With six new cast members; this season, Saturday Night Live’s freshman class of 2013 is the show’s largest in almost 20 years. As mere “featured players” (the SNL version of probationary employees) there’s no guarantee they’ll all be back next fall, but every one of them can take pride in having survived the show’s notoriously intimidating audition process. One of the final tests aspiring Not Ready For Prime Time Players must pass is a taped performance in front of SNL impresario Lorne Michael himself. Luckily for us, a number of these tapes can be found online. So, for your viewing pleasure, here’s a look at some of Saturday night’s greatest comic talents on the edge of stardom.
1. Dan Aykroyd
As Elwood Blues, Dan Aykroyd famously took advantage of his lanky frame and Midwestern monotone to play the world’s straightest straight man, but little of that rigidity can be seen in this early SNL screen test. In a six-minute tour de force, Aykroyd manages to adopt the persona of a Cajun farmer, an excitable geologist and a French-Canadian lumberjack, among other (and odder) characters.
2. Phil Hartman
While the late, great Phil Hartman is probably best remembered for his portrayal of self-important doofuses, his comedic range extended far beyond Troy McClure and Bill McNeal. In this clip from 1985, Hartman shows off his impressive repertoire, nailing everything from Jack Nicholson as a certain prince of Denmark to a (truly inspired) impression of a German impressionist.
3. Jimmy Fallon
When it comes to impression reels, it’s hard to beat the literal parade of celebrities played here by a spritely young Jimmy Fallon. That is, until his jittery energy nearly derails the act. Luckily, Fallon was able to gain NBC’s confidence anyway, if his upcoming gig as host of The Tonight Show is any indication.
4. Dana Carvey – Choppin’ Broccoli
It later became one of his signature bits, but Carvey’s send-up of inane rock ballads started as just another part of his SNL audition. That makes “Choppin’ Brocolli” almost 30 years old, although this satirical take on meaningless song lyrics could have just as easily been written yesterday.
5. Dana Carvey – Impressions
Out of the hundreds of performers who have tried out for SNL, Lorne Michaels has said only Dana Carvey and Kristen Wiig came to their auditions “full-formed,” telling Time magazine, “[Y]ou saw what they did in their audition and you put it on the air.” Part of this, no doubt, was due to his polished impressions of celebrities like Jimmy Stewart, John Travolta and Robin Leach on display below.
6. Andy Kaufman
Despite his frequent, noteworthy appearances on Saturday Night Live, Andy Kaufman was never actually a cast member, and this 1975 audition tape might explain why. The brief clip shows the avant-garde comedian performing a bit that straddles the line between funny and just plain bizarre, the uncomfortable combination that would become his signature.
7. John Belushi
Chevy Chase might have been Saturday Night Live’s first breakout star, but rival John Belushi is arguably the cast member most strongly associated with the show today. It’s easy to see why in this 1975 clip. Stuffing his cheeks, wiggling his eyebrows and playing with tissue paper, Belushi’s antics foreshadow the manic, memorable performances of early SNL.
8. Jim Breuer
These days, he’s better known for his role as a hapless stoner in Half-Baked than his brief tenure on SNL, but in 1995 Jim Breuer was the show’s go-to guy for playing R-dropping Noo Yawkers. Breuer used his audition to showcase a number of these Big Apple personalities, including a surly pigeon that anticipates his turn as the fiery host of “The Joe Pesci Show.”
9. Cookie Monster
Of course, not everyone who tries out for Saturday Night Live makes the cut, as this cookie-crammed audition tape by everyone’s favorite crumb junkie makes clear. Fortunately, the furry blue monster still managed to snag an appearance on the show, singing a guttural rendition of “Silver Bells”; with famed dude Jeff Bridges. Still, we can’t be alone in hoping that a feature-length adaptation of “Macarooner” gets picked up for production.