Why Doesn’t Anybody Leave Saturday Night Live Anymore?SNL cast photo by Mary Ellen Matthews, courtesy of NBC Comedy Features Saturday Night Live
Despite the rumors that swirled throughout Saturday Night Live’s offseason about the futures of cast members Aidy Bryant, Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong and Pete Davidison, the show announced on Monday that they’d all be back for this new season, the show’s 47th. So would Kenan Thompson, the longest-tenured cast member in the show’s history. In fact, the only long-term cast member that is not returning is Beck Bennett. Lauren Holt, who never quite broke through in her one season, is also not coming back. These decisions, plus three new hires, leave SNL’s cast at 21 people, the most in the show’s history.
This news was surprising, especially because last year’s season finale gave many the impression that McKinnon, Davidson, Bryant and Strong would be leaving. Strong especially seemed to be hinting at a coming departure when she did essentially a grand farewell in character, reprising her recurring Jeannine Pirro bit on Weekend Update.
But none of them left. This will be the 10th season for each of Bryant, McKinnon, and Strong. That ties them for 6th-most in SNL’s long history. Davidson, the man who joined as one of the youngest cast members ever, will be in his eighth season, tied for 16th most. Eight of the 25 longest-tenured people in the show’s history are on it right now. But why? It’s not like the show is known as an easy paycheck. Quite the opposite actually, as any talk show appearance featuring former SNL cast members can tell you.
While it’s possible that these stars are staying on just for their love of sketch comedy, one can’t help but wonder if this decision is being driven by the modern media landscape’s decimation of the traditional pathways out of SNL for its biggest stars.
For many years, cast members would leave SNL and try to find a home in film, like Chevy Chase or Kristen Wiig did when she made Bridesmaids. Often stars would leave SNL and kick off a film career by being in movies based on their SNL characters. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd did it first with Blues Brothers but this kept happening for years until it stopped when Will Forte left SNL to star in the now-cult hit, then-box office disappointment Macgruber in 2010. Others, including Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler, broke out in Hollywood with original ideas. Since the show’s original cast, there’s been a steady flow of SNL stars jumping from TV to the movie screen.
The state of movies now is just not conducive to crafting a comedic film career in the way it had been for so long, though. Not only is the SNL character movie gone, but studios have de-emphasized mid-budget films and essentially eliminated traditional comedies in lieu of making their comic book movies and other big budget IP adaptations into joke fests.
This basically kneecaps any attempt at replicating the sort of career Wiig has had or, even moreso, that Bill Hader has had. McKinnon hasn’t had a lead role in a film since 2018’s The Spy Dumped Me, and her next shot is a starring and creator role in Peacock’s Joe Exotic. Meanwhile, Strong and Bryant’s public dockets are clear of leading roles in movies. Davidson, whose fame expands beyond SNL and into the tabloids, is basically in a different conversation than his fellow long-term castmates. Perhaps that helped elevate him into a starring role in last year’s semi-autobiographical The King of Staten Island. That movie was directed by Judd Apatow, whose directing and producing output was one of the key star-making chances for SNL stars, including Hader, for years.
Hader elevated his profile not just through being an absolute superstar on SNL, but also by appearing in prominent, memorable roles in movies like Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (both produced by Apatow) while still on the show. When he left SNL and really popped to movie star level, it was also in an Apatow picture, 2015’s Trainwreck.
McKinnon is the only one of the current cast to really get a chance like that, but The Spy Who Dumped Me, her small roles in Bombshell and Yesterday, and the a prominent role in the 2016 Ghostbusters haven’t turned her into a movie star. Then-SNL co-star Leslie Jones also hasn’t been able to springboard from that Ghostbusters reboot into a steady film career. Bryant co-starred in Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty, but that was not from a major studio and did not make the sort of waves that the Apatow movies before it did. This lack of opportunities is not a marker of some missing it-factor or talent—in fact, McKinnon, Strong and Bryant are probably some of the stronger performers in the show’s history. It reflects the broader trends of Hollywood.
In 2020, as studios fought tooth and nail for a way to keep their larger budget movies in theaters, they were happy selling their broader comedies and romantic comedies, like The Lovebirds and Happiest Season, to streaming services. Palm Springs, an acclaimed comedy starring former SNL sensation Andy Samberg, went straight to Hulu last year. In 2019, the last normal year at the movies, Good Boys was the only traditional live-action comedy to land in the top 35 of the domestic box office. Compare that to 2007, the year before Iron Man came out and changed the industry. Nine live-action comedies were in that year’s top 35, five of which included then-current or former SNL cast members.
Even the last wave of SNL cast members to become stars in Hollywood haven’t done much in the way of film comedies lately. Jason Sudeikis, a lead in the Horrible Bosses films and the legitimate hit We’re the Millers, hasn’t headlined a prominent screen comedy in several years. Bill Hader has settled into a busy career as a voice actor and character actor. The biggest recent roles for both of them have been on TV, with Sudeikis starring in Ted Lasso and Hader playing the title role on HBO’s Barry. And although Kristen Wiig continues to act regularly in major movies, she’s only been the lead in a prominent comedy twice since Bridesmaids came out 10 years ago: Ghostbusters and this year’s Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, whose theatrical release was cancelled due to the pandemic.
In addition to this massive shift of the cinematic landscape, streaming has also disrupted the other traditional lane out of SNL and into broader stardom: the sitcom. Sitcoms were once the dominant force in television, and while broadcast channels continue to make them, they have failed to garner anywhere near the monocultural foothold now that viewing habits have been so segmented by the glut of options streaming services provide. The Emmys are not a perfect indicator, but it is informative nonetheless that Black-ish was the only one of this year’s Best Comedy movies to be a traditional, broadcast sitcom. Every other nominee was on a streaming service.
Both Strong and Bryant have starred in beloved and acclaimed streaming shows: Schmigadoon and Shrill, respectively. But Shrill already had its final season and Schmigadoon has not yet been renewed for season 2. And neither of those shows, like most streaming hits, have been as big of a Q-rating riser as the broadcast sitcoms that pervaded the culture for decades. When Tina Fey left SNL, it was to run and star in 30 Rock. For Amy Poehler, it was Parks and Recreation. Neither were big ratings hits, but both left an indelible impact on pop culture. But for the SNL stars of today, it looks like there’s just nothing like that on the table anymore. Even when they do get a sitcom now, they don’t leave SNL; Kenan Thompson and Chris Redd both star on NBC’s primetime sitcom Kenan, and both juggle it alongside SNL.
With all of these traditional avenues out of SNL so hamstrung, it should come as no surprise that the show’s stars are staying on for more and more years. Why leave a stable job when the best option for greater stardom is hoping you’re in the one romantic comedy Netflix decides not to bury this year? Much has been written about the death of the Hollywood comedy, but there hasn’t been as much attention paid to its impact upon the larger industry—including its trickle-down effect on SNL’s cast members, who are more reluctant to leave Studio 8H than ever before.
Hooman Yazdanian is a writer and film superfan based in Los Angeles. He’s constantly debating where he wants a fourth entry in the Before… series. For his movie takes and jokes, follow him on Twitter and on Letterboxd.