Actors Turned Down By SNL Who Are Now Huge Stars

Saturday Night Live is the undisputed Mecca of American television comedy. For more than four decades, through the good years and the bad, it has survived, invulnerable, like a primetime cockroach or a sketch comedy tardigrade or some other invulnerable McNasty.

It sets trends. It informs dialogues. And, unbeknownst to many, it occasionally misses the boat in a big way when it comes to casting decisions. Over the years, hundreds of performers have had the chance to audition for SNL. Since it's the place to be for comedy's best and brightest, the vast majority of those people are remarkably talented individuals. And since there are limited spaces on the cast, not all of them make it onto the show.

But this is America, the land of second chances, and being turned down by SNL doesn't have to mean the end of somebody's career. A lot of the time, the rejects go on to become enormous celebrities, no doubt leaving the suits at NBC kicking themselves. Here are a few big names that never had the chance to hear Don Pardeau announce them on a weekly basis.

WTF wouldn't you hire Marc Maron?

At this point, the odds are good that you've heard of WTF, one of the most popular podcasts of all time, but for a long stretch there, the struggle was real for the show's host, Marc Maron. Coming up in the Los Angeles comedy scene during the '80s and '90s, many of Maron's contemporaries blew up in gigantic ways before anyone even knew who he was. He worked with people like Sam Kinison and Patton Oswalt, then moved to New York to try and make the big time.

In 1995, he auditioned for SNL. Throw a dart at a transcript of an episode of Marc Maron's WTF podcast and there's a pretty good chance you'll hit a sentence where he's talking about getting shot down by Lorne Michaels. It haunted the GLOW star for decades before he finally interviewed Michaels on his show. After all that time spent wondering what went wrong in his audition, it turned out that there wasn't really a reason — Michaels just didn't think he was a good fit. There's a lesson there somewhere.

That was childish

Donald Glover has rapidly become one of the most prolific stars in Hollywood, and with good reason: There isn't much he can't do. He's an actor (Community, Solo: A Star Wars Story) writer/showrunner (Atlanta, and a Deadpool animated series that got axed before it aired), musician (see Gambino, Childish), and stand-up comic. Before you'd probably even heard of him, Glover was performing sketches with Derrick Comedy, the people behind Mystery Team, and working as a writer on 30 Rock. According to Tina Fey's autobiography, Bossypants, his specialty was writing dialogue for Kenneth the page.

With such a varied skill set, it's surprising to hear that anyone would turn down the chance to work with Glover, but then, live TV is all about surprises. He auditioned for SNL twice but was turned down. Is he bitter? That's an issue that he addressed pretty beautifully during his monologue when he hosted the show in April 2018. He said he's pissed, but between that charming smile and the fact that he's rich, he's probably good.

At least he still has the NBC page program

From humble beginnings in Macon, Georgia, Jack McBrayer's slew of naive Southern characters has made him a fan favorite in both movies and television. The comedian's childish charm is hard to ignore, and he's appeared in nearly 100 films and shows over the past two decades, according to IMDb. His big hits, of course, were as Kenneth Ellen Parcell on 30 Rock and as a recurring character on Conan O'Brien's various programs.

What you might not know about McBrayer is that his comedy chops go way back. He attended and worked at Second City in 1995, where he'd eventually meet Tina Fey. A few years later, he felt ready for the big time and auditioned for SNL on the same day as Seth Meyers in 2001. He might not have conquered late night the way Meyers did, but he'll always have Triumph the Insult Comic Dog to keep his spirits up.

With friends like these

In some instances, it's all about the long game. Lisa Kudrow was performing with the Groundlings when she was made aware that Saturday Night Live was eyeing her troupe for new talent. Although she was told the producers liked her, they made the decision to go with another member of her performance ensemble: Julia Sweeney. Kudrow was passed up, and nobody ever heard from her again.

No, not really. She went on to a successful career in hit movies like Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, hundreds of episodes of the internet series Web Therapy, and of course, played Phoebe Buffay on Friends and made enough money to buy you and everyone you've ever loved. Sweeney, meanwhile, made It's Pat.

Odd bonus fact: The opposite happened to Kudrow's Friends co-star Jennifer Aniston. She was offered a spot on SNL and turned it down, deciding to try a quirky new sitcom about people being there for each other despite it not being their day, their week, their month, or even their year. That's worth clapping for four times in quick succession.

Cross examination

There's this quote from Lorne Michaels that's been making the rounds for years. It's brought up in his Marc Maron interview and his episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Referring to alt-comedy, Michaels once famously said, "I don't know what you think you're doing down below 14th Street, but it doesn't matter." Oof.

With that in mind, it might not be so shocking that David Cross was turned down for a spot on SNL in a major way. According to an interview with Michael Cera, he was running a sketch comedy group called Cross Comedy that was brought in to showcase for Saturday Night Live and, well, they blue it.

Even still, Cross went on to co-create HBO's Mr. Show and its spiritual successor, W/ Bob & David on Netflix, and his portrayal of Tobias Funke on Arrested Development will, God willing, be the first transmission that aliens receive from planet Earth. He also did three Alvin and the Chipmunks movies because everybody needs beer money.

Especially heinous

There's a lot that you might not know about Richard Belzer. Sure, you've seen him play Detective John Munch on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, but did you know he's cousins with Henry Winkler, aka The Fonz? Or that he's authored no fewer than three books on conspiracy theories from UFOs to the Kennedy assassination? Were you even aware that he started out his career as a stand-up comic?

It's all true. Belzer moved to New York in the early '70s to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian. Apparently he did pretty well for himself, because he started to get in with the big names in the city at the time, winding up on the National Lampoon stage show with folks like Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, and John Belushi. If you're playing a game of "one of these things is not like the other," you're not the only one: Belzer is apparently still pretty angry that he didn't wind up on Saturday Night Live. He swears up and down that Lorne Michaels promised him a part on the show but later changed his mind. Belzer's made a few appearances on the show, but the bad blood seems to live on.

You have to wonder if he screamed really loud

The old saying goes that without the winds of adversity, the mighty oak might never grow deep roots. This is an apt description of trees, and truly, of Hollywood's most iconic treasure, Pee-wee Herman. It almost goes without saying that he would likely respond to such a metaphor with a prompt, moving retort of "I know you are, but what am I?"

Paul Reubens has had a roller coaster of a career. His most popular creation, Pee-wee Herman, was a jumping-off point for Tim Burton's work in feature films, and he's appeared in such movies as Buffy the Vampire Hunter and Mystery Men, the latter of which you desperately need to watch before you die. And it all came from spite.

In a 2007 interview, Reubens talked about trying out for SNL during the '80s and being rejected. He said he was furious, and realized he needed to start working harder if he was ever going to be noticed. The result? A live show that turned into Pee-wee's Playhouse.

(And yes, unfortunately, there was that whole indecent exposure thing back in the '90s. Is it time to let that go? High-speed internet didn't exist yet, he did his penance, and everyone has bad days.)

An unfortunate report

Colbert, man. The late-night world is lucky to have him. SNL would've been lucky to have him, too, but that's the way it goes.

The host of The Late Show didn't start out as comedy royalty. The youngest of 11 siblings, he grew up in South Carolina and majored in theater at Northwestern University before moving to Chicago to study comedy at Second City. He was a broke comic when SNL came calling in 1992. Colbert hasn't said much about the audition except that he (obviously) wasn't hired.

The silver lining? That audition got him noticed by Robert Smigel, a veteran Saturday Night Live writer who would later work as a head writer on the short-lived but quite popular series The Dana Carvey Show. Smigel hired Colbert for that. His run on The Dana Carvey Show begat a job on The Daily Show, begat The Colbert Report, begat The Late Show with You-Know-Who, which will beget Colbert eventually just being on every channel all the time, we have to assume.

In retrospect, not the worst choice

Some celebrities reach a point of ubiquitous acclaim so impressive that it can be hard to imagine them as being anything short of immensely successful. So it was with Louis CK, at least, you know, until recently.

Back in 1993, Louis was another broke comic just trying to get noticed. He managed to get onto a Saturday Night Live audition at New York comedy institution Catch A Rising Star. Alongside him? Sarah Silverman, Jay Mohr, Laura Kightlinger, and Dave Attell. For the non-TV nerds in the crowd, those all wound up being people that got jobs at SNL that year. All except Louis.

What he did get out of the audition was his first TV writing job. From there, CK found his comedy voice and slowly crept his way up the rungs of success, eventually starring in two TV shows and making appearances in dozens of others. He's voiced animated characters, written and directed feature films, put out multiple stand up specials, and even hosted Saturday Night Live four times.

Also, he's a giant creep.

He would've carried the show

There was a time in America it was nigh impossible to go a whole day without seeing Jim Carrey's grinning, elastic face. Throughout the '90s and early '00s, he starred in a dozen movies that topped $100 million at the box office. He was the over-the-top Riddler in Batman Forever, the over-the-top Grinch in How The Grinch Stole Christmas, the over-the-top cable guy in The Cable Guy, and, turning on a dime, the almost upsettingly accurate Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. For close to a decade, Carrey was a rich vein of box office gold, and SNL let him go like an undersized trout.

Back in 1980, an 18-year-old Carrey auditioned for Saturday Night Live with a ridiculous amount of energy and commitment to character. No word on why he wasn't cast, but you can bet the execs at NBC were smacking themselves with their stunted, post-nuclear Elvis hands in the years that followed.