'Saturday Night Live': 20 greatest one-season wonders
Saturday Night Live, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this weekend, is known as one of comedy’s preeminent talent breeding grounds—at least for now. But having a season-long stint on the show doesn’t necessarily signify the end, or even the beginning, of one’s career.
Plenty of notable names have passed briefly through Studio 8H—50 in total. Some were there during the show’s transitional years, when whoever was running things at the time (it wasn’t always Lorne Michaels) thought it would be a good idea to shake up the series by bringing in established talent; some simply weren’t good fits for the show.
Here, we rank the post-SNL careers of the 20 most notable one season-only castmembers.
20. Randy Quaid (1985-1986)
Before SNL: Quaid, Dennis Quaid’s older brother, was a well-known and well-liked actor who got an Oscar nomination in 1973 for his performance in The Last Detail.
After SNL: He nabbed a Golden Globe in 1987 for playing the president in LBJ: The Early Years, but things have gone downhill for him since: The National Lampoon’s Vacation actor recently had his wife wear a Rupert Murdoch mask before appearing to have sex with her from behind—then uploaded the video to the internet as a “f— you” to the studios and people he claims have taken his money over the years. —Ariana Bacle
19. Anthony Michael Hall (1985-1986)
Before: For a couple years in the mid-‘80s, Anthony Michael Hall was John Hughes’ go-to geek: There he was in 1984’s Sixteen Candles, and 1985’s The Breakfast Club, and again in 1985’s Weird Science. Then Lorne Michaels returned to the show after a five-year hiatus, and brought on Hall—along with a strange mix of a cast including Robert Downey, Jr., Joan Cusack, and Randy Quaid. The season wasn’t a hit: Hall himself, who became the show’s youngest cast member, calls it “one of the most forgettable seasons of the show’s history” in James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’sLive From New York.
After: The then-teenage actor went on to more dramatic projects, including 1990’s Edward Sacissorhands and 1999’s Pirates of Silicon Valley. More recently, he’s had supporting roles on MTV’s Awkward and in the Oscar-nominated Foxcatcher. —AB
18. Mike O’Brien (2013-2014)
Before: O’Brien started out as a writer for the show and made the switch to cast member after a few years on staff—and after already establishing a fanbase with “7 Minutes in Heaven,” a web series that featured O’Brien interviewing people like Andy Samberg and Seth Meyers in a closet. During his time as a cast member (and even his days just as a writer), O’Brien found fans thanks to his odd, sweet style. As Mike Ryan wrote at Screencrush, “what makes O’Brien’s humor fascinating is that he can somehow combine funny, weird and sincerity into one discombobulated organism … and somehow it works.”
After: He continues to write for SNL and even made an appearance a few weeks ago to play a very white, very awkward Jay Z. Even though his career is still very much in the works, he’s worth watching out for. —AB
17. Chris Elliott (1994-1995)
Before: Before coming to SNL, Chris Elliott was not only was a writer for Late Night with David Letterman (who also appeared on the show), but also the star of his own TV show, Get a Life. He also played cameraman Larry in Groundhog Day. Elliott had a disappointing time at SNL. “It literally was the worst year of my life,” he says in Live From New York. “I went there too late after I had a career.”
After: Though the career of Elliott, now on Schitt’s Creek, didn’t soar after SNL, the show would still factor into Elliott’s life after he left: His daughter Abby joined the cast in 2008. —Esther Zuckerman
16. Michaela Watkins (2008-2009)
Before: After multiple one-off roles on shows including Grey’s Anatomy and Revenge, Watkins nabbed a spot on SNL, but was let go along with Marry Me star Casey Wilson.
After: Since her season on SNL, Watkins starred on ABC’s canceled-but-adored Trophy Wife, and pops up in movies like In A World… and Enough Said—not to mention that Funny or Die Serial parody. —AB
15. David Koechner (1995-1996)
Before: Koechner told The Huffington Posthe “said ‘no’ to a couple of things on the show, which they don’t like. And it was the first year that there was late night competition.” While Michaels wasn’t eager to dispose of him, Koechner explained in that interview, a West Coast executive was.
After: Koechner is still associated with fellow new castmember Will Ferrell as a member of Anchorman‘s Channel 4 New Team, and played Todd Packer on The Office. —EZ
14. Janeane Garofalo (1994-1995)
Before: Garofalo was most definitely a star on the rise when she came to SNL. As Chris Smith wrote in a New York piece from 1995: “As SNL tried to rebuild from its disastrous 1993–’94 season, hiring the smart, sarcastic 30-year-old comic actress seemed perfect. Besides being funny—she is widely beloved from HBO’s Larry Sanders Show and became something of a generational mini-icon in the movie Reality Bites—Garofalo added two qualities in short supply at SNL: She’s hip and she’s female.” She had also previously been on The Ben Stiller Show. Her time on the show was acrimonious; she says in Live From New York that while on SNL, her “drinking just got out of hand.”
After: It’s hard to say the name “Janeane Garofalo” and not think of the 1990s. Shortly after SNL, she starred in The Truth About Cats & Dogs. She also starred as the camp director in cult favorite Wet Hot American Summer, which will be returning via Netflix, and has continued to do stand-up and appear on TV. Still, her “iconic” status is most definitely linked with a generation past. —EZ
13. Rob Riggle (2004-2005)
Before: Like many other SNL veterans, Riggle’s an Upright Citizens Brigade alum whose career truly started during—and after—a stint on Saturday Night Live. But he did find some success prior to joining the sketch show, showing up on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Chappelle’s Show—two big series headed by two big names.
After: Riggle immediately starting appearing seemingly everywhere post-SNL: The Daily Show, The Office, Arrested Development, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and The Hangover are just a handful of examples. He’s made a steady career out of taking guest and smaller roles in any and every comedy, ranging from the beloved Jump Street duo to the less-beloved Dumb and Dumber sequel. —AB
12. Gilbert Gottfried (1980-1981)
Before: He spent a season on SNL the year after Michaels and the original cast left and Jean Doumanian took control as executive producer. As Gottfried says in Live From New York: “I think the low point of what the writers thought of me was in one sketch. It was a funeral scene, and they used me as the corpse.”
After: Gottfried is probably mostly known, especially among younger audiences, for his voice: He was Iago in Aladdin and the Aflac duck, before he got fired from that gig. For the more mature audiences: He also tells one of the grossest renditions of “The Aristocrats” and was recently fired from Celebrity Apprentice. —EZ
11. Jenny Slate (2009-2010)
Before: After appearing as a commentator on multiple VH1 shows and showing up on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Slate joined the SNL cast—and accidentally uttered the f-word during her very first episode. Some people speculated that this was why she was let go at season’s end.
After: With an ability to transform into the most absurd characters, Jenny Slate gets around on the comedy scene: In the last couple years alone, she’s had memorable roles on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation, and Kroll Show, to name a few. She’s also made headlines for co-creating the adorable Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and starring in 2014’s Obvious Child. Though she hasn’t has much time to prove herself, she has already carried an acclaimed film, and we only expect more from her. —AB
10. Christine Ebersole (1981-1982)
Before: Ebersole popped up on the show in the early days of Dick Ebersol’s reign, after her early days on the soap Ryan’s Hope.
After: Shortly after SNL, Ebersole appeared in films like Tootsie and Amadeus. She has since won two Tonys for her work on Broadway. —EZ
9. Laurie Metcalf (1981)
Before: As Splitsider recalled, Metcalf, an early member of Steppenwolf, was on the show for just one episode, before the 1981 Writers Guild of America Strike, and appeared in just a single (pre-taped) “Weekend Update” segment.
After: Metcalf would later win three Emmys for her work on Roseanne, receive two Tony nominations, and star on a variety of other television series, most recently The McCarthys. —EZ
8. Joan Cusack (1985-1986)
Before: During her season, Cusack was not as recognizable as, say, Anthony Michael Hall, who had been the star of movies like Sixteen Candles before he came to SNL as part of Michaels’s first season back. In fact, Cusack had just a a small part in that film to her name.
After: Cusack immediately starred in an array of supporting partsin movies like Broadcast News and Working Girl after leaving SNL, and has a litany of credits that make her one of Hollywood’s most recognizable (in face or voice—hey, Toy Story) character actresses. –EZ
7. Christopher Guest (1984-1985)
Before: Guest, like a number of people on this list, came out of the strange Lorne-less era of SNL. In Live From New York, Dick Ebersol, then the show’s executive producer, explains his concept: “Just grant me the notion that, if we stop this whole process of believing everybody we hire has to be an unknown, we can really build a hell of a cast.” Guest had starred in This Is Spinal Tap, alongside Harry Shearer, which came out in the spring of 1984. Their famous synchronized swimming sketch with Short features Guest playing a character who, in retrospect, seems a lot like Corky St. Clair from Waiting for Guffman.
After: Guest would of course go on to make more memorable mockumentaries, including Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. —EZ
6. Damon Wayans (1985-1986)
Before: Before his stint on the show, Damon Wayans only had a few years of stand-up and a credit in Beverly Hills Cop to his name. Then he went on SNL, but was displeased with how much screen time he was getting—so he changed up a sketch, playing a cop character flamboyantly gay live on air. He was subsequently fired.
After: It wasn’t until after SNL that Wayans’ career blew up, resulting in four Emmys wins for his work on In Living Color and a lead role on ABC sitcom My Wife and Kids. —AB
5. Martin Short (1984-1985)
Before: Also part of the Ebersol all-star year, Short came from SCTV and wrote in his book (excerpted on Salon) I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend that he was reluctant to join the show because of how much he enjoyed working on SCTV. “I wish I’d enjoyed Saturday Night Live more,” he wrote. “I wish I hadn’t felt so perpetually under pressure when I worked there.” Still, he brought with him his character Ed Grimley.
After: Short is a bona fide comedy legend. He would immediately go onto star in ¡Three Amigos!, later create the character of Jiminy Glick, and has most recently appeared on TV in Mulaney, on screen in Inherent Vice, and on Broadway in It’s Only a Play. —EZ
4. Sarah Silverman (1993-1994)
Before: Silverman’s role on SNL really marked the beginning of her career, which had consisted of just a year of stand-up before that point.
After: Silverman’s had a successful standup career, roles in both comedies (A Million Ways to Die in the West) and dramas (Take This Waltz), and her own Comedy Central sitcom simply titled The Sarah Silverman Program. That show earned Silverman an Emmy nomination before it was canceled after three seasons, and she went on to have scene-stealing guest roles on multiple shows ranging from Louie to Masters of Sex. Between her sometimes-controversial humor and willingness to go for the strongest joke—no matter how offensive it may be—Silverman has become one of the comedy world’s standout talents. —AB
3. Ben Stiller (1989)
Before: SNL picked up Stiller’s short film parodying Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money in 1987 and welcomed him to the show as a featured performer two years later. His stay didn’t last long though—he left after just four episodes.
After: Stiller went on to star in multiple commercially successful comedies, including There’s Something About Mary and Zoolander. More recently, he’s made a good living headlining the Night at the Museum series and voicing a lion in the Madagascar animated franchise. —AB
2. Billy Crystal (1984-1985)
Before: Crystal was a high-profile addition during that famous last year of Ebersol. Though not yet the Oscar-hosting figure he would become, he was a known quantity from his groundbreaking part on the sitcom Soap. In fact, Crystal had already hosted the show before he joined the cast. On the show, Crystal created memorable sketches like “Fernando’s Hideaway;” in Live From New York, Michaels even says that Ebersol discussed the possibility of Billy Crystal becoming a “sole host” for the show.
After: Needless to say, Crystal’s post-SNL years were fruitful and he is still just as big, if not a bigger star: When Harry Met Sally…, City Slickers, those Oscar hosting gigs. You get the picture. —EZ
1. Robert Downey, Jr. (1985-1986)
Before: Three decades ago, Downey known better for his famous father (filmmaker Robert Downey, Sr.) than for his work in movies. He had appeared in a few films by the time SNL hired him, but nothing huge—and nothing suggesting he would be a comedic talent.
After: Nowadays, Robert Downey, Jr. is a huge star who can reliably bring in big box-office numbers. But he hasn’t had an easy road: Downey publicly struggled with drug addiction for many years after earning an Oscar nod for playing the title character in 1993’s Chaplin, then made a comeback of sorts in the early 2000s. Although Downey can do comedy and do it well (such as in Tropic Thunder, which earned him an Oscar nomination), he’s known better for his work in dramatic and action films like the Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes films. And that work’s been doing well for him: For the past two years, Downey’s topped Forbes’ list of highest paid actors. -AB