Middle-age is no joke.
And as “Saturday Night Live” has its 50th birthday on the horizon — the show premieres Season 48 on October 1 — some are wondering if the years have taken a toll.
Seven of the main cast members have left: Pete Davidson, Chris Redd, Kate McKinnon, Kyle Mooney, Aidy Bryant, Melissa Villasenor and Alex Moffat. Featured player Aristotle Athari is also gone, while Cecily Strong, who seemed to suggest on last season’s finale that she was out, will be returning, according to a source.
As of press time, only four replacements have been announced.
Meanwhile, several large questions loom over the show: Where does it go from here? What happens when creator Lorne Michaels, now 77, finally retires — and when will that be? And has the show lost all its youthful buzz with tabloid favorite Davidson — famous for his romantic life (Kim Kardashian, Ariana Grande, Margaret Qualley, Kate Beckinsale), feuds (Kanye West) and honesty about his mental-health struggles — dropping out?
Multiple sources told The Post that the decision not to replace everyone is calculated, as the large size of last year’s cast — 16 repertory players plus five featured cast members — was actually hurting it.
“Their cast last year got to be pretty sizable, but what my understanding from Lorne was, during Covid everyone wanted to stay together. It’s unusual they had such a large cast,” said a TV industry source. “One thing I had heard is that there were so many people last season that they weren’t able to feature people in the way that they wanted to.
“Now, [Michaels] has got to develop new people.”
A spokesperson for Michaels confirmed to The Post: “Because of the pandemic, no one left [for the past couple years” — but that didn’t stop the show from adding newcomers. “The way the series has survived is by renewal. Because if the show doesn’t add people every year, the show isn’t the show.”
Some, like McKinnon, “were natural to leave,” the insider said. “Kate was going to leave forever; obviously, she had a few things on the side” — including voiceover work such as “The Magic School Bus” series. Davidson, meanwhile, has regularly been making movies (“Bodies Bodies Bodies,” “The King of Staten Island”) and Bryant starred on Hulu’s “Shrill.” Redd is set to voice a lead role in a yet-to-be titled project from Michaels’ Broadway Video and Audible and is attached to star in the feature film “Cyber Monday.”
The industry source, however, hinted that there might be more to Redd’s departure, which was just announced this week: “Not the easiest person, to be honest. [There was a need to] calm him down over stuff. [He had] one foot in, one foot out.”
A representative had no comment but a source close to the show said: “Chris Redd is amazingly talented and is always a pleasure to work with.”
According to Asylum NYC improv club owner Norm Laviolette, Michaels and others in his talent acquisition crew have not seem freaked out by what seems like a mass exodus of talent.
As usual, “SNL” casting executives arranged showcase auditions in various cities across the US, including the Asylum in Chelsea. There were 25 performers culled from hundreds of contenders from stand-up stages, the Internet and social media.
“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.”
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.”
Speaking of anomalies, it’s been extremely rare for the show to have a tabloid lightning rod like it did with Davidson. “Pete was the hot topic on Weekend Update. Everyone wanted to do sketches with him because he was the guy who got talked about on Page Six,” said Cris Italia, co-owner of the Stand NYC comedy club, told The Post. “He had that impact. [Executives at ‘SNL’] would never say it, but I’m sure they were okay with all the attention. They will never say they want their guys on Page Six, but it helped ratings.”
Backstage at the 2022 Emmy Awards on Sept. 12, Michaels told reporters: “This will be a transition year. Change years are always difficult but always exciting.”
In a New York Times interview this week, he remarked that “Rebirth, that period, it’s painful. I’ve lived through it five or six times. Most people haven’t lived through it more than once or twice. But it’s always bumpy.”
Many in the industry speculate the legendary producer is determined to get to Season 50 and then bow out. Maybe. Sort of.
“He’ll continue until the 50th anniversary year and then he will make a dignified retreat,” said Tom Shales, co-author of “Live From New York,” an oral history of the show. “That is based on my talking to him. I don’t think it is humanly possible to go beyond that. [That] will absolutely be his last year. He’s said as much.
“Lorne will have an office [at the 30 Rock Center headquarters of ‘SNL’] and hang out, but he will feel self conscious. He’ll keep his office and feel sheepish about being in there. He’ll be the gray old eminence and that is not his style,” Shales, who said that he remains in communication with Michaels, predicted. “He will say, ‘Oh I don’t want to be involved in the weekly show.’ But he won’t be able to resist it. That will bring some complications.”
The industry source, who’s heard Michaels brush off retirement rumors, told The Post, “‘I’m not retiring’ is his thing, but 50 is going to come and he’s going to reconsider — unless he’s having too much fun.”
The Michaels spokesperson told The Post: “Lorne has no plans to retire.”
But if and when he does step down, what happens next for “SNL”?
“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.
As to who will take the reins, the industry source predicted: “Some of the old alums could take over. You need someone good, with talent; a good producer, a good name in the industry. I don’t think it would be Tina [Fey] but it would have to be someone like that.”
One person it won’t be is Lindsay Shookus, the “SNL” producer who abruptly departed last month after 20 years and had her own tabloid notoriety by dating Ben Affleck on and off from 2017 to 2019. She had been responsible for finding new talent and booking musical guests.
“She herself had debated producing but always backed away from it,” said the industry source, who also called Shookus a “polarizing” figure among the cast and crew.
Shookus had no comment.
Former cast-member Joe Piscopo, who worked on “SNL” in 1980 when Michaels was hiatus as a full-time producer, believes that replacing him will be borderline impossible.
“As long as Mr. Michaels is at the helm, the show is indestructible,” Piscopo told The Post. “He leaves, and you are talking a situation. I don’t know if he can be replaced and if the show can last after his departure. Not a lot of people have the magic glitter that Lorne has. I don’t know how you recover.”
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.
“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.”
Michaels has also remained a guiding hand in many players’ careers outside of “SNL” — helping produce everything from Mike Myers’ “Wayne’s World” movies to 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 Thompson’s recent failed “Kenan” sitcom.
Italia pointed out that Michaels has evolved over time, becoming more willing to let performers take weeks off from “SNL” to work on other projects.
“Pete was working on a film for most of last season,” said Italia of Davidson. Later, “Lorne asked Pete what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to do a series loosely based on his life and now it’s filming.” The sitcom, “Bupkis,” is being produced by Michaels’ Broadway Video production company and will air on Peacock.
Sources agree that a post-Michaels “SNL” is difficult to picture.
“It’s hard to imagine both the show without Lorne and Lorne without the show,” Shales said, speculating on the notion of a new leader. “It’s not like we’ll be getting a new pope — though, maybe in television terms, it is that.”