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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Every SNL cast usually has an everyman, and it’s a role that can be difficult to fill on the show without getting pigeonholed, but Jason Sudeikis made a name for himself by generally being an everyman who wasn’t afraid to get weird—like, Cajun judge hosting “Maine Justice” weird— once in a while, and it paid off: he had a 10-year run as a writer and cast member. He could do goofy (as the dancing Vance in “What Up With That?”, as a caricature of Joe Biden, as one-half of “Jon Bovi”) just as well as he could effortlessly satirize assholes everywhere with appearances as The Devil and…well, an A-Hole.—BS
Portlandia co-creator Fred Armisen took a weird route to SNL. He was a drummer in the punk band Trenchmouth throughout the first half of the ‘90s, and the first time he made waves as a comedian was when he hosted a satirical video about South by Southwest in 1998. That led to appearances on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and work on Adult Swim, which eventually opened up an opportunity at SNL. His musical background was a big part of his identity on the show, where he impersonated a variety of musicians and played such characters as Mackey the drummer, one half of the Garth and Kat songwriting team and the “What Up With That” saxophonist. He even popped up on the show again in the most recent episode, playing drums in a monologue based on the movie Whiplash. Armisen created a number of recurring characters during his eleven seasons on the show (the fourth longest tenure ever), but his best bit of musical comedy was a one-off sketch with Bryan Cranston that can be seen here.
There have been plenty of SNL cast members who could sing over the course of the show’s history, but few who have utilized their talents for musical sketches as adeptly as Maya Rudolph. Take, for example, her rendition of the National Anthem—one of those rare sketches that puts all its eggs in the basket of a single performer doing basically one thing for three minutes—which pokes fun at the melisma-heavy way people oversing, or her musical impressions of Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera and Beyonce, or even her appearances as one-third of Gemini’s Twin.—BS
Adam Sandler didn’t age well. I don’t mean the man, but his work on SNL. Sandler was the show’s breakout star of the early ‘90s with characters like Opera Man and the Herlihy Boy and the holiday songs he performed on Weekend Update. His goofiness appealed greatly to middle school kids, which helped him jumpstart a massively successful film career after he was fired from the show in 1995. Some of his material holds subversive appeal for adults, but mostly his work on SNL was too juvenile and too vulgar to truly admire today. Somehow his mix of absurdity and mayhem worked better on film—his first few movies were some of the best lowbrow comedies of the era. Still, he helped define his five years on the show as much as any cast member has defined any SNL era.
Of all the ringers from the 1984 season, Short had both the most memorable characters and most closely fit the mold of an SNL player. That’s no slight to Crystal, who did great work the same season, but who was already well-established in America before joining the show, and thus always seemed a bit bigger than SNL itself. It was both Short’s lower profile in the States and his experience doing sketch comedy on SCTV that helped him slide seamlessly over to SNL, establishing himself as the show’s premier talent that year without completely dwarfing the show itself. And although he definitely made full use of such preexisting characters as Ed Grimley and Jackie Rogers Jr, he still created new characters, most notably the slimy lawyer Nathan Thurm. It’s telling that Short, of all the stars of the Dick Ebersol era, is the most welcomed back and celebrated by Lorne Michaels.
Forget what he’s become: in his day Dennis Miller was a groundbreaking figure on SNL, and the show’s first great news anchor since the original cast members left in 1980. His cynical, irreverent, reference-packed schtick was a perfect response to the strip mall and fast food culture of 1980s America. Other than Eddie Murphy, Miller was probably the coolest SNL cast member of the 1980s, and still maybe the best Weekend Update anchor the show’s ever had. If he had done more outside the desk, he’d probably be higher on this list.
Darrell Hammond is the best mimic in the show’s history. That’s the main reason he was on SNL and why they kept him around for 14 seasons, the longest stint in the show’s history. His Bill Clinton is one of the two or three finest political impressions ever seen on SNL, and he had another 106 celebrity impressions up his sleeves over the rest of his long run. His evisceration of Sean Connery made up one half of Celebrity Jeopardy, one of the best recurring sketches the show’s ever had. He was an invaluable tool for the show during his decade and a half, and now that he’s taken Don Pardo’s role as announcer he’ll probably be working on SNL for the rest of his life.
When Kenan Thompson first got hired at SNL—which, by the way, was all the way back in 2003—a lot of people people thought, “Really? The kid from All That and Kenan & Kel on Nickelodeon?” But Thompson’s long since proven that his years as a child comedian were nothing but an asset to him, and he’s gone on to be one of the show’s longest running cast members. And, most importantly, he’s maintained a devotion to weird bits like ”What Up With That?” or his French Def Jam comic, Jean K. Jean, through it all.—BS
Serious professional Jane Curtin was a grounding influence during the show’s early freewheeling days. She was an exemplary straight-woman during Weekend Update, which she cohosted with both Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, and was the deadpan bedrock that John Belushi played off of during his manic commentaries. She was a crucial player in the show’s early years, especially in commercial parodies and any skit requiring somebody to play a respectable member of society. She didn’t have many flashy roles, but she was a distaff precursor to people like Phil Hartman and Jason Sudeikis, and along with Aykroyd was the glue that held the show together during its first five seasons.
Seriously, we’re not downgrading Chase because of the miserable reputation he’s cultivated over the last 30 years. As pivotal as he was to the show’s success, he was only on it for a little over a season. His smug, superior delivery as the original Weekend Update host set the irreverent tone of the show’s early seasons. Even though he was barely there for a year, and hasn’t hosted in almost 20 years, he’ll always be linked with SNL as its first superstar.
For a live show SNL almost never feels dangerous. It’s turned into a well-scrubbed, well-heeled machine since Lorne Michaels came back in 1985. Norm Macdonald made the show feel dangerous almost every week during his Weekend Update segments. His deadpan delivery and willingness to shock revitalized the segment after the bland Kevin Nealon years, and his contentious, too-early exit was a black eye that turned me against the show for years. Macdonald wasn’t especially active in sketches, but his appearances were almost always highlights, especially his impressions of Bob Dole, Burt Reynolds and Larry King.
Will Ferrell and Tracy Morgan both left the show in 2002, depriving SNL of two of its best practitioners of absurd comedy. Will Forte immediately filled that gap with some of the most surreal sketches and characters in the show’s history. Although he’s best known for MacGruber, a bit created by Lonely Island member Jorma Taccone, Forte’s other original characters like The Falconer, Tim Calhoun and Hamilton are why he’s so high on this list. Also his impression of George W. Bush as a nervous, whiny child was a sly bit of political commentary.
The dearly missed Jan Hooks remains far too underrated. In her years on the show she never turned in a weak or lackluster performance. She didn’t create many breakout characters, but she could effortlessly play any type of character in any type of situation. Dana Carvey, Jon Lovitz and Mike Myers might have been the superstars during her stint on the show, but Hooks and her similarly versatile colleague Phil Hartman kept it running. Here’s one of her best skits, opposite Alec Baldwin.
Mike Myers’ talent can’t be denied, and Wayne’s World is one of the best recurring sketches in the show’s history. He was far from the first SNL performer to repeat his characters too often (that’s been happening since the first season) but few have had as many characters repeated as frequently as Myers. Sprockets and Coffee Talk are both great ideas that wore out their welcome due to overexposure during Myers’ years on the show. He’s an all-time great who could’ve been greater with a little more restraint.
That goes for Kristen Wiig, too. She’s a fantastic performer with a number of great characters and has probably made me laugh as hard and long as almost anybody in SNL’s history, and yet I could not wait for her to leave the show. Almost every major character she played was funny at first, but most of them were burned through in rapid reappearances. She also had a few outright stinkers on her ledger, including Gilly and game show contestant / stage actress Mindy Grayson, who both still returned over and over. What I’m saying is Wiig, although tremendous, could be problematic. Still, she is an amazing comedian, capable of great impressions and deeply weird, thoroughly committed performances.
Andy Samberg is a likable guy. He’s charming. He’s also a good comedic actor. He’s not on this list because of any of his sketches or characters, though. He’s here because he and his Lonely Island cohorts made SNL relevant in the internet age with their Digital Shorts. SNL’s been doing pretaped segments since its first episode, but they never felt as vital as the Digital Shorts, which were perfectly timed to tap into the growth of Youtube and viral videos. Samberg’s long gone, but the show still cranks out fake music videos and virally-minded short films every episode; sometimes they succeed, but never as consistently as they did when Samberg was around.
The 1985-1986 season infamously ended with the entire cast stuck in a fire. Lorne Michaels could save them all, but only rescued Jon Lovitz. Lovitz was the breakout star of that troubled season, and was at the vanguard of the late ‘80s glory days that saved the show. His pathological liar character, Tommy Flanagan, drove the catchphrase “Yeah, that’s the ticket” into mainstream pop culture, and Hanukkah Harry remains a beloved character despite only appearing in two sketches. Lovitz excelled at weasels and sleazebags, but was a talented actor and improviser who made almost every sketch he was in better.
Tracy Morgan is one of those people who can make almost anything funny (which is why it’s so weird that his stand-up isn’t better than it is). His delivery is hilarious and unique, and it’s surprising that he was able to use it so well with so many characters while still having them feel different. Astronaut Jones, Brian Fellow and Woodrow were brilliantly absurd and like nothing else on SNL at the time. He might be a limited performer compared to some, but despite his limitations he did as much great work as almost everybody else on this list.
Bill Murray is one of the show’s greatest hosts, and almost everything he did during his three season stint as a regular was fantastic. It’s where he first revealed the deadpan, wise-cracking personality that would make him one of the most successful film comedians of all time. Nick Winters, the Lounge Singer, remains one of the most beloved characters in the show’s history, and his infamous on-air apology might be the most Bill Murray thing he’s ever done, combining his confidence and self-deprecation into a tidy three minute bit. If he had been on the show longer he would be higher on the list.
Chris Farley could do physical bits with the best of ‘em—see, for example, his Lillehammer Olympic figure skating sketch or the legendary Chippendales audition—and some of his finest moments on the show came from his willingness to go over-the-top, like in the hidden-camera coffee commercial or his many appearances as Matt Foley, but underneath all of those big performances was a sweet, Midwestern sensibility, one that came through especially in sketches like Zagats and the absolutely genius Chris Farley Show.—BS
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.