It’s a debate that seems destined to rage on forever: Who are the best cast members to ever perform on Saturday Night Live? Considering that the show has been on air for more than 40 years, and that its alumni are a “who’s who” of comedians who have defined what it means to be funny for nearly half a century, it can be extremely difficult (some say impossible) to come up with a list of the very best SNL cast members. But that’s no reason not to try, so here is our list of the SNL cream of the crop. In ranking these cast members, we used an incredibly scientific process involving the following three criteria: overall influence, variety of characters and longevity. Enjoy!
20. Darrell Hammond (1995-2009)
The longest-serving cast member in SNL history at 14 seasons, Darrell Hammond was the king of impressionists on the show. His spot-on impressions of everyone from Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney to Jay Leno and Johnny Cash made him a true chameleon. Of course, he is probably best remembered for his impression of Sean Connery on Celebrity Jeopardy, who takes great delight in insulting host Alex Trebek (played by fellow cast member Will Ferrell). Hammond’s impressions were so good, that most people have no sense of the cast member’s real personality. Which, apparently, is how Darrell Hammond liked it. In addition to being the cast member who lasted the longest, he was also the oldest cast member in SNL’s run (at age 53) when he left the program.
19. Adam Sandler (1990-1995)
To hear Adam Sandler tell it, SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels didn’t like his brand of humor and often took issue with the skits he wrote. Apparently, Lorne Michaels found Sandler whiny and weird, and often felt that the comedian mumbled his lines on the show. Yet despite the show’s head honcho not getting him, Sandler still had an impressive run on SNL. During his five seasons on the show, he gave us memorable moments including Opera Man, the Chanukkah Song, Canteen Boy and numerous skits and songs featuring his good buddy and fellow cast member Chris Farley (notably the Lunch Lady song). Never a great impressionist, Sandler was nevertheless a prolific writer on the program and was a regular guest on Weekend Update segments, where he was often featured playing his guitar and singing a little ditty.
18. Jane Curtin (1975-1980)
Original SNL cast member Jane Curtain often gets overlooked on these types of lists, because she was always cast as the straight woman opposite her wilder co-stars, such as John Belushi and Bill Murray. But make no mistake, Jane Curtain was very funny on SNL. After all, it takes a pretty funny person to hold their own opposite John Belushi in top form. The actress, who went on to star on other popular television shows such as Kate & Allie and 3rd Rock From The Sun, mastered a deadpan delivery, which worked perfectly for her as an anchor on the Weekend Update segments. In fact, she was so good on Weekend Update that she replaced original anchor Chevy Chase when he left to pursue movies without missing a beat. Also, her sparring matches with Belushi and Dan Aykroyd were legendary, resulting in the infamous line “Jane, you ignorant slut!”
17. Joe Piscopo (1980-1984)
Joe Piscopo often gets overlooked because his post-SNL career never panned out. But from 1980 to 1984, SNL revolved around Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy. And while Eddie Murphy has had the better movie career and his work on SNL is more fondly remembered, the truth is that Eddie Murphy would not have been as great a success without his collaborations with Piscopo. The two had great chemistry and played off each other beautifully, none more memorably than their skit where Piscopo played Frank Sinatra and Murphy played Stevie Wonder, with the two singing the song “Ebony & Ivory” together. Other memorable SNL skits and characters featuring Piscopo include “The Whiners,” “Family In The Attic,” “Three Stooges Self-Defense Class,” and his impressions of then-President Ronald Reagan.
16. Jan Hooks (1986-1991)
Sadly, Jan Hooks died in 2014 at the relatively young age of 57 due to throat cancer. However, during her five-year stint on SNL, Hooks was a force of nature and established herself as one of the funniest women ever on the program. Adept at impressions and original characters, Jan Hooks is remembered for impersonating everyone from Kathie Lee Gifford to Hilary Clinton and Sinead O’Connor on SNL, as well as providing a funny stream of original characters such as the Sweeney Sisters (with Nora Dunn) and Brenda the Waitress, who tells her male customers “Pie is never free.” Jan Hooks was also a very good singer and often broke into song during sketches she was featured in. RIP.
15. Molly Shannon (1995-2001)
Another hilarious female cast member was Molly Shannon, who held her own in the late 1990s against superstar cast members Will Ferrell and Tina Fey. Molly Shannon is best remembered for creating the original character Mary Katherine Gallagher, the oh so awkward Catholic School girl who went on to star in her own feature film, 1999’s Superstar. Other memorable characters created by Molly Shannon on the show included Sally O’Malley (“I’m 50!”), Dog Show host Miss Colleen and “Joyologist” Helen Madden. And, of course, Molly Shannon was featured in one of the all-time funniest SNL skits, the Schweddy Balls skit co-starring cast member Anna Gasteyer and guest host Alec Baldwin. The Schweddy Balls skit was so funny, it is now shown every year on SNL’s Christmas retrospective. Hilarious!
14. Billy Crystal (1984-85)
He was only on SNL for one season, but what a season it was! In 1984-85, Billy Crystal joined forces with Martin Short, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer to produce one of the funniest seasons in SNL history. And Crystal was at the centre of the hilarity, with characters that included Willie and Frankie (with Christopher Guest), Buddy Young, Tony Minnetti’s Boxing Stories, and of course the recurring “Fernando’s Hideaway”, where Crystal’s character Fernando Lamas tells everyone he meets “You look Mahvalous”, which became one of SNL’s biggest catchphrases of all time. Crystal also did hilarious impressions of everyone from Sammy Davis Jr. to Muhammad Ali while on the show, which are all classic stuff.
13. Cheri Oteri (1995-2000)
It doesn’t matter that she has virtually disappeared since leaving the show, Cheri Oteri’s work on SNL was stellar, and she should go down in history as one of the show’s funniest cast members. Her work with Will Ferrell produced some classic sketches, such as the hyperactive Spartan Cheerleaders and the goofy “Morning Latte” talk show hosts. Oteri also created many memorable characters of her own on SNL, including prescription pill addict Collette Reardon and testy employee Nadeen, who was always telling people to “simma down now.” In addition, she did great impressions of Fran Drescher and Barbara Walters while with the show. Her boundless energy was infectious and worked in every skit she was in.
12. Dana Carvey (1986-1993)
Another great SNL alumnus whose career after the show never reached its potential is Dana Carvey. Despite that fact, Carvey was hugely influential on SNL in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and helped to save the show after a dreadful 1985-86 season. His many, many memorable characters include The Church Lady, Hans and Franz (with Kevin Nealon) and of course Garth in the hyper-popular” Wayne’s World” skits alongside Mike Myers. He also performed perfect impressions of U.S. President George Bush, Johnny Carson and Mickey Rooney. Carvey is also responsible for some of the most memorable SNL catchphrases, including “Well, isn’t that special!” and “She’s chopping broccoli!” Despite his movie career tanking, Dana Carvey’s SNL legacy is secure.
11. Chevy Chase (1975-1976)
Chevy Chase was the first breakout star on SNL, and helped make the show a breakout hit in its first season back in 1975-76, as well as cement SNL as a cultural phenomenon. In fact, Chase was so influential on SNL, that most people don’t realize he was only on the program for one season! Chase actually left in 1976 to pursue movies, and was replaced by Bill Murray, in a fairly acrimonious situation. However, while he was with SNL, Chase proved himself to be one of its funniest cast members ever. He not only pioneered Weekend Update and was its first anchor, but he also made a name for himself doing impressions of then-President Gerald Ford. Chase was also one of the original writers on SNL and contributed to many of the first season’s breakout skits, including the Killer Bees and Land Shark. Since leaving the show, he has returned to host SNL many times.
10. Phil Hartman (1986-1994)
During his eight year run on SNL, cast member Phil Hartman was so funny, so consistent and so reliable that his nickname was “The Glue”. He performed more than 70 different characters on SNL and was in more sketches during his time with the show than any other cast member. Hartman’s memorable characters included impressions of U.S. President Bill Clinton and singer Frank Sinatra, as well as original creations such as Frankenstein, Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer and Eugene, the anal retentive chef. Hartman was also an accomplished writer on SNL and won an Emmy Award in 1989 for his work on the program. In addition, while a cast member on SNL, Phil Hartman perfected many of the voices he would go on to use to great effect on The Simpsons. Sadly, Phil Hartman was murdered by his wife in 1998 during a tragic domestic violence incident.
9. Bill Murray (1977-1980)
He had big shoes to fill taking over for Chevy Chase when he left, but Bill Murray rose to the challenge and made the most of his time on SNL in the late 1970s. While with the show, Murray specialized in playing sarcastic and sleazy characters, and he had a great rapport with fellow cast members Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. His most memorable SNL character has to be Nick the Lounge Singer, who spent more time bantering with the audience than singing. But Bill Murray’s greatest moments on SNL came when he was paired with fellow cast member Gilda Radner, notably in the “Nerds” sketches, where Murray’s character Todd would tease girlfriend Lisa (played by Radner) and give her noogies. Murray also has the distinction of being one of the most successful SNL alumni, as his post-SNL career includes hit movies such as Stripes, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day and Lost In Translation.
8. Tina Fey (2000-2006)
As SNL head writer, and anchor of Weekend Update, Tina Fey exerted huge influence over the show in the early 2000s. Her humour is sharp, biting and takes no prisoners, and her sharp tongue reinvigorated Weekend Update, injecting new life into a segment that had been growing flat at the time she took over. She also wrote and starred in some of SNL’s all-time great skits and fake commercials, notably “Mom Jeans”, and earned rave reviews and an Emmy Award for her impersonation of Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. In addition, Fey had great chemistry on the show with both Will Ferrell and Jimmy Fallon, who were the top dogs on SNL during her tenure. Overall, Tina Fey set the bar pretty high for all the female cast members who came after her.
7. Will Ferrell (1995-2002)
Like other breakout stars from the show, Will Ferrell was a near one-man show during his time on SNL from 1995 to 2002. Not only was he featured in seemingly every sketch on the program, but he delivered a tone of hilarious original characters, including being one half of the Spartan Cheerleaders with Cheri Oteri and the lethargic music teachers who were known to break into song with Anna Gasteyer. But Will Ferrell is probably best known for his funny as hell impressions of people ranging from U.S. President George W. Bush, crooner Robert Goulet, Jeopardy host Alex Trebek and sportscaster Harry Caray. He was also in the infamous “cowbell” sketch as a member of band Blue Oyster Cult, which is considered one of the funniest sketches in the program’s illustrious history.
6. Gilda Radner (1975-1980)
Original cast member Gilda Radner knocked people’s socks off on SNL with her quirky style and willingness to take comedy to the limit. Her character Roseanne Roseannadanna is one of the best ever on the show, as is her impression of Barbara Walters, aka “Baba Wawa.” She also teamed up memorably with Bill Murray to play nerd Lisa opposite Murray’s Todd, and she made many memorable impressions on Weekend Update next to Chevy Chase and later Jane Curtain. A unique talent, Gilda Radner sadly died in 1989 at the age of 42 from ovarian cancer. Her loss is still felt to this day.
5. Chris Farley (1990-1995)
Hands down one of the funniest and most memorable cast members in SNL history, Chris Farley left a major impression with his “take no prisoners” humor. Whether it was going shirtless as an overweight Chippendales dancer, warning people that they’ll be “living in a van down by the river” as motivational speaker Matt Foley or just barreling around the set and destroying things as he went, Chris Farley was a force on SNL in the early 1990s. He often performed alongside his good friend Adam Sandler and never hesitated to use his weight to get laughs, such as when he did impressions of Carnie Wilson, the fat sister in the band Wilson Philips. Farley also seemed to be off to a promising movie career, unfortunately he died from partying too hard at the tender age of 33.
4. Mike Myers (1989-1995)
Mike Myers left a string of memorable and hugely influential characters behind when he left SNL in 1995. Arguably the top performer during his time with the show, Mike Myers is best known for playing suburban teenage rocker Wayne Campbell on “Wayne’s World”, a recurring skit that spawned two hit movies. But he also created other memorable SNL characters such as Linda Richman, the New York host of “Coffee Talk,” Simon, the British boy who talks about his drawings in the bathtub, and Dieter, the German art aficionado and host of the dance show “Sprockets.” Mike Myers was also a prolific writer on SNL and a proud Canadian, who often worked references to his home country into his sketches and wore hockey jerseys on the program.
3. Dan Aykroyd (1975-1979)
As an original writer and performer on SNL, Dan Aykroyd created some of the most popular and best remembered characters and sketches in SNL history, including the Coneheads, the Wild and Crazy Guys (with Steve Martin), the Blues Brothers (with John Belushi) and pitchman Irwin Mainway. Oh, and there was also Fred Garvin, Male Prostitute, Mel from Mel’s Char Palace, and the Bass-O-Matic skit. If that weren’t enough, Aykroyd also delivered hilarious impressions of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, chef Julia Child and actor Ricardo Montalban. Plus, his appearances on Weekend Update opposite Jane Curtain are some of the funniest moments in the show’s history. Not too shabby.
2. John Belushi (1975-1979)
Of course, you can’t have Dan Aykroyd featured in the top three without putting his best buddy and frequent collaborator John Belushi right next to him. In addition to being one half of the Blues Brothers, John Belushi gets a spot in second place for giving us an array of characters that included Samurai Fatuba, the Killer Bees, hilarious impressions of Captain Kirk and Henry Kissinger, as well as being the guy in the restaurant who exclaims “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger. No Coke. Pepsi.” Plus, John Belushi was drop dead funny on Weekend Update most memorably when he was tearing into anchor Jane Curtain. Without a doubt, Belushi, who tragically passed away from a drug overdose in 1982, was one of the all time greats.
1. Eddie Murphy (1980-1984)
Eddie Murphy was just 19 years old when he was tapped to help replace the original SNL cast in 1980, but boy, did he deliver. What makes Eddie Murphy the best SNL cast member of all time? Consider his characters: Gumby, Buckwheat, James Brown, Velvet Jones, Mr. Robertson, Stevie Wonder, Bill Cosby, Little Richard and Ronald Reagan’s illegitimate son Dion, all instant classics. In fact, Murphy was so wildly popular and influential on the show that he actually hosted SNL while still a cast member. Murphy also had terrific timing and chemistry with Joe Piscopo on the program and the two created some seriously funny skits together. Eddie Murphy was so funny on SNL that he made viewers forget about the original cast, and launched himself a movie career that included hits such as Trading Places, 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop, Shrek, Dr. Doolittle and The Nutty Professor. By any measure, Murphy is beyond comparison.