When there is nothing to do and nowhere to go on a Saturday night, flipping on the latest episode of Saturday Night Live is a tried-and-true choice. The comedy sketch series has prompted laughs and delivered satirized takes on current events and cultural phenomena since its first episode aired in 1975, and it has given audiences many memorable sketches and monologues throughout its run. But like the ebbs and flows in the show’s’ comedic impact over the last 45 years, SNL cast members have been ever-changing.
In addition to delivering legendary comedy moments, the series is well-known for kickstarting some of the most successful careers in American comedy history. The weekly sketch show has provided a boatload of cast members with opportunities to showcase their writing and acting chops for the world to see. As of November 2020, SNL has featured 156 cast members, from Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy to Will Ferrell and Tina Fey.
That said, there are also many A-listers whose names might not immediately pop into your brain when you hear the phrase “Saturday Night Live alums.” Here are some of the stars you might’ve forgotten passed through the hallowed halls of 30 Rock on their respective journeys to the top.
Laurie Metcalf was on SNL for a matter of seconds
Laurie Metcalf’s stint on Saturday Night Live was one of the shortest of all time. The actor first appeared in the final episode of the sketch show’s critically panned sixth season in 1981. Her only appearance as a featured player was a pre-taped “man on the street” segment for “Weekend Update.” “I’d never been to New York!” Metcalf said in a 2018 appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers. “I didn’t know where I was [or] what I was doing… [It was] the actor’s nightmare.”
Metcalf’s time on SNL ended shortly after it began. As Vulture noted, she made her debut right “before the start of the 1981 writer’s strike, during one of the show’s critically worst eras, and on an episode that didn’t even have a host.” The season, which was poorly received and is now buried deep in dust in the comedy archives, ended after 13 episodes. When the show returned after the strike, Metcalf was not asked back as a featured player.
SNL was salvaged in the seasons that followed, and Metcalf went on to make a guest appearance in 1988 with a short film called “Laurie Has a Story” alongside Schitt’s Creek actor Catherine O’Hara. Despite her brief moment on SNL, Metcalf has seen far more than 15 minutes of fame. She has since won three Emmys for her role in Roseanne, voiced Andy’s mom in the beloved Toy Story franchise, and earned an Academy Award nomination for 2017’s Lady Bird.
SNL led to Julia Louis-Dreyfus' first iconic role
When a 21-year-old Julia Louis-Dreyfus was cast on Saturday Night Live in 1982, she was the youngest female cast member in the show’s history. The Veep actor has since said her age and gender worked against her. “I was unbelievably naive and I didn’t really understand… the dynamics,” Louis-Dreyfus said at a 2019 event in New Jersey (via USA Today). “It was very sexist, very sexist.”
Louis-Dreyfus was used to the collaborative environment she had experienced while training as a member of Chicago’s established improvisational comedy theater group The Second City. “I did not adapt well,” she said of her time at SNL in a 2013 interview with SiriusXM. “[The culture] was very dog-eat-dog … [and] I didn’t realize everybody was on drugs.”
Though Louis-Dreyfus called her experience on the sketch show “brutal,” it ultimately brought about her biggest break. During her third and final SNL season in 1985, she befriended writer Larry David because, as she told SiriusXM’s Jess Cagle, they “identified with each other’s misery.” (David didn’t exactly thrive during his brief stint at SNL: As he told Vanity Fair, “I only had one sketch on the entire year.”) A few years later, David and joined forces for Seinfeld, and the rest is iconic sitcom history.
Martin Short's stint on SNL was, well, short
Okay, you might remember Martin Short was on Saturday Night Live, but do you remember just how quickly it came and went? Short only appeared on Season 10 of Saturday Night Live, but one season was enough to help make him a household name in the comedy world. In fact, TCM credits him with reviving interest in the show following the departure of Eddie Murphy. As Short writes in his memoir I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend, he got into improv comedy at the urging of friends Eugene Levy and Gilda Radner, who were members of The Second City improv group in Toronto.
Short had a one-year contract with SNL from 1984 to 1985. “They were just trying to keep it alive, and Eddie Murphy had left,” Short said in a 2020 appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers. “It was so stressful for me every week because I treated it like final exams every week.”
The November after his departure from SNL, Short starred in his own Showtime special, Martin Short: Concert for the North Americas. He went on to win a 1999 Tony Award and to star in comedy films including Three Amigos!, Innerspace, and Father of the Bride. Short is also known for his iconic comedic characters Jiminy Glick and Ed Grimley.
Billy Crystal made several mahvelous appearances on SNL
Many Saturday Night Live viewers know Billy Crystal as a frequent host of the show, but less may recall his days as an actual cast member. The comedian was scheduled to appear in the first-ever episode of SNL in 1975, but as he said in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation and the American Comedy Archives at Emerson College, his sketch was cut. He then appeared in the 17th episode of the first season, performing a monologue as an old jazz musician. Nearly a decade later, Crystal signed a one-year contract with SNL to be a Season 10 cast member from 1984 to 1985.
Crystal was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for his performance on SNL. Some of his characters on the series include Willie and an impression of Sammy Davis Jr., the latter of which has drawn a lot of criticism in recent years. His most famous character was an impersonation of Argentine actor and director Fernando Lamas, in which Lamas hosted a talk show called “Fernando’s Hideaway.” Crystal’s parody of Lamas immortalized the catchphrase “You look mahvelous!”
Though Crystal had a successful career prior to his casting on SNL, it has since grown with roles in classic movies such as When Harry Met Sally… and The Princess Bride. Beyond SNL, Crystal has also won a pile of Emmys for hosting multiple Academy Awards and Grammy Awards ceremonies.
Robert Downey Jr.'s not-so-ironclad time on SNL
Before he was Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. was a momentary player on Saturday Night Live. In 1985, when he was just 20 years old, Downey landed an audition through his friend, actor Anthony Michael Hall. The two pals joined the cast of the sketch show’s ill-fated Season 11, which, as Downey declared on The Tonight Show, was “arguably the worst season in its history.”
“I was not somebody who was going to come up with a catchphrase,” Downey said in a 2019 Off Camera interview. “I was not somebody who’s going to do impressions. I was somebody who was very ill-suited for rapid-fire sketch comedy.”
Rolling Stone went so far as to even name Downey the worst cast member in SNL history. His only sketch to make it to air was called “Suitcase Boy,” in which he was inside a suitcase zipped up to his neck. “It was so not funny, except to me and my weirdo friends,” he told fellow former SNL cast member Jimmy Fallon in a 2020 interview on The Tonight Show. He has since veered away from straight comedy and entered the realm of movie stardom, appearing as Iron Man in box office-busting Marvel franchises, including Avengers, Captain America, and Spider-Man.
Joan Cusack was another SNL Season 11 casualty
The first-ever episode of Saturday Night Live premiered on October 11, 1975—which was, coincidentally, actor Joan Cusack’s 13th birthday. Like Robert Downey Jr. and Anthony Michael Hall, Cusack also joined the SNL cast in 1985, faced the Season 11 curse, and was fired in 1986. She appeared alongside Downey in his “Suitcase Boy” sketch, and jokingly critiqued the romantic drama Out of Africa in a “Weekend Update” appearance. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I just don’t think it’s funny.” Her notable impressions include Brooke Shields, Queen Elizabeth II, and Jane Fonda. She also performed as a socially awkward character named Salena.
Decades later, SNL cast member Abby Elliott impersonated the actor in 2009, and again in the 2010 sketch “Back to the Future Auditions.” Since her SNL season, Cusack has voiced Jessie in the Toy Story movies and acted alongside her brother, John Cusack, in several movies, including Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity. Her credits also include Addams Family Values and School of Rock, as well as TV shows like Shameless and A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Damon Wayans got fired from SNL on purpose
Damon Wayans was also a member of the short-lived Season 11 Saturday Night Live cast. He was brought on in 1985, the year after Eddie Murphy’s departure from the show. “I did talk to [Wayans] a little about the pressure that was on him on Saturday Night Live to be the ‘next Eddie Murphy,'” author David Peisner told OkayPlayer (via Ambrosia For Heads). “He felt like he was being overlooked. He felt like he wasn’t being given opportunities. And he felt that a lot of that was happening because he was, essentially, the only Black guy there.”
On March 15, 1986, after just 11 episodes, SNL creator Lorne Michaels fired Wayans on the spot after he went off-script and turned a cop character into a flamboyant, effeminate caricature. “Lorne Michaels was trying to, you know, he thought, protect me from being compared to Eddie Murphy,” Wayans said on the radio show The Breakfast Club. “And I’m like, ‘Look. You give me the ball or let me go. Fire me from the team.’ So, he wouldn’t give me the ball, so I just switched characters during a live taping. I wanted to get fired.”
According to Peisner, this improvised character was the beginning of Wayans’ famous In Living Color character Blaine Edwards.
The ambitious Ben Stiller found SNL stifling
Millennials and Gen Zers may associate Ben Stiller with Saturday Night Live through the actor’s portrayal of Donald Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen. However, he made his SNL debut 30 years prior in 1989 as a Season 14 cast member. He landed on the show after sending in a short film he had made called “The Hustler of Money,” which parodied Martin Scorsese’s 1986 movie The Color of Money. Stiller wanted to focus his time at SNL on writing and directing short films, but that vision didn’t play out as he’d hoped.
Though he was a writer and a featured player, Stiller appeared in only four episodes and quit after five weeks due to a lack of creative freedom. “I just wanted to make short films,” Stiller told Howard Stern in 2018. “I knew that I wasn’t good live, because I would get nervous.” In the same interview, the actor echoed his fellow former SNL cast members in calling the show “very competitive.”
Stiller’s incompatibility with the SNL environment didn’t keep him from becoming one of the leading names in contemporary comedy. He soon premiered his own Emmy-winning comedy show, The Ben Stiller Show, and went on to live out his directorial dreams through projects including Tropic Thunder, Zoolander, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Sarah Silverman was fired from SNL the old-fashioned way
Sarah Silverman’s season on Saturday Night Live is not a particularly memorable time in the comedian’s career. She was a member of the cast for Season 19, which ran from 1993 to 1994. “I was hired at SNL and almost immediately fired,” she said in a 2013 interview with HuffPost Live, “but it’s all part of the journey, which is the fun part.” She went on to explain that she wrote “not a single funny sketch” during her time at the show, and she was ultimately fired by fax.
While Silverman may not have found stunning success at SNL directly, the gig did lead her to create connections that would shape future career moves. She appeared in the 1995 HBO sketch comedy show led by Better Call Saul actor Bob Odenkirk, who was an SNL writer while Silverman was in the cast. “I could see how it wouldn’t work at SNL, because she’s got her own voice,” Odenkirk told The New Yorker in 2005. “She’s very much Sarah Silverman all the time.” Silverman has also acted alongside fellow SNL alums Ben Stiller, in There’s Something About Mary; Joan Cusack, in School of Rock; and Adam Sandler, in Funny People.
F doesn't stand for failure for Jenny Slate
Jenny Slate made a strong first impression on Saturday Night Live. In her very first episode in 2009, the actor dropped an F-bomb during her debut sketch, “Biker Chick Chat.” She was cut from the show at the end of Season 35. “Lorne and I never talked when I was fired at the end of the season,” Slate told Glamour in 2014. “I got the news online.”
Many viewers assumed Slate was fired because of her expletive blunder. “That’s not why I got fired,” she clarified in a 2019 interview with InStyle. “I just didn’t belong there. I didn’t do a good job, I didn’t click… People often want to frame my success as an ascent from one failure that was the decision of some man who didn’t understand me 10 years ago.”
Like many other short-term SNL stars, Slate didn’t let the setback define her. “I ordered 50 million pizzas and invited all of my friends over,” she recalled to Glamour. “It’s important to let yourself go through all the emotions. But if you start seeing yourself as a victim rather than as all of the other amazing things you could be, it’s time to snap out of it.” Following SNL, she went on to land roles in Bob’s Burgers, Parks and Recreation, Kroll Show, Zootopia, and Obvious Child.
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