Saturday Night Live is an institution. It’s been around for almost 40 years now and is pretty much the backbone of American comedy. Naturally, a lot of talented people have passed through its venerable halls and we thought it would be a good idea to take a look at the best of the best and see just who really is the king of the SNL mountain. One note before we begin: this only takes into account what they actually did on the show, not what they did before or after. So, for instance, Tina Fey won’t get credit for 30 Rock and on the flipside, Joe Piscopo won’t get blamed for living in a dumpster behind a 7/11. Now with that out of the way, let’s just get to it, the 50 best Saturday Night Live cast members ever.
While Al Franken was never really front and center at SNL, and was most successful there as a writer, he spent parts of almost 20 years as a part-time cast member and is as much a part of the show’s DNA as anyone. The current Senator might not be the first person you think of when you think SNL, but from his "Weekend Update" segments to his Stuart Smalley character he more than made his mark.
Before he became the curmudgeonly Fox News lapdog we all shake our heads at in sad disappointment, Dennis Miller was the cynical wiseass "Weekend Update" anchor who made the segment relevant again. He always seemed like the coolest dude in the room, and even though he never did much of anything else on the show, he took "Weekend Update" and made it distinctly his.
Like Dennis Miller, Tina Fey didn’t really excel in the sketch comedy format – at least not as a performer, as a writer she was top notch – but also like Miller she helped revitalize the "Weekend Update" segment and turn it into something cool again. She might seem underrated here but you have to remember that her biggest contribution as a performer outside of "Update" – her Sarah Palin impression - actually came after she had left the show as a regular.
Kenan Thompson has never really taken that next step and become the man at SNL, but anytime you can survive that zoo for a solid decade you’re probably doing something right. Kenan has a lot of characters, most of them fairly unmemorable, and aside from his Bill Cosby impression he’s never really shown anything truly transcendent, but he’s a solid, dependable player who can give any sketch a little extra oomph when you need it.
Like Kenan Thompson, Fred Armisen never really took the next step at SNL, and let’s face it his Obama impression wasn’t exactly built for laughs – kind of a problem when your job is, you know, to be funny – but he was always a solid member of the cast who could fill a variety of roles on the show, which is a skill that is often underrated and overlooked. He was always perhaps a bit too weird and offbeat for a lot of people, but weird and offbeat is an element that SNL often needs more of, and Fred Armisen provided it.
Tim Kazurinsky had the misfortune of being a cast member during some of the show’s darkest days, and while he was never a star he was maybe the one cast member during that time who helped hold it all together. He was the “glue guy” back then – the guy who can be depended on to hold things together by doing whatever you need him to do, and always one of the most valuable things you can be at SNL – and while he isn’t as fondly remembered as some other SNL glue guys he deserves his place on this list.
He hasn’t quite exploded yet, which mostly seems to be because outside of his impressions the writers at SNL can’t quite seem to figure out how to use him, but since the day he started it’s always seemed like it was only a matter of time before Jay Pharoah broke out. It’s tough to know where to rank him because in a few years this could look stupid, either because he’ll deserve to be much higher or because he won’t have made it at all, but for now, let’s just stick him here because of his potential and acknowledge that he could move way, way up the list before he’s through.
Julia Sweeney really had a pretty nondescript tenure at SNL and probably wouldn’t have made this list if she didn’t have one thing going for her – Pat. Yes, as the androgynous Pat, Sweeney managed to be a highlight of a lot of SNL shows in the early ‘90s and while most SNL movies are giant dumpster fires, it is a testament to how well she got that character over on the show that they even tried to make a movie around it in the first place.
For a long time, Tim Meadows was just known as that one guy who SNL improbably kept on year after year, cast change after cast change, even though he never really did anything. But near the end of his run, Meadows seemed to hit his stride, featuring more prominently in the show, especially with his character The Ladies’ Man. Hell, by the time he was done, Meadows had spun that character off into his own movie and managed to receive the much hallowed SNL “Best Of” episode treatment.
Ana Gasteyer was sort of the female version of Tim Kazurinsky, someone who flew mostly under the radar but who was a valuable part of the SNL team who could always be called upon to make a sketch better. She was never a star but as a pure sketch comedy performer, she was sublime, and is exactly the sort of person who has kept SNL going for as long as it has.
Christopher Guest is of course hilarious and is one of the most talented people on this list. The only reason he isn’t higher is because his tenure at SNL only lasted for one season – kind of an All Star season featuring Guest, Billy Crystal, Martin Short and Harry Shearer, all comedians who were known quantities at the time, which is unusual for SNL – but in that one season he did enough to make his mark and earn his place on this list.
Seth Meyers was around forever and helped carry on the "Weekend Update" tradition after he took over Tina Fey’s spot. He never quite took the position and made it something better and while he was always a solid player he never had that one breakout moment on the show, but he became part of the fabric of the show while he was there, which is always a tough trick to pull off, even for the most talented, and that has to count for something.
Chris Rock probably seems criminally underrated here, but you’ve got to remember that for the most part Rock had a hard time finding his stride on the show. Aside from his Nat X character, it always seemed like both the writers and he struggled to find his niche (for reasons both unexplainable and appallingly obvious given the show’s relative struggles with non-white cast-members), but he still managed to show enough that it was always obvious there was a ton of talent inside, and all he needed was to find his voice, which he eventually did – after he left SNL.
Jason Sudeikis will probably never become a big star, but he’s always managed to combine a certain likability with an impish streak that makes you wonder whether you want to hug him or punch him. He’s been kind of a glue guy for the cast in recent years and while he may never go on to be the star of his own comedy franchise, his tenure at SNL has managed to snag him Olivia Wilde which has to count for something, right? Right.
Sure, he always seemed like he was on the verge of blowing it, like some idiot that had just stumbled onto the stage by mistake and could barely read his cue cards, and he could seemingly never get through a sketch without cracking up, but let’s face it, that was a big part of Sanz’s charm. Some people hated it but it always managed to get a laugh and during his time at SNL, Horatio Sanz always managed to truly liven the place up.
Will Forte’s run at SNL seemed like the best possible scenario for someone like, say, Fred Armisen. He was always maybe a little too weird to truly smash through and become a big star, but unlike Armisen Forte managed to create a character in MacGruber that was spun-off into the Holy Grail of SNL characters – its own feature film. In the end, Forte was always likably eccentric and you always got the impression that his stuff was probably the kind of thing that made the writers in the back laugh the most, which is about as high a compliment you can pay somebody in the comedy world.
Chris Parnell was never the favored son at SNL. He was memorably fired after the 2000-01 season only to be brought back after his fellow cast members demanded it, which speaks to how well regarded he was by people who were actually funny. He always seemed to hit his mark and make people laugh when he was given the opportunity and while everyone praises Andy Samberg for the digital shorts – quite rightly – many people forget that it was probably Parnell who was actually the funniest part of the very first short, the infamous "Lazy Sunday."
David Spade had a hard time getting going on SNL, but once he finally found his stride as an annoying little shit talker he wasted little time in making his mark. He was never someone who could kill it on his own – outside of his "Weekend Update" spots anyway where he was just allowed to snark on various celebs – and he always relied on the presence of guys like Chris Farley and Adam Sandler to truly carry the sketches he was in, but his chemistry with them – especially Farley – was an important part of the show’s formula during his tenure.
Chris Kattan was one of the cast members who was most key in helping to revitalize the show after it had fallen on hard, unfunny times. In fact, most people forget, but there was a moment when it was Kattan, and not Will Ferrell, who seemed like the cast member most likely to break out. It didn’t really happen, but Kattan brought an energy to the show which had been lacking and helped set the stage for even better things to come.
Like Christopher Guest, Martin Short only stuck around for one season, but as an already established sketch comedy star he hit the ground running and managed to leave his mark on the show. It’s hard to properly rank someone like Short because of the weird circumstances of his tenure, but he still managed to kill it while he was there and that’s good enough to get him a perfectly respectable spot here.
Kevin Nealon was another dude who stuck around for a long time and never became a really big star or had too many notable characters, but he was always one of the more dependable members of the cast, with his stint as the "Weekend Update" anchor one of the more underrated in the show’s history. He always held his own and given that his time at the show coincided with the tenure of some massive heavyweights, everyone from Hartman to Carvey to Myers to Sandler to Farley, the fact that he was able to not only survive, but thrive without getting blown off the stage speaks to how talented he really is.
From his Brian Fellows character to his shtick with Lorne Michaels, Tracy Morgan’s time at SNL pretty much served as a real life dress rehearsal for his role on 30 Rock in which he, well, in which he basically played himself. The good news is that this meant that long before he was torturing Liz Lemon, he was acting the fool for our amusement – and doing a damn fine job of it.
Sure, her manic brand of comedy could be, shall we say, just a tad bit annoying for some people, and her Mary Catherine Gallagher character was perhaps the most obnoxious in the history of the show, but that was kind of the whole point. What Molly Shannon brought to the show was energy and every time she was on screen she pretty much had to be the focal point, and honestly there’s not many people in the show’s history who can say that.
Nora Dunn was basically the alpha female on SNL during one of the show’s strongest periods. She was versatile and genuinely funny, standing toe to toe with Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey and that crew, and while she might not be quite as well remembered today, back then she seemed like she was just as big a part of the show’s success as any of them.
Jane Curtin was always kind of the quiet one in the original cast. She wasn’t as whacky or as energetic as John Belushi or Gilda Radner, she wasn’t as obviously amazing as Dan Aykroyd, and she didn’t have obvious star power like Chevy Chase, but what she did have was a certain stolid reliability that allowed the rest of the cast to function. She seemed like the one adult in the room, the smart one that kept everything from flying completely out of control and while that might not be as appreciated as some of her fellow cast members’ more infamous traits, it was just as important to the show’s lasting success.
The final one year wonder on this list, Billy Crystal probably accomplished the most out of his illustrious cast during his time on the show. He’s one of the few people who seems like he should have been on the show from the very beginning and people are sometimes surprised when they find out he was only a cast member for one year during the mid-‘80s, which is a testament to his talent.
Bill Hader is probably one of the most versatile players in SNL’s history, capable of being weird, doing killer impressions, or just serving as the latest glue guy on the show. He hasn’t really taken over and become the man the way that some might have expected – especially after his star turn in Superbad – but that probably has more to do with his own comfort level in being a supporting player than in being the top dog because the talent is obviously there.
When SNL came back to life in the late ‘90s, Cheri Oteri was one of the key cast members who made it happen. Not many people in the show’s history have had her kind of energy or ability to liven up a sketch. She was probably at her best when working with Will Ferrell and while yes, a lot of that probably had to do with Ferrell’s own immense talent, just as much of it had to do with Oteri’s.
Along with his sidekick Horati Sanz, Jimmy Fallon annoyed lots of people with his tendency to break character and start giggling like an idiot during the middle of every damn sketch, but he made even more people laugh. Eye-rolling affectations aside, Jimmy Fallon wasn’t just an air-headed male bimbo trotted out there just for his looks, there was genuine talent in there and when it shined – check out his Adam Sandler impressions or his ridiculous radio DJ character – it was often the highlight of the show.
Yes, Joe Piscopo. Even though he basically became a walking punchline after leaving SNL, the truth is that he is one of the people who saved the show from a grim death following the departure of the original cast. Yes, Eddie Murphy deserves most of the credit there, but Piscopo was his right hand man and served as sort of a poor man’s Dan Aykroyd during his time on the show. He’ll never get the credit he deserves because, well, because he’s Joe Piscopo but if we’re judging people purely by the merits of their time spent on SNL it’s pretty hard to argue against him.
Andy Samberg deserves a decent spot on this list simply for being the driving force behind SNL’s digital shorts which helped to revitalize SNL and make it feel viral and cool – at least for a while. He’s always going to feel slightly overrated for the same reasons that Adam Sandler and Jimmy Fallon seem overrated, but you can’t deny his impact on the show’s success.
Norm Macdonald never quite got completely over the top as a star at SNL, mainly because he refused to disguise his contempt for both the audience or his bosses. His "Weekend Update" stint remains probably the most controversial and openly confrontational in the history of the show, and while his refusal to pander to the audience sometimes resulted in less laughter than you’d want, it was never uninteresting. Also, his depiction of Burt Reynolds is one of the best things I have ever seen.
Rachel Dratch might be the most underrated SNL cast member ever. That’s kind of a powerful statement, but in putting this list together I couldn’t think of a single Rachel Dratch sketch that doesn’t start to make me laugh. Whether it was her Debbie Downer character or her "Lovers" sketches with Will Ferrell, she was one of the best parts about the show while she was there. She’s just undeniably funny.
There was a time in SNL’s history when there were hardly any women on the show at all, and yet the show never seemed to suffer too much for it - whether it should have or not is debatable and more of a political topic than anything else – and the reason for that is Jan Hooks. She stepped up and played whatever female characters the show called for, and did it so well that it never seemed redundant or odd. She could play a sexy lounge singer or a white trash redneck in back to back sketches and did so effortlessly.
Amy Poehler was one of those performers who just seemed to get better and better the longer she was on the show. She was always good, but by the end of her run she was the star of the show, which was probably the first time that person had pretty much indisputably been a woman. Her "Weekend Update" spot and her Hillary Clinton impression both gave her huge opportunities to take that spot for herself and she did, in the process helping to change the power dynamic of the show forever.
Adam Sandler’s talent and personality were so big that it became both the focal point of the show for a while and the reason for its decline. That sounds contradictory, but it’s true. Fans tuned in to see whatever weird thing he was going to do that week and the audience skewed younger. In turn, the show itself lost its focus as it began to cater more towards that audience and that style and eventually Sandler was fired. In essence, he was fired almost because he was too good at what he did, which was confirmed when he went on to become a gigantic movie star. Really, he became too big for the show. Not many people in its history can say that.
People forget this, but Jon Lovitz was incredible on SNL. He excelled in playing annoying and/or sleazy characters – obviously – but he was capable of doing pretty much anything during his time on the show. It’s been hard for any cast to live up to the legendary original cast but the trio of Lovitz, Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey came as close as anyone.
Darrell Hammond lasted longer on SNL than anyone in history. He was unique in that he never really had any characters, just an incredible vault filled with celebrity impressions that he pulled out whenever necessary. In essence, his Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Ted Koppel, Chris Matthews and Sean Connery impressions became his characters, and for a long time these impressions arguably made him the most important cast member on the show.
Mike Myers created "Wayne’s World" during his time on SNL. That’s really all you need to know. But he wasn’t just a one trick pony, as he created a number of memorable characters while he was on the show and was capable of blending into other people’s sketches as a supporting character, which is a really tough trick to pull off and is evidence of both his talent and his unselfishness as a performer.
Kristen Wiig took over a stage that had been set for her by powerful women like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and dominated it, in effect solidifying once and for all the female presence on SNL, which has always sort of been a boys club. She was funny, combining a willingness to look ridiculous with a fearless sense that it was okay to take risks. By the time she left, she was the undisputed alpha cast member and a legitimate movie star.
Gilda Radner was SNL’s first big female star, and you can see traces of her in everyone who’s followed, from Amy Poehler to Kristen Wiig. She had a sort of vulnerability that made people both adore her and want to laugh at whatever she was doing. If she wouldn’t have died, she’d probably be even better remembered today, alongside some of her more famous male cast members, but make no mistake, she was as talented as any of them.
Everyone on the list by this point is a legend. It’s just a matter of degrees which separates them now. The only reason Bill Murray isn’t ranked even higher is because, if anything, he got even better after leaving the show. He’s the dude who had the unenviable task of taking over for Chevy Chase when he left and it is a testament to how awesome Bill Murray really is that he not only survived under that pressure, but thrived.
Everybody craps all over Chevy Chase now, and with good reason, but once upon a time he was considered the funniest, coolest dude in Hollywood. And that’s largely because of his time on SNL. It was a short run, lasting only the show’s first season and part of the second but during that time Chevy Chase basically invented the “Live, from New York…” opening, as well as the "Weekend Update" anchor position, was the first to play the President and was the very first cast member to break out. In short, he was the dude who made SNL cool and created much of what the show still is today. Lorne Michaels said that if he wouldn’t have left the show, it would have become The Chevy Chase Show. So yeah, he deserves his spot here.
John Belushi was the first person who really made SNL seem slightly dangerous, which has always been a critical element in its success. Animal House and The Blues Brothers made him an icon, but you can never forget that all of that started with his run on Saturday Night Live, which led to countless cast members trying to be him, an impossible task because there was only one John Belushi and he was amazing.
Chris Farley worshiped John Belushi and tried his hardest to be Belushi, and so it might seem kind of crazy to rank him one spot higher than his hero, and I wasn’t going to but here’s the thing: the two funniest moments in the entire show’s history – I’m talking ever – were because of Farley. He wasn’t as consistent as Belushi and lacked Belushi’s drive, but nobody has ever matched Farley’s performances in the very first "Matt Foley: Motivational Speaker" sketch or the "Chippendales Dancer" sketch with Patrick Swayze. They just haven’t. I think of those and there’s just no way I can rank him lower than this.
Dana Carvey was born for Saturday Night Live. His famous sketches, characters and impressions are too many to list here. He was so good, in fact, that he was the only actor to leave the show who was then able to start his own sketch comedy show, The Dana Carvey Show, on network TV. He was just phenomenal.
Dan Aykroyd was the very first glue guy for SNL, a human Swiss Army knife who could be called upon to play any number of roles and play them astonishingly well, both as a star and as a supporting player. He was the one who really made the whole thing work and served as the prototype for all the glue guys who came after him. He was the show’s very first MVP and is probably the most universally respected living former cast member of them all.
The only other time in the show’s history that it has received nearly the same acclaim as it did when the first cast was doing their thing is when Phil Hartman was the dude in the late ‘80s. Dana Carvey was the breakout star, Lovitz the wildcard, but Phil Hartman was the MVP, the successor to Dan Aykroyd’s role – one of only two guys to ever really pull it off in the more than 30 years since Aykroyd left – and the one cast member who made it all work. If you were building a dream SNL cast, you would probably be wise to start with Hartman and build around him.
Will Ferrell just got better and better the longer he was on the show, starting out as sort of the goofy dude before evolving into the worthy successor to Aykroyd and Hartman before finally becoming a megastar. He was both the glue guy and the superstar, which is the only time that’s ever been done. By the end, he pretty much was the show and both he and it were amazing.
Eddie Murphy is the most naturally talented person to ever walk up on stage at Saturday Night Live. He just is. He took a dying show, hated by everyone because it wasn’t the original cast, and almost single-handedly brought it back to life. He could do anything. Most people probably have forgotten this a bit because he refuses to come back to host, but if he did I promise he’d blow everyone away all over again. He was so good that it eventually completely overwhelmed the rest of the show. He didn’t just shine like a star, he blew up like a supernova.
(Previously published on July 23, 2013.)