With the news that both long-time cast members Bill Hader and Fred Armisen are leaving the show, I got to thinking about what in the world the cast was going to do without them. Who was going to step up and take these two impossible-to-fill spots? Armisen's off-the-wall character work, Hader's mastery of impressions, they're not easy to replace. You're not losing a powerhouse like Ferrell, but you're losing something incredibly vital, like a Darrell Hammond or Mike Myers.
Instead, the article that popped into my head was, with a show like SNL, one that's been around so long and established so many careers, you're bound to get quite a few surprising names of people who never were cast members. Over the years, it's actually become quite an impressive list. I wanted to see if I could compile a really great group from over the years, but once I get a point of view in my head, it's hard to veer from that. Here's the pattern I noticed:
- My cast is mostly 90s and early 2000s. There's some exceptions, and I don't know that the cast could have existed altogether as a sort of "alternate universe alternative", but that's what I was mostly going for.
- The cast skews much more musical than most of the real casts. We've been lucky at all to get one really good singer in an entire ensemble for any given season.
- I also enjoyed the "overfull" casts of my childhood, in terms of quantity and quality, so my choices, and the number of choices, reflect that.
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First off, I wanted the cast to be anchored by two comic forces:
Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert fit the bill. There's never really been a comic pair to take the SNL screen. You had some pretty good pairings with Fallon and Sans, Ferrell and Hammond, and of course Sandler and Farley. But you kind of just threw these pairings together because they were the strongest. Now with Carell and Colbert, you have something unique. The two play off each other extremely well. Imagine them doing something like Even Stephven for Update. Then imagine them in sketches on top of that. Carell's quiet charm, Colbert's unstoppable shamelessness, and the combined ability to hold it together (as well as their ability to not look like they're reading off the cards). I'd like to think that The Office and The Colbert Report both happen because of their stints on SNL.
It's hard to explain the necessity of a highly physical performer who can pull off self-aware obliviousness like Chevy Chase until you lack one, and SNL has never really been able to find one. That's where Matthew Perry would come in.
It'd be hard to imagine the turn of the century without Friends, but it could likely have run simultaneously (and henceforth not had such a lengthy run, past its prime). Perry could do it all: sarcasm, the look to the camera, the sly wit, plus the pratfall. All the Friends could do it, actually, but I just saw Perry fitting in with this cast the most.
Imagine Perry filling up the Kevin Nealon spot on the show, with a touch of David Spade's stand-offishness, but he's got this unknowable charm that many SNL performers give off but you don't know why.
I could see many sketches revolving around Perry's nonplussed reactions to the "fools" of the cast.
To offset Perry's Spade-like deadpan, I imagined Jack Black filling the Chris Farley role. Just a ball of energy, a wild abandon, and somewhat unpredictable. Black is also a great character actor. He's also not a bad singer himself, adding to the musicality of the show (which we'll get into more below). Black may have started as a feature player for this cast but the energy and talent is quickly recognized. Imagine seeing a precursor to Nacho Libre or a Super Mario Bros. parody from a young Black.
And speaking of balls of energy... Jim Carrey auditioned for SNL, didn't make it, and wound up finding amazing success with the sketch show In Living Color. But imagine what could have been, right? Pure energy, Carrey's elastic face, rubber voice, and unrivaled physicality, he would've been something unheard of on the show, something best left to the more absurdist Monty Python, or Korman and Van Dyke on The Carol Burnett Show. There's no way Carrey would've been kept on the show too long. Like Eddie Murphy, his star would've been just too big to contain.
Gravitas that could only be brought by a seasoned pro like Phil Hartman did for the show during the tenure of an unwieldy cast is what Martin would be doing for this cast. With energy and edge ruling the roost, Martin could bring it all down for a moment's pause with a wordless sightgag, or an off-kilter monologue from a slightly surreal character of his own.
Martin is Kaufman and Hartman combined. And I'd like to think he is a major help in the writers' room too.
A controversial choice for some, but many many people forget how truly funny Dane Cook is. The episode he hosted was actually one of the strongest of that season. Cook's style and delivery would've propelled him into a prominent spot as a Jason Sudeikis type figure on the show, often playing lackadaisical authority figures, sarcastic observers, or tongue-in-cheek straight men to the insanity around him. Given the right writers around him and the proper sketches, Cook would've been propelled into a similar stand-up career post-SNL, though I don't know how monumental it could've gotten compared to a filled-stadium stand-up special.
Another controversial choice for some, but I have always loved Stephen Lynch. In the same vein as Adam Sandler and Jimmy Fallon, you need a guitar-playing fool, and Lynch more than fits the bill. I would also argue his musical comedy stylings are more interesting, and his voice is much easier to listen to than Sandler. Granted, he lacks Fallon's musical impressions, but Lynch need not worry about that in this cast.
I think it helps to have a real "big guy" on the show, and with Black taking up the Farley role, there isn't really a spot for a Sanz or a Moynihan, but Mike McShane would've been a different kind of energy. He could be big and loud sure, but during his time with the British Whose Line is it Anyway? he was a gentle giant. He could play sweet, soft-spoken cowboys, innocent school children, and maybe even the voice of a pair of acrobatic insects.
Rounding out the repertory men who weren't hired primarily as singers or impressionists, you have the underrated Paul Reubens. Reubens failed to click with producers and went on to create Pee-Wee Herman and his Playhouse, but imagine if that creation had been born of a "death spot" sketch, similar to Wayne's World. Reubens would have been a fantastic addition. And Pee-Wee's Playhouse rounding out the show every night would've been too fun. Imagine the whole Playhouse screaming the iconic opening line of the show, because it's the secret word.
Add to that the fact that the Playhouse characters would have to be played by members of this cast... Jim Carrey as Jambi... Jack Black as Chairry...
SNL's female cast has always been incredibly important, and I'd argue the strongest group of females on TV, anywhere. It was also incredibly difficult to compile this part of the list because when you think about many of the funniest women on TV or in movies today, they were all from SNL: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig...
Three of the amazing ladies on the original MadTV are my first picks to head the female contingent on the show. The inaugural seasons would've given SNL a run for their money in terms of female star power. Besides Alex Borstein, Nicole Sullivan, and Debra Wilson, you also had Mo Collins, and these four ladies were ridiculous. I have a different choice for Mo Collins, but I love her no less. I just saw Borstein and Wilson able to handle almost all of the impressions and then Sullivan being a much more capable Victoria Jackson, as in playing the dumb blondes but also capable of some great impressions unexpectedly, like Abby Elliott.
I tried to think of someone like Rachel Dratch, just that sense of abandon, along with Gilda Radner herself, and I could only think of one woman: The State's Kerri Kenney-Silver.
The State is an 11-man sketch ensemble. I should say, 10-man, and 1 woman. And before a cry of sexism echoes out, I need only say that Kerri Kenney was the only woman The State ever needed. Watch her there, watch her on Reno 911! and you will understand what I mean. Kenney is a force to be reckoned with. Unbelievably versatile, strong, and not afraid to push limits. Kenney could have done it again on SNL, and been the only woman, but I am happy to surround her with equally capable comics of her caliber.
Chief among them, Amy Sedaris. Amy, who broke out with her Comedy Central show Strangers with Candy, is Amy Poehler and Laraine Newman all in one. She's this tiny, unpredictable force, with strong characters and stronger timing. She easily could have fallen into a Wiig-like role on the show, or at the very least, Cheri Oteri.
And rounding out the female cast for now, another Friends alumni, in the wildly funny Lisa Kudrow. It's funny to imagine that both she and Aniston auditioned for SNL, and rather inexplicable (in her case, anyway) why she didn't land the show. But then we might not have gotten Phoebe Buffay. But Kudrow's antics and brainless (almost selfish) characters would've been a welcome addition to the roster for this SNL dream cast.
These two are initially hired to bring more music to the show, in addition to their quick wits and personalities.
Between Jane Lynch's effortless comedic timing and Wayne Brady's ability to parody pretty much any music act you can think of, the door opens for more musical-based sketches, as well as a whole gallery of untapped impressions. Lynch is my replacement for not bringing in Mo Collins, and while Brady fills in the "token black guy" of the cast, he's astoundingly more than capable than any of the black guys that have ever appeared on the show, save for one: Eddie Murphy, and Murphy doesn't have Brady's voice.
But just imagine what these two would've been like on the show. I think Brady, who I find enormously funny, would've been much more effective in sketch over improv, and Lynch would've found precursors to Coach Sylvester as well as some of her other memorable characters.
The Feature Players
Whether because of their youth or part-time schedule, these guys appear less frequently, but some of them could break out to be big stars later on.
One more golden voice stands out among the feature players, in Justin Timberlake. In reality, Timberlake, who hosts frequently and cameos once in a while, brings up the energy of the cast considerably. Not initially considered a comedian, and probably initially written off post-N*Sync, Timberlake has proven his staying power and likeability. I feel like with the early setting of this cast he would be mostly unproven, hence his feature status.
I can't imagine the world without The Simpsons, so I imagine that they find a way to keep him on both, hence why this cast features Hank Azaria. Azaria, who would've been notable at this time for stealing the show in Birdcage, would've been a master impressionist too, filling in the spot before Carrey takes the spot full-time, and the rest of the cast manages to branch out. Azaria would've been a capable feature player, I feel brought in like Timberlake, to raise the energy.
And to counter upbeat energy from Timberlake and Azaria, I was always a fan of Kids in the Hall alumnus, Dave Foley. We'd be lacking David Spade on these SNL seasons, and with Perry filling in more leading man roles, you still need an acerbic sidekick for the drier observations. Foley is that and more.What more can be said? Watch his episodes of Scrubs to understand what I mean.
To round out the feature players, I wanted to dip into the All That pool. I hesitated to pick Amanda Bynes with her recent troubles, plus she would've been just too young at this point, and my original idea was to take both Vital Information hosts, but then I remembered one unforgettable performer from the show. So I finally went with Lori-Beth Denberg and Nick Cannon.
Denberg is an underrated member of the All That cast, but I think she would've proven more than capable featuring with this cast. Vital Information of course is unforgettable, and she would've found even more iconic niches to carve on SNL. As for Cannon, from the moment he started on that show, it was obvious he was meant for something more. He's always been a dynamic comic performer, and on this show, he would've thrived. He's Kenan with more versatility, he's Chris Rock with more accessibility.
The Head Writer
Going along with the rough-house cast, and wanting a more social and cultural commentary throughout the show, I tried to think of a writer who could pull sketches together in a short amount of time, and sustain momentum over a surprising amount of time. Only one show has run with that kind of momentum and continued edge without the criticism of decline in quality that The Simpsons has suffered. That show is South Park. And I cheated a bit on head writer choice, because it's two head writers, in Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Imagine a cast that includes a young Carrey, an even younger Jack Black, Paul Reubens, the MadTV girls, and Sedaris, all reined in by the comic duo behind one of TV's most consistently funny animated shows? I guess reined in wouldn't be the right phrase. Let loose or cut loose would be better. Parker and Stone would've made SNL straddle every line. They would've been the reason MadTV ended after a season or two and those girls were brought into the cast. SNL would've been every sketch show to us, MadTV, Flying Circus, The State, and Kids in the Hall all in one.
And finally.... Who's behind the Update Desk?
I really had to think hard about this. I dug deep. Colbert and Carell would've featured on Update, neither would've developed their news personas yet, because in this timeline they weren't on Daily Show. I wanted someone that would be reflective of Parker and Stone's style and humor, while still being somewhat believable as a news anchor. I thought about my favorite Weekend Update anchors, Norm MacDonald, who was far too out-of-character, but funny as hell, and Dennis Miller, who epitomized that role and made it so, so important, as well as very hard to fill. Now for the most part, this cast replaces the Miller era, so we don't have that template to go on. But we want someone who can sustain a solo act, offer bite in his commentary, sarcastic, but somewhat believable as a parody news anchor? I finally could only think of one man. And how I wish his sign-off line could be, "This has been Weekend Update, I'm Denis Leary, I hope you all die."