The writers on Saturday Night Live tend to toil away in obscurity while the performers on the show get all the laughs, enjoy name recognition and go on to lucrative careers in film and other television programs. Yet the writers on SNL are more responsible for shaping the program and its enduring popularity than anyone else. Every great character and skit—from the Coneheads and Church Lady to the Jeopardy parodies and Californians soap opera, all of them were given life in the writers’ room at SNL and as concepts on paper. And the number of talented and famous people who have worked as writers on SNL surprises most people. Here are 10 people you didn’t know worked as writers on SNL over the show’s 40 plus year run.
10. Harry Shearer
He’s best known for voicing numerous characters on The Simpsons, notably Principle Skinner and Mr. Burns, but one of Harry Shearer’s first jobs in show business was as a writer on SNL in 1979. Shearer got to write sketches for many of the original cast members, including Bill Murray and Gilda Radner, and came up with several funny fake commercials, including one for the world’s most expensive utility wrench. Unfortunately, Harry Shearer’s time as a writer on SNL was short-lived. He left as a writer after one season and focused on performing, starring in classic movies such as This Is Spinal Tap and The Right Stuff, where he played a NASA recruiter. However, Harry Shearer returned to SNL in 1984 for an additional season—this time as a performer alongside real life friends Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal and Martin Short.
9. Stephen Colbert
Before he was lampooning American politics and egos on The Colbert Report, and before he took over for a retired David Letterman on The Late Show, Stephen Colbert spent an unmemorable year as a writer on SNL in 1996. Stephen Colbert had been working as a sketch comedy performer on The Dana Carvey Show, and actually “landed” at SNL after the Dana Carvey project fell through due to abysmal ratings. However, his time on SNL was not that successful either, as Stephen Colbert arrived at 30 Rockefeller Plaza for one of SNL’s worst seasons. It was right after the classic cast that featured performers such as Adam Sandler, Chris Farley and David Spade had all been fired, and before a new crop of legends such as Will Farrell, Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey had joined. Sadly, Stephen Colbert was stuck writing skits for cast members that included David Koechner, Mark McKinney and Jim Breuer. Stephen Colbert did help fellow writer Robert Smigel draft several animated TV Funhouse sketches, notably the Ambiguously Gay Duo, and he came up with a funny commercial parody featuring a used mattress salesman.
8. Steve Higgins
Who is Steve Higgins? He’s the announcer of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. He’s also a long-time writer for SNL. In fact, Steve Higgins continues to write for SNL today at the same time that he works on Jimmy Fallon’s show. And, remarkably, Steve Higgins has been writing for SNL since 1995. In the late 1990s, he was the landmark program’s head writer. Today, Steve Higgins continues to work on SNL’s writing staff and is even a producer on the show. Over the years, Higgins has written several classic skits and characters, including Black Jeopardy, Bathroom Businessman and many, many political send-ups, notably with Will Farrell as George W. Bush and Tina Fey as Sarah Palin. He has also written many skits lampooning Obamacare and Donald Trump. So how is Steve Higgins able to work on SNL and Jimmy Fallon at the same time? It likely helps that both shows are produced by Lorne Michaels.
7. Dave Attell
He’s not a household name, but Dave Attell is a respected stand-up comedian and recognizable face. And he spent a short and unhappy stint as a writer on SNL during the 1993-94 season. Despite having a very talented cast that included Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider and Chris Farley, Dave Attell wrote very few skits for the show that season. He was employed mostly to help write the opening monologues for the guest host. People Dave Attell wrote monlogues for included Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, comedian Rosie O’Donnell and actor Jeff Goldblum, among others. The handful of skits he wrote included the bench warmer guy and a parody of the movie Goodfellas. Dave Attell left the show after one season to focus on stand-up comedy, which he has excelled at.
6. J.B. Smoove
You know him as a stand-up comedian and featured guest on shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Real Husbands of Hollywood opposite Kevin Hart. But comedian J.B. Smoove spent three seasons as a writer on SNL—from 2003 to 2006. While writing for the show, J.B. Smoove came up with parodies of shows such as Good Times, fake commercials for products such as Tylenol Extreme (to help with testicular trauma), parodies of celebrities such as Star Jones and a hilarious skit called “Snoop Dog Needs Friends.” He also wrote monlogues for guest hosts such as Kelly Rippa, Topher Grace and David Spade. But, like many SNL writers, J.B. Smoove found his true calling as a performer.
5. Louis C.K.
Like Stephen Colbert, Louis C.K. worked on SNL helping fellow writer Robert Smigel with the animated TV Funhouse segments that ran on the show in the late 1990s. In 1997, Louis C.K. helped to write several TV Funhouse clips, including the X-Presidents and The Harlem Globetrotters. He also helped pen some of the Ambiguously Gay Duo clips. These were done mostly as a favor to Robert Smigel, who was good friends with Louis C.K. after the two worked together as writers on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. In interviews, Louis C.K. hasn’t had much to say about his time working for SNL, as he claims that he mostly worked with Robert Smigel on the animated shorts and didn’t mix much with the rest of the writers and cast.
4. Max Brooks
Max Brooks is best known form writing popular books about zombies, including The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, which was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. Max Brooks is the Stephen King of zombie writers. However, he is also the son of comedy legend Mel Brooks, who wrote and directed classic funny movies such as Young Frankenstein and Blazzing Saddles. So it came to be that a young Max Brooks, fresh out of college, spent two seasons as a writer at SNL. From 2001 to 2003, Max Brooks wrote skits for the likes of Will Farrell, Amy Poehler and Chris Parnell—all the while working in secret on his first zombie book. Max Brooks enjoyed quite a bit of success on SNL. He had the distinction of having the very first skit he wrote appear on the show—an awkward encounter between Superman and his father Jor-El at the Fortress of Solitude, wherein Superman brags about his new bachelor pad and Jor-El implores Superman to come home. “Do you need any money?” Jor-El asks his son in the sketch. Still, Max Brooks found the collaborative atmosphere at SNL difficult and his contract was not renewed after 2003. But by that time, Max Brooks had sold his first book, The Zombie Survival Guide, and was off doing what he really wanted to do—writing about the undead.
3. Conan O’Brien
He’s a legendary late night talk show host and his time as a writer on The Simpsons is well known. However, before both of those gigs, Conan O’Brien spent four seasons as a writer on SNL—from 1987 to 1991. At SNL, Conan O’Brien achieved quite a bit of success, writing recurring characters such as Mr. Short-Term Memory, Lank Thompson: Handsome Actor that was famously performed by Mike Myers, and The Girl Watchers skit made famous by guest host Tom Hanks and cast member Jon Lovitz. He also wrote a hilarious commercial for Irish Drinking Songs, and monlogues for guest hosts such as John Goodman and Alec Baldwin. Plus, Conan O’Brien was well-known for writing Weekend Update segments for then-anchor Dennis Miller. It was his success as a writer on SNL that led Conan O’Brien to eventually be hired as a writer on The Simpsons before branching out into the late night talk arena.
2. Brian Doyle-Murray
Brian Doyle-Murray is the older brother of fellow comedian and SNL alumni Bill Murray. He’s also a recognizable character actor (he played Chevy Chase’s kidnapped boss in Christmas Vacation). And, while Bill Murray was performing on SNL in the late 1970s and early 1980s, brother Brian was hard at work behind the scenes as a writer on the show. In fact, Brian Doyle-Murray was nominated for three Emmy Awards for his writing on SNL—in 1978, 1979 and 1980. He joined the show as a writer in 1977 and continued on with SNL until 1982. He wrote the prom nuggie sketch featuring his brother Bill Murray and Gilda Radner, as well as hilarious Weekend Update segments, notably for a young Eddie Murphy, and notorious sketches involving comedian Andy Kaufman, which audiences were never sure if they were real or not. Brian Doyle-Murray also wrote a moving tribute to John Belushi after the founding SNL cast member died of a drug overdose in 1982.
1. Bob Odenkirk
Today, Bob Odenkirk is enjoying the biggest success of his career as the star of the hit AMC show Better Call Saul, playing the character of scheister lawyer Saul Goodman, which he originated on the classic program Breaking Bad. However, long before his acting career took off, Bob Odenkirk was a long-time writer on SNL from 1987 to 1995. While at SNL, Bob Odenkirk shared an office with Conan O’Brien and Ben Stiller (who was briefly a performer on the program in 1989), and Bob Odenkirk would later also work as a writer on separate shows for both Conan O’Brien and Ben Stiller. However, Bob Odenkirk found his biggest success at SNL writing skits for comedian Chris Farley. Bob Odenkirk wrote the famous skit that featured Chris Farley as a Chippendales male stripper alongside a buff Patrick Swayze, and also the legendary skit that featured Chris Farley as motivational speaker Matt Foley, who tells people they’ll be, “Living in a van down by the river!” Pretty impressive stuff. Bob Odenkirk would continue working primarily as a comedy writer until landing, arguably, his first successful acting role as lawyer Saul Goodman.