Saturday Night’s Children: 2014 in Review

snl_titleAfter three and a half years of highlighting the lives and work of SNL cast members, Saturday Night’s Children finally wrapped up its run on Splitsider this year. From January to November, we took a look back at 22 former SNLers including original Not Ready for Prime Time Players John Belushi and Chevy Chase, deceased writers/cast members Michael O’Donoghue and Tom Davis, the lesser-known stints of Morwenna Banks and Dan Vitale, and powerhouse stars of the 2000s like Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, and Seth Meyers. Here’s a look back at the SNL graduates who helped close out Saturday Night’s Children this year:

1. Bill Hader (2005-2013)
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Few SNL cast members have matched the supreme mimicry talents of Bill Hader, whose repertoire of dead-on impersonations clocks in at over eighty. When he joined the cast in 2005, Hader instantly transformed from an unknown film and TV production assistant to late night’s newest sketch comedy chameleon and force behind the Manhattan club-hopper Stefon, and he made such an impression that he earned two Emmy nominations for his work on SNL in 2012 and 2013, making him the first male cast member to receive the double Emmy honor in the show’s history.

2. Tim Kazurinsky (1981-1984)
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No one gives out awards for consistency, but if they did, Tim Kazurinsky served as one of the few steady voices during the first half of the 80s on SNL, a time when the future of the show’s writers, cast, and producers was uncertain and the magic and acclaim of the original cast had noticeably disappeared along with Lorne Michaels. In addition to his role as Carl Sweetchuck in the Police Academy movies, Kazurinsky is best known for bringing a dweebish yet more mature element to his SNL stint and being a dependable supporting player to Eddie Murphy and other cast mates, even when he shared a bed opposite a primate named Madge in the shameless animal gag sketch “I Married a Monkey.”

3. Fred Armisen (2002-2013)
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One of SNL‘s most modest and low-key players, Fred Armisen brought a punk rocker/character comedian hybrid edge, quiet charm, unrelenting versatility, and collaborative talents as both a background and lead funnyman to his eleven seasons — making him one of SNL’s most dependable anti-punchline wardens of weirdness — and his best characters blur the line between parody and realism as well as cynicism and sincerity: “There will always be new ways of doing sketches and performance,” he says. “I want to try something that isn’t necessarily comedy or drama.”

4. Seth Meyers (2001-2014)
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The chemistry Poehler and Meyers had developed since their shared baptism-by-fire newbie days paid off in recurring bits like “Really!?! with Seth and Amy” and their willingness to entertain a barrage of Update guest usuals helped make the current news segment the only reason many viewers tuned in, from Fred Armisen’s blind New Jersey governor David Paterson to Bill Hader’s nightclub hopping favorite Stefon, who married Meyers during Hader’s final episode in May 2013. Where Tina and Amy rocked the segment during its lone female-dominated era, Amy and Seth shared a similar buddy-buddy rapport, and Meyers made the perfect foil for Amy’s beamy delivery, often playing the straight man while Poehler provided silly outbursts and the occasional musical performance like her famous Sarah Palin rap.

5. Jim Downey (1979-1980)
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Nearly everyone involved with SNL has exalted Downey as “a great guy” (Garofalo), “the best” (Macdonald), and according to Sandler in Live from New York, the writer who best tutored his younger collaborators in the SNL style. Elsewhere in Live from New York, Downey recounts walking in public with his friend Bill Murray and observing the crowds of adoring fans he’d always draw, only for him to point to Downey and say “Well, he’s the guy who writes the stuff.” Such is the life of a writer destined not so much for onscreen SNL stardom, but to be its true voice — both literally and as its most influential writer — behind four decades of usually funny, occasionally intellectual, and more often than not, brilliant socio-political satire.

6. Andy Samberg (2005-2012)
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If we could single out any SNL cast member for changing the game in terms of the show’s format, impact, and internet-age revolution, Andy Samberg would be the one. With his Lonely Island team Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, Samberg brought SNL into the digital age with “Lazy Sunday” and made 100 more Digital Shorts before leaving for primetime television. Beyond their many other contributions, The Lonely Island paved the way for the rise of internet comedy groups and led to SNL execs scouting YouTube in addition to cherry-picking talent from institutions like The Groundlings and Second City. Beyond that, many would argue that 2005’s “Lazy Sunday” essentially transformed YouTube into what it is today.

7. Al Franken (1977-1980; 1985-1986; 1988-1995)
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During all his seasons at SNL, Franken was the first to take the hint from Chevy Chase that name recognition via Weekend Update was the clearest path to fame on the show. Franken tried banking off this in the most obvious way possible not only with the “Franken and Davis” bits but on his many Weekend Update appearances as well, notably in a 1979 segment where he tells the audience that the ’80s will be “The Al Franken Decade.” In his brief monologue about the selfishness of the ’70s, Franken’s cantankerously wry delivery comes out in full force as he manages to say his own name an impressive 10 times: “You know, I know a lot of you out there are thinking, ‘Why Al Franken?’ Well, because I thought of it, and I’m on TV, so I’ve already gotten the jump on you.”

8. Dan Vitale (1985-1986)
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While Vitale bombed during his first audition after lashing out at the audience (he wasn’t familiar with Michaels’s strict no-laughter audition policy), he landed a spot after his second tryout, followed by a starring role opposite Joe Mantegna in the pilot Big Shots in America produced by Michaels, written by SNL’s Alan Zweibel, and recorded in SNL’s Studio 8H in front of a live audience. While the pilot didn’t land a series order, Michaels let Vitale re-audition for SNL in fall 1985 and hired him as a featured player. According to Vitale, Michaels hired him and said the following: “Dan, in the words of the Kennedy brothers talking about LBJ … I’d rather have you inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”

9. Harry Shearer (1979-1980; 1984-1985)
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While he’s most widely known for his 25 years (and counting) of voice work on The Simpsons or starring with Christopher Guest and Michael McKean in the breakout 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, Harry Shearer also spent two brief stints as an SNL cast member — one late in the show’s original ’70s run and another during its mid-’80s overhaul. Say what you will about Shearer’s undeniable talent; he’s on record as one of the show’s most vocally frustrated performers, second perhaps only to Janeane Garofalo. The creative friction between Shearer and Lorne Michaels is well documented in Live from New York: “I was pretty fucking miserable,” Shearer notes, “for virtually the entire season.” While his second try didn’t bear different results, Shearer managed to appear in several standout sketches during some of the series’ most otherwise dismal eras.

10. Kristen Wiig (2005-2012)
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As high as her fame may have elevated her, in the words of The New York Times it seemed that “a relatively late arrival to fame [had] given her a sense of ongoing gratitude.” Whether it was the meditation experience or just her age-old public speaking-related fears kicking in, a sense of selflessness permeated even the snobbiest trademark Wiig characters, making her a likable unlikely star, level-headed budding film actress, and poster comedy hero for shy girls everywhere.

11. Jason Sudeikis (2005-2013)
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Whether posing as a nerdy father, late night newsman, or sporting a perma-grin as the red jumpsuit-wearing dancer on “What Up with That?” during his SNL run from 2005-2013, Jason Sudeikis was the epitome of the silly jock with a heart of gold. He also played some of the most callous characters while being one of the most emotional behind-the-scenes performers, as seen during his tearful moment during Kristen Wiig’s graduation dance in May 2012 and shared goodbye with Bill Hader and Fred Armisen last year as part of Ian Rubbish and the Bizzaros. SNL is still searching for the right utility player/flexibly funny hybrid to fill his shoes, and considering his stint was nearly a decade long, the void will most likely remain for at least a little longer.

12. Morwenna Banks (1995)
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Whether due to the overcrowded cast, being outshone by the similarly inclined Molly Shannon, or the lack of momentum, Banks was unable to find grounding during her short chance on the show and was not asked back after the end of the season, which also saw the final episodes for Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Kevin Nealon, Ellen Cleghorne, Laura Kightlinger, Michael McKean, Chris Elliott, and Jay Mohr. Despite being credited as a repertory player, Banks’s place in SNL history has gone largely forgotten, and she’s one of the several former players to not even get a note in the index of the definitive SNL history book Live from New York.

13. Tom Davis (1977-1980)
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“It is odd to have so much time to orchestrate the process of my own death. I’m improvising. I’ve never done this before, so far as I know. Ironically, I probably will outlive one or two people to whom I’ve already said goodbye. My life has been rife with irony; why stop now?”

14. Alan Zweibel (1979-1980)
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He moved back in with his parents on Long Island, where he worked as a deli meat slicer by day and sold jokes to Catskills comedians for $7 each. Unsold jokes formed the young Zweibel’s standup act, which he took to Manhattan clubs like Catch a Rising Star and the Improv alongside a young Billy Crystal, who carpooled with Zweibel back and forth from Long Island to comedy clubs in the city. He got some notable feedback after a show in 1975 when he was just 24 years old and a man at the bar called him the “worst comedian I’ve ever seen in my life” but asked him for more of his written material, which he delivered in the form of a packet of over 1,000 jokes three days later. The man at the bar, it turns out, was a young producer named Lorne Michaels scouting for writing talent, and he eventually hired Zweibel as a writer for SNL‘s debut season.

15. Emily Prager (1981)
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Prior to joining SNL, Prager was a contributing editor to The National Lampoon and also performed regularly on The National Lampoon Radio Hour. She was hired as a featured player near the end of the sixth season but never officially appeared during her single-episode stint right before the WGA strike began in April 1981 and SNL went through considerable retooling.

16. Fred Wolf (1995-1996)
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Wolf was promoted to co-head writer alongside Steve Higgins in 1995 and also joined the cast as a featured player the same year, echoing the more sardonic styles of Norm Macdonald and David Spade in appearances such as his 1996 turn at the Weekend Update desk or as tennis star Martina Navratilova in the feminist-themed “Wymins Poetry Night” sketch. Wolf left the show at the end of the season but has worked steady since as a screenwriter on an array of films starring his SNL buddies from the early ’90s, including Tommy Boy, Black Sheep, Dirty Work, Joe Dirt, and Grown Ups 1 & 2.

17. Yvonne Hudson (1980-1981)
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If there’s one former SNL cast member whose life story is impossible to trace it’s Yvonne Hudson, which is a shame considering she holds the distinction of being the show’s first black female player. While she appeared numerous times in background roles during the first five seasons — including one line in a “Nick the Lounge Singer” sketch (“Hi, I’m Yvonne Hudson, and this is my Love Jones!”) and a much bigger role in the 1979 sketch “Bad Clams” opposite Garrett Morris and Gilda Radner — her credited stint as a featured player from 1980-1981 (and continued uncredited appearances until 1984) never led to any prominent parts, and she’s since disappeared from the film and television sphere.

18. Catherine O’Hara (1981)
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Catherine O’Hara is no stranger to most comedy fans, but few know the brief connection she shared with early ’80s SNL when she was originally hired to replace repertory player Ann Risley after Dick Ebersol took over the show from producer Jean Doumanian. In Live from New York, SNL writer Neil Levy says O’Hara “wasn’t really interested,” but Ebersol claims it was head writer Michael O’Donoghue’s infamous spray painting of the word “DANGER” on the SNL office wall that “scared her right off the show.” Whatever the case, O’Hara was set to join the cast but jumped ship to return to working on SCTV when it got picked up by NBC that same year.

19. Chevy Chase (1975-1976)
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Chase was initially hired as an SNL writer, but Michaels decided to include him in the cast as well, leading to another of Chase’s many SNL firsts — he even appeared in the first-ever cold open “The Wolverines” — but it was as the first-ever Weekend Update anchor where Chase won America over with the immortal intro “I’m Chevy Chase … and you’re not.” Chase’s natural ease and all-American announcer style made his subversive deadpan streak land in a big way; this was still the ’70s when television audiences were conditioned by years of primetime sameness to believe a man like him would never steer them wrong, so his open surreal shadiness was fresher than anything Middle America had seen in years.

20. John Belushi (1975-1979)
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SNL’s first party monster legend was a Chicago boy born to Albanian immigrants — a short, squat, blue-collar popular kid whose fierce presence dominated everything from the high school football field to the improv theater stage and, during his final years, the silver screen. Many of the late John Belushi’s friends and former collaborators have attempted to describe the man behind the SNL icon — longtime friend Dan Aykroyd called him “all-American” while former cast mate Jane Curtin claimed he was an unrepetant misogynist and saboteur of sketches from women writers — but no matter what the opinion, most would agree with Lorne Michaels’s assessment that Belushi was an “absolutely indestructible” comedy genius whose influence on SNL and today’s comedy creators can never be overstated.

21. Michael O’Donoghue (1975)
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O’Donoghue’s highest comedy goal, also in his own words — once spray painted on the SNL writers’ room wall – was “DANGER,” and had it not been for Lorne Michaels’s tight creative grip on SNL, the author of such Lampoon pieces as “The Vietnamese Baby Book” and “A Child’s Letters to the Gestapo” would’ve surely led it down many more wildly uncomfortable paths. O’Donoghue once remarked that “the true essence of comedy is a baby seal hunt,” and over the course of his 30+ year career he did lots of clubbing, in all senses of the word.

22. Tina Fey (2000-2006)
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Fey wrote in more sketches than she appeared onscreen, but her tenure at the Update desk put her on the pop culture radar and helped rejuvenate SNL for even the most jaded New York scenester viewers. With Fallon she had a giggling little brother foil from 2000-2004 — which culminated in the Grease-inspired musical segment during Fallon’s final episode — but the full force of Fey’s brilliance hit its stride when she was joined by Amy Poehler and SNL’s first all-women Update team ushered the segment out of its post-9/11 gloom and into a new era where women ruled sketches and cynicism, smarm, and frat humor were replaced with the genuine chemistry, unrelenting wit, and yin/yang Fey/Poehler energy; Update’s two undeniably charming, smart, just a little edgy but always positive leading women were breaking every glass ceiling in sight.

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