Saturday Night Live has served as a launching pad for numerous comic performers over the years. Many of the show’s alumni have turned their success on the show into even larger success in movies and other TV shows.
Out of all the performers ever featured as regular cast members on Saturday Night Live, those discussed here have been the most successful. That doesn’t mean they were all breakout stars on NBC’s hit sketch show, however. In fact, a few of these performers gloriously failed on SNL before finding success elsewhere.
Dan Aykroyd was a cast member on Saturday Night Live from 1975 to 1979. Perhaps one of the most beloved sketches he appeared in during this time was with John Belushi as The Blues Brothers, a pair of blues musicians. In fact, Aykroyd helped turn the sketch into an actual performing band.
He then parlayed the success of the characters into the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. After SNL, Aykroyd created and starred in 1984’s Ghostbusters. The success of the film was huge and spawned an entire franchise.
Chevy Chase was one of the original cast members on the first season of Saturday Night Live. He was the first to host Weekend Update, the satire news segment that has carried on as a key part of the show ever since.
Chase left SNL midway through the second season. After leaving, he appeared in several comedic films, including 1978’s Foul Play. One of his best-known characters is that of Clark Griswold from the National Lampoon’s Vacation franchise of films. Younger fans know Chase from Community, which ran on NBC from 2009 to 2014.
Eddie Murphy was a cast member on Saturday Night Live from 1980 to 1984. He created several popular characters during his run on the show, including a grown-up version of Buckwheat from The Little Rascals, Mr. Robinson and his own unique take on the Gumby character.
After SNL, Murphy went on to enjoy massive success in Hollywood. He starred in several successful film franchises, including the Beverly Hills Cop series, The Nutty Professor series and the Dr. Dolittle series. Murphy currently stars in a 2019 Netflix show called Dolemite Is My Name, and he’s working on a sequel to Coming to America.
Kristen Wiig joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2005 and stayed on the show for 135 episodes until 2012. She had numerous popular characters and sketches on the show, including Gilly, Judy Grimes and an anxious cashier at Target. She eventually became one of the show’s most popular cast members.
After SNL, Wiig had no shortage of acting roles offered to her, including a character in the 2016 remake of Ghostbusters. Wiig is also a writer and starred in the 2011 hit comedy Bridesmaids, and she has a regular voice role in the animated Despicable Me franchise.
Mike Myers was a cast member on Saturday Night Live from 1989 until 1995. During his run on the show, he was best known for several comedic roles, including Simon, Wayne from Wayne’s World and as one of the Chicago superfans. Myers was able to turn his character of Wayne from Wayne’s World into success on the big screen as well.
He then cashed in with the hugely successful Austin Powers film franchise. Myers wrote, produced and starred in the films. Since then, he has lent his voice to Shrek in the widely popular series of films and TV specials.
Jimmy Fallon considered it the fulfillment of a lifelong dream when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1998. He remained on the show for six seasons until 2004. During his run on the show, Fallon hosted Weekend Update in addition to appearing in sketches. He became famous — and sometimes criticized — for his inability to contain his laughter during sketches.
Since leaving SNL, Fallon has been widely successful. He has hosted The Tonight Show since 2014 and has gone back to host Saturday Night Live on three occasions since leaving the show.
Seth Meyers joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2001, but over the years, he also worked as part of the writing team. He became the co-head writer of the show with Tina Fey beginning in January of 2006. He shared the Weekend Update hosting duties with Amy Poehler that year as well.
Even before his departure from SNL, NBC announced that Meyers would be the new host of Late Night beginning in 2014 after Jimmy Fallon left to begin hosting The Tonight Show. Meyers has continued in that role ever since.
Jenny Slate was not a cast member on Saturday Night Live for very long. She impersonated several celebrities during her time on the show, including Kristen Stewart and Lady Gaga. Her contract wasn’t renewed after her one season on the show.
After SNL, Slate went on to achieve viral success with 2010’s children’s book Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. She started in the recurring role of Mona-Lisa Saperstein on Parks and Recreation beginning in 2013 as well. Slate also earned numerous awards for her role in 2014’s Obvious Child.
Before she spent her time dancing poorly as Elaine on Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus was a cast member on Saturday Night Live from 1982 until 1985. She played several recurring characters, including a televangelist with the name April May June, Darla in parody sketches of The Little Rascals and Patti Lynn Hunnsacker.
After SNL, Louis-Dreyfus was cast in the role she is best known for, Elaine on Seinfeld. The show achieved mammoth success and is considered a comic icon. Louis-Dreyfus was thrust back into the spotlight in 2011 as the star of the hit show Veep.
Larry David was a writer for Saturday Night Live from 1984 until 1985. However, he only wrote one sketch that made it to air, and he quit after one season. It was after the brief stint on SNL that David really achieved success. He teamed up with Jerry Seinfeld in 1989 to create the show that became known as Seinfeld.
Along with another former SNL cast member in the role of Elaine, David and Seinfeld went on to achieve monumental acclaim. He then continued his run of success with Curb Your Enthusiasm, which began airing in the year 2000.
Robert Downey Jr.
Before he took on the role of Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Robert Downey Jr. was briefly a cast member of Saturday Night Live. The show attempted to focus on the youth movement in 1985 and brought on several new, young cast members, including Downey Jr. When the ratings sagged and the critics complained, the future Iron Man and several others were cut.
Following SNL, Downey Jr. began his successful — and sometimes tumultuous — film career. Starring roles in films like Air America, Tropical Thunder and Chaplin paved the way for his eventual casting as Iron Man in 2008.
Anthony Michael Hall
Anthony Michael Hall joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1985. He was only 17 years old at the time, and he remains the youngest comedian to this day to be a cast member on the show. He only lasted one season, but it didn’t matter. He went on to achieve success on the big screen in several Hollywood films.
Hall played important roles in several big 1980s movies, including Weird Science, The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. From 2002 until 2007, he starred in the lead role and was a producer for The Dead Zone.
Amy Poehler joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in the 2001-02 season after being recruited to join the cast by Tina Fey. Starting in the 2004-05 season, she began to co-host Weekend Update along with Fey. In addition to hosting that segment, she was also a writer for the show. Perhaps her best-known celebrity impression on the show was of Hilary Clinton.
She left the show in 2008 and began starring in her own TV show the next year as well as several feature films. After SNL, Poehler starred in the hit NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation from 2008 until 2015.
Chris Rock joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1990 as one of several new comedians hired that season. Along with Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider and David Spade, he is considered one of the “Bad Boys of SNL” that was part of the team during this period. Rock didn’t last long on SNL, however.
He has achieved the most success as a stand-up comedian, and his comedy specials are some of the most widely revered of his era. From 1997 until 2000, he hosted The Chris Rock Show and also produced a TV series based on his early life called Everybody Hates Chris.
John Belushi is one of the most fondly remembered comedians in Saturday Night Live’s history. He was a member of the original cast in 1975 and remained on the show until 1979. Some of Belushi’s most famous contributions include playing one of the Blues Brothers, playing a Samurai and nailing celebrity impersonations of Henry Kissinger, Beethoven and Captain Kirk.
Belushi’s film career after SNL included National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers and the 1981 film Continental Divide. Unfortunately, he suffered from drug and alcohol addiction, and he died of combined drug intoxication in 1982.
Bill Murray joined the cast of Saturday Night Live for the show’s second season in 1976. He remained on the show for three seasons before leaving in 1980. During his time on the show, he portrayed several successful characters, including Nick the lounge singer and a socially inept young man named Todd.
After SNL, Murray’s career really took off on the big screen. He appeared in key roles in hugely popular films, such as Stripes, Caddyshack and Ghostbusters. Later films included Groundhog’s Day and Rushmore. He wrote and produced A Very Murray Christmas for Netflix in 2015.
David Spade joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1990 along with several other new members. Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and Rob Schneider were other soon-to-be huge names that started at the same time. He left the show in 1996 after appearing in 70 episodes.
Spade achieved success on the big screen in the mid-90s, most notably in buddy films with fellow SNL alum Chris Farley. The films Tommy Boy and Black Sheep sparked a huge fan following. Spade now hosts Lights Out with David Spade, a talk show on Comedy Central that began airing in the summer of 2019.
Most of Sarah Silverman’s career success came after her very brief stint on Saturday Night Live. She was a cast member during the 1993-94 season and also worked on the writing team. Not a single one of the sketches she wrote made it to air, and she was fired after only one season. She did get to perform in a couple of sketches, however.
After SNL, things really started to take off for Silverman, however. She eventually ended up starring in the Sarah Silverman Program from 2007 to 2010 and briefly hosted another show on Hulu from 2017 to 2018.
Joan Cusack is not particularly known for her work on Saturday Night Live, where she was only a cast member from 1985 to 1986. Instead, she is more recognizable for her film and TV roles, such as Sheila Jackson on Shameless. She has received five consecutive primetime Emmy award nominations for her performance on that show. During her time on SNL, she did celebrity impersonations of Queen Elizabeth, Jane Fonda and Brooke Shields.
Her wildly successful film career includes Academy Award nominations for 1988’s Working Girl and for 1997’s In & Out. Cusack also performs voice work for the successful Toy Story and Chicken Little film franchises.
Comedian Gilbert Gottfried was a member of the Saturday Night Live cast in 1980. Unlike the performances he is probably best known for, Gottfried did not perform on SNL using his trademark obnoxious voice. Maybe he should have, because he didn’t appear in many sketches and only lasted 12 episodes on the show.
Following SNL, however, he really started to hit his stride. He got noticed for his role in the second Beverly Hills Cop movie and also for playing Mr. Peabody in the two Problem Child films. He has achieved the most success in stand-up comedy.
Adam Sandler joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1990 and quickly became one of the most popular comedians on the show. He was perhaps best known for the amusing songs he wrote and performed for skits. Some of the songs included the infamous Hanukkah Song and the Thanksgiving Song.
In 1995, Sandler starred in the comedy Billy Madison, and the film was a huge box office success, despite being poorly reviewed. Films such as Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy quickly followed. In recent years, he has starred in The Ridiculous 6, the Grown Ups film franchise, Jack and Jill and 100% Fresh.
Chris Farley was one of the bad boys of SNL in the early to mid-90s. During his time on the show, he portrayed characters such as motivational speaker Matt Foley, one of the Chicago superfans and a female retail worker at the Gap.
Following SNL, Farley hit it big in Hollywood with the films Tommy Boy and Black Sheep with David Spade. Unfortunately, similar to his idol John Belushi, Farley suffered from substance abuse issues. In a spooky bit of similarity to Belushi, Farley died of a drug overdose at only 33 years of age.
Bill Hader had a long run on Saturday Night Live after joining the cast in 2005. He remained on the show until 2013 and received four Primetime Emmy Award nominations for his work. Some of the more famous characters he portrayed on the show include the Weekend Update correspondent Stefon as well as celebrity impersonations of Al Pacino, John Malkovich and Clint Eastwood.
After leaving SNL, Hader went on to do some work with the hit show South Park and Documentary Now. He currently stars in the lead role of the HBO series Barry.
Tina Fey began working for Saturday Night Live as a writer in 1997. She made the transition to performing in sketches starting in the year 2000 when she became a co-anchor of Weekend Update. She remained a key part of the writing team up until her departure in 2006.
After leaving SNL, Fey turned her experience working on the show into a sitcom for NBC titled 30 Rock. The show, also starring Alec Baldwin, had a fantastic run that concluded in 2013. Fey produced the show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for Netflix from 2015 to 2019 as well.
Al Franken started as a writer on Saturday Night Live during the show’s first season in 1975. He also performed in some sketches and portrayed the self-help guru Stuart Smalley. The character of Smalley was one of the more well-reviewed characters early in the show’s history. When performing as Smalley, Franken repeated that he was “good enough, smart enough and people liked him” into a mirror.
Franken authored several books following his time on SNL and even made a foray into politics. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008 and re-elected in 2014.
Many fans of Saturday Night Live point to Will Ferrell’s run on the show from 1995 until 2002 as one of the best periods in the show’s history. Farrell played numerous popular characters in recurring sketches while on the show. His celebrity impersonations included George W. Bush, Harry Caray, Robert Goulet and Alex Trebek.
After leaving SNL in the early 2000s, Will Ferrell went on to make several beloved comedy films, including Anchorman, Step Brothers and Semi-Pro, and he played the antagonist in the popular Zoolander films. He has returned to host Saturday Night Live on five occasions.
Phil Hartman performed on Saturday Night Live from 1986 until 1994. During his eight seasons as part of the cast, he mastered several celebrity impressions, including Frank Sinatra, Charlton Heston, Ronald Reagan and — perhaps his best-known impression — Bill Clinton.
While still with SNL, Hartman provided numerous voices for the populator Fox animated series The Simpsons. He voiced several characters, including Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure. After leaving SNL in the mid-90s, Hartman became one of the stars on the NBC sitcom News Radio from 1995 until his death. Sadly, he was killed by his wife in 1998 at the age of 49.
Tracy Morgan joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1996 and remained on the show until 2003. While a member of the cast, he portrayed several memorable characters, including the wildlife enthusiast Brian Fellow and Astronaut Jones. After SNL, Morgan starred in his own sitcom called The Tracy Morgan Show, but it was canceled after one season.
In 2006, he was cast in the role of Tracy Jordan on the show 30 Rock. The character was based on himself, so he obviously nailed it. He remained a key part of 30 Rock until the show’s conclusion in 2013.
Dennis Miller joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1985 after being discovered by Lorne Michaels at The Comedy Store. He was immediately slotted into the role of the anchor of Weekend Update. He left the show in 1991 and was replaced by Kevin Nealon in the role.
Miller hosted the Dennis Miller Show beginning in 1992, but it was canceled after only seven months. He then started hosting Dennis Miller Live in 1994. This show was much more successful and ran for nine years with 215 episodes and five Emmy award wins.
Andy Samberg joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2005 and was one of the more popular performers up until his departure in 2012. He broke the mold a little bit, as many of his popular sketches and characters were pre-recorded music videos as opposed to live sketches.
Similar to Adam Sandler’s popularity for his songs, Samberg’s music videos with The Lonely Island and Justin Timberlake won over fans. After leaving SNL, Samberg began filming the popular TV show Brooklyn Nine-Nine in 2013. He plays the main character, Detective Jake Peralta.