“Lost Roles” is a weekly column exploring “what might have been” in movie and TV comedy as we examine close casting calls, abandoned projects, and other things that never came to be. This week, we’re closing out the column after 2+ years by taking a look at bunch of comedians who almost became SNL cast members during the first 20 years of the show’s history. The last “Lost Roles” column, tracking near-miss SNL cast members from 1995 to the present, will run next week.
Ever since Chevy Chase and John Belushi each starred in hit movies, Foul Play and Animal House, in the summer of ‘78, Saturday Night Live has been known as a famous comedian factory. But for every Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, or Kristen Wiig, there are 10 times as many famous comedy people who didn’t get their starts on the show. SNL only has room to add a few new cast members a year and these decisions are very difficult, so naturally, the show has its fair share of talented people who came close but didn’t make it into the cast. Below is a list of people who auditioned for SNL, turned the job down, or quit before their first episode aired.
1. Mimi Kennedy (1975)
In the SNL oral history Live from New York, Lorne Michaels reveals that he was going to choose comedic actress Mimi Kennedy to be a part of the cast but Gilda Radner was worried she was too similar to herself. Kennedy went on to have an impressive acting career. While she’s probably best known for playing Dharma’s hippie mom on Dharma & Greg, she put in an amazing performance in the 2009 movie In the Loop as the US Assistant Secretary of State.
2. Richard Belzer (1975)
Comedian and Law & Order: SVU star Richard Belzer was hired by Lorne Michaels to be SNL’s original warm-up comic in 1975, and he claims Michaels even promised him a spot in the cast. “John [Belushi], Bill Murray and Gilda got on the show and became big stars and millionaires,” he told People in 1983. “Lorne betrayed me and lied to me—which he denies—but I give you my word he said, ‘I’ll work you into the show.’”
3. Paul Reubens (1980)
When Lorne Michaels’s replacement Jean Doumanian was building her soon-to-be-disastrous 1980 cast, Paul Reubens, a Groundling at the time, auditioned and was passed over. Reubens tells the San Francisco Chronicle that he believes Gilbert Gottfried was chosen over him because he was friends with a producer on the show. “I was so bitter and angry, I thought, ‘You better think about doing something to take this to the next level,’” Reubens recalls. On his plane ride home from New York, he came up with the idea for The Pee-Wee Herman Show. He adds, “I borrowed some money and produced this show. I went from this Saturday Night Live reject to having 60 people working for me.”
4. Charlie Barnett (1980)
Popular street performer/stand-up Charlie Barnett auditioned for Saturday Night Live and was given a contract, but he had trouble reading due to having dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Barnett told People magazine, “I read good, but I read slow.” Producer Jean Doumanian invited him to a reading following his audition, but he was too scared to read for producers. Barnett landed sporadic movie and TV roles throughout the ‘80s before tragically dying of AIDS at the age of 41 in 1996. Eddie Murphy won his spot on SNL after Barnett failed to show up to the reading.
5. John Goodman (1980)
Without any movie or TV credits to his name at the time, John Goodman says in Live From New York that he also tried out for Saturday Night Live in the fall of 1980 when producer Jean Doumanian took over. Doumanian passed over Goodman, but within a few years, he was regularly booking roles. With the launch of Roseanne in 1988, he became a major star and wound up hosting SNL 12 times.
6. Robert Townsend (1980)
Actor/writer/director Robert Townsend was originally cast by Jean Doumanian for her 1980-81 season, but she ended up going with Eddie Murphy instead. Here’s what SNL’s former talent coordinator Neil Levy says in Live from New York:
“Jean had cast an actor named Robert Townsend to be ‘the black guy’ on the show … [Eddie Murphy] did his audition for Jean, and she sent him out of the room and she said to me, “Well, he’s good, but I like Robert Townsend better.” And I went nuts, you know, I threatened to quit … She only wanted to hire one black actor, and Townsend hadn’t signed his contract yet, so she signed Eddie.”
7. John Candy (1981)
After Jean Doumanian was fired, Dick Ebersol was brought in to produce Saturday Night Live. He quickly started going after cast members from another sketch show, SCTV. Ebersol pursued John Candy to join his cast in 1981, but, according to Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s book Saturday Night, Candy “was mortified at being caught in the middle of the tug of war between Saturday Night and SCTV” and he “retreated to his farm, refusing to answer his phone.” Candy stayed with SCTV.
8. Catherine O’Hara (1981)
Dick Ebersol also tried to hire John Candy’s fellow SCTV star Catherine O’Hara – and succeeded. “It had taken a lot of time to lure her, because live was not her style,” Ebersol tells LFNY. In O’Hara’s first meeting with the staff, she was scared off by writer Michael O’Donoghue, who was yelling at the writers about how the show was bad and spray painting the word “DANGER” on the wall. O’Hara was so frightened of O’Donoghue’s antics that she left the show and flew back to Canada that night.
9. Geena Davis (1984)
“Dick [Ebersol]… said, ‘Now guys, you know Mary Gross and Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] are coming back, and I want a third girl for that slot and I want you guys to help choose her,’” new 1984 cast member Harry Shearer recalls in LFNY. “Well, we went through this elaborate process of meeting people. Geena Davis met with us in the lobby of the Century Plaza Hotel. And Geena had just been on a couple of sitcoms and it was all quite awkward and uncomfortable for everybody involved.” Davis wasn’t hired and that slot instead went to New Zealand comedian Pamela Stephenson, but Davis wound up a movie star with an Oscar win a few years later.
10. Andrea Martin (1984)
Ebersol took a different approach for the 1984-85 season, choosing to add new all-star cast members like Billy Crystal, Martin Short, and Christopher Guest, who were more established in the comedy world than traditional SNL new hires. SCTV cast member Andrea Martin was on Ebersol’s list of performers he wanted for the season, and her costar and friend Martin Short pushed for her to get the job. Ebersol horrifyingly says in LFNY that he passed over Martin “because the guys I was hiring fell in love with Pamela Stephenson. And so we didn’t make Andrea the offer.” Harry Shearer reminisces: “I thought, after we saw her tapes, that Pamela was an incredibly versatile actress and just brought something different, so we tossed it back and forth and finally Pamela got it.”
11. Jim Carrey (1985)
Prior to achieving sketch comedy stardom on In Living Color, Jim Carrey tried out unsuccessfully for the cast of SNL in 1985. “Jim Carrey never auditioned for me personally,” Lorne Michaels explains in Live from New York. He adds, “Carrey, I think, auditioned for Al Franken the year I was executive producer and Tom Davis and Al were the producers along with Jim Downey.”
12. The Kids in the Hall (1985)
In an interview with Daly Radar, Kids in the Hall cast member/writer Kevin McDonald recalls that he and his four fellow Kids in the Hall guys – Dave Foley, Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch, and Scott Thompson – were all brought to New York to audition for SNL in 1985. McKinney and McCulloch were hired as writers only, but Lorne Michaels fired them after one season so that he could work to get the Kids in the Hall a TV show. Mark McKinney joined the cast for two and a half seasons a decade later.
13. Bonnie Hunt (circa 1986)
A Second City Chicago alum at the time, Bonnie Hunt turned down a spot in the SNL cast in the mid-’80s. Hunt tells The LA Times, “I asked, ‘If there’s an end of a scene that doesn’t feel like it’s working, can you improvise?’ And [Lorne] said, ‘Absolutely not.’” She also had issues with SNL’s bias towards showcasing male performers at the time, explaining, “It didn’t seem like women’s careers were really launched on that show.”
14. Lisa Kudrow (1990)
When SNL was adding a bunch of new cast members in the early ‘90s, Laraine Newman recommended fellow Groundling Lisa Kudrow to Lorne Michaels. Michaels and Marci Klein flew out to LA to watch Kudrow and another Groundling, Julia Sweeney, perform at the the Groundlings theater, with both of them vying for one spot on the show. “Thank God I didn’t get Saturday Night Live!” Kudrow exclaims in Live from New York and followed the remark up with her side of the story:
Julia and I got to be friends over this. I remember us being on the phone and talking about what a crazy, hideous situation this was for us. There was going to be one show that we were going to do, and based on that one show, a big chunk of our career was going to be decided … Julia had a lot of people in the audience. I had some friends in the audience. I even had some good friends who were writers on the show. Conan O’Brien was writing on the show, and I asked him if he could be in the audience. He actually thought that wouldn’t look so good. So I just though, yeah, the classier route is not to stack the audience. I don’t think I did my best, and, rightly so, they picked Julia.
15. Kathy Griffin (1990)
Kathy Griffin tells Los Angeles Magazine she was also performing at the Groudlings SNL showcase at which Lisa Kudrow and Julia Sweeney auditioned. Here’s Griffin telling the story:
One night I had a meeting with Lorne Michaels, and he was a total asshole. So he was coming to see me, Lisa Kudrow, and Julia Sweeney in a Friday late show. Backstage it was ridiculous. One girl was in the other room audibly sobbing. [Fellow Groundling] Mary Scheer was throwing makeup in her bag and saying, “Let’s be honest-I deserve this as much as you guys.” I was like, “Jesus, just focus.” Lisa and I were really crushed. Julia just kicked our asses. She was perfect.
16. Stephen Colbert (1992)
In an oral history of The Dana Carvey Show in GQ, Stephen Colbert revealed that he tried out for SNL at a showcase for the show’s writers and producers at Second City Chicago. Robert Smigel, then a writer at SNL, recalls, “Colbert completely blew me away. I was all about the understudy. Like, ‘Who’s the understudy?’” Smigel was unable to get Colbert hired on SNL, but he did bring him aboard for Dana Carvey’s short-lived ABC sketch show in 1996.
17. David Cross (circa 1992)
In a recent conversation with his Arrested Development costar Michael Cera at the 92nd Street Y, David Cross revealed that his Boston sketch group Cross Comedy was brought to NYC in the early ‘90s to showcase for SNL at Caroline’s and that it went disastrously. Cross Comedy was a large group that included people like Jon Benjamin, John Ennis, and Sam Seder. If Cross and his cohorts had landed on SNL, he wouldn’t have been able to create Mr. Show with Bob Odenkirk, so this was ultimately a good thing for him.
18. Jennifer Aniston (circa 1993)
Right around the time she was starring in the short-lived Fox sketch show The Edge, Jennifer Aniston was considered to be a cast member at SNL. In Live from New York, the authors write that she auditioned for the show and was rejected, while Aniston and Adam Sandler claimed on Oprah two years ago that she turned the SNL job down to star in Friends. Sandler tells Oprah, “We wanted Aniston to be on the show with us. And she, I remember being on the ninth floor where Lorne Michael’s office was and seeing Jen come in. I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s Aniston. Is she about to be on our show?’ … [I remember thinking], ‘She said no?’ She’s gonna do that Friends? What the hell is Friends?’ That was the truth.”
Whether Live from New York or Adam Sandler has the correct story remains to be seen, as he may have just been spinning the tale of Aniston’s SNL audition in order to make his costar look good.
19. Dave Attell (1993)
During an appearance on Howard Stern last year, Dave Attell, who wrote for SNL’s 1993-94 season, revealed that he had auditioned to be a part of the cast that year. When Stern asked him why he didn’t appear on the show on camera, Attell sighed and responded, “Because I’m ugly! I mean, now it’s a fug-fest…[but] I auditioned to be on the cast and they said, ‘You know what? You’re a writer.’”
20. Andy Dick (1993)
Andy Dick told Laughspin that, after Fox canceled The Ben Stiller Show, he was offered a spot in the SNL cast:
Early on in my career they just asked me if I wanted to do Saturday Night Live. Literally, they were just offering it to me. I said no because I had just come off The Ben Stiller Show, but the truth of the matter is I was afraid I would not be able to do a few characters every week. I didn’t have the confidence that I do now. Looking back, I could’ve easily [done it.] You just zero in on one character and you do it week after week. I could’ve done my version of the Target Lady—which I love, by the way …It was like, ‘here’s my audition. It’s called The Ben Stiller Show.’ I did 20 or 30 characters. But I didn’t feel confident. Well, first of all I couldn’t do any of those characters because they were owned by Fox. I felt like I was depleted of characters and I couldn’t create any more. There was just no way—especially in a live setting. I was petrified. For The Ben Stiller Show we shot every single scene like a short film. So if I felt we needed to, we can just start again. You can’t do that on Saturday Night Live. Saturday Night Live seems like a hard gig.
21. Louis C.K. (1993)
In a 2006 interview with AST, Louis C.K. told the story of performing at a showcase for SNL producers at Catch a Rising Star in 1993.
At the time, every club in the city was closing … I was going broke, and SNL was like the last chance, the last boat leaving, so Dave Attell, Laura Kightlinger, Sarah Silverman, Jay Mohr and me and a bunch of other people all auditioned. I remember that I was put first on the show, and the SNL people hadn’t shown up, and the guy that ran Catch, Louis Faranda, was trying to put me on anyway. He was like, ‘Go on.’ ‘But they’re not gonna see me.’ He said, ‘I don’t care.’It was cruel as shit. And… Jon Stewart was there and he offered to go on and stall for me, which he did. But finally I had to go on, and as I went on stage they all filed in, and I remember that David Spade was with them, and he had seen me, so he made them sit down, [head writer] Jim Downey and them, and said, ‘Watch this guy,’ which I’m forever indebted to him for even though I didn’t get on SNL. It made a difference, because I went on and I had a really solid, good set, and then over the following week, Laura Kightlinger got cast, Dave Attell, Sarah, Jay, everybody but me [got cast], like everybody that was on that [showcase] but me.”
While C.K.’s performance didn’t get him hired on SNL, it did lead to Jim Downey recommending him to Robert Smigel to be a writer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, which became his first TV job.