Throughout its 40-plus year reign on NBC, Saturday Night Live has had over 150 featured cast members. Some graduated from the show after a few years to start successful Hollywood careers, like Bill Murray, Tina Fey, and Will Ferrell to name just a few. Others were not so lucky.
While getting a spot on the SNL cast might seem like an inevitable career boom, some lost their spot on the cast after only one season. The reasons vary, some broke Lorne Michaels’ strict no improv rule, and others just didn’t have the comedy chemistry the show needed. What’s truly bizarre is that some of the biggest names in Hollywood today got the axe after just one season.
9 Gilbert Gottfried
The late comedian was a member of the 1980-1981 season. SNL struggled throughout the 1980s, and many consider some of those seasons to be the show’s worst. Gottfried was an up-and-coming comedian at the time he joined the show. Following his departure, he found immense success as a standup comic and as an actor in several comedy classics. He was also the voice of Iago the parrot in the first Aladdin movie made by Disney.
8 Billy Crystal
One thing that producers tried in the 1980s to restore SNL to its early glory was to bring in seasoned, already established comics to the cast instead of new up-and-comers. Crystal, a comedy legend, was on the show from 1984 to 1985. Crystal’s post-SNL career was phenomenal and he created classic movies like City Slickers, When Harry Met Sally, and he would voice Mike in Pixar’s Monsters Inc.
7 Christopher Guest
Guest is well known for his mockumentary films A Mighty Wind, Best In Show, and This Is Spinal Tap among others. Guest, like Crystal, was a part of the whole “hey let’s save the show with famous comedians” experiment in the 1984 to 1985 season.
6 Martin Short
Yet another to have been sacrificed by the SNL gods in 1984. Short was already successful thanks to his earlier sketch comedy show SCTV, which he starred in with legends like John Candy and Eugene Levy. An interesting thing about Short’s SNL tenure is that he was a host of the show a few times before he was brought on as a cast member. Also, Short brought a recurring character from SCTV to SNL, his popular uber-nerd character Ed Grimley.
5 Damon Wayans
Wayans’ SNL failure has become one of the entertainment industry’s most iconic anecdotes. Wayans joined the show in 1985, seemingly poised to be the next Eddie Murphy. However, he broke Lorne’s number 1 rule, don’t improvise. Unlike most on this list, Wayans did not even last a full season. Wayans went on to create his own sketch show In Living Color with his brothers and sister a few years later.
4 Joan Cusack
This member of the Cusack dynasty was a part of the 1985 season. Many in that season were young actors and comics, an attempt to save the show with fresh blood. Cusack’s departure was quick but uneventful. Cusack ended up being an icon of the 1980s thanks to her role in Working Girl. She also went on to be in the popular show Shameless, the film School of Rock, and a few Toy Story films.
3 Ben Stiller
Yes, really. Ben Stiller was on SNL in 1988. According to Decider, Stiller wanted to do more short films for the show, but Lorne Michaels was not exactly into the idea. So Stiller departed not for lack of talent, but over creative differences. Stiller was already a part of an iconic comedy dynasty. His parents, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, were already an iconic comedy duo akin to George Burns and Gracie Allen. Stiller, as everyone already knows, is one of the most powerful comedy actors, directors, and producers in Hollywood today.
2 Sarah Silverman
Silverman learned she was fired from SNL via fax. Silverman struggled to find a place within the show. Her sketches were unmemorable and only one of the ones she wrote ever made it as far as a dress rehearsal. Silverman graduated to become a popular stand-up comedian and actress in a variety of shows and films. In 2022, she joined Broadway with a show about her life and career.
1 Robert Downey Jr.
Of all the SNL failures turned Hollywood success stories, none can compare to Robert Downey Jr. RDJ, the son of the legendary underground director, joined SNL in 1985. SNL marked RDJ’s first onscreen job as an adult, he helped his father make a few movies when he was still a child. Writers tried to find a place for RDJ, but his sketches never really landed and the attempts to make a recurring character for him fell flat. Although he is phenomenally successful now thanks to his role as Tony Stark in the MCU, he is widely considered to be the worst cast member in SNL history.