SNL One-Season Performers: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Sure, Kenan Thompson is setting records for most SNL seasons ever. But there is a much larger group of cast members (nearly 60!) who were one and done, getting sketchy for a single season before being jettisoned out the emergency exit door. Some of the one-year wonders were amazing. Most of them … were not. Let’s take a look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the SNL One-Season Wonders.
The show was in trouble -- again -- after the 1983-84 season. The jolt of adrenaline provided by Eddie Murphy was gone, and without Murphy, the show decided it didn’t need Joe Piscopo either. The cast was depleted, lackluster. But Dick Ebersole thought he had a solution.
“I went to (NBC exec) Brandon (Tartikoff) and said, ‘I have an idea for next year,’” remembers Ebersole. The idea: Recruit Billy Crystal (notoriously let loose from SNL ten years earlier before he got his shot) and Martin Short. With those two on board, Ebersole was pretty sure he could talk Christopher Guest into it as well.
It was a one-time moonshot for three one-season performers -- and it killed. Some argued that they played the hits too often (Crystal’s Fernando, Short’s Ed Grimley), but no one could argue they weren’t popular. In the case of “you look mah-velous,” it was a phenomenon.
By the way, there was a fourth performer who jumped on board with the Big Three: the perpetually disgruntled Harry Shearer. It was Shearer’s second one-season stint (technically disqualifying him for this list) -- and once again, he quit mid-season in protest.
Bigger and Better Things
You don’t know the names of The Forgotten but you’ve probably heard of Jenny Slate. Joan Cusack. Sarah Silverman. Whether they headlined their own shows, landed multiple Oscar nominations, or created iconic sitcom characters, the Bigger and Better Things proved a bad fit for SNL but a sensation somewhere else.
But when you don't know that Bigger and Better is coming, it's still agonizing. “There was some time after SNL where I was like, ‘Am I in show business?’” remembers Silverman. “You just go back to zero and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I'm a comic! I can do comedy! That's my whole thing.”
Slate now sees her firing as a blessing. “It's probably shortsighted to think of one experience as your arrival at the final castle,” she says. "I think I would tell myself that there are secret doors in every experience."
Try these names on for size: Peter Aykroyd, Ann Risley, and Beth Cahill. Anything? Morwenna Banks, Michaela Watkins, and Brooks Whelan. No? How about John Milhiser, Jon Rudnitsky, or Luke Nall? It’s understandable if none of those monikers ring a bell.
These are the players, often nondescript white guys, you see at the end of the opening credits, right after Darrell Hammond intones: “And featuring …” And for many of them, they’re not on screen again until they’re standing at the back of the Studio 8H stage, waving a miserable goodbye at the end of the night. One can imagine that would suck.
Sometimes, if you’re a Bowen Yang or a Sarah Sherman, you bust out right away. Other times, if you’re like last season’s Lauren Holt, it seems like you never get a chance to shine before you’re sent on your way.
Are these performers bad? Almost certainly not -- they beat out hundreds of aspiring comics, improvisers, and sketch artists to get that featured slot. But sometimes, as with The Forgotten, SNL stardom just isn’t in the cards.
The Brat Pack
When Lorne Michaels returned to SNL, he wanted to get younger. Hipper. And that led to hiring two totally tubular, John Hughes-sanctioned stars, The Breakfast Club’s Anthony Michael Hall (only 17 years old!) and Weird Science’s Robert Downey Jr.
It …. didn’t work out. Neither actor created a hit character or even a memorable sketch. And when the guys weren’t making fart noises, they were complaining about mistreatment. "They were ******* idiots,” says Hall. “They had no idea how to write for me. They had no affection for my abilities.” (To be fair, Hall has spoken much more charitably about his experience in later years, admitting he was in over his head.)
As for Downey? It worked out OK for him.
Janeane Garafolo and Chris Elliott
Garofalo (The Ben Stiller Show, The Larry Sanders Show) and Elliott (Late Night with David Letterman) were already comedy stars by the time they got to Saturday Night Live -- which made their single seasons all the more disappointing. But it was their attitudes that earned them the Ugly.
Garofalo claims she’d been warned by former cast members not to do the show. “I had friends who were writers who had left and a couple of cast members who had left who I was friendly with who said, ‘You’re not going to like it.’”
She didn’t, calling her shortened season (she didn’t last until the finale) “the most miserable experience of my life.” And she let everyone around her know it. “What she did … was glom onto the host and just tear the show apart for the whole week, about how it’s a boys club there, and how they don’t let creativity flourish,” remembers writer Fred Wolf. “All these negative things that were just patently ridiculous.”
“Janeane and I hung out a lot that year because in a way she was in the same boat as I,” says Elliott, who also let his misery flag fly. “I seriously have no memory of it. And I think it was just such a miserable experience that I have sort of blacked out a lot of these things. That whole year I was just embarrassed.”
You could put Wayans in the Bigger and Better Things category -- if only his departure wasn’t so ugly.
Wayans was frustrated as hell at his lack of stage time. His part in a sketch called Mr. Monopoly, starring Jon Lovitz, was typical. Wayans was given the part of a cop with a single line: “Hey Larry, your lawyer is here to see you.”
Damon played it straight--literally--during dress rehearsal. But the live show was another matter. “He made his entrance in the sketch not as a cop but as his flamboyant queen gay character that he later did on In Living Color,” remembers the sketch’s writer, Andy Breckman. “He came in prancing and delivered ‘Your lawyer’s here to see you’ very swishy. He totally derailed the sketch, derailed the sketch completely. The audience was completely thrown: What’s a gay cop doing in there?”
That’s what Lorne Michaels wanted to know. The sketch-hijacking was a fireable offense -- and Lorne decided to pull the plug before the show ended.
“I’d never seen Lorne lose his cool,” says Wayans. “He had always been very logical and reasonable and we could talk about anything. But he came backstage and he was like, “Get the f*** out of here.”
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Top image: Broadway Video