Next Saturday night Tina Fey returns to the hallowed halls of Studio 8H for the season premiere of an SNL season boasting several new cast members. But it might be worth mentioning to the rookies that there’s a slim chance that, despite their talent level, not everyone makes it on the upper floors of Rockefeller Center. While Lorne Michaels is the best in the business at spotting new talent and cutting loose the slack, he doesn’t win ‘em all.With a new slate of performers waiting in the wings, let’s take a look at five talented cast members who slipped through Michaels’ starmaking fingers over the years.
5. David Koechner
If Lorne Michaels didn’t see the potential in Koechner, castmate Will Ferrell did; the latter cast Koechner as sportscaster Champ Kind (“Whammy!”) in the comedy goldmine Anchorman and Koechner remains in high regard among sketch and improv comics everywhere. During his one year at SNL Koechner developed memorable characters like “Gerald T-Bone Tibbons,” Bill Brasky’s eternally-embellishing hype man, Norm MacDonald’s spastic younger brother Gary and politician Pat Buchanan. Michaels let Koechner go after the 1995-96 season and Conan O’Brien quickly snatched him up to write and perform sketches on Late Night. The projects in which Koechner continually pops up today show his connections to a host of other great, absurd-sketch comics and writers.
4. Robert Downey, Jr.
By the time Lorne Michaels tapped 21 year-old Robert Downey Jr. for a younger cast of SNL cast members (Anthony Michael Hall was also among this crowd), Downey had already had John Hughes’ Weird Science under his belt and the Rodney Dangerfield classic Back to School in the can and still couldn’t hack it at SNL. Having learned comedy from John Hughes — which is admittedly a hell of a pedigree — he was gone after one season. Maybe Michaels didn’t see the potential or groomability in Downey that he saw in a comic like Jimmy Fallon, who was similarly young when he joined his season’s cast years later, or perhaps Downey was pumped full of drugs the whole time. We’ll never know. But we do know that Michaels couldn’t be bothered at the time with the once and future Iron Man, despite the experience he brought to the table.
3. Sarah Silverman
Few will argue Sarah Silverman’s talent, as proven since her firing from SNL in 1994 after only one season on the show, where she is most known for playing herself as a Weekend Update correspondent, an anthropomorphic container of Chinese food in Sandler’s “Lunch Lady Land” performance and…well, that’s pretty much it. Bob Oedenkirk would later say that her personality was too strong to disappear into the necessary SNL characters, which makes sense, but her comic mind alone should have been tapped into more (not one of her sketches ever made the final cut). Oh well. I think she’s doing okay these days.
2. Ben Stiller
Oops! Ben Stiller, who we now look at as one of the strongest comic character-generators ever to become a multi-million-dollar-demanding leading man in his own right, started as an SNL writer for two years before graduating to a featured player, where he also directed short comedies (think pre-“digital short” days). After the powers that be put the kibosh on Stiller’s short films, he walked away from the institution and later created the emmy-winning Ben Stiller Show, which pretty much opened the door to him taking over the world. Might have been worth a second look at SNL, probably. Just saying. Hey, hindsight’s 20/20, right?
This one’s unarguable. Chris Rock — now, oh, one of the greatest standup comics ever to take the stage — became frustrated during his three seasons (only three seasons! He even has his own “Best of” DVD!) at SNL by being relegated to playing “black characters” like Nat X, Young Pop in “Tales from the Barbecue” and the hip-hop host of “I’m Chillin’.” He defected from SNL to join the cast of In Living Color shortly before the show ended, and kicked around doing films with his ex-SNL pals (Beverly Hills Ninja, CB4) before commanding gigantic audiences and HBO must-see specials later. Though Rock wasn’t there technically very long, it feels like he was — a testament to how memorable he was in the few things he did do for Lorne Michaels. Today Rock rakes in millions by simply slumming with Sandler and Spade, voicing a zebra, hanging with Jerry Seinfeld and doing whatever he wants, proving that living well is indeed the best revenge.