• 08.09.16

What SNL Is Losing With The Departures Of Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah

An NBC source confirmed the exit of two of the show’s leading veterans in advance of the new season. They will be leaving behind a huge gap.

What SNL Is Losing With The Departures Of Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah
Saturday Night Live Season: 41 cast Beck Bennett, Pete Davidson, Jay Pharoah, Leslie Jones, Jon Rudnitsky, Colin Jost, Kenan Thompson, Cecily Strong, Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan, Vanessa Bayer, Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Kyle Mooney, Michael Che, Sasheer Zamata. [Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews, courtesy of NBC]

Summer must be the strangest time to be a Saturday Night Live cast member. There’s the relief from the breakneck pace of a weekly live sketch show, tempered by the pressure to cram in the shooting and/or writing of as many movies as possible during the slim window of downtime. What fills this moment with unbearable suspense, though, is that SNL impresario Lorne Michaels is famous for making shrewd cuts to the show’s cast in the dead of summer. For someone like last season’s sole new cast member, Jon Rudnitsky, who never quite had a breakout sketch, the last eight weeks or so have been one long countdown to a verdict. (He didn’t make it.) However, even the veterans on this show aren’t safe.


Last night, TV Line reported that long-time cast members Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah were not returning for the show’s upcoming 42nd season. Both performers joined the show in the same week in 2010, and according to an Uproxx interview, Killam for one had no intention of leaving until after the upcoming season, which would have been his seventh. Six seasons is not a bad run, though. To put it in context, Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon both had six seasons, and they’re doing okay now. Both Killam and Pharoah launched their film careers during their runs on the show—with projects like The Heat and Top Five, respectively—and both have bright futures. What remains to be seen, however, is how the show will account for their losses.

Taran Killam, and Jay Pharoah[Photos: Dana Edelson, courtesy of NBC]

Before joining SNL, Taran Killam had logged some time on MadTV, the second cast member to ever make that jump, behind Jeff Richards. He’d also appeared in movies like Big Fat Liar and Epic Movie, which are likely no longer the sources of pride they may have once been. When he arrived at SNL, Killam gradually amassed a collection of recurring characters that established himself as a cultural chameleon. He was the louche Frenchman at the center of Les Jeunes de Paris, one of the hip-hop inflected Morning Zoo DJs at B108FM, the closeted Southern cohost of Right Side of the Bed, and half of the dizzyingly appropriating duo in J-Pop America Fun Time Now. He was also a member of that High School Theater ensemble that became really popular over the last couple seasons, but seems to have run its course recently. His most popular recurring character, and the one the show will miss a great deal, is the dandified old-timey critic, Jebidiah Atkinson. Over the last few seasons, this character had become a staple of Weekend Update; a successor to Stefon in his ability to be plugged in for desk-side appearances that coincide with any holiday. This overall mutability was another of Killam’s great talents.

Killam was a vanity-free utility player who didn’t mind making himself look bad in order to make, say, Chris Hemsworth look really, really good. He was often a befuddled quiz show guest, an Everydad in commercial parodies, and a virtuoso of little kid energy. SNL is going to need someone with this level of versatility—the kind that can anchor any sketch or just float by as a waiter and still steal a laugh. Also, someone with a few impressions in their back pocket.

Although he lost out on doing Donald Trump the year it really mattered, when Lorne Michaels brought back Darrell Hammond to manage this duty, Killam had a lot of other go-to impressions. He was doing Matthew McConaughey before he even got on the show, which left him sitting pretty when McConaughey took over the world in 2014. Killam also did Piers Morgan, Eminem, Vin Diesel, Paul Ryan, and Fox News stooge Steve Doocy. As much as these impressions will be missed, though, SNL is going to be seriously bereft of all the shapeshifting prowess Jay Pharoah brought to the table.

Pharoah was only 21 when he was hired back in 2010. He came from a stand-up background, compared to Killam’s sketch history, but he was known even then for his impressions. His nuanced imitation of Barack Obama, which he performed to acclaim on YouTube and on stage, is what brought him to Michaels’s attention in the first place. Once on the show, he established one breakout original character, the heavy-breathing Principal Frye, and he was always dependable as a tough guy or a college student, but impressions were his superpower.

Pharoah had a recurring hit in Waking Up With Kimye, until “Kim” (Nasim Pedrad) left the show, but he still kept his Kanye around and springloaded for whenever the unpredictable musician did something singularly odd, which was often. (This does not seem like a need that is going to cease with Pharoah’s departure.) He could do Drake and Jay-Z too, basically every famous rapper, sometimes all in one Weekend Update bit. He could do Katt Williams, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, so many famous comedians, sometimes all in one Weekend Update bit.


Beyond his impressions, though, Pharoah was a lynchpin in the show’s recent quest to incorporate more diversity. It’s not a matter of the show needing as many people of color as it can get, it’s that Jay Pharoah slips seamlessly into so many of the show’s racially charged sketches of the last few years, including the Obama-rating talk show, How’s He Doing?, Black Jeopardy, and the knowing dork-rap of 28 Reasons. Once SNL got a diverse enough cast and crew to make more sketches about the black experience in America, Pharoah had more of an opportunity to prove he had as much versatility in his own right as Taran Killam.

Taran Killam, Donald Trump, Jay Pharoah as Drake, Bobby Moynihan, and Beck Bennett during the “Hotline Bling Parody” sketch on November 7, 2015[Photo: Dana Edelson, courtesy of NBC]

The good news for both performers leaving the show is that their careers are looking up. Pharoah is about to embark on a tour and Killam is directing Arnold Schwarzenegger in a comedy he also wrote, Why We’re Killing Gunther. Also, the flourishing careers of people like Jenny Slate, Nasim Pedrad, Michaela Watkins, and others who left the show recently prove there is life after after a truncated SNL run. As for the show itself, the producers are going to have to find new cast members who can make up for these deficits, and introduce something new to the stew. They have their work cut out for them.

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.