Alec Baldwin’s spot-on impression of presidential hopeful Donald Trump is just the latest time that Saturday Night Live has nailed a politician or celebrity and tapped into the pop culture zeitgeist. Over the years, SNL has been home to many fantastic impressions – both from their rank-and-file cast members, and also from celebrity guest hosts such as Baldwin. Here we look at the 10 best impressions ever performed on SNL, by both cast members and guests of the late night program.
10. Will Ferrell as James Lipton
Will Ferrell’s impression of snooty interviewer and host of Inside the Actors Studio, James Lipton, is pretty well perfect. Of course Ferrell did many other great impressions on SNL, notably of Jeopardy host Alex Trebek and Cajun crooner Robert Goulet. However, Ferrell’s impression of Lipton is one of his most accurate. The slow, over-pronounced, self-important voice and operatically insane laugh made for a great parody of Inside the Actors Studio. Plus, Ferrell indulged in the same loopy questions that Lipton was famous for asking his guests, and also perfectly captured the over preparation and detailed information that Lipton liked to show off in his interviews. When the real James Lipton appeared on SNL opposite Wil Ferrell it made for one of show’s great moments. “And then… you ate poo.”
9. Norm MacDonald as David Letterman
Norm MacDonald’s five years on SNL is best remembered for his hosting of the “Weekend Update” segment. Norm wasn’t really known for doing impressions (although his Burt Reynolds is pretty awesome). However, one impression that MacDonald totally nailed on SNL was his take on late night talk show host David Letterman. This impression is especially impressive given that Letterman is so wry and detached that it would seem almost impossible to mock him. But MacDonald’s impersonation pointed out just how mindless and ridiculous Letterman and his dialogue can be – especially when he is bantering back and forth with his late night sidekick Paul Schaffer. When MacDonald would riff on one of Letterman’s weird, time-wasting voices — “Uh, Uh, Uh, you got any gum?” – it was funny because it made people realize how unfunny a lot of David Letterman’s schtick was.
8. Phil Hartman as Frank Sinatra
Phil Hartman was a bit of chameleon on SNL and did a great impression of Bill Clinton back in the early 1990s. However, Hartman’s very best impression, and the funniest, was the one he did of singer Frank Sinatra. Portraying Sinatra as an old, boozy battler who is stuck in his 1950s heyday, Hartman lampooned the aging singer perfectly. Whether Frank Sinatra was bragging about getting it on with Ava Gardner, or threatening younger cast members on the show – “I’ve got chunks of guys like you in my stool!” — Phil Hartman nailed the impression and helped create the image of Sinatra as an old crank. Of course, Phil Hartman wasn’t the only SNL cast member to portray Frank Sinatra. A decade earlier, cast member Joe Piscopo also did a fantastic impression of the Chairman of the Board.
7. Darrell Hammond as Sean Connery
Darrell Hammond was the king of impressions on SNL, and performed more than 30 of them during his time on the show. He mostly did great political impressions of everyone from Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney to Donald Trump and Al Gore. But it is Hammond’s impression of Scottish actor Sean Connery that the SNL cast member is most remembered for – especially Sean Connery on “Celebrity Jeopardy,” where he berated host Alex Trebek (played by Will Ferrell). As with many of the impressions on this list, Hammond added his own twist to the Sean Connery character, portraying him as a rude, insulting, and foul mouthed curmudgeon who seemed to only live to insult the snobby Alex Trebek. The exchanges between Hammond and Ferrell on “Celebrity Jeopardy” are classic stuff.
6. Dana Carvey as George H.W. Bush
Dana Carvey was truly one of the most versatile cast members in SNL history. During his tenure on the show, Carvey did perfect impressions of everyone from Johnny Carson to Ross Perot. However, he captured the spirit and mood of the U.S. in the late 1980s and early 1990s with his stunning impression of then-President George H.W. Bush. Many people feel that Dana Carvey’s turn as the elder Bush is the greatest impression in SNL history. Prez Bush was known for being boring, but Dana Carvey made him a funny using a few tricks such as meaningless hand gesturing and manufactured catchphrases like “Not gonna do it.” And despite doing the Bush Sr. impression for years, it never seemed to get old. The impression was so goof that George H.W. Bush mocked himself by impersonating Dana Carvey impersonating him at a White House Correspondents Dinner. This impression is one for the ages.
5. Dan Aykroyd as Julia Child
Not only is Dan Aykroyd’s impression of Julia Child funny and pretty accurate, but the Julia Child impression is featured in one of the funniest SNL skits ever – namely the one where the famous chef “cuts the dickens” out of her finger and bleeds profusely all over the set. What makes the skit so damn funny is watching Aykroyd as Child chop off her finger and then attempt to continue on through her show as she sprays blood everywhere and continues using the same singsong voice throughout. It’s a ridiculous situation played for maximum laughs, and it works. Look at the chicken she’s making. It is drowned in blood. “Why are you all spinning?” she asks on the verge of passing out. Hilarious!
4. Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford
Chevy Chase’s impression of U.S. President Gerald Ford during the first season of SNL was the first political impression on the then brand new late night show, and the first breakout character of the program. After President Ford famously fell down the stairs leaving Air Force One, Chevy Chase decided to portray Gerald Ford as a bumbling buffoon. It was not a note-perfect impersonation. But it did capture the views that many people had of Ford as an incompetent who inherited the White House after Richard Nixon was forced to resign. Chevy Chase’s impersonation was the centerpiece of his short, Emmy Award winning stint on SNL (he left after the first year to pursue movies), and it’s one of the sketches that demonstrates SNL’s Monty Python influences.
3. Will Ferrell as George W. Bush
Will Ferrell is the only person to land on this list twice, and for good reason. His impression of President George W. Bush in the early 2000s was flawless. In fact, Will Ferrell perfectly captured the essence of “W” as a spoiled rich kid who is light on brains and relies instead on the connections and guidance of his father, George H.W. Bush. Many people credit George W. Bush’s public image as a political and mental light weight to Will Ferrell’s impression of the former president. Ferrell performed this impression for years, but it never seemed stale or boring. Especially funny was when Ferrell would mangle words and syntax the way George W. Bush sometimes did in real life – all the while trying to look as smart as possible. Ferrell’s impression of former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno deserves honorable mention on this list.
2. Eddie Murphy as James Brown
We could easily include Eddie Murphy’s Buckwheat and Stevie Wonder impressions here, but the send-up of James Brown in the timeless “Hot Tub” sketch is too good not to include on this list. Murphy perfectly captures soul singer James Brown’s crazy dance moves, scratchy voice and unintelligible lyrics. The impression Murphy does of Brown dancing deserves to be on this list all by itself. But the whole take on the strange and outrageous Brown is hilarious. Of course, James Brown himself was so over the top that Eddie Murphy’s impression does not seem, in anyway, that exaggerated or too far out there. If anything, Eddie Murphy restrained himself with the James Brown impression. One of the best ever on SNL.
1. Tina Fey as Sarah Palin
Tina Fey was no longer a cast member on SNL when she did her impression of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. But Fey looked so much like Palin that she made special appearances on SNL during the 2008 election campaign. And Fey’s impression of Palin was made all the better by the fact that the two look so similar. Not only did Fey perfectly capture Palin’s voice, mannerisms, and kookiness, but she also looked just like the former Governor of Alaska. It proved to be an uncanny impression. And when both Fey and the real Palin appeared on SNL together, it brought the house down. Never before, or since, has one impression so captured the spirit of the times. The impression was so good that Fey still gets asked to perform it – even though Palin is no longer in the public eye. Now that’s impact!