Saturday Night Live announced this week that it would be saying goodbye to two key cast members, Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah, as well as new, featured player, Jon Rudnitsky, before Season 42 gets started in the fall. The sudden departures have most calling foul and scratching their heads. Why would Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah leave SNL?
Well, it seems that Killam and Pharoah didn’t so much leave SNL as they were fired. After the news broke, Killam basically confirmed rumors that he and Pharoah had been fired in an interview with Uproxx. “I had sort of had it in my head that I would make this upcoming year my last year, but then I heard they weren’t going to pick up my contract. I was never given a reason why, really,” Killam said, clearly stating that the decision came from SNL, not him. Like Killam, Pharoah has been on the show for six seasons and it’s likely that he had a similar contract option for a seventh year. Pharoah has yet to comment on his exit from the show, but it seems safe to assume that his situation is similar to Killam’s.
Assuming both Killam and Pharoah were fired, the question then becomes why? Variety suggested that perhaps SNL’s infamous showrunner Lorne Michaels fired them simply because he doesn’t want to work with them in the future. “The fact of the matter is, no matter how good Killam and Pharoah are, the cast of Saturday Night Live are the comedians that showrunner Lorne Michaels gets along with and wants to nurture,” wrote Variety’s Sonia Saraiya. Another report suggested that perhaps Michaels was clearing house in an effort to allow a new generation of talent to shine. “Michaels may have thought that newer performers like Beck Bennett and Pete Davidson needed more room to develop,” wrote David Sims of The Atlantic.
It’s also possible that the cast shakeup came at the request of television executives who care more about ratings and revenue than quality of content. “I think of change as just being part of the show. It has to be renewed every year, and you have to be building for the future,” Michaels recently revealed in an interview with IndieWire. It’s not ridiculous to suggest that Michaels saw an opportunity to shake things up by not picking up Killam and Pharoah for a seventh season. It’s not ridiculous, but it is hard to understand. New talent has been coming in every season since Killam and Pharoah joined, and players like Davidson and Bennett have still managed to make their marks. If anyone might have suffered from Killam’s domination on SNL, it would have been Rudnitsky, but he was also cut from the show. Unless Saturday Night Live is planning a complete overhaul of how they write the show — actually using Sasheer Zamata, for example — it’s hard to believe they needed to get rid of Killam and Pharoah in order to allow new talent to flourish.
These rumors and theories aside, the main reason Killam and Pharoah’s alleged firing comes as such a surprise is the upcoming election. Killam is known as a decent impressionist. Over six seasons, he’s taken on a revolving door of politicians, including Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. In other words, Killam would have no doubt been a crucial figure this fall during the 2016 presidential election. Similarly, Pharoah was best known for his stunning impressions, which included a freakishly accurate Denzel Washington, a ridiculous Shaquille O’Neal and the best Barack Obama impression ever to grace television. Yes, Obama won’t be president for much longer, but the last four months of the year are long, and there’s no way Saturday Night Live won’t need a President Obama impressionist before he leaves office. Pharoah also did a great Ben Carson, which could definitely come in handy this fall. So, why get rid of two of your most beloved political impressionists before the 2016 election is over?
There is no doubt that Michaels will need new impressionists next season, but that might be by design. Saturday Night Live received a lot of press this year when it invited Larry David to perform as Bernie Sanders. The bit was so successful, David ended up reprising the role four more times throughout the course of the season. Other big hits in the press came courtesy of Darrell Hammond, who earned rave reviews for his guest appearances as Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Perhaps, having seen the big reaction from the media and the audience when guest players step in to play politicians, Michaels has simply decided to rely on more celebrity guests for political satire. (Hopefully it goes without saying that whatever Michaels does, he should not have Fred Armisen return as President Obama.)
It’s honestly hard to say why Michaels decided to cut ties with Killam and Pharoah. Killam has been a Saturday Night Live standout for years, with his hilarious impressions and funny new characters — his pitch-perfect Matthew McConaughey and deliciously sassy newspaper critic Jebidiah Atkinson remain my personal favorites — so firing him before his contract is up seems foolish at best. As for Pharoah, his two big moments this season — an impression quick-fire featuring black comedians and another featuring rappers — were big hits on Twitter and social media. Pharoah’s exit seems additionally shortsighted when you consider the fact that he is one of only a handful of non-white players.
Pharoah and Killam might not have been Saturday Night Live’s biggest stars (Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones stole those titles after their big screen breakouts in Ghostbusters), but they were two players who consistently delivered. They were ones whose sketches you would talk to your friends about the morning after. And, based on the initial reaction to their departures, audiences are going to be talking about what went wrong for Killam and Pharoah at SNL for plenty of mornings to come.
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