Lorne Michaels to ‘Saturday Night Live’ Cast Veterans: Stay a Little Longer (EXCLUSIVE)

Lorne Michaels - Outstanding Variety Sketch
Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutters

Saturday Night Live” impresario Lorne Michaels has an intriguing offer for veteran cast members thinking of leaving the show: Don’t.

Each summer brings with it an annual “SNL” ritual in which Michaels and top producers try to figure out which members of the current troupe of the show’s “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” will leave and which will remain. The process usually starts in August, but has commenced earlier this year, according to two people familiar with the matter, as Michaels works to convince cast members whose contracts may have lapsed not only to stay, but to stay for a while.

“SNL” is about to enter its 47th season, but Michaels hopes to get some cast members to agree to stay through the show’s 50th, according to these people, a landmark occasion that is slated to start in the fall of 2024.

NBC declined to make the show’s producers available for comment.

Such a commitment would be a long one for cast members who have already worked on the program for several years, but these people say Michaels is willing to grant some flexibility, giving cast who have other opportunities the chance to work on those projects as well as on the show. “SNL” demonstrated some of this elasticity last season, when both Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant were able to commit to outside projects like Apple’s “Schmigadoon” and Hulu’s “Shrill” while missing multiple episodes of “SNL.” Michaels has also worked to find ways for Kenan Thompson and Chris Redd to take part in the NBC sitcom “Kenan” without missing much of “Saturday Night Live.” It helps that all of these series are produced under the auspices of Michaels’ own Broadway Video.

The negotiating comes after last season’s “SNL” finale set off speculation about the trajectory of several cast mainstays. Kate McKinnon, Bryant, Thompson and Strong appeared in a segment in which they discussed the challenges of producing the show during the pandemic and the 2020 election, and some of their on-camera emotion spurred conjecture they may have been hinting at a farewell. Pete Davidson did the same with a “Weekend Segment” that nodded to how being on the program had helped him mature. Strong added to the feeling with a show-stopping turn as Fox News host Judge Jeanine Pirro singing “My Way” in a giant wine box.

Getting veterans to remain for several more seasons would keep at bay one of the many challenges of running “Saturday Night Live.” Cast churn leads to an ongoing need to find ways for a diverse group of actors to gel. No one stays forever at the show, but if too many cast members leave in a short period of time, it forces the program to scramble to forge new on-screen and behind-the-camera relationships that can take months to build.

As more TV viewers migrate to streaming services to watch their favorite scripted dramas and comedies on demand, “SNL” has taken on new importance for NBC. Once relegated to airing after the late local news in a time slot network executives didn’t consider paramount, the program now runs live across the U.S. all at once, meaning that it runs in primetime in certain parts of the country. The show in the 2020-2021 season was the most-watched entertainment program on TV among viewers between 18 and 49, the demographic most preferred by advertisers.

The value of “SNL” has increased steadily in recent years. A 30-second spot on “SNL” this season and last cost around $180,000, according to Standard Media Index, a tracker of ad spending. The average cost of a 30-second perch in the show’s 2015-2016 season totaled around $89,500. NBC generated approximately $123 million in ad revenue off the program in 2020, according to ad-tracker Kantar, compared with $114.7 million in 2019. Top sponsors in recent years have included Apple, AbbVie, Progressive, T-Mobile and Discover.

Cast members for many years didn’t have as much freedom to tackle outside projects. Yet Michaels himself is juggling more work these days, encompassing everything from NBC’s “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers” to programs for WarnerMedia’s HBO Max (a series from Michael Che) and TBS (“Miracle Workers”).

Some cast members who might be in talks to return have kept their remarks to a minimum. In April, McKinnon told Variety, “It’s early, and I really love working there, and I really love everyone who works there, so we will see.” Strong was just as ambivalent in a July interview with InStyle. Meanwhile, a handful of the cast has sparked more chatter by appearing in commercials this summer. McKinnon has taken part in ads for Verizon and PepsiCo’s Tostitos, while Davidson has participated in a pitch for Coca-Cola’s SmartWater.

“SNL” typically finalizes cast and contracts by late summer or early fall.

Michaels may have other reasons for lining up cast members for the show’s 50th season. In 2018, the producer came to new terms with NBCUniversal that are expected to keep “SNL” on the air into 2025. That deal has for several years driven speculation that Michaels, who is believed to be turning 77 in the fall, may want to step away from the show after that year, or, potentially, cease its production after managing it for most of its near half-century of existence. In 2015, Michaels told Variety that “he would not be happy to see it go off the air,” and that any move to hand off the show’s reins would come “when it just makes sense to make the decision.”

Getting current “SNL” cast to stay the course, meanwhile, would ensure the show has a stable array of favorites at the ready for what could be a heavily-watched season.