In 1995, perhaps responding to a slew of negative reviews, including a New York Magazine cover story about the show’s “decline and fall”, Michaels fired some of SNL’s biggest stars, including Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, and Kevin Nealon. Even though he went on to A-list movie stardom, Sandler seems bitter about the manner of his departure to this day. (“Who knows?” he told The Daily Beast in 2014 when asked why he was fired.) In 2006, Michaels offloaded much of the show’s cast in the wake of the head writer Tina Fey’s departure, paving the way for younger stars like Samberg, Hader, and Wiig to get more airtime and make the show their own.
These purges were often exactly what the show needed, letting SNL reinvent itself every few years. In 2012, another turnover began. Over 2012 and 2013, Wiig, Samberg, Hader, Fred Armisen, and Jason Sudeikis all left the show, while repertory players like Killam and Pharoah were hailed as its new backbone. Pharoah, a master impressionist who plays everyone from President Obama to Kanye West, hasn’t commented on his firing, but Killam sounded genuinely hurt in an interview with Uproxx.
I was there for six years. I have not been anywhere in my life for six years. I don’t know that the end of something that you’ve committed that much time and energy to is ever going to feel “great” … You sign for seven years, so I had one more year. I had sort of had it in my head I would make this upcoming year my last year, but then heard they weren’t going to pick up my contract. I was never given a reason why, really. I can assume until the cows come home.
Killam played one of the current cast’s few memorable recurring characters—the snooty 1860s critic Jebidiah Atkinson—and had a repertoire of impressions that included Brad Pitt, Matthew McConaughey, and Christoph Waltz. The 2011 debut of his Eminem impression, alongside Pharoah as Lil Wayne, was a remarkable breakout moment for the actor, and an apt metaphor for the arc of a performer on the show. Killam had been mostly backgrounded in his first season on the show; but suddenly he came alive, to raucous cheers from the audience, and his stardom was cemented.
Still, he never quite became the leading man SNL was clearly looking for. The early creative promise of his sketches, like the audacious “Jeunes de Paris,” performed (and written by Killam) entirely in French, leveled off. He was given big assignments like providing the show’s Donald Trump impression; just as quickly, he was replaced, with Michaels bringing back former cast member Darrell Hammond (famed for his work as politicians like Bill Clinton and John McCain) to do the job instead. As is disappointingly common on SNL, the show has a bit of a white-guy logjam to solve—Michaels may have thought that newer performers like Beck Bennett and Pete Davidson needed more room to develop.