I had this notion that people got acting jobs through sheer luck. You got on SNL through being at the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, and mostly getting very, very lucky. It came as a real eye opener that there's a process behind all of it.
When I got into improv, acting was new to me, and after a year in it, it still feels that way. Until recently, the process of going from improv to elsewhere was completely foreign, so I was blown over when I heard how someone I know made the transition to full time acting and even auditioning for SNL.
I was at iO and this chipper red head turned to me.
"Hey!" she said.
I paused, looking at her, trying to register who this was. Before I could figure it out she said, "It's me, Dana."
"Oh my God," I said, "How are you?"
This was my Level 1 coach, Dana Powell, who I hadn't seen in over a year.
She said, "Good. Good seeing you," and headed off to prep for her show. It all came back to me. She was the first one to open my eyes to improv. She revealed improv to me in some Red Pill-Matrixesque reveal of this is how the world actually works. Not to overstate it, but she changed my life.
After the show I told her as much, if with less flowery language. "I've been more and more involved/obsessed with improv since you first gave me the taste for it. And it's all thanks to you," I said, which trapped her in a conversation for at least another couple minutes.
We talked for a while about what the various people in that Level 1 class were up to (5 of them dropped off the map, 1 is on Jonny Whiteboard with me, and we couldn't think of who any of the others were.)
"So what have you been up to?" I asked.
"Well, I've been doing a lot with the Groundling's Sunday Company."
"Oh," I said, "What's that?"
"It's a show over at the Groundlings every Sunday. On Monday and Tuesday I'm writing. Wednesday we pitch. Then Thursday through Saturday it's practicing. It's been really great. This is actually the first year that I managed to make more money through acting rather then anything else."
"Wow. That's great," I said.
"Yeah, I was actually asked to submit some writing samples to SNL a couple of weeks ago."
"No way. When do you hear back?"
"Oh. I did. I didn't get it, but one of the other people on the show made it in."
"Wow," I said.
"Yeah, we're all really proud for her."
"How were all of you asked to audition?"
"Oh. Well, Lorne came to one of our shows. I actually didn't know it at the time, which is probably a good thing. Apparently the whole audience knew. A whisper went through the crowd the moment he stepped in."
"That's so cool," I said.
I talked about how I knew one other person who'd auditioned, someone named Jen who had done Boom Chicago, and Dana knew her. We talked about the team I was on for a while, and then the conversation moved back to Dana. On my provocation, she took me through how she got on the Sunday Company in the first place. After graduating (in acting, of course) she did years at iO, filling in a lot of gaps waiting to get into the next level of Groundlings classes.
"This was my home," she said, referring to iO.
There was nearly a year wait between each Groundlings class as she made her way through it. After graduating Level 6 at the Groundlings she got into the Sunday company and it took over her life. Recruiters are constantly going through, as is a packed house.
"It took seven years at Groundlings to get to this point," she said.
I don't want to say it takes a decade in the craft to even get an audition on SNL, but that's not too far off. It's reaching a point where you're one of the best performers at the best show at the best venue (Groundlings, UCB, Second City or Improv Olympic, depending on the city). While on the one side, this seems daunting, on the other side, it's reachable. Rather then some random strike of luck, it's a clear path that anyone with the right level of stamina and dedication can get to.
Of course, once you make it to the audition it helps to be a comedic genius like Phil Hartman or Dana Carvey were in theirs.
Best of luck.