Saturday Night Live has been a staple of American television programming since the show first aired with George Carlin hosting on October 11, 1975. Not long after, many of the show’s cast members were catapulted to stardom. Laraine Newman, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris, and Chevy Chase (the show’s original cast) all quickly became household names, and most of them went on to have successful careers after leaving the show.
Today, Saturday Night Live continues to serve as a stepping stone for comedic actors to launch themselves into stardom. Pete Davidson, who joined the SNL cast in 2014, was relatively unknown before joining the show. Since then, Davidson has become an international superstar, starring in the feature-length film The King of Staten Island, the Netflix biopic I Slept With Joey Ramone, and his own Peacock series Bupkis. He’s also dated some of the largest names in entertainment, from Kim Kardashian to Ariana Grande. Undoubtedly, SNL has the ability to turn small-time comedians into full-fledged celebrities.
But, the more you learn about the entertainment industry, the more you begin to realize that celebrity doesn’t always translate into dollar bills. And, while watching old seasons of SNL the other night, I began to wonder how much these incredibly talented actors were paid for being on the show. Are they raking in millions? Or are they paid less than your average doctor? Well, the answer is a bit more complicated than that. And it really depends on who we’re talking about.
How Are Their Salaries Determined?
According to a CelebrityNetWorth.com article from 2018, all SNL cast members are paid per episode. However, the rate that they’re paid per episode is determined mostly by how many years they’ve been on the show.
Now, it’s very possible that the salaries listed in the 2018 article from CelebrityNetWorth.com have increased to adjust for inflation. However, it’s also possible that SNL execs haven’t been able to raise salaries due to the show’s declining popularity over the last several decades. In fact, SNL ratings recently dropped to an all-time low back in April 2023. So, raising the salaries of cast members might not be a possibility for the 48-year-old show.
According to CelebrityNetWorth.com, first-year cast members make $7,000 per show. And, since there are 21 shows in a season, that would come out to $147,000 per season for first-year cast members.
This year, in 2023, the show’s newest cast members are Marcello Hernandez, Michael Longfellow, Molly Kearney, and Devon Walker. So, if our estimates are correct, each of these actors should be pulling in $147,000 over the course of this season of SNL.
Once SNL cast members get to their second year, they get a pay raise to $8,000 per episode. That comes out to $168,000 if the season is 21 episodes long, which is $21,000 more than their first-year counterparts.
Sarah Sherman and James Austin Johnson are now in their second season as SNL cast members, so we can assume that they’re raking in about $168,000, which is a lot of money but still probably less than your average physician.
Though we were unable to figure out what happens during years three and four, we do know that fifth-year cast members reportedly get paid $15,000 per episode, which would come out to $315,000 over the course of a 21-episode season. That’s probably more than your average physician.
Currently, Heidi Gardner is in her fifth season, so that’s what she should be making this season if our estimates are correct.
Who Are the Highest Paid Cast Members?
As to be expected, those with seniority on SNL are paid the most. And, if you’re a fan of the show, you probably know that Kenan Thompson has been on SNL for what feels like forever. In reality, Kenan has been a cast member on the show since 2003 (a full two decades this season). Because of his tenure and how much audiences love him, it’s estimated that Kenan Thompson makes between $2 million and $3 million for every season of SNL. However, it’s impossible to know the exact number (unless you know Kenan personally, which I do not, unfortunately).
Kenan Thompson is an outlier, though, considering he’s had a longer tenure on the show than any other cast member ever. Apparently, under normal circumstances, the highest that SNL will pay its cast members is $25,000 per episode, coming out to $525,000 over the course of a 21-episode season.
It’s believed that Colin Jost (who’s been on the show since 2014) and Mikey Day (who started in 2016) are both making this much.
Of course, none of these estimates are 100% accurate. Due to negotiations between SNL and agents, certain actors may be receiving more than the estimates we’ve listed above.
What About the Hosts?
It’s a little-known fact that most award shows don’t pay their hosts. Fortunately, SNL doesn’t follow that trend, and they actually reportedly pay their hosts $5,000 per show. In an interview that Justin Timberlake did with The Sun, he said, “I really do adore the cast and the writers and everyone there… It’s the best five grand you can make on television. It’s awesome.”
Now, of course, $5,000 is chump-change to some of the big-time, multi-millionaire entertainers that they get to host the show. However, as Justin Timberlake said, most of these entertainers are honored to host the show because of its history, its unique format, and the lovely cast and crew. Being invited to host SNL is a status symbol; it means you’ve made it to the A-list.
Do Guests Get Paid?
According to an interview that Alec Baldwin gave to The New York Times, he got paid $1,400 for each one of his appearances as Donald Trump on SNL. Obviously, this is a pretty low rate for an actor of Alec Baldwin’s caliber. But I’m certainly thrilled that he decided to make these appearances anyway because Baldwin’s Trump impression is spot-on.
How Does This Compare to Other Actors?
Simply put, SNL cast members usually don’t make as much as A-list Hollywood actors. But that doesn’t really come as a surprise. According to The Hollywood Reporter, for Hollywood movies, “the bulk of known but not DiCaprio-level actors get paid in the $2 million to $4 million range, while newer names whom directors and studios want but the vast majority of the public might not yet recognize (think Glen Powell, Jonathan Majors) are looking at $1 million to $2 million.” So, by that standard, these A-list Hollywood actors are making for a film what Kenan Thompson (the highest-paid SNL cast member by far) makes in a season.
Also, according to The Hollywood Reporter, in terms of TV, “many actors are looking at up to $40,000 an episode,” and “a well-known star could fetch $250,000 to $300,000 an episode for a network show’s first year. At the streamers, true A-listers can score $500,000 an episode and up.” Obviously, those rates are far higher than the per-episode rates earned by SNL cast members.
But, as most SNL cast members have testified, there’s a general aura of love and companionship on the SNL set. Many of the cast members are great friends off-set and have found community in the long history of this iconic show. And, for these actors, that’s worth even more than money.