Saturday Night Live is going to look very different next season. After months of speculation, veteran SNL cast member Jason Sudeikis told David Letterman that he will not be returning to the show this fall. And Sudeikis is the third key cast member to make this past season, SNL’s 38th, his last. Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, whose departure was celebrated in May's season finale, had both previously announced that they would not return.
That’s three very funny cast members used in the majority of the show's sketches not returning. Plus, SNL lost Kristen Wiig last year, and despite the other cast members' best efforts, her loss is still felt in sketches that could’ve used one of her offbeat characters. Additionally, Seth Meyers, Weekend Update anchor and head writer, will be leaving SNL midseason this December, when he replaces fellow Weekend Update alum Jimmy Fallon on NBC's Late Night, proving things will look very, very different come January 2014.
So now what?
SNL is in a tricky position. They still have some great cast members left, with Taran Killam essentially groomed to become the next Hader and Jay Pharoah having taken over the President Obama impersonation from Armisen, but there are still three large holes to fill.
Luckily, SNL has gone from being little sketch comedy show to somewhat of an institution, despite the loss of some key cast members. Here are some of SNL’s most desperate hours, and how the show recovered — or tried to.
1980: Bill Murray, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Lorne Michaels & More
At the end of its fifth season, SNL suffered a bloodbath. Not only did original cast members Curtin, Radner, Garret Morris and Laraine Newman leave, so did Murray and about six other cast members — almost the entire cast. Most importantly, this was the year Michaels famously quit his role as executive producer and didn’t return for five years.
Considering the outcome (turns out the '80s were bad for both hair and Saturday Night Live), this isn’t exactly the model Michaels should follow now. Then again, losing three cast members isn’t as dire as losing nine, not to mention Michaels himself. To replace the show’s leader, associate producer Jean Doumanian was brought in for just one season. And there's no wonder — the sixth season received such bad reviews that she was replaced by Dick Ebersol, who would stay until Michaels returned.
A new cast was also hired, but the only memorable names from that year were Gilbert Gottfried and Eddie Murphy. Gottfried only lasted the one season and is now better known for his voice than ever appearing on SNL. Then there’s Murphy. Yes, Murphy was on SNL during its most hated season, but many still blame Doumanian for underutilizing the actor.
Eventually, the show recovered. Ebersol saw the talent in Murphy and gave him more to do during his four-year tenure, which held everyone over until Michaels returned in 1985 and breathed life back into the show. We might deride Murphy now for films like The Adventures of Pluto Nash, but give the man credit — his talent was solely responsible for saving SNL.
1993-1995: Dana Carvey, Chris Rock, Phil Hartman, Rob Schneider, Chris Farley & Adam Sandler
No, these six repertory players didn't leave in a single year, but their succession of exits cast doubt on SNL's future in the mid-1990s. The younger men of the group, along with David Spade, became known as "The Bad Boys of SNL," and were often the center of attention for the show, even when it had its largest cast ever.
First both Dana Carvey and Chris Rock left in 1993. The the following year, Phil Hartman and Rob Schneider exited. With the loss of four men came the loss of dozens of beloved characters. Then in 1995, both Chris Farley and Adam Sandler left the show, though in 2010, Sandler told Conan O'Brien that they had been fired by the network. Of the "Bad Boys," only David Spade stayed at SNL past 1995, leaving one year later after another season.
It seemed like a desperate time, with the core group of actors gone, but their replacements led to a new exciting era for SNL when the women were finally front and center. Just as the men all left in 1995, Molly Shannon and Cheri Oteri were hired, followed by Ana Gasteyer in 1996. Though SNL wouldn't become a true showcase for funny ladies until Tina Fey became head writer and talent like Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig lit up Studio 8H, the post-Bad Boys '90s era at last allowed the sketch comedy show's women to step up. So long as Will Ferrell wasn't stealing scenes, of course.
2002-2004: Will Ferrell, Ana Gasteyer, Chris Kattan, Tracy Morgan & Jimmy Fallon
Almost 10 years later, another group left SNL over the course of three years. The first pair to exit was Ferrell and Gasteyer — considering Ferrell was the glue that held the late '90s SNL crew together, many thought his era's end marked the end of SNL. Even fellow cast members were scared for the show's future after his departure, as they have memorably discussed in tributes like Saturday Night Live in the 2000s. And before SNL could even recover, Kattan and Morgan left in 2003, followed by Fallon in 2004.
But SNL bounced back, again. Recently hired cast members began to take center stage more and many went on to become fan favorites, such as Poehler and Maya Rudolph. Since Fallon's exit left an empty seat at the Weekend Update desk, Poehler joined Tina Fey for the segment and they became the first, and only, all-female Update team. Suddenly, Saturday Night Live became a woman's world, and we were psyched to be laughing hysterically while living in it. The new female-fronted cast proved that women could be funny — and proved that Sandler wasn't the only cast member capable of raking in cash in Hollywood. While Fey went on to star in the Emmy-winning 30 Rock and Poehler in the hit comedy Parks and Recreation, the women's success paved the way for Kristen Wiig, who brought in millions at the box office with Bridesmaids. Thanks to Wiig and more, saturday night truly became ladies' night.
That leaves us where we started, worrying about the future of Saturday Night Live without Wiig and very funny male co-stars like Sudeikis, Hader, Armisen, and Meyers. As great as they all are, if SNL was able to get through the large losses of its past, it should be able to recover again. Last year, Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, Tim Robinson and Aidy Bryant all joined the cast as featured players and have all shown great potential. Between the four newest players, other remaining cast members and any new faces we may see this fall, SNL is ripe for recovery. If it could survive the '80s, it could survive anything.
[Images: Tumblr, NBC]