As Saturday Night Live fans witnessed with the return of Bill Hader to Studio 8H two weeks ago for his first appearance as host, the presence of a masterful sketch comedian can lift a cast and power a show. This week, Jim Carrey will get a chance to remind us that, when he wants, he can be that same kind of force of nature.
This is Carrey’s third time hosting Saturday Night Live after being a key part of FOX’s scrappy and daring sketch comedy series In Living Color during the early 90s, but Carrey’s history with Saturday Night Live goes back much further than his 1996 hosting debut.
Carrey actually auditioned to be a part of the Saturday Night Live cast at a few points during the 1980s. And while it’s easy to view these missed connections as an embarrassment that denied the show early and full access to one of the best sketch comics of our time, it’s fair to wonder if Carrey would have found the same successes that he had on In Living Color had he starred on Saturday Night Live.
The 1980-1981 Season
There’s no denying that the 1980-1981 season was an epic failure for Saturday Night Live following the departure of producer Lorne Michaels and the entire season 5 cast. New producer Jean Doumanian made some mistakes in the casting process when she tried to replace Bill Murray and Gilda Radner with the likes of Charles Rocket and Ann Risley, but if you’re looking at Carrey as though he would have been some great untapped savior, think again.
At the time his audition for Saturday Night Live took place, Carrey was 18 years old and somewhat new to stand-up. I imagine that his role working as Rodney Dangerfield’s opening act helped Carrey get a foot in some doors, but he likely wasn’t close to ready so it’s not surprising he was rejected.
Besides that, according to talent coordinator Neil Levy in an interview in the Live From New York Saturday Night Live oral history book, he had to threaten to quit to get Doumanian to hire an 18-year-old Eddie Murphy, so I can’t imagine that she would have easily added a second teenager to the cast or let him run wild even if he had the goods.
Here’s a video of Carrey’s stand-up act from the early 80s. It’s good, but it’s filled with impressions, funny faces, and little else. It doesn’t touch the presence that Murphy had at 18, and it doesn’t really feel ready to be not ready for prime time.
If Carrey had been cast on Saturday Night Live in 1980, his rawness may have been exposed and he would have probably been underused and out the door when the next season came around and new producer Dick Ebersol got rid of everyone from Doumanian’s cast besides Joe Piscopo and Murphy.
The 1985-1986 Season
I personally think Dick Ebersol did a pretty good job in his time at the helm, specifically with the 1984-1985 season that was anchored by Billy Crystal and Martin Short, but the accepted narrative is that Michaels returned as an infallible savior following his lengthy absence. The trouble is, Michaels did more harm than good in his first year back thanks to a trendy but comedy-averse cast of young Hollywood actors like Anthony Michael Hall, Randy Quaid, Joan Cusack, and Robert Downey Jr. One of the people that didn’t make the cut during the audition process that year? A more experienced Jim Carrey than the one who had showcased himself for producers in 1980.
Despite his top place on the food chain at Saturday Night Live, however, Michaels denied any direct responsibility for the decision to reject Carrey when he spoke to James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales for Live From New York:
Jim Carrey never auditioned for me personally. There is an audition tape which we almost played on the twenty-fifth-anniversary show — if he had come that night, we would have. We have all the audition tapes. Carrey, I think, auditioned for Al Franken the year I was executive producer and Tom Davis and Al were the producers along with Jim Downey. In ’85 when Brandon got me to come back, his whole argument was I had to learn how to delegate. Dick had run it successfully that way, and so Tom, Al, and Jim did their stuff and I sort of approved things. But later that season, when Brandon was again thinking about cancelling the show, he told me, “You have to completely take charge of everything again.”
Unsurprisingly, Michaels fired almost everyone from the 1985-1986 cast at season’s end, retaining only Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, and Nora Dunn. When he sought to build what would eventually become the second great Saturday Night Live ensemble, though, it seemed like Carrey would got another shot.