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Ready for Primetime: Why the SNL Casts of the Mid-'00s and Early '10s Were Built for Peak TV

For years, a movie career was the benchmark of post-30 Rock success. Then came Parks and Brooklyn and Ted and Barry.
  • Clockwise: Tina Fey in 30 Rock; Bill Hader in Barry; Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation; Jason Sudeikis in Ted Lasso; Andy Samberg in Brooklyn Nine-Nine
    Clockwise: Tina Fey in 30 Rock; Bill Hader in Barry; Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation; Jason Sudeikis in Ted Lasso; Andy Samberg in Brooklyn Nine-Nine

    Jane Curtin had always been the outlier among the original Saturday Night Live ensemble. Compared to the other Not Ready for Prime Time Players, the New England native was the one possessed of an old-fashioned professionalism, who did her job, did it well, then went home, eschewing the Bacchanalian backstage behavior that formed the foundation of future tell-alls.

    “I sort of stopped going to the after-show parties after the first year, just because they weren’t fun,” she says in James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’ oral history Live From New York. “Those first five years, only Jane amongst the cast really was able to have a total personal life,” writer Rosie Shuster recalls a few pages later. Not that Curtin didn’t make her mark on what became a nearly half-century-old sketch-comedy institution: Her even keel and lethal deadpan made her an ideal foil to the antic stylings of Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner.

    And when it came to choosing post-SNL projects, Curtin was similarly sensible-yet-savvy. “It seems as though with Saturday Night Live, with that kind of enormity to what you were doing, culturally, at least, it seemed as though you would have to go to movies,” she said in a 2015 Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation interview. After all, it’s what Aykroyd, Belushi, Radner, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and frequent host/unofficial cast member Steve Martin all did. For Curtin, however, a stint at 30 Rockefeller Center was enough megastardom for one lifetime. And so, in 1984 — a year whose two top-grossing films, Beverly Hills Cop and Ghostbusters, both starred SNL alumni — she joined Susan St. James to lead the “divorced moms share a big-city apartment” sitcom Kate & Allie.

    “Movie stars at that time, everyone said ‘You have to stay in movies, you have to go and have a career in movies — it’s the only way to do it,’” Curtin told the Academy Foundation. “But I thought, ‘No, I don’t want to. I don’t want people to constantly challenge me. I want to be small on TV. I want to be on that little box.’”

    The choice worked out well for her. Kate & Allie was a Top 20 Nielsen hit in its first four years on the air, became a syndication staple, and earned Curtin two consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. And yet, few of her fellow SNL alumni followed her example. Ellen Cleghorne and Tracy Morgan each headlined a sitcom for a single season after leaving the show; for years, the closest analog to Curtin’s Kate & Allie tenure was Phil Hartman and NewsRadio, a casting coup that arose after Hartman’s attempt to fire up an NBC variety series of his own was extinguished by the network.

    Until quite recently, the customary next step for an SNL star involved taking the leap to a Tommy Boy or an Anchorman. It needn’t be an original concept, either: In the wake of The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World, studios have continually lined up to convert the show’s sketches into films. But a confluence of factors, and a generation of writers and performers whose talents are particularly suited to the small screen, have shifted these winds.

    The Saturday Night Live talent that put the show back in the zeitgeist at the dawn of the Obama administration is now doing for TV what their predecessors once did for film. As Bill Hader’s Barry builds toward its final job, and Ted Lasso looks toward a future without Jason Sudeikis, it’s hard to argue against the impact that a peak era of SNL had on Peak TV. That even includes cast members who struggled to find a foothold during their Studio 8H days: You might not have known Tim Robinson if you tended to tune out after Weekend Update in 2012 and 2013, but you almost certainly recognize his I Think You Should Leave characters as the avatars of various cultural pathologies circa 2023.

    If you’re seeking a good snapshot of the Peak TV boom, look no further than a portrait of Robinson and his Season 38 castmates: Every single person in that photo has been a regular on at least one network, cable, or streaming series within the past six years. Seth Meyers traded Weekend Update for Late Night, taking a few of his signature routines with him. Jay Pharoah was White Famous and Taran Killam was one of the Single Parents. Aidy Bryant did the entirety of Shrill before leaving SNL; Kenan Thompson’s still there, and he managed to do two seasons of an eponymous NBC sitcom along the way.

    How did this happen? Outlets hungry for programming, for one, placing bets on premises like I Love That for You (Vanessa Bayer marries her experience with childhood leukemia and her love of home-shopping TV) and Chad (Nasim Pedrad plays a 14-year-old boy) that might not have seen the light of day in a previous decade. For another: Comedy has been one of the genres hardest hit by a sure-thing-addicted, algorithmically assisted Hollywood, which is primarily pushing its funny movies to streaming — when they’re making funny movies at all. Technically, Pete Davidson represents SNL’s transition from the Wiig-Samberg-Hader period, but his trajectory from Big Time Adolescence to King of Staten Island to Bupkis absolutely fits these trends.

    But I think you can trace the legitimization of the SNL-to-TV pipeline to a series of events that begins in 2006, when Tina Fey opted to follow the hit high-school comedy Mean Girls not with another screenplay, but the pilot for 30 Rock, which wound up being her primary gig for the next seven years. Partway through that run, Amy Poehler left SNL to star in Parks and Recreation, joining her former Update deskmate in a Thursday-night NBC comedy block anchored by 30 Rock and The Office.

    Though the success of Fey’s series was always measured more in Emmy wins and critical accolades than ratings, it reinvigorated Lorne Michaels’ efforts to back TV efforts from the SNL stable; in 2011, the boss’s Broadway Video imprint helped Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein spin their online sketch series ThunderAnt into IFC’s Portlandia.

    2011 was a big year for Armisen and his then-castmates: While he and Brownstein gave early 21st-century hipster culture a gentle ribbing on basic cable, Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis stormed the box office in Bridesmaids and Horrible Bosses, respectively. “They’re both at full power right now,” Michaels told Newsweek in a dual profile published between the films’ releases. It seemed like a new era of Saturday Night Live crossovers was dawning, a rejoinder to the belly flops of two future cult classics capitalizing on late-’00s SNL phenomena: Hot Rod, a one-time Will Ferrell project inherited by the “Lazy Sunday” trio of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone (a.k.a. The Lonely Island), and an adaptation of MacGruber, Taccone’s absurdist riff on MacGyver starring Will Forte.

    But it didn’t play out that way. Wiig’s film career in particular has refused to follow any prescribed paths, never sticking to one budget level or genre for very long, eschewing straight comedy for years at a time. (There were dozens of reasons that Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar arrived like a refreshing coconut-sunscreen-scented breeze, and this is one of them.) Sudeikis, meanwhile, never quite achieved the cinematic leading man status his early roles hinted at, excelling instead at playing broken people in stories that operated in a smaller, stranger register.

    Combined with Samberg’s and Forte’s bumpy roads to the cinema, it looked like Ferrell could very well be the last movie star launched by SNL. Samberg, once a seeming heir apparent to Adam Sandler, flamed out in his first 2012 team-up with The Sandman, That’s My Boy. The duo’s other movie from that year, Hotel Transylvania, fared far better; it’s worth noting that the theatrical fortunes of Samberg’s SNL class were always sunnier in animation. For example, Hader had a hit with Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (co-starring Samberg and Forte), and he had proven something of an exception to the live-action rule in a supporting capacity, scoring laughs as a numbskull cop in Superbad, a chummy ex-stepbrother in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and a studio exec in Tropic Thunder before graduating to “romantic interest on the poster” status in Trainwreck.

    Speaking to Rolling Stone ahead of 30 Rock’s 2013 finale, Alec Baldwin thought back to joining the show after two decades in the movies. “There’s the cliché of, ‘If this doesn’t work, I’m dead,’” he said. “For every Jimmy Spader who goes from movies to TV and scores, there’s ones who it doesn’t work out for, and then it’s tough to dig yourself out of that rut.”

    Given the timing of the article, Baldwin could’ve been addressing Samberg: Less than a year out from his Saturday Night Live departure and That’s My Boy’s failure, the “D*ck in a Box” singer had just signed on to play a different type of dick, in a Fox pilot from the Parks and Rec team of Michael Schur (an SNL veteran himself) and Dan Goor. The show that became Brooklyn Nine-Nine would draw on the goofball charisma Samberg exhibited in Lonely Island shorts, but never depend entirely on those well-honed comedic chops the way star vehicles for Sandler, Eddie Murphy, or Mike Myers once had. The key to Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s longevity and appeal was a well-rounded cast that complemented and exceeded the eccentricities of Samberg’s wannabe super-cop Jake Peralta — or, in the case of Peralta’s fire-and-ice dynamic with precinct captain/father figure Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher), exposed previously unseen layers of vulnerability.

    TV is a team sport: Samberg had come up with one of the most talented squads to ever do it, to which the Brooklyn Nine-Nine provided a worthy successor. As the star of Ted Lasso, Sudeikis takes this ball and runs with it, a metaphor that understands the rules of soccer about as well as Ted does. The character’s fish-out-of-water story gives the series its spine, and his can-do philosophy (and the dangers and limitations thereof) inform its general outlook, but the benefit of its workplace ensemble is that even on SNL, the “Jason Sudeikis type” was hard to nail down. Not chameleonic like Wiig or Hader, nor as gifted at going off the leash as Forte or Samberg, he was more of a Hartman-like “glue,” a conventionally handsome presence who could do the straight bits but still get a little squirrely when the bowl of potato chips or red tracksuit called for it.

    Ted gets his dance moves from Sudeikis’ “What Up With That?” character, and the introduction of the gaffer’s inverse personality, Led Tasso, makes for one of the funnier passages of the show’s first season. But what Ted Lasso affords Sudeikis that most of his marquee roles didn’t is the chance to tap into, at length, the damage Coach Lasso can’t camouflage with a smile and a pop-culture reference. The knack for playing these notes, which emerged in his Sleeping With Other People and Colossal performances, can drag the show into maudlin territory. But there are so many other characters on Ted Lasso to carry the punchlines now — though that widening scope can also shoulder the blame for some of the ongoing third season’s creative valleys and expanding run times. One critic’s growing impatience with the show aside, Ted Lasso deserves credit for pointing the way forward for Sudeikis’ career: Give him some people to lead, but let him portray some flaws, too.

    It’s funny, then, that when Will Forte finally found a post-SNL project that clicked with his peculiar sensibility, it appeared that Forte and Forte alone would be responsible for fulfilling the promise of its premise. The Last Man on Earth remains one of the most audacious pilots ever aired by an American broadcast network, 20 minutes of an increasingly shaggy Forte making conversation with sporting goods and rummaging through the ruins of a civilization decimated by a viral outbreak, punctuated by the reveal that he’s not as alone as he thinks he is. That something so odd was briefly a minor hit for Fox could be attributed to the guidance of executive producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller — then best known for their Midas touch with questionable concepts like The Lego Movie, the 21 Jump Street movies, and the aforementioned Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs — but you can’t discount how deeply in Forte’s sweet spot Last Man was. Centered on an unlikable doofus navigating a heightened universe, the show was like a sitcom version of the riskier, sillier sketches the actor once rocketed into the stratosphere during the closing minutes of SNL.

    The Last Man on Earth wasn’t built to last, but it was a harbinger of TV things to come from SNL cast members who were the kings and queens of the so-called “10-to-1” spot. Robinson’s Detroiters and I Think You Should Leave operate almost entirely on this bughouse wavelength, while Armisen, Hader, and Meyers’ Documentary Now! is made up of a film-dork hyperspecificity that would only fly on a network show after most of the audience has gone to sleep. Hader recently called it “the personification of Peak TV, ” a television age that catered to this crew’s creative whims, allowing Cecily Strong to riff on a full spectrum of musical-theater styles in Schmigadoon! and granting Forte, Wiig, and Taccone a second shot at MacGruber, this time as a Peacock series.

    Barry is the ultimate expression of this mode, a tonal tightrope walk that’s become increasingly, delightfully untethered from reality as Hader’s filmmaking ambitions have come to the fore. Following the head trip of “ronny/lily” or that miraculous highway chase in “710N,” you can’t fault him for wanting to try his hand at directing a feature next — though the way the world and characters of Barry have filled in around Hader’s titular hitman-turned-aspiring actor, it’s hard not to wish that he’d stay in television for a little while longer.

    It’s no secret that Barry is inspired by its creator’s Saturday Night Live hitch, going metaphorical where 30 Rock went semi-autobiographical: Hader has been candid about the anxiety and panic attacks that plagued him before SNL broadcasts. Through the character of Barry Berkman, he found an expression of that ordeal. “We both thought the idea of somebody who was incredibly naturally gifted at something that they didn’t love doing was an interesting internal struggle, the struggle of like, ‘Oh, well he should be a killer because he is great at it, but it’s eating him up,'” co-creator Alec Berg told The Hollywood Reporter in 2022.

    Those negative associations clearly don’t extend to the people he worked alongside at SNL: The Documentary Now! cast was essentially just Hader and Armisen for the show’s first two seasons, and he made a memorable appearance as part of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s revolving door of replacement captains. It’s fitting that Barry Berkman could picture a better version of himself among a company of players — the ensemble spirit of Saturday Night Live at its best fuels the standout TV efforts from the cast that gave us Stefon, “I Just Had Sex,” and the timeless country hits of Clancy T. Bachleratt and Jackie Snad.

    It’s a defining trait of the series and its stars that colors even the résumé of a lone wolf like Jane Curtin. Reflecting on the making of the Coneheads movie in her Academy Foundation interview, Curtin zeroes in on one member of the film’s cross-generational troupe of SNL performers and writers: she says screenwriter and producer Bonnie Turner was “the only other adult I could sit with with a cone on my head and have a conversation with.” A couple years later, Turner and her husband Terry were in a jam with their new pilot, a Coneheads-esque sitcom for NBC. So she phoned up Curtin, who agreed to appear in the reshot premiere episode, but didn’t want to commit to the full series.

    When the network picked up 3rd Rock From the Sun, the intention was for Curtin’s character, the anthropologist Dr. Mary Albright, to appear in only seven episodes. But by the time those episodes were up, she found she’d fallen for Dr. Albright, the show’s zany comedy, and playing opposite John Lithgow’s extraterrestrial-in-disguise Dick Solomon. And so she stuck around for a full six seasons, joining 3rd Rock’s larger, intergalactic TV family — which, inevitably, included a number of her 30 Rock compatriots.

    Erik Adams is a writer and editor living in Chicago.