Saturday Night Live has for decades been the benchmark for late night sketch comedy, populating its large ensemble cast with some of the funniest people in the business, many who have gone on to become comedic icons. Every once in a while though, they leap the fence and defy expectations, taking on a more dramatic part. Here are 14 times an SNL cast member got seriously serious.
THE SERIOUS FILM: Disclosure (1994)
Miller is not so much a household name these days, but for years, he was the voice of the Weekend Update on SNL, redefining what the segment’s potential could be. A scathing satirist, he was a stand-up comedian for years before breaking into late night television. For his film debut, he took a supporting role in the Michael Douglas / Demi Moore thriller Disclosure as a co-worker at a tech company caught in the web of sexual manipulation between the leads. While Miller has only sporadically taken other roles in film, the outspoken funnyman revealed he had some solid dramatic potential, though his path lay in a different direction.
THE SERIOUS FILM: The Hollow Point (2016)
Brother of legendary SNL originator Jim Belushi, James replaced Jim on SNL after his death, staying with the show for three seasons. He began a film career afterward, taking advantage of his name and genuine skills, and established himself as a legit talent all his own. Making a stake more in television than movies, he has had plenty of bit parts in films, including a recent title called The Hollow Point (2016), playing a seedy character mixed up with a Mexican drug cartel. It’s a gritty role, and Belushi delivers, proving he’s got as much talent for drama as he does for laughs.
Anthony Michael Hall
THE SERIOUS FILM: Out Of Bounds (1986)
Hall, known best as Farmer Ted from the Molly Ringwald comedy Sixteen Candles, joined the cast of SNL for one year in 1985, the youngest cast member in the history of the show. Looking to shift the threat of typecasting as the nerdy teen, he starred in Richard Tuggle‘s thriller Out Of Bounds, starring as Daryl Cage, a farm boy moving to L.A. who gets caught up in a dangerous mix up when his luggage is switched for that of a drug kingpin. A box office dud and critically-panned, at least Hall shows off a new side and while his movie stardom never truly took off, he certainly had the range.
Robert Downey Jr.
THE SERIOUS FILM: Chaplin (1992)
It might be surprising to learn that Downey Jr. is in fact a former SNL cast member, but he also joined the show in 1985 and stayed for one year, replaced as the ratings dropped. A talented funnyman, of all the actors on this list, he is easily the one most recognized for his dramatic performances rather than his comedic ones, and hence might not even deserve a place in this post, but if there is one thing he has brought to many of his roles, it is his gift for comedic timing. That said, he’s had plenty of acclaimed dramatic parts, but the one that solidified his place in the realm is Richard Attenborough‘s Charlie Chaplin biography, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. Considered his greatest performance outside his work as Tony Stark in the Marvel franchise, it is a career-defining role that certainly changed everything for the actor.
THE SERIOUS FILM: 54 (1998)
Myers is arguably one of the most successful SNL cast member post late-night, with his movies reigning at the box office for more than a decade. Hits like Wayne’s World 1 and 2 put him on the cinema map and he blew it up with the Austin Powers franchise right after, establishing himself as a king of parody. While he did have a bit part in Quinten Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds, it is his stellar work as Steve Rubell in the failed drama 54 that remains his best serious performance, earning the only praise in a film about the famous New York City night club of the 70s.
THE SERIOUS FILM: Sneakers (1992)
Best known for his legendary part in the iconic Ghostbusters films, Aykroyd has had a surprising number of bit parts in serious films, including Chaplin, My Girl, and Driving Miss Daisy, but it’s his strong work in Phil Alden Robinson‘s crime thriller Sneakers where he does his best serious work, playing part of a team of experts who specialize in testing security systems. Co-starring with none other than Robert Redford, the intelligent and often very tense mystery features Aykroyd in an great dramatic role as the team fall on the trail of a secret black box that could upset the balance of power in devastating ways.
Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader
THE SERIOUS FILM: The Skeleton Twins (2014)
Wiig and Hader are two of what many consider to be the most successful ensemble cast in the show’s long run, their work generating some of the series’ most innovative and funniest moments. Since leaving the show, Wigg has perhaps been the most committed to steering away from the comedy that came to define her, taking a number of roles that have tried to break perceptions, but it is with this pairing with Hader as dysfunctional siblings struggling to cope with life in general that are their best dramatic performances. As twins coming together after a long estrangement, the two share some truly affecting moments in a film that pushes them both to dramatic heights that surprised critics and fans alike.
THE SERIOUS FILM: Mr. Saturday Night (1992)
A prolific actor and comedian, Crystal has been entertaining fans since the 1970s, and is one of the great funnymen of his time and has been at the heart of many successful comedy films, including When Harry met Sally and the City Slickers movies. Yes, he was in Kenneth Branagh‘s epic adaptation of Hamlet, famous for not being a comedy, but it was a small part and Crystal gave it some humor. However, it was his own passion project, Mr. Saturday Night that truly gave him the chance to try on some dramatic chops, and while critics weren’t thrilled, there’s no denying he goes dark, even while playing a late night comic.
THE SERIOUS FILM: Tumbledown (2015)
Sudeikis started his role on SNL as a writer before getting a spot in the cast in 2005, his good looks and sardonic approach making him a quick star. While working on the show, he starred in a number of off-kilter comedies, with many box office hits. With leading man potential, he cemented that notion in a small indie film with Rebecca Hall called Tumbledown about a widow of a popular folk singer trying to get her life back together, forming a bond with a journalist (Sudeikis) looking to write a book about the man’s story. A surprisingly genuine romance, Sudeikis makes it easy to get behind and proves he is more than ready jump the tracks and become on his generation’s most affecting leading men.
THE SERIOUS FILM: Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Ferrell is considered one of the most popular and influential cast members of SNL, and while he dominated that show for most of the late 90s, his films were even more successful, showcasing his unique comedic style where anything was up for grabs as long as it got a laugh. He’d took a part in a Woody Allen movie called Melinda/Melinda (2004) that hinted at some of the potential he has for drama, but it wasn’t until Marc Forster‘s Stranger Than Fiction where the comedian reveals a deeper set of gifts, embracing the humanity of a complex and troubled man who is in fact a character in a story being written by novelist Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) except that he is alive and occupying space in the real world. His work is a remarkably subtle and nuanced performance that completely alters any expectations about the actor and is so profoundly good, despite some narrative weaknesses in the story, it stands as his greatest on-screen appearance yet.
THE SERIOUS FILM: Dreamgirls (2006)
Murphy was a phenomenon when he burst onto the late night comedy scene and just about single-handedly kept SNL alive in the mid-80s. His incredible timing, bombastic delivery, and progressive attitude made him a huge impact on the decade. By the 90s, he found further success in a string of movies that made great use of his ability to create multiple characters, earning praise for his comedy genius. He’d had a few films that dabbled in drama along the way, including the disappointing Metro, and of course his work in the 48 Hrs. franchise that while thrillers were mostly vehicles for him to make us laugh. So it was a huge surprise to see his incredible performance in Bill Condon‘s Dreamgirls as a troubled R&B singer that was shockingly good, an emotional and substantial role that proved Murphy was far more than a laughs he inspired.
THE SERIOUS FILM: Other People (2016)
Shannon is a beloved member of SNL who is behind some of the most groundbreaking characters on the show, a fearless comedienne who has gone on to have a number of impressive parts in indie and mainstream films. And it is a little movie called Other People starring Jesse Plemons that stands as her greatest serious work yet. She plays his cancer-stricken mother and is heartbreaking in every scene she is in, giving the character great humanity and dignity as she slowly fails in front of her family. It’s an astonishing performance and one too often overlooked.
THE SERIOUS FILM: Lost In Translation (2003)
Murray has always shown a flare for the darker side, able to deliver some serious moments even if it looks like comedy. His box office failure A Razor’s Edge was his first real foray into drama, though his work as Hunter S. Thompson in Where The Buffalo Roam hinted at what was to come. But it was Sophia Coppola who recognized the real genius in his methods and cast him serious in her highly-acclaimed drama about a young woman (Scarlett Johansson) and an older man (Murray) who find friendship and a rare bond in a foreign country. A bittersweet and powerfully emotional performance, it forever shifted perceptions about the “comedian” and opened up a kind of second life for his film career.
THE SERIOUS FILM: Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
If there is an actor on the list of SNL alum with the most misused potential, it is surely Sandler, who has committed himself to producing a stream of increasingly irreverent and low-brow comedies that have earned him great wealth but been target for derision from critics and even fans for his lack of innovation and growth. So it is that this one monumental performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love stands out so strongly as what might have been if Sandler had followed a different path. Playing a near crippling introverted young man who discovers more than just real love, the story puts the comics innate aggressive stylings to far better use, with Sandler delivering an achingly effective turn as a man in constant torment. It’s the greatest serious performance of any SNL cast member.
What are some of your favorite serious SNL cast member performances?