In the fall, the leaves change. In the spring, the lambs are born. And in the summer, “Saturday Night Live” fires its underperforming cast members.
Over the last 24 hours, “SNL” freshmen Brooks Wheelan, John Milhiser and Noel Wells were officially released from the show, while Nasim Pedrad exited to star on the upcoming Fox sitcom “Mulaney” and Mike O’Brien’s future as a performer became uncertain.
This can’t be seen as an unexpected thing, given the show’s decision to hire a ton of young white men at the beginning of the year (so many that it lead to a “half-dozen Matthew McConagheys” joke after a few weeks). But in each case, it speaks to not just the nature of “SNL,” but the nature of comedy in general: It’s about the characters.
Not impressions, but characters. The basic fact of the impression, after all, is that you’re mimicking someone else — Wells’ Zooey Deschanel impression, for the record, is impeccable (and beautifully showcased in her YouTube series “Hey! The Zooey Deschanel Show”).
But while Milhiser and Wells both brought a few decent celebrity recreations to the show, they ultimately never made an impact where it matters. For in the long run, while sketches like “Celebrity Jeopardy” and “Family Feud” make up a huge part of the “SNL” framework, it’s rare that an impression is so essential that you can’t imagine another performer pulling it off.
Well, Will Ferrell is irreplaceable. (You win this one, Trebek.) But on balance, what stays in the public memory is the original characters created. Even when run into the ground — yes, Debbie Downer, that’s directed at you — it’s the high-concept characters and premises that in the long run keep audiences on the hook.
And that’s why O’Brien stands a decent chance at remaining on the show in some capacity — his web series “7 Minutes in Heaven,” featuring awkward interviews with celebrities, was likely what helped him move from the writing side of the show to making on-camera appearances. And hopefully, that very weird, specific energy is harnessed by “SNL.”
So it’s a sad day for these cast members and their families. But it’s also a reminder that in this game, creativity and originality are still key.