Inside the struggle to change 'Saturday Night Live' as eight actors leave before the season starts

Middle-age is no joke.

And since "Saturday Night Live's" 50th birthday is coming up (Season 48 starts on October 1), some people are wondering if the years have changed the show.

Pete Davidson, Chris Redd, Kate McKinnon, Kyle Mooney, Aidy Bryant, Melissa Villasenor, and Alex Moffat are the seven main cast members who have left. Aristotle Athari, another key player, has also left, and a source says that Cecily Strong, who seemed to leave on the last episode of last season, will be back.

As of the time this was written, only four new people had been named.

Several big questions still hang over the show, though: What should happen next? What will happen when the show's creator, Lorne Michaels, who is now 77, finally quits? When will that be? And has the show lost all of its appeal to young people now that Davidson, a tabloid favorite known for his relationships (with Kim Kardashian, Ariana Grande, Margaret Qualley, and Kate Beckinsale), fights (with Kanye West), and openness about his mental health struggles, has left?

SNL
Among the cast members who have left ahead of the Oct. 1 premiere of the 48th season of “Saturday Night Live” are featured player Aristotle Athari, and the main cast members.
NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Pete Davidson is leaving the show and already has a sitcom in the works.
Pete Davidson is leaving the show and already has a sitcom in the works.
NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Multiple sources told The Post that the decision not to replace everyone is strategic, since the big size of last year's cast—16 regulars and five special guests—was hurting it.

"Their cast got pretty big last year, but from what I heard from Lorne, everyone wanted to stay together during Covid. "It's unusual that they had such a big cast," someone in the TV business said. "One thing I'd heard was that last season there were so many people that they couldn't show everyone the way they wanted to.

“Now, [Michaels] has got to develop new people.”

While there is speculation that show creator and producer Lorne Michaels will step down after the 50th season (2024-2025), sources expect he will retain some role, and an office at 30 Rock.
There is speculation that Lorne Michaels will step down after the 50th season, sources expect he will retain some role in 30 Rock.
AP Images via Sipa USA; Getty Images

A representative for Michaels told The Post, "Because of the pandemic, no one has left in the last couple of years," but that didn't stop the show from bringing in new people. "The show has kept going because it has been renewed. Because the show isn't the show if it doesn't get more people every year."

"It made sense" for some, like McKinnon, to leave, the insider said. "Kate was going to leave for good, but she had a few things on the side," like voiceover work for "The Magic School Bus" series, for example. Davidson has been making movies regularly ("Bodies Bodies Bodies," "The King of Staten Island"), and Bryant was in "Shrill" on Hulu. Redd is set to voice the main character in a project from Michaels' Broadway Video and Audible that hasn't been given a name yet. He is also set to star in the movie "Cyber Monday," which is set to come out this year.

The source in the business world, on the other hand, hinted that Redd's departure, which was just announced this week, might have more to it: "To be honest, not an easy person. It was important to calm him down about things. He was halfway in and halfway out.

Aidy Bryant is one of several departing cast members who already has a busy career outside of "SNL."
Aidy Bryant is one of several departing cast members who already has a busy career outside of “SNL.”
NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

A show source said, "Chris Redd is incredibly talented and always a pleasure to work with."

Norm Laviolette, who runs the improv club Asylum NYC, says that Michaels and the other people on his talent acquisition team don't seem worried about what looks like a mass exodus of talent.

As usual, people in charge of casting for "Saturday Night Live" set up showcase auditions in cities all over the US, including the Asylum in Chelsea. Out of the hundreds of people who tried out on stand-up stages, the Internet, and social media, 25 were chosen.

“There is no more urgency [than in previous years],” said Laviolette. “It gets tricky when all of a sudden a big percentage of your ensemble moves on. But are all the people leaving on their own accord? Or did ‘SNL’ shepherd some of them out the door? I would argue that if somebody has been there for 12 or 13 years, they are holding a spot for someone.”

A TV insider suggests there may be more to the story of why Chris Redd is leaving "SNL."
A TV insider suggests there may be more to the story of why Chris Redd is leaving “SNL.”
NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Though the valuable and versatile Kenan Thompson has been on the show for 20 seasons, the TV source pointed out that he is an anomaly: “The average time is seven or eight years for how long people stay.”

When we talk about odd things, it's very rare for a show to have a tabloid lightning rod like Davidson. "On Weekend Update, everyone was talking about Pete. Cris Italia, co-owner of the Stand NYC comedy club, told The Post that everyone wanted to do sketches with him because he was the guy who was talked about on Page Six. "He made a difference. Executives at "SNL" would never say it, but I'm sure they were fine with all the attention. They will never say they want their guys on Page Six, but it helped get more people to read the paper.

Backstage at the 2022 Emmy Awards on September 12, Michaels told reporters, "This will be a transition year." Change years are always hard, but they are always fun."

With the departure of Pete Davidson — who has dated Kim Kardashian, among other big names — the show loses its one big tabloid star.
With the departure of Pete Davidson — who has dated Kim Kardashian, among other big names — the show loses its one big tabloid star.
Getty Images

In an interview with the New York Times this week, he said, "Rebirth, that time, it's painful. It's happened to me five or six times. Most people have only experienced it once or twice. But the road is always rough."

Many people in the business think the legendary producer wants to keep going until Season 50 and then quit. Maybe. Almost.

Tom Shales, co-author of "Live From New York," an oral history of the show, said, "He'll keep going until the 50th anniversary year, and then he'll step down with grace." "That's based on what we talked about. I don't think it's possible for a person to go further than that. That will be his last year for sure. He's already said that.

Comedy club owners say Michaels (above with former cast member Tina Fey) has seem freaked out by the mass exodus of talent.
Comedy club owners say Michaels (above with former cast member Tina Fey) has seem freaked out by the mass exodus of talent.
WireImage

"Lorne will have an office at the 30 Rock Center, where "SNL" is based, and he'll hang out there, but he'll feel awkward. He'll keep his office, but he'll be embarrassed to be there. Shales, who said that he still talks to Michaels, said, "He'll be the gray old eminence, and that's not his style." "He'll say, 'Oh, I don't want to be on the weekly show.' He won't be able to stop himself, though. There will be some trouble with that."

The industry source, who has heard Michaels laugh off retirement rumors, told The Post, "'I'm not retiring' is his thing, but when he turns 50, he'll think again, unless he's having too much fun."

"Lorne has no plans to retire," a rep for Michaels told The Post.

But what will happen to "SNL" if and when he does leave?

Melissa Villasenor is among those leaving the show.
Melissa Villasenor is among those leaving the show.
NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

“It is possible that they will completely redo the show so it is not ‘SNL’ as we know it. You probably will still want a cold open and someone saying, ‘Live from New York…’ but you will want to minimize comparisons [between the current version of the show and a new one],” Shales said.

A source in the business world said, "Some of the old graduates could take over." You need a good person with talent, a good producer with a good name in the business. I don't think Tina Fey would do it, but someone like her would have to."

One person it won't be is Lindsay Shookus, who worked on "Saturday Night Live" for 20 years and left suddenly last month after being linked to Ben Affleck on and off from 2017 to 2019. She was in charge of finding new musical talent and making plans for musical guests.

Kate McKinnon was a natural to leave, having been on the show for 10 years and with several projects in the works.
Kate McKinnon was a natural to leave, having been on the show for 10 years and with several projects in the works.
NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

"She had thought about producing herself, but she always decided against it," said the industry source, who also said that Shookus was a "divisive" figure among the cast and crew.

Shookus had nothing to say.

Joe Piscopo, a former cast member who worked on "SNL" in 1980 when Michaels wasn't there as a full-time producer, thinks it will be hard, if not impossible, to replace him.

Piscopo told The Post, "As long as Mr. Michaels is in charge, the show can't go wrong." "He goes away, and you have a situation. I'm not sure if he can be replaced or if the show can go on without him. Lorne has magic glitter that not many people have. I don't know how you get through it."

Insiders say Michaels is in no hurry to fill all the open spots as the cast had grown to an unusual large size during the pandemic.
Insiders say Michaels is in no hurry to fill all the open spots as the cast had grown to an unusual large size during the pandemic.
NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Even this many years in, Michaels remains remarkably hands-on.

“Lorne came down [to watch the auditions],” said Asylum’s Laviolette. “People are surprised that Lorne still comes down and watches. He would have every reason to put it on cruise control and have someone else vetting the first 25 people. That he is still down there tells me that the guy still loves it.”

Which doesn’t necessarily mean he shows it. Whenever Michaels liked a contender, Laviolette said, “He laughed quietly. And not a lot.”

For newcomers, there are definite advantages that come with being on a show as entrenched as “SNL”: “You get staffed as a writer or cast as a performer and you automatically get an agent and a manager and more work opportunities — managers and agents are lining up to sign you,” Laviolette said. But to some young talents, it resides off the radar.

Chloe Fineman is "the rising star" of "SNL" now, said a TV industry source.
Chloe Fineman is “the rising star” of “SNL” now, said a TV industry source.
Getty Images for NRDC

“I’ll be honest. I haven’t even paid attention [to the goings on at ‘SNL’],” comedian Leonard Ouzts told The Post. “‘SNL’ is not a huge factor in my life. I had a chance to get a couple auditions. Michael Che is a good friend and the conversation came up that he could [help get] me an audition. Through my agency, I could get an audition. ‘SNL’ wasn’t a thing for me. I am 29. When I grew up, the biggest thing was ‘Wild ‘N Out.'”

When it comes to those left on the show, the industry source said there are definite stars.

“[‘Weekend Update’ hosts] Colin Jost and Michael Che are good anchors for the show. Ego [Nwodim] is getting more time. Chloe [Fineman] is the rising star. Bowen could do so much more than they’re using him for — he’s so popular,” the source said of writer-turned-cast member Bowen Yang, who co-starred in the summer’s “Fire Island” movie. “Bowen and Chloe are natural stars.”

Insiders point to Bowen Yang as one of the bright lights of the remaining cast and say he's been underused.
Insiders point to Bowen Yang as one of the bright lights of the remaining cast and say he’s been underused.
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Michaels has also helped many "SNL" players with their careers outside of the show. For example, he helped produce Mike Myers' "Wayne's World" movies, Tina Fey's "30 Rock," Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers' late-night NBC talk shows, Fred Armisen's "Portlandia," "That Damn Michael Che" on HBO, and Kenan Thompson's recent failed "Kenan" sitcom.

Italia said that Michaels has changed over time and is now more willing to let performers take weeks off from "SNL" to work on other projects.

Italia of Davidson said that Pete spent most of the last season making a movie. Lorne asked Pete what he wanted to do later on. He said he wanted to make a show that was loosely based on his life, and it's now being filmed. The comedy show "Bupkis" is being made by Michaels's company, Broadway Video, and will be shown on Peacock.

Sources agree that it's hard to picture "SNL" without Michaels.

Shales said about the idea of a new leader, "It's hard to picture both the show without Lorne and Lorne without the show." "It's not like we'll get a new pope, but maybe that's what it is in TV terms."

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