How to Get Cast on ‘Saturday Night Live’

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Photo Source: Will Heath/NBC

For 49 seasons (and counting), “Saturday Night Live” has been the weekly bedrock of sketch comedy, musical performance, and hot-button satire. Some of the biggest names in Hollywood have come out of the show’s casts and writing rooms. Even after being on the air for nearly five decades, “SNL” continues to bring in young, vibrant, and increasingly diverse talent with each passing year.  

Think you have a comedic, creative voice that needs to be heard—and feel ready for a competitive, fast-paced, insomnia-inducing environment? Then check out this guide dedicated to what it takes to get cast on the cultural juggernaut that is “SNL.”

 

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Who is in the cast of ‘Saturday Night Live’?

Lorne Michaels created “Saturday Night Live” and, with the exception of a departure from 1980 to 1985, has served as the show’s executive producer. The first episode aired on NBC on Oct. 11, 1975; it’s now in its 49th season. Each episode features a celebrity guest host who joins the resident “SNL” cast. Season 49’s guest hosts have included Jason Momoa, Dakota Johnson, Jacob Elordi, and Ayo Edebiri.

The cast of Season 49 includes:

  • Michael Che (“Weekend Update” co-anchor)
  • Mikey Day
  • Andrew Dismukes
  • Chloe Fineman
  • Heidi Gardner
  • Marcello Hernández (featured player)
  • James Austin Johnson
  • Punkie Johnson
  • Colin Jost (“Weekend Update” co-anchor)
  • Molly Kearney (featured player)
  • Michael Longfellow (featured player)
  • Ego Nwodim
  • Sarah Sherman
  • Kenan Thompson
  • Chloe Troast (featured player)
  • Devon Walker (featured player)
  • Bowen Yang

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Who is the casting director for ‘Saturday Night Live’?

Over the course of its nearly five decades, “SNL” has seen many people involved in its casting. Perhaps nobody has been more integral than Marci Klein, who started at the show in 1988 as an assistant; she went on to become head of the talent department and a producer, working on “SNL” until 2013. 

Klein’s longtime assistant, Lindsay Shookus, subsequently took the reins of the talent department, with Brittney Bhayana serving as the show’s background casting manager. “We like to think about what we need,” Shookus told Leo. “But the true basis of it is: If someone makes you belly laugh in an audition, that’s a good sign. We don’t overthink; I don’t think Lorne overthinks either. I think he just has a gut for it, and he surrounds himself with people who he trusts also to weigh in, and I think that’s enough. We do have a sense about it.” 

When it comes to social media, Shookus said she still prefered the old-fashioned way of finding new talent. “If I randomly see someone who I think is funny on Instagram, I might come into my office and be like, ‘Look into this person; what’s their deal?’ But I’m not just sitting on Instagram trying to find the next ‘SNL’ cast member,” she explained. “There are still comedy schools: Groundlings, Second City, UCB. There are still comedy schools that we trust, and they’ve trained people really well.”

However, as Deadline reported, Shookus left her position at “SNL” ahead of Season 48, after 20 years on the team, leaving Bhayana as her successor.

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Where can you find ‘Saturday Night Live’ auditions and casting calls?

“SNL” has never held open auditions; instead, the show seeks you out. Since the days of Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner, producers have plucked talented performers from the improv and standup scenes in major U.S. cities. Hubs include Chicago’s Second City and iO Improv; New York’s Comedy Cellar and the once-shuttered Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (which has since reopened under new management!); and Los Angeles’ Groundlings, Laugh Factory, and the Comedy Store. 

“SNL” producers and scouts invite performers they like to a showcase with a live audience to see how they do. Scouts look for those who have strong improv skills, camera-ready charisma, a fresh and exciting standup presence, and perhaps most importantly, a strong ability to write material.

However, if you’re looking for ways to boost your résumé, you can always check out our list of comedy casting calls here.

How do you get noticed by ‘Saturday Night Live’ producers?

Here are the best ways to get yourself seen.

Get involved in sketch and improv comedy groups. Becoming affiliated with a major company isn’t impossible. For instance, the Groundlings’ school website offers simple steps to sign up for classes such as Improv for Beginners, Sketch Writing Workshop, and Audition for Basic Improv. If paying for classes isn’t realistic for you at the moment, focus on becoming part of a group of funny people that you can collaborate, write sketches, and make videos with. Social media and the internet are your oyster—put your comedy on display. 

Try your hand at standup and open mics. Throughout the run of “SNL,” comedy clubs and young, rising comics have gotten massive attention from Michaels and other talent recruiters. Get used to writing and performing original material, getting a feel for what works and what doesn’t, and finding your unique comedic voice. 

Speaking on the correlation between standup and auditions, comedian and former “SNL” writer-producer John Mulaney told us, “I just did the standup I had, which was more act-out-y. You just want to give a sense of yourself. The amount of people [cast] who we’ve never used one thing from their audition is numerous. Some people would audition with an impression, and it would be on the first show; a lot of times, it’s not. They’re just trying to get a sense of you.” 

Former cast member Chris Redd was already a successful standup comedian by the time he got in the door, which he said helped when it came to the auditions and subsequent waiting game. “For me to deal with something that high-pressure, I had to just be like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna go do this audition, and then I have seven more shows to do later,’ ” he said. “I was at a point where I’d gotten some gigs, and I’ve lost more than I’ve gotten. So nine times out of 10, you’re not gonna get it; so you just do what you can, have fun with it, and then continue to build your career…. Standup helped me deal with it, helped me deal with the waiting process, for sure.”

Want to start your comedy career? Check out these go-to resources:

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How did some of the biggest ‘Saturday Night Live’ stars first get noticed?

Traditionally, “SNL” talent seekers have asked performers to submit a tape of celebrity impressions and original characters and asked writer-performers to send a packet of sketches. Most people who make it onto the show are comedians and performers who established themselves through other outlets and were invited based on their previous work—or because they were recommended by another cast member. 

Pete Davidson has Bill Hader to thank for landing his role on “SNL.” “It was after Amy Schumer gave me a part in ‘Trainwreck,’ and I met Bill Hader on set, and we talked, and kind of hit it off,” Davidson explained. “He called me a week later and said, ‘Hey, I recommended you to Lorne Michaels.’ And I was like, ‘Why?’ I was just so surprised. I didn’t even know that I could audition. And the fact that I got it—I just couldn't believe it.”

Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island crew had been making hilarious videos well before they became integral players on the show. But working as writers on the MTV Movie Awards in 2005, which caught the attention of that year’s host and “SNL” alum Jimmy Fallon, was what got them through the Studio 8H door. 

Even in the midst of the pandemic, though adjustments obviously had to be made, the process largely remained the same. Punkie Johnson, the first publicly out Black queer cast member in the show’s history, had already made a name for herself in the comedy world. She started out taking acting classes in L.A., did standup at the Comedy Store, and appeared on Netflix’s “Space Force” and HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” Much to her surprise, after moving back home to New Orleans in the middle of lockdown, she got a call to audition for “SNL.” She ultimately went through two rounds of taped auditions, rolling out impressions of Whoopi Goldberg, Kerry Washington, and NeNe Leakes.

“Usually, after doing an audition, I forget about it immediately because I don’t want to stress over it,” Johnson told NBC News, reflecting on submitting her second tape. “And I was like, ‘It’s “SNL”—what would they want with me?’ ” After a few weeks without getting feedback, she eventually received a call from Michaels, who said, “We think you’ll be a good addition to the cast.”

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What’s the audition process like for ‘Saturday Night Live’?

The talent department brings promising prospects to New York for a rigorous audition process that includes a filmed presentation of their best five minutes of material (impressions, characters, etc.) in front of a small audience that includes Michaels—who notoriously doesn’t laugh during auditions. These tryouts are tough and vulnerable, leaving even the best performers feeling uncertain afterward.

Even after Michaels called him, Davidson wasn’t sure if he’d landed the gig. “I got a call from NBC,” Davidson said during a “Late Night With Seth Meyers” appearance. “And it’s Lorne Michaels, and he goes, ‘Hello.’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know what to do with you, but you got the show.’ I went home and was like, ‘I think I got “SNL.” I think [Lorne] is already mad at me, too.’ ”

Fallon remembers his audition well. “In makeup, they go, ‘Hey, Jimmy, some advice: Lorne Michaels doesn’t laugh when you audition, so don’t let that throw you,’ ” he recalled. “Then the audio guy, he goes, ‘Hey, little advice—Lorne doesn’t like to laugh.’ I’m like, ‘OK.’ Then Marci [Klein] comes out: ‘Jimmy, they’re ready for you. But hey, a little advice for you. If Lorne doesn’t laugh, be cool.’ I’m like, What is this guy’s problem? He’s doing a comedy show. Why does he not like to laugh?” Turns out, Davidson did end up making Michaels laugh by doing an impression of Adam Sandler, who had recently left the show.

Speaking about his nerve-wracking audition, Will Ferrell told the New York Times, “I did a sketch where I was a guy, alone in my office, who, in between taking calls, would play with cat toys. There’s a point where I’m rolling around on the ground, in complete silence, playing with cat toys. And I’m thinking, Oh, it’s over.”

Kate McKinnon described her own big moment to People. “The first time you walk in the building, it’s like you’re seeing the Wizard of Oz. Except he’s not fake—he’s real, he’s sitting at a table, and you’re doing comedy for him. It’s a defining moment in a life,” she said. “You’ve got five minutes to do whatever you want. So I did, like, five impressions and a couple of characters. I honestly don’t remember all of them. Penélope Cruz was one of them.” 

Despite being a star since he was a kid on Nickelodeon’s “All That” and its spinoff film “Good Burger,” Kenan Thompson was hustling for jobs. When he finally got an audition for “SNL,” which he had been after for quite some time, he told us that the process was “fucking horrible.” However, he added, “I gave it my all and did some voices and shit, and I guess they leaned into that.”

Leslie Jones, on the other hand, almost snubbed the opportunity when comedian Chris Rock called in a favor. After all, she was into standup. “I went off on him,” she told us. “ ‘This is how you fucking help me? You give me some shit I don’t do? I don’t do fucking sketch comedy! I’m a real comic; sketch comedy is for folks who can’t get on the stage.’ He was like: ‘Shut up. You’re a fucking idiot. Go and audition.’ ” So she did—and she did so without regard for the outcome. Jones didn’t like the show’s approach, so she treated her audition like any other standup gig. “I did a cartwheel and everything,” Jones said. Ultimately, she nailed it.

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What are the best audition tips for ‘Saturday Night Live’?

Here are some words of wisdom from “SNL” cast members and writers: 

Use what you know. “Do your best stuff. I knew going into the audition that I wasn’t going to get it,” Mulaney told us. “I was like, there are so many male, Caucasian brunettes; there’s no need for me. So I didn’t try to learn a Gordon Ramsay impression in 24 hours.”

Cecily Strong echoed this advice. “Make sure whatever you’re showing is the best of you,” she said. “Don’t do what you think ‘SNL’ wants.”

Don’t try to be someone you’re not. “Write what you like and perform what you like, because if you do get hired, that’s what you know how to do,” Aidy Bryant advised. “And if you don’t get hired, at least you did what you love. You didn’t try to bend yourself into a pretzel to be something you think they want. Just be yourself, do what you like, and hold strong on that. It really was my guiding light, even when I got hired for the show.”

Trust yourself. “The hardest thing with auditions is trusting that you know it,” Heidi Gardner told us. “I remember the days leading up to it, I was like, ‘How many times is enough?’ I even do that to myself now. When do I just trust I know this thing? But you know how to be this person. You just start trusting yourself more. You’re a professional; you can get through anything.”

Be persistent. “I was trying to get to ‘SNL’ as soon as I left Nickelodeon back in 2000,” Thompson said. “I kept sending tapes but getting rejected. A couple of years later, Tracy Morgan left the show, so I think they were getting serious about hiring new African Americans, and I got a chance to finally audition in New York. I had never done standup before, but I did an impression of Al Sharpton and Arnold Schwarzenegger talking on the phone. It wasn’t very good, but I was having fun, and I think they could see that. I ended up getting the job in 2003. Now I’m the oldest current cast member!”

Determine what motivates you. “[I] feel like I was motivated for a long time by survival and making sure I was keeping my head above water. It’s only been a recent challenge for me to ask and answer for myself: What is your skill set? How do you want to expand that skill set? What is driving you as a performer or a writer or an actor?” Bowen Yang told us, noting that he needed to “get to the bottom” of why he chose comedy and acting as his profession. “I think it’s important to identify this core reason for being, and then everything else just sort of gets informed by that.”

Looking to put your comedy skills to good use? Check out these auditions!