Saturday Night Live has had a lot of hosts over the years – some have sucked, most have been mediocre, and only a rare few have not only held their own with the cast but actually made the show better with their presence. It is these rare beasts that we have gathered here today to discuss. They are the best of the best, the funniest of the funniest, the ones who actually make us want to watch SNL rather than make us cringe because they can’t read the cue-cards or because the cast has to pretend to respect them even though they spend every other week mercilessly making fun of them. (Hi, Paris Hilton!) One rule before we start: I’m not including former cast members because, really, that would be kind of unfair. Sure, Bill Murray is great but he kind of has a built in advantage, you know? So, with all that said, here are the nine best Saturday Night Live hosts of all time.
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Yeah, I know, I know… I’m as surprised as you are that he’s on here but, well, you can’t argue with reality and the reality, shocking as it is, is that Justin Timberlake is actually really, really good at this whole sketch comedy thing. He’s just a natural. He knows when to go big and when to deadpan, when to take the lead and when to sit back and play off of others. He just gets it. His most famous sketches are, of course, the digital shorts he did with Andy Samberg, especially the "Dick in the Box" sketch, and every time he’s on, there’s always the palpable sense that he could do something that everyone is going to remember for a while. Really though, for as weird as that seems, it makes sense. I mean, this is a dude who literally grew up on The Mickey Mouse Club doing variety show type things (I won’t call it “comedy” because, well, come on.) It’s second nature to him. It’s strange and it feels sort of wrong and yet here we are.
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Sure, she’s only hosted twice, but like Timberlake, she just gets it. She knows what she’s doing out there and she enhances just about every sketch she’s in. And she’s only going to get better at it the older she gets. She’s funny, she’s charismatic and oh yeah, she’s a decent actress too. That helps. A little spoiler alert: Emma Stone is the only woman on this list, which honestly says a ton about how lousy SNL has historically been at writing quality comedy for women. This has sort of flipped in recent years though, and Emma Stone is a prime example of that. In a few years there’s a good chance that she’ll be even higher on this list and that a few more women will be on here with her. She may not be the woman who’s hosted that most times (that would be Drew Barrymore and Candice Bergen and really, what do you remember about their shows?) but I’m going out on a limb here and saying that one day she will be.
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The only reason that Richard Pryor is so low on this list is because he only hosted one time, back in the show’s early days. But there was no way I could leave him off the list altogether because that one show helped set the tone for what Saturday Night Live could be at its best. It was provocative, edgy, slightly dangerous and, most of all, funny. His famous "Word Association" sketch with Chevy Chase pushed societal buttons, threw the issue of race relations into the entertainment spotlight and, oh yeah, was really, really funny. It was comedy at its very best and it set a standard for every host who came after him to try (hopelessly in most cases) to live up to.
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John Goodman was so, well, good that he basically became a de facto cast member. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the late ‘90s, Goodman made constant appearances on the show as Linda Tripp, becoming an integral part of the show’s current events sketches (which is where SNL has always shined the brightest.) You know you’re a good host when big chunks of the show’s history would not even be possible without your presence. In all, Goodman has hosted the show 12 times, third most ever, which is especially impressive when you consider that he is basically a character actor and not a big star with movies to promote. In short, Goodman gets asked to host because he’s really, really good and they want him on the show, not for publicity or any of the other reasons hosts usually get invited to the world of SNL.
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Like John Goodman, Alec Baldwin gets asked to host so often because he’s one of the few hosts in Saturday Night Live history who could be a cast member if he wanted. His shows are always good, largely because he actually brings something to the table. The writers don’t have to write around his limitations like they do with most hosts, and he has a genuine rapport with the cast. It’s obvious that they like him there and that translates on the screen. To date, Baldwin has hosted SNL a record 16 times, and whether it’s as Canteen Boy’s perverted scoutmaster or as Pete Schweddy and his Scwheddy balls, Baldwin almost always delivers.
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Who? Well, you probably don’t know this but back in the show’s early days, Buck Henry was just as essential to Saturday Night Live as most of the show’s famous cast-members. He was considered part of the family and was a big part of some of the show’s most famous early sketches, from Bill Murray’s father in the “Nerds” sketches to the straight man customer in John Belushi’s “Samurai” sketches (the most famous of which had him getting his head sliced open, forcing him to wear a giant bandage on his head for the rest of the show) to his so edgy it was wrong role as the pervert pedo babysitter in the “Uncle Roy” sketches. He is a big part of the show’s history and even though a lot of people today have probably never heard of him, in the show’s first legendary five year run, Henry hosted a ridiculous total of 10 times and it became tradition for him to host the season finale every year. Believe me, he earned his place on this list.
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It’s always a sign that you’re a good host when you manage to have recurring characters, which Hanks pulled off with his character in the “Girl Watchers” sketches with Jon Lovitz, his character in “The Stand-Ups,” his Eastern European sleaze-ball character Uri, and his “Mr. Short-Term Memory” character. I’m not sure if any other host has that many recurring characters, which is a testament to Hanks’ natural sketch-comedy talent. I think it’s vaguely surprising to people whenever Hanks shows up on SNL and kicks ass because we’ve been conditioned for the last twenty years to see him as a Jimmy Stewart like leading man, but that’s only because people forget that Tom Hanks first made a name for himself by being a funny, funny dude. He’s a naturally talented comedian and people shouldn’t forget that, and if they do, well, all they need to do is check him out any time he shows up and brings down the house on SNL.
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Come on, you knew that Christopher Walken was going to show up sooner or later. After all, he’s almost as famous for his awesome SNL appearances as he is for his more dramatic roles. From the “More Cowbell” sketch that everyone and their grandfather and their grandfather’s brother’s boss’s nephew’s classmate’s cousin’s dog’s babysitter’s uncle’s best friend has referenced and beaten into the ground to his role as Colonel Angus (say it out loud in a Southern accent) to his famous recurring character in “The Continental,” Walken’s SNL appearances have become a central part in the almost cult-like adoration of the man that has sprung up over the last decade or so. Every time he hosts, people get excited, and with good reason. He’s always bizarrely funny and his shows all have a weird sort of energy to them that nobody else can duplicate. They, like him, are one of a kind.
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Steve Martin is such a good host that most people are surprised when they find out he was never actually a cast member. He’s almost always included when people talk about Saturday Night Live’s early legendary cast, his name tossed out there alongside Bill Murray, Dank Aykroyd, John Belushi and Chevy Chase. But it’s true, he never was a member of the cast. His “Two Wild and Crazy Guys” sketches with Aykroyd remain one of the most famous recurring sketches from that era and whenever he’s on, he always brings the air of someone who knows what they’re doing. He’s basically the alpha-dog of all SNL hosts. All you have to do is watch the famous “Five-Timers” sketch if you don’t believe me. He’s the host that has set the standard for all Saturday Night Live hosts, he’s been a vital part of the family for almost forty years, and that is why nobody else could possibly be number one on this list.
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(Previously published on November 9, 2012.)