It’s been the year of looking back to, of all places, the 1980s – of this year’s 46 Saturday Night’s Children entries, half joined the show between 1980 and 1989. I’m an admirer of all things underdog, so while revisiting heavyweights like Joe Piscopo, Billy Crystal, and Dana Carvey as well as post-SNL superstars like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Robert Downey Jr., and Ben Stiller was fun, it was the more obscure players like Denny Dillon, Pamela Stephenson, and Robin Duke whose more untold stories (and in Tony Rosato’s case, inspiring tale of comedy commitment) I found the most rewarding. I also made sure to include more recent stars like Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell, 90s bro club members Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and Rob Schneider, and original cast members Jane Curtin and Bill Murray. We’ve already covered 73 total players (out of 132 and growing) over the past year and a half, but there are still so many left waiting to be rediscovered. Since 2012 was an apocalyptic year, it seems fitting that we took a trip through the similarly chaotic early 80s SNL when its survival was at times very much in question – it endured and so have we, which only leaves me wondering what focus 2013 will bring. In the meantime, here’s a look at this year’s list of Not Ready for Prime Time Players, spanning from 1975-2009.
1. Jane Curtin (1975-1980)
By the time 27-year-old Jane Curtin joined the beginning of NBC’s newest late night sketch comedy show, she was a newly married and settled-down Connecticut commuter, and through her cooler, calmer, yet curt and edgy demeanor, she brought early SNL a much-needed element of straight-laced discipline.
2. Bill Murray (1977-1980)
“Belushi was unbelievably brave on stage,” Harold Ramis once said, “but Bill took that [fearlessness] everywhere, in the streets and in personal contact with other people. He was always unexpected. Where anyone else would go subtle, he would go huge. And where anyone else would go big, he would go very subtle.”
3. Paul Schaffer (1979-1980)
Whether it’s his 30 years and counting as Letterman’s band leader or his work on Godspell, National Lampoon, The Blues Brothers, or even his brief run as an SNL cast member, Shaffer’s always possessed the easy cohost charm and supportive banter expertise that’s built him his unique and time-tested station in the land of late-night comedy.
4. Joe Piscopo (1980-1984)
It’s hard to match Piscopo when it comes to roots — he’s the quintessential New Jersey Italian-American nightclub personality-slash-comedian who has never traded in his blue-collar legitimacy for bigger fame: “I’m a North Jersey Italian-American, and that’s the single most important thing in a relationship: respect.”
5. Gilbert Gottfried (1980-1981)
Like so many other briefly-lived players, Gottfried struggled on the show but went on to much bigger success by voicing Disney characters and insurance-selling ducks and telling some of the most offensive, untimely, and controversial jokes about issues long before they were considered safe, giving him the dubious honor of being king of the “too soon” joke.
6. Denny Dillon (1980-1981)
Thanks to her background in musicals and drama as well as her tiny but husky frame (at 4’11”, she holds the record of shortest SNL cast member), Dillon found ways to stand out during an otherwise lackluster season, like as the spunky dominatrix Thema Thunder in the Update segment “The Leather Weather Report” or her performance as an LSD-addled surrogate mother.
7. Robin Duke (1981-1984)
“Robin Duke was hysterical in shows at Second City. And [SNL] gave her nothing,” Kazurinsky said in Live from New York. “And the less they give somebody — well, you know what they say: If you have one line it’s harder than if you have a big part.” Duke didn’t have many big parts on SNL, but luckily her spunky and brazen brand of humor doesn’t need more than one line to shine through in reruns.
8. Laurie Metcalf (1981)
Laurie Metcalf has enjoyed a steady career straddling theater, film, and television roles playing vibrantly offbeat and heartful characters and winning various awards and nominations along the way (including three Emmys for Roseanne), but she also holds the distinction of being one of the shortest-lived cast members in SNL history.
9. Tony Rosato (1981-1982)
Though Rosato could pull off louder and sillier performances (like in his SNL Newsbreak “Emergency Broadcast Network” segment), he excelled most at playing husky working-class Italians as well as the token straight-man foil to cast members like Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky, and Joe Piscopo.
10. Mary Gross (1981-1985)
Marked by her tall, birdlike frame and whispery high-tone voice, Mary Gross brought a mastery of shy-girl delivery to her four-year stint at SNL and found her own corner to shine through the height of Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo’s raging popularity and the arrival of already-established stars like Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Martin Short.
11. Brad Hall (1982-1984)
While Hall’s style leaned toward more writerly buildups ending in silly and almost slapstick punchlines, it couldn’t compete with the louder, quicker, and more immediate, pop culture-driven comedy of Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo.
12. Julia Louis-Dreyfus (1982-1985)
Before going on to star in a string of critically acclaimed shows, Louis-Dreyfus spent three years as a repertory player during the Dick Ebersol days developing characters and paving her quick path to stardom.
13. Billy Crystal (1984-1985)
A king in the realm of legitimizing the concept of ‘schtick’, Billy Crystal’s seventeen-episode SNL run pales in comparison to his iconic film work and reputation as the most reliable award ceremony emcee since Bob Hope.
14. Martin Short (1984-1985)
SNL wasn’t the dream gig to Short that it is for most new cast members — he joined almost reluctantly after the SCTV finale — but he still helped usher the show through one of its most tumultuous periods and used it as a springboard to much bigger Broadway and Hollywood success.
15. Pamela Stephenson (1984-1985)
Stephenson’s career reaffirms that comedy and psychology are sometimes interchangeable — and if you ever need a reminder, just rewatch her animatronic boobs on Saturday Night News.
16. Robert Downey Jr. (1985-1986)
The starring roles have kept coming for Downey, and the callow narcissistic airs have gone in place of an older, wiser fey alacrity. Luckily we can still check in with the spotty but occasionally brilliant SNL episodes he appeared in and witness his raw talent, still unchecked and unarrested, like a crazy-ass flower in mid-bloom.
17. Joan Cusack (1985-1986)
Wry, understated, and best known for her Chicago accent and off-brand nerd-girl appeal, Joan Cusack is another second-wave SNL cast member whose brief time on the show went largely forgotten thanks to a successful — and in Cusack’s case, also underappreciated — string of post-SNL film and TV performances.
18. Terry Sweeney (1985-1986)
SNL might have buried him in the dreg sketches after Weekend Update under a mound of flamboyant makeup, but Sweeney has a place in the pantheon as a pioneer and inspiration not just for future openly gay performers, but anyone a little different from the norm.
19. Dennis Miller (1985-1991)
Miller blazed the trail of smug jokes and ad-libbed recoveries for future anchors like Kevin Nealon, Norm Macdonald, and even Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler in the 2000s. While he rarely appeared in sketches, Miller’s transformation of Weekend Update into one of the show’s most anticipated segments has helped SNL evolve into what it is today.
20. Nora Dunn (1985-1990)
Dunn wasn’t the first “strong female” in SNL history, but she was certainly the first to demand, rather than suggest, that a woman’s place in comedy shouldn’t be cut from the man’s mold.
21. Dana Carvey (1986-1993)
From the prissy and repressed Church Lady to the schwinging cable access sidekick Garth Algar, Dana Carvey remains one of SNL’s all-time fan favorites for his mimicry mastery with the definitive George Bush Sr. and transforming the presidential spoof into the essential facet to SNL it is today.
22. Kevin Nealon (1986-1995)
Nealon spent almost ten years on SNL and used his love for quirky, meta, performance art-style comedy to help usher the show from the late 80s and into a new age, and he’s never stopped showing up in films of his SNL friends since.
23. Ben Stiller (1989)
But the steady fame and comedy world respect Stiller’s received since his MTV show didn’t come from compromising as much as it came from his comedy brand convictions, and while his drive to produce video content proved to be futile during his few weeks at 30 Rock, it’s gained him limitless success and box office cash ever since.
24. Chris Farley (1990-1995)
Whether you admire his overly physical, overly sweaty, overly overweight and beet-red and all-around over-the-top legacy or find it too representative of SNL’s early 90s dependence on frat boy humor, most fans can agree that Chris Farley had a fire inside that raged every second he spent onscreen, from his timid bumbling and self-hatred in “The Chris Farley Show” sketches to his frantic and boiled-over motivational speaker Matt Foley.
25. Julia Sweeney (1990-1994)
For a featured player whose first year was spent in an overcrowded cast with 13 men and a mere 3 women, perhaps Sweeney sensed that a joke on the gender issue was the best way to get around it. Whatever the case, Pat’s smarmy, pleading face will, for better or worse, remain the thing on SNL for which Sweeney is most remembered.
26. Rob Schneider (1990-1994)
While Schneider hasn’t found complete success outside of the Happy Madison umbrella, he’s always excelled as the weirdo wildcard character with his boys’ club-era SNL brethren by his side, and for a guy who’s had enough cringeworthy film moments to warrant his own South Park skewering, Schneider’s still remained a likable token scene clown for twenty years and counting.
27. Adam Sandler (1991-1995)
Whether he’s singing the news in faux-Italian at the Weekend Update desk as Opera Man, creating theme songs for lunch ladies, Hanukkah, and phone sex operators, or starring in an endless string of self-produced lowbrow films, Adam Sandler has evolved from a timid but ambitious performer into one of the most powerful figures in comedy today.
28. Tim Meadows (1991-2000)
While he did have the lispy afro-sporting womanizer Leon Phelps who spawned his own Michaels-produced film The Ladies Man, Meadows’ stint on SNL is more of a testament to his consistency and low-key versatility that outlasted several cast shakeups than a favorite character or catchphrase. However minor his comedy career may seem, his record-breaking SNL tenure (which Hammond usurped in 2005) is only one facet of his over 20 years of understated comedy contributions.
29. Ellen Cleghorne (1991-1995)
Despite her warm onscreen presence, in-your-face characters, and 6’ tall frame, Cleghorne never managed to create a lasting impression with most SNL viewers, and her name has since been overshadowed by the legacies of Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and Phil Hartman.
30. Melanie Hutsell (1991-1994)
Taking a cue from the success of the girl-nerd caricature, Hutsell found her niche lampooning valley girls and other ditzy types, bringing an overly-excited delivery to celebrities like Tonya Harding, Ricki Lake, Blossom, and Tori Spelling.
31. Siobhan Fallon (1991-1992)
She might not have ever registered on SNL, but sometimes careers are made from being just left of the center of attention, and Fallon’s delivered the laughs, smirks, and even cringes for 20 years no matter how small the part…as long as it doesn’t involve infidelity.
32. Jay Mohr (1993-1995)
There are many short-lived cast members who talk trash about the backroom politics and airtime struggles at SNL, but Jay Mohr literally wrote the book on it.
33. Sarah Silverman (1993-1994)
“SNL was the best boot camp. Then I got fired. So I went to L.A. and immediately got hired on a pilot. Right before we shot the first episode, I got fired. After that, I was so gun-shy. I’d wait until the last second to show up at any job, plenty of time for my manager to call and say, ‘Don’t show up, you’re fired.’ And then, little by little, I didn’t get fired anymore.”
34. Chris Elliott (1994-1995)
While Elliott has clearly mastered the art of playing the emotionally arrested psychotic bit part, between the resurgence of Get A Life fandom and his starring role as the Chuck Norris-esque US Marshal Chris Monsanto on Adult Swim’s hyperviolent, occasionally nauseating, but always hilarious Eagleheart, it seems as though comedy fans’ taste for the bizarre has finally caught up with Elliott, who Letterman once called “the funniest man on television.”
35. Laura Kightlinger (1994-1995)
Despite Laura Kightlinger’s fruitless year as an SNL writer and featured player, she’s built up a pretty kickass comedy resume over the years, with credits as an actor, writer, producer, and director working with comedians like Roseanne Barr, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, Jack Black, and Louis CK.
36. Janeane Garofalo (1994-1995)
Her six months on SNL may be more of a hiccup than a highlight on an otherwise lengthy and eclectic resume, but since societal injustices are so intrinsic to Garofalo’s persona, her tense struggle on the show was surely just fuel for the alt comedy queen fire.
37. Mark McKinney (1995-1997)
Before the premiere of The Kids in the Hall in 1988, Michaels first hired McKinney and McCulloch as SNL writers for his return to the show in 1985. McKinney continued to write until 1990, but he would return midseason five years later, only as a repertory player instead.
38. Will Ferrell (1995-2002)
“He can play utility, he can serve a sketch, and a lot of the characters he’ll have to do will not be terribly likable,” Lorne Michaels said of Ferrell’s versatility. “Like Dan Aykroyd and Phil Hartman before him, if the writing staff got to choose the most popular, it would be Will Ferrell.”
39. David Koechner (1995-1996)
From workplace sexual harasser Todd Packer on The Office to the white trash Gerald “T-Bones” Tibbons from The Naked Trucker and T-Bones Show, David Koechner’s found a comfortable niche with his coterie of wildly inappropriate rednecks, yet you’d never know he’d be such a success judging from his single-season SNL stint from 1995-1996.
40. Cheri Oteri (1995-2000)
Whether with Will Ferrell as zippity cheerleaders or morning talk show cohosts, with Chris Kattan as a couple stuck in PDA overdrive, with Molly Shannon as Ann Miller and Debbie Reynolds, or flying solo as deranged prescription addict Collette Reardon, Cheri Oteri was SNL’s quintessential tiny theater geek firecracker.
41. Nancy Walls (1995-1996)
For a witty brunette-turned-blonde who could play utility mother/reporter types and stretch them into outbursts of suburban insanity (if given the screen time), it’s surprising that Nancy Walls never found a lasting place during her single-season run on SNL.
42. Jerry Minor (2000-2001)
Minor only had one year to find his footing on SNL, but competing against a cast of veteran players like Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Tracy Morgan, and Molly Shannon proved to be futile, even with a year’s worth of cult sketch show experience on Mr. Show under his belt.
43. Amy Poehler (2001-2008)
Right off the bat it was clear that Poehler was just what SNL needed — an energetic and positive talent who excelled in group scenes, mirrored in ways that amped up the audience and actors, and brought a golden witty glow to all her performances.
44. Jeff Richards (2001-2004)
Unfortunately for Jeff Richards — a wide-ranged stand-up and impressionist fresh off the MADtv boat — the lack of audience connection, or lack of a real hook for any of his celeb targets, became the crux of his mostly forgettable three-year SNL stint, save for the funny-the-first-time but progressively more annoying Update frequenter Drunk Girl.
45. Finesse Mitchell (2003-2006)
Mitchell was hired as a featured player for SNL’s 29th season in 2003 after auditioning five times. While he only had one recurring character — the stereotypically sassy ghetto girl Starkisha — he scored with an impressive list of impersonations: Venus Williams, Colin Powell, Morgan Freeman, Puff Daddy, Gayle King, Bobby Brown, 50 Cent, R. Kelly, apl.de.ap, Kevin Eubanks, and sportscasters Stuart Scott and Stephen A. Smith.
46. Casey Wilson (2008-2009)
“It was definitely a mixed bag. In a way, getting on that show was the high point…and I had a ball doing it. It wasn’t ultimately the best fit for me; I’m more of a comedic actress. But I think I’d do it all over again. There’s nothing like performing at 11:30 on a Saturday night to a live audience in a skyscraper.”
Thanks to all who’ve enjoyed reading my column, and I’ll see you in 2013 with a whole new set of SNL cast members. Who would you like to see covered this year?
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.