SNL and The Curse of the Transitional Season

Something isn’t quite right on Saturday Night Live this season. It’s not that the first three episodes of the 36th season have been bad, per se. More like ominous. Chalk it up to a classic Transitional Season. That is, one where new cast members are being introduced (in this case, four new featured players), older stars are starting to show some wear, and an overhaul may be on the horizon. This summer, cast linchpin and eight-year veteran Will Forte announced he would leave the show. In early September, it was announced that first-year player Jenny Slate’s contract would not be renewed for a second season. The new four—Taran Killam, Paul Brittain, Jay Pharaoh, and Vanessa Bayer—were officially added to the cast one day later. Their integration has been rocky.

There have been bright spots—think Bayer’s “The Miley Cyrus Show” or Pharoah’s bafflingly conceived but spot-on Denzel Washington sketch last week. But Killam and Brittain still have no profile. Meanwhile, Kristen Wiig is rolling out creaky warhorses (Gilly!), New York Governor David Paterson continues bumbling his way through Weekend Update, and Kenan Thompson is still asking “What up with that?” This season will more than likely be wracked by growing pains through next May. By this time next year, staples like Wiig, Andy Samberg, Fred Armisen, and others could be off to the land of ill-considered feature films, leaving the reins to Bayer, Pharoah, Nasim Pedrad, and Abby Elliott. This is hardly the first time SNL has endured these sorts of changes. Below are the five most painful Transitional Seasons in Saturday Night history.

No. 1: Season Six (1980-1981)

Crucial Figure: Jean Doumanian

Turning Point: The end of season five, when all original cast members and all but one writer departed the show, including paterfamilias Lorne Michaels.

The Struggle: Doumanian was an experienced producer who had worked on Woody Allen’s films for years, but she flopped badly in her stint on SNL. Faced with replenishing an entire staff and cast, Doumanian passed on future stars John Goodman and Jim Carrey in favor of ill-suited sketch artists like Gilbert Gottfried, Charles Rocket, and Denny Dillon. Ratings plummeted, critics attacked, and SNL ceased to matter. By March, Doumanian was out, after a notorious episode starring embarrassed-to-be-there former player Bill Murray. NBC executive Dick Ebersol retooled the show later that year, scrapping the entire cast, save Eddie Murphy.

Bright Spot: Murphy officially becomes a repertory player by the eighth season.

The Aftermath: Hey, at least Doumanian found Eddie, right? Then again, she also blessed us with Joe Piscopo.

No. 2: Season 20 (1994-1995)

Crucial Figure: Mike Myers

Turning Point: Myers and first-year player Janeane Garofalo quit mid-season.

The Struggle: Myers was fast becoming a star so his exit was hardly surprising, while Garofalo later complained about the “boys’ club” atmosphere of the show. This season featured thirteen repertory and four featured players in all, a bloated rotation. And though Adam Sandler, David Spade, and Chris Farley went on to become comedy stars, Lorne Michaels once said this season was the one when he was closest to being fired. A scathing New York magazine cover story called the show a “grim joke,” all but writing it off.

Bright Spot: The cataclysm of this season has always been a bit overstated—and Garofalo’s last episode was notably Molly Shannon’s first. Bill Murray’s tribute to deceased longtime SNL writer and comedy godhead Michael O’Donoghue at the end of the November 12 episode was a wryly elegiac moment.

The Aftermath: Kevin Nealon, Farley, Sandler, Ellen Cleghorne, Morwenna Banks, Jay Mohr, Laura Kightlinger, Michael McKean and Chris Elliott would all depart the show at season’s end. Season 21 saw the start of the Will Ferrell era.

No. 3: Season Nine (1983-1984)

Crucial Figure: Eddie Murphy

Turning Point: On February 25, Murphy quit after 48 Hours took off at the box office.

The Struggle: Piscopo—now a punchline, but then a serious force on the show—grew increasingly jealous of Murphy’s success and reportedly seethed behind the scenes.

Bright Spot: Billy Crystal’s two guest hosting stints this season previewed what would become an underrated run on the show the following year.

The Aftermath: Piscopo split at season’s end, while Robin Duke, Brad Hall and Tim Kazurinsky were fired. This also marked the beginning of the end for Ebersol, paving the way for Michaels’ return two seasons later.

No. 4: Season 11 (1985-1986)

Crucial Figure: Lorne Michaels

Turning Point: According to Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s essential “Live From New York: The Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live,” host Chevy Chase pitched an idea for a sketch that featured openly gay cast member Terry Sweeney as an AIDS-afflicted man being weighted by a doctor. Also notable: Damon Wayans getting fired after curiously portraying a police officer as homosexual during a sketch when it was not called for in the script.

The Struggle: In Michaels’ big return after five years of self-imposed exile, he hired a strange cast of soon-to-be famous, if not exactly SNL legends, including Joan Cusack, Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr.(!), and Randy Quaid. It remains one of the show’s lowest-rated seasons.

Bright Spot: Michaels’ was barely able to convince NBC President Brandon Tartikoff not to cancel the show. Cusack, Downey Jr., Quaid, and Hall (among others) would not return.

The Aftermath: Season twelve remains one of the show’s most crucial, introducing new cast members Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, and Kevin Nealon, and announcing a reinvigorated run for the show.

No. 5: Season 31 (2005-2006)

Crucial Figure: Andy Samberg

Turning Point: “Lazy Sunday,” and the rise of the Digital Short.

The Struggle: This was Wiig, Samberg, and Bill Hader’s first season, and Jason Sudeikis’ second as a featured player. But few remember that Tina Fey and Maya Rudolph sat out large stretches due to pregnancy. In a forgettable, unfortunate moment, Horatio Sanz filled in for Fey on Weekend Update.

Bright Spot: Well, “Lazy Sunday.” This was not a bright, shining season, otherwise.

The Aftermath: Rachel Dratch, Fey, Finesse Mitchell, Chris Parnell and Horatio Sanz all left the show at season’s end. Parnell, Mitchell, and Sanz, were released after Lorne Michaels was given the choice to either cut episodes or cast members. Budget cuts are a bitch.

Sean Fennessey is a writer and editor living in New York. His favorite SNL cast member is and always has been Jon Lovitz.

SNL and The Curse of the Transitional Season