You can count on one hand the number of TV shows everyone (well . . . every American) has heard of still on the air after 40 years. 60 Minutes, The Tonight Show … and Saturday Night Live. There are probably a few others. But who's counting?
Saturday Night Live remains unique on that listing. Like all the other shows, its cast changed with the times. Unlike all the others, Saturday Night Live evolved into a stepping stone for something bigger and better. Mike Wallace didn't do 60 Minutes and Johnny Carson didn't do The Tonight Show to lead to more lucrative spots. These gigs were the pinnacles of their career.
As it turns out, so was Saturday Night Live for most of its cast.
When the show first launched in 1975, it was something different. The Saturday night 11:30 PM slot was a vacant wasteland. Times were less commercial in 1975 and TV less global. The original cast likely had no idea the show would become a stepping stone to the big time.
That changed real quick. Chevy Chase was the first real breakout star when he left in 1977 after being on the show for just one full season. Chase is ridiculed now and called an ass by nearly all who have worked with him. That notwithstanding, he did go on to a successful and lucrative movie career after he left. Anyone old enough will remember the hit movies Foul Play, Oh Heavenly Dog, Caddyshack, Seems Like Old Times, National Lampoon's Vacation, and especially his Fletch franchise. Chase enjoyed almost a decade of success. By the late 1980's, he was stuck in sequels and half-baked projects. But he never truly faded away. Chase had a role from 2009-14 in the TV series Community and made a brief appearance in the Hot Tub Time Machine movies, but his days as a leading man/star are over.
Chase paved the way for most of the original cast when they departed SNL. Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi left together in 1979 to movie careers. Belushi died of a drug overdose a couple of years later, but Aykroyd had a nice run in the 1980's and went on to do supporting roles thereafter. The rest of the original cast bailed in 1980. Bill Murray went on to a very successful career as a leading man which continues to this day.
The 1980-81 season with a brand new cast was a disaster. Was it because the new cast now thought of as SNL as a ticket to the big time? Was it because original producer Lorne Michael stepped down and wasn't able to hand the show over to his chosen successor? Was it because the budget was cut by two-thirds and the new producer given two months to assemble a new cast?
Probably a little of each. The show almost closed shop in 1981 and again around 1985. One consistency about SNL is that it's always been uneven. Another is that all new cast members can't help but think that SNL is their assured ticket to fame and fortune.
In 2015, in honor of SNL's 40th anniversary, Rolling Stone ranked all 141 cast members that had appeared on the show up till then, whether it was for two episodes, one season, or over a decade. The list was not a ranking of these people's overall careers, only how much they shined on the show. For instance, Robert Downey, Jr - Mr. Iron Man - is ranked at the very bottom. He appeared on SNL for just one season in 1985-86 and today most people, including myself, don't remember him there.
Downey is an outlier. Like Chris Elliot, Janeane Garofalo, Randy Quaid, and Anthony Michael Hall. They appeared on the show so briefly and/or were already kind of famous that SNL is a footnote for them. It had no impact, positive or negative, on their overall careers. We will ignore such people from this discussion. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is also an outlier. She was on the show a couple of years in the early 1980's, but was largely forgotten for this work by the time she scored her lottery-winning Seinfeld gig in 1990.
What we're concerned about is what are the odds of SNL turning someone into a lasting success story?
Success has many definitions. For some, being able to steadily earn six figures (in USD) years later in some entertainment venue designates success. For the purposes here, we'll define success as some combination of: 1) a minimum $20m net worth 2) one or more decent and lasting gigs in the years following their departure from SNL 3) Continued high-profile or sort of high-profile work in entertainment up to the present which will presumably push their net worth into the $20m league eventually. An older SNL alumnus with an under $20m net worth but a still active career years later can constitute as much of a success story as a newer alumnus with a higher net worth. Movie and TV paychecks for a successful SNL alumnus circa 1985 were lower than an alumnus circa 2005. That is to say, alumnus Amy Poehler was able to negotiate better remuneration for TV show Parks And Recreation in 2009 than alumnus Jane Curtin did for Kate & Allie in 1984. Obviously, my arbitrary criteria is biased against cast members recruited to the show in the last 5-7 years who haven't yet had a chance to cash out their greater successes or prove they have longevity.
More than one person is going to fault me for arbitrarily assigning a minimum of $20m. $1m, $2m, $5m - most readers would consider that enough to call an SNL alumni a success. Not so long ago I would have agreed, until I observed that any SNL cast member of the last twenty years who has shown even an iota of promise is given a few stabs at a movie or TV career. These paydays usually jack the person's net worth into the lower millions even if their career fizzles out thereafter. In addition, it's a fair assumption that any person talented enough to become an SNL alumnus and achieve a net worth in the millions (but not up to $20m) had the potential to get to this same level without the exposure SNL brought. I figured, maybe naively, that anyone who has proven s/he has a durable career launched by SNL would have pushed his or her net worth above $20m. Fault me for this, but I had to assign the cutoff somewhere.
The criterion fixed in stone is this: any success story must owe the roots of his or her success to SNL. If s/he were successful before the SNL gig or became successful much later in ways unrelated to SNL,they don't count. Ben Stiller and Joan Cusack fit in here. Others may still be successful by conventional definitions, with net worths of $3m or $15m, but for the purposes of this essay, that's not enough to constitute a breakout SNL A-list success. A successful standup comedian who's never been an SNL cast member, like Louis CK, can be worth that. Some who fit into this category are Kevin Nealon, Rob Schneider, Chris Kattan, Will Forte, Tim Meadows, and Colin Quinn. We'll call this group the SNL B List. If you go over the tenures of SNL cast members, the B listers tend to stay with the show for years since they have no assured breakout project/movie career to jump into.
All of SNL's breakout stars save for four (Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, David Spade, and Andy Samberg) fall in the Top 20 of Rolling Stone's rankings. This A list isn't crowded. Adam Sandler (#17) is far and above the richest of the alumni, despite what anyone might think of the quality of his movies twenty years after he graduated. Mike Myers (#4) of Austin Powers fame is the second wealthiest. These men are followed by Bill Murray (#6), Dan Aykroyd (#5), Will Ferrell (#12), Eddie Murphy (#2), Chevy Chase (#10), Tina Fey (#3), Dana Carvey (#11), Amy Poehler (#8), and Kristen Wiig (#14). I'd argue that three or four others -- Chris Farley (#15), Gilda Radner (#9), Phil Hartman (#7), and John Belushi (#1) - would have made the breakout cut had they lived.
Of the A listers, Murphy ranks, by far, as the most successful in terms of the amount of money movies with him in the lead have grossed, followed by Myers, Sandler, Rock, Ferrell, Aykroyd, Chase, Wiig, and Spade.
This totals 15-20 A listers out of a total of over 140. Far more numerous are the SNL alumni who faded away into nothing. No one remembers cocky Charles Rocket, Tony Rosato, and Gary Kroeger anymore. This is the Z List. Many on the SNL B list, had they appeared on the show a decade earlier than their actual appearance, would have already faded into obscurity by now and with far lower net worths to show for it.
Getting onto Saturday Night Live is notoriously difficult. One must be asked to audition and then make what is a very competitive cut. Jay Mohr, a 1990's player on SNL and a resident on the B list, put it well: "Thousands of students show up every year at the doors of Harvard, but how many walk through the turnstiles each year at SNL?" 141 cast members over 40 years, a number of them appearing for just a single year, tells you the turnover is not all that high. With competition this intense, shouldn't everyone cast have a luminous career after departing?
SNL is a collaborative sketch show. In its formative years, the writing and performing teams were mostly separate. Later casts involved a greater crossover between the two, and it became ultra competitive to get one's own sketches aired. Larry David of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame worked as writer on the show during the 1984-85 season and only managed to get one sketch on TV. Were one to judge David's chances of success based on his SNL and pre-SNL career, no one could have ever predicted that he'd be wealthier than any SNL alumnus or SNL's creator Lorne Michaels.
Being an amazing collaborative player or impressionist on a sketch variety show is indicative of one kind of talent. Darrell Hammond (#49) has been with the show longer than any other cast member, 14 years, and is known for his tremendous facility with convincing impressions. Collaboration and impressions lend themselves best to the variety-sketch show SNL is, not the sitcom, drama, or film format, where the much larger paydays come from.
Dana Carvey ran into the same problem. He stayed with SNL half the time as Hammond, but he also had more outside of SNL to springboard off of when he split. A year before Carvey's departure, he had appeared as a co-star in Wayne's World, the most successful movie ever spun off of an SNL sketch. But then what? In 1996, he tried his hand at his own comedy series called The Dana Carvey Show which also starred SNL audition rejects Steve The Office" Carrell and Stephen The Colbert Report" Colbert. Carvey and his cohorts riffed on politics and pop culture, much like SNL did. People appeared to appreciate Carvey as part of an ensemble rather than the leading man in a prime time variety series. The show tanked after just a handful of episodes. Carvey later appeared in a movie, Masters Of Disguise, in 2002 which let him morph into different characters. This worked in short SNL sketches but not as a full length movie. It's considered one of the worst movies of all time.
The late Phil Hartman was called the glue which held SNL together during his tenure, and Hartman was, indeed, one of the most talented members to ever grace the SNL stage. At the time Hartman was murdered by his drug-addicted wife in 1998, I read that his estate was only worth $1.23m, which surprised me given his skill and popularity. It shouldn't have. The breakout stars who've reaped the most post SNL are the ones with a singular persona for whom movies or TV series can be crafted around. David Spade could shuttle his sarcastic wise ass persona into 6 years of Just Shoot Me, a year on 8 Simple Rules, and another six years on Rules Of Engagement. Will Ferrell presented a likeable absurd masculine character who launches into hysterical outbursts and fit that into a series of successful movies. Sandler has played a goony manchild for two decades. Aykroyd and Fey were writers first who wrote vehicles (Aykroyd: The Blues Brothers, Ghostbusters; Fey: 30 Rock) around their own strengths.
Players who can't exhibit a single recognizable acceptable persona had best hope that their well known faces will get them cast in a supporting role in a TV show or movie. Tim Meadows tried that soon after he left SNL to appear in the doomed The Michael Richards Show. Should success fail to materialize in these other venues , which it does more often than it doesn't, the player gradually fades away into obscurity.
SNL's greatest strength isn't turning unknowns into megastars. It's vindicating unknowns' dreams that they have some chance at an entertainment career.