During its almost four decade history, Saturday Night Live has featured more than one hundred cast members. Some have been stars, some have been bit players and more than a dozen have been both. More often than not, new hires begin at the bottom of the barrel. They fight for screen time, play thankless, laughless roles for bigger names, and if all goes well, begin slowly generating more screen time and more sketches specifically designed to showcase their talent.
It’s a slow evolution, and it’s the reason why SNL works. For the show to change, it must have new voices. For new voices to get noticed, old voices either need to be fired or willingly depart. Often, these exits are extremely sad. They make us wonder how the show could possibly go on without such an integral face, but it always does. SNL is constantly changing, even if slowly, and for as long as it’s on the air, it will continue changing, making new stars and replacing the old ones.
Both Andy Samberg and Kristen Wiig have announced they will not return to Saturday Night Live. Common sense would tell us that’s a bad thing, but the history of the show tells us it will not be. It tells us we’re about to start appreciating a few people a whole lot more and about to start experiencing a whole new brand of comedy.
What follows is a list of the 10 most important Saturday Night Live cast departures. At the time, we were sad to see each go, but their exits were ultimately what gave rise to new favorites.
What Happened After: We’ll find out.
What Happened After: Darrell Hammond picked up Phil Hartman’s impression where he left off, and a grouping of cast members shouldered the sketch-to-sketch load. Within a few years, Will Ferrell was established as the show’s biggest star, and that freedom was directly related to Hartman’s absence. Sadly, the comedian was murdered by his wife in 1998, a strange end for a man who, by all accounts, was one of the more easy-going and professional ever to work on SNL.
What Happened After: For the first time, many viewers realized Saturday Night Live was no longer above censorship. For years, the show attempted to get away with as much as possible and generally operated at least somewhat apart from network standards. Norm’s firing made it clear money is sometimes more important than comedy. Colin Quinn took over Update, and Norm was later welcomed back to do his spot-on Burt Reynolds impression.
What Happened After: Ferrell was gone for a portion of his final season in order to film Old School, and his absence helped ease the transition to a new generation of cast members just coming into their own. Fred Armisen and Will Forte both made their first appearances the following year, and Amy Poehler began turning into a star. The rest of the cast members benefitted from the increased screentime. Ferrell, of course, went on to huge success in Hollywood and has returned several times to make appearances/ host.
What Happened After: Guest and Short both decided the schedule was too much of a burden to continue. Unsure of what to do, Ebersol toyed with showing more taped material or even switching to a permanent rotation of hosts. Ultimately, the network decided to hire back Lorne Michaels, and he completely revamped the entire cast. The following year was largely a disaster save Jon Lovitz and Dennis Miller, but the show eventually found its legs again. Guest, Crystal and Short all became even more famous. How much their one-year stints on SNL played a role can’t possibly be known since each had found some success prior.
What Happened After: Seth Meyers took over for Tina Fey both as head writer and Weekend Update host. Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis and Kristen Wiig were all promoted to full cast members, and the show actually improved its ratings. Fey later made regular guest appearances as Sarah Palin, and she went on to create the award-winning 30 Rock. Because she never appeared in an overwhelming majority of sketches, the show didn’t hire any new performers, and the transition was relatively smooth.
What Happened After: Lorne Michaels promoted most of the writing staff to fulltime cast members, and nearly everyone involved got burned out, both from doing it for five seasons and from trying to replace Belushi and Aykroyd. Longtime writer and current US Senator Al Franken was originally pitched as the future producer and showrunner, but he blew his opportunity by tearing network head Fred Silverman to shreds during one of the greatest and most mean-spirited Weekend Update sketches of all-time. Eventually, everyone quit, and NBC continued on with totally new personnel.
What Happened After: Both Farley and Sandler were fired in 1995. The former tragically died a few years after starring in a few movies, and the latter became one of the biggest names in Hollywood. Only five cast members returned the following season, and both Will Ferrell and Darrell Hammond emerged as wonderful replacements. The humor began skewing a bit more toward the political, and the vibe became far more grown up. Farley and Sandler’s so-stupid-it’s-funny moments were definitely missed, but their shadow no longer was seen in most sketches.
What Happened After: Murphy left midway through the ’83-84 season, leaving doubts as to whether the show could possibly continue. Ultimately, Ebersol decided to hire ringers like Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest and Martin Short, which reinvigorated the slumping brand for one season. The humor became perhaps a bit less edgy, but it still worked and drew a large audience. Murphy improved on his already A-list status almost immediately and churned out box office hits for years.
What Happened After: For the first time in Saturday Night Live’s history, it picked up the pieces and moved on. Bill Murray was hired as a replacement, and after some initial hostility from fans, he too became a huge star. Belushi and Aykroyd took on larger roles, and the women began to break out in big ways. Within a few episodes, SNL was just as good as ever, and the formula for future success was written. With departure comes opportunity, and by God, the other cast members took it.