As American institutions go, Saturday Night Live is kind of like Harvard: singular in name-brand recognition, mythologized to death, and coveted by an unending stream of hungry young people looking to score a big break. It’s a launchpad for comedic stars, sure, but it’s also a destination of its own. For a young performer, getting past the pearly gates of SNL — no matter what happens next — signals an arrival of the highest order.
Or does it? Among other things, the Internet is doing strange things to the notion of the Holy Grail. SNL is no exception. Performers and audiences have access to unlimited channels of entertainment, much of which would never find a home on network television. There are more opportunities than ever for creating and distributing left-field comedy and for quickly building a brand — think Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, or Nathan for You. There are endless alternatives to SNL: Some have exposed just how limited the show can be, while others have only proven exactly how great it is and why it’s been an industry leader for decades. And legacy erodes slowly, if at all.
All of this leaves the path for young comedic performers looking a bit murkier. How does someone navigate an industry when the guiding light has been diffused? I talked to six young comics and writers about their relationships to SNL — how the show factored into their early perceptions of comedy, how they view it now, and how it influences (or doesn’t influence) the way they make career decisions.
Willy Appelman, 27, New York
Performer at the Magnet Theater, writer, video creator
Saturday Night Live is something that I think about every single day. It is so incredibly important to me, and an inspiration to me. It’s something that I want more than anything. I started comedy because Saturday Night Live made me laugh like I’ve never laughed before. It’s something that I wake up every day thinking about.
When I was younger, I remember, my parents sat me down at dinner and told me that Chris Farley died. I will never forget that. I couldn’t finish. And my dad was like, “Come on, Will. Eat.” I was so disturbed and so upset. I didn’t grow up with a religion, so I think that the people that I saw on Saturday Night Live were so funny and so cool to me that I really looked up to them like idols. That’s what I believed in growing up.
If you are the best of the best, you are on Saturday Night Live. And I’ve realized that there are so many funny people out there who will never be on Saturday Night Live. Getting on Saturday Night Live is like winning the lottery — if you’re at the right place and the right time, and you fit that perfect mold, you’ll get on. Do I feel like I’m close to getting on SNL? I don’t. But how does anybody ever know that?
Once people get on Saturday Night Live, it’s a whole new beast to conquer. The success rate coming out of SNL is so small. To succeed and get off of SNL is just as hard. You look at someone like Ilana Glazer — if she were to get on SNL, who knows if she would be able to do Broad City after that. Maybe the new path is to push your own brand and your own idea.
Growing up, whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to do, I would never say, “I want to be on Saturday Night Live,” because I feel like that was so taboo, or so obvious. Around my improv scene, and with my writing partner, we never really talk about it. I feel that secretly, deep down, everybody really, really wants it. But in my experience, people are afraid to say that.
Anna Drezen, 26, New York
Improviser at Upright Citizens Brigade, stand-up, writer, author of How May We Hate You?
I think a lot of decisions in my career have come from not wanting to be an idiot who doesn’t know anything. So with improv, it was like, I should sign up for classes at UCB. With stand-up, it was like, I should go to at least one open mic night a week for a year before I say anything.
I started taking classes at UCB eight years ago, and it’s nothing compared to now, as far as the respect [the networks] have for the performers there. And not just respect — but they know that these people are good and they know they can book jobs and make money and become stars. It’s just good business sense [for shows] to have an eye on it. And there’s industry all over the place at these shows. You can tell when somebody has [a scout] in the crowd — when there’s a taped-off seat in the front row, you’re like, yeah, OK, I know what that is.
I think SNL is the dream job that’s so dreamlike that we’re afraid to talk about. It’s the kind of thing where our aunts are like, “You’re going to be on Saturday Night Live, I can’t wait to see you!” Or coworkers say it. And we know how very few people get there that it’s hard, at least for me, to want it. It seems like a really intense job, from what I’ve heard, and kind of terrifying. But I don’t think anybody I know would say no to it.
It’s sort of like saying you want to be a princess when you grow up. I don’t think that I would aim for it, but I wouldn’t say no to it — being a princess seems pretty sweet. Or an astronaut. It seems like something a little kid would say, because it is so huge. But at the same time, there are definitely different ways to get to the top. I mean, I wrote a blog [How May We Hate You?] at my day job at a hotel that is now being optioned with Universal TV. But SNL holds that high esteem.
John Early, 26, New York
Stand-up, improviser, host of Showgasm, video creator
When I first discovered SNL, I was obsessed. I had every book about it. My dad took me to see it when I was in fifth grade. I saw Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri — I became obsessed with the women of each cast. I feel so crazily influenced by the women on that show. I watch my videos and I’m like, OK, that’s Cheri Oteri. That’s Molly Shannon. That’s Kristen Wiig.
As you become older, you start to meet people who are on the show, or you do stand-up shows with them. And it just becomes a little demystified. It becomes normal — like a career path, not the ultimate. The Internet has blown everything wide open.
Any attention that I’ve gotten so far has been completely based on creating my own material and collaborating with people outside of any sort of industry. It feels like you can do anything now, even though I don’t think everyone realizes that. No one necessarily needs SNL. I think it would be so cool — and if you get on SNL, you get this brand or stamp of approval from the industry that would probably be very, very helpful in the future.
It’s interesting to see how SNL adapts to the Internet. When people first started making all these web videos, they looked like SNL sketches. But now, SNL is starting to look like web videos. There are some episodes in the past few years that have the rhythm of Twitter, the randomness of Twitter.
It’s so cool that it’s live. Lest we forget, it is so cool that it’s live. That’s crazy. And they really do find some great people. I think they need to get loose, to get some wild fucking performers and see what happens. There’s pretty much no gay history on SNL. It’s kind of why I’d love to be on it. I think the show fucking needs a gay person.
Casey Jane Ellison, 26, Los Angeles
Stand-up comic, visual artist, host of VFiles’ Status Update
I never saw myself as a performer. I was always, I don’t do that, I’m a workhorse, I’m a behind-the-scenes kind of girl. But then I tried stand-up when I was 19, just to dare myself. At the time, I was completely immersed in the art-school scene. I’ve never taken improv classes. Now I do comedy most nights.
Of course SNL is something that I aspire to. It’s the cultural landscape of America. Of course it’s a goal. It’s weird to see yourself in something that’s bigger than life and spans generations, you know what I mean? So actually applying that idea would be really insane, but of course. Would you turn down SNL?
I love SNL because it’s like nothing else. It’s an institution. There’s no debate. It was probably influential [to my comedy] — but I’m not consciously aware. [When I was younger], I loved Chris Farley and I loved Wayne’s World and I remember knowing that it was a thing. That was something that I gave a shit about, and that, I don’t know if I saw myself in it, but I really felt like that was important, more than most things I was watching.
I think what’s so important about it is that it changes. That’s the point of it. The voice of comedy changes, and it does go through trends. That’s what’s so progressive about it. It’s really a special show in that you can see each individual performer’s evolution. Before you know it, they’re your favorite. There’s nothing like that. You can’t see so clearly someone’s development onscreen like you can with SNL.
It’s weird being a part of this generation — the formats are already there. A parody news show — you think you’re inventing something, but you were just raised in America.
Charla Lauriston, 27, New York
Stand-up, writer for Tina Fey’s forthcoming NBC sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, host of Something Cool at UCB, creator of Clench & Release
I had always interned for political offices — I interned for Charlie Rangel and the Congressional Black Caucus when I was in college. I was a staff assistant for Senator [Kirsten] Gillibrand when I first moved to New York. And later, I became an immigrant liaison, helping new immigrants in New York navigate the immigration process. I always thought I had political aspirations. But when I actually started working in politics, it was not my scene. I was always looking for ways to make friends, and someone suggested I do improv. I took a class at the Peoples Improv Theater, and that was it. I became obsessed.
I knew nothing about comedy. I saw Hannibal Buress at one of those big, free shows in New York. I knew who Hannibal Buress was before I knew who Louis C.K. was. That’s how much of a newbie I was. And then Louie C.K. led me to Bill Burr, and then to Tig Notaro, and Maria Bamford, and all these lesser-known comics.
I was born in Haiti, and I was brought up very culturally Haitian. Comedy and SNL was never a thing in my household. It was not served to me on a platter in that way, like in an American household. But the comics I look up to — like John Mulaney, who talks about watching SNL when he was a little kid — had SNL as part of their obsession when they were a kid. UCB is mostly white males — they’ve done a lot to diversify it, so it’s a great place for everybody — but I feel like SNL is this place that’s the home of like, Will Ferrell. All these amazing white male comedy figures. And of course that’s who these comics look up to, and want to be. SNL is the holy grail for most people at UCB, from what I’ve seen.
Nothing is sacred anymore — not even network television. The Internet has made that not a thing anymore. I respect SNL, and I still look to it, and I look up to the writers at SNL. But I don’t think I’ve grown up with the idea that it was sacred, that it was this thing to aspire to. There are so many other things — Comedy Central, Hulu, Netflix, YouTube. And I’m not saying those things are as good as SNL. They don’t have to be.
C.J. Toledano, 27, Los Angeles
Stand-up, writer for a Korean television network, former writer on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, long-time Chicago resident and graduate of Second City
I was always the only Asian kid in my class, and I thought, I don’t want to be known for this. So I became the class clown and decided to try stand-up in high school. I went to Chicago to do Second City at 19 or 20.
SNL was definitely in my mind then. My biggest heroes were people like Conan [O’Brien] and Tina Fey and Robert Smigel. When I was starting out and growing up, I read every interview I could get my hands on, and they always mentioned Chicago. There were people at Second City who were trying to get to SNL — you could tell, and it was gross. All of a sudden you would see the most mediocre Kristen Wiig impression. They were always like, “I gotta get these characters together in case SNL rolls around and I’m invited to do a showcase.” I was making those same mistakes a little bit, too. But some people were like, “I’m here to get SNL, and that’s it.”
Back then, it was absolutely the Holy Grail. I don’t want to sound jaded, but I don’t think it is anymore. To me, at least. I’ve worked in that building [30 Rock], and had so many friends go through that building; some of it’s worked out and some of it hasn’t. And the people it hasn’t worked out for are some of the most talented people I’ve ever met. SNL is a very specific place. You’d be lying to yourself if you said it’s not the biggest thing in comedy. It’s not my favorite, and it’s not my goal. But that’s how I view it.
I think Nathan for You is the best thing that’s happening in comedy right now. I don’t think people like Nathan Fielder end up on SNL. I think that Lorne [Michaels] wants to take some younger and more impressionable people so he can shape them himself and put them on their way through show business. Nathan Fielder knew exactly what he wanted to do. I don’t see the stuff he’s doing now ever having a place on SNL. That’s why I don’t think the funniest stuff always ends up over there.
But if an SNL producer emailed me and asked me to do a screening, I would in a second. I’d be on a plane, sweating for however many hours until I had to go up. I think that place is still very important. And I say that it’s not for everybody, but I don’t think anything can demystify that place. Anyone who says otherwise is being insecure about not getting it.
Carrie Battan (@cbattan) is a writer in New York.
Photo illustration by Linsey Fields