''SNL'' is looking for laughs from four promising new performers. But they've got big shoes (and small hands) to fill.

By Tim Stack
Updated October 19, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

Lorne Michaels knows what you were thinking: How could Saturday Night Live survive without Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg? Whenever high-profile cast members depart, ”there’s a tremendous feeling of loss, like, ‘What will you do?’ and ‘It will never be the same,”’ the SNL creator, who has been with the show for 38 seasons, tells EW. ”Then the sun comes up.” To fill the void, NBC’s venerable sketch-comedy show found four new featured cast members — Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, Tim Robinson, and Kate McKinnon (who was actually brought on toward the end of last season). ”The one thing you can’t do is try to replace Kristen Wiig with Kristen Wiig,” says the producer. ”Chevy Chase was followed by Bill Murray, and that worked well. It’s hard enough to make your mark without being compared to the person you are ‘replacing.”’ After four episodes, the average ratings this season have dipped slightly to 5.8 million from 6.3 million this time last year. (Without Sarah Palin to mock, SNL‘s prime-time political specials have averaged a ho-hum 4.9 million.) Michaels thinks the transition was relatively seamless because of Wiig’s emotional send-off in the May 19 season finale. He explains, ”There was a sense of completion, [so we didn’t] end on any kind of unresolved note.” The new cast members — particularly McKinnon, who has already done much-talked-about impersonations of Ann Romney, Long Island Medium star Theresa Caputo, and Cecilia Gimenez (the woman who disastrously ”restored” a 19th-century fresco of Jesus) — are starting to win fans. ”What’s interesting is how fast an audience takes to people,” says Michaels. ”It doesn’t take long. When it works, we hear it.”

Meet the New Stars

Cecily Strong
Age 27
First Starring Role ”Our school put Hitler on trial in sixth grade,” says Strong, who grew up in Oak Park, Ill. ”I was the prosecution. A tough job.”
Her Audition ”I did Elizabeth Dole,” Strong remembers. ”She was being heckled about her husband’s erectile dysfunction. And she [fired back], ‘Well, your d—don’t work!”’

Tumblr Love Strong hasn’t been recognized in public, but she’s gotten online attention. ”My friend was like, ‘You showed up on my queer Tumblr!’ Done! Then I’ve made it. There’s nothing greater for me.”

Aidy Bryant
Age 25
Paying Her Dues ”I did a brief, awkward [stint] working at a barbershop sweeping up hair. It was sad.”
Fan Encounter Bryant has already been recognized…sort of. ”This lady was like, ‘Amy — Amy Bryant!’ And I was like, ‘It’s Aidy.”’

Job Perks The actress played a potential voter accidentally spit on by Jason Sudeikis’ Mitt Romney. ”That was the first moment that I was like, ‘This is the coolest,”’ says Bryant. ”I knew Jason a little bit from Second City, so that made it even better. My friend spit on me on TV!”

Kate McKinnon
Age 28
Close Encounter McKinnon does a bang-up impersonation of Bravo’s Tabatha Coffey — and the two nearly had a run-in recently at an L.A. restaurant. ”I was 10 minutes late, and I walked in and a person said, ‘She was just here.’ It would have been perfect.”
Breakout Impersonation A vet of Logo’s The Big Gay Sketch Show, she also does a spot-on Ann Romney. ”The key is that she is actually a fun girl. I watched a bunch of videos. You can tell she has a sense of humor.”

Her SNL Debut

”If you’re a sketch comedian, it’s like the dream…. Yeah, I cried.”

Tim Robinson
Age 31
His Audition ”The only impersonation I did in my first audition was ALF.”
Meeting Lorne Michaels ”Very intimidating. He’s an icon…. Just meeting him and him knowing your name is like, ‘Okay, I’m all right. That’ll make me feel good for a while.”’

SNL Keepsake In the Sept. 22 episode, he played a Realtor whose ads had been crudely defaced. Robinson decided to keep one as a memento: ”I have [a poster] in my dressing room with a butt crapping on me.”