Saturday Night Live is like a pair of intertwined vines. There’s the sketch comedy, a mix of absurdism and commentary incited by the Not Ready for Prime Time Players that continues to make night owls laugh 40 years later. Then there’s the behind-the-scenes legacy, well documented, boiled down, and embedded in the pop culture consciousness: The ’70s were a maelstrom of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The ’80s saw producer Lorne Michaels’s departure, the potential collapse of the operation, and his eventual return, transforming the show into a star-making talent pool, both fraternal and competitive. After Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Live From New York sussed out the show’s historical mechanics, Jay Mohr shed further light on the show’s myths with his memoir, Gasping for Airtime. As he put it, “The schedule for putting together Saturday Night Live was made back in the seventies when everyone was on coke … Problem was, no one did coke [anymore] and we were expected to keep the same hours.”
Since 1975, 139 actors have strode through Saturday Night Live’s revolving door. The show launched the careers of major names like John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Eddie Murphy, Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, and Kristen Wiig. But for many, it was one chapter of a fruitful career. SNL was a job, a nightmare, a stepping-stone, a flirtatious moment with Hollywood, a stone to cut teeth, a platform that could make someone a household name without their succumbing to the pressures of A-list-dom. But not everyone went on to film fame or bigger TV success. For them, Saturday Night Live was the mountaintop, or something like it. The constantly evolving demands of the show made it a different beast for everyone involved.
To pierce SNL’s ever-strengthening history, we asked cast members from across the show’s four decades — success stories, glue guys, featured players, and others who found their voice later — for anecdotes that would best describe their personal experiences. Here, their answers in their own words.
Garrett Morris (cast member and writer, 1975–1980)
I came from an activist background. I was with a guy named LeRoi Jones who became Imamu Amiri Baraka, in his group called the Black Arts [Repertory] Theatre. We were raided on a monthly basis by the police. Our phones were bugged by the FBI. I was also, at one point, boycotted by Actors’ Equity. When I got to Saturday Night Live, I was like, “Damn, I can say almost everything I was saying with Imamu here.” A lot of it came out of the absurdist side, and I didn’t agree with a lot of it. I had the greatest respect for Michael O’Donoghue, but sometimes it went a bit far for me, even. I was like Al-Qaeda and he was like ISIS — if you knew my background, it’s ridiculous of me to say to Michael that he was too extreme. But he and I both took the opportunity to try absurd stuff that didn’t get accepted. After [Pope John Paul I] was gone, there was a whole thing about “New pope? New pope?” I had an idea for a new pope: Jesus Christ in the Bible is not described as a blond, blue-eyed Swede, which is what we do. It says he has dark skin and hair like lamb’s wool. And he was a Jew. So in my opinion, the first pope should be brown-skinned, curly haired, and a Jew. At that time, Sammy Davis Jr. was still alive. They wouldn’t do it! We could have had a weekly thing, like with the Beatles. “If you want Sammy Davis Jr. as the new pope, send in your votes!” I don’t know if it was funny, but I thought it was then.
Here’s why [it wasn’t on the show]: At that time I was stupid. I went into the producer’s office by myself to sell my ideas. You don’t do that! If you want to sell an idea to a producer, you go in with your boy or your girl who will laugh at your jokes. The politics are what they are. I’m not whining. It just happened. At that time, I was suffering from serious introversion. I didn’t recognize it at the time. I was dealing with it with drugs and stuff. I don’t blame anyone but me. When I got through the show, I’d go home, and that was it. Me and a couple girls would do nasty things at night, but, no, I didn’t have a partner. If you want to sell ideas, you need a partner.
Paul Shaffer (band member, 1975–1980, featured player, 1979–1980)
Stephen Schwartz was the composer of Godspell, and he hired me in Toronto. It was an unusual company we had in Toronto, with some of the most talented people I could imagine. We’re all still the best of friends today. Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin — all in SCTV after that — Victor Garber, who exploded after Alias. We hung out incessantly. We were obsessed with show business and how we were finally in it. All we wanted to do after the show was go to someone’s house, have a few drinks, and talk about the show. Last night’s, tomorrow’s, make comedy tapes together. I learned how to be funny from these people. I cherish this.
Before leaving Toronto, I met Howard Shore, who is a well-known composer now. He came down to do SNL. He and Lorne had done camp shows together up in Toronto. He knew I was in town doing Broadway and called me for SNL. He said it’ll be perfect, because besides doing the music I knew a lot of people in the cast. [“Howard’s All-Nurse Band”] wasn’t the way I would want to be onstage. I think Michael O’Donoghue had the perversity to have the all-nurse band. The panty hose rides up; it’s not that comfortable. I remember Gilda saying, “Paul, you look just horrible.”
Every week was different. One of the first [pieces of] special material I collaborated on was a sketch in which Carrie [Fisher] played Princess Leia dropped into a beach party movie. Billy [Murray] was playing Frankie Avalon, Gilda was Annette [Funicello] Huge Tits, and Carrie sings “I’m a Teenager From Outer Space.” It’s a lament. I wrote music to lyrics that were written by two of the female writers, Anne Beatts and Rosie Shuster. I picked a style like [the] Beach Boys, a style I knew inside and out, and it was an awful lot of fun.
[I eventually played] composer Marvin Hamlisch because he was seen a lot on television. The story is that there was Pink Lady, a pop duo from Japan. They were so big, someone at NBC thought they could have a show over here. They teamed them up with Jeff Altman and called the show Pink Lady … and Jeff. Harry Shearer said, “Instead of Jeff Altman, what if it was Carl Sagan? And what if it was called Pink Lady … and Carl?” Harry played Carl Sagan. Laraine [Newman] and Gilda played the girls of Pink Lady. And I was the guest, Marvin Hamlisch. He was popular not just for being a composer, but he was like me, I guess: He desperately wanted to be on camera, too. He fabricated a charming personality for himself, which he could flay on variety shows.
Don Novello (writer, 1977–1980, 1985–1986, featured player, 1979–1980)
I was one of the few people that had worked on other shows. People didn’t realize how great it was, because a writer could write a sketch — it could be anything — and then it’s read by the cast. No one goes over the piece. Other shows I worked on, you had copy and took it to a producer. You walk in and they pick up their pen. They’re changing peas to beans. That never happened with Lorne Michaels. Now they have a head writer. I don’t understand what that means.
[Father Guido] Sarducci I did at the end of the first season. I had done it on the Smothers Brothers comeback show in ’75 on NBC. When I worked there, there were writers always trying to get on the show. When I was hired by SNL, I made a point not to try and get in sketches, [not] to be a performer. Then I was an extra in a sketch, a hockey sketch. We were wearing roller skates. I fell and broke my hip. It was unbelievable. At the end of that season, Lorne asked me if I wanted to perform on the show. I think it was because of my broken hip. The first time I performed, I was on crutches. That was the last show of ’77. I was happy to do it.
Gary Kroeger (cast member, 1982–1985)
I was doing guerrilla comedy with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, her husband, Brad Hall, and others — Paul Barrosse, who also went to the show as a writer in ’82 — and we were just doing our thing in Chicago. We were all in some stage of graduating, and we had a theater in Chicago called the Practical Theater Company. […] We were essentially hired because Eddie Murphy’s career was skyrocketing and he was already becoming disinterested in the show. We were hired to put a little scare in him, so we were told. We were trotted in front of everyone as competition.
One show, I had eight things in and none made it to air. I am a peaceful guy. My nickname was “No Problem” Kroegs — that’s what [then-producer Dick] Ebersol called me. But I went into my dressing room, picked up a folding chair, and threw it into the wall. It unfolded into the wall as a chair. So I had a chair sculpture on my wall to remind myself that that’s how ridiculous it is. Such emotions are a detriment to living. Julia was miserable there. Julia, Mary [Gross], Robin [Duke] would cry every week because they had table scraps to work with. They weren’t regarded as talented and valuable. It was, “What can we give to Eddie? What can we give to Marty [Short]? What can we give to Billy [Crystal]?”
But I look at the stuff that I did, the fact that I got it on the air, and think, Yeah, I’m pretty good. [We played Donny and Marie Osmond] in our first show. It was Gumby’s Christmas [“Merry Christmas, Dammit!”]. The Christmas special featured Donny and Marie — Julia and I were naturally cast. We made no effort to sound like the Osmonds at all. It was just cheesy brothers and sisters singing. And then they start to make out. It got huge laughs. So we took the same premise and did it again — next time, she was pregnant. My mother is ashamed of that to this day. And I remember sitting with Brad Hall, playing two effeminate art appreciators in an Eddie Murphy sketch where he was a convict who did violent art. I remember thinking, Oh my god, Chevy Chase is about to say “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” and there are 30 million eyeballs facing us live. I remember that moment of wow. There’s nothing like that on earth.
Terry Sweeney (cast member, 1985–1986)
I’m in a dressing room at SNL in full Nancy Reagan makeup and wig wearing only a tasteful strand of pearls, struggling in vain to get a pair of panty hose from my ankles over my girdle to my waist. But the damn panty hose has other ideas. So I decide to lie on the floor and throw both of my First Lady legs in the air, in the hopes of getting Ol’ Man Gravity to give me a hand. That’s when Ron Reagan Jr., that week’s host, just happens to knock on my door, and before I can say, “Gimme a minute,” barges in, and instead of bolting from the room embarrassed, plops down, and says, “Oh, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before. I just need to run some lines, Mother.” Mother?! Ron Reagan Jr. just called me mother. This is when I should wake up. But it’s no dream. It’s real. Make that surreal.
Thank god for Nancy’s red Adolfo suit! It’s not exactly a Superman costume, but when I have it on, I feel invincible. I think it’s the old-fashioned tougher-than-a-night-in-jail girdle that the wardrobe department found me. Even a speeding bullet couldn’t pierce that thing. Al Franken (now Senator Franken) was the first one to take a look at my skinny-ass self and say, “You could be Nancy … no … you are Nancy!” And poof! Before I know it, I’m playing her opposite Madonna (as Lady Di) and working with incredible talents that I’d only just seen months before in the movies and in fan magazines: Tom Hanks, Anjelica Huston, John Lithgow, Oprah Winfrey, supermodel Jerry Hall (who introduced me to her hubby at that time, Mick Jagger), and even the legendary Francis Ford Coppola.
Kevin Nealon (featured player, 1986–1987, cast member, 1987–1995)
Seconds before I was about to perform in my first sketch on SNL (“Mr. Subliminal”), Lorne Michaels patted me on the back and said, “Are you sure this is what you want?” I didn’t have time to answer him, but the obvious answer was “Yes.” It was a great experience.
Julia Sweeney (featured player, 1990–1991, cast member, 1991–1994)
I played a snotty upper-class lady in a sketch, and Paul McCartney played my butler. Do I need to say more? We had to rehearse. We laughed together — me and Paul McCartney! That was the same episode that had the now-famous sketch with Paul McCartney and Chris Farley — Chris was an inept interviewer whose questions to Paul were along the lines of “Remember when you …” and Paul would answer, “Yeah.” Then there’d be an awkward beat. It was really funny. The punch line was “Remember when you were supposed to be dead?” Anyway, that sketch was so friggin’ hilarious. And I was standing there watching it in real time, just behind the cameras, and it was so perfect and the world was perfect and Paul McCartney was perfect and there with us, and all was grand in the world. I knew that there were going to be few moments in my life like this one. So I guess if you asked me for the quintessential great moment that encapsulates all that SNL is — tradition, megastars, brilliantly delivered concepts, the being-at-the-only-place-in-the-world-that-matters-at-that-moment sensation — that was it.
If I were going for the ego moment, I would say it was getting to do a “Pat” sketch with Harvey Keitel. We played two marooned people on a desert island. Harvey’s character doesn’t know if I’m a man or a woman and asks questions to try to find out. We kissed. It was fantastic — and on TV! I think the punch line was a voice-over by Harvey: “I have made love to Pat eight times and I still don’t know if Pat is a man or a woman.” I’m such a huge fan of his. To get to do this sketch was a dream.
Betty (Beth) Cahill (featured player and writer, 1991–1992)
SNL is a high-pressure job. The pressure is on to be funny. It’s stiff competition. You’re going up against other comics who are really funny, insanely popular, and nice to work with, but it’s hard to outdo them. Please try to outdo Chris Farley at a table read and tell me how it goes. And then let me borrow your time machine because I want to visit him and tell him how awesomely funny and kind he is, and was.
You spend Wednesday evening hoping Lorne will pick your idea for the show. If he does, you get to talk with costume, makeup, and hair people and set builders and start producing your thing. That part is really fun and creative. One week I got to do a “Weekend Update” spot as Miss South Side of Chicago about beauty tips for brides-to-be. I wrote it with one of the writers. It was a hit; everybody laughed. It felt great to hear the live audience laugh and cheer me on. A few weeks later, another writer suggested I do it again, and have that character talk about something else. I didn’t do it. I thought it would be cheating to rehash a thing I’d already done. I should have, because that’s what the show is. Duh. I wish I’d written more of my ideas out myself, instead of pitching to writers who might tend to be a bit jaded and have heard everything. And they’re trying to get their own thing on the show, too, so there’s that. When you pitch your idea and get shut down, the air goes out of your balloon. For me it does. And then I take no for an answer. Some of the most successful people I was working with would not stop pitching and never take no for an answer.
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It’s a fun job, but it’s a real job, with office politics and everything! I’d never had a “real” job in an office, so it seemed weird that there were people with agendas. But for the most part, it was great. People told me that Lorne liked me, and he was always very nice to me. I liked working for Lorne; I’m forever grateful to him for taking a chance on me.
Ellen Cleghorne (featured player, 1991–1993, cast member, 1993–1995)
I was “folded” into the cast of SNL in ’91. We New Yorkers were ecstatic to finally, after hundreds of years, have our first African American mayor. Jesse Jackson’s presidential candidacy had invigorated the black constituency; blacks who never voted before entered the political discourse by electing David Dinkins. Simultaneously, Pan-Africanism was on the rise. Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in a South African prison, and he visited New York City as a symbol of equality and justice. Black art and politics on the American social canvas was viscous and loud. Def Comedy Jam and In Living Color gave a balance to the Cosby Show brand of humor that dominated the prime-time commercial airwaves. Blackness had a strong discourse with itself for the first time, while the crack and AIDS epidemics quietly did what pandemics do.
Comics of every color made jokes about crackheads. There was very little empathy in the zeitgeist for AIDS victims and their families, either. We were all afraid, and then when Magic [Johnson] made his infamous announcement, we became literally petrified. There wasn’t a cure for the disease, and the leap from HIV-positive to full-blown AIDS was swift and inevitable. Before Magic, before I came to SNL, in the early ’80s, my brother “M” started telling me about his diminishing T-cells, asking me to take him to his doctor appointments. Of course I could see he was sick, but “terminal” — what’s that? Who knew what AIDS was back then? A few years later he died; I was four months pregnant. At M’s wake, my other brother, “R,” told us about his own diminishing T-cells. He died a few months before I was cast on SNL in ’91.
During both of their illnesses I continued to do stand-up, theater, and three films — Nora Ephron’s This Is My Life, Strictly Business starring Halle Berry, and Mr. Wrong with Ellen DeGeneres. I started reading self-help books religiously, trying to find a panacea for what I was feeling. In my opinion, as a genre, “self-help” books are porous and laughable at times. But who was I? I would go to grief counseling and they would assign readings from self-help books. They didn’t really help, and I thought it was me. At the first-week table read at SNL, the now-Senator Al Franken read his character Stuart Smalley. The character lampooned the overvaluation of the self-help genre in our literary canons through the exploits of Smalley, an overzealous unlicensed life coach/practitioner. I laughed. I fell in love — with SNL! The sketch where Smalley helps Michael Jordan raise his self-esteem is maybe one of the funniest moments in television — ever! That sketch is what SNL was all about for me, and if I could be that funny or if I was ever that funny — even just once — then I am good!
Sarah Silverman (featured player and writer, 1993–1994)
I was very much on the periphery. Got along with everyone, didn’t really make a mark of any kind. It was very man-heavy — which was all I knew. It was long before Tina Fey worked her way up and changed everything simply by being undeniable. I was 22 when I was there. I was very deniable. But it was an amazing experience — to be around people like Al Franken and Julia Sweeney and Phil Hartman and Chris Farley and see how it all works. I wasn’t good yet. Or maybe I was only just good. So I was lucky to get a peek at something so historic and that remains indelible still. Staying all night and writing Tuesdays for the table read Wednesday felt really special even then. Like you’re a part of something big and cool — something that breaks the rules, working even when the grown-ups of the world are sleeping. I liked that feeling.
Mark McKinney (apprentice writer, 1985–1986, cast member, 1995–1997)
Kids in the Hall was really bespoke. We had this marvelous situation where we could do, mostly, what we wanted. Especially after the show became a fact, after two or three seasons and we became popular. But when we took our vote to end Kids in the Hall or to do another season, I was the only one with my hand up. I really liked sketch and doing characters. I got a lot more out of it as a writer before Kids in the Hall got into development, because SNL is a big-tent show. At the end of Kids in the Hall, I was writing smaller, weirder, almost fuck-you-audience-I’m-doing-it [type of sketches]. Where you’re almost basically justifying doing Shakespeare. And then you realize you forgot to put in the funny. I probably needed to go to Second City Chicago.
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There was a character I loved that I thought, If we were on Kids, I would have done five of them by now. It was called “Taddli.” He was a daytime, Fox News–style aggressive talk show host and his show was called Taddli. But he’s not bright. I kept trying to pitch it. I wrote one where Taddli is accusing all of these people of being stoned. And Phil Hartman liked it when he was hosting, so it finally got in. But that was its one shot. I wonder if I backdoored it and called [Dave] Foley to tell Hartman [Foley’s NewsRadio costar] to like my piece. I don’t think I’m that smart. I think the one rule with SNL is that it has to be your first show. When I went there, it was me, Chris Elliott, and Janeane Garofalo. You have to be malleable to the show. So if you’re coming from doing sketch and SNL is so big, you arrive going, “What do I have to learn?” Arriving with anything but the rawest of expertise and talent puts you at a disadvantage.
Will Forte (featured player, 2002–2003, cast member, 2003–2010)
For the most part, I got to try out the nutty stuff. “The Falconer” was my fifth sketch, or my fifth show there. I was surprised they tried out that. It was a little weird. But I grew up on SNL. I knew [what we could do]. Like “Toonces the Cat.” We would just throw stuff up. To do something like that so early on was exciting. It was nutty. But then again, I’m light in that sketch. The star is the falcon. I’m the bracket around the crazy stuff the falcon does.
The table read is the ultimate decider. If you get laughs at the table read, that’s the main endorsement you need. It’s a pretty fair system. Sometimes it doesn’t always work out. You’ll have a sketch that gets a lot of laughs at the table read and it won’t get in. You’ll wonder why, but these guys have been doing this for so long, they know what’ll translate on to TV and what won’t.
The main thing is that I’d love to try it once. I put up stuff that I wouldn’t put up at table reads again. [“The Falconer”] was fun. It got a good response at the table read. On the flip side, “Spelling Bee,” one of my favorites, was one I kept putting up and they eventually let me try it on the show. “Jennjamin Franklin” would go well at the table reads. But sometimes sketches that go well at the table go well because they’re written to appeal to comedy writers. This one might have fit in that category. The first version was more … graphically sexual. We heard it was too raunchy, so we kept tinkering with it, because it got laughs. The next time, we took the raunch down […] but we also changed it around so that I was the straight man and the guest was Jennjamin Franklin. Then the next time we changed it back. If Lorne had said, “Please never put this up again,” we would respect that.
Jim Breuer (cast member, 1995–1998)
I felt sturdy when I landed my first recurring character. When you get that first character and can think, Great! This is a contract extension. That’s what “The Joe Pesci Show” was for me. I was going on my sixth episode, and I was contracted for nine. I knew I was going to get fired. I was on the chopping block. And then out of nowhere, I was hanging out in the writer’s room imitating [Pesci] and someone said, “Why don’t you do that at the ‘Update’ desk?” And another guy says, “Wait, I’ve got a sketch I’ve been wanting to do forever.” And I’ll never forget the first time reading that, watching Lorne Michaels belly laugh. When that sketch hit, I always wanted to be like Molly Shannon with her schoolgirl character. The crowd roared. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s what Pesci did.
But for me it’s the first for everything. I know people like it, but the third or fourth one, it’s like, “All right.” That’s why sketch players are amazing. Like Will Ferrell, who can do something for the fourth time and always be funny. When I started hitting a third time, the stand-up comedian in me says, “They’ve already seen it already. They’re not going to like it.” People don’t remember the first [“Joe Pesci Show”]. They remember the one where Pesci came on or when Alec Baldwin played De Niro. The real first one was Anthony Edwards playing an adult Macaulay Culkin. That first “Pesci” … I’ll never forget the way that felt.
Matt Patches (@misterpatches) is a writer and reporter in New York whose work can be seen on Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and Time Out.
Photo illustrations by Linsey Fields.