Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: Which “Saturday Night Live” alum has the best post-“SNL” television career?
It’s gotta be Tina Fey, right? So many “SNL” alums have attempted to make the jump to movies, with varying degrees of success. Poor Chris Kattan. But Tina Fey really has a way with television (“30 Rock,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Great News”) that trumps her film career. And I think it’s because Tina’s an excellent writer and television is still such a writers’ medium. She really seems like a natural at showrunning and she has a partner she clearly trusts in Robert Carlock. But I also think she benefits from the fact that she’s doing these quirky, fun sitcoms about women in a way that stands out. It’s harder for Seth Meyers to differentiate himself from the late night slate because everyone’s a dude (aside from Samantha Bee and Robin Thede) and everyone’s expected to have something to say about the president. (Yes, I’m deliberately skipping over Jimmy Fallon. C’mon.) Even with all the noise of Peak TV, Tina still has a voice that’s clearly discernible from the pack. And she and Amy Poehler made the Golden Globes worth watching in a way that no one else has been able to touch since. Tina’s influence on television and the types of stories now seen as worth telling extends beyond just her.
Can I go back to workin’ on my night cheese now?
First of all, I’m not counting “SNL” writers who weren’t part of the cast, or else the answer might be Larry David or Conan O’Brien, with other people like Greg Daniels and Mike Schur also having strong arguments. Andy Samberg stars in one of my favorite current comedies, Phil Hartman had four great seasons on “NewsRadio” (and voiced two of the most vivid “Simpsons” characters ever), and a lot of other alums have been part of one of more great shows. But the discussion comes down to three women from a show that’s often been dominated by male voices. Amy Poehler starred in the great “Parks and Rec,” wrote several of its best episodes, and helped bring “Broad City” to television. Tina Fey created or co-created two of the best comedies of the last decade in “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” along with the critically admired “Great News,” and won a boatload of Emmys for both writing and playing Liz Lemon. If we’re going with most successful TV career by someone who will always be defined in some way by their time on “SNL,” it’s probably Fey, in the same way that Eddie Murphy’s probably the winner of the movie version of this question, since who even remembers Robert Downey Jr’s brief time in “Studio 8H”? But Julia Louis-Dreyfus did three seasons on the show — albeit in the shadow of Murphy and then the Billy Crystal/Martin Short cast of ringers — before going on to have an inner circle TV Hall of Fame career, with 11 Emmys and counting for her work on “Seinfeld,” “Veep,” and even “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” If someone were making a Sitcom Mt. Rushmore, JLD would have a better case for being on it than any other “SNL”-er. She’s the one.
If you consider “Seinfeld” to be one of the best sitcoms of all time, the answer to this question almost has to be Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Between “Seinfeld” and “Veep,” that gives her long, Emmy-winning runs on two of the greatest comedies ever made and that’s ignoring that the in-between show she did, “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” somehow ran 88 episodes and won her another Emmy. The question doesn’t ask us to take the quality of the “SNL” career into consideration as well, so that fact that Louis-Dreyfus was negligible on “SNL” is irrelevant. [Here one could also acknowledge Larry David, who only wrote for “Saturday Night Live” for one season, but went on to create the aforementioned “Seinfeld” and to create and star in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” but then we’re getting into how to measure success for writers and is Mike Schur, with co-creating credits on “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and a long writing (and guest starring) run on “The Office” in the same conversation? Dunno. Let’s pretend we’re only talking about on-camera.] I, however, am not a big fan of “Seinfeld.” This is well-established. So that leaves the other obvious choice as Tina Fey, who won Emmys for writing, producing and acting on “30 Rock.” She co-created “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Great News” and guest starred on both shows. Oh, and as an added wrinkle, her post-“SNL” career still includes “Saturday Night Live.” As great as she was on Weekend Update when she was actually a writer and castmember of the show, she was a generally negligible sketch presence. Her defining “character” on the show, Sarah Palin, only appeared after she was no longer a regular cast member. Therefore, I count that as Fey’s post-“SNL” TV career, too. So my answer is Tina Fey!
Look, I have to mention Amy Poehler, briefly, because “Parks & Rec” was a brilliant bubble of pure happiness. (I loved it and I liked it.) But that brief cheating aside thank you TV Gods for the ridiculously underrated Seth Meyers and “Late Night.” Seth was excellent as an “SNL” writer and excelled as a co-anchor (and then solo anchor) of Weekend Update. Now, his biting political commentary —which manages to simultaneously explain complex issues and be ridiculously funny — has been top notch, especially in light of the 2016 election. And he’s not all serious: have you seen his day-drinking segments?
So many performers have had amazing post-“SNL” careers (and after recently getting my heart broken by Vanessa Bayer in “Love” Season 3, it feels like there are still plenty of surprises to come) — the show truly is an amazing launch pad for talent. But how many cast members left the show to create a comedy series for the ages? The answer is just one: former head writer/Weekend Update host Tina Fey, a.k.a. the official genius behind “30 Rock.”
The original concept for “30 Rock” was supposed to be about a cable news producer squabbling with her show’s host, but by switching the premise to revolve around an “SNL” pastiche, Fey was able to comment on her past while also creating her own insane universe dense with ridiculous pop culture parodies. Followed up with “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a complicated series that has its flaws but never fails to take chances, as well as “Great News” (which she did not create but does produce), it’s become clear that Fey is operating on a level beyond the typical “SNL” alumni. She’s not just getting her goofs in. She’s become a full-on goof factory.
Oof, this is gonna be one of those “well, this one did so-and-so, but this one has blah-blah-blah awards,” so I am just gonna go with the one who seems happiest and say Seth Meyers. And not just because he’s killing it as host of “Late Night” and so much better than the “SNL” vet who has the show before him. It’s because Seth is clearly doing the things he loves because of his “SNL” past. It’s allowed the comic-book fan to create his superhero cartoon “The Awesomes” for Hulu, given him the chance to host other live shows (the Globes and Emmys), and recently led him into producing (with “SNL” and “Late Night” EP Lorne Michaels) “A.P. Bio,” the sort of smart comedy he does best. Also, he gets to showcase his dog beloved Frisbee and that alone places anyone ahead of the pack.
Just about anybody who counts for anything in mainstream comedy has some connection to “Saturday Night Live.” And the truth of that statement doesn’t become obvious until you think about how wide the show’s influence reaches. There’s early stars who became comedy gods like John Belushi and Chevy Chase; later alums who first got famous on the show like Mike Myers and Adam Sandler; people who had established careers before their “SNL” bid, like Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Christopher Guest and Alec Baldwin; people who aren’t generally perceived as “SNL” alums because they blew up after their time on the show, like Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Robert Downey Jr. and people who just host the show or a lot or do cameo appearances like Melissa McCarthy, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin and John Goodman.
So there is a lot of comedy ground covered by this question. I’d offer two answers: in film and standup comedy, I’d say Eddie Murphy. It’s not just about how much money his films have made, although Five Thirty Eight calculated his films had made $9 billion by 2015. Now that’s he’s semi-retired after a spate of disappointing movies, it’s easy to forget how much Eddie changed the game in his prime – adding sex appeal and an alpha male swagger to wisecracking black characters like “48 Hours’” Reggie Hammond and “Trading Places’” Billy Ray Valentine. And his comedy albums, though they have a lot of awful homophobic jokes in them, were blockbuster and groundbreaking. Tina Fey would be my pick for television, because she has crafted a thriving career as show creator, executive producer, and star on programs like “30 Rock,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Great News.” Yes, she’s also had success in films like “Mean Girls,” “Date Night” and “Baby Mama,” but to me, she’s first and foremost a TV legend – both for the way she gave women a voice on “SNL” and how “30 Rock” changed the game for TV comedy in its day.
Objectively? Probably Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy or Will Ferrell. Personally? Chris Elliott (’94-’95). “Cabin Boy,” “Get a Life” and “Eagleheart”? We have a weiner!
Hands down it is Bill Murray. Why? For career longevity, cool quotient and his entire “SNL” canon and classic moments. Murray’s an ace golfer, bowling champ and can even play baseball AND guitar (he jammed with Eric Clapton onstage at the Crossroads festival in 2007. Murray is always someone who inspires interest in any TV or film project. His body of work is incredible and diverse, from “Lost in Translation,” “Stripes,” “Caddyshack,” “Meatballs,” “Scrooged,” “Kingpin,” “Groundhog Day,” “Ghostbusters,” “St Vincent,” “A Very Murray Christmas,” “Olive Kitteridge,” “Parks & Recreation,” “Angie Tribeca,” “Ed Wood,” so many classics to list…Even at age 67, anything he signs up for is one to watch. Best “SNL” moment? Anything with Nick the Lounge Singer or Todd.
Because we’re talking television careers, it’s got to be Julia Louis-Dreyfus. As much as I love Bill Murray’s guest stints / cameos in the likes of “Parks and Recreation,” “Angie Tribeca,” the short-lived golf show “The Sweet Spot,” and his Emmy-winning role in “Olive Kitteridge,” his greatest successes have come in film; the same can be said for Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Adam Sandler, and more alums who “graduated” to the big screen.
Meanwhile, Louis-Dreyfus has become the undisputed queen of TV comedy. Setting aside her unprecedented (and wholly deserved) success at the Emmys, Louis-Dreyfus has carried three series that at worst have been “very good” and “successful” and at best have been “incredible” and “history-making” — “Seinfeld,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” and “Veep.” But then you have to throw in the beloved guest spots and supporting roles. Her performance as a blind attorney who’s faking the blind part is one of the best aspects of “Arrested Development.” Her appearance as Liz Lemon in the “30 Rock” live episode earns one of the biggest laughs (not to mention popping into “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Web Therapy”). She even adds layers when playing herself during “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” No matter what Louis-Dreyfus does on TV, she’s great at it, and it all started on “Saturday Night Live.”
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
Other contenders: “The Alienist,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Counterpart,” “The Good Fight,” and “The Magicians”(one vote each)
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.