10. Bill Hader
We’re placing a premium on utility all-stars. Bill Hader could do everything, and make all of it funny. He’s a great impressionist, a smart writer, one of the best physical comedians in the show’s history, and his main goal on the show seemed to be making everybody else look as good as possible. Most of his recurring characters were used relatively sparingly, and the ones that weren’t—Stefon, Herb Welch—somehow never stopped being funny. He’s the closest thing SNL has had to Phil Hartman since Hartman left the show in 1994.
9. Tina Fey
was a great Weekend Update anchor, smart and acerbic but still warm, and easily one of the three or four best in the show’s history. More importantly she was the head writer during one of the show’s better stretches in the early ‘00s, and probably the most famous head writer the show’s ever had. And somehow the thing she’s now best known for, her scathing but fair portrayal of Sarah Palin, didn’t even happen until after she had officially left the show. Other than Lorne Michaels she’s been the most dominant influence on SNL in the 21st century, and that’s earned her a high slot on this list.
8. Amy Poehler
could, and did, do it all on Saturday Night Live: high-brow (her years behind the Update desk), low-brow (one-legged Amber, anyone?), celebrity impressions (including everyone from Michael Jackson to Hillary Clinton), recurring characters (the hyperactive latchkey kid Kaitlin, Bronx Beat’s Betty Caruso). Even more impressive? Some of her funniest work came while she was nine months pregnant (the Palin rap and the “I’m No Angel” sketch). And like all the best SNL cast members, she’s only gotten better, moving on to deliver one of the great sitcom performances on Parks and Recreation. The Palin rap was accurate: Poehler’s an animal, and she’s bigger than you.—BS
7. Dana Carvey
Before Darrell Hammond Dana Carvey was the best impressionist the show had ever seen. He was way more than a mimic, though, and created a host of insightful, incisive characters. Carvey’s “aw shucks” demeanor and unassuming appearance obscured how biting his comedy could be. We remember the Church Lady for her catchphrases and pop cultural ubiquity, but the character was a brutal mockery of the conservative Christian movement that grew throughout the 1980s. Carvey was a superstar who had no problem blending into the background when needed, and was one of the most versatile and talented performers in the show’s history.
6. Gilda Radner
As one of the original Not Ready For Primetime Players, Gilda Radner was never afraid to get goofy, as evidenced by characters like Roseanne Rosannadanna, the Barbara Walters spoof “Baba Wawa” and Lisa Loopner, but her comedy also had a certain elegance to it. It’s why her dance with Steve Martin, a parody of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s dance through Central Park, worked so beautifully, and it’s why she’ll be remembered as one of the show’s all-time greats.—BS
5. Dan Aykroyd
Phil Hartman was famously called “the glue” that held the show together during his era. Dan Aykroyd was the original glue. Chevy Chase was the face, John Belushi was the heart and soul, but Aykroyd was the backbone. He was a fantastic lead when needed, but was just as good as a foil or partner for another cast member. He easily disappeared into characters, fully committing himself to everything he did. We won’t even start listing off his famous characters because that would take up the rest of this piece. Aykroyd might have been the most important member of that first cast, if only because he held everything together.
4. John Belushi
Sometimes it feels like we talk about Belushi’s tragic death more than we do his talent, which is a shame, because it was immense. We expect whirlwind performances like The Samurai or his spot-on Joe Cocker impression from him, but Belushi could dial it back on occasion, making us laugh with a single word—one that happens to be the reason a sign that (slightly inaccurately) reads “Cheezborger, Cheezborger, Cheezborger. No Pepsi. Coke.” hangs in Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern to this day.—BS
3. Phil Hartman
Hartman was the consummate pro. Already almost 40 when he joined the cast in 1986, he quickly established himself as the most valuable player in one of the two deepest and most talented casts in the show’s history. He’s another one of those talents who excelled both in the spotlight and in the background, making everything he touched stronger. SNL has featured a lot of comedians who can act, but Hartman was both hilarious and probably the best actor the show’s ever had.
2. Will Ferrell
doesn’t even have to speak to be hilarious. He can crack up anyone—including his fair share of fellow SNL cast members—with just a look, whether it’s the sheer crazy simmering just underneath the amorous pretension of The Love-ahs’ Roger or the way he nails the swaggering, misplaced confidence of Robert Goulet. And when he does open his mouth, he proves why he’s SNL’s greatest utility player. We don’t necessarily think of him as an “impressionist,” but his repertoire of impersonations—including Goulet, Harry Caray, Neil Diamond, George W. Bush, James Lipton and Alex Trebek are among some of the best and most memorable in the show’s history. His delightfully absurd recurring characters—like Bill Brasky’s buddy, Marty Culp, Craig the cheerleader—are, as Ferrell-as-Lipton would say, “scrumtrulescent,” but during his run on the show, he was just as likely to hit us with a classic one-and-done sketch like “Wake Up and Smile” or the “more cowbell” Behind the Music spoof.—BS
1. Eddie Murphy
literally saved SNL. He arrived at the lowest point in its history, when its ratings and reviews were both disastrous, and almost single-handedly made people care about the show again. He hosted while he was still a regular, for crying out loud. No SNL cast member has ever been as huge while they were on the show as Murphy, and it seems unlikely anyone ever will. He was responsible for some of the show’s most enduring and beloved characters and impressions, from Gumby to Stevie Wonder, and his Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood legitimately might be the best and most subversive thing the show’s ever done in its four decades. The concept of that sketch is so dark and depressing but Murphy is keenly aware of how to confront racism and society’s indifference towards inner city poverty in a way that’s both challenging and hilarious. It can be hard to understand how vital he is to SNL’s history, and how electric of a performer he was, if you weren’t around at the time, but it’s not an overstatement to say that no cast member since has come close to dominating the show and mainstream pop culture as thoroughly as Eddie Murphy did.