Not since the prolific 1994/1995 season (which marked an end-of-era for the show) have so many people tuned in to see the sketch comedy show’s boisterous antics. The season featured performances from the show’s historical greats, including Mike Myers, David Spade, Norm Macdonald, Molly Shannon, Adam Sandler, and Chris Farley.
There’s nothing surprising about these celebrities’ deep roots in the show, and the influence it had on their careers moving forward. One of Molly Shannon’s most well-known movies (and a cult classic) is Superstar, which is based on a character she debuted on SNL. Many others have done the same, from the likes of Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan’s A Night at the Roxbury to Mike Myers and Dana Carvey’s Wayne’s World – some of the most well-loved comedies in recent years have roots in SNL.
It’s easy to remember the stars who launched their film and television careers from their Saturday Night Live appearances, but there are a variety of stars whose humble beginnings on the show have faded in pop-culture obscurity. Here are 15 Stars You Forgot Started On Saturday Night Live.
15. Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Yes, the Seinfeld/Old Adventures of New Christine/Veep television V.I.P. got her start on Saturday Night Live. Julia Louis-Dreyfus was a cast member from 1982-1985, joining the show after a particularly rocky 1980-1981 season during the short-lived tenure of Jean Doumanian.
She parodied celebrities and newsmakers such as Annie McDowell and Linda Ellerbee, but despite her three year stint, Louis-Dreyfus wasn’t (and isn’t) well known from her time on the show. Perhaps it is due to the frantic re-hashing and re-organization of the show following its period of unpopularity, but Louis-Dreyfus herself has said that, at the time, SNL “was a very sexist environment.”
Well, she might not have won accolades for featuring in sketches like the “Big Zit” but she’s certainly gone on to do bigger and better things – like being the only actress to win an Emmy for her performance in three different shows.
14. Harry Shearer
Harry Shearer is best known for his work as co-creator and performer in This is Spinal Tap and as a voice-actor on The Simpsons (he plays Mr. Burns, Principal Skinner, Ned Flanders, and Waylon Smithers, to name just a few). He joined the cast for the 1979-1980 season as a replacement for Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi, two major players who were leaving.
Unfortunately, all the cast was replaced after that season – leading into the disaster-wreaking sixth season helmed by Doumanian – and many thought the sketch comedy show was nearing its end. Popularity picked up in the subsequent seasons, and Shearer actually re-joined the cast in 1984, right off of the success of This is Spinal Tap.
Shearer admits he was hoping to see a changed, more positive environment in the show after a five-year absence – but like Louis-Dreyfus, he cites that during this time the show was “not a real pleasant place to work.”
13. Noël Wells
Noel Wells was a featured player on Saturday Night Live during the 2013/2014 season. Despite having memorable turns as Lena Dunham and Emma Stone, her contract was not renewed after her first season.
Wells did have some moderate success prior to SNL – she was a frequent performer in College Humor Originals, but SNL was her first foray into the mainstream. However, it was post-Saturday Night Live that Wells got her break, as a voice-actor in series such as Gentleman Lobsters and Wonder Over Yonder, in additional to her role as Rachel in Master of None. She’s also gone on to write, direct and star in the film Mr. Roosevelt, released earlier this year.
Though Wells didn’t go down in SNL history for her memorable impersonations, she’s proven that – in her own right – she can absolutely nail it. She killed it as Zooey Deschanel in her popular YouTube series Hey! The Zooey Deschanel Show.
12. David Koechner
Known for his memorable supporting roles in films such as Anchorman, Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby, and for his recurring role as the foul-mouthed and unforgivably derogatory Todd Packer on The Office, it’s easy to forget that David Koechner started on Saturday Night Live during their 1995/1996 season. Still, going over Koechner’s prolific body of work in comedy, it’s a wonder that he didn’t stick around as a main player on the show.
The reason for his departure? He disagreed with the decision-making about a character of his – it was a period of upheaval and low ratings for the show, and Koechner has certainly done alright for himself making his own way. He spent the next decade leading up to Anchorman by finessing his comedy chops in a number of small television roles and film work, including a stint as Carl-the-best-friend on the CBS sitcom Still Standing.
11. Joan Cusack
Joan Cusack had a few small film roles under her belt by the time she joined Saturday Night Live for the 1985/1986 season. One of many Brat Pack era film stars to take a turn on the sketch show, she was joined by The Breakfast Club‘s Anthony Michael Hall for the 11th season – which signalled the return of producer Lorne Michaels. Cusack appeared as Jane Fonda during her time, and she was featured on the freshly re-titled Weekend Update (the sketch had a tenure as “Saturday Night News”).
Though she didn’t make a name for herself on Saturday Night Live, Cusack would go on to become a highly successful film actress, snagging two Academy Award nominations. She recently won an Emmy for her performance as Sheila Jackson in Shameless.
10. Rob Riggle
Now a staple recurring character in the popular sitcoms New Girl (as Big Schmidt) and Modern Family (as Gil Thorpe), it’s not well known that Rob Riggle actually got his small-screen start on the 2004/2005 season of Saturday Night Live.
Known for playing Larry the Cable Guy and then-CNN journalist Rick Sanchez, Riggle got his start on the show after serving 23 years in the marine reserve – all the while pursuing comedy in his free time. Good thing he did – after his time on SNL, he landed a gig as a correspondent on The Daily Show, and has been featured in films and television roles consistently ever since.
9. Jenny Slate
The dynamic Jenny Slate seems to have a hand in everything as of late – from starring in the film Obvious Child (which challenges and subverts the stigma around abortion), to voicing Bellweather in Zootopia. A particularly memorable role was her turn as Jean-Ralphio Saperstein’s twin sister Mona Lisa in Parks and Recreation, a recurring gig that spanned three seasons.
It makes sense that Slate started on Saturday Night Live, but her short term on the 2010/2011 isn’t well-remembered. She was concurrently working on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon as Jenny the Page and picked up internet buzz quickly after as the voice behind Marcel the Shell.
With all this success under her belt, and her clear chops as a comedienne, why was Slate let go? The answer is simple: she cursed on the show. Slate says the dismissal was a hit to her self-esteem, but she’s clearly picked herself up by the bootstraps – she has two more movies set for release this year.
8. Gilbert Gottfried
Probably best known to millennials as the voice behind Iago the parrot in Disney’s Aladdin, Gilbert Gottfried is renowned stand-up comedian and has a staggering list of film and television credits spanning an impression 37 year career. Gottfried’s time on Saturday Night Live was during the ill-fated 1980/1981 season – which, in addition to being critically and commercially unpopular, ran into a writers’ strike in spring 1981, cutting the season down to a measly 13 episodes.
At only 25, Gottfried was a comedian still coming into his own – his venture on the program was without his trademark squawking yowl – and he claims his sensibilities didn’t jive with the writers of the time. He wanted to save his better impressions for his own act – ultimately, a smart decision, seeing the success he achieved after his stint on the short-lived season of SNL.
7. Damon Wayans
Now a successful actor, writer, and producer, Damon Wayans had his start on SNL during the 1985/1986 season as the hopeful successor to breakout star Eddie Murphy.
Not to be confused with his brothers – Marlon and Shawn Wayans – the enterprising team behind hit movies such as White Chicks, Scary Movie, and Little Man, Damon Wayans is known largely for his role as Michael Kyle on the ABC sitcom My Wife and Kids. The show spanned four years and is still in frequent syndication.
Wayans joined SNL just as creator Lorne Michaels returned after a five-year absence – as it turns out, the two didn’t see eye-to-eye. Wayans’ reason for dismissal was his choice to play a cop character as gay, a call that Michaels was against, fearing it would appear as though he were trying to replicate the legacy left by Eddie Murphy. Wayans’ dismissal didn’t deter him, however – he still has an active and prestigious comedy career; he is currently starring in the television reboot of Lethal Weapon as Roger Murtaugh.
6. Billy Crystal
The comedy superstar has hosted the Academy Awards a whopping 9 times (surpassed only by the legendary Bob Hope – who rounds out at 19 times) – but before he reached host-extraordinaire status, Billy Crystal had a stint on the 1984/1985 season of SNL.
Now, this was not his first foray into television – Crystal played the part of Jodie Dallas on the series Soap. Saturday Night Live had the intention in the 11th season to bring in some well-established names to help boost the shows popularity – Crystal, having received moderate success beforehand, was taken in as a writer and performer.
However, it was after his time on Saturday Night Live that Crystal reached major star status, going on to memorable performances in The Princess Bride, City Slickers, Monsters Inc., and When Harry Met Sally.
5. Janeane Garofalo
Though she enjoyed minor success in programs such as The Ben Stiller Show, The Larry Saunders Show, and Reality Bites before her time on Saturday Night Live, it was afterwards that Janeane Garofalo was propelled to mainstream fame. Known now for her performances in Felicity, Wet Hot American Summer, and 24, her time on the 1994/1995 season of SNL has been all-but-forgotten.
Like many of her not-well-remembered SNL alum, Garofalo did not think highly of her time on the sketch comedy show: in fact, she described it as “the most miserable experience of my life.” She was dismally under-utilized during her season, in a time where the show was grappling to stay relevant and funny – Garofalo left the show after the lack of professionalism on set drove her over the edge.
4. The Muppets
With the release of the Jason Segel-helmed 2011 Muppets movie reboot and the (albeit short-lived) 2015 self-titled television show, these familiar puppets are back in the public eye and enjoying a renewed popularity. It’s not a well-known fact that The Muppets had their roots in the first season of Saturday Night Live – but they were not as you know them now.
The SNL puppets were dark, crotchety versions of their modern and bubbly counterparts. In fact, the Muppets were an essential part of the original platform of SNL – initially used to soften the potentially searing political and social commentary the sketch comedy promised.
Muppet creator Jim Henson was unhappy with the creative process and the effect it had on his vision for the puppets, so he left to pursue the venture his own way – premiering The Muppet Show in 1976 with Kermit the Frog as host.
3. Sarah Silverman
Sarah Silverman was hardly featured in her year on Saturday Night Live. It was the 1993/1994 season, and she was a featured player as well as a writer. Unfortunately, not a single one of the sketches she wrote ever made it on air. Silverman is very up-beat about her stint on the show, however – openly admitting she “bombed.” She spent the years following being let go from the show working on her skills as a comic, and she has enjoyed immense success in film and television.
Recently, Silverman starred as a voice-actor in Bob’s Burgers, as Helen in Masters of Sex, and as herself in the popular FX show Louie, helmed by friend and fellow comedian, Louis CK. She received has two movies set for release this year – so it looks like her short-lived SNL experience did not deter any future success for Silverman.
2. Ben Stiller
Perhaps the most multi-faceted star on our list, Ben Stiller has enjoyed huge success as an actor, director, producer and writer. Despite only having less than one season to his name on Saturday Night Live – he was a featured player for only two months in 1989 – Stiller went on to create his own Emmy-award winning sketch comedy show, The Ben Stiller Show, from 1992-1993. His tenure with SNL was met with creative differences, and his decision to go out on his own obviously paid off.
Stiller is known for his hand in blockbuster comedies such as Zoolander, Tropic Thunder, Meet the Parents and Night at the Museum. In recent years, he’s branched out into more serious roles, earning acclaim for performances in movies such as Greenberg and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
1. Robert Downey Jr.
Yes, the Iron Man himself was once a featured player on Saturday Night Live. Robert Downey Jr. was part of the 1985/1986 season, despite being only 20 years old and having little-to-no comedy experience – his sketches were not particularly memorable, and in some cases, were downright painful to watch.
Clearly, the show wasn’t a good fit, and Downey Jr. is all the better for it now – his highly successful turns in movies such as Sherlock Holmes, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Zodiac – and, of course, as Tony Stark in the Iron Man/Avengers franchise proves once and for all that a bad tenure on SNL need not poorly affect the trajectory of your career. Downey Jr. may be the worst SNL player in history, but he’s currently the world’s highest paid actor, with an $80 million salary.
Are there any other celebrities we forgot had their starts on Saturday Night Live? Let us know in the comments!
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