Former Saturday Night Live writers Al Franken and Jim Downey sat down together on a recent episode of The Al Franken Podcast. During their chat, Downey revealed a previously unknown anecdote regarding Bill Maher nearly taking over for Kevin Nealon as the anchor of Weekend Update. The job ultimately went to Norm Macdonald, who’s still regarded as one of the best Weekend Update anchors of all time, but not before Franken threw his hat into the ring.
Franken and Downey both began as writers on the show during its first season in 1975. They were frequent collaborators and, when the studio muscled Kevin Nealon out of his Weekend Update position in 1994, they were tasked with finding his replacement.
Franken, who had toiled for years behind the scenes and was craving some airtime, initially positioned himself as a replacement. He was allowed to audition, but the network was also interested in Maher, who at this time had already hosted the Comedy Central version of Politically Incorrect.
“Norm emerged late. The big competition was [if] it’s gonna be you or Bill Maher,” Downey told Franken. He noted that Maher “had the backing of [SNL producer] Bernie Brillstein,” who was “very actively campaigning for Bill and against [Franken].”
“I didn’t know any of this,” Franken admitted. “I just knew I didn’t get it. And I was bitter.”
Downey admitted that, once he learned Franken wouldn’t get the job, “I felt, well then can it please be Norm Macdonald and not Bill Maher? Not that it was an anti-Bill Maher thing, just that between the two of them, it was definitely Norm.”
Macdonald went on to great success behind the Weekend Update desk, it being in many ways the height of his influence. The legendary comic passed away in 2021 after a battle with cancer.
Downey and Franken both left SNL in 1995. Notably, Franken left of his own volition, while Downey was fired. Depending on sources, it was either partially or completely due to NBC execs objecting to hard jokes he and Macdonald were making about the unfolding O.J. Simpson trial on Update. Macdonald left Update at the end of ‘97 for similar reasons, though he continued appearing in SNL sketches throughout ’98.
You can listen to Downey and Franken’s full conversation below.