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Thursday, October 27th, 2011

The Lost Weekend Update Anchors

Weekend Update is by far the longest running segment in Saturday Night Live's history, with the anchor position being one of the most coveted gigs on the show. Since the fake news sketch debuted in the show’s very first episode (then hosted by Chevy Chase), it’s been featured in just about every episode of the show (except for during the Lorne Michaels-less era in the early 80’s when it was retitled SNL Newsbreak and Saturday Night News). Weekend Update holds an important place in comedic history in that it served as the spiritual predecessor to other pieces of faux-journalism that came to dominate American comedy in the 21st century (The Daily Show, Colbert, The Onion, etc.).

It’s no mystery why so many performers have sought the Weekend Update anchor position. The segment’s host gets an extra chance to get their name into people’s heads, introducing themselves to the audience each week. The Weekend Update anchors speak directly to the camera, allowing them to form a more direct and personal bond with the viewers than is possible in an ordinary sketch. These are just some of the reasons that many of the biggest stars SNL has turned out, including Chevy Chase, Tina Fey, and Bill Murray, have used Weekend Update as a springboard to greater fame.

Let’s take a look at the various stand-ups, actors, and satirists that almost ended up behind the Weekend Update desk at one point or another.

Tim Kazurinsky (1984)
According to former castmember Tim Kazurinsky, he was offered the chance to host Weekend Update (then called Saturday Night News) but turned it down. Here's what Kazurinsky says in the SNL oral history, Live from New York, It's Saturday Night:

I remember my last year there, they offered me ‘Weekend Update’ about three-quarters of the way through the season. And I said, that’s really fucked. Brad Hall would feel horrible. I mean, that’s just like yanking him in the middle of the season. Everybody’s ego was fucked-up enough. If you’re going to do something like that, do it at the end of the season. And I just said no. I didn’t have the stomach for it.

Kazurinsky excelled at playing loose fictional versions of himself on SNL, most notably the recurring "I Married a Monkey" sketches and as a commentator on Weekend Update. He was a solid choice to anchor the segment and he would have likely connected with audiences more than Brad Hall, who never caught fire on Weekend Update. It's refreshing to hear that Kazurinsky had some backbone, though, and didn't swipe the job from his colleague. Despite Kazurinsky turning the position down, the Update desk was still yanked from Brad Hall’s hands in January of 1984 anyway, with a series of rotating anchors, usually the show’s host or guest star, finishing out the season.

Al Franken (1994)
Senator Al Franken, who had been with SNL as a writer and featured player on and off for most of the show's run, had his eye on the Weekend Update desk after Kevin Nealon vacated the position in 1994. He fought hard to win the job, but Lorne Michaels and the network chose Norm Macdonald over him. Franken felt so disappointed and betrayed that he left the show at the end of the season. Al Franken has long been a politically savvy comedian (recently parlaying this into a seat in the U.S. Senate) and his current event expertise would have been put to great use on Weekend Update, as long as he focused on comedy instead of using the fake news job as a platform for his political positions, which, let’s face it, is probably what would have happened.

Norm Macdonald and a female co-host (1994)

In a recent appearance on Marc Maron's podcast WTF, Norm Macdonald told a story about how Lorne Michaels wanted him to co-anchor Weekend Update with a female castmember, bringing the segment back to the two-host format that was used throughout most of the show's late 70's glory era. Macdonald refused, coming off as more than a little sexist in his Maron interview when he says, "I don’t want to do it with a fucking lady. Let [Al] Franken do it." Oddly enough, it was Steve Martin, who hosted the 1994 season premiere, who convinced longtime pal Lorne Michaels that Norm was right in wanting to work solo, citing an Academy Awards bit that went awry.

Macdonald doesn't mention who Lorne Michaels wanted to be his co-anchor. The only two female castmembers during this male-heavy season of SNL were Janeane Garofalo and Ellen Cleghorne. Given Garofalo's penchant for political material and her experience as a stand-up, I'd assume Michaels had her in mind for the job. Garofalo had a miserable time at SNL, not jiving with the crude humor of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley, but being handed Weekend Update might have helped her to adapt to the show more gracefully. On the other hand, Norm Macdonald's Update stint worked fine with him as the sole anchor, and forcing him to share the desk with another performer might have stunted the growth of Weekend Update, which was one of the few bright spots during SNL's disastrous 1994-95 season. Lorne Michaels kept the idea of reviving the coed anchor team format in the back of his head until the 2000 season when he brought in Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey, who had such a successful stint on the segment that Weekend Update retained the double anchor format for an impressive nine years – the longest stretch in SNL's history with two performers behind the WU desk.

UPDATE: The woman who auditioned to join Norm at the desk was Laura Kightlinger, according to her book Quick Shots of False Hope.

Marc Maron (1996)
Then a popular comic in New York's alternative comedy scene, Marc Maron was brought in to meet with Lorne Michaels about replacing Norm Macdonald on Weekend Update in 1996. In his podcast, Maron has recounted the awkward meeting he had with Michaels a number of times, blaming an odd incident with Michaels offering him Jolly Ranchers candy for him not getting the job. Maron has mentioned that he heard through a friend at the show that he was only brought in to scare Norm Macdonald into straightening up and that Michaels had no intention of hiring him. Marc Maron has a political bent, but it seems that, unlike many liberal comics (i.e. Franken, Garofalo), he would have avoided preaching to the choir and using Weekend Update as a soapbox, which would have definitely been a good thing. If Maron had been given this high-profile job, it would have completely thrown off the trajectory of his career, giving him the spotlight during a time when he was wallowing in relative obscurity. It would have been great for Marc Maron to have the weekly network TV exposure, but he would have probably not felt the need to start up WTF in 2009 because he would have likely been too famous to start podcasting during that medium’s infancy.

Kevin Brennan (2000)
Stand-up Kevin Brennan (brother of Chappelle's Show co-creator Neal Brennan) tried out for a spot in the cast in 1999 but was hired as a writer only and was told that the show had too many performers at the time. Brennan even appeared as himself on Weekend Update a couple of times toward the end of the 1999-2000 season in a rare performance by a non-castmember that was likely the producers auditioning him for the job on-air. When Colin Quinn left the Weekend Update desk in 2000, Kevin Brennan was in contention for the anchor slot but was passed over. He then left SNL, choosing not to return as a writer for the following season.

Jeffrey Ross (2000)
Insult comic Jeffrey Ross – best known for his appearances on the Comedy Central Roasts – was one of the finalists for the Weekend Update gig in 2000, competing with Tina Fey for the slot. At the time, the idea of pairing Fey and Jimmy Fallon had not yet been thought of and Fey was close to becoming the show's first solo female anchor in over two decades. According to Ross in his 2009 book I Only Roast the Ones I Love, he was told by his manager that he got the job and was even congratulated by several network execs, as well as Will Ferrell when the two bumped into each other on the street. When Jeffrey Ross arrived to meet with Lorne Michaels, however, he says he was told that Michaels was receiving pressure to promote from within SNL's cast and had come up with the last-minute idea of pairing Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey. This turned out to be a wise choice for Michaels. Fallon and Fey successfully revived Weekend Update, making it into the centerpiece of the show. Audiences never connected with previous anchor Colin Quinn in a big way, and while Norm Macdonald was beloved by many, his stint on Weekend Update was polarizing. Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey's Weekend Update became arguably the most successful incarnation of the segment since Dennis Miller sat behind the desk in the 80’s and early 90’s.

Ana Gasteyer and Chris Parnell (2000)
Castmembers Ana Gasteyer and Chris Parnell also auditioned as a team in 2000. It's odd to imagine what Weekend Update with Ana Gasteyer and Chris Parnell would have been like, as the two mostly played ridiculous characters on the show and would have each needed to find a grounded way to play themselves – as well as figuring out how to work together as a team. Gasteyer and Parnell were always funny together in sketches, but they're at their best when in absurd roles. Taking the anchor jobs would have left them unable to appear as in-character guests on Weekend Update. Gasteyer and Parnell were passed up in favor of another coed duo, Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey, but they have continued to work together since leaving SNL. Ana Gasteyer and Chris Parnell can currently be seen in recurring roles as a married couple in ABC's new comedy Suburgatory.

Jason Sudeikis (2004, 2006)
After a successful four-year long run on Weekend Update and six years on SNL, Jimmy Fallon left the show to pursue a movie career. Jason Sudeikis, then a writer for the show and not yet a part of the cast, auditioned to host Weekend Update, but SNL's producers ended up sliding Amy Poehler into Jimmy Fallon's chair, making she and Tina Fey the first all-female Weekend Update duo. Despite him not getting the job, Sudeikis is a smart choice for the Update desk. Although he can play broad characters, Sudeikis is also adept at playing it straight and he has a good sense of who he is as a performer when appearing on talk shows and SNL sketches as himself. Jason Sudeikis would be a smart choice to take over Weekend Update whenever Seth Meyers hangs up his hat, but given that his movie career is taking off, he may be leaving SNL for greener pastures within the next year or two.

Jason Sudeikis’s name came up again in connection with the Weekend Update again in 2006. The LA Times reported that Sudeikis would be anchoring the segment solo, taking over for Tina Fey (who was leaving for 30 Rock) and Amy Poehler (who was to remain on the show). It seems like Sudeikis was in contention for the spot but SNL’s producers opted to replace Tina Fey with Amy Poehler’s frequent collaborator Seth Meyers, keeping the team anchor thing going for another couple years.

Seth Meyers and Kristen Wiig (2009)
Amy Poehler left SNL in 2008, after a two-and-a-half-year fake news partnership with Seth Meyers, and at the time, it was assumed that Weekend Update would continue with the double anchor set-up that had been so popular for the past eight years. Instead, Seth Meyers, SNL's head writer, brought the segment back to its roots by serving as Weekend Update's sole anchor. There was a widely-reported rumor that Meyers would be sharing WU duties with Kristen Wiig beginning in the fall of 2009. Yahoo! News reported Kristen Wiig had been selected to co-host with Meyers but quickly took the story down. It seems like this is a case of a rumor growing out of control and that Kristen Wiig was never in the running to become a fake newswoman, but it was reported by legitimate news sources and the idea may have been on the table at SNL before producers allowed Meyers to continue flying solo. Wiig is at her best playing oddball characters that pop up for an occasional Weekend Update guest spot, so it seems strange to slide her into this position. As with Chris Parnell and Ana Gasteyer, hosting Weekend Update would have prevented Kristen Wiig from dropping by the Update desk as characters like Aunt Linda, Judy Grimes, and Kat (of Garth and Kat). Unlike some character actors, though, Wiig is perfectly capable of playing more grounded roles that are closer to her own personality, which would have come in handy here. Bridesmaids proved that Wiig can score big laughs without hiding behind a broad character and she may have been able to pull off a similar feat if she’d been given the Weekend Update spot.

That’s Lost Roles and Bradford Evans is outta here!

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  • iamjustryingtolive

    great article. I love everytime Maron brings up his Lorne story. I think in the Norm McDonald though, Norm said that he was done doing Update for sure the year Maron audtioned. I think i'm getting some facts wrong there but i remember Marc being very thrown bc he was wrong in his assumption about how Lorne was "using" him.

    • Dadtastrophe

      @iamjustryingtolive Yeah – Norm was never made aware of the audition, and Maron sounded disappointed that he wasn't part of the grand conspiracy anymore. I loved that moment. And I'm with you – every time someone from SNL comes on it's just a matter of time until the Lorne question comes up, and you know where he's going with it and it's so satisfying.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @iamjustryingtolive I definitely love that story. I hope he gets to interview Lorne someday, but it'll probably never happen.

  • Megh Wright

    You are being way too nice to Tim Kazurinsky. ;)

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @Megh Wright It's because I don't want Tim Kazurinsky to read this and get pissed off and crush me. He wasn't that bad on SNL and I liked him on Curb in the couple episodes he did. It's not like I was complimenting Charles Rocket or anything.

  • A Good Question

    On the idea of Norm MacDonald working with a female coanchor, I'm not sure they meant Janeane Garofalo. For one thing, I don't think she'd have wanted to share a desk with him. And Laura Kightlinger was in the cast that whole year. She was just a featured performer, but officially so was Tina Fey her first year on Update.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @A Good Question I wasn't saying that it was for sure Garofalo. It could have been someone not on the show entirely. It just seemed like a logical assumption given that she does a lot of political stuff and was a stand-up, which every WU host from 1985 to 2000 was.

  • Charlie Fan@twitter

    any rumors on who will take over for seth when he goes on to do bigger things?

  • Dadtastrophe

    FWIW – I got a little twinge during the Norm Macdonald "fucking lady" bit, but I think it came less from a sexist place and more from a conceptual one. It was a part of a larger discussion about how that era's cast was comprised of stand-ups who had no idea how to act, so he wasn't comfortable interacting with other performers. He just wanted to face the camera and tell jokes, and didn't think the idea of Weekend Update "characters" ever really worked (citing Dan Ackroyd and Jane Curtain's weird dynamic.) I got the impression that he would have felt the same way even if it was another guy sitting next to him.

    • Megh Wright

      @Dadtastrophe I don't know, it sounds way more sexist than "conceptual" to me. I love Norm and I'd want to stick up for him but there's not much to defend with that quote.

    • Dadtastrophe

      @Megh Wright Yeah, like I said, I got a twinge when he said "a fucking lady" and it looks way worse pulled out of context. But, in the context of the discussion, he wasn't saying "women aren't funny and I don't want to work with them." He was saying, "this segment doesn't work with more than one person because then you have to play characters, so I'd rather do it alone."

      He went on to talk about how Lorne was pitching all this conceptual stuff about the relationship between the Update "personas" and that's what really turned him off because he didn't get it and just wanted to do stand-up at a desk. Which I thought was funny because his description of that pitch is pretty much exactly what Lorne used to shape the Smart Alek/Class Clown dynamic with Fey/Fallon years later.

  • http://www.seanandmeghan.net sean oconnor

    The only thing I was upset with was saying that Norm wasn't the best Weekend Update host. He was. I would put him right above or tied with Chevy Chase.

    @Charlie Fan – John Mulaney.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @sean oconnor I enjoyed Norm's stint on WU. I thought he was really good, but Fallon and Fey were received better by the general public. Norm is pretty polarizing.

      I agree about Mulaney being a solid and likely choice for after Seth Meyers leaves.

    • http://slaneofthought.tumblr.com Kevin Slane

      @Bradford Evans Agreed on the Mulaney front. Seems his occasional "I Love It" stints and years writing for the show leave him as the theoretical first in line to take the job. Then again, there's no real sense Seth Meyers is planning on leaving as far as I know, and there could be many future cast members or outside hires who could leapfrog him at some point

    • Jason Farr@facebook

      @Bradford Evans Gotta agree. Norm was great. One of my favorites (and apparently Chase's only favorite after him but he's got weird sensibilities). But Norm didn't have the broad appeal Fey/Fallon had. He was hilarious, but the segment didn't take off in popularity like it did (and needed to) in 2000. You were spot on Brad.

  • infoclass16

    great

  • Jason Farr@facebook

    This is a great article. I'm a nerd for SNL. There are reports Sudeikis (and Wiig) are leaving after this season. Even if he were staying, though, and as good as he'd be on Update, I don't know he'd be the best choice at this point. He's too much of a go-to player. Even more than Poehler was when she took over. But it's not unheard of. I think it'll be Mulaney. He seems to be the hot one in the writers room from what I keep hearing/reading.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @Jason Farr@facebook Thanks, Jason! TV contracts are generally 7 years these days, so Wiig and Sudeikis's contracts are up at the end of the season. They can choose to renew but given that they both had a hit movie this summer (Bridesmaids and Horrible Bosses, respectively) this would be a logical time for them both to leave.

  • sburns996

    I was reading recently that in 1985 when lorne came back with his new cast that Lovitz was originally supposed to be Update Anchor but he needed the time between costume changes. So the spot went to Dennis Miller.