11 ‘SNL’ Cast Members Who Were Famous Before ‘SNL’

Lorne Michaels does better when he sticks to unknowns
11 ‘SNL’ Cast Members Who Were Famous Before ‘SNL’

When Saturday Night Live made its debut in 1975, its ensemble cast was made up completely of unknowns. That would be the blueprint for much of the show’s nearly 50-year history, sketches populated with talented non-celebs with stand-up or improvisational comedy backgrounds who went on to become stars. 163 mostly unknown cast members have made their way to the 30 Rock stage, but a handful of those comics arrived with their funny reputations already intact. 

Here are 11 SNL alums who were already famous before they got the call from Lorne Michaels…

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Martin Short

The 10th season of Saturday Night Live stands out for Dick Ebersol’s unique casting decision to bring in veteran comedy ringers. Chief among them was Martin Short, a comic actor primarily known for killing it on SNL rival SCTV. Short transplanted SCTV characters like Ed Grimley into the SNL universe, as well as introduced new favorites like defensive attorney Nathan Thurm. 

Billy Crystal

Short’s co-star that season was Billy Crystal, a comic who was slated to be a semi-regular on the original Saturday Night Live. When Crystal’s bit was cut from the very first SNL episode, he left dejected. Season 10 was a triumphant return, as well as a kick-starter to a movie career that includes When Harry Met Sally and City Slickers.

Christopher Guest

Because Christopher Guest tended to disappear into characters, audiences might not have recognized him as Nigel Tufnel from the previous year’s This is Spinal Tap. He’d go on to direct Waiting for Guffman and Best In Show, cementing his status as comedy royalty.

Michael McKean

Speaking of Spinal Tap, Tufnel’s musical brother David St. Hubbins also showed up in the SNL cast, although he didn’t arrive as a ful-fledged cast member until Season 19. Michael McKean was possibly better known to TV audiences as one half of Lenny and Squiggy, the idiot neighbors on 1970s hit sitcom Laverne and Shirley.

Joan Cusack

While Season 10’s all-star strategy brought the show back to life, Michael’s attempt to do the same in Season 11 failed miserably. Cusack was still a few years away from becoming an Oscar-nominated star, but she had a number of teen comedies under her belt before Saturday Night Live, including Class, Grandview USA and Sixteen Candles

Robert Downey Jr.

Downey had established his comedy bona fides in big-screen comedies like Weird Science and Back to School, but he never found his groove in Season 11. Casting Downey “wasn’t a terrible idea,” said manager Bernie Brillstein, “but it wasn’t a good idea either, in retrospect.”

Anthony Michael Hall

More Season 11 misery, this time with Hall hot off the success of John Hughes films like National Lampoon’s Vacation, Sixteen Candles and Breakfast Club. Dude was a genuine movie star but that Hughes magic didn’t translate to late-night sketch comedy.

Randy Quaid

Season 11 madness continues with Quaid, post-Vacation and Cameron Crowe’s The Wild Life but pre-Going Off the Deep End. He spent much of that year playing straight man to goofs like Jon Lovitz.

Janeane Garofalo

By the 1994-95 season, Garofalo was already A Thing after her turn as Vickie in Ben Stiller’s Gen X touchstone Reality Bites. She was so miserable she didn’t last a single season. “The season that I was on it, the system was geared toward failure,” she says. “The prevailing comedy tastes were certainly none that I could support or get behind. I did not think we were doing a quality show.”

Chris Elliott

The aggressive anti-comedy of Chris Elliott made him a star on the original David Letterman program, but his quirky vibe proved a poor fit for SNL. “My kids watch reruns on Comedy Central, and they’ll come to me and say, ‘I just saw you half-naked doing this thing where you’re walking into an alien spaceship and you’re supposed to be naked,” he says. “And I’m thinking, ‘Fuck, did I ever do that?’” 

Kenan Thompson

Thompson seemingly came out of the womb performing sketch comedy. First on Nickelodeon’s All That and his own spin-off Kenan and Kel, an entire generation who grew up on Mighty Ducks movies knew about Thompson’s comic prowess before all the older folks caught on. And now that he’s on SNL, it’s pretty clear that he’s never going to leave. 

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