By the mid-1990s, Saturday Night Live was a mainstay of popular culture, one entering its third decade of programming. Despite some ups and downs over time, SNL introduced viewers to famous characters like Jake and Elwood Blues, Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, and a host of others. The show's "Weekend Update" segment offered comedic takes on the news, infusing some laughs into current events.
Some of the show's funniest and most beloved performers were part of SNL's Season 20 cast, including Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and Kevin Nealon. The SNL cast, however, drastically changed from the last episode of Season 20 to the debut episode of Season 21.
What happened during SNL Season 20 could have broken the show entirely. While viewers watched and (sometimes) laughed, critics panned SNL Season 20, calling it anything but funny and relevant. Off-screen, the writers, crew, and performers struggled to work together, much less produce content that wowed weekly audiences. When all is said and done, the ins and outs of the drama that took place during the 1994-1995 season might make you go back and see some of your favorite sketches in a whole new light.
Lorne Michaels Describes The Season As The 'Closest' He Ever Came To 'Being Fired'
In the 2007 documentary Saturday Night Live in the '90s: Pop Culture Nation, show producer Lorne Michaels indicated that the struggles of the 1994-1995 season almost cost him his job. Critics called SNL "dysfunctional" and "embarrassing," something substantiated by ever-declining ratings.
According to NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer, "Lorne knew that there was a problem, but I think he was unsure of exactly what the problem was... I never gave Lorne an ultimatum. But what I basically said to him is, 'The show has to get better.'"
Michaels claimed, "I don't think I'd ever been as scared." He knew he was in danger of being "broke and washed up."
As a result, Michaels took a drastic approach to revamping the show, firing many of the major players when the season came to an end. While Adam Sandler and Chris Farley, among others, were still on contract with SNL, they found themselves on the chopping block and off the show for the 1995-1996 season.
The Departures Of Phil Hartman, Julia Sweeney, And Rob Schneider Created An Unfillable Vacuum
Going into the 20th season of SNL, there were big shoes left to fill by the off-season exits of Phil Hartman, Julia Sweeney, and Rob Schneider.
Phil Hartman, who regularly played President Bill Clinton, joined the show in 1986. During his eight-season run, his range allowed him to take on all kinds of characters. According to Al Jean, SNL's executive producer, "Phil made the material funnier than we originally imagined, and I couldn't imagine anybody else doing it."
Sweeney - known for Pat, among other characters - was honest about her decision to leave, stating, "Everybody says the show is a boys' club, right? Well, it's everything you think it is, times a hundred." She elaborated further:
I love the show, I really do. I love Lorne. Those people are like my family. But it's like a big, alcoholic, (messed)-up family. They do a lot of 14-year-old-boy humor - they just love fart jokes and vomit jokes - and they're very good at it.
Schneider later said, "All in all, I had a great experience at SNL," but wanted to take on other projects.
Only 'Cigarettes And Stoli' Kept Janeane Garofalo Sane
With the exit of Phil Hartman, Julia Sweeney, and others, Lorne Michaels brought in new cast members like Chris Elliott and Janeane Garofalo. Garofalo, known for her roles on The Larry Sanders Show and The Ben Stiller Show, struggled throughout the season.
The characters she was given were unenlightened and stereotypical, with relatively few lines. On one show, the December 10, 1994, episode hosted by Alec Baldwin, Garofalo found herself with "things to do in sketches," which was exciting because her family was there to watch the show. In the end, she "was usually embarrassed. My family did not like the show that season. My father felt that his intelligence was being insulted."
Garofalo reportedly told friends it was "the most miserable experience of" her life, attributing her survival to "cigarettes and Stoli."
The 'Hazing' And Internal Pecking Order Made New Talent Begin To Reject The Show
Janeane Garofalo likened her first few months on SNL to "hazing... Fraternity hazing. It's hard. It takes its toll on you. But I think you come out much better in the end. If nothing else, this experience has just toughened me up."
Air time seemed to be distributed according to tenure on the show, with competing personalities draining SNL of its comedic energy. Observers indicated, "You feel it as soon as you walk into the writers' room... It's a depressed, kind of lethargic burnout."
An SNL writer observed how the cast members couldn't "even fake forcing themselves to care." According to the writer:
When you watch the show on TV, that comes through - it really seems taken with itself. And when it's as bad as it can be, and people still act like there's nothing wrong, then it's sort of like a f**k-you to the audience - "We don’t have to be good, because we're Saturday Night Live!" It's like the post office. "What are you gonna do, deliver the mail yourself?"
Though The Cast Produced Memorable Sketches, They Also Made Some Of The Biggest Bombs
As morale and ratings declined at SNL during the 1994-1995 season, writers noticed the subject matter took a downhill trajectory, as well. Writers Bonnie and Terry Turner, who had penned skits like "Wayne's World" and the Church Lady sketches, were disappointed to see "less about relationships... Unless the relationship is between a man and his shoe, rather than actual people."
Similarly, sketches like "Gay Stripper Theater" indicated to Janeane Garofalo that, "They love the anal sex here... that's considered incredibly funny." It wasn't something she found amusing, nor was an alien skit that included anal probes and the word "b*tch" written across male cast members' chests in lipstick. Garofalo, who later said she "wanted to quit after the first week," found it nausea-inducing instead.
There were some bright points during the season, however. Al Franken continued to appear as Stuart Smalley, Chris Farley as Matt Foley remained popular, and the Gap Girls - featuring Farley, Adam Sandler, and David Spade - brought lots of laughs.
Several Cast Members Left Mid-Season, While New Blood Came On The Scene
Janeane Garofalo left SNL in March 1995, weeks before the season officially ended. She later stated she "did not think we were doing a quality show, and if you mentioned that, you found you were an extremely unwelcome guest."
The addition of Molly Shannon and Morwenna Banks during the season accompanied the additional exit of Mike Myers, who left in January. Paralleling writer Anne Beatts's description of the early days of the show as "a combination of summer camp and concentration camp," Myers called it "a cross between Love Boat and Das Boot" at the time of his departure.