Throughout most of the now-47 seasons of Saturday Night Live, there has been a standard way that the cast is assembled. There are the Repertory Players, or the full-fledged cast members, and the Featured Players. When you get hired as a performer on SNL, you start as a Featured Player and get promoted if you make the right connections and break out in a major way.
But back at the start of season 16, Lorne Michaels was faced with a problem. Two of his Repertory Players, Nora Dunn and Jon Lovitz, left the show. Dunn had boycotted the second-to-last episode of the previous season along with musical guest Sinead O’Connor in protest over guest host Andrew Dice Clay’s misogynistic humour. Due to the negative publicity, Michaels opted not to renew her contract. Lovitz requested time off to film Mom and Dad Save the World, but quit when Michaels refused.
This left Michaels with only seven Repertory Players, the shortest main cast since season three. Michaels had a strong remaining cast, including Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, and Phil Hartman, and didn’t want to undergo a complete overhaul. He also needed more talent but didn’t want the Featured Players to have just as many actors as the Repertory cast. So Michaels decided to literally land somewhere in the middle.
Starting with season 16, a new ‘Middle Group’ was created to accommodate the actors who were still too new to be added to the Repertory Players and bypassed the role of Featured Players. The first two members of this group were two actors with the same first name who were hired on the same day: Chris Rock and Chris Farley. All told, only ten actors were included in the cast at the start of the season, but that would expand to 16 by the final episode.
While the season was underway, Michaels continued to hire new talent. SNL writers David Spade and Rob Schneider were promoted to Featured Players, while new actors A. Whitney Brown and Adam Sandler, were added after the Christmas break. Julia Sweeney and Tim Meadows were hired directly to the middle group, bypassing the traditional chain of promotion. By the season’s end, Michaels once again had a full cast of comedians.
But for some reason, Michaels opted to continue using the middle group in season 17. Rock, Farley, and Sweeny were all promoted to Repertory status, while Sandler, Schneider, and Spade were all bumped up to the middle group. New actors like Siobhan Fallon and Ellen Cleghorne were hired directly to the middle group at the start of the season, while writer Robert Smigel was added as a Featured Player. New hires Beth Cahill and Melanie Hutsell would join the Featured Players throughout the season.
Season 18 still had three categories of performers, but the ‘Middle Group’ was officially done away with. Instead, two former Featured Players, Franken and Smigel, were credited simply as “With”. Since the two were prominent writers at the show, they tended to appear in sketches with less frequency than traditional Featured Players and were given a new designation. By season 19, the entire concept of three groups was thrown out the window, returning the show to its traditional cast format.