Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 37 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
As the oldest person to be hired as a cast member in SNL history, it makes sense that Michael McKean once described his role on the show as “to be kind of the adult – to be David Spade’s dad.” It’s a short order for such a multi-talented and collaborative comic ensemble performer like McKean, whose 40+ year career has spanned from recurring talk show appearances to respected Broadway productions to films both comedic and dramatic, and whose longstanding friendship with David Lander, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer earned him his most memorable claims to fame on Laverne and Shirley, This Is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind, and more.
McKean’s father Gilbert McKean was the founder of 1950s music label Decca Records, so it’s perhaps no surprise that McKean’s childhood and early ambitions were steeped in music. Born and raised in Long Island, New York, McKean learned guitar by age 14 then moved onwards to acting; he first met David Lander and Christopher Guest in 1965 while studying acting at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. Later, McKean briefly attended NYU before moving to Los Angeles, where he reunited with Lander in 1970 and was discovered by Beatnik radio personality Richard Beebe, a cofounder of the AM radio comedy group The Credibility Gap. Beebe tapped McKean, Lander, and Harry Shearer to form Credibility’s new late 60s lineup, and the group wrote and performed countless satirical news pieces together on the air on KRLA 1110 and later KPPC-FM and later through live touring performances and two records: A Great Gift Idea in 1974 and The Bronze Age of Radio in 1975.
The same year, McKean and Lander found their first big break when they were offered writing jobs on the ABC sitcom Laverne and Shirley. Thanks to the influence of Laverne star Penny Marshall, the duo joined the show’s permanent cast as Lenny Kosnowski and Andrew “Squiggy” Squigman – based off characters from their Credibility Gap days. McKean found quick popularity portraying Lenny from 1976-1983, even recording an album with Lander in 1979 under the moniker Lenny and the Squigtones. Christopher Guest played guitar for the album, credited under the name of his soon-to-be-famous character Nigel Tufnel. A year after the Laverne and Shirley finale, McKean, Guest, and Shearer rocketed to comedy stardom with their British heavy metal band mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, in which McKean plays the dim and pussywhipped singer/rhythm guitarist David St. Hubbins. The film went on to become a cult classic and was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in 2002.
Throughout the eighties and early nineties, McKean racked up a list of onscreen appearances in shows like The Joe Franklin Show, the short-lived NBC sitcom Grand, Murder, She Wrote, and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. He also had film roles in Young Doctors in Love, Used Cars, Clue, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Earth Girls Are Easy, and Memoirs of an Invisible Man starring Chevy Chase. McKean also enjoyed a five-year run playing editor Gibby Fiske on the HBO series Dream On.
By the time McKean was hired as an SNL cast member in 1994, he had already made turns on the show as both a musical guest (as Spinal Tap in 1984) and host (to promote This Is Spinal Tap later that year), making him not only the oldest hired SNL cast member at 46 but the first player to have gone from SNL musical guest to host to player. McKean was brought on as a midseason ringer in March and joined newcomers Sarah Silverman, Jay Mohr, and Norm Macdonald in an overcrowded cast caught in between the departures of heavyweights Dana Carvey (at the end of season 19) and Phil Hartman (at the end of season 20). He had previously been offered a cast member spot by Dick Ebersol in 1984 but turned it down; Shearer and Guest accepted but both left the show by the end of their single-season stints.
McKean found only one recurring SNL character with the “Good Morning Brooklyn” weatherman Anthony (“It ain’t good, James, it’s hot as a bastard!”), but he found screen time with almost 20 celebrity impersonations (often taking over for Phil Hartman) including Bill Clinton, Howard Stern, Vincent Price, Robert Evans, Entertainment Tonight cohost John Tesh, and OJ Simpson defense attorney Robert Shapiro. He brought his musical talent to sketches like “The Buck Daniels Story” and “Poker Billy,” using his folksy guitar ballad skills to narrate sketches in the same vein as The Folksmen, his other musical trio group with Shearer and Guest. On his time on the show, McKean told The AV Club:
Well, a lot of it has to do with how happy you are. Chris [Elliott] wasn’t happy. Chris didn’t like it, and Janeane [Garofalo] didn’t like it at all. But she always does point out that she had a couple of good shows, a couple of times when they had some good times. Amid the crabbiness, I had fun with everybody. I was pretty crabby myself sometimes. But I think it was kind of just wandering: It didn’t know where it was going.
Despite McKean’s lackluster SNL stint, he’s time and again proven himself as a sturdy utility player and built up a lengthy onscreen resume. In television he’s appeared on Caroline in the City, Murphy Brown, Boy Meets World, The X-Files, Primetime Glick (as band leader Adrien Van Voorhees from 2001-2003), Children’s Hospital, Homeland, Happy Endings, and the new Christopher Guest HBO series Family Tree. In film he’s shown up in Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Little Nicky, Mystery, Alaska, and Guest mockumentary films Best In Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration, and he’s also voiced for numerous animated shows and movies (Dinosaurs, Pinky and the Brain, Small Soldiers, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Spongebob Squarepants) and performed in several Broadway productions (Hairspray, The Pajama Game, The Best Man). Thanks to his perfect mix of hippy folk activist, lilted Irish crooner, and tacky old-school comedian inspirations, McKean has enjoyed a long and steady career as an always beamy and likable actor/musician/all-around key player whose largely forgotten time on SNL might seem inconsequential compared to his much earlier and later successes.