11 Standup Comedians Who Became ‘SNL’ Cast Members

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In addition to the recent hiring of standup Michael Che as co-anchor of Weekend Update, yesterday SNL revealed some surprising hiring news with the announcement that young standup Pete Davidson has been added to the cast as a featured player. SNL has an unpredictable history with hiring standup comedians, and while many seamlessly stepped into the impersonation, sketch acting, and recurring character mold — see Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, and Darrell Hammond, to name a few — most of the show’s standups-turned-players stayed true to their roots, often appearing on Weekend Update and finding ways to make sketch characters take on their own standup sensibilities to varying degrees of success. Here’s a look at 11 of them:

Dennis Miller (1985-1991)
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Before joining SNL, Miller hosted a local Pittsburgh kids’ program called The Trolley Show and had a stint as correspondent on Evening Magazine. After leaving Pittsburgh, he toured as a standup comic in both New York and Los Angeles and appeared on Star Search in 1985, in which he lost to Sinbad. The same year, Lorne Michaels discovered Miller while he was performing at The Comedy Store in LA. (Read More)

Kevin Nealon (1986-1995)
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Nealon’s first big break came with an invitation to perform on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1984, where he did well enough to earn a post-performance interview (you can watch his performance here). Thanks to a recommendation from fellow SNL newcomer Dana Carvey, Lorne Michaels hired Nealon as a featured player two years later after having fired nearly the entire 1985-1986 cast. Nealon was promoted to repertory status the following year. (Read More)

A. Whitney Brown (1986-1991)
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He served jail time in Texas, where he first learned how to juggle, then after his release he busked the streets of San Francisco with an act involving a trained dog, which eventually led to his performing alongside Robin Williams and Dana Carvey at the first San Francisco Comedy Competition in 1976. A slow momentum began with television appearances on Showtime’s The Big Laff Off (1978), Late Night with David Letterman (1983), and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in January 1986. By then, Brown had already made a 1984 standup appearance on SNL and been a writer for two months. (Read More)

Chris Rock (1990-1993)
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With high school behind him, Rock worked minimum wage jobs as a teenager (including a stint at McDonald’s) while trying out standup on the side, and he booked his first professional gig at Catch A Rising Star in 1985 at 20 years old. Soon after he met and was mentored by fellow New York comic Eddie Murphy, who gave Rock his first film role as a Playboy Mansion valet in 1987’s Beverly Hills Cop II as well as an appearance on the HBO special Uptown Comedy Express. Small roles on Miami Vice and Keenen Ivory Wayans’ 1988 film I’m Gonna Git You Sucka followed, as well as near-constant standup. By the time he auditioned for SNL he had already been a regular performer on Showtime at the Apollo for two years. (Read More)

David Spade (1990-1996)
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Spade began his comedy career during his college years at Arizona State, where he performed standup in the university sketch show Farce Side Comedy Hour. After graduating with a degree in business, he kept odd jobs and continued standup by touring clubs and campuses across the country, and at a performance in Los Angeles he was discovered by a casting agent and offered a role in Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol. In 1989 he performed alongside five other comics (including later SNL cast mate Rob Schneider) on HBO’s 13th Annual Young Comedians Special. The show’s host Dennis Miller helped Spade join the cast of SNL as a featured player only a year later. (Read More)

Norm Macdonald (1993-1998)
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The middle child of three sons, Norm Macdonald grew up in Quebec City. Both of his parents were teachers, but that didn’t stop him from dropping out of high school at age 15, then again later from Algonquin College in Ottawa, where he briefly majored in television broadcasting. After shifting his focus to standup, his first big break came at the 1987 Just for Laughs festival in Montreal, which led to writing jobs on The Dennis Miller Show and Roseanne in 1992, and SNL a year later. (Read More)

Janeane Garofalo (1994-1995)
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While studying history at Providence College, she was voted “Funniest Person in Rhode Island” in a Showtime comedy talent contest. Her standup career began in the 1980s and she quickly became a staple in the burgeoning alternative comedy scene that came to popularity in the post-grunge age of Nirvana and MTV. Garofalo got her first big break when she joined the cast of The Ben Stiller Show alongside Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, and Andy Dick in 1992, a role she obtained after meeting Stiller by chance in Los Angeles two years prior. (Read More)

Laura Kightlinger (1994-1995)
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Born in Jamestown, New York and raised by her mother in Boston, Kightlinger got her first start in comedy during her years at Emerson College, where she was a member of the “personal, uncomfortable, disturbed, and sometimes inappropriate” theater sketch troupe This Is Pathetic alongside future Mr. Show cast members David Cross and John Ennis. After graduating in 1986, she began touring Boston regularly as a standup comedian around future stars like Sarah Silverman, Dave Attell, Janeane Garofalo, and Louis C.K. and landed a brief gig as the host of Comedy Central’s Stand-Up Stand-Up in 1992. (Read More)

Colin Quinn (1995-2000)
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After years of working as a bartender, in the early 1980s he quit drinking and decided to pursue a career in standup comedy. He landed small roles in Crocodile Dundee II and Married to the Mob, hosting gigs on MTV’s Remote Control and A&E’s Caroline’s Comedy Hour, and he starred in and co-wrote with Ben Stiller the LL Cool J music video spoof “Goin’ Back to Brooklyn,” which aired on MTV in 1989. He also appeared in The Cosby Show, True Blue, and The Ben Stiller Show, and wrote for In Living Color for 8 episodes in 1993 and co-wrote Celtic Pride with Judd Apatow in 1996. (Read More)

Dean Edwards (2001-2003)
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After performing in a college talent show, Edwards turned to standup and voiceover work full-time, appearing on ’90s standup shows like Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam and Showtime at the Apollo as well as voicing Scottie Pippen and Spike Lee on the MTV claymation series Celebrity Deathmatch in 1998. (Read More)

Finesse Mitchell (2003-2006)
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Before Mitchell began pursuing standup in Los Angeles and New York, he left his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia to attend the University of Miami, where he was a fraternity brother and played football alongside Dwayne “Pre-The Rock” Johnson and future Super Bowl champ Warren Sapp. After college he worked as an insurance salesman for three years before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a standup comedy career, performing regularly at The Improv and the Laugh Factory and making his TV debut in 1999 on BET’s Comic View. This success led to multiple appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn as well as on NBC’s Late Friday in 2001. (Read More)


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