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Why ‘Saturday Night Live’ Needs Exiting Veterans Taran Killam, Jay Pharoah

Showrunner Lorne Michaels cut loose two talented comedians in advance of Season 42

Taran Killam Jay Pharoah Showtime
REX/Shutterstock

There’s always some new reason to mull over the inner workings of “Saturday Night Live,” but tonight offered a bigger chance than usual. “Saturday Night Live” confirmed that it has not renewed the contracts of Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah, two cast members that were both in their sixth year with the late-night NBC show. In a cast with somewhat middling name recognition, Killam and Pharoah were two of the most familiar names.

With reports still coming in, it’s difficult to assess “Saturday Night Live’s” casting shakeup, as the iconic variety show prepares for Season 42. But Killam spoke to Mike Ryan at Uproxx in an interview published shortly after the news broke, and there he indicates that despite having other career opportunities, leaving “Saturday Night Live” was not his choice. “I had sort of had it in my head I would make this upcoming year my last year, but then heard they weren’t going to pick up my contract. I was never given a reason why, really.”

Killam speculates it may have had something to do with the fact that he was getting more film opportunities, which would all have to be cleared with “Saturday Night Live.” At least in one case, production may have overlapped with the upcoming season. But if that is the reason for Killam’s non-renewal, it seems unlikely it’s the reason for Pharoah’s; the latter comedian has not announced any major upcoming projects.

For Killam in particular, it’s a strange and oddly pointed dismissal. Both comedians are talented and versatile; and if Pharoah suffered from “Saturday Night Live’s” historic struggle to adequately write for their black performers, Killam certainly didn’t. Per Splitsider, Killam was in the largest percentage of sketches of any cast member, just two seasons ago. Killam was connective tissue for the show, a team player with just enough range in any direction to fit in any scene. He was ubiquitous on the “Saturday Night Live” stage because he was reliable.

And while he wasn’t a brilliant impressionist, he was good enough to have a serviceable Donald Trump, which these days is a useful bit to have around. Of course, Darrell Hammond has been coming back to the show to do his own candidate Trump bit. But with a Trump administration possible come November, it would make sense to lock in a good impression into the regular cast.

Meanwhile, Pharoah — a virtuoso impressionist — does the show’s official President Obama impression. Obama’s on his way out of the White House, but it’ll still be a good six months before he leaves the Oval Office; it seems oddly premature to give Pharoah the boot while he’s still serving out his term. And it’s not like that’s all Pharoah can do. Watching him flip through a whole slew of black comedians, as he did earlier this year, gives you a sense of his range, from the high-pitched laughter of Katt Williams to the hand gestures of Eddie Murphy and the facial expressions of Chris Rock. For what it’s worth, he also does a wicked Jay Z.

Sure, Killam and Pharoah have their weaknesses. Killam’s versatility often makes him a bit too bland — indeed, he played the “Bland Man” in this sketch from six months ago — and Pharoah doesn’t have much of a presence outside of his impressions. But in this incredibly mediocre “Saturday Night Live” cast — one that includes overlookable Kyle Mooney, smug Colin Jost, and dinosaurs Kenan Thompson and Bobby Moynihan — they are cutting-edge titans. The only two cast members I’d reliably put on their level are Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon; maybe featured player Pete Davidson could come, too.

In terms of age, too, cutting them loose from the show is inexplicable. “Saturday Night Live” of course requires young blood, but lately the show has felt inundated by fresh-faced and naïve comedians — supervised by a few elderly hall monitors that pull goofy grins after every delivered joke. It could stand to nurture some more seasoned talent.

Of course, this is all moot. The fact of the matter is, no matter how good Killam and Pharoah are, the cast of “Saturday Night Live” are the comedians that showrunner Lorne Michaels gets along with and wants to nurture. A lot of “Saturday Night Live” comedians end up having careers that are significantly guided by Michaels; what appears to be the case is that Michaels’ favorites get access to the many other projects he’s producing. An excellent example is the close relationship Michaels has with Seth Meyers; in addition to being an executive producer on “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” Michaels is also an EP on Meyers’ vanity project “Documentary Now!” — an IFC show starring Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, two other favored “Saturday Night Live” alums.

Neither Killam nor Pharoah could so neatly slot into the Michaels model. Killam has worked in a wide range of comedic roles, including guest stints on shows like “Scrubs” and “How I Met Your Mother,” and a role on Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” all of which are outside Michaels’ empire. Pharoah also doesn’t fit into Michaels’ oeuvre of low-impact comedy. Now that the axe has dropped, both comedians will have to make their fortunes elsewhere.