Since its inception in 1975, NBC sketch show Saturday Night Live has become an integral part of American culture. The show is currently enjoying a rating revival in the wake of the show’s Donald Trump impersonations, but really, the sketches and the comedians who have featured on the show have been shaping mainstream comedy for decades. From known favourites to Bill Murray to people you might not have known started on the show like Robert Downey Jr., all of these successful comedians essentially got their big break on the show.
Having made himself a popular figure in Chicago comedy troupe The Second City, Belushi was recruited as an original member of the SNL cast in 1975. He was a regular on the ‘Weekend Update’ segment and it was on the show that Belushi and co-star Dan Aykroyd first conceived their characters The Blues Brothers. Belushi’s time on the show was tumultuous, and after leaving for the last time he and Aykroyd made a big screen adaptation of The Blues Brothers in 1980. His career was cut short in 1982 when he died of a drug overdose.
Before appearing in SNL, Chase was a key player of The National Lampoon Radio Hour alongside friend and co-star John Belushi. In 1975 he became one of SNL‘s original cast members and hosted the first version of the ‘Weekend Update’ sketch. He left after just a year on the show but used his fame as a springboard to roles in comedy films such as Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation.
After being recruited by future co-star John Belushi for The National Lampoon Radio Hour, Murray bagged a role on SNL in 1977. Before his departure 1980, Murray took on several recurring sketches including a spoof of TV quiz show Family Feud. After SNL, he went on to become one of the most successful big-screen comedic actors of his time following roles in Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day and Caddyshack. His cult grows to this day.
Though he was on the stand-up circuit prior to joining the cast, it was SNL characters such as Gumby, Mr Robinson and Buckwheat that made him a true star. He left the show in 1984, and went on to act in successful action flick Beverly Hills Cop, lend his the voice to the character of Donkey in Shrek and become one of the most in-demand stand-up comedians of his era.
In 1982 Louis-Dreyfus was recruited for a role on the show at the age of 21, making her the youngest female cast member ever at the time. She lasted three years on the show and it was where she would meet writer Larry David, the creator of sitcom Seinfeld, in which she took a lead role through the ‘90s. Louis-Dreyfus would go on to voice characters in A Bug’s Life and The Simpsons, before being cast in the lead role of political satire Veep in 2011. She has since won five Emmys for her role as Vice-President Selina Meyers.
Cusack’s role on the show lasted only from 1985-86, with her impersonation of Queen Elizabeth II and sketch character Selena considered her finest roles. After leaving the show, she received Oscars nominations for Working Girl in 1987 and In & Out the following year. Cusack also found acclaim for her role in the US adaptation of Shameless, winning an Emmy for her performance.
7Robert Downey Jr.
Following a well-received turn in off-broadway musical American Passion in 1983, Downey Jr was cast in SNL in 1985. His stint on the show lasted less than a year, and his comedy cred was questioned by the press on several occasions. In 2015, he was named by Rolling Stone as the worst SNL cast member ever. After serious battles with drug addiction during the ‘90s – his career picked up again following 2007 thriller Zodiac and his casting as Marvel hero Iron Man was the making of him.
Having performed in improv groups in the UK and US, Myers was cast on the show in 1989. His sketch ‘Sprockets’ alongside Dana Anderson proved to be one of his most popular roles, in addition to an early incarnation of ‘Wayne’s World’. The latter sketch was turned into a full-length movie in 1992 and Myers left the show in 1995. He went on to write and star in the Austin Powers franchise, as well as providing the voice for the titular character in animated film franchise Shrek.
Stiller starred in a handful of bit-part film roles in his teens, but his short films caught the attention of SNL. He would only appear in four episodes, going on to create sketch show The Ben Stiller Show for Comedy Central. Big hit Something About Mary made him a box-office winner and soon his short film idea Zoolander was adapted into a major picture.
Soon after Eddie Murphy left the show, he took rising comedian Chris Rock under his wing and gave him his first roles on screen, including Beverly Hills Cops 2 in 1987. In 1990, Rock joined the SNL cast and was described as one of the ‘Bad Boys of SNL’ at the time. He was “fired” from the show in 1992 for untold reasons – but found success as a stand-up comedian, developed a sitcom about his life (Everybody Hates Chris) and has since hosted the Oscars twice.
Encouraged by his brother, Sandler was performing in comedy clubs when he was spotted by SNL producer Lorne Michaels. He was hired as a writer in 1990 and was best remembered for crafting songs such as ‘The Thanksgiving Song’ and ‘The Chanukah Song’. After he was fired from the show in 1995, Sandler went on to write and star in a number of very successful comedies including Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy.
Ferrell was spotted by SNL producers while performing in LA improv group The Groundlings and joined the show as a cast member in 1995. His impression of then-President George W. Bush is widely considered one of the best ever seen on the show. After his departure in 2005, Ferrell continued starring in comedy films such as Anchorman, Stepbrothers, Semi-Pro and The Other Guys.
While performing with improv group The Second City, Fey was approached to join the writing staff of SNL in 1997. She became the first female head writer in 1999, a post she held until 2005 when she departed. During her time, she was best known for her co-hosting duties of the ‘Weekend Update’ segment with friend Amy Poehler and returned intermittently to showcase her brilliant but infamous Sarah Palin impression during the 2008 US Presidential election. Fey is also credited with creating and starring in 30 Rock – a sitcom loosely based on her SNL experiences – as well as Netflix comedy The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Jimmy Fallon started out in LA improv school The Groundlings and was cast in the show in 1998 at the age of 23. His musical impressions – which included The Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb – and tendency to break character would win over fans during his six year stint on the show. After he left Fallon briefly dabbled in film, but soon became a formidable talk show host, and currently hosts The Tonight Show on NBC.
Like Fallon, Rudolph started out in improv group The Groundlings before landing a permanent role on SNL in 2000. During her time on the show she impersonated musicians including Beyonce and Prince, and was well-liked for her role as the Spacemonster in the sketch ‘Gays In Space’. Rudolph left the show in 2007 and starred in 2011 film Bridesmaids in a leading role, as well as comedy film Grown Ups and its sequel.
Prior to SNL, Poehler starred in improv troupe The Upright Citizens Brigade, which featured as sketch regulars on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. She was cast in SNL in 2001, with her ‘Weekend Update’ segment with friend and co-star Tina Fey proving her most popular role. Poehler left the show in 2008, and starred as Leslie Knope in cult sitcom Parks & Recreations until 2015, as well as voicing Joy in 2015 Pixar film Inside Out.
Born in New York, Wiig moved to LA to enrol in improv group The Groundlings and in 2004. Her manager of the time suggested she audition for SNL and she was cast in the show in 2005. Her ‘Target Lady’ character earned Emmy nominations on four separate occasions. Following the success of her comedy film Bridesmaids, Wiig left the show in 2011 and has since gone on to voice animated characters in Despicable Me, Sausage Party and appeared in the Ghostbusters reboot in 2016.
After majoring in experimental film in college, Samberg’s Lonely Island YouTube videos caught the attention of SNL makers, and in 2005 he joined as full-time cast member. His rap-spoof sketch ‘Dick In A Box’ starring Justin Timberlake won a Creative Emmy in 2006. In 2012, he left the show and became the star of police-sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which has since won him two Golden Globes.