Thursday, March 14th, 2013

Second City vs. Groundlings vs. UCB: Where Do the Most 'SNL' Cast Members Come From?

Throughout Saturday Night Live's history, the show's cast has been mostly culled from four places: the stand-up world, L.A.'s Groundlings Theatre, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatres in L.A. and New York, and the Chicago improv sketch/scene (the Second City, iO, and Annoyance theaters). Sure, there are wildcard hires who avoided these standard comedy training grounds, like Fred Armisen – a drummer for a punk rock bank who caught the eye of Bob Odenkirk after making some videos of himself bothering strangers at a music festival – or Anthony Michael Hall – an actor from John Hughes's Brat Pack who had a one-season run on the show in the '80s – or Andy Samberg – who got his start making viral videos for Channel 101. But despite the occasional odd SNL beginnings story, the bulk of the cast throughout the years has come from the aforementioned four places.

Since 1975, there have been peaks and valleys to each comedy theater's influence on the show. In the '80s and '90s, a large portion of the cast were stand-ups, whereas there's only one stand-up on the show now, which currently has more alumni from Chicago's Second City and iO theaters than from anywhere else. Here's a breakdown of what portion of each SNL cast, separated by era, comes from Groundlings, Second City/iO, UCB, stand-up, or that wacky miscellaneous category:

Second City (4 out of 13, 30.7%): Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray
Groundlings (1 out of 13, 7.7%): Laraine Newman
Other (8 out of 13, 61.5%): Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Harry Shearer, Al Franken, Tom Davis, Don Novello, Paul Shaffer

Lorne Michaels didn't yet have his formula for creating a surefire SNL cast when he was first putting the show together. We know that for the past decade or so, the show's been equal parts Second City/iO, Groundlings, and UCB, with a stand-up or two thrown in to do impressions or anchor the Weekend Update desk, but back in 1975, the comedy landscape was drastically different. Michaels pulled most of his cast from the Second City theaters in Chicago and Toronto, with some of the show's writers playing minor roles in later seasons. Laraine Newman was the only person he hired out of the Groundlings Theater in Los Angeles, which is a pretty impressive accomplishment on her part given that the theater had only opened the year before in 1974.

As far as the rest of the cast goes, Chevy Chase was involved in the National Lampoon scene with fellow cast members John Belushi, Gilda Radner, his eventual replacement Bill Murray, and SNL's head writer Michael O'Donoghue. Chase performed on The National Lampoon Radio Hour and National Lampoon's stage show Lemmings in addition to his involvement in the New York-based comedy group Channel One, which produced an underground video show and the cult movie The Groove Tube. Garrett Morris was a playwright and actor who was hired to write for SNL before switching to being a cast member before production began. Jane Curtin came from the Boston-based improv group The Proposition. Late additions Al Franken and Tom Davis were Harvard geek writers promoted to featured player status. Harry Shearer came out of an L.A. radio group called The Credibility Gap (other members included Michael McKean and David L. Lander) and had also collaborated with Christopher Guest, Albert Brooks, and Rob Reiner prior to his hiring. Don Novello came up via the San Francisco local TV show The Chicken Little Comedy Hour and published a book of prank letters to celebrities called The Lazlo Letters. Paul Shaffer was the pianist for SNL's house band who eventually made his way onscreen in small parts.

Stand-up (3 out of 7, 42.9%): Gilbert Gottfried, Joe Piscopo, Eddie Murphy
Other (4 out of 7, 57.1%): Denny Dillon, Gail Matthius, Ann Risley, Charles Rocket

When Jean Doumanian took over as SNL's executive producer following Lorne Michaels's departure in 1980, she threw out Michaels's method of building a cast too. Instead of going to the Groundlings and Second City for new talent, she instead hired a bunch of miscellaneous actors and stand-ups. To her credit, she was the first person to hire a stand-up comedian for SNL. Influenced by the '80s comedy boom, she established stand-up clubs as a source for SNL players, which remained a trend into the mid-'90s. For the rest of the cast, Doumanian hired Denny Dillon from Broadway, Gail Matthius from the L.A. improv scene, Charles Rocket from local news, and Ann Risley after she played a small part in Stardust Memories, a movie directed by Doumanian's close friend Woody Allen.

Stand-up (2 out of 12, 16.6%): Joe Piscopo, Eddie Murphy
Second City (6 out of 12, 50%): Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky, Tony Rosato, Brian Doyle-Murray, Mary Gross, Jim Belushi
The Practical Theatre Company (3 out of 12, 25%): Brad Hall, Gary Kroeger, Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Other (1 out of 12, 8.3%): Christine Ebersole

Dick Ebersol took the SNL reins from Jean Doumanian in 1981 and wisely followed Lorne Michaels's lead by hiring the bulk of his cast from the Second City Theatre. He also grabbed three performers from The Practical Theatre Company, a group of Chicago actors known for their improv and satiric plays. Practical Theatre made up a significant portion of SNL's cast in the early '80s, briefly rivaling Second City before closing its doors in 1988. Christine Ebersole was a soap actress and the only member of the cast during this era not from stand-up or the Chicago comedy scene.

Second City (3 out of 10, 30%): Mary Gross, Jim Belushi, Martin Short
Practical Theatre Company (2 out of 10, 20%): Gary Kroeger, Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Other (5 out of 10, 50%): Bill Crystal, Christopher Guest, Rich Hall, Harry Shearer, Pamela Stephenson

For the 1984 season, SNL head honcho Dick Ebersol took a different approach. After losing heavy-hitters Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, he kept some of the lesser-known cast members around while pulling in a bunch of comedic actors who were mildly well-known. Martin Short came from SCTV, Billy Crystal had acted on the sitcom Soap and done stand-up, Harry Shearer had already been on SNL for a season, Christopher Guest had just made This Is Spinal Tap and was involved with National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live with Howard Cossell, Rich Hall was a regular on ABC's SNL knockoff Fridays and HBO's Not Necessarily the News, and Pamela Stephenson was a New Zealander who had starred in the UK inspiration for Not Necessarily the News, Not the Nine O'Clock News. It was Ebersol's last year in charge of the show, and he went out with a bang by bringing in an impressive, eclectic batch of new cast members.

Second City (1 out of 9, 11.1%): Nora Dunn
Groundlings (1 out of 9, 11.1%): Jon Lovitz
Stand-up (1 out of 9, 11.1%): Dennis Miller
Other (6 out of 9, 66.6%): Joan Cusack, Robert Downey Jr, Anthony Michael Hall, Randy Quaid, Terry Sweeney, Danitra Vance

Perhaps inspired by Dick Ebersol's '84-'85 season, Lorne Michaels hired a bunch of known actors when he returned to SNL in 1985. John Hughes and the Brat Pack were at the peak of their popularity at the time, and Michaels added a trio of young actors to the cast who had appeared in Hughes's movies – Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr., and Joan Cusack – and an older actor who had appeared in the Hughes-penned National Lampoon's Vacation, Randy Quaid. Terry Sweeney had written for SNL during the 1980-81 season but was discovered by Michaels performing in a New York comedy group called The Bess Truman Players, and Danitra Vance came from New York's experimental theater scene. Lorne Michaels leaned back on the amount of Second City players in his second cast, only hiring Nora Dunn from the famed Chicago theater. Dennis Miller became the first stand-up Lorne Michaels hired as a full-fledged cast member. Dunn, Lovitz, and Miller – the only cast members harvested from the show's traditional sources – were the only three to survive the season, one of the show's strangest years ever.

Second City/iO (2 out of 11, 18.8%): Nora Dunn, Mike Myers
Groundlings (3 out of 11, 27.3%): Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks
Stand-up (5 out of 11, 45.4%): Dennis Miller, Dana Carvey, Victoria Jackson, Kevin Nealon, A Whitney Brown
Other (1 out of 11, 9.2%): Al Franken

After the disastrous 1985-86 season, Lorne Michaels returned to his usual sources for cast members. Following Lovitz's success on the show, he hired up his fellow Groundlings Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks. Mike Myers, who started at Second City Toronto before moving to the theater's Chicago branch, became the first cast member hired who had been trained at Chicago's improvOlympic (or iO) Theater – though his involvement with Second City is what got him in the door. With the '80s stand-up boom at full swing, most of the new hires came from comedy clubs and one of them, Dana Carvey, took to sketch comedy with an Eddie Murphy-esque fervor and became SNL's star during these seasons.

Second City/iO (3 out of 25, 12%): Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows
Groundlings (2 out of 25, 8%): Phil Hartman, Julia Sweeney
Stand-up (12 out of 25, 48%): Dana Carvey, Victoria Jackson, Kevin Nealon, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, Adam Sandler, David Spade, Ellen Cleghorne, Jay Mohr, Janeane Garofalo, Norm Macdonald, Laura Kightlinger
Annoyance (2 out of 25, 8%): Beth Cahill, Melanie Hutsell
Other (6 out of 25, 24%): Al Franken, Siobhan Fallon, Robert Smigel, Michael McKean, Chris Elliott, Mark McKinney

While a lot of the mid-80s cast stuck around into the early '90s, SNL began hiring a lot of new personnel in 1990. The 1991-92 season saw the show"s cast ballooning out of control to feature an 18-person ensemble – a record for the show. With the stand-up boom still going at the start of the decade but winding down a couple years in, Lorne Michaels continued to hire stand-ups for the show, using them to make up nearly half of the show's cast.  Beth Cahill and Melanie Hutsell were alumni of Chicago's then-new Annoyance Theater, hired after a super-successful run in the theater's show The Real Life Brady Bunch. Siobhan Fallon was a member of the NYC improv group The Usual Suspects and did a solo show and several off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company productions. Robert Smigel was a writer promoted to cast member. Michael McKean, Chris Elliott, and Mark McKinney were all respected established comedians from Spinal Tap, Letterman, and The Kids in the Hall, respectively, who found their work on SNL overpowered by the loud frat boy antics of the show's mid-90s frontmen Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, and David Spade.

Second City/iO (5 out of 19, 26.3%): Tim Meadows, David Koechner, Nancy Walls, Horatio Sanz, Rachel Dratch
Groundlings (5 out of 19, 26.3%): Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan, Ana Gasteyer, Chris Parnell
Stand-up (7 out of 19, 36.8%): Norm Macdonald, Jim Breuer, Darrell Hammond, Fred Wolf, Tracy Morgan, Colin Quinn, Jimmy Fallon
Other (2 out of 19, 10.5%): Mark McKinney, Molly Shannon

With SNL on the brink of cancellation for the first time in a decade and a scathing review of the previous season from New York magazine, Lorne Michaels cleaned house in 1995. For the new cast, he leaned back on stand-ups a little bit, going back to the Second City and Groundlings wells. With Groundling Will Ferrell as the show's star, more Groundlings alums started creeping into the cast, and stand-ups continued to trickle in too. Molly Shannon was the only wildcard member of the new cast, having caught the attention of SNL producers from her two-person show "The Rob and Molly Show," which had a long run at the Up Front Comedy Theater in LA. This cast, which evenly balanced cast members from Groundlings, Second City/iO, and stand-up dragged SNL out of its dry spell.

Second City/iO (5 out of 21, 23.8%): Horatio Sanz, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Jerry Minor, Seth Meyers
Groundlings (6 out of 21, 28.6%): Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, Ana Gasteyer, Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph, Will Forte
Stand-up (6 out of 21, 28.6%): Darrell Hammond, Tracy Morgan, Jimmy Fallon, Dean Edwards, Jeff Richards, Finesse Mitchell
UCB (2 out of 21, 9.5%): Amy Poehler, Rob Riggle
Other (2 out of 21, 9.5%): Fred Armisen, Kenan Thompson

The amount of stand-ups on the show continued to decline as SNL entered the new millenium. Second City/iO and Groundlings each made up a sizable chunk of the cast, with a new comedy training ground emerging – the UCB Theatre. Rob Riggle became the first SNL cast member who came up via the UCB's training program, although he was predated by Amy Poehler and Horatio Sanz, who did their comedy schooling at Chicago's iO and Second City Theatres before co-founding and performing extensively at the UCB, respectively. As for this season's wildcards, Kenan Thompson was a veteran cast member of Nickelodeon's All That, a version of SNL for kids, and Fred Armisen was a punk rock drummer who started making funny videos and landed a gig at the now-defunct cable channel HBO Zone and a role in Bob Odenkirk's pilot Next!, which earned him an SNL audition.

Second City/iO (4 out of 21, 19%): Seth Meyers, Jason Sudeikis, Vanessa Bayer, Paul Brittain
Groundlings (6 out of 21, 28.6%): Maya Rudolph, Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, Michaela Watkins, Taran Killam, Nasim Pedrad
Stand-up (3 out of 21, 14.3%): Darrell Hammond, Jenny Slate, Jay Pharoah
UCB (4 out of 21, 19%): Amy Poehler, Casey Wilson, Abby Elliott, Bobby Moynihan
Other (4 out of 21, 19%): Fred Armisen, Kenan Thompson, Bill Hader, Andy Samberg

SNL's Wiig-Samberg era saw all the big comedy theaters sending an equal(ish) amount of cast members to the show, but with the Groundlings taking the lead. Andy Samberg became the first cast member to come from a new frontier – the internet – after his comedy group The Lonely Island landed a pilot deal with Fox after a bunch of their videos went viral on Channel 101 and elsewhere. Samberg's fellow wildcard, Bill Hader, was discovered by Megan Mullally after she saw him performing with his LA-based sketch group "Animals from the Future."

Second City/iO (6 out of 14, 32.8%): Seth Meyers, Jason Sudeikis, Vanessa Bayer, Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson, Cecily Strong
Groundlings (2 out of 14, 14.28%): Taran Killam, Nasim Pedrad
Stand-up (1 out of 14, 7.1%): Jay Pharoah
UCB (2 out of 14, 14.3%): Bobby Moynihan, Kate McKinnon
Other (3 out of 14, 21.4%): Fred Armisen, Kenan Thompson, Bill Hader

The cast of SNL's current season hails mostly from Chicago's trio of comedy theaters – Second City, iO, and Annoyance – with this season's new cast members – Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson, and Cecily Strong – all hailing from the Windy City. The influence of Groundlings seems to have waned a little bit, with the L.A. theater not currently being the go-to cast member source it was during Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig's stints on the show, but as evidenced from the rest of these charts, each comedy theater's affect on SNL has a tendency to rise and fall.

Second City/iO (28 out of 115, 24.4%): Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky, Tony Rosato, Mary Gross, Jim Belushi, Brian Doyle-Murray, Martin Short, Nora Dunn, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, David Koechner, Nancy Walls, Horatio Sanz, Rachel Dratch, Horatio Sanz, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Seth Meyers, Vanessa Bayer, Paul Brittain, Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson, Cecily Strong
Groundlings (16 out of 115, 13.9%): Laraine Newman, Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Julia Sweeney, Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan, Ana Gasteyer, Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph, Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, Michaela Watkins, Taran Killam, Nasim Pedrad
Other (32 out of 115, 27.8%): Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Harry Shearer, Al Franken, Tom Davis, Don Novello, Denny Dillon, Gail Matthius, Ann Risley, Charles Rocket, Christine Ebersole, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Rich Hall, Pamela Stephenson, Joan Cusack, Robert Downey Jr, Anthony Michael Hall, Randy Quaid, Terry Sweeney, Al Franken, Siobhan Fallon, Robert Smigel, Michael McKean, Chris Elliott, Mark McKinney, Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Kenan Thompson, Bill Hader, Andy Samberg
Stand-up (28 out of 115, 24.4%): Gilbert Gottfried, Joe Piscopo, Eddie Murphy , Dennis Miller, Dana Carvey, Victoria Jackson, Kevin Nealon, A. Whitney Brown, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, Adam Sandler, David Spade, Ellen Cleghorne, Jay Mohr, Janeane Garofalo, Norm Macdonald, Laura Kightlinger, Jim Breuer, Darrell Hammond, Fred Wolf, Tracy Morgan, Colin Quinn, Jimmy Fallon, Dean Edwards, Jeff Richards, Finesse Mitchell, Jenny Slate, Jay Pharoah
The Practical Theatre Company (3 out of 115, 2.6%): Brad Hall, Gary Kroeger, Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Annoyance (2 out of 115, 1.7%): Beth Cahill, Melanie Hutsell
UCB (6 out of 115, 5.2%): Amy Poehler, Rob Riggle, Casey Wilson, Abby Elliott, Bobby Moynihan, Kate McKinnon

Overall, Second City/iO and stand-up have contributed the most cast members to SNL, but that's only because Lorne Michaels didn't start pulling heavily from The Groundlings until the mid-'80s and the UCB until the early '00s. While nearly a quarter of the show's total cast members have come from stand-up, the medium's dominance over SNL is confined to the stand-up boom of the '80s and '90s. Looking ahead, it seems that Groundlings, Second City, iO, and UCB will continue to make up the bulk of SNL's hires, with stand-up cast members waning and Andy Samberg's internet-to-SNL jump, so far, being a one-time thing.

NOTE: In assembling this data, I didn't include people who were only on the show for a few episodes (sorry, George Coe!), and cast members who spent the bulk of their time on the show during one era and left pretty soon into the next era were left off of the second era's chart (e.g. David Spade, who I didn't count as a part of the 1995-2000 cast because he left very early into that era and was more a part of the show from 1990-1995). Lastly, a lot of cast members performed and trained at multiple comedy theaters, so I counted the one they were most closely associated with at the time of being hired (e.g. Amy Poehler trained and performed at Second City and iO before opening her own theater, the UCB; Michaela Watkins did sketch at both Groundlings and UCB; folks like Jason Sudeikis and Vanessa Bayer performed at Annoyance, but spent most of their pre-SNL times at iO or Second City).

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  • http://twitter.com/MissHezah Heather Sundell

    Super interesting read!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasonfarr Jason Farr

    Good read. Though Fallon didn't graduate from it he was in Groundlings. So he kinda did come from both stand up and Groundlings. I always assumed it was Groundlings that got him on, but that was just an assumption.

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

      Nah, he was never a performer at Groundlings. Just a student. Stand-up got him on the show.

  • Matt

    I've always been curious about who gets picked to audition for SNL and how. I know of some great names that didn't get picked (Steph Weir, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert).

    • Don

      Steve Carell never auditioned for SNL. There's a rumor Will Ferrell was picked over him, but he has mentioned in several interviews it's not true. By the time there were auditions at Second City for SNL he had already left Second City, so he never got the chance to audition. His wife, Nancy Walls, did get picked though. I'm not sure if Stephen Colbert ever auditioned either.

    • ljpljpljp

      With Stephanie (Benjamin) Weir added, that would have been a formidable quartet of women. Weir, Fey, Dratch, and Poehler…wow.

  • http://www.facebook.com/texasjencain Jen Cain

    Bill Hader was discovered at The Second City, LA.

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

      Nah. He studied at Second City LA and iO West but was discovered by Megan Mullally via his independent sketch group Animals from the Future, which performed all over town.

  • http://www.facebook.com/morganevans Morgan Evans

    Would love to see this with writers as well

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

      I would love to, but I am exhausted from doing this one and mentally can't handle another one.

  • Ryan

    Wasn't Jimmy Fallon from the Groundlings?

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

      He studied there. Didn't graduate. Stand-up got him in the door at SNL.

  • garth brooks


  • eavoss

    As usual, awesome article, Bradford. And good on you for clarifying things both in the article and here in the comments. It's a little annoying to see so many comedy theaters and communities take credit for a particular performer's breakthrough, when more often than not, it's just a matter of timing. For example, I'd submit that had Bill Hader taken classes at Groundlings, within a few years he would've been discovered on the Groundlings stage and made it to SNL anyway. I'm proud that he took classes at iO West, but when I see him on SNL, it's not Del's wisdom that we see on screen as much as it's just raw, hilarious Hader.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robbiepierce Robbie X Pierce

    LOVE this! Thanks!

  • Johnny

    Two I think you should've included: Damon Wayans (featured player in 1985-1986) came from stand-up and Jerry Minor (featured player in 2000-2001) came Second City Chicago

    • http://www.facebook.com/colin.daniel.5220 Colin Daniel

      Jerry Minor is in there and listed as Second City.

  • http://www.facebook.com/colin.daniel.5220 Colin Daniel

    You forgot Sarah Silverman.

    • Bill L

      We're trying, dude, we're trying…

  • Guest

    This is so well-researched and interesting that I hate to quibble with a single decision, but I think that Billy Crystal should count as Stand-up rather than Other. Even setting aside his cancelled appearance on the first show (at which point I think that he unquestionably would have been associated with stand-up because he was going to do a stand-up routine), I really think that it was his stand-up act that got him on the show. He may have gained recognition and a modicum of fame from Soap, but I think that it was the characters he displayed in his stand-up act that led Ebersole to hire him.

  • Brett

    Good job, Bradford

  • Dan

    Horatio should probably count for UCB

  • Brad Evans

    Bill Hader is Second City not other

  • Curtis Nabors

    wow, nice work Bradford! Thanks.

  • ljpljpljp

    I hope that Lorne Michaels is retired someday soon. If SNL is stil on the air at that glorius time, it would be swell if whoever ends up producing it, does a month worth of shows from Chicago, if not an entire season. I am sure that whoever is mayor at the time will do anything and give anything to help pull it off.

    Michaels has proven to me, if nobody else, that he is a comedy killer. I know, who the hell am I? I am somebody who knows the incomparable energy that would be injected into that lame excuse to run a Saturday night commerical fest, if it were broadcast from Chicago. It wouldn't hurt to allow whichever writers who are connected to the show at that time to be treated to some time off too, or at least have them be counseled by some of the folks who are staging shows at such places as Donny's Skybox, IO and The Annoyance.

    "Live from Chicago it's Saturday Night!" Yup.

    Disclaimer: I have not been involved with any of those theaters for a very long time.

    • justinept

      Donny's Skybox? What an interesting addition to the IO and Annoyance Theaters. Two of those are training grounds while Donny's Skybox is merely the #4 stage at Second City. Just curious – why say Donny's Skybox and not Second City?

      • hippiedippie

        While Donny's Skybox is part of the Second City, it's not what SC considers their "professional" shows. It is, in fact, part of the training center. MOST of the productions which happen there are, in fact, shows which are the culmination of the writing and directing programs while the late shows are typically groups from around town (mostly with a few to many ensemble members being previously involved with the conservatory/writing programs).

        This is an older article, but this is a fascinating read. The author's research is to be commended.

  • Erin Neckers

    Thank you for doing this! WOW.