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.
The 1986-1987 Season
This audition doesn’t get mentioned as freely as the 1980 audition (which boggles my mind considering Carrey’s age and inexperience at the time) or the 1985 one, but we’re taking Dana Carvey’s word for it.
My second audition was at a studio, probably in Burbank, where you had to go out in front of Lorne and a few cast members that had been left over from ’85 — Dennis Miller, Jon Lovitz and Nora Dunn. It was very painful. There’s no laughs, and I think at one point a fire alarm went off, and then I stopped, and then I did something, and then Lorne said: “Do you have anything else? We’ve sort of seen it.” Phil Hartman was there, and Jim Carrey was there, auditioning as well. He just stood on his pinkie, and his whole body was straight in the air, and he put his foot over his head.”
I thought, “Oh, you’re going to get it, Jim.” We were in some kind of holding room, and I remember Phil saying to Jim: “Well, you’ll get it. Or at least a featured player.”
Hartman was wrong and Carrey would once again be denied, though it’s unclear who was at the center of the snub. This time, however, Carrey had a modest film career to fall back on.
In 1985, Carrey had started to establish himself with a lead role in Once Bitten beside Lauren Hutton. Over the next few years he would have major roles in Earth Girls Are Easy and Peggy Sue Got Married, but he never quite found “his” role until In Living Color and then Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber.
What do I mean by “his” role? The problem with Carrey, back in the day, is that he seemed so damn wild and energetic. Could he be focused? Could he bring more to the tale than mere celebrity impressions?
Checking back with Carrey’s stand-up in 1991 during his Unnatural Acts Showtime special, you can see that he is able to do exactly that.
Carrey absolutely loses himself as he moves from character to character. He was telling stories at that point, not just grasping for easy laughs as he jumped from stock celebrity impression to stock celebrity impression without taking the time to set up his jokes or really explore these characters. Apparently this transformation didn’t occur organically, though, it was willed into existence by a talent that recognized that he had to make a change. Here’s Carrey in an interview with Roger Ebert from 1994.
“I did impressions at the beginning, but I got to the point where I saw where I realized you gotta be an original. You gotta be something different.
“I found myself coming up with all these ideas that didn’t fit into the format of John Wayne sitting in a restaurant, or whatever. So I couldn’t do them. I was an ‘impressionist.’ So, people wanted impressions. It’s like if you go onstage and you juggle. If you juggle for five minutes at the end of your act, you’re a juggler.
“And so I just stopped doing impressions. I completely cut them out and Mitzi Shore (the godmother of comedy, who runs the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard) went nuts. ‘You’re the King of Impressions!’ she said. I said, what’s my thrill going to be? That I walk up to Clint Eastwood and do Clint Eastwood for Clint Eastwood? It’s nothing to me. I said, ‘Hey, Mitzi, they freaked out when Bob Dylan went electric. People don’t like change.’
“So, what should I do then? I decided, well, maybe I’ll go up onstage every night with nothing and see what happens.”
Did Carrey’s failure to hook on with Saturday Night Live have a hand in his bold decision to change things up? That’s hard to say, but as with most people, I’m sure Carrey has learned from his failures and became the man and the talent that he is because of his collection of experiences — both good and bad.
Would Jim Carrey have been a natural on Saturday Night Live? Maybe, but which Jim Carrey would we have seen? I’m sure that the writers could have found a place for him and his barrel of impressions, but it seems to me that the Jim Carrey who surfaced on In Living Color was born from the sweat equity that Carrey put in while toiling away at clubs in between larger paying gigs. An effort that likely wouldn’t have been deemed necessary had he hooked on with Saturday Night Live in the mid 80s. It also seems like Carrey was in the right place creatively at the right time for a show that was young, hungry, and possibly more open to pushing the envelope and straying from the norm than Saturday Night Live would have been able to be. So, with that in mind, it seems like Jim Carrey was exactly where he needed to be at all times. To hell with “what if.”