Saturday Night Live has served as the jumping off point for countless comedians throughout the show's 48-year history, but just because someone doesn't make it on the show doesn't necessarily mean their career is over. Do names like Donald Glover, Jim Carrey, Aubrey Plaza, and Jennifer Coolidge sound familiar? Well, they should, as each of them became comedy superstars in the years following their failed SNL auditions. Here are some of the biggest comedians who didn’t make the cut but still found success in the entertainment industry.
Over the course of the past quarter-century, Jennifer Coolidge has had a remarkable career, with big-screen appearances in movies like American Pie, Legally Blonde, and various Christopher Guest mockumentaries. And more recently, Coolidge stole every one of her scenes on The White Lotus, a performance that won her multiple awards. But as she explained in a 2004 Los Angeles Magazine oral history on The Groundlings sketch comedy troupe, she tried out for Saturday Night Live alongside future cast members Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, and Chris Kattan in 1995 prior to her career really taking off:
As great as it would have been to see Coolidge week-in and week-out with some of the best SNL casts of all time, it’s hard to say if we would have ever been given iconic characters like Tanya McQuoid.
In addition to being one of the best standup comedians with a collection of tremendous specials, John Mulaney was also a longtime writer for Saturday Night Live. But as Mulaney explained in the SNL Stories from the Show video in April 2020, he was originally brought on to audition as a member of the cast back in August 2008. A few days after the audition, which included a spot-on Law & Order bit, the comedian received a phone call that would change his life:
Mulaney would go on to create the unforgettable Stefon character with Bill Hader, come up with some of the most absurd SNL musical numbers, and become one of the sharpest and most honest standups of his generation.
In the past decade, Tiffany Haddish has established herself as one of the biggest comedians on the planet with smash hit movies like Girls Trip, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, and the upcoming Haunted Mansion, but as the actress and Ali Wong discussed at the Tuca & Bertie premiere (via Decider) in 2019, Haddish tried out for Saturday Night Live prior to her career really taking off.
Joking about the situation, Haddish said she told SNL that she would be hosting “next time,” and that’s exactly what happened. But not only did Haddish host the sketch comedy show in November 2017, she also won a Primetime Emmy Award in 2018 for her guest spot that night.
Mindy Kaling has been a powerful force in the entertainment industry throughout the past decade-and-a-half thanks to a long list of incredible shows like The Office, The Mindy Project, and Never Have I Ever. But as the decorated comedian, actress, and writer told The Daily Beast’s The Last Laugh podcast in 2019, she was close to adding Saturday Night Live to her resume:
Though Kaling was initially excited about the opportunity, she was forced to turn down the writing gig because of her contract for The Office and an agreement she made with executive producer Greg Daniels. She would call the whole situation “life-changing.”
John Goodman has hosted Saturday Night Live more than a dozen times over the years, and is one of the most prolific members of the five-times club, but he was almost a member of the show’s cast way back when. During a 2022 appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, the Golden Globe winner opened up about his failed audition for the show in 1980:
Obviously, Goodman wasn’t too sore about the rejection, as he’s hosted the show 13 times over the years, and has made countless cameos during that same stretch of time.
Over the years, Marc Maron has gone from tenacious standup comedian to prolific podcaster with his WTF with Marc Maron podcast, and has even found a great deal of success as an actor. However, the one big what-if from his career that’s always stuck with him was his failed 1995 Saturday Night Live audition, which he has talked about time and time again on his podcast over the years.
Back in 2015, when Lorne Michaels appeared on WTF, Maron finally asked the SNL executive producer for some clarity on the situation. When Maron asked if he wasn’t a right fit for the show, Michaels explained that he was fine, it was just that the show was going through a massive transition at the time and they didn’t know how all the pieces would fit.
Similar to John Mulaney and Mindy Kaling, Kumail Nanjiani was once asked to audition for Saturday Night Live to only receive an offer to join as a member of the writing staff. But unlike Mulaney, who worked as a writer for years, and Kaling, who had to turn down the offer, the Eternals star served as a member of the writing team for one week, as he told Vulture in 2012.
Nanjiani said he tried out because “you can’t not audition for SNL,” and was offered a chance to write sketches for a few weeks, but ultimately had prior engagements that prevented him from staying longer than a single show. But like a lot of people on this list, Nanjiani would go on to host SNL in 2017.
Jack McBrayer, best known for his turn as Kenneth Parcell on 30 Rock, a show that was executive produced by none other than Lorne Michaels. But the hit comedy series wasn’t the first time McBrayer had an interaction with the SNL creator, as the actor and comedian auditioned for the sketch show years ago. During a 2014 appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers, McBrayer joked about his failed audition, saying:
McBrayer went on to cross his fingers and say “Wel, they never said no,” in reference to his tryout alongside his longtime friend. But hey, everything worked out for McBrayer in the end, even if no one called to break the bad news.
Donald Glover would become a star with his starring role in the NBC comedy Community, but the comedian, actor, writer, and musician was almost a member of a completely different show when he auditioned for a spot on Saturday Night Live in 2008. How and why Glover didn't earn a spot still baffles a lot of people, including Glover, who made a joke of his two failed auditions when he hosted SNL in 2018
But don't feel too bad for Glover as he went on to have great success on television, in movies, and even in the music industry under his Childish Gambino moniker.
Aubrey Plaza was another future star in the making when she auditioned for a spot on Saturday Night Live in 2008. After being introduced to SNL at a very early age, Plaza told the Guardian that she always wanted to be on the show and did everything she could do in order to get there, which ultimately led to her interning on the program in 2005 and the auditioning in 2008.
And though she didn't make the cut, Plaza ended up securing a gig as one of the funniest characters on Parks And Recreation, and the rest is history. In the years following her failed audition, Plaza has become one of the funniest actresses in film and television with her absurdly awkward and dark sense of humor. And she even went on to host SNL in January 2023.
It seems like so many of the SNL hopefuls from the late 2000s would later go on to find success on other NBC programming, which is also the case for Ellie Kemper. Before the future star earned the starring role on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Kemper found success as a member of The Office cast. During a 2018 appearance on Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen, Kemper revealed that even though she hasn't spoken to Lorne Michaels since her failed 2008 audition, she doesn't hold anything against him, stating:
Though she never joined the SNL cast, Kemper finally got to stand on the stage for a brief reunion with her fellow cast from The Office when Steve Carell hosted the show in November 2018.
Before he went on to star in The League and his own sketch comedy show, Kroll Show, and the Netflix animated series Big Mouth, comedian Nick Kroll was a member of the same auditioning class as his future collaborator John Mulaney back in 2008. During an interview on the Dan Patrick Show, Kroll revealed that he in fact had a memorable, yet extremely awkward interaction with Lorne Michaels, stating:
Kroll went on to say that everything worked out the way it should have because he ended up securing a role on The League the following year and became a comedy star shortly thereafter.
Although not as shocking as his Saved By The Bell audition, The Late Show host Stephen Colbert also tried to join the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1996. Colbert was part of the round of auditions that would eventually lead to Tracy Morgan getting a spot on the show. Colbert joked with Morgan about his failed audition during the former 30 Rock star's 2017 appearance on The Late Show, where Morgan revealed that he didn't remember the incident, stating:
According to Colbert, he and Morgan were both part of the same callback after the first round of auditions, but he was the odd man out. Colbert, however, would go on to briefly work on SNL, where he voiced Ace on the Ambiguously Gay Duo animated segments alongside Steve Carell. Colbert would go on to become a Daily Show correspondent before landing his own show, The Colbert Report, and then taking over for David Letterman on The Late Show in 2015.
Jim Carrey has gone on to host Saturday Night Live multiple times over the course of his career, but the Canadian comedian looked at earning a spot on the cast before he found great success in the 1980s. In a 2015 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lorne Michaels revealed that he wasn’t at Carrey’s audition, but someone who was there passed on the future star, saying they didn’t “think Lorne would like it.”
Carrey would end up getting a spot on In Living Color a decade later, and was quickly catapulted into superstardom within a few years. It’s safe to say he did okay for himself despite not making the cut for SNL.
You wouldn't think it, but Kevin Hart had probably one of the most disastrous Saturday Night Live auditions in the history of the show. Before he went on to perform sold out shows at Madison Square Garden and headlining countless hit comedy movies, Hart tried his luck at the sketch comedy show. During a 2015 appearance on Conan, Hart explained why you shouldn't do an impression of a basketball player no one knows:
Despite not making the cut for Saturday Night Live, it's safe to say Kevin Hart has had one heck of a career.
Years before he became a comedy superstar in The Hangover trilogy, Zach Galifianakis auditioned for Saturday Night Live, and got hired, but as a writer instead of a cast-member. During a 2019 episode of The Off Camera Show, Galifianakis explained that he didn't know at the time that he wouldn't actually be performing on the show, stating:
He would last a couple of weeks on the writing team before he moved on to other things. In the years following, the comedian has become a star in his own right and continues to provide laughs with his offbeat humor.
Paul Reubens is better known as the man-child Pee-wee Herman, but the world might not have ever gotten the oddball character if it weren't for the actor's failed Saturday Night Live audition in 1980. During the 2007 Sketch Fest (via SF Gate), Reubens revealed how hurt and outraged he was after being rejected, stating:
Reubens would go on to have a long career in the entertainment industry with his signature Pee-wee Herman character, as well as roles in movies like Blow, Batman Returns, and multiple others.
Before landing a gig on Friends, Lisa Kudrow auditioned for a spot on the cast of Saturday Night Live in the early 1990s, which the show's executive producer Lorne Michaels regrets rejecting all these years later, as he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015::
It’s hard to imagine what Friends would have been like with Kudrow’s Phoebe Buffay all those years.
Kenan Thompson has gone on to become the longest-running cast-member of Saturday Night Live after earning a spot on the show in 2003. Thompson's old comedy partner, Kel Mitchell, wasn't as lucky as his friend and All That co-star. Mitchell auditioned at the same time as Thompson way back when, but thanks to an awkward audition, he knew it was over as he explained during a Reddit Ask Me Anything session:
In the years following his disastrous audition, Mitchel has gone on to appear on the series Game Shakers as well as an All That reunion and Dancing With The Stars.
This final entry is quite different from the rest as Jordan Peele was offered a spot on Saturday Night Live in 2008, but he had to turn it down after Fox wouldn't release the future star of Key And Peele from his MadTV contract.
Peele told the Hollywood Reporter in a 2019 interview that the incident motivated him to not only act and perform comedy but to also start producing his own projects. Over the next 10 years, Peele started the successful sketch comedy show, Key And Peele, before becoming one of the most groundbreaking minds in the horror genre with films like Get Out, Us, and Nope.
Those are just a few of the dozens of comedians who failed to impress Lorne Michaels of senior writers of Saturday Night Live. While the long-running sketch comedy series may be a fantastic jumping off point for a comedian's career, it's clearly not the only way a talented comedian can make a name for themselves, as evidenced by so many of the successful people we mentioned above.
Those are just a few of the dozens of comedians who found success despite not joining the Saturday Night Live cast. And who knows, maybe we’ll be seeing some of them come back in the future as SNL hosts when the show makes its eventual return after suspending production due to the 2023 WGA strike.
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Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.