Does SNL still make stars?
Saturday Night Live has been on the air for over 40 years now, and has launched the careers of numerous celebrities. Legendary comedians like Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, and Adam Sandler all found their starts on SNL. However, after so many years, it seems this pattern has come to an end. Does SNL still have the gift for plucking aspiring comedians out of obscurity and turning them into stars?
SNL's Greatest Hits
The first break out star of Saturday Night Live was Chevy Chase (1975-1976). Known for his big ego, Chase left the show midway through the second season in 1976 to seek stardom. After a few forgettable films, Chase's role in 1980s Caddyshack saw his big break. He went on to star in the national Lampoon Vacation series and became a relative hot shot.
Following Chase, cast members John Belushi (1975-1979), Dan Akroyd (1975-1979), and Bill Murray (1977-1980) went on from the show to become stars in their own rights in the late 1970s. Belushi played wildly active, rebellious characters that embodied fun. He was just ramping up with Animal House and The Blues Brothers when he unfortunately passed away in 1982. Akroyd had his own series of hits, again with The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and Ghostbusters. While popular on the show for skits like Bass-o-Matic and Point/Counterpoint for his wild energy, he proved to often play a straight man in his movie career. However, out of the early batch of SNL alums, Bill Murray went on to have the most successful career. His rye wit, and smooth sarcasm helped him brand himself. From Caddyshack, to Ghostbusters, to his stints with Wes Anderson, Murray has become a Hollywood icon.
SNL saw its next big star in the form of Eddie Murphy (1980-1984), who almost single-handedly saved the show from cancellation after the original cast moved on after the 5th season. Murphy's high-energy and enthusiasm created unending charisma that audiences loved. Murphy proved that Saturday Night Live still had the viewership and respect to continue producing successful actors.
Of course, there were stars who were on SNL, but whose fame is hard to attribute to the sketch show. Anthony Michael Hall (1985-1986) had most of his greatest roles in John Hughes flicks prior to the show. Robert Downey Jr. (1985) didn't reach superstardom until 2008's Iron Man, nearly 20 years after leaving SNL. Ben Stiller (1989) only appeared in 4 episodes, and never made a strong impression.
It wasn't until 1989, that SNL started introducing the cast members whose comedy films would dominate the 1990s-early 2000s. Between 1989-1991, SNL hired, Mike Meyers, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, Chris Farley, David Spade, and Adam Sandler. This group relied on slapstick and juvenile comedy to drive most of their feature films. While their success varied, this group certainly stood out as they went on to all star in several well-known comedy franchises.
While many stars have been born since, the most recent SNL alumni to be launched into superstardom was Will Ferrell (1995-2002). Ferrell's schtick as a big, hairy man-child, mixed with his ability to play both showboats and dweebs, allowed him to steal the show in the mid-2000s.
Since Ferrell, several big names have come out of Saturday Night Live, but none ever finding success aside from being the leads in sitcoms and starring ina handful of middling films. It seems on the surface, that Saturday Night Live has lost its touch.
Analyzing Recent SNL Alumni
SNL post-2000 has produced the likes of Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, and Andy Samberg, who all went on to star in their own shows. Meanwhile, the closest SNL has had to a breakout movie star has been Kristen Wiig, who starred in 2011's Bridesmaids, and will star alongside other SNL players in 2016s Ghostbusters remake. However, claiming Wiig to be as big a star as the likes of Bill Murray or Adam Sandler is a long shot.
Many SNL cast members from the past 15 years hold favorable views, but still, none have found the type of success that plagued the earlier casts of SNL. Has something changed?
The Star Ratio
As listed above, SNL has produced some big stars, but really just a handful considering the show has been on for 40 years. SNL has had an astonishing 144 cast members. Of those, it seems that less than 10% will ever be remembered in the annals of entertainment history. While having a reputation of launching the careers of comedy actors, Saturday Night Live has quite a low batting average.
Perhaps SNL holds such high esteem is it is one of the most high profile places for stars to get their start. As the show has become an institution, it easy to claim any SNL's alumnus first drew attention from Saturday Night Live, because it is so widely known and regarded. Meanwhile, lesser known shows such as In Living Color helped launch the careers of Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, and even Jennifer Lopez. Considering the show only ran for five seasons, that ratio blasts SNL out of the water.
However, even if SNL doesn't have the greatest ratio of cast members to stars, it certainly has produced at least a few each decade. Yet, the 2010s are half over and we are yet to see the next batch.
In the early years of the late 1970s, SNL aired on NBC, one of only three major broadcasting networks. There was no internet, Monty Python's Flying Circus had just ended, and Jaws (1975) had just invented the summer blockbuster. With such low competition, a huge hole open for a sketch comedy show, and movies becoming a national pastime, SNL was at a huge advantage. It held much more significant ratings share, that being on the show was excellent publicity.
Fast forward to the mid-2000s, and it is difficult to stand out. The internet, especially social media and YouTube allowed for just about anyone to reach celeb status, TVs have thousands of channels and comedy tastes have shifted. Judd Apatow swept in with The 40-year-old Virgin and Superbad to usher in a new wave of comedy. Meanwhile, Marvel's blockbusters contained the bare amount of quips to make them a valid substitute for comedies. And, with animated studios like Disney and Pixar pumping out tons of featured with enough broad humor to please both children and adults, it is tough competition.
Even after celebrating its 40th anniversary, SNL is showing no signs in stopping. It is doubtful it will ever be able to produce the kind of stars it used to, but it continues to hire talented casts. And SNL alumni have been appearing in plenty films recently, such as Jason Sudekis in the Horrible Bosses films and Bill Hader showing up in Trainwreck. While they may not be the biggest stars, they find their fans. Current cast members Kate Mckinnon and Leslie Jones will be starring in this year's Ghostbusters remake, and despite negative reception, perhaps they can become stars, yet.