The Men of SNL
Television Feature from RoadRunner October 2011
For the 37th season of Saturday Night Live, creator Lorne Michaels made the unusual decision to keep last season's cast completely in tact, neither adding any new players nor taking any away. On one hand, it seems a strange aversion to risk for a show that continues to struggle to live up to its famous pedigree. On the other, it could be seen as just good sense: For the past few years, SNL has been building one of the strongest casts in recent memory, one that seems more likely than ever to produce another breakout star in the vein of Bill Murrary, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell.
The current crop of SNL's repertory men doubles as a representation of modern comedy itself, featuring players originating in the alternative comedy scene, improv, sketch, online and even the music industry. If there's a future blockbuster star here, it could be anyone.
For close to a decade, SNL has been anchored by Fred Armisen, a sketch performer who began his career in music as the drummer for punk band Trenchmouth. Though his early life as a musician occasionally informs his comedy (such as a memorable sketch where a father's old band reunites at his daughter's wedding), it's Armisen's wide range of characters and Peter Sellers-like ability to disappear within them that has become one of SNL's strongest assets.
Though Armisen has appeared in small, bit-parts in a number of films during his tenure at SNL, Armisen's partnership with another musician-turned-sketch-comedian has become his biggest breakout role. Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, a former Sleater-Kinney vocalist and guitarist, began a web series of short skits called ThunderAnt which eventually became the IFC's Portlandia, a hipster-skewering sketch show set in the trendy mecca of Portland, Oregon.
Unlike Armisen, Bill Hader took a more traditional path to Saturday Night Live. Starting out in Los Angeles' Second City, Hader was eventually brought to the attention of Lorne Michaels thanks to his solid improv skills and eerily convincing impressions of celebrities like Alan Alda, Vincent Prince and Harvey Fierstein.
Thanks to a slew of immensely popular recurring characters, like club-promoter Stefon and elderly reporter Herb Welch -- as well as his position in the venerable Judd Apatow roster for films Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Pineapple Express -- Hader's career seems likely to explode even further, both on SNL and beyond.
Since 2001, Seth Meyers has been a mainstay of SNL, first joining the cast and eventually becoming head writer. Though most of Meyers' work on the show today is behind the camera, his role as anchor of ''Weekend Update'' has turned that segment into a consistent highlight.
Meyers doesn't appear often outside the 30 Rock studios, but a hilarious speech as keynote speaker at this year's White House Correspondents Association Dinner cemented his status as a valuable social commentator.
Coming out of the increasingly prolific Upright Citizens Brigade, Bobby Moynihan has remained mostly an improv performer, contributing only small parts to films like Mystery Team and The Invention of Lying. That said, Moynihan may be something of an SNL secret weapon: under-utilized but certainly capable of stealing a scene.
Moynihan is a long-shot for post-SNL super-stardom, to say the least. It's more likely he'll follow the lead of fellow UCB-alum Horatio Sanz, receding further into underground comedy but remaining a consistently hilarious voice there.
Arguably the most divisive castmate on SNL, Samberg is in some ways the most popular performer, but also the most prone to backlash. Samberg started his comedy career as one third of the comedy trio The Lonely Island along with Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, who joined SNL as writers and segment directors. Though opinions remain mixed on The Lonely Island, it isn't much of an exaggeration to say the trio's ''Digital Shorts'' in some ways single-handedly saved SNL, creating a viral internet-sensation before there was even a word for it and continuing to contribute some of the most popular sketches to this day.
Lorne Michael's ostensibly star-making vehicle for Samberg, 2007's Hot Rod, didn't work quite as planned. The film bombed with viewers and critics, though it's since enjoyed a second life as a cult-classic on DVD. Still, The Lonely Island is currently enjoying their new-found success as a comedy hip-hop group, having recently released their second album, Turtleneck & Chain, and contributing some genuine hits to the Billboard charts. (''On A Boat'' went platinum!) It seems inevitable Samberg and the Lonely Island will become even bigger stars, with or without SNL.
As one of the great straight-men of SNL, Jason Sudeikis wouldn't seem a likely candidate for post-SNL super-stardom. He doesn't have any particularly popular recurring bits and his put-upon everyman routine mostly plays in support of other performer's broader characters. Yet Sudeikis' film career is already extremely successful before he's even left the television show that made him famous.
In 2011 alone, Sudeikis has starred in three films, two of which (the Farrelly brother's Hall Pass and the Brett Ratner produced Horrible Bosses) were bona fide box-office hits. He's also managed to keep a foot in the alternative comedy scene, having appeared in shows like Childrens Hospital and continuing to perform at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. It remains to be seen if Sudeikis' star continues to rise, but he's already proven himself a draw at the box-office, and if he fully commits to film, there's no reason he couldn't become a true comedy star.
A television sketch performer since his teens, Kenan Thompson began his career on Nickelodeon's kid-friendly SNL response All That and later the spin-off series Kenan & Kel, where he starred opposite Kel Mitchell. Besides sketch comedy, Thompson has also kept busy in film and television, appearing in everything from Fat Albert (where he played the title character) to Snakes on a Plane.
Thompson's appearance as an SNL cast member in 2003 was a surprise, but he's more than proven himself with a huge roster of celebrity impressions (once the lone black performer, Thompson has never wanted for parts) as well as his signature character Deandre Cole, whose BET talk show ''What's Up With That?'' rarely makes it more than a few seconds before breaking into its extended theme song. Though he seems an unlikely breakout star, Thompson has surprised us before and he could do it again.
With such a talented and diverse cast, SNL seems to be experiencing another renaissance, not unlike the Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Tina Fey led resurgence of the late '90s and early 2000s. And like that time, SNL seems ripe for another breakout star. Samberg and Sudeikis look to be the front runners for now, but don't count out anyone in this accomplished team.