Once upon a time, Saturday Night Live went through waves of wholesale changes, allowing us to divide the show into several eras.
1975-80: The original Not Ready for Prime Time Players dwindled from their 1975 debut to the end of their fifth season in 1980. Chevy Chase left after one season and change, later replaced by Bill Murray. Next out were John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, leaving the core of Murray, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner to be supplemented by the quirky duo of Al Franken and Tom Davis, later joined by Harry Shearer and some cast appearances by band member Paul Shaffer and an array of bit players.
(Coincidentally, as chronicled last week in a marvelous WaPo oral history, Radner, Shaffer, future SNL cast member Martin Short and Short’s SCTV castmates Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin had all appeared together in a 1972 production of Godspell.)
1980-84: Lorne Michaels, the man now synonymous with his show, departed after that 1979-80 season along with the entire cast. Enter a new group that couldn’t carry the torch aside from a young featured player named Eddie Murphy, though Gilbert Gottfried went on to an entertaining career. Only Murphy and Joe Piscopo survived the 1981 clearout. The cast overhauls were a little less drastic the next couple of years, and four 1982 and 1983 arrivals — including Jim Belushi and a very young Julia Louis-Dreyfuss — carried over to the next season …
1984-85: Producer Dick Ebersol, best known for his distinguished career in sports, swung for the fences in this unique season packed with established talents such as Short, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Rich Hall, Pamela Stephenson and the prodigal Harry Shearer.
Carvey/Hartman to Sandler/Farley (via Myers)
1985-86: Michaels returned in 1985 and started from scratch, building around the hot-at-the-time Anthony Michael Hall and some people who would eventually be huge — Robert Downey Jr., Randy Quaid, Damon Wayans and Dennis Miller. It sucked.
1986-95: So on top of the complete overhauls in 1980, 1981 and 1985, SNL had a near-total clean slate, keeping only Miller, Jon Lovitz and Nora Dunn. Then, just as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski saw the benefits of his job-saving class in 1986, Michaels brought in a show-saving class — Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Kevin Nealon and Victoria Jackson. Add Mike Myers (and briefly Ben Stiller) in 1989, and you have a strong case for the show’s all-time best cast.
That group evolved slowly over the next few years. Departing (in order, more or less, though some cast members returned for occasional appearances): Dunn, Lovitz, Miller, Hooks, Jackson, Carvey, Hartman. But the cast kept swelling with the additions of (among others) Chris Rock, Chris Farley, Julia Sweeney, Tim Meadows, David Spade and Adam Sandler. (Most of the others were women, and unfortunately, this was not a time in which women were developed into stars on the show.)
The loss of Hartman in 1994 nearly destroyed the show. Myers stuck around for increasingly infrequent appearances, and Michaels once again reached out to get some veterans who were, to some extent or another, already recognizable — Michael McKean, Mark McKinney, Chris Elliott, Norm Macdonald and Janeane Garofalo. Unfortunately, no one told Sandler, Spade and Farley that they weren’t in charge of the show, and they ran it into the ground. Garofalo fled after a few months of being underused, citing a sexist atmosphere.
Time for another clearout. McKinney and Macdonald stuck around along with lower-profile castmates Tim Meadows and the recently added Molly Shannon.
Ferrell to Fey
1995-2006: Enter Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, Jim Breuer and Cheri Oteri. (The same year: David Koechner and Nancy Walls, who each lasted just a year but have gone on to be fairly well-known, the latter in part because she married Steve Carell.) Then Tracy Morgan and Ana Gasteyer. Then Chris Parnell, Horatio Sanz and a young guy (erroneously reported at one time to be the first SNL cast member born after the show started) named Jimmy Fallon.
After that: Rachel Dratch and Maya Rudolph. With Tina Fey moving up to head writer and then to the Weekend Update desk, with Amy Poehler arriving shortly thereafter (and Beth McCarthy-Miller in the midst of a long tenure as director), SNL finally moved into the modern era of gender equity.
With a stable cast, Michaels moved into his current practice of bringing in new talent as featured players and then moving them into the main cast. Since Morgan and Gasteyer joined the main cast in 1996, everyone who has joined the show has first been a featured player.
Everything was running so smoothly that the 2005-06 featured player list reads like an All-Star cast in hindsight — Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis and Kristen Wiig. Wonder whatever happened to them?
But I’m putting a demarcation line here for two reasons:
- Budget cuts led to a considerably smaller cast — 12 regular cast and four featured players in 2005-06, then 11 regular and no featured in 2006-07.
- Tina Fey and Beth McCarthy-Miller left for 30 Rock. (Rachel Dratch also departed for the show but wound up making guest appearances only, while Chris Parnell was let go this year and would eventually have a 30 Rock recurring role.)
2006-present: Fortunately, the 11 who remained were fantastic. Seth Meyers had been co-head writer and, like Fey, added Update to his duties, co-hosting with Poehler. Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts produced viral videos just as “viral videos” became a mainstream thing. Colin Jost had joined the writing staff the year before.
Since then, change has been incremental aside from the 2013-14 season, when Hader, Sudeikis, Fred Armisen and Tim Robinson left, with six (6!) featured players brought in as if on a yearlong audition. Only Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney made it to the next year (I’m still bitter that Noël Wells didn’t get a second year).
After the 2018 offseason, which saw Bobby Moynihan, Vanessa Bayer and Shasheer Zamata leave, SNL has gone through a four-year period in which only four people left — one-year cast members Luke Null (2018) and Lauren Holt (2021), Leslie Jones (2019) and Bennett (2021).
A new era?
So the point of all this history is to establish one fact:
This is the biggest change for SNL since at least 2013, if not 2006, if not 1996.
Yes, if the number of departees stays the same throughout the summer, then 2014 will still hold the modern record with five people leaving, but aside from Nasim Pedrad, the entire group had only been there for a year. The 2013 graduating class had 29 years of combined experience and future Emmy winners in Hader and Sudeikis. It’ll be tough to top 2006, which not only saw five cast members depart with 32 years of combined experience but also the end of the Fey and McCarthy-Miller tenures.
But the case to be made for this year’s class is already strong. McKinnon is, believe it or not, the first SNL cast member to win an Emmy in the comedy category for her work on the show. (Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner won in the variety category, which didn’t have quite as much competition even in the days of Sonny and Cher, Tony Orlando and Dawn, the Captain and Tennille, Shields and Yarnell, etc.) Davidson was the newcomer of the bunch, and he had been there eight years.
The changes might not be done. Michael Che continues his public flirtation with a departure, which would ends what’s arguably Weekend Update’s best run. Featured players always lack job security, though cutting convincing Trump/Biden impressionist James Austin Johnson is surely not in the cards, Punkie Johnson had a strong second season, and Sarah Sherman has her fans. (I’m not one.) Melissa Villaseñor has had a frustrating time for a couple of seasons, getting squeezed off stage by an ever-expanding cast.
Still, it’s clear Michaels has been preparing for these losses. Last summer, rumors swirled around the departing quartet (along with Bennett, who did indeed leave), Che, Jost and Cecily Strong. The large cast can be a source of irritation for fans who lament the lack of air time for their favorites in a given week, but it means we’re unlikely to see a large crop of newcomers or gimmick casting akin to Billy Crystal (successful) or Anthony Michael Hall (not).
They’ve also gone without McKinnon, Bryant and Strong for several weeks at a time over the past two years. Michaels is far more accommodating than he used to be when a cast member has an opportunity outside SNL.
Let’s assume the worst. Che leaves, Jost follows him, and Strong gets a well-deserved TV/movie deal and leaves. That would leave the following:
- Kenan Thompson, 20th season (his sitcom was recently canceled)
- Mikey Day, 7th season
- Alex Moffat, 7th season
- Melissa Villaseñor, 7th season
- Heidi Gardner, 6th season
- Chris Redd, 6th season
- Ego Nwodim, 5th season
- Chloe Fineman, 4th season
- Bowen Yang, 4th season
- Andrew Dismukes, 3rd season
- Punkie Johnson, 3rd season
- Aristotle Athari, 2nd season
- James Austin Johnson, 2nd season
- Sarah Sherman, 2nd season
A smaller cast wouldn’t be a bad thing. I’m not sure I see a new Update anchor in that bunch, though Dismukes’ deadpan style might work.
In the meantime, let’s look back on the graduating class of 2022.
Not my favorite cast member, at least not when he was doing his oddball conceptual sketches. In other contexts, though, he was good to have around.
(This one has McKinnon and Bryant as well. They did this recurring premise a few times, but I picked this one for Leslie Jones’ reaction, Kenan’s line on Neil Patrick Harris and Vanessa Bayer’s “But I’M here mom!” delivery.)
A great recurring character, joined here by former SNL writer John Mulaney, who went on to such great success as a standup comic that he came back to host and write more classic SNL sketches.
One of her early characters was part of a mismatched pair of friends with a vapid Cecily Strong.
More recently, she owned the stage in the world’s most dramatic paint ad. (Mooney also makes a fun cameo.)
Where to start? Hillary Clinton? RBG? Angela Merkel?
Let’s start with Kellyanne Conway and her appropriately monstrous alter ego (along with a brief bit as Hillary).
And one of SNL’s greatest musical numbers (also featuring your L’il Baby Aidy, Cecily Strong and the underrated Noël Wells, along with a wonderful Beck Bennett bit).
Sure, we’ll close with a highlight reel. I’d forgotten about Elizabeth Warren.
Eras end. Thankfully, we get new ones.
And here’s hoping they all have productive post-SNL careers, whether it’s mainstream success or cult favorites.