It’s been 41 years since the words “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” were first uttered. It was George Carlin who hosted that fateful premiere at studio 8H, and the sketch comedy world was never the same. (Fun fact: The reason the phrase is worded that way is because the show was originally called NBC’s Saturday Night. Even after the switch to the current name in 1977, it stuck).
Lorne Michaels’ brainchild, regardless of name, has seen it all: international scandals (yes, Sinead O’Connor, we’re talking to you), lip-syncing catastrophes (sorry to bring that up again, Ashlee Simpson), but, above all, side-splitting comedy and a rotating door of cast members you can depend on weekend after weekend to make you laugh.
But Wayne Campbell, Stefon, Debbie Downer, and Roseanne Rosannadanna (among others) had to get their start somewhere, right? Ahead of season 42(!), which kicks off on NBC on Saturday, EW gathered the audition tapes of some of the most successful comedians to ever grace the SNL stage. We’ll start with the original, 1975 cast members, often dubbed the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.”
Radner was the first cast member hired, and you can see why in this charming clip. Radner, who died of cancer in 1989, starred on the show from its start until 1980, and was known for wacky characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna and Baba Wawa.
Belushi stayed on the show for four years, until 1979, and created some of the most memorable characters the show has ever seen during his short tenure, including Samurai Futaba and, with Dan Aykroyd, The Blues Brothers, which eventually became a full-length feature film.
Chase was the original Weekend Update anchor, and became known for his introduction “I’m Chevy Chase… and you’re not.” He left the show in 1976 in the middle of the second season, but has returned to host eight times.
The other Blues Brother, Aykroyd starred on the show for the first four seasons, until 1979, though he originally signed on as a writer. Aykroyd was known for his impressions of Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, as the patriarch of the Conehead family, and as a Weekend Update co-host, where he coined the famous phrase “Jane, you ignorant slut.”
Curtin stuck with the show until the 1979-80 season, and was known for playing foil “straight-woman” characters. She also anchored Weekend Update from ‘76-’77, and again in later years, first with Dan Aykroyd and then Bill Murray.
Morris brought laughs as Dominican baseball player Chico Escuela from ‘75 until he left in 1980. Morris later expressed his unhappiness with the show, saying he was frequently typecast in stereotypical roles.
Newman created two of the most famous SNL characters, Sheri the Valley Girl and Connie Conehead, and left the show in 1980.
Kaufman auditioned the same year the original freshman class did, but originally joined the staff as a writer and occasional guest star, his most popular impression being “Foreign Man” (which was later turned into Latka Gravas on Taxi). He angered the audience in 1983 with a female wrestling sketch, and went on the air to ask the audience to vote to determine his fate on the show. SNL ran a phone vote, and, while 169,186 people voted to keep him, 195,544 people voted to dump him. He never appeared live on the show again.
Up next: Dana Carvey, Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, and more[pagebreak]
By 1980, all of the original members had departed, but a new wave of talent was ready to make their mark on the sketch show.
Carvey auditioned for the show in 1985 and joined the cast for the 1986 season, where he quickly became a household name. His popular characters include The Church Lady and George H. W. Bush. He also starred with Mike Myers in Wayne’s World, which was turned into a film in 1992 and a sequel in 1993.
Hartman also auditioned in 1985 with this epic compilation of characters. He became known for impressions of Bill Clinton, Frank Sinatra, and Ronald Reagan, and also for original characters like Eugene, the Anal Retentive Chef and Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.
The ‘90s saw great casting additions, too, with Will Ferrell, Jim Breuer, and Jimmy Fallon nabbing starring roles.
Ferrell joined SNL in 1995 thanks to his hilarious take on a multi-tasking dad at a barbecue. He left in 2002 after a successful seven years, but not before making his mark with memorable impressions of George W. Bush, Robert Goulet, and Alex Trebek, and original characters like Morning Latte co-host Tom Wilkins and night clubber Steve Butabi, which eventually evolved into 1998’s feature film A Night at the Roxbury.
Jim Breuer joined SNL the same time as Ferrell, in 1995, but left several years earlier, in 1998. His characters included Goat Boy and Glen Henderson, and he was known for his impressions of Joe Pesci.
It’s hard to imagine a time when Jimmy Fallon wasn’t the king of late night TV, but a fresh-faced Fallon had to get past Lorne Michaels first with this impressive set of impressions back in 1998. Fallon was on the show for six seasons, and eventually became the Weekend Update co-host with Tina Fey.
During SNL‘s big 40th anniversary celebration, current cast members Leslie Jones and Pete Davidson introduced a supercut of audition tapes, which includes several of the ones seen above as well as those from Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, Andy Samberg, and more.