Saturday Night Live is an institution. Since its premiere in 1975, it’s lasted 12 presidents, the rise of the internet, and more than 150 cast members. It’s hard to think of a show that’s more ingrained in popular culture besides maybe Seinfeld? Is it Cake? Who knows.
Of course, what makes the show great is the cast. A listing of the most famous SNL cast members reads like the stars on the sidewalk of Hollywood Blvd. Some cast members used the show as a springboard into bigger things – Tina Fey, Eddie Murphy, and others simply stayed a really long time on the show.
So who stayed the longest? Let’s find out.
Kenan Thompson – 19 Seasons
If Thompson’s SNL career was his child, it would be turning 20 this year. That’s right, Thompson’s been on the show since 2003, back when George W. Bush was president and “In Da Club” by a new artist named 50 Cent was tearing up the charts.
During his tenure, he’s brought us memorable characters like Diondre Cole from the fictional show What Up With That?, Steve Harvey with some ridiculous teeth and French Def Jam comedian Jean K. Jean, among countless others.
In an interview with Vanity Fair a few years ago, Thompson said he just wants to be funny and spread happiness in his work.
“I’m just out there trying to be joyous, basically,” he said.
Darrell Hammond – 14 Seasons
It’s really saying something that the next person on the list is five years below Thompson’s current record. Hammond appeared on the show for 14 seasons from 1995-2009. He returned to take on the announcer job after longtime previous announcer Don Pardo passed away.
One of Hammond’s best bits was impersonating Sean Connery as a contestant on Celebrity Jeopardy!. His back and forth with Will Ferrel’s Alex Trebek make for some of the show’s most iconic moments – especially when he’s claiming to have slept with Trebek’s mom.
He played Trump before Alec Baldwin and is also widely considered one of SNL‘s best political players. And Hammond is aware of the far-reaching reactions from his Connery. He told Rolling Stone in 2020 that he still gets recognized for it.
“I was always told when I was coming up that audiences had to understand your premise and kind of agree with it in order to laugh. And I remember thinking to myself, “They’re not gonna understand this premise. They’re not going to agree with it. It makes no sense that Sean Connery doesn’t know the answers on Jeopardy!. It makes no sense that Sean Connery hates Alex Trebek. And it makes no sense that he’s a homophobe.” He accused Alex Trebek of being — what was it I said to Will Ferrell that night? [Connery voice] “Not a fan of the ladies, are you Trebek?” It doesn’t make any sense. And yet it’s easily the most popular thing I’ve ever done.”
Seth Meyers – 13 Seasons
While he’s probably best known as the host of the popular Late Night with Seth Meyers, the young-faced writer and comedian spent a bulk of his professional years on SNL. The 48-year-old comedian was on the show from 2001 to 2014.
From 2006 to the end of his tenure, he was an anchor on Weekend Update, with the distinction of being the person to hold that position longest until he was eventually usurped by current hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che.
Meyers left the show to headline his own show, but in a recent interview with ET Online he said he aged out as well.
“I’m too old. I feel like when I went back there to host [in 2018], I felt like an athlete who lost like 10 miles off his fastball. It’s so hard. I’m so impressed with everybody who’s still doing it. It was the best but it was a young man’s game. … Once you hit my age, once you have kids, I’m not cut out for it anymore.”
Fred Armisen – 11 Seasons
Armisen joined SNL in the show’s 28th season. He was a repertory player on the show by Season 30 and left behind a bevy of memorable characters and sketches.
While he’s since moved on to other things, the actor told EW he’ll never forget his time on the legendary show.
“You write until 6 and 7 in the morning, all night, and you just look like a mess, and your hair is a greasy but you’re there and the sun’s coming up and you’re in front of this computer writing and laughing really hard. And that is something that I really will always miss, and I just yearn for it, as far as Saturday Night Live.”
Kate McKinnon – 11 Seasons
Kate McKinnon joined SNL in 2012. She’s been one of the more memorable cast members in recent memory, with a very popular Hillary Clinton impression that was often utilized during the runup to Donald Trump’s presidency.
McKinnon was the first openly lesbian member of the cast and she recently branched out with the show Joe Exotic, where she played animal wrangler Carole Baskin. According to an interview with Variety, McKinnon is notoriously shy in person and she always felt more comfortable making people laugh.
She said getting to do the show during the pandemic was “cathartic” for her.
“Of all the seasons I worked on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ this one may have been my favorite because it helped me to feel less alone. I felt a sense of communion with the audience in the studio and the audience at home. [Being able to] share in the ludicrousness and pain of what we were all going through made my year bearable. If I hadn’t been able to commune with people through a TV screen this year, I really would have been in bad shape.”
Al Franken – 10 Seasons
Before he was a senator, and then stopped being a senator, he was on SNL. Al Franken started on the show as a writer for its first two seasons and then became a full cast member for the third.
He left the show in 1980 but came back in 1985 and stayed until 1995. One of his most popular characters was Stuart Smalley, a faux self-help guru who has a show called Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley where he would repeat the mantra “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it, people like me.”
The next three longest tenured SNL cast members are all tied at ten seasons, but two of them are still on the show. They are Tim Meadows (1991 to 2000), Aidy Bryant (2012) and Cecily Strong (2012).
Still, it’s a long way to go to catch up to Thompson. Time will tell if anyone else is able to reach that benchmark.