40 Surprising Facts About Saturday Night Live
Live from New York … Saturday Night Live made its television debut on October 11, 1975. Here are 40 things you might not have known about the legendary sketch show.
1. Saturday Night Live’s existence is partly due to Johnny Carson’s desire for more vacation days.
In 1974, Johnny Carson requested that NBC stop airing The Tonight Show reruns on the weekend. He wanted to save those reruns for the extra vacation days he was planning to take during weekdays. NBC wanted to fill those weekend slots, so they hired Lorne Michaels to develop a show.
2. Gilda Radner was Saturday Night Live’s first official cast member.
Radner was the first cast member Lorne Michaels hired.
3. Saturday Night Live premiered as NBC’s Saturday Night.
The show was originally called NBC’s Saturday Night because there was already a show titled Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell on ABC. When Cosell's show ended in 1976, Michaels changed his show’s title to Saturday Night Live.
4. Chevy Chase was originally hired as a Saturday Night Live writer.
Though he became one of the show’s breakout stars, Chevy Chase was originally hired as a writer—a job that came with a one-year contract. Which is how Chase got around having to sign a performer contract, and also why he was able to leave the show just a few episodes into the second season.
5. Chevy Chase was the first person to deliver Saturday Night Live’s iconic intro line.
In the show’s first episode, Chase became the first cast member to deliver the show’s now-signature “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” line.
6. Richard Belzer warmed up the Saturday Night Live audience during season one.
Though today’s audience knows him as the Law & Order franchise's series-jumping Sergeant John Munch, Richard Belzer got his start as a stand-up comedian. Belzer was SNL's warm-up comic in its first season, which led to a couple of appearances on the show, including a stint at the "Weekend Update" desk after Chevy Chase suffered a groin injury. Belzer has long contended that Lorne Michaels promised him a place in the cast but later reneged. “Lorne betrayed me and lied to me—which he denies—but I give you my word he said, ‘I'll work you into the show,’” Belzer told People Magazine in 1993.
7. Announcer Don Pardo made a mistake during Saturday Night Live’s premiere episode.
The show’s longtime announcer was supposed to say “Not Ready for Prime-Time Players.” Instead, he mixed up a few words, calling them the “Not for Ready Prime-Time Players.” Fortunately, it didn't stick.
8. Saturday Night Live cast members were originally paid $750 per week.
In the show’s first season, cast members earned $750 per week. That figure rose to $2000 in season two and $4000 by season four.
9. Will Ferrell was Saturday Night Live’s highest paid cast member.
In 2001, Ferrell became the show’s highest paid cast member ever when he signed a contract for $350,000 per season.
10. Jim Carrey auditioned for Saturday Night Live twice—and was rejected twice.
Hollywood’s original $20 Million Man was rejected twice by SNL. The first time was in 1980, when—citing burnout—Lorne Michaels asked to take a year off. He thought that the show would go on hiatus with him, but the network bumped associate producer Jean Doumanian into Michaels’s position to keep the show going. Her first order of business? Shake up the cast a bit. Carrey auditioned, but Doumanian hired Charlie Rocket instead. So he tried again, but again got a “no.” Michaels isn’t taking the blame for this oversight. In the book Live from New York, he says that “Jim Carrey never auditioned for me personally.” Carrey did eventually make his way onto the studio’s set; he guest hosted in 1996 and again in 2011 and 2014 (and made a quick cameo in 2003).
11. Adam McKay auditioned to be part of Saturday Night Live’s cast.
In 1995, Oscar-winning writer-director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers) unsuccessfully auditioned to become an SNL cast member. Being turned down for the gig was probably the best thing that could have happened to him: McKay was offered a writing gig instead, and eventually worked his way up to head writer for the latter half of his six years with the show.
12. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero killed a Saturday Night Live movie starring Hans and Franz.
The idea for a Hans and Franz movie began—and ended—with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who suggested the idea to Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey when he guest starred in a segment. In 2012, Nealon talked about the folded project with the Tampa Bay Times, admitting that: “Yes, we wrote a musical! Hans & Franz: The Girly Man Dilemma. I wrote it with Conan O'Brien, Robert Smigel, and Dana Carvey. Arnold Schwarzenegger was co-producing with us, and he was going to star in it. We got it written, sold it to Sony. But I think Arnold got cold feet.”
In a 2010 interview with The A.V. Club, Smigel said that the problem really came down to the box office bomb that was Last Action Hero, saying “That movie came out and it was a failure and I was told by his agent that Arnold decided [adopts Schwarzenegger voice], ‘I will never be myself in a movie again! It can’t be done, this is the proof. I can’t play myself in a movie, automatic failure.’”
13. Robert Smigel has written a handful of unproduced Saturday Night Live movies.
In that same interview with The A.V. Club, Smigel noted that “I’m guilty of writing probably as many SNL movies as anybody, but mine have never been made.” He’s not kidding. Among those stalled features is Da Movie version of Da Bears sketch, a.k.a. Bill Swerski’s Superfans, one of SNL’s longest-running sketches, which premiered on January 12, 1991 (with Joe Mantegna as the titular Swerski). When the opportunity arose to turn the sketch into a film, Smigel and Bob Odenkirk (who had created the original sketch with Smigel) jumped at the opportunity, with Smigel leaving his job as Conan’s head writer to work on the script.
But a bad year for SNL on the small screen spelled trouble for anyone involved with the show. “There was an awful article written in New York Magazine about the show and the network wanted to lay down the law,” recalled Smigel, which meant “no SNL movies.” But the script was not a total loss; in 2010, Smigel, Odenkirk, Mantegna, George Wendt, Mike Ditka and Richard Roeper (as narrator) staged a live reading of the script at Chicago’s Just for Laughs festival.
14. Saturday Night Live’s Festrunk Brothers were developed as two separate characters.
The Festrunk brothers, also known as “Two Wild and Crazy Guys,” were based on separate characters that Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd had developed individually. When Martin hosted SNL in the 1970s, the two morphed their characters into a set of brothers.
15. Gilbert Gottfried beat out Paul Reubens for a spot on Saturday Night Live.
Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman, has a theory as to why Gilbert Gottfried got the SNL spot the two of them auditioned for in 1980: He believes that Gottfried was favored for being friends with one of the producers. “I was so bitter and angry,” Reubens told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I thought, ‘You better think about doing something to take this to the next level.” Which is how Pee-wee’s Playhouse came to be. “So I borrowed some money and produced this show. I went from this Saturday Night Live reject to having 60 people working for me.”
16. Eddie Murphy was desperate to be cast on Saturday Night Live.
In an effort to be considered for the show, Eddie Murphy called SNL talent coordinator Neil Levy every day for a week explaining how desperately he needed the job. Levy decided he’d give Murphy a job as an extra, but brought him in to audition as well. His audition went so well that he was given a contract right away.
17. It’s Pat is the least successful Saturday Night Live movie ever.
In 1994, the film It’s Pat grossed a little over $60,000, making it the least successful film based on an SNL character. The most successful was 1992’s Wayne’s World, which made over $183 million worldwide.
18. Conan O’Brien wasn’t a fan of Mike Myers’s Wayne Campbell.
Speaking of Wayne’s World: When Mike Myers was just starting out, he approached a few of the show’s writers, including Conan O’Brien, to ask what they thought about Wayne, the character he was developing. The group of writers informed him that he could do better, but Myers wrote the sketch anyway. O’Brien recalled thinking, “This poor kid is going to have to learn the hard way.” The sketch made it to air, but in the unpopular final slot. Obviously, it became a hit.
19. Jeff Ross was considered as a replacement for Colin Quinn on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.”
Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon weren’t the only folks vying for Colin Quinn’s spot at the "Weekend Update" desk in 2000; comedian Jeff Ross was also in contention. But Fey had clout: three years' experience as a writer for the show and one season as head writer.
20. Larry David abruptly quit as a Saturday Night Live writer. Then pretended he hadn’t.
Larry David wrote for SNL in the 1980s, but was always struggling to get his sketches on the air. Five minutes before the show went live one Saturday night, David went up to then-producer Dick Ebersol and said, “I’ve had it. I quit.” Once he left, he realized how much money he had just cost himself, so he showed up to work on Monday as if the outburst never happened. He continued working there for the rest of the season, and that story was later used on a Seinfeld episode.
21. Chris Parnell was fired from Saturday Night Live. Twice.
Quitting for a weekend is nothing compared to Chris Parnell, who was fired from the show twice: once in 2001, then again in 2006. According to Parnell, the first time was “devastating” and had to do with his lack of confidence. He was asked back the following season, though. The second time, the show was making a $10 million budget cut, so he was dropped along with Horatio Sanz and Rachel Dratch.
22. Mindy Kaling reluctantly turned down the chance to write for Saturday Night Live.
Saying “no” to SNL wasn’t really Kaling’s idea. But timing wasn’t on her side. In a 2007 interview with The A.V. Club, she revealed that she had auditioned for SNL just a few months earlier (a year after The Office’s American debut). “They didn't offer me a part, but the audition went pretty well, and that night, they were like, ‘Do you want to come write for the show?’ [The Office creator] Greg [Daniels] used to write for SNL, and he had known that being on SNL was my great dream. He said, ‘Listen. If you get cast on the show, I'll let you break your contract and go do it, but if they ask you to write, I can't, because you have a job writing here, plus you're on the show. So I'm not going to let you leave the show so you can go be in New York.’ At that time, I missed New York so badly. I hated L.A. for a long time, and I wanted to leave it. I had these fantasies of going to SNL and falling in love with some writer on SNL, of getting married and living in New York. That was really heartbreaking to have to turn down, but then I got to guest-write in the spring.’”
23. Nora Dunn refused to share the Saturday Night Live stage with Andrew Dice Clay.
When Andrew Dice Clay hosted the show in 1990, Nora Dunn wouldn’t appear, citing his misogynistic stand-up as the reason. Michaels claims that she reached out to the press before telling him about the decision. That was the beginning of the end of her SNL career. She has since said, “Saturday Night Live is why I have a name, but it also has its own baggage.”
24. A fake Peepers script made the rounds in Hollywood.
If you’ve ever found yourself wondering what Chris Kattan has been up to since leaving SNL in 2003, you’re not alone. Los Angeles-based writer Justin Becker made a game out of the answer when he wrote a fake script in which he transformed Mr. Peepers, Kattan’s apple-eating, suspender-wearing monkey-man, into the sort of mythical creature Peter Sellers played in Being There. Becker attributed the script to Kattan himself (as C.L. Kattan) then began dropping copies of it around California. “I traveled all across the west coast planting these books like a demented Johnny Appleseed,” Becker told San Francisco Weekly. “Chris Kattan’s Wikipedia page says that 1000 books were put in stores, but I can neither confirm or deny that number.”
25. Chris Farley idolized fellow SNL star John Belushi.
He once found an old pair of Belushi’s pants in the wardrobe room and stole them.
26. Lorne Michaels thought Sinead O’Connor's infamous Saturday Night Live photo-ripping incident was brave.
In one of the show's most notorious moments, Sinead O’Connor took the crew by surprise and ripped up a picture of the Pope at the end of a musical performance. Though many people still make a big deal about her supposedly being banned from the show, Michaels actually gives her credit. According to him, “I think it was the bravest thing she could do. She’d been a nun. To her the church symbolized everything that was bad about growing up in Ireland the way she grew up in Ireland, and so she was making a strong political statement.”
27. A Saturday Night Live Movie almost happened.
Given that each episode of Saturday Night Live is essentially a feature-length series of sketches, The Saturday Night Live Movie seems a bit redundant. But in 1990, a script with that very title was written, with some of the show’s strongest writing talents—Conan O’Brien, Robert Smigel, Al Franken, and Greg Daniels among them—attached as participants. But someone must have wised up to the fact that the cinematic medium offered nothing different for the concept, as few people even knew of the script’s existence until 2010.
28. Kenan Thompson was the first Saturday Night Live cast member who was born after the show premiered.
He was born on May 10, 1978.
29. Jennifer Aniston claims she was offered a spot on Saturday Night Live.
Though the story of whether or not Jennifer Aniston was ever really, truly offered a spot on SNL has been heavily questioned, it’s Aniston herself who started the rumor. While promoting Just Go With It on Oprah in 2011, Aniston’s co-star—and SNL alum—Adam Sandler recalled, “being on the ninth floor where Lorne Michaels’s office was, and seeing Jen come in,” back in the early 1990s. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God. There’s Aniston. Is she about to be on our show?’” But Aniston, who was getting ready to star on Friends, says she declined because, “It was a boys’ club. They thought I was making a huge mistake.”
30. Aubrey Plaza was an intern for Saturday Night Live.
A year before she landed the part of April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation, Aubrey Plaza was passed over for a spot on SNL’s roster. “I wanted to be on that show for as long as I could remember,” she told The Guardian in 2012. She started taking improv classes in high school and continued after she moved to New York. She even landed an internship with the show in 2005. She was passed over when she finally auditioned three years later, but was quickly offered a part in Judd Apatow’s Funny People.
31. The Beatles (or at least half of them) almost reunited on Saturday Night Live as a gag.
In 1976, six years after they had disbanded, The Beatles were offered $230 million by promoter Sid Bernstein to reunite—an offer they promptly declined. Shortly thereafter, Michaels made a live plea to the Fab Four to reunite as musical guests on SNL, stating that NBC had authorized him to offer them “a certified check for $3000.” In David Sheff’s book All We Are Saying, Lennon shared that they actually considered it: “Paul and I were together watching that show,” Lennon said. “He was visiting us at our place in the Dakota. We were watching it and almost went down to the studio, just as a gag. We nearly got into a cab, but we were actually too tired.”
32. Saturday Night Live’s cast and crew have a name for people who are good sports about being parodied.
Tina Fey described what SNL writers called “Sneaker Uppers” in her book Bossypants. The term applies to “when a famous person ‘sneaks up’ behind the actor who plays them and pretends to be mad about it” or “any time someone being parodied volunteers to come on the show and prove they’re ‘in on the joke.’”
33. Catherine O’Hara signed on as a Saturday Night Live cast member, but left before the season even began.
Dick Ebersol had a plan to poach as many SCTV cast members as he could, and was successful in persuading Catherine O’Hara to make the jump to SNL. She signed up to be a part of the 1981 season, but didn’t last long. “Maybe two [weeks],” she told the Toronto Sun of her short-lived SNL tenure.
While many reports state that she was scared off by an incident in which writer Michael O’Donoghue yelled at the show’s other writers, O’Hara simply says that she made a mistake in leaving SCTV in the first place. “I hung out with some nice people, tried to come up with some ideas ... but I never really felt involved,” she said of her decision to depart before the season even began. “I had to leave. I said I’d made a huge mistake. I'm not proud of that. I felt stupid doing it. But I had to come home. I couldn't not be with them.”
34. During the 2007 Writers Guild Of America Strike, Saturday Night Live didn’t air—but the cast did put on a show.
The cast gathered at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and put on the show anyway, recruiting Michael Cera to host. Amy Poehler explained, “We’re like cranky trained monkeys if we don’t get to perform.”
35. Darrell Hammond holds an important Saturday Night Live record.
During his 14-year tenure, Darrell Hammond achieved the record for most times saying, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” He has said it 70 times.
36. Saturday Night Live’s audience voted to ban Andy Kaufman from the show.
Andy Kaufman’s appearances on SNL were unpredictable and ahead of their time, beginning with SNL’s very first episode in 1975. Whether he was nervously lip-synching to the Mighty Mouse theme or impersonating Elvis Presley, audiences had no idea what would come next. Eventually, Kaufman's stint wrestling women drew the ire of then-producer Dick Ebersol. In response, Kaufman proposed an audience vote to let him stay or force him off the show. The final tally of viewers calling in to “Keep Andy” came in at 169,186, while 195,544 voted to “Dump Andy.” While it may very well have been another one of his audacious stunts, Kaufman never appeared on SNL again.
37. Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels thought Steven Seagal was a jerk.
Hosting duties at SNL are an intensely collaborative process for cast members and the hosts themselves. Some, like those in the prestigious “Five-Timers Club,” work well with the cast and writers and are invited back, while others can’t seem to hack it. Steven Seagal fell into the latter category. While he didn’t pull any on-air stunts like Sinéad O’Connor, Seagal was unable to play nice behind the scenes. “He just wasn’t funny and he was very critical of the cast and the writing staff," Tim Meadows said in Live From New York. "He didn’t realize that you can’t tell somebody they’re stupid on Wednesday and expect them to continue writing for you on Saturday.” Michaels got in a jab at Seagal on a later show hosted by actor Nicolas Cage. When Cage lamented during his monologue that the audience might think he’s the biggest jerk who’s ever been on the show, Michaels responded, “No, no. That would be Steven Seagal.”
38. Darrell Hammond does a great Don Pardo impersonation.
In 2013, Don Pardo got laryngitis before the show. Darrell Hammond filled in with his best Pardo impression. Pardo later claimed, “He did such a job that my sister-in-law in Newport, Rhode Island called up the following Sunday morning ... and said, ‘You were going back to your acting days! You sounded terrific!’” After Pardo passed away in 2014, Hammond was named as his replacement.
39. Alec Baldwin holds the record for Saturday Night Live hosting duties.
Alec Baldwin has hosed Saturday Night Live a record 17 times since 1990 (that's not including his regular stints playing Donald Trump); Steve Martin has hosted 15 times since 1976.
40. Saturday Night Live has got some serious political clout.
Political sketches have long been one of SNL’s hallmarks—so much so that voters have admitted to being influenced to vote for a particular candidate based on watching the show. It’s a phenomenon that has become known as “The SNL Effect.”
This story has been updated for 2020.