‘Saturday Night Live’ Cast Members Who Were Fired
Saturday Night Live is a singularly challenging environment.
A weekly, 90-minute live sketch comedy show where performers are expected to make their way in a singularly competitive and pressure-filled atmosphere, SNL has a long and fraught history of chewing up talent and spitting it back out. Some extremely talented people have failed to find their place at Saturday Night Live, while others flourished for a time before creative burnout, budget, network politics or the inscrutable whims of legendary producer Lorne Michaels saw them ushered out of Rockefeller Center.
Here are some of the most notable firings in SNL history.
It takes a special sort of awfulness to get fired before you even start, but that’s what happened to stand-up comedian Shane Gillis. Announced, alongside Bowen Yang and Chloe Fineman, as the new featured players joining Season 45’s cast, Gillis was quickly canned before ever taking the Studio 8H stage once Saturday Night Live became aware of racist and homophobic statements Gillis had routinely made in his act and on his podcast. Especially unfortunate was the timing of Gillis’ hiring and firing, with Yang’s position as SNL’s first Asian cast member and an openly gay man inevitably being linked in the discourse with Gillis’ history of explicitly anti-Asian and anti-gay slurs. With Lorne Michaels issuing a statement condemning both Gillis and SNL’s vetting process, Gillis was out before he was in, leaving the comedian to snark that he was “always a MadTV guy anyway.”
It was the “fuck” heard ‘round the world. During the goodnights of the Feb. 21, 1981, episode, Rocket, tasked with stretching for time, broke the ultimate network taboo by uttering the f-bomb. It was an accident - “I wish I knew who the fuck did it,” Rocket regrettably ad-libbed when asked by host Charlene Tilton about the episode’s running “Who shot Charles Rocket?” gag - and a performer in a more secure position might have weathered the ensuing NBC storm. (Censor Bill Clotworthy had just that night given a pass to musical guest Prince, whose own “fuckin’” during his performance of “Partyup” was deemed unintelligible enough to ignore.) But this was the infamous Season 6, where newly hired producer Jean Doumanian vainly attempted to replicate the unparalleled success of Saturday Night Live’s first five seasons, resulting in an all-time TV train wreck that saw SNL’s once-mighty ratings and critical acclaim crash and burn. By the time Rocket uttered his expletive, Doumanian (and, indeed, SNL itself) was on shaky ground — Rocket was the last straw that brought down this iteration of the show. While Rocket and Doumanian were doing the contrite rounds in various executive offices, NBC was already plotting their exit, with Dick Ebersol, who’d helped get SNL off the ground initially, tapped to finish out the season — without Charles Rocket.
The Reaping: Chapter 1 (Gilbert Gottfried, Ann Risley)
Season 6 claimed several more victims on its way to television ignominy, with the newly installed producer Dick Ebersol immediately cleaning house once he took over from Jean Doumanian. In addition to firing most of the existing writers, Ebersol set out to remake the cast, calling both Ann Risley and Gilbert Gottfried into his office for the chop. The book Saturday Night relates how Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, the only two cast members popular enough to feel secure, giggled their way through the parade of departing fired faces, the sourness of the dismal season’s implosion turning them, as Piscopo puts it, into a “couple of little bastards.” And while Charles Rocket’s recent f-bomb made his firing all but a certainty, Risley and Gottfried, who’d barely made an impression in their brief time on the show, found themselves victims of Ebersol’s desire to essentially start over again from scratch. As noted in Saturday Night, the only reason Season 6 performer Denny Dillon was temporarily spared was that Ebersol couldn’t afford to buy out as many contracts as he’d have liked.
The Reaping: Chapter 2 (Robert Downey Jr., Joan Cusack, Randy Quaid, Anthony Michael Hall, Terry Sweeney, Danitra Vance)
Lorne Michaels’ long-awaited return to Saturday Night Live did not go as planned. Reclaiming the producer’s chair, Michaels stacked his initial cast with an eclectic group of performers who, while undeniably talented, never gelled, leaving Season 11 a critical and ratings shambles by the end. So Michaels, aping the cliffhanger disaster plots of many a floundering TV series, literally burned the studio down. With his cast happily celebrating having made it through the season (and toasting to many more), Michaels was seen pouring gasoline around the door of their backstage dressing room. Having second thoughts, the producer rushed into the flames — but only to rescue lone season standout performer Jon Lovitz, leaving the rest frantically scrabbling at the walls. An onscreen legend asked “Who will survive? Who will perish?,” with only Lovitz, Nora Dunn, A. Whitney Brown and Dennis Miller being brought back for the rebuilding year that was Season 12.
It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for Jenny Slate, a talented performer who succumbed to stage fright at exactly the wrong time. In her very first sketch as a Season 35 featured player, "Biker Chick Chat,” the excited Slate accidentally said “fucking” rather than “frigging,” and while producer Lorne Michaels consoled the shattered Slate after the sketch, Slate was let go after the season. Speaking of the incident now, Slate claims to never have watched her blunder, and it’s easy to see why — you can watch the young and hopeful performer’s soul shrivel live on air. Slate soldiered on through her only season and admits she “didn’t click” in her time on SNL, and was fired in the off-season via email.
Another talented comedian who never clicked on Saturday Night Live, Sarah Silverman served as a little-used featured player during Season 19, being let go (by fax) after the final episode. There was no Jenny Slate-style catastrophe behind Silverman’s ouster, with the comedian herself admitting the fact that not one of her sketches ever made it to air (one got to dress rehearsal) likely had something to do with it. Silverman later slyly mocked her experience on SNL when she appeared on The Larry Sanders Show, as a brash new female writer whose ideas are all summarily rejected by the all-male writing staff.
Damon Wayans lit the fuse on his firing when he did the unthinkable, at least according to the rules of Lorne Michaels: He went off script. Technically, Wayans, then floundering and deeply frustrated as a seldom-featured featured player, said his lines as an unfunny cop busting Jon Lovitz’s Mr. Monopoly as written, but he surprised everybody by busting out a stereotypically “gay” accent during the sketch, derailing it and drawing Michaels’ immediate ire. “I went berserk,” Michaels admits in the SNL oral history, Live From New York, with Wayans recalling being taken aback that the perennially cool and collected producer would launch into a red-faced, expletive-filled tirade as Michaels fired him on the spot. Despite Michaels uttering the dreaded “You’ll never work in this town again” threat to Wayans at the time, the producer invited back Wayans to perform a stand-up piece on the last episode of that season, a move Wayans credits to the “sick” side of Michaels who “loves the rebel.” This was also the episode where Michaels locked the cast, including the returning Wayans, in a burning room, so who knows?
Michaela Watkins and Casey Wilson
The list of fired Saturday Night Live performers who went on to undeniable success outside the show is a long one, a testament to SNL’s distinctly competitive and pressure-filled environment. Or maybe just bad luck, bad timing or both. Michaela Watkins and Casey Wilson were let go after the 2008-09 season without much ceremony, leaving them free to become the prolific and acclaimed character actresses they’ve since become. Still, both actors were taken aback at the decision, with Watkins noting that her only season had been a happy one and that Lorne Michaels’ typically vague explanation that she “should have her own show” was as confusing as it was comforting. As for Wilson, a tumultuous personal life saw her greeting unemployment with not a little relief, the talented performer later remarking, "It felt a bit like I was on a sports team, but I was always on the bench. And it's just not a good feeling.”
Adam Sandler and Chris Farley
It still surprises people today, but Adam Sandler and Chris Farley were, indeed, fired from Saturday Night Live. The story behind the jettisoning of two of the show’s most popular performers is a long and tangled one, a snarl of critical drubbing, backstage infighting, budget concerns and unprecedented network meddling from newly installed NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer. Farley’s substance abuse problems were an issue, certainly, but Lorne Michaels, who was determined not to have a repeat of the John Belushi tragedy on his watch, didn’t fire Farley for that. (Michaels did, to his credit, leverage Farley’s further employment to repeatedly get the troubled comic to attend rehab.) And Sandler, while never a critical darling for his loose and silly approach to SNL, was likewise a major star. So the announcement that neither performer would return for Season 21 was greeted with some shock. For Michaels, it was a case of capitulating so as not to lose the show he had created, with Season 20’s terrible ratings (critically and in viewership) putting the venerable comedy institution on the verge of cancellation. It’s said that NBC - then flushed with the unparalleled success of Friends - was flexing its power, with unsolicited advice on every aspect of production flooding the beleaguered Michaels, who was, himself, said to be in danger of being shown the door. In the end, Michaels cleaned house, firing Sandler and Farley and relegating similarly ubiquitous cast member David Spade to a diminished role, mainly on "Weekend Update." Michaels retained control of his show, while Sandler and Farley emerged just fine, each becoming major movie stars in their own right away from Saturday Night Live. Sandler, returning to host the show in 2019, used his monologue to sing the cheeky song “I Was Fired” to the delighted audience.
Chris Rock didn’t have a particularly rewarding time creatively on Saturday Night Live, his brashness and Blackness were often relegated to the sidelines on the perennially very white show. Still, Rock credits Lorne Michaels with all his subsequent success, admitting that he was a tough fit. In Live From New York, Rock recalls asking Michaels why he’d hired him in the first place since Rock didn’t do the sort of character work or impressions the show thrives on. “Original thought,” was Michaels’ answer, and Rock certainly went on to parlay that comic brilliance to great success after he was let go from the show in 1993. It’s said that Rock was fired after he’d expressed interest in jumping ship to Fox’s more diverse sketch series In Living Color, so this seems more of a mutual separation. That said, Rock did pop into pal Adam Sandler’s 2019 hosting monologue to contribute a verse to Sandler’s “I Was Fired” song, seemingly confirming that he was indeed fired from SNL.
Don Ohlmeyer’s meddling on SNL during his stint as NBC’s West Coast President caused no end of headaches for Lorne Michaels and the cast. And while his efforts in getting Michaels to fire Adam Sandler and Chris Farley (who both had years left on their contracts) were certainly questionable, there's an especially ugly undercurrent to Ohlmeyer’s campaign against cast member and "Weekend Update" anchor Norm Macdonald. The cast member, a divisive figure for his uniquely deadpan approach to "Update," was fond of scathing jokes about one O.J. Simpson, the former football star and accused double murderer who also happened to be a longtime friend and golfing buddy of Olhlmeyer. And while the true story remains a subject of debate, ousting the acerbic Macdonald from the "Update" desk became a veritable crusade for the executive, eventually resulting in Macdonald being demoted to regular sketch work on the show (which Macdonald hated), and then being let go altogether later in the 1998 season. Macdonald then made a legendary appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman (who’d also been memorably fired by NBC), where the two comedians took turns roasting Ohlmeyer — which reportedly led to the smarting Ohlmeyer banning NBC from running ads for Macdonald’s 1998 movie Dirty Work. Dirty work, indeed.
For the perennially hilarious team player everyman Chris Parnell, getting fired from Saturday Night Live stung. When it happened for a second time, it must have seemed like something of a sick joke. Parnell did two stints on SNL, from 1998-2001, and then, after being rehired later in 2001, being fired again in 2006. The reason in both cases was given by Lorne Michaels as budget cuts, with Parnell and Jerry Minor being victimized the first go-around, while it was Parnell, Horatio Sanz and Finesse Mitchell getting the axe in 2006. For Parnell, a seasoned and versatile performer who’s gone on to great success as a comic character actor and voice artist since leaving SNL, the double indignity initially came as a destabilizing shock. “If going forward, I never have anything that hits as hard as that, I’ll be very lucky,” the diplomatic Parnell admitted in Live From New York. By the second time that Michaels decided he was expendable, Parnell must have felt like it was his lot as an invaluable utility player to be the first one sacrificed in the name of the bottom line.
The beaming, burly improviser and former Marine attributed his one-season stint on SNL to being squeezed out by an overstuffed and star-studded cast. Reflecting on his attempts to squeeze in some Season 30 airtime, Riggle noted, “The year I was hired, I was the only guy hired. The cast was massive. Fifteen people on the cast and I'm the only new guy. Well, you know Darrell Hammond's getting his, Tina Fey, Amy [Poehler] is getting hers, Maya Rudolph's getting hers, Will Forte, go down the list, they're all getting their time.” Calling his efforts akin to “drinking out of a fire hose,” Riggle wasn’t asked back after the season.
Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah
A pair of performers seemingly born to be on Saturday Night Live, Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah were both fired by Lorne Michaels on the same day of Season 41's conclusion. It was a move nobody saw coming, least of all the two comics, who each had a year left on their contract. As a disappointed Killam noted in the aftermath, “I was never given a reason why, really. I can assume until the cows come home,” while Pharoah was more forthright, saying in an interview at the time, “They put people into boxes and whatever they want you to do, they expect you to do. And I’m fiery. I’m not a yes n-----.” (Pharoah, it was rumored, was almost fired years earlier for calling out SNL’s continuing lack of diversity in the cast and the writer’s room. Meanwhile, Killam was anticipating having to miss some time while he directed the film Killing Gunther.) As for Michaels, the producer was typically unforthcoming, noting only that “change is the lifeblood of the show.” True enough, although it seems that any SNL cast could find room for two such versatile performers, especially ones whose impersonation skills are so outstanding. Still, with the regrettable 2016 presidential election seeing Pharoah’s peerless Barack Obama being replaced on the show with visiting Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump, perhaps Michaels felt that a similar housecleaning was necessary, as the show brought in Mikey Day, Alex Moffat and another fine impressionist in Melissa Villasenor.
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Gallery Credit: Corey Irwin