One famous training ground for this talent has been Chicago's Second City improv comedy group. Another has been our neighbor to the north: Canada natives include executive producer Lorne Michaels and former cast members Dan Aykroyd, Martin Short, Phil Hartman, Mike Myers, and others. But dig a little deeper into the archives and another common thread is revealed.
With Billy Crystal (TSOA '70), Molly Shannon (TSOA '87), Adam Sandler (TSOA '88), writer Tim Herlihy (STERN '88, LAW '92), cartoonist Robert Smigel (WSUC '83), musical director Lenny Pickett (adjunct professor at Steinhardt), as well as Alec Baldwin (TSOA '94), who is one behind Steve Martin's record 14 appearances as host, NYU has left a legacy on SNL that continues today with Andy Samberg (TSOA '00), and numerous others behind the scenes. Even Michaels, the show's original and enduring architect, has an NYU connection as a member of the TSOA Dean's Council.
The following is a pictorial history of some of the SNL characters and works brought to life by alumni…
When Andy Samberg (pictured with Tisch Dean's Council co-chair Alec Baldwin) was a kid in the late 1980s, he would flip on the TV most Saturday nights at 11:30, hoping to catch his favorite show: the World Wrestling Federation's Saturday Night's Main Event. But that program aired only occasionally and, though dejected, he'd often watch NBC's alternative—a silly sketch comedy show that made him laugh despite jokes that went over his head. As the years went by, he understood more and more of the gags, and eventually started looking forward to the satire instead of the staged wrestling. "What appealed to me is what still appeals to me," says the 29-year-old cast member. "You could just tell the people there were having fun." A California native, Samberg picked up an Emmy Award in 2007 for writing the SNL Digital Short "Dick in a Box" (which he performed with host Justin Timberlake), and has made a name for himself with other shorts—including the mock-rap "Lazy Sunday"—that have attracted millions of additional viewers online. While his film career is blooming, Samberg, who wrote about his dream to be on SNL in his application to NYU, intends to keep honing his skills in Studio 8H. "I'm just happy to be there," Samberg says, "and just trying to be funny enough not to get fired."
Molly Shannon tended toward more dramatic, "intense" roles in high school in Ohio, and only stumbled upon her funny bone while rehearsing for the Tisch Follies as an undergrad. "I had never thought about comedy," says the actress, who starred in 2007's Year of the Dog. "But once I was in character, I felt really free." Soon after the follies, Shannon discovered her humor resonated with fellow students. "People started telling me I should be on SNL," she says. Eight years and lots of hard work later, the coveted gig was hers.
Best remembered for such sketch roles as superstar Mary Katherine Gallagher and the high-kicking 50-year-old Sally O'Malley, Shannon was stunned to find herself ascend as a rookie cast member, quickly moved from the ending skits into the night's earlier, more prominent slots. Though she couldn't type, which hindered her ability to write sketches quickly, she endured six years of the "comedy boot camp" and thrived on the risk of taking creative chances. While some of her most off-the-wall characters scored big with audiences, she says there's always the chance that sometimes "you try and there's just crickets."
Musical director Lenny Pickett makes sure his band keeps the crowd's feet tapping between commercials and before the show. Though he never aspired to work in comedy, Pickett calls his experience on SNL "a musician's dream," allowing him to pick some of the world's best players for the group.
A member of the R&B/funk horn band Tower of Power in the 1970s and '80s, Pickett has played behind Elton John, David Bowie, and Talking Heads, among others. But having always had an interest in theater, he respects the unique collaboration that all of those on SNL—from the costumers to the makeup artists to the set designers—experience each Saturday night. "We get the best of the best because we're the last vestige of variety television," Pickett says. "We're making a piece of theater every week."
Photo © Mary Ellen Matthews