“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 a long list of comedians who almost became SNL cast members over the past 18 years. Check out last week’s piece about near-miss SNL cast members from 1975 to 1995.
Most comedians dream of being on SNL – whether they’re stand-ups, improvisers, or sketch actors. The show is one of the few places in comedy that has found a home for all three main types of comedians. Over the course of the show’s history, SNL has introduced audiences to dozens of funny people who went on to become influential comedians, but for every Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler, there are twice as many comedians who tried out for the show, were passed over, and went on to be successful anyway. Let’s take a look at some comedians who almost made it into the SNL cast, including Johnny Knoxville, Nick Kroll, and podcaster extraordinaire Marc Maron:
1. Amy Sedaris (1995)
When Janeane Garofalo left SNL in January of 1995, Amy Sedaris auditioned to take her spot that February. Sedaris, who was busy starring in a play called One Woman Shoe that she wrote with her brother David Sedaris, wound up turning the job down and SNL went with Molly Shannon to take over for Garofalo. Sedaris explained to New York magazine, “TV is not something I ever wanted to get into. Working on stage in New York with David is what I ultimately wanted.” In another interview, she says, “I met with Lorne Michaels, but at that time we were doing our play One Woman Shoe, and it was everything I wanted … Maybe even three years earlier it would have been great, but at that point it was like, Oh, it’s too late. A few years later, Strangers with Candy fell into my lap. But television’s not something that I ever thought about or planned.”
2. Kevin McDonald (1995)
After the Lorne Michaels-produced sketch show Kids in the Hall ended its run in 1995, Michaels hired Mark McKinney into the SNL cast. When asked if he was ever approached to do the show, Kids in the Hall member Kevin McDonald responded, “They toyed with me. We had talks, but it never really happened.” He added, “I was looking to do movies. If it had ever become an official offer, it would have been an amazingly hard thing to turn down because I had been doing that my whole life … I can’t say I’m glad I didn’t do it. I would’ve had a really troubled week where I would’ve thought a lot about what to do, then I probably would’ve said yes.”
3. Jennifer Coolidge (1995)
Best known for her roles in Christopher Guest’s films and for playing Stifler’s mom in the American Pie movies, Jennifer Coolidge came up at LA’s Groundlings Theater alongside Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, and Cheri Oteri before they were snapped up by SNL. She did try out for the show alongside those three, she tells Los Angeles magazine:
Me, Will, Chris, and Cheri were all flown in for the SNL audition. They chose Will and Cheri and not Chris and I, and six months later they called up Chris. I was the one who got rejected. I was spared a bullet. I think of all the demons, and playing politics. The good thing was I might have become anorexic. But I probably would have self-destructed on SNL.
4. Adam McKay (1995)
Coming out of Second City Chicago at the time, Adam McKay auditioned to be in the show’s cast during the big 1995 changeover. He was passed over for the cast but was hired on as a writer, rising to the rank of head writer the following season and starting a fruitful collaboration with Will Ferrell that would lead to movies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers.
5. Jon Glaser (1995)
Delocated star/creator and longtime Conan writer Jon Glaser tried out for SNL during the big 1995 changeover. He says, “I was working at Second City at the time … I had auditioned for Saturday Night Live that summer. I didn’t get that, but Robert [Smigel] had access to all of the tapes.” Smigel hired to Glaser to write for the ill-fated Dana Carvey Show the following year, which led to him landing a writing job at Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
Here’s video of Glaser talking about his audition, in which he did an impression of King Hussein of Jordan:
6. Marc Maron (1996)
When NBC bosses were fed up with Norm Macdonald’s performance behind the Weekend Update desk, stand-up Marc Maron auditioned and interviewed as a possible replacement. The network didn’t fire Macdonald until a couple years later, but Maron has gone on to tell his interesting audition story multiple times. Here’s a version of it he wrote for Air America:
I’m sitting there in front of his desk. In front of me, right behind a picture facing him, there’s a little bowl of candy. I was freaking out about the whole situation. So everything became very loaded and I was thinking, “I’m not going to take any fucking candy. It’s a test of some kind.”I became very self-conscious.I leave my head and check back into the situation at hand and Lorne is philosophizing. He was in the middle of a long discourse that I had missed because I was thinking about the candy. He says, “You know, comedians are like monkeys.”I laugh uncomfortably. It is a direct assault on my craft.”People go to the zoo and they like the lion because it’s scary. And the bear because it’s intense, but the monkey makes people laugh.”I just couldn’t stop myself and I said, “Yeah, I guess, if they’re not throwing their shit at you.”That was the moment that I just knew that I wasn’t going to be on SNL. I had responded. Lorne seemed taken aback for about a second and then commenced to stare directly into my eyes for a long time. So long that the head writer fidgeted in his chair and laughed uncomfortably. He said, “Lorne?”I was in a staring contest with one of the most powerful men in show business. I tried to exude some star-ness from my face.Lorne said, “You can tell a lot from someone’s eyes.”I broke and I took a candy.As soon as I took the candy I swear to God Lorne shot a look at the head writer that clearly connoted to me that I had failed the test. I walked out of there thinking I ruined my career because of a Jolly Rancher. I don’t even like Jolly Ranchers. I festered about it for days.
7. Kerri Kenney (1996)
The State and Reno 911! cast member Kerri Kenney tried out for SNL after The State’s TV show ended. Here she is talking about it on WTF with Marc Maron:
We thought [The State] would be bigger. We really thought our shit didn’t stink … The first time it was suggested to me to audition to SNL, I said [Laughs], “No, thanks, guys. I don’t need that sinking ship … I’m on The State on MTV.” Then, when The State finally dissolved on MTV, I went back with my tail between my legs and actually did audition … It was terrifying. I believe they must do it that way on purpose because since then I’ve never had an audition so terrifying … Sit and wait, cold room. I feel like I was in a basement that was like seven buildings away and someone comes and gets you in a page jacket and they lead you through hallways and you’re trying to keep up with your bag of props and hit the mark. You have four minutes. Do your best this, this, and this … I got no laughs, and at the time, I thought, ‘Wow, if I want to be in this business, this is what it’s gonna be every time.’ Thank God it’s never like that.
8. Johnny Knoxville (1999)
Right before filming the pilot for MTV’s Jackass, Johnny Knoxville turned down an offer to join SNL and do stunts for the show. Jackass director Jeff Tremaine explains:
The ball was rolling on Jackass, but it was going slow. We made a little tape basically showing what Jackass was. It was going around, and it was really popular. SNL got a hold of it. They made an offer, and it almost killed the deal because it was a sure thing for [Knoxville], but he gambled on [his friends].
Knoxville obviously doesn’t regret the choice. He told the press, “It was at the point where I either say yes to my friends, where we had all the control, or yes to Saturday Night Live where none of my friends were really going to be there and I had no control. I just thought I made the right decision.”
9. Kevin Brennan (1999)
Stand-up Kevin Brennan auditioned for a spot on the SNL cast in 1999. Brennan says Lorne Michaels told him, “We have too many cast members right now. Would you take a writing job?” Brennan accepted the job and wrote for the show for the 1999-00, primarily writing for Weekend Update. At the end of the season, he was in the running to take over Weekend Update from Colin Quinn, but Michaels went with another SNL writer, Tina Fey, to co-anchor the segment with Jimmy Fallon.
10. Jeff Ross (2000)
In his book I Only Roast the Ones I Love, insult comic Jeff Ross writes about the time he almost landed the Weekend Update job:
After a successful screen test it came down to me and the show’s talented head writer, Tina Fey. Lorne asked me to fly to New York for one last meeting. My manager at the time, the legendary Bernie Brillstein, told me it was a great sign that Lorne wanted to see me in person. “Lorne likes to tell people the good news himself,” Bernie said. We started getting calls of congratulations from network executives. I even ran into cast member Will Ferrell on the street and he welcomed me aboard …However, when I finally got to his office, Lorne told me that even though my audition was outstanding, he was getting a lot of pressure from his cast to promote from within. He said he’d let me know in the morning. So I went out and got drunk. Sure enough, Lorne woke me up with his epiphany. He was going with up-and-coming Tina Fey and cast member Jimmy Fallon as the coed anchors of Weekend Update.
11. Zach Galifianakis (2000)
Burgeoning stand-up Zach Galifianakis tried out for SNL at the end of the 1999-00 season and instead was hired on for a writer for the last two episodes of the season. “I was uncomfortable because I thought I’d get hired to be on it,” Galifianakis recalls. “Then, I got there, they were like, ‘No, you’re writing for Molly Shannon.’ I was like, ‘Oh, okay. I didn’t realize that.’”
12. Paul Scheer (2001, 2002)
In an interview with NTSF and The League star Paul Scheer last year, he told us about auditioning for SNL twice in 2001 and in 2002:
It was the first time Lorne Michaels had ever come to UCB to see a showcase … I was the only person that … he pulled that year from UCB to audition and that was really super fun. It’s as daunting as they say, but everyone was incredibly nice to me. The dumbest thing I did in that audition was I did impressions. I did Jeff Goldblum returning a shirt, just dumb characters that I thought were really good at the time, but I look back and they’re a little cringeworthy. My favorite thing I did in that SNL audition was I did a panda bear in first class. It was just basically me as a panda bear, trying to order something in first class. It was like a two-line audition …The following year was interesting because it was a different style of audition, which was they had everybody improvise with each other. We basically all met up. I didn’t know anybody else besides Jack McBrayer. We improvised a Harold in front of Lorne Michaels and everybody else. That was interesting because it was a bunch of people all competing for the same job, trying to prove that they’re funny but also it was really cool because everyone respected the space. You would think it would have been a little more competitive. But that also was the year that Fred Armisen said “no,” he wasn’t gonna do that if he didn’t have an improv background. He just did Fericito, and he was the one who ultimately got hired.
13. Jack McBrayer (2002)
According to Paul Scheer, Jack McBrayer auditioned alongside him for SNL in 2002. At the time, McBrayer was a performer at Second City Chicago, iO, and UCB New York. He was passed over for SNL, but Tina Fey and Lorne Michaels would hire him a few years later to play the role that immortalized him: Kenneth Parcell on 30 Rock.
14. Rob Huebel (2004)
Childrens Hospital and Human Giant star Rob Huebel shared his SNL audition story with us last year. He tried out with his frequent collaborator Rob Riggle, who got on the show as a featured player:
When you get there, they tell you to get there at noon and they have you wait around in these dressing rooms for hours. You don’t even audition until 6 o’ clock that night or something. Lorne Michaels doesn’t even show up until like 7 o’clock. So, you’re sitting there and waiting and waiting and waiting and you just get all freaked out. And when you do your audition at that comedy club the night before, they let you do 10 minutes of characters and impressions, whatever you want. Then, when you go in to do your audition at SNL, they make you wait around, and then they tell you at the last minute, “Oh, you only have five minutes” So you have to cut half of your stuff. They do that to kind of freak you out. I can’t remember everything that I was doing. I remember a couple of my impressions. I did Anderson Cooper. I did Ted Nugent. I’d have to think. Certainly, I was not rewriting comedy history with my audition. I felt good about it, but I don’t think that I was on par with like Will Ferrell or someone like that.So, I went in and did it. And they sit in the back. At that time, Tina Fey was still the head writer. I was friends with Tina. I think Tina’s great, but I think they have this thing that they do where they don’t laugh at anything. So, you go in and you do [a] few minutes. It’s just a wall of silence, just no laughs at all. Nothing. No matter what. No matter who you are because everyone says this. Then, as I was leaving, I was like, “Bye, Tina.” She was like, “Bye, Rob.”
15 and 16. Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer (2005)
When Andy Samberg tried out for SNL, his Lonely Island cohorts Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer auditioned too. Taccone and Schaffer were hired on as writers instead of cast members, and the two quickly got to work on digital shorts with Samberg. Schaffer and especially Taccone wound up being used on camera plenty despite never achieving cast member status.
17. Michael Patrick O’Brien (2005, 2009)
Prior to becoming a writer for Saturday Night Live, Michael Patrick O’Brien tried out to be a cast member twice. “Lorne Michaels, Seth Meyers, and a group of producers and writers from SNL came out and watched me do showcases at iO and shows at Second City over the years,” O’Brien recalls. “I was flown out to NYC to do a 5-minute audition at SNL in both 2005 and 2009. The latter resulted in this writing job.”
18. Donald Glover (2008)
With Kenan Thompson as the show’s sole black cast member in the spring of 2008, SNL producers began searching for someone to play presidential candidate Barack Obama on the show. Donald Glover, a writer for Lorne Michaels-produced 30 Rock at the time, auditioned for the job, but producers went with Fred Armisen instead. Glover wound up booking a role on Community a year later.
19. Jordan Peele (2008)
Key & Peele star Jordan Peele was still on SNL rival MADtv when he tried out to play Obama on SNL. As with Glover, Peele was passed over in favor of Fred Armisen and went on to be a very successful comedic actor without SNL’s help.
20. TJ Miller (2008)
Comedian TJ Miller (Yogi Bear, She’s Out of My League) auditioned for the show in 2008. Here he is telling us his audition story last year:
I brought a backpack full of nice things to give other people that were auditioning, like cookies. I brought a six-pack of beer. I brought chips and little poppers – you know those really fake fireworks that you do on New Year’s Eve? I brought all those to give them to people, like, “This is great. We’re all auditioning.” I got there, and everybody was very competitive … It was really awkward. I’m like “Hey does anybody want a beer? I brought these poppers for after we’re done.” And, “If anybody wants a cookie… anybody want a cookie?” And everyone was like, “No.” So I was just a weird guy with a backpack full of goodies that nobody really wants.So I went in and did my audition. It’s great, and I said thank you. I went outside, and as I was leaving, my backpack was kind of open and some of the stuff spilled out and a beer fell on the ground outside of 30 Rock and, you know, all these poppers and stuff. The security guard looked over like I was like, you know, a crazy person. Some weird homeless guy. And he said, “What are you doing out here?” And I said, “I just auditioned for SNL,” which sounded fake obviously … I don’t know what happened, but the day after they cast Bobby Moynihan, it came out – and I don’t know how this happened – but they said that I had gone in and bombed the audition on purpose, maybe? And all of these rumors surfaced. I think it was probably somebody that was in the audition that was just trying to … you know, I don’t know. But the rumors were that I bombed the audition on purpose, that I threw a beer bottle at Lorne Michaels’s head. Somebody said … that I had entered the audition, saying, “I’m T.J. Miller from Cloverfield, motherfuckers!” Which, by the way, I have never said that.
Check out the interview for Miller’s full SNL story.
21. John Mulaney (2008)
Stand-up John Mulaney also tried out for the show in 2008. He was hired on as a writer but would be used on camera occasionally for desk pieces at the Weekend Update desk. Here’s Mulaney describing his SNL audition:
Amy [Poehler] and Seth [Meyers] asked me to audition for the show. I was very, very nervous but I had a lot of fun auditioning because I knew I wasn’t going to get it. So I went in and was like: “This will be a fun memory. I’ll tell my kids I auditioned for Lorne Michaels …I’d been doing Best Week Ever on VH1 for about two years before that. I’d done impressions on there, like Kevin Federline and George Takei, but I decided to adapt my standup into more of a character form. I had a joke about how Donald Trump is not just a rich man, but what a hobo imagines a rich man to be. So I did this character who’s sitting under a bridge at a little trash-can fire, imagining what his life will be like and it’s basically Donald Trump’s life. He’ll have tall buildings with his name on them and fine, golden hair. For a standup who was more of a “Hi, I’m John Mulaney” standup, I had a decently well-rounded audition. But I wasn’t trying to be, like, here’s your new Church Lady, here’s your new Opera Man.
22. Nick Kroll (2008)
According to TJ Miller, Nick Kroll auditioned for SNL the same year, when new hires ended up being Bobby Moynihan, Abby Elliott, and Michaela Watkins. Kroll would have been a huge asset to the show, especially now that he’s proven he can be the focus of an entire sketch show on Comedy Central’s Kroll Show. Kroll booked a regular role on FX’s The League the following year.
23. Aubrey Plaza (2008)
According to a Guardian profile, Parks and Rec star Aubrey Plaza auditioned for Saturday Night Live in 2008 but was passed over. She was quickly cast in Judd Apatow’s Funny People and Parks and Recreation shortly after the audition.
24. John Roberts (circa 2008)
Comedian John Roberts, best known as the voice of wife Linda on Bob’s Burgers, tried out for the show a few years ago. When asked if he believes there was homophobia behind the decision to not hire him in an interview with Queerty, Roberts replied, “SNL has definitely been accused of homophobia in the past, but I don’t think that they necessarily are. I can’t imagine the people that work at that show are homophobic. I would hope not.” He added, “I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with homophobia; I didn’t feel excluded at all. I think it was just terrible timing. My dad had passed away a month before, so I was dealing with that, but because it was always my dream to be on SNL, I felt like I had to do the tryout. It was maybe a little too soon.”
25. Kevin Hart (year unknown)
During his monologue when hosting SNL last month, Kevin Hart talked about auditioning for the show “way back in the day” and doing impressions of NBA coach Avery Johnson (“I found out that white people didn’t know who Avery Johnson is”) and Robert De Niro (“I’m only gonna use expressions”). Hart wasn’t hired and now he’s famous enough to host the show.
Here’s Hart’s SNL monologue, in which he talks about his unsuccessful audition:
26. Kumail Nanjiani (2012)
Comedian Kumail Nanjiani (Portlandia, Franklin & Bash) auditioned for SNL last year and was hired on as a guest writer. Here’s Nanjiani telling us about his audition:
It happened because it’s the same production company that does Portlandia. Broadway Video is Lorne Michael’s company, I’d done a couple seasons of Portlandia and they liked my work on it and they wanted me to come audition. I said, “You know, I don’t really do characters.” And they said, “Just come do standup.” So I just went and did standup. It was just one of those things where it aligned and they wanted me to come out to New York and audition. I mean, you can’t not audition for SNL.