Saturday Night Live (or SNL) has been an American comedy institution for more than 40 years and remains the show for any up-and-coming, aspiring comedy superstar to get his or her lucky break. Of course, with all the onscreen fun SNL has made over the years for generations of viewers, there are also behind-the-scenes dramas taking place among its cast, writers, hosts and musical guests which viewers never see.
Somehow—whatever’s going on behind the scenes—SNL's show-must-go-on attitude prevails, regardless of whatever’s taking place backstage (be it ongoing heated battles between staffers or epic meltdowns with threats to quit occurring right before the show goes live). Here’s a list of 15 surprising secrets about Saturday Night Live (SNL).
15 Kanye had one of his epic meltdowns right before the show went live in February 2016
Okay, so maybe this doesn’t surprise anyone, since Kanye’s becoming more well-known for his meltdowns than his music these days. Really, incidents like hijacking mics at award shows and taking to Twitter to request handouts from bazillionaires are just another day in the life of Kanye.
SNL staffers and producers endured one of Kanye’s epic meltdowns back in February 2016 (when he was musical guest) because Kanye’s carefully set stage was tampered with by SNL staffers, who ripped up his shiny flooring due to reflective issues with the stage lights. Kanye ranted and raged, threatening to walk out on the show and was recorded during this particular tirade as saying he’s 50 percent more influential than: “Stanley Kubrick, Escobar, and Apostle Paul.” A director, Columbian drug lord and an apostle? Oookay.
14 Tina Fey refused to appear in a sketch alongside Sarah Palin
Tina Fey, of course, was a smash hit on SNL with her portrayal of Sarah Palin. Previously, she appeared occasionally in sketches, anchored Weekend Update and (since 1999) served as SNL’s first female head writer. Her Sarah Palin portrayal, of course, necessitated her playing a more central role on the show’s political sketches.
As SNL often does, they invited whomever they are spoofing to appear alongside their impersonator. Tina Fey hated what are called "sneaker upper" segments, or “bits where the person the cast member is impersonating joins them onstage.” She also wasn’t interested in appearing to endorse Palin by appearing in any sketch with her. Staff worked around this by having Palin stand with Lorne Michael’s backstage, watching Fey’s portrayal of her on a monitor.
13 John Belushi: misogynist
Former SNL cast member Rachel Dratch told Salon magazine that the ‘male ego’ issues rumored to be a factor back in SNL’s early days weren’t such a prominent issue anymore. It was back in the earliest days of the show when this behavior was at its worst—specifically when John Belushi was a cast member. Jane Curtain spoke of the tension between SNL’s women writers of the time and Belushi: “Their battles were constant. They were working against John, who said women are just fundamentally not funny,” Curtin said. “So, you’d go to a table read, and if a woman writer had written a piece for John, he would not read it in his full voice. He felt as though it was his duty to sabotage pieces written by women.”
12 "D*ck In A Box" was expected to flop
The hilarious SNL digital short which Rolling Stone listed as number three on their "50 Greatest Saturday Night Live Sketches of All Time" was written hurriedly and as a result of Lorne Michaels asking Andy Samberg to write something for Justin Timberlake to highlight his singing talents. Samberg and his fellow Lonely Island collaborators worked tirelessly for 48 hours and presented the song to Timberlake two days before airtime. Timberlake reworked the material to his specifications, recorded the song and they readied the video a mere eight hours before broadcast. Timberlake was enthused about "D*ck In A Box," though Samberg and his Lonely Island co-writers had initial reservations about the sketch: “I feel like [Timberlake’s] the only one who didn’t have doubts,” Schaffer (one of the song’s co-writers) said.
11 Stars on the show really have to write for themselves
Rachel Dratch, who was an SNL cast member from 1999 to 2006, says that every cast member really needed a collaborator in the writer’s room to survive. Dratch was fortunate to have worked with Tina Fey before her arrival at SNL, so she had a stellar writing partner already familiar with her work. The duo had performed their critically-admired two-woman show, “Dratch and Fey,” back in their Second City days in 1999, before moving on to SNL.
“I don’t think people realize how much you have to write for yourself [for the show],” says Dratch. She adds that some comics get fired from SNL, not because they’re not funny, but because they never figure out how to write for television, or “they never found that writing partner,” says Dratch.
10 SNL by the numbers
Back when the show debuted in 1975, ‘The Not Ready For Prime Time Players’ were paid $750 per episode. The show’s success going into the second season resulted in salaries being increased to $2000 per episode and then doubling by season four.
By the late '90s, the cast members’ pay was scaled according to how long they’d been on the show (with long-time cast members earning as much as $12,500 per episode and newer cast members earning approximately $4000 per episode, with a $1500 writing credit if one of their sketches made it to the show).
Alec Baldwin recently revealed to the New York Times that he does not write the Trump sketches and makes $1400 per appearance playing the current American president. What a bargain!
9 Least favorite hosts?
Justin Bieber is Bill Hader’s pick for worst host. He says: “I really didn’t enjoy having Justin Bieber around. He’s the only one who lived up to his reputation. I think that’s the only time I felt that way in eight years here.”
Tina Fey called Paris Hilton a "piece of sh*t" on The Howard Stern Show, revealing that when Hilton hosted back in 2005, she asked SNL writers to write a sketch about Jessica Simpson and other celebs she hated.
The writers loathed working with actor Steven Seagal, who was difficult, critical and pitched offensive sketches. SNL staffers reportedly found actor/acquitted murder suspect, Robert Blake, no picnic to work with, either. And in Jay Mohr’s book, Gasping for Airtime, he described comedian Rosanne Barr as a “terrible, bossy and childish host.”
8 Least liked cast members?
The best-liked cast members are: Chris Rock, Bob Odenkirk, Phil Hartman, Adam Sandler, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner. They are all recalled with immense affection by show staffers. And the least liked ones? Joe Piscopo, Eddie Murphy, Janeane Garofalo and Nora Dunn’s names come up, but the one that comes up far more than any other is Chevy Chase.
Chase, an original cast member, is apparently "a viciously effective put-down artist, the sort who could find the one thing somebody was sensitive about—a pimple on the nose, perhaps— and then kid about it, mercilessly." He once slapped Cheri Oteri during rehearsal and told a writer she could give him a "handjob later." Former SNL cast member, Tim Meadows, once said that watching Chevy interact with others was “like watching a car accident over and over again.”
7 Eddie Murphy once PO'd the entire cast
Eddie Murphy was a regular SNL cast member between 1980 and 1984. During his time on the show, Eddie became a huge star—appearing in blockbuster movies, putting out albums of both music and his wildly popular stand-up shows and garnering massive worldwide press attention. And this was while still appearing weekly on SNL. He was the show’s first really big breakout star. In fact, Murphy is the first and only cast member ever to host SNL, while still a cast member. What happened was Nick Nolte—Eddie’s co-star in their film, 48 Hours—was too hungover to perform his scheduled hosting duties, so Eddie stepped in. At the end of Murphy’s opening monologue, he announced: “Live from New York, it’s the Eddie Murphy Show!” Fellow cast members were not pleased.
6 Former President Barack Obama once nixed a skit
SNL paid sweet tribute to outgoing president Barack Obama on its January 22, 2017 episode, with Sasheer Zamata and Cecily Strong singing the famous tune To Sir With Love in front of a picture of him.
The show has always been respectful toward Obama—even his impersonators on the show performed relatively respectful parodies. These parodies always lacked the lampooning bite they skewer most politicians with—so it’s no surprise that Lorne Michaels consulted Obama back in 2007, before running a “TV Funhouse” skit dealing with racism and profiling.
Obama viewed the sketch with Michaels in one of the dressing rooms backstage prior to the show and reportedly told Michaels: "It’s funny, but no, I don’t think so." And that's why Michaels didn’t run the sketch.
5 The "Mom Jeans" sketch was inspired by Tina Fey's 'unfortunate jeans'
We all probably have a pair of ‘mom jeans’ in our closets. Sometimes, we’re actually forced to wear them in public if we’ve not been staying on top of laundry duties and sometimes, complaining to friends about our unflattering denim can result in comedy gold. This is especially true if your friends happen to be amazing comedy writers themselves—which basically is what happened when Tina Fey penned her popular "Mom Jeans" sketch."Mom Jeans" began one day when Fey innocently complained about her unflattering jeans. She says: “I was complaining about my unfortunate jeans with Amy, Maya, and Rachel. Somebody called them mom jeans, and it turned into the [Mom Jeans ad]. Looking back, I’m at my goal weight in that commercial, even though I was wearing padding.”
4 Which cast members are BFFs?
Plenty of SNL cast members have forged lasting friendships. It’s common to make close connections in circumstances where like-minded creative folks share ideas, brainstorm together and perform. Some notable friendships that have emerged from SNL include John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s friendship, which resulted in a few stellar collaborations before Belushi’s untimely death.
Aidy Bryant and fellow castmember Kate McKinnon are supposedly besties, writing and working on sketches together. Bryant says: “Kate [McKinnon] and I are best buds, and we started calling ourselves [Dyke and Fats].” Eventually their terms of affection became a hilarious skit they both performed on the show. Andy Samberg and Seth Meyers are also BFFs, with Andy Samberg revealing the two are “very, very good friends…Seth was groomsman at my wedding.” Sweet!
3 Which two stars almost got into a fistfight backstage and why?
Chevy Chase as a common denominator in backstage drama at SNL strikes again! Maybe there’s something to the rumors about how difficult he is. There are a few rumors that Bill Murray’s occasionally difficult to work with as well, so is it any surprise that bringing these two comedians together would result in conflict?
Bill Murray was Chase’s replacement after leaving the show and when Chase returned to host (being the first former cast member to do so), he was reportedly a nightmare to work with. He apparently shot down script ideas and refused to appear on Weekend Update, among other issues. An hour before the show went live, Murray confronted Chase, who then challenged him to a fist fight. But, Belushi got between them and broke it up.
2 Jason Sudeikis never received a proper send-off from the show
It’s hard to say when Jason Sudeikis left SNL. His last season as a cast member was reportedly the 2012/2013 season and he once told David Letterman that he wouldn’t return—at least not as a cast member. He still makes guest appearances semi-regularly and lately did so as former governor, Mitt Romney.
Sudeikis first joined the show as a featured player on May 7, 2005. He appeared in popular sketches such as “Two A-Holes” with Kristen Wiig. Most cast members of Sudeikis’ stature receive a farewell send-off of some kind from the show (Samberg, Wiig, Hader and Armisen all had some acknowledgment at their departure), but Sudeikis has never received the same honor.
1 How does SNL find comics and writers for the show?
So many cast members from the show’s past have been scouted from comedy troupes such as The Groundlings, Second City and the sketch comedy circuit.
There was also the disastrous 1985-86 season, where Lorne Michaels returned to the show after a five-year absence and casted young movie actors of the time, including Robert Downey Jr., Randy Quaid, Joan Cusack and Anthony Michael Hall. None of them were accustomed to sketch style comedy and that particular season is considered one of the worst SNL seasons ever.
With the advent of social media, SNL producers can now source talent worldwide and have been recently known to hire internet comedy writers. In fact, one of SNL’s newest co-head writers, Sarah Schneider, started out as a content contributor at the College Humor website.