‘SNL’ Firing New Cast Members Displays a Show Still Deeply In Transition

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Word has come down this week that SNL cast members Noël Wells, John Milhiser, and Brooks Wheelan have been let go from the show after one season, with Nasim Pedrad also leaving to work as a regular on Mulaney (a move that has long been anticipated) and Mike O’Brien’s status currently in talks. Their departures don’t come as too huge a shock – as we recapped at the end of last season, the three saw little screen time and had few memorable moments during the season. And while it must come as a disappointment to those actors and their fans, let’s not forget that at least a third of everyone who has ever appeared in the SNL cast has done so for only one season, putting the three of them in the company of one-and-done cast members turned comedy stars like Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverman, Damon Wayans, Rob Riggle, Jenny Slate, and Iron Man. Considering Season 39 saw the largest cast SNL ever had, and first-year cast members are always on the chopping block, it’s not surprising that a few cast members would get axed. We look forward to seeing what they do with a year of SNL exposure under their belts.

This casting change takes place well into SNL’s transitional era, which began when Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg left in 2012, followed by Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and Fred Armisen in 2013, followed by Seth Meyers in 2014. At the start of last season, the three (possibly four) recent cuts joined the cast along with Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, and, later in the season, Sasheer Zamata and Colin Jost, making it one of the largest cast increases ever. Mooney, Bennett, and Zamata each had average first seasons, occasionally providing the show with the spark it hopes for from its newcomers, even if they didn’t immediately capture viewers’ adoration like Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon did in their early episodes. However, the fact that SNL is firing half of the new talent it intended to replace its departed stars indicates that Lorne Michaels is still figuring out what the show’s future will be. In other words, the “rebuilding year” enters Year Three.

Does this mean SNL’s days are numbered? Definitely not. As we broke down last September, this transitional era pales in comparison to the early-to-mid 1980s, when nearly every year saw shakeups of the entire cast and the show was regularly on the brink of cancellation. Eventually, Michaels restored balance with a stellar cast led by Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, and Dana Carvey, with Conan O’Brien, Bob Odenkirk, Robert Smigel, and Greg Daniels in the writers room. The show nearly got canceled again a decade later, when the sophomoric “boys club” mentality of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley took over, and New York Magazine hilariously coined “Saturday Night Dead.” Soon after, Sandler and Farley were fired, along with several others in the cast, to be replaced by an influx of Groundlings’ alums: Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, and Chris Kattan. If SNL could survive those periods of turmoil, it will certainly survive now, when the show remains relatively popular with viewers and its star cast members continue to be favorites among Emmy voters.

It all comes down to the decisions the show makes in the coming weeks. Tightening the belt on the cast seemed like an obvious move that will probably make the show better in the long run. Hopefully, producers will learn from last season and not hire six (later seven) new performers, forcing them to compete for airtime and struggle to show their true talents to viewers. The unfortunate reality for Wells, Milhiser, and Wheelan is that, had they been the only new cast members last season, they would have at least the same shot at success as previous seasons’ freshmen did.

Meanwhile, Mike O’Brien certainly deserves another shot. As a cast member, he finally started to find his footing in the second half of the season, with an offbeat delivery that would be perfect behind the Weekend Update desk. And certainly as a writer, O’Brien has been invaluable to the show since 2009, serving as an essential connective tissue between Jason Sudeikis and Seth Meyers (fellow old dogs from Chicago) and the new wave of Chicago-bred talent: Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, and Tim Robinson, with whom he swapped places from writing staff to cast last year and continues to channel his manic humor. The show will need to preserve these kinds of relationships, especially with the departure of writer Michael Che (the mind behind most of Jay Pharaoh’s breakout sketches), and with head writer Colin Jost still making the transition from once Harvard Lampoon editor to fill the shoes of Seth Meyers, whose background in improv and sketch gave him a special ability to collaborate with writers and performers alike.

The ensemble is everything. In the way that the Hartman-Carvey-Lovitz crew complemented the Conan-Odenkirk-Smigel-Daniels team so well in the late ‘80s, SNL has always been at its best when the connective threads between writers and actors are well-developed. Mooney and Bennett carried over their Good Neighbor partnership with director Dave McCary, giving them a relatively easy transition into the cast and a consistent source of airtime. Wells, Milhiser, and Wheelan were less fortunate. With any luck, O’Brien’s ties to the writers’ room will save him – if not as a cast member, at least as a writer. And as SNL approaches its 40th season, finding ways to strengthen its core relationships and foster new ones will be key to finally shaking off these transitional year blues.

And now, let the wild speculation about new hires begin!

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs on the house team Wheelhouse at the iO Theater.