17 Actors On ‘SNL’ Before They Were Famous

We all know about the Saturday Night Live success stories. There’s Will Ferrell, Andy Samberg, and Tina Fey just to name a few. The sketch comedy show has been on for over 40 years at this point so many comedians, celebrities, and musical guests have stepped through those hallowed halls. Many of the big name SNL stars we all know and love, but what about the ones who fade to the back?

Shockingly there are some huge celebs that have been SNL cast members who just didn’t mesh with the show. Some weren’t a good fit for the structure of the show, while others just hadn’t figured out what they wanted to do yet. But then later on their careers blew up, leaving their time on the show far, far behind them. Here are some majorly famous celebs who you never knew were SNL cast members before they were famous!

17. Sarah Silverman (1993-1994)

During the early ’90s, Silverman was relatively unknown in the comedy scene until she got a gig on SNL. And then she was still unknown for a little while longer. Silverman was hired as a writer and featured cast member, but nothing she wrote that year actually made it to air. She, on the other hand, actually managed to get on screen once or twice. The show just didn’t know what to do with her! Which is understandable — she has a totally distinct sense of humor. And she found success with that later on when she translated her stand-up career to her own show, The Sarah Silverman Program. And now? She’s Sarah — freaking — Silverman and we don’t know what we’d do without her in the comedy world.

16. Laurie Metcalf (1980-1981)

Everyone knows Metcalf as Jackie from Roseanne but very few known she was an SNL cast member. That may be because of how brief her tenure was. Metcalf was on the show for a single episode, appearing in just one pre-taped sketch. This was mostly due to the 1981 Writers Guild strike which shut the show down for the rest of the season. Metcalf was then let go from the show when all was said and done, leaving her to find fame elsewhere. Luckily Roseanne Barr saw how funny she was and made her the coolest aunt on TV. You can catch Metcalf reprising the role that made her famous in the Roseanne reboot in the spring.

15. Billy Crystal (1984-1985)

This one’s weird because Crystal took a pit stop at SNL before, and after, he achieved fame. His tenure on the show wasn’t very notable despite him becoming a big comedy name before he was a cast member. The 1984-1985 season was full of powerhouses to bring people back to the show after original showrunner Lorne Michaels returned after five years away. He tried to stack the deck to mixed results. Crystal was funny enough, but it didn’t exactly raise his profile and he left after a year. It was later in the ’80s that he would see mainstream film success in movies like When Harry Met Sally. His time at SNL was a strange blip in the middle of an otherwise notable career.

14. David Koechner (1995-1996)

His name might not sound familiar, but you definitely know his face. You know him best as Champ from Anchorman and Todd from The Office. But before his breakout roles, he was a SNL cast member for just one season. He got a decent amount of airtime in the year he was on the show and would have stayed on if the NBC brass was a bigger fan of his. But alas, his sketch comedy career ended there and so did his chance at fame for another couple years. It wasn’t until 2004 that he would land the role of Champ and completely change his career. Now you see Koechner in just about every comedy that comes out. And for good reason — he’s hilarious.

13. Rob Riggle (2004-2005)

As a featured player during his season, Riggle didn’t make a huge impression. He did a few sketches, got a few laughs, and then wasn’t asked back again. After his time in the show, though, his career started to take off. He did time on another comedy show — The Daily Show — before jumping into film, where he really made his mark. Riggle has been in literally everything. From the 21 Jump Street reboot to Hotel Transylvania, you can find him making people laugh. He’s become one of the funniest character actors working today, all on his own merit.

12. Joan Cusack (1985-1986)

Cusack is one of the most recognizable actresses in the world, but she faded into the background on SNL. Her time on the show was unmemorable, having the misfortune of working on a season where “established” stars were hired to pad out the cast. It was an uneven season and ultimately the show started from scratch the next year. Cusack was out as a cast member, but in as a movie star. Her career picked up in the late ’80s and she became a bona fide movie star with two Academy Awards nominations under her belt. So, yeah, your loss SNL.

11. Gilbert Gottfried (1980-1981)

Back before he became one of the most recognizable voices in Hollywood, Gottfried was flunking out on SNL. His time on the show was super unmemorable (unless you count that crazy ‘fro). After his one season on the show, he became the shrill voice of a generation. He’s definitely been in about 20 movies you’ve seen, as well as about 100 more you haven’t. You may know him best as Iago from Aladdin and his appearance at basically all the best Comedy Central Roasts of celebs. His crude humor and notable voice have carved a specific little niche that he fits in quite well. It’s no wonder SNL just didn’t know what to do with him!

10. Randy Quaid (1985-1986)

Another product of the lackluster eleventh season that churned out quite a few high profile celebs. Quaid was already a rising star when he was cast as a repertory player during this doomed season of the show. He did fine, but if anything, the role dampened his career as SNL definitely wasn’t thought of very highly that year. It was after he left the show that he began expanding his film roles into more than just comedy. He even won a Golden Globe for his depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson in LBJ: The Early Years. He has gone on to star in over 90 films since his career began. Unfortunately, he’s been MIA in Hollywood for a few years due to some legal issues.

9. Chris Elliott (1994-1995)

Chris Elliott is that guy. You know, the one who’s in a bunch of movies but you can’t quite pinpoint who he is. Which means you probably can’t pinpoint that he was also on SNL for a season. He didn’t exactly shine on the show, but it’s easy to see why: the cast that year was stacked. He had to compete with the likes of Chris Farley and Adam Sandler, so he was definitely overshadowed. After his single season on the show, he went on to be a bit player in just about everything. You may remember him best as the man with the tiny, disgusting hand in Scary Movie 2 and his current gig on Schitt’s Creek.

8. Anthony Michael Hall (1985-1986)

Hall’s case is special since his fame coincided with his time on SNL. When he was a cast member, at the tender age of 17 (making him the youngest cast member ever!) his films The Breakfast Club and Weird Science were just being released. As a member of the “Brat Pack,” Hall was a huge ’80s star. So his time on the sketch comedy show was kind of negligible. He left the show after a single season to go on to bigger and better things in Hollywood. His career is still thriving today with spots on shows like Community and Awkward. to appeal to a whole new generation of teens.

7. Casey Wilson (2007-2009)

This funny lady spent two seasons on the show and sadly it wasn’t anything special. She was underused and definitely didn’t show her chops to their fullest ability. But getting fired from the show ended up boosting her career considerably. It was a blessing because she was able to land the show Happy Endings, which showed the world just how hilarious she is. Also, RIP Happy Endings – pls come back to us. She’s also done hilarious work on Comedy Bang! Bang! as well as Drunk History. Who knew that getting fired could be such a good thing? Now she can spread her wings into the weird, offbeat comedy that SNL just couldn’t handle.

6. Ben Stiller (1988-1989)

Stiller was a wee baby when he was on the show, and he did not do well. Yep, one of the biggest names in comedy totally bombed on SNL. Kinda makes you feel better about your life, huh? Stiller was a featured player during his season but got relatively little airtime. As funny as he is, he was competing with SNL heavy hitters like Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey so he didn’t really have a chance. Obviously, his time after the show has been just the opposite. He’s appeared in some of the funniest movies of the 2000s like his ode to male models, Zoolander. He’s even crossed over into more dramatic roles in recent years. The show may not have been right for his particular comedic sense, but his movie ventures have been on-point.

5. Janeane Garofalo (1994-1995)

It’s no big secret that Garofalo hated her time on SNL. She left the show after only five months because of the “boys club atmosphere” that made it difficult for her to thrive on the show. She even cited her time on the show as “the most miserable experience of my life.” Luckily her derision of the show didn’t dampen her career.
Despite the disastrous time she spent there, she went on to be a huge comedic force in the ’90s. She’s best known for her off-kilter comedy roles in films like Reality Bites and Wet Hot American Summer. Garofalo is a great example of how something that seems awful can become a blessing in disguise.

4. Jenny Slate (2009-2010)

Slate’s time on the show got off to a rocky start. One her first episode in her very first sketch she dropped an “f-bomb” on live television. Eek! It didn’t get her immediately fired, but she was not asked back at the end of the year. Actually, she says she found out about her firing online and never even talked to showrunner Lorne Michaels. Luckily her talents have not gone to waste. If she had stayed on the show we may not have been #blessed with Mona Lisa on Parks and Recreation. Her career is just starting to take off and it’s thrilling to see what the comedian will do next. Plus, she’s got a pretty hot boyfriend.

3. Damon Wayans (1985-1986)

Some people fade out and leave the show quietly, some go out with a bang. Wayans definitely went out with a bang. During his season as a featured player he became frustrated that he wasn’t able to do the sketches he wanted to do. Ultimately his frustrations got the best of him and his anger translated on screen when he purposely derailed a sketch. He was set to play a straight, manly cop in a sketch and instead played the role as flamboyant and over-the-top, leading to confusion from the audience. He was fired immediately after it aired for sabotaging the show. His firing is legendary, and years later he can attest that he earned the ire he received from everyone at SNL. He didn’t do too bad for himself afterwards, though, going on to a thriving film career and a much more successful sketch comedy stint on In Living Color.

2. Julia Louis-Dreyfus (1982-1985)

Before she was Elaine Benes on Steinfeld, she was a cast member on SNL. She didn’t exactly shine, though. Dreyfus is hilarious, but sketch comedy just wasn’t a natural fit. She puttered through for a few years before departing the show to work on other things. One positive did come from her time on the show, though: she met Larry David. David went on to create the show about nothing and cast Dreyfus in her career-defining role as Elaine. Since her sitcom debut, she’s won 11 Emmy’s, a Golden Globe, and she’s currently kicking cancers butt with grace and humor.

1. Robert Downey Jr. (1985-1986)

Yep, Iron Man himself was once on Saturday Night Live. Who knew?! Downey is funny in basically everything. He’s the comedic glue of the Marvel Cinematic Universe! But on SNL he just couldn’t make it work and bombed out after just one season. Even one of the biggest stars in the world couldn’t make in on the sketch show, which is oddly comforting. No one is good at all things, and some people are just meant to be action-comedy stars and not sketch-comedy stars. After a rough few years, Downey put his life back together and he’s done pretty great for himself ever since. He’s Iron Man in the MCU and one of the most beloved actors in the world.

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