Bill Hader and the Seldom-Seen 'SNL' Success Story

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Every profession has its Mount Zion: in music, there is Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall, in theater there’s Broadway, and since 1975 the zenith of any improv/stand-up comedian’s aspirations has been Saturday Night Live. Dozens of legends of screens both big and small have passed through 30 Rockefeller Center on their way to stardom. But for every Belushi, Sandler and Ferrell, there is also a Kattan, Sanz and Jim Belushi. Honestly, how many current cast members can you name right now? No; Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis and Bobby Moynihan (contrary to interdimensional cable) have left the show. While, yes, many cast members of today may fade into obscurity after leaving the stage, it is by no means a new problem. Take a look through the Rolling Stone ranking of every cast member ever and see how many names you actually remember. With season 43 wrapped up for the summer, let’s take a look at some of the successes and failures of prominent cast members, and maybe even find out why things don’t always go well after SNL.

The latest example of a cast member success story is that of Bill Hader, one of the show’s most gifted impressionists of the 2000’s, next to Darrell Hammond of course (but what happened to him?) The first season of Hader’s HBO dramedy Barry, about a hitman turned actor trying to play both roles, just wrapped up its first season to critical acclaim. With a supporting cast including Henry Winkler and Stephen Root, the show was one of the most ambitious projects to come from an SNL alum in many years (sorry MacGruber). At the same time, fellow cast member Andy Samberg was just brought back from the gates of hell as his cop-comedy Brooklyn 99 stared down the barrel of cancellation, only to be rescued at the last moment. The sudden public interest in 99 seemed a bit curious to me, as I never heard anybody mention the show after its premiere in 2013 until cancellation rumors brought all of these diehard fans onto my timeline. Perhaps some of the show’s rally back to life can be attributed to support not for the show itself, but rather for cast member Terry Crews who has emerged as a male juggernaut of the #MeToo movement and all-around badass, and has not shied away from publicly denouncing the industry even as it tries to end his career. Whatever the reason, I’m happy for Andy and his success. But other recent SNL graduates haven’t been as lucky.

When Jason Sudeikis left the show in 2013, I had great expectations for the highly-versatile actor. Sudeikis tried to come out of the gate strong by releasing several projects soon after announcing he wouldn’t be returning to SNL, projects including We’re The Millers, Horrible Bosses 2, and a few guest spots on Fred Armisen’s Portlandia. However, as Sudeikis began to forge his own path as an actor, the roles he chose did very little to highlight the range that made him a fan favorite of the mid-2000s with memorable appearances as the devil and ESPN classic commentator Pete Twinkle. Instead, he seemed to consistently choose the same role of the dude who never has his life together aside from his perfect hair and expertly groomed stubble, and his latest movie on Netflix, Kodachrome, is certainly no exception to that rule.

But Sudeikis’s mistake epitomizes where some SNL cast members go wrong: doing the same role in every movie or show and not taking advantage of the enormous repertoire of range they developed while on the show. One of the things that made Bill Hader’s Barry so exciting was that it wasn’t just another network sitcom like Son of Zorn or According to Jim. I will, however, give kudos to Will Forte (one of my personal favorite cast members of the past decade) for trying something brave and new with his sitcom The Last Man on Earth, which had a clever concept that it unfortunately abandoned by the end of the pilot episode. That’s what network TV will do to a clever writer and actor. But not everybody is as lucky as Hader to get a deal with premium cable like HBO.

The problem with what has been making more cast members flop in the past decade was actually eloquently pointed out by Tina Fey in the season finale monologue. The writers struck gold with Alec Baldwin’s Trump, but now the show just seems to be a revolving door of celebrity cameos. These stars are so bright that they are outshining the incredible talent hiding in the dimly lit corners of the featured players. But, honestly, why would they feature 20-something Ohio University alum Luke Null when they can tout Golden Globe winner John Goodman? From a business standpoint, it makes sense, but SNL isn’t business. It’s an American institution. But I also can’t sit here and say that I don’t love the celebrity cameos, what I can say is that I do watch the rest of the show and don’t just turn it off after the cold open. And that’s what’s important, because believe it or not, SNL runs for 90 minutes and doesn’t just end after the first five. Watch the rest of the show and don’t fast forward through cast introductions. Learn their names. Stop watching for cameos. Or, soon enough, it will be canceled from New York on Saturday night.