The 8 Biggest Transitional Seasons in ‘SNL’ History
Saturday Night Live starts up again tomorrow, with the show having undergoing its the biggest casting change-up in nearly 20 years. Not to worry, though, as Lorne Michaels has an impressive track record of reinventing the show and continuing to find amazing new people to replace his beloved departing performers. With four cast members on the way out (and Seth Meyers expected to make it five with a midseason exit), and six on the way in, this is the most notable SNL cast transition since the show shuttled out the Chris Farley-Adam Sandler gang to clear way for the Will Ferrell-Cheri Oteri ensemble in 1995. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the eight largest casting shifts SNL has ever been through, most of them coming from the show’s tumultuous early-to-mid ’80s.
What percentage of the cast is new?: 37.5%
Longtime cast members Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Jason Sudeikis exited SNL in May, while featured player Tim Robinson was moved to the writing staff for the new season and Seth Meyers is expected to leave in the middle of the year to prep for taking over NBC’s Late Night in February. A large new class of cast members — Beck Bennett, John Milhiser, Kyle Mooney, Michael Patrick O’Brien, Noël Wells, and Brooks Wheelan — is being brought in to fill the void left those who left in May and the void left by fellow heavyweights Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg, who ended their runs on the show last season.
What percentage of the cast was new?: 43.8%
While Jon Lovitz and Nora Dunn were the only two cast members to exit following the 1989-1990 season, Lorne Michaels and company hired an excessive amount of new featured players in the fall, partially to cover that loss but mainly to prep for others leaving over the next couple years (Dennis Miller, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson, Dana Carvey). The new class — Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, David Spade, and Julia Sweeney — proved surprisingly successful, with all seven of them staying on the show for at least three seasons and most of them having solid careers afterwards.
What percentage of the cast was new?: 55.5%
While Lorne Michaels’s first year back at SNL in 1985 didn’t go so hot, he stuck the landing on the 86-87 season, adding soon-to-be SNL hall-of-famers Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, and Kevin Nealon and hatemonger Victoria Jackson to his only 85-86 holdovers: Nora Dunn, Jon Lovitz, and Dennis Miller. Along with a top-notch writing staff that included Conan O’Brien, Greg Daniels, Bob Odenkirk, and Rob Smigel, this cast successfully revived the show and created one of the most memorable eras in SNL ever.
What percentage of the cast was new?: 60%
After Eddie Murphy carried SNL on his back for three years and left to make big blockbuster movies, executive producer Dick Ebersol had the difficult task of replacing Murphy, the single most dominant force in the show’s 38-year history. Ebersol went with an unusual method: hiring a bunch of known actors — Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Rich Hall, Harry Shearer, Martin Short, and New Zealand’s Pamela Stephenson — to fill the Murphy void while retaining some of the Murphy era B cast (which included the very talented but underused Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
What percentage of the cast was new?: 64.2%
SNL‘s last major cast changeover came on the heels of the Chris Farley-Adam Sandler group taking over the show and dragging it down with a season of critically-reviled sophomoric humor, while talented folks like Chris Elliott, Janeane Garofalo, and Laura Kightlinger struggled to establish themselves on the show amidst the turmoil and frat boy antics of its stars. Those three were let go along with Farley and Sandler’s crew, while six new cast members (Jim Breuer, Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, David Koechner, Cheri Oteri, Nancy Walls) were hired on to be the new face of the show, joining 94-95 holdovers Molly Shannon, Norm Macdonald, Mark McKinney, Tim Meadows, and David Spade, with a few featured players (Colin Quinn, Fred Wolf, Chris Kattan) trickling in later in the season too. The new cast, largely thanks to Ferrell, Oteri, and Shannon, helped re-establish the Saturday Night Live and fight off those bad reviews and sinking ratings.
What percentage of the cast was new?: 75%
When Dick Ebersol took over for Jean Doumanian as executive producer in 1981, he shuttled out everyone from her cast except Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, while bringing in a new group (Robin Duke, Christine Ebersole, Mary Gross, Tim Kazurinsky, Tony Rosato, Brian Doyle-Murray), all of whom spent their time on the show playing second fiddle to Piscopo and red-hot Murphy.
What percentage of the cast was new?: 100%
When Lorne Michaels returned to Saturday Night Live after a five-year hiatus (the only time the show wasn’t run b yhim), he created a completely new cast while everyone from the 84-85 Dick Ebersol ensemble either left or was fired. Like Ebersol the year before, Michaels hired some established names (teen star Anthony Michael Hall and Oscar nominee Randy Quaid), along with two relatives of well-known movie people who were starting to pop up in supporting movie parts (Joan Cusack, Robert Downey Jr.) and a bunch of fresh faces (Nora Dunn, Dennis Miller, Jon Lovitz, Terry Sweeney, Danitra Vance). Things didn’t really work out with this group, although the few that weren’t fired became successful on the show.
What percentage of the cast was new?: 100%
SNL‘s disastrous 1980-81 season is well-documenteed. Its first year without Lorne Michaels saw the show under the rein of embattled executive producer Jean Doumanian. Michaels’s entire cast and most of his writing staff flew the coop with him, leaving Doumanian to scramble to replace some of the biggest names in comedy in what was an unprecedented cast transition for SNL. Doumanian hired a questionable ensemble (Denny Dillon, Gilbert Gottfried, Gail Matthius, Joe Piscopo, Ann Risley, Charles Rocket) and insisted on only bringing Eddie Murphy on as a featured player and having him take a backseat to those other folks. Doumanian and everyone from her cast except Murphy and Piscopo were fired after 11 tumultuous shows, but the show, against all odds, managed to survive.