In its 45 seasons, Saturday Night Live has launched many successful careers in comedy and created some pretty iconic stars too. Who can forget John Belushi in Animal House (1978), Bill Murray in Caddyshack (1980), Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop (1984) or Will Ferrell in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004). Overnight, these SNL regulars became household names and struck bonafide box office comedy gold! However, you may be surprised to learn who has been an SNL cast member that do go on to be successful. Here are 16 celebrities that were once SNL cast members.
It’s true that not every SNL cast member becomes an overnight sensation. Sometimes it can take years after their time on SNL to make a mark. As you’ll see, during the 80s and 90s, SNL served as sort of a mid-career move or second act that sometimes led to recurring characters and a resurgence in demand for their talents. For the majority SNL alumni however, their time on the show is the brightest spotlight they’re likely to experience.
With so much history and so many cast members passing through the doors of Studio 8H over the last four decades, even the most dedicated SNL fan would be forgiven for missing some of these players’ stints on the show. Whether it’s the passing of the years, their sketches never caught fire, or they truly weren’t ready for prime time, these stars’ time on the show has been mostly forgotten–until now.
Julia Louis Dreyfus – Cast member (1982-1985)
Years before she played Elaine Benes on Seinfeld Dreyfus became the youngest cast member ever on SNL at age 21. Her recurring characters on the show never quite took off and she left the show in 1985. Dreyfus went on to appear in movies for the remainder of the 80s including National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in 1989 alongside Chevy Chase, another SNL alum.
Most recently, she can be seen playing the Vice President, then President, then former President on the Emmy-winning HBO series, VEEP.
Robert Downey Jr – Cast member (1985-1986)
Long before Iron Man, Downey was hired as part of a refreshed, younger (he was only 20) cast. But after a year of bad ratings and critical scorn, most of the cast and crew were scrapped and the show was overhauled yet again. Rolling Stone said he was the worst cast member in the history of SNL up until that time. Downey quickly picked up movie rolls that won him acclaim in The Pick-up Artist (1987) and Less Than Zero, also in 1987.
Conan O’Brien Writer (1987-1991) – 16 Celebrities That Were Once SNL Cast Members
Long before Late Night and his truncated run as host of The Tonight Show, O’Brien was primarily a writer–first for his high-school newspaper and then at Harvard Lampoon where he attended college. On SNL, O’Brien co-wrote the infamous, “Nude Beach” sketch in which the word, “penis” was spoken or sung 42 times. He occasionally appeared as an extra on camera. After burning out on SNL, O’Brien went on to write for The Simpsons before taking over David Letterman’s spot as NBC’s Late Night host in 1993.
Billy Crystal – Cast Member (1984-1985)
Crystal established a successful career before his short run on SNL in the comedy circuit and on TV with 1977’s ABC comedy, Soap. He was actually set to appear on the first episode of SNL in 1975 but his appearance was cut for time. Although his time was short on the show, his recurring character, Fernando’s catchphrase, “You look… mahvelous!” became hugely popular.
Chris Rock – Cast member (1990-1993)
Before his critically-acclaimed HBO stand up specials, Chris Rock was part of a new cast SNL that included Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider and David Spade who collectively became known as the Bad Boys of SNL.
Bob Odenkirk – Writer (1987-1991) – 16 Celebrities That Were Once SNL Cast Members
Better known now as the smarmy and corrupt lawyer, Saul Goodman from AMC’s Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, Odenkirk had a prolific career writing sketches for SNL and went on to write for The Ben Stiller Show and Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
Ben Stiller – Cast member (1988-1989)
Long before Zoolander and Meet the Parents, Ben Stiller was hired as a featured player but only lasted 4 episodes citing creating differences. Years later, Stiller returned to host in 1998 and 2011 and has made several appearances since including 2018.
Rob Riggle – Cast member (2004-2005)
Riggle joined The Daily Show in 2006 and has appeared in countless comedies including, Step Brothers, The Hangover and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. You may have also seen him on Fox NFL Sunday.
Gilbert Gottfried – Cast member (1980-1981) – 16 Celebrities That Were Once SNL Cast Members
If you’ve watched the Aflac commercials, seen the animated Disney classic, Aladdin or are an even casual follower of comedy, you’re probably familiar with the voice and delivery of the one-of-a-kind character that is Gilbert Gottfried. His SNL career, however, was a total bust lasting only 12 episodes.
Anthony Michael-Hall – Cast member (1985-1986)
Just 17 at the time of joining the SNL cast, Hall remains the youngest cast member in the history of the show. Already well-known for his roles Sixteen Candles and National Lampoon’s Vacation, Hall was part of an ill-fated new cast that never quite clicked with audiences. Hall was one of six cast members who included Robert Downey Jr., Joan Cusack and Randy Quaid–who were dismissed at the end of their first and only season.
Larry David – Writer (1984-1985)
The Seinfeld co-creator and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm only got one of his sketches on the air the whole year he worked on the show. It aired at 12:50, the last time slot available. In true Larry David fashion, he quit his job at SNL one day but returned a few days later acting like it had never taken place. In spite of his early failure, he ended up doing pretty–pretty good for himself worth an estimated net worth of $500 million.
David Koechner – Cast member (1995-1996) – 16 Celebrities That Were Once SNL Cast Members
He may not be a household name but if you’re a fan of Will Ferrell’s portrayal of Ron Burgundy and his trusty Anchorman sidekicks, you’ll recognize Koechner as the sports reporter Champ Kind. Fans of The Office might also remember him as Todd Packer–the boorish pal of Michael Scott.
John Mulaney – Writer (2008-2013)
After auditioning for SNL in 2008, Mulaney landed a gig as a writer spanning six seasons. You may have seen his stand up Jimmy Kimmel Live, Conan and Comedy Central. Mulaney’s biggest claim to fame may be his SNL character, Stefon which he co-created with Bill Hader. Mulaney hosted SNL on April 14, 2018–making him only one of three former writers who never became cast members to host the show (Larry David and Conan O’Brien are the others).
Christopher Guest – Cast member (1984-1985)
If you’re a fan the Rob Reiner classics, This is Spinal Tap (1984) and The Princess Bride (1987) then you’ll recognize Guest in the roles of guitarist Nigel Tufnel in Tap and the six fingered man, Count Tyrone Rugen. Guest was part of the cast that included Martin Short, Billy Crystal and Harry Shearer that signed onto SNL for a single year. Guest went on to create a number of “Mockumentaries” himself, most notably directing, acting and writing in the 2000 dog show mockumentary, Best in Show.
Michael McKean – Cast member (1993-1995) – 16 Celebrities That Were Once SNL Cast Members
By the time he joined SNL as a cast member, McKean had already had a lengthy and successful career with his breakthrough role 1976 playing Lenny always paired with Squiggy in the ABC sitcom Laverne & Shirley. You might also recognize him as David St. Hubbins the lead singer 1984s This Is Spinal Tap. McKean was the oldest person ever to join the cast of SNL up until that time at age 46. Current cast member, Leslie Jones now holds that record when she was added to the cast in 2014 at 47.
Sarah Silverman – Cast member (1993-1994)
Sarah was brought on as a writer and featured player but SNL never quite suited her style. She was fired after one yet but attributes that firing with being resilient and tough throughout the rest of her career. She went on to host the show in 2014.