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SNL Used to Be a Movie Star Factory—What Happened?

Once upon a time, Lorne Michaels had the juice to turn “not ready for primetime players” into box-office gold.

As an executive producer, Michaels might have even more programming power and influence now within 30 Rockefeller Center’s NBCUniversal, NBC, and Peacock than he did when he launched Saturday Night Live. But 49 years later, he’s no longer focused on the business of taking young, unknown comedians and developing them into movie stars. SNL writers and performers now are more likely to be married to a movie star (see Colin Jost and Scarlett Johansson) than to become a star themselves .

A Jason Reitman movie currently in production celebrating SNL’s 50th anniversary, SNL: 1975, boasts no movie stars, either. But they have a better shot (Rachel Sennott in particular, coming off of cult hits Bottoms, Bodies Bodies Bodies, and Shiva Baby) of becoming a star than anyone in the cast these days.

That’s not to say the SNL-to-stardom pipeline is completely busted. Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis have both raked in multiple Emmys in recent years for their work on Barry and Ted Lasso, respectively.

But no one would claim Hader or Sudeikis is a movie star. Nor could you make a bankable case for any cast member under Lorne in the past 15 years. Wait—as Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler used to say when they anchored “Weekend Update”: “Really?!?” Really.

Kate McKinnon may have put the weird in “Weird Barbie” in last year’s box-office smash, Barbie, but McKinnon was fourth-billed behind star Margot Robbie and Oscar-nominated supporting acts Ryan Gosling and America Ferrara. There hasn’t been a successful major motion picture fronted by an SNL cast member or alum since 2020, when Pete Davidson starred in his semi-autobiographical The King of Staten Island, Andy Samberg co-starred in the Critics Choice-winning Palm Springs, and Kristen Wiig co-starred in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar—all of which wound up heading straight to streaming services because of the pandemic.

For about three decades—starting in 1978 when National Lampoon’s Animal House made John Belushi a movie star—SNL cast members and alumni have dominated the box-office charts. Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Ben Stiller, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell. At least one of these names dominated the year in comedy on the big screen every year from 1978 to 2008, with Jim Carrey the most notable outlier breaking through in the mid-1990s, at precisely the last moment that rumors ever circulated that NBC might outright cancel SNL.

So what has happened since 2008?

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler co-starred in a moderate mid-budget hit that year in Baby Mama ($64 million globally on a $30 million budget)—but they’d both pivoted to TV by that point, with Fey starring in 30 Rock and Poehler agreeing to star in Parks and Recreation in early 2009.

As they switched the focus of their aspirations, so too did Lorne Michaels and his production arm, Broadway Video.

For all of the attention paid over the years to his work with Chase, Martin and Martin Short in 1986’s Three Amigos, it was the 1990s when Lorne sought to turn practically any popular recurring SNL character into a full feature film.

Blame/credit Wayne’s World and Wayne’s World 2 for giving us Coneheads, Stuart Saves His Family, A Night at the Roxbury, Superstar, 2000’s The Ladies Man, and 2010’s MacGruber. Michaels also green-lit movies for his SNL cast to star in Tommy Boy, Black Sheep, Mean Girls, Hot Rod, and the aforementioned Baby Mama.

Whether or not the stink from MacGruber’s bombing at the box-office put the kibosh on any further SNL films, it certainly coincided with a shift in Lorne’s long-standing attitude toward allowing SNL cast members to star in outside TV projects, particularly under the stewardship of Broadway Video and himself.

His track record so far boasts 30 Rock, Portlandia, Documentary Now!, Up All Night, The Awesomes, The Maya Rudolph Show, Mulaney, Man Seeking Woman, Maya and Marty, Detroiters, A.P. Bio, Miracle Workers, Shrill, Kenan, Schmigadoon!, Mapleworth Murders, The Kids in the Hall, MacGruber, Los Espookys, Bust Down, Bupkis and That Damn Michael Che—in addition to his role as executive producer of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers.

If you look at that Season 34 SNL cast from 2008-2009—Fred Armisen, Will Forte, Bill Hader, Darrell Hammond, Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, Kenan Thompson, Kristen Wiig, Abby Elliott, Bobby Moynihan, Michaela Watkins, and Casey Wilson—not one is currently a movie star on the level of the cast members who came before them.

Even the SNL alums who’ve enjoyed hits away from Lorne have done so on the small screen, including not just Barry and Ted Lasso, but also Forte’s Last Man on Earth, Samberg’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave, Nasim Pedrad’s Chad, Casey Wilson’s Happy Endings, and currently Abby Elliott on The Bear and Rudolph on Loot. This spring, Wiig will star in her own Apple TV+ series, Palm Royale, co-starring comedy legend Carol Burnett.

Wiig and Rudolph themselves might be responsible for our most contemporary legit comedy movie star, as their 2011 hit Bridesmaids also introduced millions to the talents of Melissa McCarthy.

Which is where Paul Feig and Judd Apatow enter the picture, reminding us that it’s possible to generate funny movie stars outside the SNL system.

NBC may have given up on Freaks and Geeks after only one season, but Feig and Apatow went on a run starting with 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin where they made stars out of Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, John C. Reilly, Emma Stone, Amy Schumer, and, unfortunately, Russell Brand. Feig also followed up his success on Bridesmaids by working with McCarthy in starring roles on The Heat, Spy, and Ghostbusters, where she co-starred with a trio of SNL stars in Wiig, McKinnon and Leslie Jones.

Lorne Michaels can rejoice in seeing the Mean Girls musical reboot rake in almost $100 million worldwide on a reported $36 million budget, but his other movie ambitions have been decidedly smaller over the past decade. There’s a good chance you don’t remember Masterminds, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, The Guilt Trip, Staten Island Summer, Brother Nature, or Vampires vs. the Bronx.

What makes that 2008-2009 season so significant? Because that’s also when Tina Fey returned to SNL to parody Sarah Palin, prompting Lorne to call in more and more favors from his famous friends—most regularly Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump, Larry David as Bernie Sanders, or Jim Carrey as Joe Biden—all of which put the actual SNL cast members on the back benches playing second fiddle to the “real” “stars” of the show.

Is it surprising, then, to see this Sunday’s nominees for the People’s Choice Award for Comedy Movie Star of the Year include one SNL alum in Adam Sandler (for Netflix’s You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah); two newbies in Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney from the rom-com Anyone But You; and then five stars who were thought of as primarily dramatic actors until they hosted SNL (Timothée Chalamet for Wonka; Gosling; Robbie; Johansson for Asteroid City; and Jennifer Lawrence for No Hard Feelings)?

You may also have seen a number of current and former SNL stars in Super Bowl ads last Sunday, but watching McKinnon and Davidson dish up mayo doesn’t exactly scream movie star. That’s not to mention the everyday commercials where Ego Nwodim touts the virtues of Pizza Hut or Kenan Thompson shills appliances.

Legacy movie stars such as Sandler or Murphy are still making bank, just now at Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Other stand-up comedians have emerged as movie stars from time to time, but the break-out examples of Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover trilogy or Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip didn’t translate to lasting leading roles for either of them. Kevin Hart only seems to bring in cinema audiences in a big way when he’s paired up with The Rock (Hart’s Netflix run is another story).

You almost could make a case for two of the Pitch Perfect stars in Rebel Wilson and Adam DeVine—Wilson had two 2019 films that both outperformed their budgets in Isn’t It Romantic and The Hustle, while both hers and DeVine’s most recent big hits were on Netflix.

That’s not stopping Apatow from trying to help SNL stars jump to the big screen. He directed Davidson’s The King of Staten Island, bumped out of SXSW and a proper cinema release due to the pandemic in 2020. Apatow also produced last year’s film debut from the Please Don’t Destroy trio of Martin Herlihy, John Higgins, and Ben Marshall, The Treasure of Foggy Mountain. It was scheduled to open nationwide at the cineplexes but NBCUniversal decided to launch it exclusively on Peacock instead last November.

“To me the most important thing is we need to break new comedy stars. If we don’t give people opportunities, you don’t get the next generation of comedy stars,” Apatow told The Daily Beast last November. “To me, the larger problem is a lot of people seem to be attracted to familiar IP and established stars. That’s a way of playing it safe. Most things that break out are brand new. Everybody in The Hangover was brand new. Everybody in The 40-Year-Old Virgin was brand new. People go to the movies because they love seeing a fresh face and we need the studios to want to take those risks because that’s how we get Kristen Wiig or Seth Rogen because someone took a chance.”

Apatow then added, “We definitely need someone to give the next person from Saturday Night Live a shot, which is what we’re doing with the Please Don’t Destroy movie. We want to find new people to make these movies in addition to the people that we already love.”

While Gen Z may relate hardcore to the Please Don’t Destroy guys on SNL and their clips on YouTube, their movie failed to crack Nielsen’s Top 10 streaming movie list. And let’s face it, who’s still thinking about Foggy Mountain now, three months later? Anyone?

If SNL wants to start minting movie stars again, it’s going to have to do a lot better than this.

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