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Why We Need to Celebrate the Many Great Women of SNL

8 minute read

On Monday evening, Tina Fey dedicated her Elle Women in Hollywood award to “sweet Jan Hooks,” who had died two weeks earlier, at the age of 57. “It made me sad when she passed, and it made me mad at the time how available she was,” Fey said of hiring Hooks to play Jenna Maroney’s mother on 30 Rock. “Jan should have had a bigger career. Jan deserved a big movie career.”

The Saturday Night Live clips media used to celebrate Hooks were both hilarious and touching. They were also 20 years old. Hooks left the show after five seasons (1986-91), then went on to star on Designing Women and later landed a recurring role on Third Rock From the Sun. But by 2000, at the age of 43, this remarkably versatile actress was booking mostly voice-over and guest-star spots.

Very few women from SNL have gone on to “a big movie career.” Of course, Fey did, along with Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig. And in TV, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is in a class all her own, with 18 Emmy nominations and five wins for three different roles. Still, their success stories are the exceptions to Hooks’ rule.

This is partially a numbers game. In SNL’s 40-year history, male performers have outnumbered females almost 2 to 1 (83 men to 45 women—make that 46 after this week’s promotion of writer Leslie Jones). Not only have more men been hired, but they also stayed longer. A list of cast members who spent eight seasons or more on the show includes 14 men and only two women.

The cast didn’t begin so off-kilter. For its first six seasons, SNL averaged four men and three women. The men got more screen time, but there was an attempt to keep the genders close to equal. By the late 1980s, that effort had been abandoned. The number of male performers began to balloon until the 1990–91 season, which included 13 men and still only three women. As Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler might say: Really?!?

This lopsided pattern held for a decade. Even during the Fey-Poehler heyday, women held four to five slots while men grabbed nine to 11. The current season’s main cast is the first in 35 years to be split 50-50. That’s great news—if you consider going back to the way things were in 1979 to be great news. Still, five of the seven featured players are men. Since future cast members tend to be promoted from the ranks, the balance may once again tip male. It also took an Internet uproar to pressure the show into hiring an African-American woman. And good thing they did because Sasheer Zamata has been a highlight.

Recently, Sarah Silverman returned to host and poked fun at her younger self posing as a curious audience member. It was a good reminder of how many insanely talented female performers lasted only a single season—or in Laurie Metcalf’s case, a single episode. Jenny Slate, Janeane Garofalo, Michaela Watkins, Christine Ebersole and many other one-year wonders have gone on to success, making SNL just a footnote in their careers.

But a lot of other women fall into the same category as Hooks, who excelled on SNL but fell short of “a bigger career.” So instead of waiting for these gifted women to be praised posthumously, let’s celebrate some former SNL cast members right here, right now. Each spent more than a season on the show, and while they continue to work, we’d like to see more of them.



Saturday Night Live
Molly Shannon as Jeannie Darcy during Weekend Update on May 12, 2007.Dana Edelson—NBC/Getty Images

It’s hard to accept that Sally O’Malley is actually 50 (50!) years old. During her seven-season tenure, Molly Shannon could kick and stretch and disappear into any character. Since departing in 2001, she has worked steadily but hasn’t yet achieved the superstar status that Mary Katherine Gallagher deserves.

Castmate who went on to a more visible career: David Spade



Saturday Night Live
Ana Gasteyer as Martha Stewart during the Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia skit on Oct. 23, 1999.Mary Ellen Matthews—NBC/Getty Images

Ana Gasteyer’s range is remarkable. In her six seasons, she could be a loud Barbra Streisand auditioning for Star Wars or a quiet NPR correspondent who craved Alec Baldwin’s Schweddy Balls. Since leaving in 2002, she has starred as Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway and created memorable roles in both comedy and drama series. With all that talent, she can clearly handle meatier roles than Mrs. Gundermutt in Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.

Castmate who went on to a more visible career: Tracy Morgan



Saturday Night Live
Tom Hanks as Rick and Julia Sweeney as Katie during the She Turned Into Her Mother skit on May 9, 2010.Alan Singer—NBC/Getty Images

If you were lucky enough to see Julia Sweeney’s show God Said ‘Ha!’, you know how deeply compelling she is as both a writer and performer. Her work on four seasons of SNL was fearless. Pat was way ahead of his or her time. They’re remaking Ghostbusters; maybe it’s time for It’s Pat 2: It Gets Pattier.

Castmate who went on to a more visible career: Rob Schneider



Saturday Night Live
Rachel Dratch as Peg during the Elderly Wiretap skit on Jan. 21, 2006.Dana Edelson—NBC/Getty Images

Everyone loves Rachel Dratch, especially her fellow performers. In skits like Debbie Downer or the old hot-tubber luv-ahs (with Will Farrell), you can see her cause seasoned castmates to break into laughter. Since wrapping up a seven-year run in 2006, she’s written a book, performed in a musical, guested on sitcoms and failed to name 20 white people in 30 seconds while Billy Eichner yelled at her. She also voices a character for The Awesomes and is currently starring in Tail! Spin!, an off-Broadway comedy.

Castmate who went on to a more visible career: Will Forte



Saturday Night Live
Maya Rudolph as Barbra Streisand during the Donahue skit on Nov. 16, 2002.Dana Edelson—NBC/Getty Images

Maya Rudolph might not belong on this list. Her movie career includes classic performances in Bridesmaids and The Way Way Back. She was nominated for an Emmy for hosting SNL in 2012 and, last spring, she tried to revive the classic variety format with The Maya Rudolph Show. It seems like she’s still looking for the right venue for her enormous talents. Late Night With Maya Rudolph would’ve had a nice ring to it …

Castmate who went on to a more visible career: Jimmy Fallon



Nora Dunn
From left: Nora Dunn as Liz Sweeney, Jan Hooks as Candy Sweeney and Marc Shaiman as Skip St. Thomas during the Instant Coffee skit on Oct. 18, 1986.NBC/Getty Images

Like her Sweeney sister Jan Hooks, Nora Dunn has never found a place to shine as brightly as she did in Studio 8H. Maybe she comes across as a tad strong, but that never hurt SNL’s Jim Belushi, who got to make 182 episodes of According to Jim. (Oh, yes, that happened.) Someone needs to give Dunn a role that suits both her comic and commanding nature: a Starfleet commander or Red’s sister on Orange Is the New Black…

Castmate who went on to a more visible career: Anthony Michael Hall



Abby Elliott
Abby Elliott as Rachel Maddow during The Rachel Maddow Show skit on Jan. 10, 2009.NBC/Getty Images

Abby Elliott was 21 when she joined the cast midway through the 2008–09 season. It was scientifically proven that she was underutilized and, after four seasons, she moved on to prime time. Here’s hoping she gets lots more opportunities.

Castmate who went on to a more visible career: Fred Armisen



Laraine Newman
From left: Jane Curtin as Prymaat Conehead, Dan Aykroyd as Beldar Conehead and Laraine Newman as Connie Conehead during the The Coneheads at Home skit on Jan. 15, 1977.NBC/Getty Images

One of the original “seven samurai,” Laraine Newman was a mysterious and nuanced performer. Her strength was sketch comedy, and her post-SNL credits have veered toward voice work. “Lorne urged me to repeat characters. I refused to do it because I wanted to, you know, dazzle everybody with my versatility,” Newman says in James Andrew Miller’s book Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. “So even though I loved the kind of work I did, and still do—I love the character work—I think it keeps you more anonymous than people who play themselves.”

Castmate who went on to a more visible career: Chevy Chase



Jane Curtin
From left: Burt Reynolds as Lewis and Jane Curtin as Anita Bryant during the Deliverance II sketch on April 12, 1980.NBC/Getty Images

This time it’s personal. I was 14 when SNL premiered, and all my friends assumed I would identify with Gilda Radner, the original manic pixie dream girl. Nope. Jane Curtin was my favorite. I thought she was perfect: beautiful, tough, silly and real. Even as a conehead, she came across as grounded.

Curtin’s post-SNL career has been enviable. Kate & Allie was a massive hit. Third Rock From the Sun was a massive hit. But since that inspired sitcom ended in 2001, her TV appearances have grown sparser. In the past three years, she has appeared on the recently canceled CBS drama Unforgettable. Perhaps Curtin is working as much as she wants to, but selfishly I want to see her do more. I want to see her in the same quirky roles that Bill Murray gets. Imagine Curtin as an aging movie star in Japan who bumps into a young man at the hotel bar and they connect in an unclear and unsettling way. Or imagine Curtin as an eccentric oceanographer.

At the very least, I want Curtin to know that she’s appreciated and admired. And for all the female SNL vets, I hope the people in power—producers, directors, agents and managers—have a fire lit under them now before we are forced to light a candle later.

Note: This is not a complete list. Please add your favorite performers in the comments so we can applaud them all.

Scovell is writing the Lean In movie for Sony Pictures, based on the book she co-wrote with Sheryl Sandberg

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