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Actors Who Were Better Off Without Saturday Night Live

The brainchild of producer Lorne Michaels, "Saturday Night Live" has been making audiences laugh weekly since its debut in 1975. With an eye for comedic genius, Michaels has also been responsible for launching the careers of countless comedians, from Dan Aykroyd to Kristen Wiig and beyond. But even for those actors who went on to become enormous stars, their time on "SNL" was often marked by controversy and personal struggle, as the pressures of a weekly, live sketch comedy series often pushed its talent to their limits.

Many stars who came up through "SNL" would count their years on the show as the best in their career, but others may view it a little differently. Thanks to their booming success after leaving, they might even be grateful to have left the roster of "Not Ready for Prime Time Players," and be able to put their tough times behind them. There are still other stars who once auditioned for the show but were rejected, yet found success all the same. Though few probably regret their time on "Saturday Night Live," and others may still lament not making the cut, we've found more than a few big Hollywood stars who've been better off without it.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

In 1982, a young comedian named Julia Louis-Dreyfus made her debut on "Saturday Night Live." She'd stick with the series for several seasons, but her stint proved wholly unremarkable. A few years later, of course, the actress would land the role of Elaine Benes on NBC's "Seinfeld," catapulting her to superstardom en route to 11 career Emmy Awards.

But while you might think Louis-Dreyfus looks back on her time at "SNL" as a happy memory where she was able to fulfill a dream of being on TV, it was apparently anything but a positive experience. "I was unbelievably naive and I didn't really understand how the dynamics of the place worked," she said while making a public appearance in New Jersey in 2019 (via USA Today). "It was very sexist, very sexist ... people were doing crazy drugs at the time. I was oblivious." She continued, "It was a pretty brutal time, but it was a very informative time for me."

What it must have informed Louis-Dreyfus was that she wasn't a fit for that kind of environment, because she's stayed away from live sketch comedy since. Instead, she's stuck with prime-time scripted TV. After her near-decade run in "Seinfeld," she went on to star in "The New Adventures of Old Christine" and "Veep."

Jim Carrey

In the 1990s there was no bigger comic star than Jim Carrey, who had a run of unparalleled success with box office hits "The Mask," "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," and "Dumb and Dumber" all landing the same year. He'd come to fame off the back of a lengthy run in the envelope-pushing sketch comedy series, "In Living Color," where he'd established iconic characters like Fire Marshall Bill and Vera DeMilo. His mastery of physical comedy was unmatched, and he parlayed his part in the series into blockbuster big-screen success. But it almost didn't happen.

The year was 1980, and "Saturday Night Live" was losing its star cast. Lorne Michaels was leaving the show, and a number of aspiring comedians were trying out for a chance to join the hit sketch comedy show. Among the many that tried out for a part in a revamped "SNL" lineup was Carrey, a young comedian with a penchant for slapstick and a rubbery face that he could contort into just about any shape.

Even though his audition failed to impress, he was probably better off because in the mid-'80s "SNL" was a disaster, and would never have allowed him to do the kinds of crazy characters that made him famous on "In Living Color." Ultimately Carrey didn't need "SNL" to be a star. Instead, he made other TV shows and movies famous with his wildly raucous performances.

Chevy Chase

In 1975, the 'Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players' burst onto the scene and made "Saturday Night Live" an instant hit. Among the biggest stars of the original cast was Chevy Chase, famous for his impression of Gerald Ford, and for hosting the show's news segment, "Weekend Update." But after claiming he'd sustained an injury early in Season 2 of the series, many believed it may have played a part in his exit midway through the year. But in 2011, Chase came clean about the real reason he left the show.

"I was leaving really because there was a girl I wanted to marry that I was infatuated with out here," he told the L.A. Times. "The whole thing was crazy because I was a young fellow who was infatuated with the wrong person ... It was all nuts, looking back on it. But I did regret it." Still, while Chase may wish he'd stuck around, his exit hardly harmed his career, and he became an even bigger name on the big screen after he left.  

In 1980, he starred in "Caddyshack" with fellow "SNL" alum, Bill Murray, and the cult classic, "Fletch," while having a successful run in the "National Lampoon's Vacation" films, and later as a member of NBC's "Community." There's no telling what would have happened if Chase had stayed on "SNL," but history says he was all the better for it.

The Kids in the Hall

Consisting of Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch, and Scott Thompson, The Kids in the Hall remain some of the best comedians to ever come out of Canada. But what many might not know is that "Saturday Night Live" almost ended their career before it began. Because in 1985, Lorne Michaels picked "Kids in the Hall" actors, McKinney and McCulloch, as writers on the revamped "SNL" after seeing their success on the Canadian comedy circuit.

In "This is a Book About the Kids in the Hall" (via Yahoo), McCulloch talked about his brief time on the show: "I thought I'd find all these amazing voices, the most amazing comedians of a generation ... And they were all funny. But they weren't 'The Kids in the Hall.' They didn't speak the same language as me. They didn't get me. And I didn't really want to be them." He later said in a 2022 Amazon documentary: "I'd always be fighting with them about the weird ideas I wanted to do." McKinney meanwhile was even less gracious, saying bluntly, "It was all awful. Tortuous, agonizing, nerve-wracking, exhausting. But it really wasn't fun."

McCulloch concluded, "Through that process of failing at 'Saturday Night Live,' I realized how much I needed 'The Kids in the Hall.'" An eye-opening experience, their time as writers showed them they didn't need "SNL," and within a few years, they had their own series, turning them into comedy icons. 

Robert Downey Jr.

It's hard to imagine A-List Hollywood actor Robert Downey Jr. as a cast member in "Saturday Night Live," but that's exactly what he was. It was the same year Lorne Michaels added Mark McKinney and Bruce McCulloch to the writing staff, as he also brought in several new actors, including Downey Jr. Fresh off his role in John Hughes' "Weird Science," he came in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but didn't last, booted after just one year on the show. But his departure seems to have only helped his Hollywood career.

"I learned so much in that year about what I wasn't," he said on The Off Camera Show in 2019. "I was not somebody who was going to come up with a catchphrase, I was not somebody who was going to do impressions. I was somebody who was very ill-suited for rapid-fire sketch comedy." After leaving the series, Downey Jr. turned around and starred in a string of modest movies that include "Less than Zero," "Johnny Be Good," and "Air America," before his star-making turn in "Chaplin" for which he earned an Academy Award nomination. Today, Downey Jr. is as big a Hollywood star as there are thanks to his turn as Tony Stark in Marvel's superhero epics, and he didn't even need a successful run on "SNL" to achieve it.

Adam Sandler

Among the biggest stars of "Saturday Night Live" in its history, Adam Sandler made his name thanks to legendary sketches like "Opera Man" and "The Chanukah Song." Starting in 1990 as a writer before starring in front of the camera for several more years, Sandler left the series to become a movie star, cranking out major hits like "Happy Gilmore" and "The Wedding Singer." But all of that success may never have happened because as it turns out, Sandler didn't quit "SNL" — he was fired.

"At the time, I was hurt, because I didn't know what else I was going to do," Sandler told radio host Howard Stern in 2019 (via CNBC). "I was probably sad, covering up the sadness up with being mad." But Sandler didn't stay down for too long and wound up becoming an even bigger star after leaving the show. Today, Sandler is as big as ever thanks to a monster deal with streaming giant Netflix worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars. 

Though he may have lamented the unceremonious dumping from "SNL" when it happened, time has helped him realize he was better off without the show. "Everything turned out great," he admitted while acknowledging that leaving was for the best. "Maybe I would've never left because I'm not good at saying goodbye."

Lisa Kudrow

When it comes to TV sitcoms, it's hard to find one with as much cultural impact as the '90s sensation, "Friends." Centered on a group of Manhattan singles, the series became a phenomenon thanks to its iconic characters, outrageous humor, and heartfelt stories of enduring friendship. But were it not for a failed "Saturday Night Live" audition, the series may have been without one of its key cast members, with Lisa Kudrow famously getting a try-out for the series several years before "Friends" hit it big.

A former member of the Groundlings comedy troupe, Kudrow must have seemed like the perfect fit for the sketch comedy show. But when Lorne Michaels stopped by to watch her and other Groundlings perform in a search for new cast members, Kudrow didn't impress. "The thing about my characters that I did at The Groundlings is they weren't the big crowdpleasers," Kudrow said in an interview in 2014 (via YouTube). "It wasn't as broad ... I didn't know how to go too far outside of myself."

Instead of the over-the-top characters "SNL" was known for, Kudrow played smaller, more clever characters, and that didn't go over well with Michaels. It's for the best that she didn't win out, because a run on Saturday nights may have prevented her from becoming a star in "Friends." Either way, she proved she was more than ready for prime time.

Gilbert Gottfried

The late, great Gilbert Gottfried may be known for his famous voice, but he's also well-known for some iconic movie roles. This includes voicing Iago in Disney's animated "Aladdin," which made him a favorite of an entire generation of kids, but Gottfried was previously also known for his decidedly edgy adult humor. Starting out as a stand-up comic, and later a frequent guest of radio host and shock jock, Howard Stern, Gottfried was plucked from the underground comedy scene in 1980 to lead an all-new roster on "SNL" after the departure of its entire cast from the year before.

It was a major opportunity for the up-and-coming comic, but as it turns out, his time on the show was an absolute nightmare. Appearing on Joe Rogan's podcast in 2021, Gottfried talked about how he was set up to fail, being part of an incoming cast that was replacing beloved stars like Bill Murray, Jane Curtin, and Dan Aykroyd. "People hated the show before it even got on the air," he told Rogan.

But it wasn't just the stress of being attacked by critics. "I hated the writers, and the writers hated me ... they wrote a funeral sketch where I was the dead body," he said. As Gottfried described it, things eventually got so bad that when he was fired he was simply glad it was over: "I didn't have a great time there at all."

Jay Mohr

A cast member of "Saturday Night Live" in the mid-'90s, Jay Mohr never did get the same level of attention as the likes of David Spade, Mike Myers, and Molly Shannon. But he did go on to build a successful career after his time on the show, returning to stand-up and getting his own sports talk program in 2015. And he did it without any help from "Saturday Night Live."

Joining the series in 1993, Mohr quickly found he was even less ready for prime time than most. "It was fascinating and I wasn't enjoying it, even when it was going well," Mohr told the Associated Press in 2004. "I watched Nirvana perform, I talked to Kurt Cobain, I talked to [Eric] Clapton, I got to work with [Chris] Farley every day," he recalled. "But I was so self-obsessed with survival — survival on the show and then mental health survival and back to survival on the show — I certainly didn't take time to smell the roses." 

Unfortunately, in addition to struggling with anxiety, he didn't get the boost to his career from the show he'd probably been hoping for. "You really get into this existential conversation with yourself, questioning your own worth and existence." Today Mohr has found more than his niche, with a successful career in spite of his time on the show, rather than because of it.

Larry David

As the creator of "Seinfeld," Larry David can take credit for one of the funniest sitcoms in TV history. But since 2000, he has also written and directed "Curb Your Enthusiasm," where he plays a heavily fictionalized version of himself. More recently, he gained notoriety for playing Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in "Saturday Night Live," but believe it or not, his association with the show actually goes back to the '80s.

Hired as a staff writer in 1984, David found his time creating sketches for the show maddening. "They weren't putting any of my sketches on the air," David told Vanity Fair in 2017. "I was getting increasingly frustrated. The sketches would get cut. I only had one sketch on the entire year." Furious that none of his work was being used, David cursed out his boss, Dick Ebersol, and quit the show in a huff, only to realize he'd just thrown away the first steady paycheck he'd had in years.

After commiserating with his good friend, Kenny Kramer, David knew he'd made a mistake, and simply went back to work the next day. He'd leave the show for real after the year was up, and turn his infamous quitting incident into an episode of "Seinfeld" years later.

Donald Glover

Many of Hollywood's biggest comedy stars were hired by Lorne Michaels to become cast members of "Saturday Night Live" early in their careers. but he doesn't always get it right, and in addition to Lisa Kudrow, "Community" and "Atlanta" lead, Donald Glover, was rejected after a failed audition, not just once but twice. 

Though it may be hard to imagine anyone turning down the effortlessly funny Glover, that's exactly what Michaels did in both 2007 and 2009, according to Glover himself. He discussed his rejections in an interview with GQ, but rather than lament what might have been, the multi-faceted Glover — who is an actor, musician, and director — seems grateful. "I dodged so many bullets," Glover told the magazine. "Me being on 'SNL' would've killed me." While he may have wanted to join the series badly at the time, hindsight has a way of bringing clarity. 

"If I got on 'SNL,' my career wouldn't have happened," he said. And that's no exaggeration, as his starring role in "Community" came the same year as his second audition, which was followed in 2016 by the award-winning "Atlanta," which he also created. But he'd eventually get his shot on the 30 Rock stage, returning to "SNL" in 2018 to play host following his first Emmy Award win.

Bill Hader

During his time on "Saturday Night Live" from 2005 to 2013, Bill Hader earned a few Emmy Award nominations. A fan favorite, Hader became well known for his hysterically funny characters including flamboyant Stefon Meyers, Italian talk show host Vinny Vedecci, and spot-on impressions of everyone from Keith Morrison and Vincent Price to political commentator James Carville. After departing the series, his talent only expanded, as Hader created and starred in the critically acclaimed dark comedy, "Barry," on HBO.

In an interview with the Daily Beast in 2019, though, Hader admitted that his years on "Saturday Night Live" weren't always pleasant, inducing chronic stress and panic attacks. He even admitted that things often got so bad that he could barely make it to work, due to the pressure of living up to the talented actors around him. Hader, who had long suffered from anxiety, eventually channeled his most painful days into "Barry," the story of a hitman struggling with PTSD who turns to acting as an escape. 

While his years on "SNL" created turmoil, though, Hader turned them into an even bigger career after he departed. As the creator and star of "Barry," he's won a pair of Emmys for his performance, two of nine that the series has taken home to date ... and we'd wager he's not done taking home trophies just yet.

Norm Macdonald

Norm Macdonald made a name for himself with his wry, sardonic — and deeply twisted — sense of humor. He used it to comic effect on "Saturday Night Live" where he hosted "Weekend Update." With a deadpan delivery, Macdonald's cynical and irreverent attitude meant he was also never afraid to ruffle a few feathers. As a result, he ran afoul of "SNL" executive Don Ohlmeyer when he refused to stop making jokes about O.J. Simpson and was subsequently fired.

But if Macdonald felt angry, bitter, or even depressed in the wake of his firing, you'd never have known it at the time, as he quickly did the rounds on the talk show circuit to sling barbs at Ohlmeyer. And if there were any doubts as to whether his career could recover from the controversy, they were soon answered when a year later he got his own sitcom, "The Norm Show," and starred in the cult classic comedy, "Dirty Work."

Then, to everyone's surprise, just a year and a half after being ousted, "SNL" actually asked him back to the show, though not as a cast member. Instead, he returned to the more prestigious role of host. Mocking his own firing in his monologue, Macdonald likely realized he was more popular than ever, and he didn't need "SNL" at all ... and maybe he never did.