Wondering which Saturday Night Live cast members will be leaving the show before a new season starts has become an annual ritual. Traditionally, nothing about the SNL cast is really confirmed until shortly before the season premiere in the fall, and this will probably be the case in 2021, too. But longtime followers of the show got a major surprise recently, as Variety reported that not only does producer Lorne Michaels want to defy the exit signals given off by Aidy Bryant, Pete Davidson, Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, and/or Kenan Thompson, but is actually hoping to sign some (unspecified) cast members through the show’s 50th anniversary.
As SNL approaches its 47th season, Michaels is angling for an extension for some cast members that would equal or surpass the full tenures of some major stars of the show’s past. Given that most cast members are now typically signed for seven years, it’s a safe bet that the longtime producer isn’t simply hoping to lock down emerging talents like Chloe Fineman or Heidi Gardner, who will probably still be around for season 50 either way. More likely, Michaels is taking steps to cajole veterans like Bryant, Strong, McKinnon, Beck Bennett, and Kyle Mooney into sticking around for a nearly unprecedented amount of time that would place them all in the rarified territory of record-holder Thompson, who’s on the precipice of his 19th SNL season.
Tellingly, several of them are already pretty far up on the all-time list, because settling in for a lengthy run on SNL is a relatively recent phenomenon—albeit one that the show has been steadily building toward for a large chunk of its run. The original cast normalized the idea of staying on the show for four or five years just by doing it first, and a half-decade of tumult sans Michaels made sure no one was in the position to flout that convention for a while. No one hit six consecutive full-time seasons until Dennis Miller in 1990; his contemporaries Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, and Phil Hartman went on to establish that maybe successful cast members could last for seven or eight seasons, and spend their last year or so with one foot out the door.
Though Darrell Hammond once held a longevity record that seemed unbeatable with 14 seasons, two of his castmates probably did more to make seven-plus seasons on the show seem fruitful: Will Ferrell, who had seven strong seasons and left with great fanfare, and Tim Meadows, whose well-regarded, era-spanning decade on the show was quieter and slower-building. These days, seven to nine seasons doesn’t indicate an overstayed welcome or inability to find other projects; it means a robust, successful run like those enjoyed by Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Jason Sudeikis, Horatio Sanz, Will Forte, Amy Poehler, or Bill Hader.
Michaels’ attempt to make decade-plus stints more common, though, is unprecedented. In some ways, it’s simply shifting to accommodate a new reality, one where Saturday Night Live remains one of the most successful network TV programs around, in part because a large chunk of its audience is still interested in experiencing it live (and those who do catch up with it via YouTube might have more patience with its hit-or-miss nature). The show’s popularity has stabilized at the same time that a successful post-SNL movie career—a crapshoot in the best of times—seems increasingly unlikely, as studios make fewer big-screen comedies. Something studios are making, though, is short-run series for streaming, which is exactly what both Bryant and Strong stepped out to shoot last fall. Getting the lead role on a new TV show no longer has to mean abandoning SNL entirely.
It looks like Michaels is trying to make that flexibility a part of his pitch to retain more cast members; maybe he’s imagining a larger overall cast where only 14 or 15 out of 20 performers are actually in the building for any given broadcast. If so, he’s also picturing something that might feel more akin to a workhorse sitcom than an incubator for comedy. That’s exactly the kind of leanings that a lot of hardcore comedy nerds hate about SNL, which for them is about as fresh and edgy as the ninth season of The Office. NBC in the 21st century has seemed perpetually regretful about the eventual need for their sitcoms to leave the air (even in cases where the network itself was responsible for canceling them). It would be a natural, if profoundly uncool, development for Saturday Night Live to become a more eminently renewable version of those big NBC signatures like The Office or Friends—a super-sized portion of comfort food with semi-permanent cast members and perpetual reunions baked into its crust.
This would build up the show’s status in some ways, while undermining one of its major strengths. While it’s true that SNL has often represented a broad, mainstream, sometimes unsophisticated sensibility in the comedy landscape, the sheer amount of comic talent it showcases, successfully or not, makes it quite unlike the hipper forms of sketch comedy that are frequently (and unfairly) compared to it. Look at the wonderful I Think You Should Leave from former SNL writer/cast member Tim Robinson: It’s a sketch show so personal and idiosyncratic that it produces about three SNL episodes’ worth of sketches per season, with essentially no other regular cast members besides its star. It also might not have made its way to air without Robinson’s time at SNL.
Maybe under the current circumstances, someone like Robinson would have stuck around longer. A version of Saturday Night Live that’s increasingly eager for performers to make it their home base for the prime of their comedy careers might be more likely to capitulate to weirder material for the sake of keeping talent happy. It’s certainly notable that Kyle Mooney has managed to work on the show as long as he has, just like Will Forte before him; even less intentionally off-putting performers like Strong and Bryant have clearly been given room to indulge their strange obsessions.
But Michaels probably isn’t acting altruistically, as much as it might feel that way for fans of oddball, underrated creations like Gemma or Janine. Having beloved performers staying in-house for as long as possible also keeps him closer to the action—and keeps new cast members from breaking out too fast. (You try making a name for yourself while sharing the screen with Kate McKinnon making googly eyes.) Maybe Michaels can make a new model of the show work, with a more rotation-based cast and even less emphasis on finding the hit-movie escape hatch. Or maybe he’s trying to seal the exits to make the waning years of his job a little too easy.