The period of 1990 to 1995 was a time of great transition for Saturday Night Live. It would see the series reach peaks and ebbs in terms of public popularity and critical acclaim. During this era, SNL would field its largest cast ever, see the departure of several of the show's most popular players as well as the arrival of many future stars, and draw more public controversy than perhaps any other period in the show's history.
Although many fans still hold the original cast to be the best, others feel that the early 1990s era provided some of the strongest and most consistently funny programs to date. It was a fruitful period that led to many film spin-offs, although late in the decade fans and cast alike were dismayed by the tragic deaths of former cast members Chris Farley on December 18, 1997 and Phil Hartman on May 28, 1998. Some were distressed by the sudden firing of popular "Weekend Update" host Norm Macdonald. Fans of the 1986-1991 seasons consider those years to include well-written sketches and sublime performances; they criticize the 1990s as being over-reliant on catch phrases and generic recurring characters, and for stooping in terms of intelligence and taste.
New cast members for the 1990-1991 season
The 1990-1991 season introduced a number of players who quickly became stars on the show — Chris Farley
, Tim Meadows
, Adam Sandler
, Rob Schneider
, David Spade
and Julia Sweeney
. Noted stand-up comedian Chris Rock
also appeared on the show for 3 seasons. Memorable characters and sketches introduced by the new cast members from this period included Sweeney's “Pat”, Sandler's “Opera Man” and “Canteen Boy”, Farley's "Matt Foley", Schneider's annoying office geek “The Richmeister”, Rock's black perspective talk show host “Nat X”, and Spade's caustic commentary piece “Hollywood Minute
”. The popularity of these new cast members helped to offset the departure of several popular long-time players over the first two seasons of this era, including Jan Hooks
and Weekend Update
anchor Dennis Miller
after the 1990-1991 season, and Victoria Jackson
after the 1991-1992 season.
Remaining cast members from the 1986-1990 heyday
The remaining cast members of the 1986-1990 heyday (Dana Carvey
, Phil Hartman
, Mike Myers
, and Kevin Nealon
), maintained a strong presence on the show and remained immensely popular with audiences well into this era. Nealon succeeded Miller as the Weekend Update
anchor after the latter's departure. For the remainder of his tenure, Nealon found himself playing the straight man
during Update and other sketches, particularly against the newer castmates' characters, such as Adam Sandler's
"Operaman" and "Cajun Man" and Chris Farley's
"Bennett Brauer". (Nealon even co-hosted Weekend Update on an episode with the original anchorman, Chevy Chase). His participation in that role increased after Carvey, Hartman, and Myers left the show. Myers introduced many popular new characters during this period, including Coffee Talk's Linda Richman, the British bathtub-dwelling pre-adolescent Simon (somewhat inspired by Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings
), and British theatre critic Kenneth Reese-Evans. Meanwhile, Hartman, who had impersonated President Ronald Reagan
on the show throughout the latter half of the 1980s and into the 1990s, began appearing regularly with his impression of Democratic candidate and soon-to-be U.S. President Bill Clinton
. Carvey's impersonations of U.S. President George H.W. Bush
remained an audience favorite, and Carvey also developed a popular impression of independent presidential candidate Ross Perot
. In the period leading up to the 1992 U.S. Presidential Election, Hartman and Carvey dominated the show with these impressions, creating mock debates. Most importantly, the Myers and Carvey characters Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar from the Wayne's World
sketch would become household names during the early '90s following the release of the successful spin off film
Chris Farley and Adam Sandler
Of the new cast members of the show, Chris Farley
and Adam Sandler
became the most popular of the group. Farley's high-energy performances and surprising grace belied his large build (Farley was inspired by John Belushi
, who also did cartwheels and other acrobatics for a big man), but he was also not afraid to trade on his size for laughs; in one sketch he played, shirtless, opposite the trim and muscular Dirty Dancing
star Patrick Swayze
, as they auditioned for a position with the Chippendales
male dance troupe. Another favorite Farley character was the manic, thrice-divorced motivational speaker Matt Foley
, whose schtick
consisted mainly of yelling at and whining to his clients about having to live “in a van down by the river” and hurling himself around the room, demolishing everything in sight. Sandler was a talented self-taught musician and a former stage comic whose stand-up career had started after he accepted a dare from his brother to do an open mike spot at a local comedy club. He won many fans with the humorous self-penned songs he performed on "Weekend Update" (e.g. “Red-Hooded Sweatshirt” and “Sex-Phone Lady”), as well as his popular “Opera Man” and Canteen Boy
characters. Sandler and Farley also did a song called "Lunch Lady Land", with Farley dancing while dressed up as a lunch lady.
1993-1994 season fallout
After the 1993-1994 season
, there was a very noticeable change in tone. While many of the show's longtime writers continue to be very defensive in their remarks about the 1993-1994 season (as evidenced in their comments on the primetime special (Saturday Night Live in the '90s: Pop Culture Nation
), critics and longtime fans have been less generous. Having already lost star cast member Dana Carvey
, who left midway through the previous season, SNL's
1993-1994 post-season saw more departures. Julia Sweeney
left due to frustration and burnout. Perhaps the most devastating blow to the show would be the loss of Phil Hartman
, who left on friendly terms but later described his departure as "jumping off of a sinking ship." Hartman's final moment on the show was at the end of a musical number with the entire cast singing a parody of the "So Long, Farewell" song from The Sound of Music
. After all of the cast left the stage, Farley, in his Matt Foley character, was left sitting on the stage, with Phil walking on stage and codling next to Farley sing goodbye and waving at the audience. In the eyes of many viewers, the quality of the series began to deteriorate noticeably. Ratings declined precipitously, as sharp turnaround from the beginning of the decade when the show was attracting some of its highest ratings since the vaunted 1970s cast.
The vicious attacks of the critics stunned Lorne Michaels, who many saw as having gone from challenging the network establishment to becoming an entrenched member of it. To recover from all the major losses the show was facing, Michaels hired a number of new cast members, beginning midway through the 1993-1994 season.
Similar to his decision in the mid-'80s to bring in established actors Randy Quaid
, Joan Cusack
and Robert Downey, Jr.
, Michaels added Michael McKean
, and later Chris Elliott
, to the cast. Unsurprisingly, neither McKean nor Elliott ever appeared to be comfortable on the show, and left at the end of the 1994-1995 season.
Later acquisitions were sketch veteran Mark McKinney of the recently-wrapped, Michaels-produced Canadian sketch comedy show Kids in the Hall, and stand-up comic Janeane Garofalo, the latter of whom joined at the beginning of the 1994-1995 season, and the former joining in January, shortly before the departure of Mike Myers. However, the day that Garofalo arrived on the set, Adam Sandler started yelling at her because of remarks she'd made against him in her standup routine. Fellow female cast members (Ellen Cleghorne and Laura Kightlinger) banded against her immediately. Friends remark that Garafalo sank into a deep depression, and she continued her criticism of the show in the press, a tactic that did not improve her relationships at SNL. Shut out by all sides and uncomfortable with the writing, Garofalo left in mid-season, replaced by Molly Shannon. Myers also left in mid-season, and Nealon would do the same after season's end. Farley and Sandler were reportedly difficult to deal with backstage, and when their on-screen performances began to be hammy and inconsistent, NBC fired them at the end of the season. Longtime featured player Jay Mohr left after NBC refused to upgrade him to contract player. Al Franken, who had worked on the show as a writer and featured player on and off since 1977 quit at season's end as well, reportedly still unhappy about the decision at the beginning of the season to replace Nealon as anchor on Weekend Update with Norm Macdonald, and not himself. British actress Morwenna Banks joined the cast for the last 4 episodes of the season as a full cast member, but did not return the next season.
From the beginning of the 1994-1995 season, MacDonald earned mild controversy in the role of Weekend Update anchor. While he alienated many of the segment's fans by frequently flubbing his lines and abandoning all attempts to seem like an actual news anchor (a tradition which had been consistent since the sketch's birth in 1975), MacDonald's weekly appearances did often provide the only laughs in an otherwise dismal time period for the show. The sketches at the time were considered sophomoric, shrill, and bitterly unfunny.
The end of the 1994-1995 season on SNL saw the show in a state of flux. Falling ratings and skeptical critics sent a wakeup call to Lorne Michaels, and the show had the highest turnover rate going into the next season. The 1994-1995 season had a total of 14 cast members; only five remained for the 1995-1996 season: Molly Shannon, Mark McKinney, Norm Macdonald, David Spade (who agreed to stay only for a year so that he could be a bridge between the old and new casts) and Tim Meadows.
Hosts and musical guests
- See the list of SNL hosts and musical guests during the 16th season
- Sandler appears in 3 episodes (December 8, 1990, December 15, 1990 & January 12, 1991) as an uncredited extra prior to his official debut on the February 9, 1991 episode alongside Meadows.
- Hooks and Miller leave the show at the end of the season, and Brown is let go because of personal problems.
- Spade appears in nearly every live broadcast throughout Season 16 but does not appear in the opening credits until midseason.
Same as the 1990 season with different cast members and different style of host/musical guest and featured player photos being the only change (the previous year had an ornate painting frame motif; this season and the next two would have a "tattered border" photo motif.)
Hosts and musical guests
- See the list of SNL hosts and musical guests during the 17th season
- The 1991-1992 season boasted the largest cast in the history of the series.
- Farley, Rock and Sweeney are upgraded to contract status.
- Jackson leaves at the end of the season, and Cahill and Fallon are fired. Hutsell is nearly fired but redeems herself with a very popular impression of The Brady Bunch's Jan Brady.
On October 3, at the end of her second song, a cover of Bob Marley
's song "War", musical guest Sinéad O'Connor
created controversy by holding up a picture of Pope John Paul II
, exclaiming, "Fight the real enemy", and tearing the picture to pieces. According to the book Live From New York
, this was unrehearsed, and condemned by Michaels and the SNL
crew, who refused to light the applause sign after O'Connor's performance; likewise, guest host Tim Robbins (a practicing Catholic) broke with tradition by refusing to thank O'Connor during the closing.
Same theme as the 1990-1991 and 1991-1992 seasons, with the removal of cast members who had left in the previous years.
Hosts and musical guests
- See the list of SNL hosts and musical guests during the 18th season
- Myers is absent for the first several episodes of the season. He was allowed time off because of the death of his father.
- Schneider is bumped up to contract status. Carvey wraps up his extraordinarily popular 6 1/2 year run. Although he has a few films, a brief series and returns to guest host several times, he never regains the fame he garnered on SNL.
- Smigel and Rock leave the show (as both writers and cast members) at the end of the season. Smigel would go on to Late Night with Conan O'Brien and The Dana Carvey Show, while Rock would guest star on In Living Color's final season before launching a successful acting career.
The popular opening montage, which debuted in the 1990-1991 season, returns for what turns out to be its final season.
Hosts and musical guests
- See the list of SNL hosts and musical guests during the 19th season
One host during this season, Martin Lawrence, had an opening monologue which included an extended series of comments about feminine hygiene. The syndicated version of the episode replaces the offending section of the monologue with a graphic (read by an off-screen announcer, SNL writer Jim Downey) describing in vague terms what Lawrence had said and noting it almost cost SNL employees their jobs. Lawrence was subsequently banned from appearing on SNL again.
- Hartman, Hutsell, Schneider, Silverman and Sweeney leave at the end of the season.
After four seasons with the same theme, the montage changes once again. The music has also changed slightly, but is still a rendition of the music used since 1985. This montage has a 20th Anniversary theme, and it consists of the cast members' photos being projected onto various objects around New York.
Hosts and musical guests
- See the list of SNL hosts and musical guests during the 20th season
- The worst-received season since 1980-1981 (or to a lesser extent, 1985-1986) had cast turnover and dissension which bordered on self-parody. Garofalo left the show in disgust after only a half-season, and Myers departed to pursue a movie career. Franken quit, angry that his movie Stuart Saves His Family flopped at the box office and that the "Weekend Update" job was given to Norm Macdonald, instead of to him. Cleghorne happily quit (she would have left a year earlier if not for her contractual obligations) as did Nealon, Elliott, and McKean. Kightlinger left to join Roseanne's ill-fated FOX comedy series, Saturday Night Special. Banks, Farley, and Sandler were fired. Banks, a contract player, had almost no role of any significance, and was let go after only a few shows, returning to her native Britain.
- In his book, Gasping for Airtime, Mohr mentions that at the end of the season, he demanded a promotion to cast member, among other things, and the network procrastinated on accepting or denying his requests throughout the summer of 1995 until he finally quit outright.
- Molly Shannon joined the cast as a midseason replacement for Janeane Garofalo in February, 1995, 8 months before she was bumped up into a contract player on SNL's 21st season (1995-1996). She would go on to become one of SNL's most popular female cast members.
- In the prime time special Saturday Night Live in the '90s: Pop Culture Nation, it was revealed that this season was the closest that Lorne Michaels came to being fired. The firings and turnover resulting from this season represented the biggest involvement into the shows affairs by NBC executives since the 1980-1981 season.