Whether you're a veteran performer or a comedy fan, you've probably dreamt of appearing on Saturday Night Live. Lorne Michaels created the Holy Grail of comedy gigs in the 1970s, and its launched the careers of countless household names, inextricably changing the face of comedy as we knew it. With such high stakes and so few cast members, SNL's casting process has become the thing of legends, with each new tidbit adding itself to the mystique and folklore surrounding the biggest comedy audition in Hollywood. Your favorite stars have shared how they did (or, in some cases, didn't) win a coveted featured player spot — maybe their stories will help you replicate their success.
Bill Hader was brought in for his SNL audition because of Megan Mullally of Will & Grace fame. We don't know how Megan got Lorne Michael's ear, but she recommended that the SNL auteur see Bill in a Los Angeles sketch show. Bill flew to New York to audition for the SNL Powers That Be in a neutral setting and found himself sharing an elevator with future castmate Andy Samberg, who was carrying tons of props. Bill told People he was immediately worried that he didn't have any props, while Andy ended up being worried that Bill was so good, he didn't even need props. Ultimately, Bill credits Tina Fey's laughter during his audition with becoming an SNL success story.
Kate McKinnon only got a two-week warning before her SNL audition, but luckily first time was the charm for this future Hillary Clinton impressionist. Kate credits a backstage compliment from Bobby Moynihan with putting her mind at ease before winning over the casting directors with impressions of Penélope Cruz, Sally Field, and Temple Grandin. Kate told People she was frantic in the days before her audition, cobbling together every character she had ever done to prepare for the life-defining moment she showed Lorne what she could do.
Not every audition can be a success, and tons of future superstars tried their luck at a coveted late-night slot before finding fame somewhere else. Pee-Wee Herman, then known by his given name Paul Reubens, was up against eventual castmember Gilbert Gottfried in 1980, and the Pee-Wee's Playhouse actor remembers being bitter and angry about losing the role because he knew Gilbert was friends with one of the producers. Pee-Wee told the San Francisco Chronicle it was that rejection that drove him to produce and star on Pee-Wee's Playhouse to take his career to the next level.
Tina Fey must've been in a great mood the day that Bill Hader and Andy Samberg had their fateful meeting in the 30 Rock elevators because Andy also remembers then-head writer Tina Fey laughing during his audition. Andy told The New York Times that Tina's laughter was the best thing anyone could hear, second only to laughter from Lorne himself. Bill actually found out that Andy had been hired before Andy did. While both comedians were on a plane home, Bill asked Andy if he believed they were both going to be on SNL, to which Andy replied that he was nervous that only one of them would be chosen. Bill had to spend the entire flight chatting with Andy without spilling the beans about his casting.
Kenan Thompson is the longest-tenured cast member in SNL history, but it took a few years for casting directors to give the Nickelodeon star a chance to audition. Kenan opened up to People about the three years he sent tapes to SNL, beginning as soon as he left Nickelodeon. The tapes kept getting rejected until Tracy Morgan left the variety show and SNL realized they needed to hire new African Americans. Kenan had never done stand-up before, but when he finally got the opportunity to audition in New York, he did impressions of Al Sharpton and Arnold Schwarzenegger talking on the phone. Kenan said his audition wasn't great (which must be a bald-faced lie), but that they could tell he was having a good time.
2013 saw the most new castmembers join SNL since 1995 because of the departures of Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers, and Jason Sudeikis, leading to the most public search for talent SNL had undertaken in its then-38 years on air. At the time, Beck Bennett was best known for his role in an AT&T ad campaign, but The Hollywood Reporter learned Beck and his USC classmate Kyle Mooney were recruited for the sketch comedy show because their "bro comedy" troupe, Good Neighbor, had recently shot a Comedy Central pilot produced by veteran Will Ferrell.
Another familiar face that was rejected by SNL is Aubrey Plaza, who became a fan-favorite on SNL alum Amy Poheler's hit sitcom Parks and Recreation. Aubrey told The Guardian that appearing on SNL was one of her childhood dreams, and that she even interned with the show in 2005. Apparently "internal hiring" isn't Lorne's first priority because Aubrey was passed over after she was finally given an audition in 2008. Aubrey was offered a role in Judd Apatow's Funny People soon after her rejection — it seems like fate had different plans for her.
It's hard to argue that getting rejected by SNL is a blessing for anyone, but in Lisa Kudrow's case, her unsuccessful audition allowed her to become one of the biggest television stars the world has ever seen. Lisa and Julia Sweeney were the last two comediennes standing for the only open spot on SNL's 1990-1991 season, and Lorne came all the way out to Los Angeles to watch a showcase starring the two Groundlings at their home turf. Lisa told Los Angeles Magazine she felt unnerved and unprepared the night of the performance because she knew SNL would be there and that for a long time she took the rejection as proof that she wasn't cut out for a life in comedy. Ironically, Lisa was cast in Friends in 1994, the same year Julia left SNL, and the rest is history.
Crazily enough, there are situations in which its the actors who reject SNL. Mindy Kaling is one of the few who've told Lorne Michaels "no," but she wasn't exactly happy about it. Mindy told The A.V. Club she had auditioned for SNL a year after The Office's U.S. debut, and that being on the sketch series was one of her biggest dreams. Office creator and former SNL writer Greg Daniels told Mindy he would only let Mindy break her contract if she was offered an on-camera role. When SNL asked her to join as a writer instead, Greg refused to let Mindy out of her contract because she was both a writer and an actor on The Office, even though she hated Los Angeles.
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While Lisa Kudrow and Julia Sweeney were the final two choices for Lorne's 1990-1991 slot, stand-up queen Kathy Griffin auditioned during that same showcase and was crushed alongside Lisa when Julia was given the slot. Kathy told Los Angeles Magazine she agreed with Lisa that Julia "kicked [their] asses" during the show and recalled that the backstage atmosphere that night was nothing short of chaotic evil. One girl was just audibly sobbing, Mary Scheer was throwing make-up in her bag and talking about how much she deserved the role, and Kathy was just trying to focus on being the best Kathy she could be.
Seth Meyers auditioned with many, many other hopefuls in New York City, all of whom were staying at the same hotel. He recalled to The New York Times that if he ever left his room, he would hear snippets of other people's auditions throughout the halls. With the anxiety and self-doubt that creeps in during auditions, naturally, everyone else's stuff sounded better than his in Seth's mind. Clearly, it was all in the future Weekend Update anchor's head, as Seth was on the show for thirteen years before leaving to host Late Night, taking over for fellow SNL alum Jimmy Fallon.
It may seem like some blessed lucky stars need to align for a comedian to slay their SNL audition, but in the case of Cheri Oteri, a worst-case scenario lead to best-case results. The night before her audition, Cheri went out with fellow hopefuls Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan and ended up with a nightlong case of food poisoning. Cheri told Entertainment Weekly that she broke all of the blood vessels in her eyes and a bunch in her face before walking into the audition after a sleepless night of vomiting.
Rachel Dratch joined SNL during the 1999-2000 season, but she first auditioned alongside Jimmy Fallon, Chris Parnell, and Horatio Sanz a year prior. Rachel told The New York Times she was at peace with the decision, which was based solely around the fact that SNL wasn't taking any women that season. Funnily enough, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Rachel all performed at Second City together, but the three women were cast separately, with Tina debuting during SNL's 1997-1998 season, Rachel arriving in 1999, and Amy bringing up the rear in 2001.
Will Ferrell is one of SNL's most famous alumni, and he brought his signature panache to his first callback for the show... but no one got to see it. Will had a face-to-face meeting with Lorne before his second performance where he planned to take $25,000 of counterfeit money he brought in a briefcase and stack it on Lorne's desk in the middle of their meeting. Will's plan was to joke that money talks and leave halfway through their conversation, but the atmosphere was so tense that Will felt the gag would do more harm than good. Lorne explained to Will that he needed to make an entirely new audition for his callback, and Will left without the executive producer ever knowing he was carrying thousands of fake bills.
Steve Carell married fellow Second City comedian Nancy Walls in 1995, which Mental Floss learned was the same year the couple auditioned for SNL. Nancy made it, but Steve, who would go on to become a household name ten years later as Michael Scott, The Office's bumbling middle manager, lost out to Will Ferrell. Nancy only stayed for one year on SNL, but she went on to become a correspondent on The Daily Show during the beginning of The Office's run, making them a veritable power couple.
Jimmy Fallon did something very, very few SNL auditioners have accomplished — he made Lorne Michaels laugh. It was Jimmy's Adam Sandler impression that impressed the impressario (although his Kate Beckinsale-inspired spiked hair and tight clothes might have helped the overall appeal). Jimmy told The New York Times that his meal of champions was a hamburger and a banana health shake at Stardust Diner before the audition and that he took pictures of the 30 Rock elevator rugs with his disposable camera because it was 1998.
Taran Killiam went into his audition with an arsenal of impressions. Taran told the Times that he did eight or nine impressions including Jimmy Fallon, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, and Seth Rogen. His big finish, though, was a sketch about a hypothetical Super Bowl halftime show performed by a fictional broadway star that knows very little about football. Taran appeared on SNL from 2010 to 2016, when he was inexplicably let go a year before his contract expired (probably because his directing schedule for Why We're Killing Gunther with Arnold Schwarzenegger overlapped with the beginning of SNL's filming schedule).
Most rejected SNL hopefuls don't seem to have any regrets about their failed auditions, but most rejected SNL hopefuls aren't Marc Maron. The WTF Podcast host loves talking about the time he was called in as a possible Weekend Update replacement. Marc's story about the encounter, “Lorne Michaels and Gorillas,” blames his failure on a "candy test," where Marc asserts that taking a Jolly Rancher from the candy bowl on Lorne's desk is what sealed his fate as being one of the unworthy.
Eddie Murphy knew he was perfect for SNL. Little Things learned that prolific stand-up called the show's talent coordinator every day for a week begging for a job when he was only 19 years old, but when he was brought in to audition, it was to be a background extra. Eddie's audition impressed them so much, he was made a full cast member. Eddie stayed on the show for four years and helped revitalize the series in the early '80s.
Where would SNL be without Kristen Wiig and her tiny baby hands? Kristen was invited to audition after she submitted a tape of her characters and sketches to the show. Kristen told The New York Times she couldn't focus on Lorne during her one-on-one meeting because she was distracted by the giant fish tank in his office. Kristen was convinced she didn't get the spot because the season started filming without her, a fair assumption, but she got the call after the third show of the year saying she'd been cast. Suss.