From Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase to Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Will Farrell and Tina Fey, just to name a few, Saturday Night Live has launched the careers of many famous comedians and performers. But for every cast member (or writer) who breakouts from SNL and achieves superstardom, there are plenty of others who failed miserably during their tenure on the show. Whether it’s the live format, the fact that the show is a sketch comedy, or the pressure to be funny on command, many people who make it to SNL don’t succeed. And what is interesting is that many people who crashed and burned as cast members of SNL went on to be major stars in other avenues – be it movies, television, or stand-up comedy. Here is a list of 10 stars we all know who recovered after failing miserably on SNL.
10. Larry David
Today, Larry David is one of the most successful and richest people in Hollywood. He not only co-created the classic sitcom Seinfeld with Jerry Seinfeld, but also created and starred in his own hugely successful show Curb Your Enthusiasm. However, long before Larry David became a multi-millionaire success, he was a struggling writer on Saturday Night Live during the 1984-85 season. Larry David has said publicly that he was miserable working on SNL, and that it was one of the worst experiences of his life. His writing for the show was so bad, apparently, that he only succeeded in getting one of his sketches on air – and it was the last sketch performed on the last episode of that season. What’s strange is that Larry David wrote for SNL during one of the show’s most memorable seasons. The 1984-85 season was the one where heavy hitters such as Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest and Martin Short joined the cast. There were tons of memorable skits and moments from that season but sadly, none of them were written by Larry David.
9. Damon Wayans
Damon Wayans is the patriarch of a comedy dynasty and remembered fondly as the creative force behind the 1990s sketch comedy series In Living Colour. However, before he triumphed with his own creative pursuits, Damon Wayans struggled for one season as a cast member on SNL. Damon had the misfortunate to be part of the infamous 1985-86 cast of SNL, which is widely regarded as the worst cast the show ever featured. It featured a number of weird casting choices such as Randy Quaid, Anthony Michael Hall, Joan Cusack, and a few other notable people who are mentioned further on in this list. However, most of the cast of the 1985-86 season were not “comedians” in the pure sense of the term and the chemistry among them just didn’t work. The entire cast, including Damon Wayans, was fired after one season, paving the way for a new and more successful cast the following year that featured SNL legends such as Dana Carvey, Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, and Victoria Jackson.
8. Paul Shaffer
We all remember Paul Shaffer as David Letterman’s long-time band leader and sidekick. But before he hitched his wagon to the late night king, Paul Shaffer served as both bandleader and cast member on SNL’s 1979-80 season, the show’s fifth. Paul Shaffer has the distinction of being the only member of the SNL band to also be featured in the show’s comedy skits. However, Shaffer quickly realized that his talents lay with music and not sketch comedy, as his attempts at transitioning to being a SNL cast member were not well-received. This was another weird period in SNL history, as the 1979-80 season was the one right after superstar original cast members Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi left to concentrate on their movie careers. Desperate to keep things rolling, SNL creator and producer Lorne Michaels enlisted the help of writers such as Al Franken and Paul Shaffer to join the cast and perform in sketches. This did not go over well with anyone, especially the audience.
7. Gilbert Gottfried
He’s not the biggest star in the world, but Gilbert Gottfried is a well-known comedian who is distinguished by his unique, raspy voice and the role of Iago the parrot in the Disney’s animated Aladdin films. However, at the start of his career, Gilbert Gottfried was a rarely-used bit player on SNL during the 1980-81 season going up against heavyweights such as Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo. Shy and intimidated by the rest of the cast around him, Gilbert Gottfried kept the ticks and voice he’s known for today largely in check the few times he was actually seen on SNL. He did however manage to develop one popular recurring character on the show, Leo Waxman, the host of the fictional program “What It’s All About.”
6. David Koechner
Who is David Koechner, you ask? He’s a comedian and character actor best known for playing Champ Kind in the Anchorman movies opposite superstar Will Ferrell. He`s also known for his recurring role as obnoxious salesman Todd Packer on the TV show The Office. However, David Koechner first met Will Farrell when the two worked together on SNL. Koechner was a cast member on the show during the unmemorable 1995-96 season, which was the season after the show`s producers cleaned house and fired Adam Sandler, Chris Farely, etc. Koechner struggled on SNL, producing only a couple of memorable characters. He had to watch as fellow newbie Will Farrell went on to be a breakout star on the show. Nevertheless, things worked out for David Koechner due to his friendship with Farrell and the brief time he spent on SNL.
5. Sarah Silverman
Comedians love her and she has achieved success with her own television show and work in movies such as Wreck It Ralph and School of Rock, but before she achieved that success, Sarah Silverman struggled mightily during the 1993-94 season of SNL. Hired as both a writer and cast member, Silverman only lasted 18 weeks before getting fired. Her only memorable appearance on SNL was during a Weekend Update segment that aired in early 1994, in which she played a news correspondent reporting on her own pap smear. Sarah Silverman has since described the atmosphere on SNL as “cutthroat” and said the whole experience with the program made her gun-shy and apprehensive about show business. Fortunately, she seems to have bounced back just fine.
4. Ben Stiller
Ben Stiller is a huge movie star today and had a lot of success with his own Emmy award-winning variety TV program, The Ben Stiller Show, that aired on HBO in 1992-93. Yet before all the success and wealth, Ben Stiller spent a difficult year on SNL in 1988-89 as one of the show’s featured players. Stiller found it difficult to shine on SNL when next to cast members such as Mike Myers and Phil Hartman. He was rarely used on the program and left after less than a full season to pursue his own interests. However, Ben Stiller did manage to appear in one meaningful skit while a cast member on SNL: He and Mike Myers appeared on Weekend Update to provide a hilarious review of the movie Rain Man.
3. Chris Rock
Chris Rock did not completely flame out on SNL. He lasted on the show for three seasons, from 1990 to 1993. However, his time on SNL was very difficult and Chris Rock never stood out. His one memorable character was the black revolutionary Nat X, and he had a couple of good Weekend Update segments. However, Chris Rock`s impressions of people such as Michael Jackson fell flat and he never achieved the success that his fellow cast members at the time – Adam Sandler, David Spade, Rob Schneider and Chris Farley – enjoyed. Chris Rock has said that the sketch comedy format that required him to play different characters was not his strong suit and he never felt completely comfortable on SNL. It wasn’t until Chris Rock went out on his own and did stand-up comedy that he found his voice and a legion of fans.
2. Zach Galifianakis
Believe it or not, Zach Galifianakis of the Hangover movies and stand-up comedy fame worked as a writer on SNL very briefly in 2000. Legend has it that Galifianakis was called in at the end of the 1999-2000 season of SNL to cover for a writer who left the show in a huff. Galifianakis had previously auditioned to be an actor on the show and when he was later called in to be a writer he wrongly assumed it would lead to him being featured on air. Instead, he ended up editing scripts for the last two episodes of the season before leaving in disillusionment. Galifianakis explained the whole thing to Howard Stern, saying, “I was uncomfortable because I thought I’d get hired to be on SNL. Then I got there, and they were like, ‘No, you’re writing for Molly Shannon.’ I was like, ‘Oh, okay. I didn’t realize that.'”
1. Robert Downey Jr.
Before he was Iron Man, an Avenger, or a 1980s teen heartthrob, Robert Downey Jr. was a member of the Saturday Night Live cast during the doomed 1985-86 season. Only 20-years-old at the time, Downey was part of a mixed bag cast that failed to resonate with viewers or critics. He was fired along with the rest of the cast after only one season on the show. A season in which Robert Downey Jr. spent most of his time palling around with fellow cast member and friend Anthony Michael Hall. The two would later star together in the 1988 football comedy Johnny Be Good. However, the sketch comedy format and live tapings of SNL did not suit Robert Downey Jr. or play to his strengths. His most memorable sketch on SNL was one called “Suitcase Boy,” which, trust us, was not actually that memorable.