When Lorne Michaels returned to Saturday Night Live in the fall of 1985 after a five-year absence, he faced an enormous challenge. Eddie Murphy almost single-handedly saved the show from cancellation in the years after Michaels left, but he’d been gone for almost two years and nearly everyone from the previous season — including Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Martin Short and Julia Louis-Dreyfus — had departed. Michaels built the show from the nothing in 1975, but he wasn’t competing with his own past back then.
Lorne has a pretty amazing eye for talent, and in 1985 he brought in Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, Randy Quaid and, much later in the season, Damon Wayans. Some of them were relative unknowns, others had a long history in the business and two of them starred in National Lampoon’s Vacation. There’s a lot of talent there, but for many of them this was the wrong forum and the cast simply never jelled.
Today Robert Downey Jr. is one of the most successful actors on the planet, or at the very least one of the highest paid. Back then he was barely 20 years old and his limited experience was in Off-Broadway plays and bit roles in forgotten films like Baby It’s You and Firstborn. He had no real experience with comedy, but somehow landed a part on the show.
Here’s a particularly bizarre skit called Suitcase Boy that almost seems like it originated from some parallel dimension where skits aren’t supposed to be funny. Randy Quaid carries out Downey Jr. in a suitcase, where he delivers a “confrontational monologue” that doesn’t deliver even the tiniest of laughs. Joan Cusack comes out in her suitcase midway through, but she doesn’t help move matters along and the four minute sketch seems to take about four hours. It’s not the worst sketch in the history of the show, but it’s close.
Downey Jr. was one of many members of the cast not invited back for Season 12, but by that point he’s already appeared in Back to School and was slowly making a name for himself in Hollywood. Earlier this year we ranked all 141 cast members in the show’s history, and Downey Jr. came in dead last. Somehow or another, we imagine he got over the pain of that ranking.