realize that’s a debilitating way to look at life. We are best in the gray. I am flawed, but I’m good. I am kind, but I make mistakes. Understanding that key part of life is so incredibly liberating.”
Job: Emmy-winning producer for “Saturday Night Live,” where she oversees the talent department, which includes booking celebrity hosts, guest stars and musical artists, and scouting new comedic talent. Shookus has also produced a musical special with Adele, “SNL’s” 40th anniversary special, and has producing credits on “30 Rock,” among other shows. She began with “SNL” in 2002 as assistant, and was promoted to associate producer in 2008, co-producer in 2010, and producer in 2012. In a nod to the power Shookus holds in booking musical acts for “SNL,” Billboard named her a top music executive in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Education: Williamsville South High School (1998), and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she earned a journalism degree in 2002.
Family: Shookus and her ex-husband Kevin Miller have a 6-year-old daughter, Maddie. They live near each other in Manhattan and co-parent their daughter.
Roots: Shookus’ parents Bob and Christine are retired and still live in Williamsville. Christine worked in pharmaceutical sales and Bob owned a manufacturers representative business called Nelson Heintz & Shookus, which he sold years ago. They have three grown children: Jeff, the eldest, lives in Chicago and works in the financial industry for UBS; Lindsay is in Manhattan; and their youngest, Sara (Shookus) Algeo, lives in Brooklyn and works at Google.
“SNL” cast member Heidi Gardner on Shookus: “She cares about everyone she works with and cares about doing a good job. She cares about what she’s putting out into the world, how she’s presenting herself, and I just feel like it’s powerful and it’s really cool to see. It’s the total package.”
Shookus on herself: “I think part of why I’m good at my job is in a short amount of time, I’m not afraid to show someone a side of me that’s not just an illusion. I’m willing to let somebody in, and trust and vulnerability is a big part of that.”