Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 38 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.
In all of SNL cast history, Dan Vitale stands invisible as the most forgotten player. Until only recently, his IMDB page was mixed up with a female dancer of the same name and did little to shed light on the seasoned Queens-born comic and legendary drunk who was a regular at the original Improv, friend to Bill Hicks, and briefly-lived SNL featured player whose constant struggles with sobriety kept him from ever landing mainstream success. Don’t look for him in the Live from New York book, either – Vitale doesn’t even get a mention in the index. Thanks to a recent interview with Marc Maron on his podcast WTF, however, Vitale’s story can at last be told – at least the parts Vitale himself can still remember.
Vitale was raised in Long Island to a “blackout drunk” mother and a possibly mobbed up father who he claims had some unknown but shady business dealings that compelled the family to take sudden forwarding address-free moves to Florida for periods of time during his childhood. Alcohol and drug abuse played a large influence on Vitale as a teenager, comedy became a coping mechanism, and his penchant for dark humor grew especially after the tragic death of his sister, who died in a car accident when he was only thirteen years old. Crediting Freddie Prinze’s overnight success following his standup set on The Tonight Show as his motivation, Vitale moved across the river to Greenwich Village in order to pursue a career in comedy and acting. Starting in the late ‘70s with open mics around the city and teaming up with Tom Saunders (who later wrote for NewsRadio and Arrested Development) for live sketch performances, Vitale appeared in several plays and shows, eventually becoming a regular at the original Improv theater, which helped launch the careers of Rodney Dangerfield, Andy Kaufman, Jay Leno, and more.
Several years after establishing his standup as – in Maron’s words – a “bombastic wit and confidence mixed with utter and complete insecurity” – Vitale caught the attention of then-former SNL producer Lorne Michaels, who in 1983 was scouting for talent for The New Show on NBC. While Vitale bombed during his first audition after lashing out at the audience (he wasn’t familiar with Michaels’s strict no-laughter audition policy), he landed a spot after his second tryout, followed by a starring role opposite Joe Mantegna in the pilot Big Shots in America produced by Michaels, written by SNL’s Alan Zweibel, and recorded in SNL’s Studio 8H in front of a live audience. While the pilot didn’t land a series order, Michaels let Vitale re-audition for SNL in fall 1985 and hired him as a featured player. According to Vitale, Michaels hired him and said the following: “Dan, in the words of the Kennedy brothers talking about LBJ … I’d rather have you inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”
Vitale was hired for the November 23, 1985 episode, but he was dropped a little over two months later due to the toll of his drug and alcohol abuse, which culminated in his first trip to rehab in fall of 1985. He only sporadically showed up in sketches, rarely with more than one line (including a role as a guard in Jon Lovitz’s second “Pathological Liar” sketch), and he never found grounding with impersonations or recurring characters, claiming on WTF that he managed to get sketches written for him, but they never made it past dress rehearsal. With the exception of Robert Smigel, Bruce McCulloch, and Mark McKinney, whom he liked, Vitale was seen as too volatile to earn enough faith from the writers as a dependable player or rising comedy star.
The sentiment was shared by Michaels, who fired Vitale before the end of the season. “Looking back, he was a great guy,” Vitale said on WTF. “I’ve thought a lot about him over the years – he was the first guy who made me feel really special.” On his lost chance with SNL success: “I made peace with it a long time ago, but I can’t help but think sometimes… I got into the candy store – I didn’t get up the ladder to that nice jar – but I got into the store.” Vitale’s onscreen roles have been limited to small uncredited parts in Anger Management and Malibu’s Most Wanted, but he’s remained on the New York comedy club circuit since, even starring in a 2006 one-man show called Live from Rehab, It’s Dan Vitale. But all those wasted days and opportunities haven’t made Vitale bitter, despite what his tough, brash Italian Long Islander comedy style might lead audiences to believe. “All that time that I wasn’t performing and making it in show business,” he told Maron, “the characters I’ve met, the darkness I’ve seen – I don’t need any more prep work.” Forty years of battling demons and hanging onto the margins of the business might dash the dreams of most, but for dark dudes like Vitale, it’s the hanging and battling that makes the most sense – and most importantly, he’s survived it all.