As the showrunner of Saturday Night Live (SNL), Lorne Michaels has made an awful lot of careers since it began in 1975. He has helmed the show for its entire 46-year run with the exception of a five-year hiatus from 1980 to 1985. During that time, he has welcomed the likes of Norm McDonald, Chris Farley, Tina Fey and on and on…
Thus, with a plethora of big stars making their names on the show, it is not surprising that many comics see it as the equivalent of a driving test that you simply must pass if you ever want to be a racer. The famed SNL audition has now been mythologised as some holy grail of comic stardom, but the plethora of talent that has slipped through the cracks over the years proves that isn’t necessarily the case.
Below we have compiled a list of 20 stars who arrived at the Gates of Horn, but were never granted access to 30 Rock’s fabled Studio 8H and made it to the top nevertheless. From those who weren’t ready to the times when maybe more was going on that meets the eye, these are the folks that Lorne Michaels rejected.
11 stars Lorne Michaels rejected from Saturday Night Live:
It can’t be easy sitting through literally thousands of auditions and feeling the weight of the future bearing down as you try to spot talent but pumping for Joe Piscopo over John Goodman is a decision that only a baby oil salesman should be making. Back in 1980, the pair were dubbed as a sort of straight shoot out and Piscopo got the draw.
As will be the case throughout this list, the last laugh was had by the loser who never really lost at all. As it happens, Goodman has actually enjoyed more cumulative minutes on the show than Piscopo having hosted it 13 times and approaching double figures when it comes to sketch appearances.
Having established the stylings of 21st-century comedy, Adam McKay has since moved on to snap up Oscar’s for dabbling in the world of finance with The Big Short and plenty more may well head his way. All in all, a pretty impressive career.
However, when he first auditioned as a performer the seminal comic mind was turned away. Fortunately, he was later offered a writing role after it was deemed he might have something to offer behind the camera and the rest is history.
Like some comedy sports team, SNL only has a limited number of spots to fill and in 1990-91, one place had two names in it: Lisa Kudrow and Julia Sweeney. Both of the future stars were stationed in Los Angeles as part of their Groundlings act. Lorne flew out but Kudrow admitted she was “unnerved and clearly not ready” that night.
In a strange act of kismet, Sweeney remained on SNL for almost four years, departing almost at the exacting time when Kudrow managed to catch her big break in Friends.
Comedy circles are often portrayed as lovely, tight, backstabbing communities; however, Carell’s circle was even more close-knit than that. In 1995 Carell and his wife Nancy Walls auditioned together for the show—the worst possible thing happened. Nancy passed with flying colours, but Carell lost out to Will Ferrell.
Naturally, for the rest of his career, he has been reminded of his bump, but fortunately, it is little more than a pothole on memory road given that Carell is now pretty much the most universally loved paper merchant manager in history.
It was a long time ago, “six or seven months, 22 days, like 6 hours ago,” Kevin Hart joked about his failed audition when he hosted the show in 2013. To which Michaels no doubt heckled from the sidelines, ‘It was predictable schtick like that kept you off the show.’
Hart chose to do an impression of the basketball star Avery Johnson as his audition and Michaels didn’t have a clue who he was even talking about, so Hart was doomed from the start. His folly, however, was not that Michaels simply didn’t know Avery Johnson was, nobody in the entire room knew who he was.
Sometimes failure is for the best, and that is an adage that Coolidge definitely asserts when it comes to her SNL rejection. She auditioned alongside Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan and Cheri Oteri, stating: “They chose Will and Cheri and not Chris and I. And six months later they called up Chris. I was the one who got rejected.”
The star of American Pie adds: “I was spared a bullet. I think of all the demons, and playing politics. The good thing was I might have become anorexic. But I probably would have self-destructed on SNL.”
As any listeners to his WTF podcast can attest, Marc Maron is obsessed with two things, talking over his guests and rambling about his ill-fated SNL experience. His rejection tale is a rather fanciful one, but he is so ardent about that perhaps it does indeed contain a grain of truth.
It is Maron’s firm belief that the whole thing hinged on him ploughing his hand into Lorne’s candy bowl (which isn’t a euphemism). He recalls: “As soon as I took the candy, I swear to God Lorne shot a look at the head writer that clearly connoted to me that I had failed the test. I walked out of there thinking I ruined my career because of a Jolly Rancher. I don’t even like Jolly Ranchers.”
He may well have risen to the heights of a talk show host, but back in 1992, Robert Smigel didn’t see the potential in Colbert when he traipsed down to Second City to see the future star perform.
In subsequent years, however, he would be cast in the show for voiceover work on the TV Funhouse segment that he helped to write along with the famed Ambiguously Gay Duo alongside fellow former SNL reject Steve Carell.
A naked-faced Zach Galifianakis auditioned for SNL back in 1999 and failed to pass muster. He did, however, take up a part-time writing slot for the show and lasted two weeks in the role meaning that his stint was probably measurable in hours.
In a twist of fate, once fame had befallen him, he did technically feature on the show as a segment of his failed audition tape was broadcast as part of the shows 40th-anniversary special, and, in fairness, it got one of the biggest laughs of the entire compilation.
Like many aspiring comics, Mindy Kaling’s dream was always to appear on SNL. Thus, it is a lesson in life that her dream didn’t work out and it happened to be for the best. As she remarked herself: “I think the course of my career would have gone really differently had I left The Office and done that instead.”
Like many folks rejected from the show, she was offered a role in the backroom by Michaels as a writer. No promotion from the pen to performing was offered and she opted for The Office instead, a move that launched her career to new heights.
Honourable mention – Jim Carrey
As perhaps the biggest comedy star of the last 30 years or so, a rejection of Jim Carrey not once but twice is something that might leave any talent scout with pie on their face. Thus, Michaels has been quick to distance himself from the snub, stating: “Jim Carrey never auditioned for me personally.”
His stand-in replacement, Jean Doumanian, stepped in as Michaels went on hiatus and cast Charlie Rocket in favour of Carrey. The man who famously said “you can fail doing what you hate, so you may as well have a go at doing what you love” then went for a second bite of the cherry and got a flat no once more. Naturally, Michaels also denies being around during the second audition.