Eight ‘SNL’ Cast Members Who Went from Sidelined to Success

Now that Saturday Night Live’s highly transitional 39th season has come and gone, the next question on SNL fans’ minds is which cast members will be back in the fall and which will be given the axe. A couple relatively new cast members like Taran Killam and Kate McKinnon have stepped into the forefront by inhabiting nearly every sketch as Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, and Bill Hader used to do, but the currently overstuffed cast of season 39 (particularly its white dude-dominated featured players) could definitely use some trimming. For all the contingents though, successful SNL player stints don’t necessarily guarantee fame and fortune, and the opposite is just as true: There are plenty of former SNLers who struggled on the show or got canned early on then graduated to much brighter and more fruitful comedy careers. Here are just eight of them:

Joan Cusack

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. Despite spending only a year as a repertory player, Cusack had already established herself as a master of blending hipsterdom and squaredom together into a loopy and sweetly self-deprecating package, and despite her laments about being stuck in “the best friend or the quirky sidekick” mold, few actors have owned those roles with the same level of irreplaceable weirdness and accessibility. (Read More)

Robert Downey Jr.

While live television was an unfamiliar gig for Robert Downey Jr. when he joined the cast of SNL in 1985 alongside movie stars like Randy Quaid and Anthony Michael Hall, his experience performing extended back to 1970 both backstage and on-screen, starting with his role as a puppy in his underground filmmaker father’s debut film Pound at age five. He may not have survived through the following season, but Downey has since gone onto mega-stardom, and his year on SNL has been all but forgotten in the process, overshadowed by his drug and legal problems in the 1990s as well as his current action superstar status via the Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes franchises. (Read More)

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

I thought it was going to be a congenial experience; my head was in the clouds. I wasn’t aware of the politicking one had to do, and I think there were a lot of drugs going on at the time, but I was unaware of that as well, to tell you the truth. I was always surprised at read-through, though, when certain writers’ sketches were eighteen pages long and they were laughing and laughing, and I was so confused as to how they could possibly have found it so funny — and made it so long! Everybody was doing a lot of coke and smoking dope. Everybody would stay up late. All the work was done between eleven o’clock at night and six o’clock in the morning; that’s when everybody was functioning. And that wasn’t, in my view, conducive to comedy. (Read More)

Chris Elliott

So with titles of writer, creator, and actor already under his belt, Elliott continued playing strange, smarmy, and unstable weirdo characters on SNL instead of competing for the easy catchphrase. It’s a technique he describes perfectly in his 1994 sketch with host George Foreman called “Chris’ Bedtime Story,” where Foreman asks Elliott about his lax on and off-screen attitude: “Seems like a young boy like you should have a little more energy.” “You know, you’re absolutely right. Sometimes I think maybe I have that yuppie disease. I’m as lethargic as a kitty with a belly full of milk.” (Read More)

David Koechner

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. These days, Koechner continues to perform live improv and stand-up on top of staying super busy as a father of five as well as comedy’s go-to Southern trucker/cowboy/yokel. (Read More)

Rob Riggle

Some SNL cast members don’t find widespread success until after they leave the show, and that’s the case for Rob Riggle, who was a featured player from 2004-2005 and left without much of a lasting impact in terms of characters, sketches, or impressions. SNL never figured out what to do with this tall, vaguely menacing, but ultimately hilarious Superman/soldier hybrid who’s also a pilot and decorated Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps and served in Liberia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Never one to back down from a challenge, Riggle didn’t let his lack of SNL success stop him; he went on to gain fame during his two-year stint as a Daily Show correspondent and now rocks a thriving career of stand-up, video, television, and film appearances. (Read More)

Sarah Silverman

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. (Read More)

Ben Stiller

For a mega-blockbuster mainstream comedy star, perhaps it makes sense that Ben Stiller spent only two months at SNL before leaving due to creative differences (they wouldn’t let him make video shorts). Not only did he go on to create the short-lived but adored cult favorite The Ben Stiller Show, but he’s helmed countless hit films, many of which could be right at home in the Studio 8H recurring character mold, alongside frequent “Frat Pack” collaborators Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Owen and Luke Wilson, and Vince Vaughn. 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. And rightfully so for such a forward thinker – just take today’s pre-taped-to-live ratio on SNL as testament. (Read More)

Eight ‘SNL’ Cast Members Who Went from Sidelined to […]