This weekend, Saturday Night Live celebrated its 40th anniversary with a star-studded, three-plus-hour live special. Forty years represents a remarkable feat of staying power for a live sketch show that featured a group of not-ready-for-prime-time unknowns in an 11:30pm time slot that no one thought would ever work.
Over the years, SNL has been driven by its ever-changing roster of dynamic, funny young comedians seeking their big break. The show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, has always had a keen eye for talent and it’s been under his watch that budding stars like Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Adam Sandler, Tina Fey and Will Ferrell have used Studio 8H as a stepping stone for big screen stardom.
Of course, not every SNL player, as they’re known, has been a smash hit. When you go through 40 seasons and an ever-changing group of more than 120 fresh-faced comics, there are bound to be some rotten apples in the bunch. To succeed with Michaels, you need to pitch skits that get the green light after a mid-week table read and then manage to deliver the goods live in front of an in-studio and TV audience while navigating through a versatile variety of skits.
No wonder, then, that these 10 poor souls didn’t quite make the grade. You could say that they were not ready to be not-ready-for-primetime players.
10. Victoria Jackson
Credit Jackson with lasting six seasons as an SNL player, particularly given that her very existence on the show came about after Lorne Michaels axed most of the season 11 cast. She managed to get by with a series of ditzy blonde characters and a signature oddball routine in which she would recite poetry while doing handstands on the Weekend Update desk in front of a bemused Dennis Miller. However, as the seasons wore on, it became increasingly clear that her comedy range stretched to those two skills – and neither was particularly funny six years on. At least her recent “political career” is earning some laughs.
9. Brad Hall
The first among the several comics that will surely generate a “who?” response among most readers, Hall spent two seasons on SNL in the early eighties but remains best known as Mr. Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Hall had a flat, deadpan delivery that worked well in certain sketches, but too often left him in the forgettable position as straight man to other wacky characters. He is, perhaps, the most forgotten figure to ever helm the Weekend Update desk. Upon being fired by then-SNL head honcho Dick Ebersol before the 10th season, he smartly shifted off-camera to writing and producing in television and film.
8. Colin Quinn
Both Quinn and Darrell Hammond joined the SNL cast in 1995 (Hammond as a regular player and Quinn, initially, as a part-timer). But while Hammond might have been the most versatile, skilled impressionist in the show’s decorated history, Quinn was among the most limited. If you needed a tough guy, straight-talker with an Irish New Yorker accent, he was your guy – just don’t expect a whole lot else. Outside of his Weekend Update work (he took over from a fired Norm MacDonald in January 1998 and stuck around until 2000), you’d be hard-pressed to recall one recurring character that he really owned, which is strange for a five-year guy.
7. Jenny Slate
Anyone reading this who is familiar with Slate’s funny work on shows like FX’s Married and a recurring guest spot on NBC’s Parks & Recreation or her hit indie film Obvious Child is probably saying to themselves “wait, Jenny Slate was on SNL???”. Slate’s blink-and-you-missed-it one-season stint had precisely one memorable moment. In her very first sketch, a biker chick talk-show with Kristen Wiig during the show’s season premiere in 2009, Slate let loose an accidental f-bomb on live TV. Her debut faux pas proved the beginning of a very quick end, as her appearances were scaled back through the rest of the season, at which point she was let go.
6. Anthony Michael Hall
The funny thing is that Michael Hall had all the makings of a great SNL player. He arrived at Studio 8H in 1985 at 17 years of age (still the youngest cast member in the show’s history), having already gained some measure of fame with John Hughes classics Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club already on his resume. Once he got to SNL, however, he didn’t mesh with what he felt was an ultra-competitive vibe amongst the cast – and the unhappiness showed in his often surly on-screen demeanor. At season’s end, he wound up as part of the most star-studded group to get axed from the show alongside Joan Cusack, Robert Downey Jr. and Randy Quaid.
5. Jim Belushi
Brad Hall wasn’t the only less-talented relative connected to a more famous figure to have graced the SNL stage. Anyone remember Brian Doyle Murray, brother of Bill?? Jim Belushi, who went on to considerable success with hit sitcom According to Jim and a respectable film career, had a similar level of fame to big brother John, an all-time great who died too soon. But while John brought life to characters like Samurai Futaba and Elwood Blues, Jim’s two-year SNL tenure was remembered only for what he wasn’t. Michaels had probably hoped to replicate John’s presence when Jim was hired just over a year after his older brother’s death, but John’s manic comic timing wasn’t a shared trait.
4. Damon Wayans
Plenty of people have been fired from the show over the years, but only one has ever been known to get a mid-episode axing. Wayans would, of course, later find sketch comedy stardom on In Living Color along the way to building an impressive comedy resume. But at 30 Rockefeller, he found his SNL career cut unexpectedly short after a sketch in which he veered from his intended role as a straight-man cop and spontaneously decided to try out an extremely effeminate character instead. Legend has it that Michaels immediately tracked him down, tore into him backstage and fired him on the spot.
3. Charles Rocket
One of the darker stories of SNL failure, particularly in light of his tragic 2005 suicide, Rocket was a classic case of over-inflated hype and unfulfilled expectations. Brought in for the tumultuous 1980-81 season in which many previous favorites (including a briefly departed Michaels) had left, Rocket was viewed as the show’s newest star and Chevy Chase‘s heir apparent. It didn’t pan out. Rocket alienated the audience with a bitter, indifferent demeanor and was quickly overshadowed by co-stars Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy, who he soon became intensely jealous of.
2. Ellen Cleghorne
The second female African-American cast member in SNL history, Cleghorne’s anointment as an SNL player in 1991 appeared to have more to do with political correctness than any actual track record of being funny. She stuck around for four seasons, and yet the biggest laugh she ever drew probably came in a Family Guy episode when Stewie Griffin wondered if they had even “found an appropriate vehicle” for Cleghorne. It is telling both of her own limited range and SNL’s historical struggle with handling race and finding roles for minority players that she was best known for a character named ‘Queen Shenequa’.
1. Horatio Sanz
No one found Horatio Sanz funnier than Sanz, himself. That much is evident by the countless sketches in which the jovial, heavy-set eight-year cast member couldn’t hold back his laughter and broke character in the middle of sketches. Only Jimmy Fallon could match his friend and fellow player in number of crack-ups – and at least Fallon brought the funny more often than not. Remarkably, Sanz actually got worse over the course of his lengthy run, transitioning from prepared and able to used his humorous look to deliver straight-faced physical comedy to a spastic, volatile mess that gradually became uncomfortable to watch.