As the world learned during an audition tape montage that played during Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary blowout last year, the show notoriously passed on several comedians who went on to be superstars, including Jim Carrey, Stephen Colbert, and Kevin Hart. But SNL’s prickly producer Lorne Michaels is also guilty of firing some of his most successful cast members with little warning and even less explanation.
This week, ahead of the upcoming 42nd season, SNL decided to give the boot to Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah, both of whom had been with the show since 2010. Garnering less attention was the decision to fire Jon Rudnitsky, who barely made an impression with his one season as a featured player.
But Killam, and, to a lesser degree, Pharoah, were major cast members who made significant impacts on the show over the past six years. When Splitsider meticulously calculated the screen time for each cast member at the end of season 40, Killam came in first with 11.47 percent. Pharoah, who took over the role of President Barack Obama after Fred Armisen left the show in 2013, did not fare as well with just 6.33 percent. However, that was before he really came into his own this past year by delivering the definitive impression of Dr. Ben Carson.
At the start of last season, SNL made a big announcement that Killam would be playing long-shot presidential candidate Donald Trump. But after just a handful of appearances, he was replaced by Darrell Hammond—in retrospect an ominous harbinger of what was to come. On Monday, Killam revealed in an interview with Uproxx’s Mike Ryan that he doesn’t “fully” know why he was let go and said he expected to return for what would have been the final season of the seven-year contract cast members agree to when they join the show. While those contracts prevent performers from leaving the show before their seven years are up, they can still be fired at any time.
And SNL has a rich history of firing cast members who, by all measures, were thriving on the show. There have also been several recent examples of cast members who were clearly talented but perhaps just the wrong fit. Stand-up goddess and DNC agitator Sarah Silverman was apparently let go via fax after just one season. Rob Riggle found himself in the wrong season at the wrong time before getting pushed out and moving on to become a Daily Show correspondent. And then there was Jenny Slate, who never seemed to recover from letting the word “fuck” slip out during a sketch on her very first episode. She was not asked to return for a second year.
As Slate told Marc Maron in one of his SNL-obsessed podcast interviews, she found out she had been fired by reading an article on Deadline Hollywood. No one from the show even had the courtesy to call and let her know. Besides creating the viral hit “Marcel the Shell” and generally being the best voice in every animated movie, Slate went on to star in the critically-acclaimed film Obvious Child.
But cast members who were veritable SNL staples got similar treatment. When The Daily Beast spoke to Adam Sandler a couple of years ago, he told us how both he and his friend Chris Farley were fired from the show during the summer of 1995.
“We kind of quit at the same time as being fired,” Sandler said. “It was the end of the run for us. The fact that me and him got fired? Who knows. We were on it for a few years, had our run, and everything happens for a reason. We kind of understood because we did our thing. It hurt a lot at the time because we were young and didn’t know where we were going, but it all worked out.”
Sandler went on to become one of the biggest comedy movie stars of all time, but after appearing in several hit films, Farley tragically passed on just two years later. In Live From New York the oral history of SNL by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, Norm Macdonald tells the story of discovering he had been fired from both the show and his Weekend Update post—at the direction of NBC Executive Don Ohlmeyer—mere hours after he found out Farley had died. But no one would come right out and say that he was off the show. “Lorne has a hard time telling you bad stuff,” he explained.
According to countless interviews from that book and Maron’s podcast, which has become the destination for former cast members to dish about their time on the show, Lorne Michaels has a hard time telling people much of anything.
Just this week, on a new episode of WTF, Seth Meyers told Maron how he was hired to join the show as a featured player in 2001. Echoing the stories of many other cast members, Meyers said that when he met with Michaels following his audition, he was not overtly offered a job. Instead, the executive producer made him wait outside his office for more than an hour before telling him he should come back soon to see how he looks in wigs. It was only after flying back to L.A. that Meyers figured out this meant he had the gig.
A similar thing happened when Meyers was picked to succeed Jimmy Fallon on Late Night. After a New York Post article named him as a front-runner for that job, he had a phone conversation with Michaels that he described as a “follow-up call to a call that never happened.” When Meyers brought up the rumors, Michaels said, “Well, I think you’ll be good at it” as if he already knew he was getting this major career opportunity.
In the world of SNL, it seems, there is no formal celebration when you get your dream job. So therefore, it follows that there should be no memorial service when it’s gone. If you are never told that you have the job, then how can you be upset when you lose it?
As anyone who’s seen the love letter to comedy that is Mike Birbiglia’s new movie Don’t Think Twice, Saturday Night Live is still the most coveted job out there for rising comedians. But those lucky enough to roam the hallowed halls of Studio 8H—including the inevitable new hires to be announced later this summer—should know the risks.
For every epic Will Ferrell or Kristen Wiig send-off, there will be those who are kicked to the curb without anyone even showing them the door.