Saturday Night Live has long been a platform for great actors to get their name out there, and some of the most successful comedians of the modern age have had their start at this behemoth of comedy. To land an enduring spot on SNL, a comedian simply needs to prove him or herself better and more popular than the rest.
Of course, many actors and actresses who have gone on to great success after their time on SNL didn’t even do so well on the show, but simply benefited from the exposure they obtained during their short time at the helm.
Other stars, like Chris Farley and John Belushi, had their heyday with SNL, and became staples of the production. Perhaps many won’t deem the following twenty alumni the funniest or even the most memorable actors ever to take up a starring role on SNL, but they’ve certainly had some of the most successful careers spawned from the show’s long and lucrative run.
20. Dennis Miller – $20 million
Dennis Miller was discovered by Lorne Michaels at The Comedy Store in LA in 1985. He became a cast member of SNL and succeeded Christopher Guest as the anchor of Weekend Update – a position that he would become famous for.
Miller left SNL in 1991, and his stand-up career took off from there. Miller would go on to become a commentator on ABC’s Monday Night Football in 2000, and has landed numerous guest appearances on shows such as The Daily Show, Hannity & Colmes, The O’Reilly Factor, and more.
19. Martin Short – $25 million
Canadian-American actor Martin Short joined SNL in 1984. He helped revive the show during its 10th season after Eddie Murphy departed. His popular SNL characters were the crazy Wheel of Fortune fan Ed Grimley, and he also did memorable impressions of such celebrities as Katharine Hepburn and Jerry Lewis.
Before his work on SNL, Short became famous after appearing on Second City Television, or SCTV, a Canadian comedy show from which a number of SNL stars once graduated. After his SNL stint, Short acted in films such as Three Amigos, Innerspace, Mars Attacks!, and Father of the Bride.
18. Jimmy Fallon – $25 million
Before taking over Jay Leno’s late night television show as host of The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon was a well-known and very well-loved actor on SNL. He played on the show for six years, from 1998 to 2004, and was one of SNL’s most popular actors.
His impressions helped him land a featured spot on SNL during the 1998 to 1999 season, and afterwards he was promoted to full cast member. He was the co-anchor of Weekend Update with Tina Fey during the 2000 season, and 11 years later he hosted SNL and won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.
He had many memorable recurring characters on SNL, such as Barry Gibb, in a skit called “The Barry Gibb Talk Show,” which was hosted along with Justin Timberlake, Carson Daly, and more. Since his days on SNL, Fallon has become one of the more successful late-night talk show hosts of the 21st century.
17. Dana Carvey – $28 million
Dana Carvey joined SNL in 1986, and helped turn around the show’s declining popularity with his breakout character, The Church Lady. He became so associated with the character that other members, such as Chris Farley, would refer to him simply as “The Lady.”
His other original characters included Garth Algar, which would become the sidekick character in Wayne’s World, and Hans, from “Hans and Franz.” Carvey was also known for his impersonations of George H. W. Bush, as well as over 80 other celebrities. He left SNL in 1993, but continued to act in films such as Little Nicky and The Master of Disguise.
16. Damon Wayans – $35 million
Although Damon Wayans is best known for his sketch comedy series, In Living Color, which aired from 1990 to 1992, he also had a year-long stint as a cast member of SNL. His first film appearance was a cameo in Eddie Murphy’s 1984 film Beverly Hills Cop, and from 1985 – 1986 he was a featured performer on SNL.
He was fired after playing a character of a police officer as flamboyantly camp rather than straight-laced, which went against the script.
After In Living Color, Wayans starred in films such as Major Payne, The Last Boy Scout, and The Great White Hype. During the 2000s, he starred in several comedy series and as of 2014 he continues to perform stand-up comedy, as well as developing apps with his freelance company “MIMS” (money in my sleep). He’s now best known for his roles on TV comedy favourites Happy Endings and New Girl.
15. Billy Crystal – $35 million
Billy Crystal’s first prominent role came as the character of Jodie Dallas on Soap, one of the first unambiguously homosexual characters in American TV. Afterwards, he was a cast member and writer for SNL from 1984 to 1985. Though his time was short-lived during SNL‘s 10th season, he made quite an impression with his impersonations of Prince and Fernando Lamas.
Two years later, Crystal starred in The Princess Bride, which helped him kickstart a successful movie career in modern classics like When Harry Met Sally, Mr. Saturday Night, City Slickers, and Analyze This. He also provided the voice of Mike Wazowski in the Monsters, Inc. franchise, and hosted the Academy Awards nine times.
14. David Spade – $40 million
David Spade was one of the most popular cast members on SNL during the 1990s. He joined the show in 1990 alongside his friend and fellow comedian Dennis Miller, and he became known for his smart-aleck, sarcastic characters, such as the snarky flight attendant for “Total Bas*ard Airlines,” and the sarcastic “Hollywood Minute” reporter who communicated by means of one-liners.
When most of the cast left in 1995, he stayed on for another year to help transition the new cast. After his SNL career, he began a successful film career, starring in such films as Tommy Boy, and Black Sheep (both alongside SNL alum Chris Farley). He joined an ensemble cast for the office sitcom Just Shoot Me!, from 1997 to 2003, and then took the lead in the 2001 film Joe Dirt. He also hosted his own show on Comedy Central titled The Showbiz Show with David Spade, from 2005 to 2007.
13. Tina Fey – $45 million
Tina Fey was one of the most recognizable woman on SNL from 1998 to 2006, helping cement the success of women on the show. She would go on to create and star in the hugely successful TV show 30 Rock, from 2006 to 2013, and to star in films such as Mean Girls, Baby Mama, and Date Night.
She is one of the most successful women in television, earning eight Emmy Awards, two Golden Globes, five Screen Actors Guild Awards, and more. She’s also been nominated for a Grammy for her autobiographical book Bossypants.
On SNL, she was first a writer, then head writer and performer, best known for her position as co-anchor of Weekend Update, and for her portrayal of Republican vice president candidate Sarah Palin. She hosted the 70th Golden Globe Awards alongside long-time friend and SNL star Amy Poehler, which the duo reprised for the 71th edition of the show and generated the highest ratings for the ceremony in a decade.
12. Chevy Chase – $50 million
Chevy Chase was one of the original cast members of SNL, and the person most frequently to introduce the opening sequence with, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” He left after just one year, but has guest-starred and hosted multiple times since. His Weekend Update skit has become a staple of the show.
After SNL, Chase starred as Clark Griswold in four National Lampoon’s Vacation films, as well as playing roles in Caddyshack, Foul Play, and more. He hosted the Academy Awards twice (1987 and 1988), and briefly had his own late-night talk show, The Chevy Chase Show. In 2009 he became a regular member on the NBC comedy series Community.
11. Chris Rock – $70 million
Chris Rock is known as one of the most popular stand-up comedians of all time. He was voted the fifth-greatest stand-up comic by Comedy Central, and the ninth-greatest by UK’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups. Before coming to wide prominence for his movies and acclaimed comedy specials for HBO, he was an SNL cast member in the early 1990s.
Rock – alongside other new cast members Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, and David Spade – became known as the Bad Boys of SNL. He left SNL in 1993, frustrated, and joined as a special guest of the predominantly African-American sketch show In Living Color. Since then, he’s had a hugely successful stand-up and movie career.
10. Will Ferrell – $80 million
Will Ferrell has been repeatedly named the funniest SNL cast member of all time. From 1995 to 2002 he was the face of the show, known for his impersonations of George W. Bush, Alex Trebek, Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton, professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, and as the “needs more cowbell” guy.
In 2001, Ferrell became the highest-paid cast member of SNL with a season salary of $350,000. Since then, he has had a wildly successful film career, starring and producing movies such as Old School, Elf, Anchorman, Talladega Nights, A Night at the Roxbury (alongside fellow SNL alum Chris Kattan), Superstar, the Austin Powers saga, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Zoolander, and more. His movies have grossed $1.9 billion, making his box office stats the 6th highest of any SNL member.
9. Eddie Murphy – $85 million
Eddie Murphy was one of the regular cast members on SNL from 1980 to 1984, and his movies are the #1 all-time highest grossing for cast members of SNL, scoring $3.8 billion at the US box office. Box-office takes from Murphy’s films make him the 4th-highest grossing actor in the United States. On SNL, he helped revitalize the series during the early 1980s.
He is also one of the most famous and popular stand-up comics of all time. He received Golden Globe nominations for his performances in the films 48 Hrs., the Beverly Hills Cop series, Trading Places, and The Nutty Professor. Murphy is also famous for his voice-acting work as Donkey in the Shrek series, and as the Chinese dragon Mushu in Disney’s Mulan. He has played multiple roles in Coming to America (almost all of the roles, actually), Vampire in Brooklyn, and many more.
8. Steve Martin – $110 million
Steve Martin rose to prominence as a writer for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (late 1960s), as a frequent guest on The Tonight Show, and in the mid-1970s as a frequent SNL guest. SNL’s audience jumped by a million viewers when he made guest appearances, making him one of the most successful hosts.
Martin has appeared on 27 SNL shows and guest-hosted 15 times. While SNL didn’t make him famous, per se, it helped cement him as one of the preeminent comics of his time. On the show, he popularized the air quotes gesture, and became close with several cast members. His comedy albums have gone platinum, and he’s had a very successful movie and music career.
7. Ben Stiller – $120 million
After a one-line part in a TV soap opera, Ben Stiller was cast in a role in the 1986 Broadway revival of The House of Blue Leaves. The production would garner four Tony awards, and Stiller produced a satirical mockumentary of the show’s lead actor, John Mahoney.
The short film caught the attention of SNL, who signed him on as a writer, and in 1989 Stiller appeared as a writer and featured performer. He left after four episodes, but continued on to have a hugely successful career in film, both as a director and actor.
Stiller put aside his directing ambitions in 1998 and starred in the surprise hit There’s Something About Mary, and from then on he appeared in many more comedies and dramas, such as Meet the Parents, Zoolander, and The Royal Tenenbaums.
6. Dan Aykroyd – $135 million
Dan Aykroyd was the youngest member and writer of SNL’s cast for its first four seasons, from 1975 to 1979. He brought a unique sense of youth, talent, and intensity to the show, and he was known for his impersonations of celebrities like Vincent Price, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, and Rod Serling. He was also known for his recurring roles, such as the father of the Coneheads family, Beldar, and one of the brothers of the “Two Wild and Crazy Guys,” alongside Steve Martin. He received an Emmy Award for writing on SNL in 1977.
Aykroyd was a good friend of fellow star John Belushi, and the two would go on to create The Blues Brothers. Aykroyd would also star in Ghostbusters, and would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1991 for Driving Miss Daisy.
5. Bill Murray – $140 million
Bill Murray is one of the most lovable and classic entertainers in the industry today. He is altogether straight-faced, somber, hilarious, and zany. He’s known for his movies Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Lost in Translation, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Moonrise Kingdom, but before all of that, he was one of the most popular cast members on SNL.
Murray joined SNL in 1976 for its second season, after the departure of Chevy Chase. He stayed with the show from 1977 until 1980, and from there he has had a hugely successful movie career. He was also the first guest on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman on February 1, 1982.
4. Mike Myers – $175 million
Mike Myers first acted in a commercial at the age of two, and then again at the age of 10 with Gilda Radner playing his mother. He was immediately accepted into the Second City Canadian Touring Company after graduating high school in 1982.
He first appeared as Wayne Campbell (Wayne’s World star) in the early 1980s, and became a featured performer on SNL from 1989 to 1995. Following his success on the show, Myers went on to play the title roles in Wayne’s World, the Austin Powers movies, and as the lead role in the Shrek films.
3. Robert Downey Jr. – $190 million
Most of the actors on this list had a very successful career on SNL before creating their fortunes elsewhere – whether that be music, film, or TV. Robert Downey Jr. is the exception. He had a dismal one-year stint on SNL in 1985, after which poor ratings and criticism caused most of the crew to be replaced. That same year, Downey had breakthrough roles playing James Spader’s sidekick in Tuff Turf, and then a bully in Weird Science.
RDJ would go on to have success during the early nineties, until drug-related charges almost derailed his career from 1996 through 2001. As we all know, he bounced back, first with the film The Singing Detective, and then Gothika, and then a string of successful films. During and after 2008, with Tropic Thunder and the Iron Man franchise under his belt, Downey had reached critical acclaim and serious commercial success once again.
2. Julia Louis-Dreyfus – $200 million
While Julia Louis-Dreyfus is best known as Elaine Benes from Seinfeld, she was also the youngest actress of all time to be cast on SNL (at the time she was 21; she’s now the second-youngest, after Abby Elliott). She performed on the show from 1982 to 1985.
During her time on the show she met writer Larry David, who would later co-create Seinfeld and help garner Louis-Dreyfus’ millions. For her role in Seinfeld she has been credited as one of the most nominated actresses in the history of the Emmy Awards, being nominated 18 times and winning five. Julia Louis-Dreyfus remains one of the most successful women in show-business
1. Adam Sandler – $300 million
Stand-up comic Adam Sandler was discovered by Dennis Miller at a comedy club in LA, and Miller then recommended Sandler to Lorne Michaels. Sandler was hired as a writer for SNL in 1990, and became a featured performer the following year. He made a name for himself by performing hilarious, original songs, such as “The Thanksgiving Song,” and “The Chanukah Song.” He and Chris Farley were fired from the show in 1995.
Adam Sandler went on to become one of the most highly paid, successful comic-actors in Hollywood. His movies have grossed over $2.4 billion, making him the most successful SNL alum in terms of box office figures, behind Eddie Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., and Ben Stiller. His movies include Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, Big Daddy, Mr. Deeds, Funny People, and more. His production company, Happy Madison Productions, has helped him become the richest alum of SNL of all time.
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