Tonight NBC celebrates the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live with a live special that will feature dozens of former cast members, hosts and musical guests. Even Eddie Murphy, who for years has refused to return to the show that he saved in the early ‘80s, will make his return to Studio 8H. The show’s had its share of ups and downs these last four decades, but it remains a cultural institution, and one of the biggest career boosts a comedian can get. Here are the 40 best cast members to appear on Lorne Michaels’ show since it debuted in 1975. Our only restriction is that current cast members aren’t up for debate, unless they’ve been on for at least five seasons. (So Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer both miss the cut by just a few months.)
40. Molly Shannon
Shannon is a divisive figure. She mastered one of SNL’s most common types of recurring sketches: the character that somebody, somewhere must like, considering how often they get tossed out on TV, but that neither you nor any of your friends are ever excited to see. So basically she was a precursor to Kristen Wiig’s worst characters, with a much lower batting average. What’s sad is, as obnoxious as Mary Katherine Gallagher and Sally O’Malley could be, Shannon was often great in other sketches when she reined in her propensity for overacting and catchphrase-spouting.
39. Tim Meadows
Tim Meadows was a late bloomer. He was just a guy his first several years on the show, and was even fired after the 1993-1994 season, only to be rehired shortly before the next season started. He was a calming veteran presence as that turbulent 1994-1995 season rolled over to an almost entirely new cast, and was tasked with playing almost every newsworthy black personality of the 1990s. He finally established a memorable character late in his run with The Ladies’ Man, a sexual revolution relic and talk show host who gave frank and foolish advice to callers. Meadows is the kind of competent, reliable role player that keeps a show like this running, and he was so good at it that he lasted for an entire decade.
38. Bobby Moynihan
It seems like Moynihan just started, but he’s already on his seventh season on the show. That’s insane. We generally aren’t considering current cast members, but seven years is enough time to properly judge a person’s place in the show’s history. People want to keep pegging Moynihan into the Chris Farley / John Belushi wildman role because of his size, but he’s more in line with somebody like Chris Parnell or Tim Meadows. He’s a solid hand who provides a good backbone to any sketch he’s in, and is more than capable of stealing a scene with a single line or even facial expression (note his appearance in Jim Carrey’s “Hellvis” monologue). He’s a more dynamic performer than Parnell or Meadows, though, and has embodied a number of memorable roles, including Drunk Uncle, second-hand news reporter Anthony Crispino, and Niff, the hostile retail worker. He may not be the flashiest current cast member, but along with Kenan Thompson he currently helps make up the show’s bedrock.
37. Laraine Newman
Newman’s kind of the forgotten woman of the original cast, and didn’t do a lot of high profile work after leaving the show. That doesn’t diminish what she did in her five years on SNL, though. The LA native and Groundlings vet Imbued characters like Sheri the Valley Girl with a specificity and a hint of an internal life often missing from the over-the-top caricatures the show normally prioritizes.
36. Ana Gasteyer
SNL was notorious for its rowdy, frat house style mentality under Adam Sandler, Chris Farley and friends in the early 1990s. It drove Janeane Garofalo to quit halfway through her only season on the show. Perhaps in a concerted effort to better the show’s reputation, the next major cast overhaul ditched most of Sandler’s crew and brought in a number of talented female comedians, starting a streak that continues today. Ana Gasteyer joined the cast in 1996, one year after Cheri Oteri and Molly Shannon, and was one of its more reliable talents through 2002. Gasteyer’s impression helped define Martha Stewart’s mainstream image during the peak of the homemaker’s popularity, and her NPR sketches with Shannon are some of the most fondly remembered of that era. Gasteyer is a talented actress, mimic and singer who was able to move seamlessly between the spotlight and the background during her tenure on SNL.
35. Seth Meyers
Meyers’ 13-year run on SNL is second only to Darrell Hammond when it comes to the longest tenures on the show, and his 154 shows as Weekend Update anchor mean he’s sat behind that desk longer than anyone. And yet somehow, he still feels underrated. That’s partly because so many of his contributions to the show happened behind-the-scenes: he served as a head writer from 2006-2014 and didn’t appear in many sketches outside of Update during that time. But whether he was playing it straight next to memorable characters like Stefon or penning some of the era’s best political humor (those Sarah Palin “I can see Russia from my house” sketches from ‘08, which he co-wrote with Tina Fey), Meyers quietly delivered one of the most impressive runs on Saturday Night Live.—Bonnie Stiernberg
34. Jimmy Fallon
You wouldn’t know it now based on how well he’s doing hosting The Tonight Show, but Jimmy Fallon was pretty divisive during his time on SNL. People either loved or hated the fact that he’d frequently break during sketches, but the “is laughing during skits endearing or unprofessional?” debate (for which, for the record, we stand firmly on Team Endearing) tends to diminish or overlook the fact that Fallon was an excellent cast member who did so much more than laugh during his time on the show. The impact of his time behind the Update desk with Tina Fey can’t be overstated—he and Fey brought back the two-anchor format and absolutely slayed at it, with Fallon serving as a charmingly goofy foil to Fey. And we don’t even have enough room here to talk about his arsenal of impressions, which included everyone from Barry Gibb to Jerry Seinfeld.—BS
33. Chris Rock
Chris Rock is maybe the best and most vital comic voice of the last 20 years, but his stint on SNL was a disappointment. Nat X, the militant host of a BET late night talk show, might be one of the best remembered characters from the 1990s, but Rock largely fell into playing token minorities and background characters. Like Damon Wayans a few years before him, Rock didn’t relish being turned into Garrett Morris, who basically existed solely to play stereotypical black characters during the show’s first five years. Unlike Wayans, Rock stuck around long enough to make a true impression, regularly unleashing his whip-smart stand-up comedy as commentary on Weekend Update and bringing hip-hop culture to a show known for being very white and full of Baby Boomer self-congratulation. He didn’t get as much airtime as he deserved, but nobody who watched SNL between 1990 and 1993 will forget that Rock was on the show.
32. David Spade
David Spade helped bring SNL into the 1990s with a heavy dose of sarcasm and irony. If you hate how the internet tends to value snarky quips over any other kind of humor, you can pin some of the blame on Spade. He helped popularize the condescending one-liner for the teens and tweens of the early ‘90s with caustic characters like Dick Clark’s receptionist and a sneering flight attendant. Spade’s greatest contributions to the show were his Hollywood Minute segments on Weekend Update, where he foreshadowed the rise of internet celebrity culture by scathingly insulting any star who happened to do anything embarrassing that week. Few cast members have forged such a singular and well-defined personality during their time on the show.
31. Billy Crystal
It still feels weird to think that Billy Crystal was only on SNL for one year. I was just old enough in 1984 and 1985 to be familiar with his impression of Fernando Lamas, his catchphrase “you look mahvelous” permeating pop culture as thoroughly as any other bit in SNL history, and I just assumed that’s what the show had always been. There was no SNL without Fernando to second grade me. Crystal is one of the biggest stars to ever be a cast member on the show, and is one of the few to become a regular after already establishing himself in the public eye. He had already had his own primetime variety show, starred on Soap for years, and even hosted SNL multiple times before joining the cast. The show certainly helped his career, but he easily could’ve become the huge box office draw he became without that one year on SNL. Not all of the proven veterans Dick Ebersol brought into the show for the 1984-1985 season made a huge mark, but Crystal remains a huge, if short-lived, part of the show’s history.