No other television show has boasted such a high degree of talent than Saturday Night Live. Many big names in comedy over the past four decades have made a name for themselves through the show. On the other end of the spectrum, many comic actors have been hired for the show and were unsuccessful at launching their careers. Honoring the middle ground in between is this list of ten who bombed on SNL before becoming great comics. The criteria is that anyone who served on the show one season or less is eligible, and the ranking was determined by how spectacularly they bombed and how well they did afterwards in the field of comedy.
10. Robert Downey, Jr. (1985-1986)
On the one hand, Robert Downey Jr. surely had enough talent to dominate Saturday Night Live should he have been allowed to continue on the program. On the other hand, his acting is of an elite caliber, and there was little indication before or after his tenure on SNL that he was ever strictly focused on a career in comedy. Whereas other castmembers were plucked from Second City and like-minded comedy clubs, Downey was grooming himself for a career on Broadway when he was hired by Lorne Michaels under pressure to beef up the revamped 1985-1986 season with big name actors (Randy Quaid and Anthony Michael Hall were also bought aboard that season). Ultimately, I decided to include him because watching him go toe-to-toe with Ben Stiller and Jack Black in Tropic Thunder showed the substantial career that could have been if he just relegated himself to being the 6th member of the Brat Pack.
9. Rob Riggle (2004-2005)
The broad-shouldered former Marine (he is an active reserve) and stand-up comic didn’t make much of an impression on his season at SNL. Thanks to his work as a reporter on The Daily Show and a number of scene-stealing film roles (Kicking and Screaming, Step Brothers, The Other Guys, Other Things Will Ferrell Made, etc.), Riggle has maintained a lot of visibility in the world of comedy since. Throughout many of his roles, Riggle brings an intense manic energy that’s become his trademark.
8. David Koechner (1995-1996)
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Koechner “bombed” on SNL. He got about as much airtime as anyone else during that transitional season of the show. More to the point, he wasn’t let go by Lorne, but rather NBC exec Don Ohlmeyer. Ohlmeyer showed how erratic he could be in SNL personnel decisions by canning Norm McDonald two years later amid strong backlash. Since then, Koechner has been a part of so many comedies in the past decade that it’s easier at this point to tell you what films he wasn’t in (um…Bridesmaids? Napoleon Dynamite, maybe?).
His frequent collaborators today (Will Ferrell, writer/director Adam McKay, and Steve Carrell) are all linked to the incoming SNL class of 1995. Carrell wasn’t a cast member (according to one of his monologues, he auditioned that year), but his wife Nancy Walls was hired for a one-season stint.
7. Janeane Garofolo (1994-1995)
Hired based on her experience on The Ben Stiller Show as a full-on cast member, Garofolo was unique in being one of the few (possibly only) cast members to complain about the show to the press while she was still on it. In an interview with New York Observer, she decried SNL as a boys’ club and said that the writing had been taken over by juvenile humor. This caused a lot of strain between her and the SNL staff which led to a pretty bad break-up before the season even ended.
Glossed over in the whole controversy was that, even though she had a hopelessly decaying relationship with the rest of the show staff, Garofolo performed fairly well with the wide variety of characters she was entrusted with. As the only Caucasian female cast member that season (the other two women that season were unproven featured player Laura Kightlinger and Ellen Cleghorne), the writing staff was also equally dependent on her for most female parts.
Today, Garofolo has let go of the notion of playing a Hollywood sweetheart and has become an acerbic socially-conscious radio host and activist with a successful stand-up career.
6. Michaela Watkins (2008-2009)
Let’s file Watkins’ future success under things I’m almost certain will come true. Watkins was hired mid-season and showed that she could be everything an SNL cast member should be in a very quick period of time. She developed a popular recurring character with a signature phrase (in this case, blogger Angie Tempura with the phrase “Bitch, Pleeze!”), proved a versatile fit for any sketch, and she proved adept at impressions (most notably Arianna Huffington and Hoda Kotb). Despite familiarizing herself to audiences at a level that takes most SNL actors two to three years to accomplish, Watkins was bafflingly let go by Lorne Michaels…for being too good. Describing the fallout after Michaels’ unpopular firing, Splitsider columnist Meg Wright wrote. “after she disappeared, SNL no longer had the perfect female middle ground between young newcomers like Slate, Pedrad, and Elliot and the established popularity of Kristen Wiig.”
5. Joan Cusack (1985-1986)
With an uneasy mix of new talent and established actors like the afore-mentioned Robert Downey Jr. (see #10), Anthony Michael Hall, and Randy Quaid, the 1985-1986 season was a bizarre hodgepodge of performers with little to no chemistry. In the end, only Dennis Miller, Jon Lovitz, and Nora Dunn survived and, with one exception, rightfully so. That one exception was Joan Cusack (John’s sister) who went on to be the first SNL actress nominated for an Oscar in 1988’s Working Girl. She also scored another nomination in 1997 for In and Out and, if you saw School of Rock, you’d get some idea how hilarious she can be.
4. Christopher Guest (1984-1985)
Through the films This is Spinal Tap*, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind, Christopher Guest pioneered a unique comedic style involving large ensembles, quirky character-based humor, improvisation, and a fake documentary format. If that reminds you of any TV shows today, that’s because Ricky Gervais was heavily influenced by it when he created The Office.
Guest joined the SNL cast with a significant bump from Spinal Tap having been released the previous summer, but he starred alongside heavyweights Martin Short and Billy Crystal and had a hard time getting his material on the air. It’s unclear just how many of Guest’s sketches (credited or uncredited) got on the air, but he’s said in interviews that he only wrote one sketch that season he was proud of: a synchronized swimming sketch that gives us a glimpse of his future comedic ambitions.
Synchronized Swimming Sketch – Technically, Rob Reiner directed this film with Guest credited as a co-writer. Considering the similarities between this film and later works, it’s hard to deny Guest’s strong influence here.
3. Sarah Silverman (1993-1994)
Sarah Silverman was hired in the 1993-1994 season as a featured cast member and writer. She has to rank pretty high in terms of wasted talent; as a writer, she only authored one sketch (a Weekend Update piece) that made it to air and, as an actress, she was barely used at all. Today she is one of the most successful comediennes on the planet, and she has carved out a distinctively edgy brand for herself as a sweet Jewish princess with a potty mouth. The Sarah Silverman Program was a cult hit, and she has had a relatively successful movie career with Jesus Is Magic.
2. Damon Wayans (1985-1986)
Frustrated with his lack of creative freedom on the show, Wayans sabotaged a sketch twelve episodes into the 1985-1986 season by going off-script (he admitted to deliberately doing this when interviewed later) and was promptly fired by Lorne Michaels before the episode was even over. Discontent with being a token minority, Wayans got on board brother Kenan Ivory’s new sketch show In Living Color, which showcased a primarily black cast and became an edgier alternative to SNL. Since then, Wayans has been a brave performer and stand-up artist, never afraid to shy away from taboos. He also helped dispel racial stereotypes in entertainment through a highly underappreciated performance in the Spike Lee film Bamboozled.
1. Ben Stiller (1989-1989)
Ben Stiller joined the cast, along with Mike Myers, as a featured player in 1989 and barely made a blip on that season’s radar. His six-week stint on the show wasn’t mentioned even once in the 565-page documentary book “Live from New York”. He later would create and star in The Ben Stiller Show, and has since created a movie empire the size of Will Ferrell’s or Steve Martin’s. I can’t say I’d enthusiastically recommend every film Stiller has ever made, but I can’t deny that he’s shown he can be versatile, talented, and most importantly, carry a movie.
Written By Orrin Konheim