Top 10 Successful Comedians That Were SNL Flops

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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?).

David Koechner

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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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


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38 Comments

  1. If you like watered down and stolen skits, SNL is the show for you!

    If you like original sketch comedy that doesn’t rely on catch phrases and constant celebrity impressions, check out Monty Python’s Flying Circus,Mr. Show, Upright Citizens Brigade, The State, Reno 911, SCTV and a few others I’m probably forgetting.

    I don’t know what it is but it always seems to me like SNL was 2, 3 years behind those shows.

    • i pretty much agree except for reno 911. watching a show about a bunch of goofy-ass guys running around in their underwear trying to act like cops? i don’t think so.

      • That show was 85% improvised script…do you know how incredibly hard that is? How talented you have to be to be able to think right on the spot and interact with other characters.

        And it was only one person wearing shorts, and he was their gay lieutenant…where in discovery of him being homosexual totally backs up the fact of him wearing ridiculous shorts. And they weren’t acting like cops, they were making fun of stereotypical cops and cop shows– especially the show “Cops”

        • well i guess these hooligans weren’t very good at improvising then.

          how hard is to improvise when all you have to do is put
          on a ridiculous looking police uniform and run around acting
          like an idiot?
          how about getting up on stage and improvising witty jokes
          and humorous observations at comedy clubs? why don’t
          you try that and see how easy that is?

          i detest this show even more because of your comment.

          one way to make it better: have the “real cops” beat the
          $#!^ out of these jerks with clubs (especially the gay guy)
          arrest them and put them in jail for public disturbance and
          impersonating a police officer.

          then get to see what happens to them in maximum security
          prison. hahahahahahaha!

    • daddyostjames on

      Larry, was on “Fridays”on abc best remembered as “howdy doodys “flunky yes man, often sayin “yes.sir Mr.doody “in the 1980’s, gootimes:-)

    • Her delivery-style of her comedic persona is in fact a dead-pan delivery…so…you got the dead part right.
      And she’s one of America’s funniest and underrated comedienne’s, much like Sarah Silverman, who did all of their work themselves and tried really hard to get their foot in the door and keep it there.

      • The only funny thing Garofolo does is wear those big horn-rimmed glasses trying to look like an intellectual-Now that’s funny. The only work horse-faced Silverman does is trying to find a man but to no avail so she has to take..well..other routes,let’s say.

  2. flabbergasted on

    Please tell me i’m not the only person who noticed that the article on Christopher Guest shows not one but TWO photos of Harry Shearer labelled as Christopher. Makes you wonder if the author is writing any of this based on personal knowledge or is just getting it off wikipedia having never watched the comedians, you know, actually ON snl… As well, most of the references to Guest are actually Shearer. Way to mix them up mate.

    • You are incorrect. I created the image with the arrow pointing to Christopher Guest. That is the right person. Harry Shearer is below him to his right, beside Julia Louis-Dreyfus. And the pool photo is just a scene from the sketch we linked to. That has Harry Shearer and Martin Short. We state he wrote the sketch, not that he was in it. We have great personal knowledge of the show and are big fans. You are wrong, mate. Booyeah!

  3. johnnycanuck on

    I stopped watching SNL in the late 70’s due to the unimaginative humour that the earlier cast members clearly had..

  4. SNL was a riot in the 70’s with such as Gilda Radner,Chevy Chase and John Belushi–Trying to watch it now is like trying to dig a splinter out of your rear.

  5. I’m glad to finally see some credit for Ben Stiller. I agree that I wouldn’t recommend everything he’s done (I’d even say steer way clear of quite a few), but when he’s on things, he’s really pretty good. Thanks author dude.

  6. how about a list of ‘top 10’ comics who did well on sn l but then flopped after the left (or got fired from) the show? (ah . . . did somebody say norm macdonald??!)

    • (above comment contains misspellings because of problems with page locking up and an invisible f&@&!#g cursor – turning ME into the cursor $#&!! %&#[email protected]&#[email protected]##!)

      how about a list of ‘top 10? comics who did well on snl but then flopped after they left (or got fired from) the show? (i.e. that norm guy? lol.)

      btw – macdonald was the best ‘update’ host EVER! hands down. (sorry, chevy.)

  7. Keenan Thompson made it but these talents, all far Far FAR superior to him, flopped…. just shows you what a non comedy show SNL has been for the past 20 years.

  8. SNL completely lost it 20 years ago. The last funny piece was Tina Fey as Palin and that was all Fey. Few things remain relevant after 15 years on TV.(Lorne Michaels)

    • did you even watch SNL during those years? The Palin bit wasn’t even funny, it was just popular. The whole show was hilarious, mixed in with 1 political sketch with Fey as Palin to get some ratings.

  9. I am glad Robert Downey Jr. didn’t stay on SNL. He is a talented serious actor with a sharp. sophisticated
    sense of humor. SNL’s humor is lame, repetitive & sometimes grossly vulgar. In fact, some of it is
    actually painfully not funny.

  10. Zapatilla Loca on

    Al Franken..writter, comedian, he was good enough, he was smart enough, and gosh darn it, everyone liked him…

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