15 "SNL" Stars Who Left After Just One Season
Some quit, some were fired, and some still aren't sure exactly what happened.
Saturday Night Live has been a comedy institution for almost 50 years, premiering in 1975 as NBC's Saturday Night. Over 150 cast members have come, gone, and stayed, performing sketch comedy live with a series of celebrity guest hosts. But while some stars—like Kenan Thompson, who has the record for being the longest-running SNL cast member—stick around for a long time, others either found that the show wasn't for them or were let go earlier than they ever thought they would be. Read on to learn about 15 SNL cast members who only survived one season on the series—you may be surprised by who once worked in Studio 8H.
In 1985, five years before In Living Color premiered, Damon Wayans was cast on another famous comedy show. But it wasn't a successful stint, and he's said this is because producer Lorne Michaels didn't want audiences to think he was just a replacement for Eddie Murphy, who'd recently left the show. Because of this fear, he claims, Wayans ended up fading into the background. To stand out, he made the choice to play a cop character using over-the-top gay stereotypes (that were not written into the bit) in a sketch called "Monopoly Man." For that, he got fired that night, after completing just 12 episodes of the season.
"I was angry. That's the reason why it wasn't funny, because I do a funny flamboyant character. It wasn't funny because I was angry," Wayans told The Weekender in 2015. "They didn't let me do what I wanted to do on SNL … I went against the script. That was my frustration."
He'd have much better luck co-creating his own sketch show with brother Keenen Ivory Wayans. In Living Color changed the game in its own right.
Though Jim Downey (who you may also remember as the quiz show host in Billy Madison) is better known as an SNL writer, he was a credited player in the show for a season. But in 1998, he and Weekend Update host Norm Macdonald were both fired, reportedly for writing too many jokes about O.J. Simpson, who happened to be a friend of NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer.
"I don't know that Norm enjoyed the experience of the firing quite as much as I did, but to me it was exciting. It was certainly the best press I ever received," Downey told Vulture in 2014.
Downey returned to the show as a writer in 2000, so it seems like there were no hard feelings.
Standup comedian and actor Janeane Garofalo went on to roles in Romy & Michele's High School Reunion and The Truth About Cats & Dogs, so you may not have realized that she was once an SNL cast member—albeit one who had a brief stint. After joining the show in 1994, she left mid-season because the "comedy was just not what it should have been."
"I was only there very briefly, but there really were some great hosts, of course. I don't know if the comedy being done that year was that great, but it was a thrill to be there for the brief amount of time I was there," she told Broadway World in 2012.
Casual and The Dropout star Michaela Watkins got her SNL moment as a featured player in 2008. But at the end of the season, Michaels gave her the axe—ironically enough because he thought she was too good for the show. The actor said his choice to let her go shocked her.
"The only explanation I got from him—and he's not known to say things just to make people feel better—was that he felt deep down that I should have my own show," she told Entertainment Weekly in 2009. "And I agreed. SNL was a dream come true for me. It was a fantastic year. I don't have any regrets."
Ben Stiller is a big-time movie star and director now, with hits like Zoolander and Meet the Parents under his belt. But in 1989, he was trying to make a name for himself in sketch comedy. He was on SNL for four episodes before he made the choice to resign.
"At that point I just wanted to make short films," Stiller said in a 2018 interview with Howard Stern. "I knew that I wasn't good live because I would get nervous."
A year later, his own sketch series, The Ben Stiller Show, would premiere on MTV and become a critical hit. The show was not performed in front of a studio audience.
Yvonne Hudson made history as the first Black woman to be a featured player on SNL when she joined the show in 1980, but unfortunately, her tenure didn't last long. After Season 6, which is widely regarded as one of the show's worst, Hudson was relegated to an uncredited extra for the next four years, and she hasn't acted since.
Rob Riggle appeared on SNL in the season that started in 2004—and only in that season. While he did call his casting a "dream come true," he also said he "wouldn't say [the set is] not dysfunctional."
"This is the first showbiz gig I ever got so it's overwhelming to begin with. It's an unbelievable pace and pressure and I got to a point where I didn't even know what was funny anymore by the end of the season," he told The Daily Beast podcast The Last Laugh in 2019.
Leaving didn't harm his comedy career, however; Riggle has a long list of credits in both TV and movies, including The Office and The Hangover.
Today, Billy Crystal is a comedy legend, and even in 1985, which is when his season of SNL aired, he was still far from an unknown. But he signed a contract for just one season, and that seemed to be all he needed from it.
"I never put a time limit on how long I would be there or what it would give me or get me," he said in the book Live From New York. "I just felt personally as a performer and as a creative person I had to give it my shot."
Before appearing on hit comedy shows including Big Mouth and Parks and Recreation and in the movies Obvious Child and I Want You Back, Jenny Slate was a featured player for just 22 SNL episodes. And though it was rumored that she was fired in 2010 because she let an expletive slip out during a sketch, Slate cleared the air in a 2019 interview with InStyle.
"I just didn't belong there," she said. "I didn't do a good job, I didn't click. I have no idea how Lorne [Michaels] felt about me. All I know is, it didn't work for me, and I got fired."
Nancy Walls had a big year in 1995. She married fellow comic actor Steve Carell, and she joined the cast of SNL. One of those two commitments didn't end up working out. Fortunately for Carell, it was the former. Reportedly, Walls left the sketch show because she was never able to become more than a background player, though she did become known for her portrayal of CNN anchor Bobbie Battista.
Paul Shaffer's time on SNL began with him playing in the house band, though he later became a featured played in Season 5. The musician told Closer Weekly in 2018 that it was his decision to leave, and it ultimately led to him hitting it off with David Letterman and becoming the musical director for his late night talk show.
"I did the first five years of SNL and everyone in the original group was leaving, so I decided to see what else was out there," he explained.
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Before she came to fame playing Jackie on Roseanne, Laurie Metcalf had a short-lived SNL stint of her own. She only appeared on the show once—as a Weekend Update reporter in 1981. The show then went on hiatus due to a writer's strike, and when production resumed, she wasn't asked to return, Vulture reports.
Comedian and character actor Gilbert Gottfried landed on SNL just in time for the largely criticized sixth season, which he told Joe Rogan in 2021 was "horrible" for him. He felt like he and the other new performers were "sacrificial lamb[s]" as the replacements for the original cast. Gottfried was fired after 12 episodes.
"I didn't like the writers and the writers hated me," he said. "One time, to prove how much they hated me, they wrote a funeral sketch where I was the dead body. So, I just had to lay there in the coffin."
Shameless and Working Girl star Joan Cusack was unlucky enough to land on another unpopular season of the show—Season 11, which premiered in 1985. At the end of it, Michaels fired almost every cast member, including her. Hey, at least she went on to score two Oscar nominations!
In 1993, comedian Sarah Silverman joined the cast of SNL, only to be fired later that season. Fortunately, she looks back at her time there fondly, even with how it ended.
"Looking back, it was a great experience. It was really like boot camp for so many things. And it was almost like New York itself, SNL, because it's like, if you can make it there, everything else seems not so hard, you know?" she told Collider in 2022.