32 Famous People Rejected by Saturday Night Live
The 39-year history of Saturday Night Live is littered with thousands of sketches, hundreds of guest hosts, and even more Not Ready for Prime Time Player wannabes—some more memorable than others. In fact, the list of now-famous folks who auditioned and were denied access to a permanent spot in 30 Rock’s Studio 8H is long enough to fill multiple casts on their own.
1. JIM CARREY
Hollywood’s original $20 Million Man was rejected more than once 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’ 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.
2. STEVE CARELL
In 1995, the same year that Steve Carell married fellow comedian Nancy Walls (whom he met at the Second City Training Center), the couple auditioned for SNL. Walls made it but Carell didn’t, which must have made for one awkward celebratory dinner. But it all turned out well in the end; Carell went on to become a household name and has hosted the show on two occasions. He also clearly has no ill will toward the guy who beat him out of the SNL gig, Will Ferrell.
3. LOUIS C.K.
In November, Louis C.K. made his debut as an SNL host, but his history with the show dates back more than 20 years, beginning in 1993 when he auditioned—and was turned down—for a spot on the show. In a 2006 interview with ASpecialThing, Louis recalled the incident, noting that “SNL was like the last chance, the last boat leaving, so Dave Attell, Laura Kightlinger, Sarah Silverman, Jay Mohr and me and a bunch of other people all auditioned.” Though he had a great set, “everybody but me [got cast],” he said. But all was not lost. A few days later, he got a call from Robert Smigel, who wanted him to write for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, which led to some work on SNL’s TV Funhouse. Oh, and an Emmy-winning series all his own.
4. PAUL REUBENS
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,” he 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.”
5. STEPHEN COLBERT
Though it was cancelled shortly after it started, The Dana Carvey Show boasted some serious talent both behind and in front of the camera, including writers Louis C.K. and Charlie Kaufman and stars Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. In 2011, GQ ran “An Oral History of the Rise and Fall” of the show, in which Colbert recalled his failed 1992 SNL audition. “Robert Smigel had seen me perform at Second City when he was one of the people scouting for Saturday Night Live. When was Carvey? 1996? So that was in 1992 and I didn't get hired for SNL that time.”
6. AUBREY PLAZA
A year before she nailed 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, which brought her to L.A., where she has remained ever since.
7. ZACH GALIFIANAKIS
Zach Galifianakis may not have landed a recurring role after his SNL audition in 1999, but he was funny enough to get himself hired as a part-time writer for a few episodes of the same season. He has guest hosted three times, in 2010, 2011, and 2013.
8. KEVIN HART
Kevin Hart didn’t waste any time dishing on his failed SNL audition when he hosted the show in 2013. In his monologue, he talked about his failure to land a spot, but assured the audience that he was over it. That it had happened a long time ago—“six or seven months, 22 days, like 6 hours ago.”
9. DAVID CROSS
In a conversation with Arrested Development co-star Michael Cera at New York’s 92nd Street Y, David Cross recalled how Cross Comedy, the comedy collective he created in Boston in the 1990s, were brought to New York City to showcase for SNL—and bombed.
10. JOHN GOODMAN
There aren’t too many people who can say they got beat out of a part by Joe Piscopo, but that’s exactly what happened to John Goodman during SNL auditions in 1980. In the end, however, Goodman might have ended up with more SNL screen time, having hosted the show 13 times and made more than a half-dozen cameos.
11. LISA KUDROW
There was only one spot available for the 1990-1991 season of SNL, and it came down to Lisa Kudrow and Julia Sweeney. Lorne Michaels flew out to L.A. to watch a showcase starring the two Groundlings, with Sweeney emerging victorious and remaining on the show until 1994 (the same year Kudrow was cast in Friends). “I knew that SNL was there,” Kudrow later recalled to Los Angeles Magazine. “Julia and I were talking on the phone about it even before they came. The show that night got to me, I was unnerved and clearly not ready. I was disappointed that I did not get it. There's another sign, I thought, that I'm not cut out for it. That feeling lasted for a little bit.”
12. KATHY GRIFFIN
Kathy Griffin was in that same showcase with Kudrow and Sweeney and agrees that Michaels made the right decision by choosing Sweeney. “Backstage it was ridiculous,” she recalled of the evening to Los Angeles Magazine. “One girl was in the other room audibly sobbing. [Fellow Groundling] Mary Scheer was throwing makeup in her bag and saying, ‘Let's be honest—I deserve this as much as you guys.’ I was like, ‘Jesus, just focus.’ Lisa and I were really crushed. Julia just kicked our asses. She was perfect.”
13. ADAM MCKAY
Anchorman writer-director Adam McKay’s SNL rejection—for the 1995 season—was probably for the best. He 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. His success has continued since leaving the show, when he partnered up with fellow alum Will Ferrell.
14. DAVE ATELL
Comedian Dave Atell was yet another performer who was offered a writing gig in place of an on-camera spot after auditioning for the 1993-1994 season. He left after one season to write for The Jon Stewart Show.
15. MARC MARON
WTF Podcast host Marc Maron loves to share the story of his 1996 meeting with Lorne Michaels when he was called in as a possible “Weekend Update” replacement for Norm MacDonald. Maron blames his rejection on a bowl of candy and wrote a story about the incident, titled “Lorne Michaels and Gorillas,” for Air America. Maron’s contention is that his fate rested on whether or not he took a piece of candy from the bowl on Michaels’ desk, which he obsessed about, then finally gave in. “As soon as I took the candy I swear to God Lorne shot a look at the head writer that clearly connoted to me that I had failed the test,” he wrote. “I walked out of there thinking I ruined my career because of a Jolly Rancher. I don't even like Jolly Ranchers.”
16. JENNIFER COOLIDGE
Christopher Guest ensemble member Jennifer Coolidge had some serious competition when she auditioned for SNL alongside Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, and Chris Kattan in 1995. “They chose Will and Cheri and not Chris and I,” she recalled to Los Angeles Magazine. “And six months later they called up Chris. I was the one who got rejected. I was spared a bullet. I think of all the demons, and playing politics. The good thing was I might have become anorexic. But I probably would have self-destructed on SNL.”
17. JEFF ROSS
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 in contention, too. But Fey had clout: three years' experience as a writer for the show and one season as head writer.
18. PAUL SCHEER
The League star auditioned for SNL in both 2001 and 2002. He recalled the auditions in an interview with Splitsider in 2012, noting that the dumbest thing he did was a series of impressions, including Jeff Goldblum returning a shirt and a panda bear sitting in first class. “My final meeting was the first time I ever really met Lorne Michaels... At the end of the meeting, he said, ‘Do you have any questions for me?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And then he said, ‘Really? Thirty years in TV and you don’t have a question for me?’ It was a totally terrible response. I should have had a question. I think that answer cost me the job at SNL, but I basically just said, ‘If I had my druthers, I would keep you here all night.’ And he said, ‘Of course, of course. All right, well, thank you very much.’”
19. JACK MCBRAYER
In that same interview, Scheer recalled that his second audition—which was more of a group improv—included 30 Rock star Jack McBrayer. “I didn’t know anybody else besides Jack McBrayer,” Scheer recalled. “That was interesting because it was a bunch of people all competing for the same job, trying to prove that they’re funny, but also it was really cool because everyone respected the space. You would think it would have been a little more competitive. But that also was the year that Fred Armisen said ‘no,’ he wasn’t gonna do that if he didn’t have an improv background. He just did Fericito, and he was the one who ultimately got hired.”
20. KEL MITCHELL
After four years of co-starring in Kenan & Kel for Nickelodeon, stars Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell went their separate ways, but not before both auditioned for SNL. The ending to this story is obvious: Kenan got the job (he’s in his eleventh year on the show), Kel did not.
21. and 22. JORMA TACCONE and AKIVA SCHAFFER
Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg’s Lonely Island cohorts, understand what it’s like to compete against a comedic partner in crime. The entire trio auditioned for SNL’s 2005 season, but only Samberg was lucky enough to be cast. But Samberg didn’t leave his partners behind; both have served as writers for the show.
23., 24., 25., and 26. DAVE FOLEY, SCOTT THOMPSON, BRUCE MCCULLOCH, and KEVIN MCDONALD
The Kids in the Hall guys—Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch, and Scott Thompson—were in a similar situation when they auditioned for the show in 1985. McCulloch and McKinney were brought on as writers for a season. In 1995, McKinney did actually join the cast.
27. GEENA DAVIS
Five years before she earned an Oscar for The Accidental Tourist, Geena Davis lost out on a spot in SNL’s 1984-1985 season to Pamela Stephenson.
28. RICHARD BELZER
Though today’s audience knows him as Law & Order’s series-jumping Sergeant Munch, Richard Belzer got his start as a stand-up. 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 in 1993.
29. ROBERT TOWNSEND
Eddie Murphy ended up being cast for the slot that comedian Robert Townsend auditioned for in 1980, the year Jean Doumanian took over for Lorne Michaels. No doubt the experience worked its way into Hollywood Shuffle, Townsend’s groundbreaking—and semi-autobiographical—1987 film about the struggle of black actors in Hollywood.
30. KERRI KENNEY
“It was terrifying,” The State and Reno 911! star Kerri Kenney told Marc Maron on WTF of her failed 1996 SNL audition. “I believe they must do it that way on purpose because since then I've never had an audition so terrifying… Sit and wait, cold room. I feel like I was in a basement that was like seven buildings away and someone comes and gets you in a page jacket and they lead you through hallways and you're trying to keep up with your bag of props and hit the mark. You have four minutes. Do your best this, this, and this… I got no laughs, and at the time, I thought, ‘Wow, if I want to be in this business, this is what it’s going to be every time.’ Thank god it's never like that.”
31. DONALD GLOVER
Community star Donald Glover was gainfully employed as a writer (and occasional actor) on 30 Rock when he auditioned not for SNL itself but to play Barack Obama in any presidential sketches during the key 2007-2008 season. Fred Armisen ended up with the role.
32. ROB HUEBEL
Children’s Hospital star Rob Huebel auditioned for SNL a couple of times in the mid-2000s. “The way they do that is they put together a list of people that they want to audition, and they have them all do a show at some comedy club,” he explained to Splitsider. “You go and do a few characters of your own and a few impressions, if you wanna do impressions, or you can do stand-up if you wanted to do that. But you do it at this comedy club somewhere in New York, and they all come and they sit in the back and they show up late and they watch it and they don’t laugh and you feel horrible. But if you do okay, you get called back and you go into 30 Rock and you do it on their stage at the real show. ... I auditioned twice, one year I got to go in and do that at 30 Rock but they really ice you out. They try to make it as scary as possible because it’s a live show, and in real life, I’m sure it is terrifying and things do go wrong, so they want you to be prepared … It’s the most intimidating thing. I know Rob Riggle auditioned the same year, and he got it and I was happy for him, but it didn’t work out for me.”
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.