Single-Season ‘SNL’ Cast Members, Ranked

Robert Downey Jr.? Joan Cusack? Martin Short? Who’s #1 among the one-and-done?
Single-Season ‘SNL’ Cast Members, Ranked

If it seems like Lorne Michaels swiped left on some Saturday Night Live cast members before you even got to decide if they were dating material (which one is Luke Null again?), you’re absolutely right. A jaw-dropping 54 cast members have lasted only a single season — or less. Ranking them might seem like an impossible task since there’s a reason most of these performers didn’t stick around (i.e., it wasn’t working). But cue the Mission: Impossible theme: I’m giving it a go anyway, sorting our one-hit wonders into eight tiers within our definitive ranking.  

Tier #8: The Milk-Carton Kids

Have you seen these cast members? Because honestly, we can’t quite remember them, as they didn’t leave much of an impression on our comedy brains. And because they mostly toiled in the pre-YouTube era, there’s not much out there to jog our memories either. 

Emily Prager was a writer on the show who got promoted to a featured player for a single episode. Her sketch was cut, making her the only cast member in history to not appear while credited. I mean, what do you tell mom?

Worldwide Pants

George Coe was an original Not Ready for Prime Time Player mainly because NBC wanted an older cast member. He was only credited in the show’s first episode, though he occasionally appeared on camera that year. His name in the opening montage was his
SNL career highlight.

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Dan Vitale was a sometimes-on, mostly-off featured player in Season 11, appearing in only three episodes. The dangling necktie is pretty funny.

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Morwenna Banks got hired as a repertory player for the last four shows of Season 20, then got canned when Lorne Michaels did a clean sweep in Season 21. Still the only cast member named “Morwenna” after all these years.

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Beth Cahill was another off-and-on featured player in Season 17. She only appeared in 13 episodes, all while wearing a tiara.

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Siobhan Fallon, no relation to Jimmy, was in the same boat (and cast) as Cahill, although Fallon at least got face time in 20 shows. Together, Siobhan and Cahill make up two of the three Delta Delta Delta girls in a recurring bit that probably didn’t need to be in
SNL’s regular rotation. 

In Season 10, Billy Crystal and Martin Short were brought in along with other big-name, hilarious comedians. Pamela Stevenson wasn’t one of them. (Supposedly, she got the gig over
SCTV’s Andrea Martin. A crime!)

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Christine Ebersole is the star of this sketch that… we just can’t explain. The audience’s silence is deafening.

Tier #7: The 1980-81 Wasteland

With Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd off to the movies, a bunch of SNL writers moved into the featured cast for a few episodes in Season Five. Then when Michaels and every cast member abandoned ship, an entirely new bunch of faces showed up for the disastrous Season Six. Only Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy would see Season Seven. 

Matthew Laurence lasted half of Season Six, perhaps best remembered as Guy Behind Bill Murray in a writer sketch.

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Yvonne Hudson was the first Black female cast member, so of course, she was fired after half a season. 

Patrick Weathers had a successful music career before and after his half-season at SNL. Nice to have something to fall back on.

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Ann Risley was in the actual cast versus just being a featured player, so she had that going for her (which is nice).

Peter Aykroyd, like Jim Belushi a few seasons later, likely got the gig due to sharing a last name with a more talented brother. He showed up for the back end of Season Five, appearing in 16 episodes.

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Tom Schiller and a few players that follow here get a boost in the rankings thanks to their contributions as writers and creatives. Schiller was an
SNL writer from Season One, responsible for classic short films like La Dolce Gilda and this poignant piece depicting an elderly John Belushi as the last surviving cast member, dancing on his co-workers’ graves.

Jim Downey only appeared in nine episodes as a cast member, but wrote for the show for twenty-freaking-seven of SNL’s first 32 seasons. He left for Letterman, then came back again from 2000 to 2013. An SNL Hall of Famer, he coined Will Ferrell/George Bush’s “strategery.”

Alan Zweibel is the writer responsible for Chevy Chase’s best-ever Weekend Update joke: “The Post Office announced today that it is going to issue a stamp commemorating prostitution in the United States. It’s a 10-cent stamp, but if you want to lick it, it’s a quarter.”

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Paul Shaffer led the show’s house band for the first five seasons before briefly jumping into the cast. He was funnier on Letterman. 

Gail Matthius didn’t make a huge splash in Season Six, but at least she had a few recurring characters, including hairdresser Roweena.

Gilbert Gottfried is a great
SNL what-if story — what if the show allowed Gottfried to lean into his obnoxious comic persona instead of playing milquetoast nobodies like this? (Even here, he’s still pretty funny.)

Denny Dillon was a spitfire, small in stature but big in bluster. Season Six was a mess, but she was a lone bright spot. Unfortunately, she wasn’t always great at reading the teleprompter. 

The true breakout of Season Six wasn’t Piscopo or Murphy — it was Charles Rocket. The charismatic Rocket had real star quality, ably taking over the Weekend Update desk and charming viewers with his overly confident hubris. Unfortunately, he also made history as the First Man to Drop An Eff Bomb on Live TV, ensuring his firing at season’s end.

Tier #6: The Bloated Cast Casualties

Starting in the mid-2010s, SNL inexplicably expanded its cast size to 20 or more players (compared with the original cast’s seven). The laws governing space and time ensured that some of those 20 would rarely if ever see the stage. Were these seldom-used cast members any good? Since they never got a real shot, who knows? But they almost all had a moment.

Luke Null barely got a chance in Season 43. It’s probably a bad sign when your funniest sketch is cut for time. (Why do funny sketches get cut for time when so much ho-hum makes it to air?)

In season 41, Jon Rudnitsky was mainly relegated to background player in sketches like the hilarious Farewell, Mr. Bunting: “I sing my song for all to hear!”

Brooks Wheelan does an amusing turn as a mortified exterminator, partnering with Ed Norton to get rid of a funky smell. But it’s probably telling that Norton’s character is funnier.

Lauren Holt was charming on her infrequent Weekend Update guest shots. But on the whole, she rarely got a chance to show her stuff.

John Milhiser can at least tell the grandkids about his breakout sketch, gyrating his stage-parent crotch along with Lady Gaga at the fourth-grade talent show. Sure seems like he could have done more if given the chance.

Aristotle Athari was a head-scratching subtraction from last season’s cast, creating not one but two breakout characters despite a minimum of screen time. In addition to creating joke-telling robot Laughingtosh 3000, Athari killed it with one-of-a-kind crooner Angelo.

Tier #5: Funny Comic, Wrong Fit

Sometimes when you bring in seasoned comics (see Season 10, below), it works. Sometimes, as with these seven funny people, the fit is all wrong. 

Anthony Michael Hall told The Independent that he was “scared s***less” when he was cast on SNL. Well, yeah, he was 17 and still living at home! Even worse, he didn’t have John Hughes writing for him. 

Laura Kightlinger had more success as a sitcom writer (2 Broke Girls, Will and Grace) after seeming on the verge of breaking through in the mid-1990s. She’s not the only female cast member (Janeane Garofalo is another) to say her lousy experience was made worse by sh**-stirring Norm Macdonald.

Robert Downey Jr. was probably trying to create a hilarious recurring character when he introduced Suitcase Boy to the world. Somehow, this confrontational monologue didn’t set the world on fire. (Sorta interesting though?)

Joan Cusack was only two years away from her first Oscar nomination when she took a go on Saturday Night Live. She’s a charmer here, but the season’s less-than-stellar writing staff didn’t have what it took to make Cusack a sketch star.

Pre-nutso Randy Quaid had a pretty solid year on SNL, often playing the straight-man role that Phil Hartman would do so well just a couple of seasons later. Suffice to say, nothing Quaid did in his single season could compare to the wackiness of this:

Chris Elliott was profoundly despondent on SNL: “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.”

The delightful Janeane Garofalo may have been even more unhappy. “The prevailing comedy tastes were certainly none that I could support or get behind,” she says in the
SNL oral history Live From New York. “I did not think we were doing a quality show, and if you mentioned that, you found you were an extremely unwelcome guest.”

Tier #4: Too Young, Too Soon

Cast members in this tier were clearly talented — most of them went on to become huge comedy stars. But at this point in their burgeoning careers, they just weren’t ready for the big time. 

Laurie Metcalf is second behind only Emily Prager for the least screen time by an actual cast member, appearing in a single Weekend Update segment before getting canned. (With four Emmy awards, two Tonys and an Oscar nomination, she landed on her feet.)

Damon Wayans was furious about his lack of air time, so he took a glorified background role and turned it into a mincing, lisping scene-stealer. Michaels fired him that night. He essentially did the same character on In Living Color and became a star.

Ben Stiller quit after four episodes into Season 12, telling Howard Stern, “I knew I wasn’t good live because I would just get nervous.” So he left to focus on short films, knowing “I just couldn’t do well in that situation.”

Although Nancy Walls only lasted one season, she was solid as a supporting player with plenty of screen time. Here, she holds her own against Will Ferrell. Plus, she can always lord it over husband Steve Carell that she got cast and he didn't.

Jenny Slate pulled a Charlie Rocket, dropping an eff-bomb during a sketch (although that’s not the reason she only lasted a season). Turns out her talents were better suited to Parks and Recreation and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Sarah Silverman started her stand-up career in 1992 at the age of 22; a year later, she was on Saturday Night Live. It’s not hard to see what she would become, but at 23, maybe she wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Is Kevin Nealon underplaying here or just disinterested? 

Rob Riggle got plenty of screen time during his single season, but “I wouldn’t say it’s not dysfunctional. This is the first showbiz gig I ever got so it’s overwhelming to begin with. It’s an unbelievable pace and pressure, and I got to a point where I didn’t even know what was funny anymore by the end of the season.”  

You can see kernels of I Think You Should Leave weirdness in Tim Robinson’s single season on SNL. Given the brilliance of his Netflix show, we think he should have left, too.

David Koechner was an odd cut. His T-Bone character, among others, was an
SNL stand-out in the 1995-1996 season. At least he got to hang out with Will Ferrell, a friendship that he parlayed into hilarious turns in the Anchorman movies and Talladega Nights.

Tier #3: They Probably Deserved Better

Over the years, a number of cast members did serviceable work over the course of a season, only to find themselves in the unemployment line come summer. These funny people deserved another season to prove they belonged.

Jerry Minor is a curiosity, one of those “oh, that guy!” faces that show up on every dang sitcom. Supposedly the victim of budget constraints rather than poor performance, he only got Season 26 to show his old-school rap skillz.

From the Bitch Pleeze blogger to Hoda Kotb to Arianna Huffington, Michaela Watkins created a number of memorable characters during Season 34. What’s not to like?

According to Al Franken
, Danitra Vance was dyslexic and had trouble reading cue cards. We don’t know, she always seemed to nail it when she got the chance. SNL’s first gay (though not yet out) Black female cast member was reportedly frustrated by being stuck in stereotypical roles.

Vance’s castmate, Terry Sweeney, was in a similar boat — the first openly gay cast member and relegated to cliche parts. “I think
the writers came to think of me as just ‘the gay guy,’” he’s said. “But if it’s a regular role, let’s give it to Jon Lovitz or Randy Quaid.” The guy was pretty darn funny whenever he got the chance. 

From Lena Dunham on Girls to Gywneth Paltrow in Wes Anderson parodies,
Noël Wells showed herself to be an adept mimic. She went on to kill it as Aziz Ansari’s co-star in Master of None.

SNL doesn’t seem to know what to do with idiosyncratic voices like Mike O’Brien. The show could use more of them. Case in point:
The Jay-Z Story was a Season 39 highlight. 

Tier #2: Michael O’Donoghue

A guy this morbidly weird (and this crucial to the voice of Saturday Night Live) deserves his own category. O’Donoghue was actually listed as a cast member in the first-ever show, and indeed, he and John Belushi gave SNL its inaugural sketch. O’Donoghue’s
National Lampoon sensibility and acidic words were a huge part of making Saturday Night Live a cultural phenomenon.

Tier #1: The Ringers

The post-Lorne Michaels years were a wasteland (save for the flashes of Eddie Murphy brilliance). Producer Dick Ebersol had enough — he went to NBC chief Brandon Tartikoff with a proposal to bring in some comedy heavyweights. The recruited stars agreed to join up for a year and pretty much killed it all season long.

Rich Hall was no stranger to sketch comedy — he’d already made a name for himself on ABC’s
Fridays and HBO’s Not Necessarily The News. If you’re old enough to remember Sniglets (Hall’s made-up words for things that had no names), you’ll recall that was inexplicably a thing. Hall was a low-key, likable comedy performer who could also pull out a pretty good impression when asked.

Christopher Guest was less of a known quantity in 1985 than he is today, but savvy comedy fans knew him from National Lampoon recordings and This Is Spinal Tap. His synchronized swimming sketch with Harry Shearer and Martin Short is an all-time classic (we’re guessing music rights are why it’s hard to find on YouTube these days). He also teamed with Billy Crystal on multiple sketches about a pair of guys who can’t stop maiming themselves.

Martin Short came bounding over from SCTV, bringing a number of his most famous characters with him. (How is that even allowed?) Albino lounge singer Jackie Rogers Jr., defensive attorney Nathan Thurm and Wheel of Fortune fan Ed Grimley immigrated from Canada to 30 Rock — and they all murdered the live audience.

Few SNL cast members electrified the country like Billy Crystal did in his single season. He translated that success into City Slickers, When Harry Met Sally and a gig as America’s favorite Oscar host. For better or worse, Fernando’s “You look mah-velous” became your dumb uncle’s go-to catchphrase.
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