It’s hard to believe Saturday Night Live has been around for 40 years. Actually, it's hard to believe any TV show could survive that long. And, in truth, the live sketch comedy show has been close to cancellation more than a few times over its long run.
What’s been a constant through all its years has been the talent – a rotating cast of extremely skilled comic performers. The list seems endless, but includes well-known alumni Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, Phil Hartman, Adam Sandler and Kristen Wiig.
Some famous face have gone on to become so famous that their SNL alumni status is eclipsed by their consequent career. In some cases, their tenure was so brief, and their on-camera appearances so blink-and-you-miss-it, viewers can be forgiven for not realizing they were even there. Some were SNL writers who filled in as on-air featured players. Some were performers who just couldn't find their comic ‘niche’ on the program. All have gone on to the big time in their post-SNL careers.
Take a look at the surprising comic talents who you might have forgotten (or never known) wandered in and out of the SNL doors over the years.
14 Ben Stiller (1989)
The star of Reality Bites, Tropic Thunder, and Zoolander first got attention with a brief stint on SNL. A short he made in which he did a killer Tom Cruise impression first aired on SNL in 1987. In 1989, he joined a cast in mid season that included Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Jon Lovitz and Mike Myers. Stiller lasted only five episodes – but still managed to play everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Eddie Munster.
His departure was due to his desire to make more filmed shorts. SNL wasn’t interested. So he left, going on to write and star in the sketch comedy series The Ben Stiller Show (1990-93) on MTV and FOX. Then the movies called. Stiller would go on to host the show two times.
13 Chris Elliott (1994-95)
Before SNL, Elliott had achieved a level of cult fame from his writing and performing on Late Night With David Letterman (as ‘The Fugitive Guy’), his comedy series Get A Life (1990-92) and various zany characters in films.
On SNL, he was brought in to fill a gap left by departing cast members Phil Hartman, Rob Schneider and Mike Myers (who left mid-season). Unfortunately, the twentieth season of SNL was a ‘transitional year’ that was largely condemned by critics and viewers. Elliott failed to stand out at all in the sketches, and left (along with eight other cast members) at the end of his one season.
12 Christopher Guest (1984-85) Harry Shearer (1979-80, 1984- Michael McKean (1994-95)
The members of Spinal Tap were regulars on Saturday Night Live? Yes, though not at the same time.
Harry Shearer had two stints with SNL, describing them as a ‘living hell’. Guest – who was added to the cast along with Billy Crystal and Martin Short – anchored the news segments. He also teamed up with Crystal for the popular Willie and Frankie ‘You Know What I Hate?’ sketches.
In another memorable 1984-85 sketch, Shearer and Guest were joined by host McKean in a sketch featuring the band The Folksmen, later seen in the film A Mighty Wind.
McKean turned down an SNL job in 1984, only to become a SNL regular in 1994-95. As the elder statesman of the cast (at 46), McKean later claimed he was relegated to ‘David Spade’s dad’ type roles, though he also got to play Bill Clinton and ET’s John Tesh.
11 Larry David (1984-85)
The creator of Seinfeld served as a writer and occasional featured player on SNL for one, turbulent season. His familiar voice can be heard heckling host Michael McKean in one episode, and he had a bit in the classic ‘Run, Throw and Catch Like A Girl Olympics’ sketch.
As a writer, he got even less air time. He got only one of his sketches on the air – at 12:55 a.m.. David famously lost it one day in a profanity-laced tirade with producer Dick Ebersol. He walked out – only to return the next week as if nothing happened.
Fans of David's show Seinfeld will recognize this as the plot from a second season episode in which George quits, only to return the next week. So at least David found some inspiration in his brief stint on SNL.
10 Gilbert Gottfried (1980-81)
The caustic comedian and former AFLAC Duck didn’t even make it through his one season without being fired. But he was not alone. Following creator Lorne Michaels' decision to take a year off, the entire original cast and all but one writer left. They were replaced by a cast of unknowns who struggled to make us laugh. The one highlight of the season was the casting of unknown teen Eddie Murphy.
Things got so bad late in the season, everyone including Gottfried got fired (save Joe Piscopo and Murphy). A writers' strike then mercifully ended the season for good.
9 Paul Shaffer (1979-80)
Before becoming the bandleader for David Letterman, Shaffer was a member of SNL’s house band (and unofficial band leader) from 1975 to 1980. In his last year, he was surprisingly elevated from a musician to a member of The Not Ready For Prime Time Players. You might remember his funny impression of musical impresario Don Kirshner. He was also good as the piano player to Bill Murray’s Nick The Lounge Singer in the classic ‘Star Wars Theme” sketch.
He left SNL in that massive exodus after Lorne Michaels decided to take time off. In 1982, he began his on-going gig as bandleader for David Letterman.
8 Robert Downey Junior (1985-86)
He was a casualty of that weird season in which SNL hired talented actors rather than comedians (beyond SNL newbies Jon Lovitz and Dennis Miller). At 20, Downey wasn’t even the youngest cast member. That title went to Anthony Michael Hall at 17. Needless to say, nothing really worked in the season. If Downey had a memorable moment, it was an odd bit where he fit himself inside a suitcase, his head poking out the top.
The season’s finale found the entire cast locked in a room, a fire raging outside. The cliffhanger asked the audience to guess who would survive. As it turned out, it was comics Lovitz and Miller.
7 Stephen Colbert / Steve Carell (1996)
Colbert and Carell's tenure with Saturday Night Live might surprise you. They were famously both rejected by creator Lorne Michaels as regular cast members. Colbert did work briefly as a SNL freelance writer though. But it is as the Ambiguously Gay Duo that Colbert and Carell secured their SNL cred.
In the popular animated sketch - which actually originated on the short-lived The Dana Carvey Show - Colbert provided the voice of superhero Ace, while Carell was sidekick Gary. Essentially a one-joke bit, the cartoons found Ace and Gary defeating evil as their sexual orientation was continually called into question.
There have been 11 AGD cartoons in all, aired over an amazing 10 years. In 2011, the cartoon became a live action sketch, with Jon Hamm and Jimmy Fallon playing Ace and Gary, and Colbert and Carell as super villains Dr. Brainio and Bighead.
6 Damon Wayans (1985-86)
Wayans was part of that amazing cast of talent including Robert Downey Jr and Joan Cusack that just didn't work in a season often described as SNL’s ‘weirdest’. The cast just didn’t gel and seemed to have trouble with comedy. Wayans didn’t have that problem (he was a veteran of stand-up), but he didn’t exactly get many chances.
As the season went on, Wayans grew frustrated with his lack of screen time. Oh he got to play a few characters (Babyface/Little Richard) but mostly he was relegated to supporting roles. It all came to a head in the twelfth episode when Wayans changed a minor role of a cop into a very stereotypically gay cop. Show creator Lorne Michaels was not amused, firing Wayans on the air for breaking a cardinal SNL rule.
All was forgiven in the year’s finale when Wayans returned to do his stand-up routine. He later got a chance to play a lot of comedy characters in movies and his hit series In Living Color (1990-94).
5 Sarah Silverman (1993-94)
The outrageous stand-up comic and actress got sweet revenge this season when she hosted Saturday Night Live – 20 years after she was fired! In her opening monologue, she kibitzed with an audience that included old footage of her younger SNL self.
In her one year on the series, Silverman was hired as a writer and sometimes featured player but got to do little of either. Her one memorable performing segment was a Weekend Update bit where she was supposed to talk world news, but instead talked about her creepy family.
As a writer, only one of her sketches made it to dress rehearsal (but never aired). Silverman has since claimed that, at 23, she wasn’t ready for SNL, and the firing helped toughen her up. That’s a nice way of looking at it.
4 Bob Odenkirk (1987-91)
The star of Breaking Bad and the new Better Call Saul served as a writer and infrequent feature player for several good seasons on the series. He had several bits in sketches – most notably the commercial parody for ‘Bad Idea’ jeans. His writing included several classic SNL sketches - the ‘Da Bears Fans’, Dana Carvey’s ‘Grumpy Old Man’ monologues, and ‘The Motivational Speaker’ skit with Chris Farley as the guy who ‘lives in a van down by the river’.
Odenkirk left SNL to pursue performing, which he did in various TV roles (Roseanne/Everybody Loves Raymond/Seinfeld). His 1995-98 sketch comedy series, HBO’s Mr. Show, was often more funny and subversive than Saturday Night Live. It’s ironic that, as Breaking Bad’s sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, Odenkirk is now better known as a dramatic actor. A very funny, dramatic actor admittedly.
3 Julia Louis-Dreyfus (1982-85)
The future Seinfeld star was hired for SNL before she had graduated from college. Unfortunately, the 21-year-old did not adapt well to what she later described as SNL’s ‘dog-eat-dog’ atmosphere. Women cast members often have difficulty getting their ideas on the air and Dreyfus was no exception. She had a few nice bits playing Marie Osmond and Brook Shields, but generally was relegated to background roles. “I was pretty miserable,” she told ET Weekly years later.
However, she did meet her future husband Brad Hall on SNL. And she also met writer Larry David, who was having an equally miserable SNL experience. David would go on to cast her in the role of a lifetime – Elaine on Seinfeld.
2 Janeane Garofalo (1994-95)
Despite coming to SNL with an impressive resume that included The Ben Stiller Show and The Larry Sanders Show, Garofalo struggled to get beyond wife/mother/waitress parts. It was the era of Chris Farley and Adam Sandler and what Garofalo called 'an unfair boy’s club'. In a magazine article published during her one season, her dissatisfaction was clearly evident as she diplomatically compared her SNL experience to ‘hazing’. Notable SNL segments featuring her included her portrayals of Hillary Clinton, Martha Stewart and Pamela Anderson.
Garofalo lasted a mere five months before moving on to bigger success in television (She was nominated for two Emmys for her Larry Sanders role), and films (Mystery Men/The Truth About Cats and Dogs/Wonderland).
1 Conan O’Brien (1988-91)
When he hosted SNL in 2001, O’Brien ran a montage of all his appearances as a cast member. It was really just a series of background bits – generously described as ‘featured’ performances. Still, he did open the door for Tom Hanks in the classic ‘Five Timers Club’ sketch. Yet, as a SNL writer, O’Brien and fellow scribes Robert Smigel and Bob Odenkirk were dubbed the “Boiler Room Boys” for their penchant for pulling all-night writing sessions.
O’Brien’s most famous written sketch was ‘Nude Beach’, a controversial skit with host Matthew Broderick in which a group of naked guys can’t stop talking about their genitalia. The word ‘penis’ is uttered or sung 43 times in less than four minutes. The sketch reportedly received more than 46,000 complaints.