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Why isn’t Saturday Night Live making major movie stars anymore?

How the machine that vaulted Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, and so many others to stardom has faltered

Graphic grid featuring Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Tina Fey, Adam Sandler, Amy Poehler, and a big question mark in the middle Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

The new Apple TV Plus show Ted Lasso stars Jason Sudeikis playing a character he first developed in a series of sketch-like videos for NBC Sports. The show is funny and likable, satisfying in part because it gives Sudeikis an unexpectedly warm outlet for his affable-enthusiast persona. It also marks his return to regular television work after getting his start on Saturday Night Live and making a successful transition to films, like so many Saturday Night Live cast members before him.

But not, as it turns out, like so many SNL cast members after him. Sudeikis started performing on SNL around the same time as Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, and Kristen Wiig, who all went on to substantial movie careers. None of them reached the heights of Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler. Samberg hasn’t notched a single theatrical hit, unless you count the animated Hotel Transylvania movies, where he contributes a vocal performance (seemingly invited by Sandler, his cohort in the 2012 flop That’s My Boy). But while Samberg hasn’t made a movie as popular as Wiig’s Bridesmaids or Sudeikis’ We’re the Millers, he still gets to star in them occasionally, whether it’s the flop-turned-cult-item Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping or the direct-to-Hulu Palm Springs, which debuted to great reviews and an allegedly sizable audience in July.

Compare the reception of Palm Springs, one of the best movies of 2020 so far, to that of Desperados, a romantic comedy starring talented SNL alum Nasim Pedrad. It premiered on Netflix around the same time that Palm Springs hit Hulu, and it will probably be seen by a fair number of people just by virtue of being another shiny, low-effort Netflix comedy. Unfortunately, it’s a shoddy first starring vehicle for Pedrad, tamping down her weirdness into generic taking-things-too-far rom-com antics. It’s a showcase that seems to have been granted carelessly, the kind of Netflix Content that probably wouldn’t get a shot at any studio producing fewer than 30 movies a year.

Andy Samburg spits a spray of beer into the air while lying on his back in Palm Springs.
Andy Samburg in Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

Pedrad’s tenure on SNL overlapped with Samberg, Sudeikis, Wiig, and Hader’s, and she left the show in 2014, only a few years after they did. But the line was drawn around 2010, the point where SNL cast members stopped consistently graduating to their own starring vehicles. Even the exceptions to an overall lack of movies showcasing SNL stars feel like they circle back to proving the rule. Kate McKinnon co-starred in a new Ghostbusters with fellow alumni Wiig and Leslie Jones, but it wasn’t a major financial success, nor were her turns in The Spy Who Dumped Me or Rough Night.

And if the best-known SNL performer of the past decade or so can’t make the transition to solo film vehicles, it’s hard to picture Vanessa Bayer, Cecily Strong, Beck Bennett, Jay Pharoah, or Aidy Bryant doing the same. Pete Davidson got a shot this year when he starred in The King of Staten Island, positioned as Universal’s big summer comedy before the pandemic moved it to a VOD release. But Judd Apatow apparently isn’t able to co-write and direct a two-and-a-half-hour semi-autobiographical dramedy for every SNL cast member, and that seems to be the wattage now needed to power that particular spotlight.

In the past, some cast members were ushered into hit movies with the in-house support of SNL czar Lorne Michaels. After the success of Wayne’s World, Michaels had designs on producing just about any movies that his employees made during breaks from the show, both sketch-character spinoffs like The Ladies Man and Superstar, and formally unrelated but SNL-heavy Paramount comedies like Mean Girls and Hot Rod. In retrospect, the flop spinoff (turned cult film, turned upcoming TV series) MacGruber seems like a turning point; it even came out during the unofficial transition year of 2010. Since then, Michaels has still dipped into features, but productions like Brother Nature (a Taran Killam/Bobby Moynihan team-up) and Staten Island Summer (a Colin Jost-penned coming-of-age film) were barely released in theaters, and feel like desperate simulations of other, better comedies.

a man walks two children to school
Pete Davidson in King of Staten Island
Photo: Universal Pictures

Michaels isn’t exactly a storied big-screen comedy producer, but he isn’t alone in failing to notch major hits over the past decade. Big studios have been backing away from comedies in general, as audiences get more of their comedy kick from superhero movies and cartoons. Still, SNL stars should theoretically be well-positioned to weather a downturn in studio comedies; the show is as visible as ever. It doesn’t garner the same blockbuster election-year attention every season, but its ratings are steady, and the chance to share sketches online has made for an easy adaptation to contemporary digital media.

In fact, it may be that the same accessibility and shareability that helps the show stay viral has also stalled its progress as a movie-star machine. In a way, any current SNL figures with designs on big movies have Samberg to blame. While he appeared in plenty of traditional sketches, the material that really got him noticed were his Digital Shorts with his Lonely Island collaborators. Though plenty of other SNL cast members appeared in these re-recorded song-segments, the Digital Shorts felt like Samberg and company’s show-within-a-show, especially when they could be shared as discrete sketches online.

The “Digital Shorts” moniker was retired when the Lonely Island crew left the show, but the show’s fragmentation remains. The cast has been on the larger side for most of the past decade, and it sometimes feels composed of several different casts. Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett, for example, do videos similar to the Digital Shorts, in that they have a particular recurring tone and creative team, and they’re arguably more sequestered from the rest of the show. It’s hard to remember an instance where, say, Pete Davidson interacted with Mooney in a meaningful way.

This should make the SNL crew even easier to spin off into films; they’re already operating in their own little silos, a structure that was built out further by necessity in the three “SNL at Home” episodes that closed out the season post-pandemic. And that kind of brand extension has happened on occasion: Brigsby Bear is essentially Kyle Mooney’s more sensitive, feature-length version of the junk-culture awkwardness he produces in five-minute chunks. The King of Staten Island is practically a spinoff of Davidson’s Weekend Update bits, which are essentially intimate stand-up sets in miniature. Reproducing the qualities that make performers pop on SNL is a major reason they’ve been given film vehicles in the first place. But with so many of them essentially already playing solos on the show, the mystique of what it would be like to see individual actors assume center stage is diminished.

Mark Hamill hugs Kyle Mooney inside a geodesic dome in Brigsby Bear
Kyle Mooney and Mark Hamill in Brigsby Bear
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

In the past, that mystique could be diminished just as quickly by those actual star vehicles. Who thinks back with fondness on the magic of Dana Carvey in Opportunity Knocks, or Chris Kattan in Corky Romano? Nonetheless, for fans of those performers, those films represented a rare chance at some extra Carvey or bonus Kattan. Newer SNL players indulge in less Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers-style scarcity. They’re more open to side projects, cameos, and personal larks.

Sudeikis, for example, has played the lead in many studio comedies, while also doing smaller, more distinctive fare like Colossal and Sleeping with Other People, obscure and melancholy indies like Kodachrome and Tumbledown, and smaller parts in movies like Downsizing and Booksmart. Now he’s returned to TV with no shame, to further develop a character he helped create. Wiig has done more than a dozen movies since Bridesmaids hit big, but only a handful have seemed like any kind of actual follow-up to a star-making role — the rest have been indies and supporting parts. It wouldn’t be a shock to see her as a series regular within a year or two.

All this may just add up to SNL cast members doing a greater variety of smaller-scale projects, during and after their time on the show. (It’s also worth noting that the tenure for a successful cast member now typically lasts seven or eight years, rather than the three-to-five range of earlier seasons.) Better to enjoy a season of Ted Lasso than to suffer through the Mikey Day version of Clean Slate. (This goes double with the future of actual movie theaters currently uncertain.)

Yet Palm Springs shows that a sketch comedian’s sensibility can be transferred, intact, to new projects that nonetheless don’t play exactly like comedy sketches stretched to the breaking point. Palm Springs is of a piece with Samberg’s Lonely Island material, while featuring his best overall work as an actor. It belongs in the substantial filmography of enjoyable star-vehicle comedies that probably wouldn’t have happened without SNL: Groundhog Day, Anchorman, Bridesmaids, The Wedding Singer, Dirty Work, Bowfinger, and more. Nasim Pedrad — or Cecily Strong, or Tim Meadows, or Heidi Gardner — may well find another TV show or killer supporting role. But the modern history of movie comedies suggests that it might be a richer environment if they can find their way to bigger screens someday.