You don’t have to be perpetually “live, from New York” to flourish these days at “Saturday Night Live.”
In years past, the show’s cast members focused their all on the venerable late-night program and, when outside opportunity knocked or contracts ran out or media economics forced a tightening of the group, they left. This season has provided the clearest indication yet that those rules are changing: cast members are increasingly taking on new projects even as they continue with the NBC show.
On Thursday, HBO Max will launch a six-episode comedy-sketch series led by Michael Che, who also happens to be one of the head writers at “SNL” and a co-host of the program’s long-running “Weekend Update” segment. “That Damn Michael Che” will feature appearances by other “SNL” cast members, including Cecily Strong, Heidi Gardner and Colin Jost. How did Che launch his own series and keep “SNL” on track for its 46th season? HBO Max representatives declined to make the comedian or the producers of his new series available for comment.
Meanwhile, other “SNL” regulars have also been given new freedoms this year. Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant, two cast veterans, did not appear on “SNL” for several weeks earlier this season as they taped their own shows: a new season of Hulu’s “Shrill” for Bryant and an Apple TV satirical series called “Schmigadoon!” for Strong. Kenan Thompson is the lead in a new NBC comedy, “Kenan,” that debuted in 2021 and was recently renewed for a second season. Chris Redd is a co-star. And Pete Davidson is slated to turn up in a sequel to the DC Comics film “Suicide Squad.”
Some of these concurrent projects may simply be the result of pandemic scheduling; work that might have been filmed last summer can’t be put off forever. And cast members have of course long done movies and other vehicles when “SNL” is on hiatus (and, sometimes, even when it’s not). In past interviews, executive producer Lorne Michaels has alluded to giving cast members time off from the show when personal or creative demands required.
Yet maintaining a presence on the program has long been seen as paramount. “In the second season I had ‘Update’ so I had something to do on the show and didn’t have to fight to be on the air,” said original cast member Jane Curtin in “Live From New York,” the popular oral history of the show by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller. “There were a lot of other things but the fact that I had ‘Update’ and didn’t have to plead for material kept me sane.” As the rise of streaming economics reshapes the entertainment industry, spurring “peak TV” series that last only a handful of episodes, there may be more room to maneuver.
Keep in mind that many of the projects the cast members tackle still fall under the aegis of Michaels, who also heads Broadway Video, the production company behind “SNL.” Broadway has expanded its work in recent years, producing notable series like “Portlandia” for IFC or “Los Espookys” for HBO. People familiar with the matter note that Andrew Singer, a Broadway Video president who oversees its TV production, has been recognized in Hollywood for an ability to develop programming concepts and processes that allow current and former “SNL” staffers to take part in new jobs. And as that has happened, these people said, Michaels has begun to deploy the “SNL” cast with more flexibility — and develop longer relationships with them.
Gone, perhaps, are the days when a cast member clocked their “SNL” success by how much sketch time they got each week. Veteran cast members like Kate McKinnon and Thompson are “not in every frame of every episode,” Michaels told Variety earlier this year. “Some weeks they don’t have that much. Some weeks, they’re all over things. And some weeks you look forward to that moment when they appear.”
Indeed, in recent years cast members have also been allowed to on voice-over and advertising work. McKinnon, Thompson, Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan all lent their skills to “Nature Cat,” an animated program run by PBS Kids, while they were working on “SNL.” And McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Cecily Strong and others have appeared in commercials for Ford, Allstate and Campbell Soup’s Prego. Michaels in the past has taken a dim view of the advertising work — there was a time when a cast member like David Spade’s work in the 1990s for 1-800-COLLECT was a surprise, not commonplace — but has come around to the practice. “I don’t like it, but if someone is going to be well paid and it’s not next to us in the show, then I’m OK,” Michaels told Variety in 2017.
A representative for Broadway Video was not able to respond to queries.
Keeping cast on board can help with one of the bumpier aspects of life at the show: the churn of players leads to an ongoing need to find ways for a diverse group to gel. No one stays forever at “Saturday Night Live” (Thompson, who has been with the show since 2003, has been there longest, surpassing even Darrell Hammond’s 14 years and Tim Meadows’ ten), and 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-camera relationships that can take months to build.
In 2012, Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg left at the end of the program’s 37th season, along with Abby Elliott. Within a year, Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen also departed. These exits always draw outsize scrutiny from social media — how will the show ever continue? — and yet it continues to thrive. “SNL” is on the verge of hitting a half-century on TV.
Taking on outside work appears to have been a point of contention in the recent past. Killam and Jay Pharoah left the show abruptly in 2016, after they had offers to do work for series at Showtime.
Similar stuff is probably in the wind. As the entertainment world speeds up the churn of production to meet streaming demand, cast members represent an increasingly marketable commodity. “SNL” once introduced its cast members to the wider world. These days, many of them have already become familiar faces to broad niches of viewership due to their work on smaller projects and the prevalence of social media. Beck Bennett, for example, was seen all over the United States when he did a series of popular AT&T commercials with kids before joining the “SNL” cast. Kyle Mooney had a supporting role in the HBO series “Hello Ladies.” McKinnon was in a sketch comedy series on the cable-network Logo. The show amplifies their public halo, but no longer is the sole entity conferring it upon them, as the case might have been with Bill Murray or Gilda Radner, or even Tina Fey and Will Ferrell.
There are already signs that the cast is ready to stay with the show while they embrace new opportunities. McKinnon has been in demand for years and decided to stick with “SNL” even as she had the chance to star in a dramatic series on Hulu (she is no longer connected to the program). She has been with “SNL” since the spring of 2012. Bryant and Strong joined the show in the fall of that year.
A wider circle of available talent may give “SNL” more time to breathe in an entertainment industry that is increasingly leaving producers and talent more winded.
–Michael Schneider contributed to this story