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In interviews after the Emmy Awards and with The New York Times, Michaels noted that in normal times, the likes of Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant and Pete Davidson might have left SNL in 2020 or 2021 to pursue other work.
“The pandemic had put us in this position where no one could really leave because there were no jobs,” Michaels told the Times, echoing his post-Emmys comments that there “was no place to go” for long-serving castmembers who might otherwise have left beforehand.
Regardless of the cause, Saturday’s 48th season opener will be the first show after one of the largest cast shake-ups in its history. The series did a near-total overhaul prior to the 1985-86 season, and a similar one in 1995 — three years before one of this season’s new additions, Marcello Hernandez, was born.
Eight members of last season’s ensemble — repertory players Bryant, Davidson, McKinnon, Alex Moffat, Kyle Mooney, Chris Redd and Melissa Villaseñor and featured performer Aristotle Athari — left SNL between seasons. Hernandez, Molly Kearney, Michael Longfellow and Devon Walker are joining the show. That net loss of four performers is the biggest change to the size of the cast in almost a decade.
Following season 38 in 2013, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis departed, and featured player Tim Robinson moved to the writers room. Seth Meyers left midway through the 2013-14 season, as he was about to take over NBC’s Late Night.
Those exits were countered by a whopping eight additions over the course of season 39: Beck Bennett, Mooney, Mike O’Brien, John Milhiser, Noël Wells and Brooks Wheelan joined the show in the fall, Sasheer Zamata came aboard in January, and head writer Colin Jost made his debut as “Weekend Update” anchor in March, following Meyers’ exit.
Even with those big changes, however, the 2013-14 season had less turnover than happened in 1995, when nine members of the season 20 cast — including Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley and Kevin Nealon — left and only five people (Norm Macdonald, Mark McKinney, Tim Meadows, Molly Shannon and David Spade) returned to begin the 21st season. They were joined by nine newcomers, most notably Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, Cheri Oteri and Chris Kattan (who debuted in the spring of 1996), who would become core members of the cast into the turn of the century.
The current exodus is the largest since then — with one key difference. Last season, SNL had a 21-member cast, one more than the previous season and the largest ensemble in its history. In the 10 seasons prior to 2020-21, the show had 15 performers on average. With the four featured performers coming in, SNL will have 17 castmembers to open the 2022-23 season. Even with the wholesale changes in 1995, the cast never had more than 14 people that season.
The rate of attrition has also been slow in recent seasons, a trend that started even before the pandemic. The eight departures this year is one more than the total for the previous five; that compares to 16 in the five years before that. The numbers support Michaels’ notion that some more regular attrition might have otherwise occurred the past two seasons were it not for the pandemic.
Michaels has also been more flexible about giving castmembers time off SNL in recent years —particularly as it relates to other shows he produces. Bryant (Hulu’s Shrill) and Cecily Strong (Apple TV+’s Schmigadoon!) both took a hiatus while working on those series, and Kenan Thompson and Redd were away at times during rehearsals while filming the NBC comedy Kenan during the past two seasons. Michaels is an executive producer of all three series. McKinnon also missed some episodes last season while filming Peacock’s Joe vs. Carole, which didn’t involve Michaels but is part of the NBCUniversal family.
Now, with the industry having mostly returned to normal, the exodus from SNL will be what Michaels has called a “transition year.” Longtime players like Thompson, Strong, Mikey Day and Heidi Gardner, along with “Weekend Update” anchors Michael Che and Jost, will provide continuity, but when the lights go up at 11:30 p.m. ET Saturday, the scrutiny of how SNL handles its latest overhaul will too.
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