In their oral history of Saturday Night Live, Live from New York, Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller revealed an unfortunate legacy of sexism. Many of the show's female writers and cast members, chief among them Nora Dunn, told of difficulty in getting skits on the air and of generally being taken seriously by their male counterparts. That was then… and now six prominent alumnae will be back on the tube this fall in five successful returning shows and one promising newcomer. (Also, a series of six special all-politics Thursday episodes of SNL begin October 9 at 9:30 pm/ET on NBC.) In the meantime, let's check in with these smart, talented women:
Molly Shannon (Cast member, 1995-2007)
THEN Shannon was the queen of awkward laughs for more than a decade on SNL, boasting a litany of train-wreck recurring characters, including Sally O'Malley (she's 50!), a priceless Courtney Love impression and the pit-sniffing Mary-Katherine Gallagher, a skit that spun off its own feature film, Superstar.
NOW After a notable career in indie films (did you catch her as one of the gossipy aunts in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette?), Shannon is back on TV with Kath & Kim, a remake of the broadly comic Australian series about a tragically misguided mother and daughter. As Kath Day, Shannon is a well-meaning, sexually inappropriate spitfire who longs to make a new life for her middle-aged self out of her newly empty nest. When her spoiled, dim-bulb daughter, Kim (Selma Blair), calls off her six-week-long marriage and moves back in, comedy ensues! Or at least NBC is hoping it does, as it's given the sitcom some prime real estate nestled among The Office, 30 Rock (see below), and My Name Is Earl on Thursday nights (premieres Oct. 9, 8:30 pm/ET).
See clips of Kath & Kim in our Online Video Guide
Sarah Silverman (Cast member, 1993-1994)
THEN Blink and you might have missed Silverman's one-season stint on Saturday Night Live in the early '90s. The intervening years have shown that her comedic stylings might have been a little too, er, edgy for even SNL. Among her repertoire are sharp, controversial jokes about rape, AIDS, 9/11 and the Holocaust -- certainly not the purview of a show that gave us the Delta Delta Delta girl. She's had notable guest spots on Frasier and Monk, small, but memorable roles in There's Something About Mary and The School of Rock, and in 2005, she released Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic, an atypical tour film that combined her stand-up and musical montages within a feature film.
NOW Comedy Central turned out to be the perfect home for Silverman, where, in 2007, she launched The Sarah Silverman Program (Season 3 airs on Wednesdays at 10:30 pm/ET), in which she plays Sarah, an emotionally stunted woman who drifts through life confronting absurd obstacles. Signature episodes include the one when, medical evidence to the contrary, she convinces herself she is HIV-positive and becomes an AIDS activist -- for a day. In another, she decides she is a lesbian, and awkward dates and sex scenes follow. She also won a special 2008 Emmy this year for her infectious viral video titled, charmingly, "I'm F---ing Matt Damon."
Watch full episodes of The Sarah Silverman Program in our Online Video GuideTina Fey (Cast member and head writer, 1998-2008)
THEN Remember that sexism we mentioned earlier? Well, it can be argued that Fey's appointment as SNL's first female head writer ushered in a new era of lady-centric laughs on the skit show, including gags she wrote about an old French whore, The View, Mom Jeans and -- my personal favorite -- the Woomba, "the little pink robot that cleans your noonie." When she moved in front of the camera to co-anchor Weekend Update with Jimmy Fallon, and then, Amy Poehler (see below), it became clear that there would be a future in performing for the woman who singlehandedly made smart and nerdy hot.
NOW Her genius script for Mean Girls reminded us all that Lindsay Lohan can actually act, whose healthy box office led to NBC green-lighting her half-hour sitcom about the backstage drama of a comedy-skit show: 30 Rock (premieres Oct. 30, 9:30 pm/ET). She lured Alec Baldwin to series television, and her clout has lined up an astounding series of not-usually-on-TV guest stars that will also soon include Jennifer Aniston and Oprah Winfrey. When pundits noticed Fey's resemblance to vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, she proved she was a team player by returning to SNL to portray the aw-shucks guv in, thus far, three genius outings. "I'd really like to be done playing this woman on Nov. 5," she told the assembled press backstage at the Emmys, after taking home Best Actress and Best Comedy Series honors, "so if you guys could help me out with that, I'd really like that."
Watch full episodes of 30 Rock in our Online Video GuideJaneane Garofalo (Cast member, 1994-1995)
THEN Garofalo has been pretty vocal about her unhappiness during her one season on SNL. Nevertheless, the feisty, topical comic has parlayed her brief TV spotlight into recurring roles on The Larry Sanders Show, Felicity and The West Wing. She has also enjoyed a successful film career (Reality Bites, The Truth About Cats and Dogs, Cop Land), and frequently appears on late-night political shows to espouse her particular liberal points of view.
NOW Taking off from her dramatic turn on The West Wing as a shrewd political operative, Garofalo will go toe to toe with Jack Bauer & Co. on the long-awaited seventh season of 24 (premieres in January 2009 on Fox). Garofalo's casting was kind of a shock, considering the political drama's subtle right-wing bent, but we're guessing that as FBI Special Agent Janis Gold, a systems analyst, Garofalo will do her best to bring some "fair and balanced" to Kiefer Sutherland's terrorist-torture 'fest.
Watch full episodes of 24 in our Online Video Guide
Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Cast member, 1982-1985)THEN Louis-Dreyfus appeared on SNL during what is charitably referred to as "the bad years" (yo, Piscopo!). She memorably played a sassy chica named Consuela, who, with her friend Chi Chi, hilariously debated which was the best Ghostbuster. "I like de' black one," says her friend. "But Chi Chi, he didn't do naw-thin." Oh, she was also on a little show called Seinfeld.
NOW "I don't believe in curses," Louis-Dreyfus said, accepting her Best Actress Emmy for her CBS comedy The New Adventures of Old Christine, a sly reference to the poor post-Seinfeld track record of her costars. Instead, critics praised the traditional sitcom, in which she plays a single mom navigating parenthood, small-business ownership and complicated relationships with her brother and ex-husband and new wife, for reviving the genre. She recently returned to SNL to host, proving that she still has the chops for live-television comedy.
Watch full episodes of The New Adventures of Old Christine in our Online Video Guide
Amy Poehler (Cast member, 2001-present)
THEN She's the only woman on this list who is still a regular cast member of SNL -- for now anyway. She started her career as one of the founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade improv-comedy troupe. Her versatility on SNL has given birth to a host of hilarious characters, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Amber the One-Legged Hypoglycemic, Dakota Fanning, Nancy Grace, hyperactive preteen Kaitlin and Project Runway's Christian Siriano. Her recent send-up of Katie Couric slayed me for the dead-on blinking alone.
NOW Poehler's film career has included roles in Blades of Glory and Fey's Mean Girls and Baby Mama. In 2008, Poehler was the first SNL cast member to receive an Emmy nomination in the Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series category (alas, she lost to Samatha Who?'s Jean Smart). The very pregnant Poehler has announced that she will leave SNL after the baby is born, or the presidential election, whichever comes first. After some well-deserved baby time, she'll get to work on a new NBC sitcom with Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, two of the creators of The Office.
Watch your favorite Saturday Night Live skits starring all these talented ladies in our Online Video Guide