This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Live from New York: It's an all-new Saturday Night! With the departures of Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis -- plus Seth Meyers' planned midseason exit to take over for Jimmy Fallon as host of NBC's Late Night -- SNL creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels has undertaken one of the most ambitious overhauls in the NBC sketch show's 38-year history.
"This was the most public search for talent that I've seen," says one comedy veteran of the hunt, which reached far beyond the Los Angeles-Chicago-New York circuit to such alt-comedy hotbeds as Portland, Ore., and Boston. Adds the insider, "Everyone was talking about it, and everyone was aware of it." The result: Five new faces will join SNL's cast this year, the most for a single season since 1995, when Will Ferrell made his debut.
Among the additions are Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney, friends from USC who formed the sketch group Good Neighbor. Bennett stars in AT&T's "It's Not Complicated" ad campaign, and the troupe recently shot a Comedy Central pilot produced by Ferrell and Adam McKay. Michaels arranged to get the pair out of that commitment. Their loopy brand of "bro humor" is expected to help SNL -- which pulled in $111 million in ad revenue during the 2012-13 season, according to Kantar Media -- remain current while filling a void left by Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island.
Also joining the cast are John Milhiser and Noel Wells, both gifted physical comics and talented mimics (Wells does a spot-on Zooey Deschanel) who honed their chops at L.A.'s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. And Mike O'Brien, a writer on the show for four seasons, has been upped to featured player.
The "rebuilding" process, as Meyers refers to it, kicked into high gear in the spring, with scouts scouring comedy clubs nationwide in search of the next Kristen Wiig. At a series of August showcases in L.A. and New York, invitees were given five minutes to wow execs like Lindsay Shookus, one of the SNL producers who oversees casting. Wells "blew everyone away," says one attendee, with her impression of a Vine video. (She played a screaming fan at a Rihanna concert who falls and repeats the embarrassing moment again and again.) That earned her a trip to New York for an audition in front of Michaels and his trusted comedy consiglieri Steve Higgins -- best known as Fallon's Late Night announcer -- among other SNL writers and producers.
"It's a mercurial process," is how one knowledgeable source characterizes the final decision, made invariably by Michaels and his golden gut. In Milhiser's case, a spot-on impression of Jon Cryer, among other characters, was all it took to earn the show creator's approval, while Bennett won Michaels over playing a man trapped inside a baby's body. But for a majority of hopefuls who made the pilgrimage to 30 Rock for a once-in-a-lifetime shot at network stardom -- sources say there were about two dozen -- the answer was a soul-crushing no.