Few people arrived on Saturday Night Live better prepared to contribute than Taran Killam. By the time he was cast in 2010, he had already appeared on three other television sketch shows: The Amanda Show, Wild 'n Out, and Mad TV. Killam was a member of the Groundlings, the L.A. improv theater that has produced so many SNL cast members, and like many Groundlings, Killam proved adept at big characters. He'll probably be best remembered for Jebidiah Atkinson and his Brad Pitt impression, both which had a buzz about them that comes with a transcendent SNL moment. As a bonus, Killam is another in a long history of funny dancers, with sketches like my personal favorite "Les Jeunes de Paris."
That said, it's hard not think of Killam's run on SNL as a little disappointing. Though his output was terrific, it never reached what was expected of him early on. We wrote at the end of his second season: "Taran Killam Is SNL's Next Big Thing." He was not, as Killam proved himself a bit too much of a 'tweener. There are certain roles on SNL that a dude can fill — the handsome Everyman protagonist (a Jason Sudeikis); the character actor/ultimate utility player (a Bill Hader), or the singular weirdo who only makes sense in their own sketches (a Fred Armisen). Killam never totally fit into one of those silos.
(Of course, neither did Will Ferrell, but Will Ferrell is Will Ferrell. If Will Ferrell is the LeBron James of SNL, incredible at everything, then Killam is like the Josh Smith of SNL: very good at many things, with occasional moments of greatness.)
If anything, Killam had the heart of a character actor but the face of a leading man, and the show seemingly had difficulty placing him. As a result, it felt like his role on SNL diminished over time, which is the opposite of what usually happens.
It would have been nice for him to have one more season, so he could make one last concerted effort to define his legacy on the show, but alas. Killam told Uproxx he expected to do one more year to do just that, but also says that he had talked to the producers about how postproduction on the film he's directing might bleed a little bit into the season. (By the way, that film, which he co-wrote and co-stars in, Why We’re Killing Gunther, stars freaking Arnold Schwarzenegger!)
Beside that film, Killam, with those movie-star looks, has had a decent film-acting career for someone on SNL, with roles in The Heat and 12 Years a Slave. He may never have become a breakout star at SNL, but that doesn't mean he won't break out. Until then, we'll always have these unforgettable SNL moments.
"Les Jeunes de Paris"
It's hard to describe why this works so well, but the result is so joyous and so silly. It was the sketch that made people notice Killam, especially his dancing.
"J-Pop America Fun Time Now!"
A sketch about white college students who think they are paying tribute to Japan but actually are being racist. Killam was always good at playing very white.
Definitely a love-it-or-hate-it sketch, Killam sells it not just with the dancing, but also that gross expression on his face.
This sketch is most often referred to as "glice" for the word Killam says over and over and over. It's a good example of what people who loved Killam loved about him on the show.
Seemingly created just as a response to a story in the news, the character was so popular it appeared six times, including four times in season 39 alone.
"Brad Pitt on the Weather"
There are certain impressions that crack the code of how to impersonate someone. This was one of those. Pitt had been famous for years, but Killam found a way in and people loved it.
"Matthew McConaughey on His Career"
A lot of people do a McCounaughey. You do one. I do one. Your dad does one. But Killam went beyond the accent, finding the character in the real person.
"50 Shades of Grey Auditions"
You don't think you need a Christoph Waltz, but then it happens and you're like "get in my belly!"
"We Did Stop"
Killam only did John Boehner three times, but his melting-clock version here is undoubtedly memorable.
"A Message From Ted Cruz"
Killam started last season as Donald Trump, but swiftly transitioned to Ted Cruz, who seemed like he had a shot for awhile. Killam played a lot of white politicians on the show, but his Cruz really stood out for just how unlikable he was able to make him.
"Call Your Girlfriend"
This technically wasn't on the show, but his recreation of the "Call Your Girlfriend" video was easily Killam's most memorable moment. It's an incredible, delightful thing to behold.