'Saturday Night Live': When Is It Time to Leave?
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Kenan Thompson wants to go a few more rounds.
The longest-tenured Saturday Night Live star ever is in the middle of his 19th season and doesn’t have plans to pack it in for a few more years.
“If they don't throw me out of there before, I'm trying to get to 20,” says Kenan. “And then, I don't know if it makes sense for me to leave even after that point. As long as the show keeps going and they want me to be there and I don't feel like I'm in the way of somebody else's opportunity, should I just oblige? Like, why should I ever have to leave?"
As far as ComedyNerd is concerned, Kenan can stay as long as he wants. But not everyone gets that chance.
For most SNL cast members, even the most successful ones, there comes a time when they have to decide if it’s time to move on. In a perfect world, a performer wants to make that choice before Lorne makes it for them.
(Or, if you’re Norm MacDonald, before Don Ohlmeyer comes around swinging his ax.)
By 1993, Dana Carvey had done seven years -- at the time, a historically long tenure on the show. (No one in the original cast made it past five.) As a performer, were there any challenges left?
“George Bush had run its course, “Wayne’s World,” Church Lady had all been done— basically I thought I’d done as much as I could do,” Carvey remembers. “My younger friends who were right behind me— David Spade, Chris Farley, and Adam Sandler— were bursting with energy. They’d been on the junior varsity two or three years and it just seemed like a natural time for them to take over the show.”
Of course, knowing its time to leave the show isn’t only about rational decisions. There’s an emotional component as well, especially when you spent seven years of your life on the show like Tracy Morgan. It ain’t easy.
“You were leaving your friends. It was actually sad. It was bittersweet. That was the end of an era for me,” says Morgan. But “there was no dramatic thing about telling (Lorne that he was leaving). I wasn’t shy to talk to him. I’m a man. I’m a grown man.”
So how do you know when it’s time? For Victoria Jackson, it was when she ran out of new ways to approach the show. “Lorne said I could stay as long as I want, but I was burned out,” she says. “I was just tired of trying to think of ideas. The only thing I figured out how to write was “Update Handstands.” How many different ways can you do a handstand? They had one with a flag on my butt.”
A shift in the show’s focus made Julia Sweeney feel as perhaps she was no longer a good fit. “My last year was just like one of the worst years of my life,” she says. “I think that Lorne was feeling a pressure to concentrate more on the younger talent. I think I got one sketch out of my whole fourth year. I complained.”
Lorne wasn’t forcing Sweeney out (not exactly) but it sure felt that way. So the right time to leave was immediately. “I don’t think anyone cared whether I left or I stayed,” Sweeney says. “Overall, I was over. In April, I went and told Lorne that I wanted to quit. My contract was five years, and it had only been four years. … There was no job I could imagine having to do that would have been more difficult than returning to that show the next year.”
Often the answer to “When is it time to leave SNL?” comes down to a gut feeling. Before Andy Samberg left the show in 2012, he told the New York Times, he first consulted with Kristen Wiig who had gone the year before.
“She kept saying it just feels like it’s her time,” Samberg said. “I connect with that. Something about it just feels like it’s the moment. I did so much more than I ever thought I would ever even do.”
Knowing the show will carry on into the future without you may be a comfort. And then again, it might not.
“The thing about SNL is that people leave and everybody says, ‘How is it going to go on without them?’” says Amy Poehler, who joined the cast in 2001 and left in the 2008-2009 season after the birth of her first child. “Then the show goes on and it’s such a testament to the structure that Lorne has set up and it’s also a testament to the idea that change can be good, and new, fresh, young, interesting people are always around the corner.”
Leaving Saturday Night Live is like jumping off a moving train, says Poehler. “When you’re on the train you just can’t believe how the train is going to go on without them, and you hug them and tell them how much you’ll miss them, and you wave them goodbye. And then you go back to work. When you jump off the train, you stand there and the gravel and dust kick up in your face, and you cough and you watch the train take off and you feel a mixture of, “I can’t believe I’m not on the train anymore,” and “I’m so excited for where I go next.”
But the transition to whatever comes next isn’t necessarily easy.
“Very quickly you feel incredibly old after you leave the show,” says Carvey. “You’re thirty-one, and then all of a sudden you’re forty in the blink of an eye, and then there’s a cast member who’s twenty-four, looking at you like you’re Chevy Chase or Dan Aykroyd and shaking when they talk to you. And you go, ‘But I was just the new guy a second ago.’”
Did Carvey get the timing right? Even he’s not sure. “If I’d left after five years, I’d have missed out on a lot, but if I’d stayed two more years, into nine years, I don’t think it would have been the right move for me,” he says.
“I just didn’t want to stay too long.”
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Top image: NBC/Broadway Video