Saturday Night Live has produced its share of memorable characters over more than 40 years on television. And while there have been dozens of truly memorable characters, there have been some that have transcended the show and become true pop culture icons—branching out into their own movies and music albums, and appearing on lunch boxes and t-shirts. These are the truly iconic characters. The best of the best. The characters that have transformed SNL into a cultural touchstone over the years. The influential characters that everybody knows and loves, and that other comedians and comedy shows have tried to emulate. Here is a list of the 10 most influential SNL characters of all time.
You gotta hand it to Dan Aykroyd. The Canadian-born actor and comedian came up with some truly iconic and influential characters while part of the original SNL cast in the 1970s. And one of his most legendary creations was the Coneheads, which he brought to life with the help of fellow cast member Jane Curtain. Bizarre, outrageous and off the wall, the Coneheads were aliens from the planet Remulak who crash landed on earth and then settled into suburban life in the U.S.—trying their best to convince earthling neighbors that they are just like everyone else, and that their strangeness can be attributed to the fact that “We’re from France,” as they liked to tell everyone. Funny in the best sense, the Coneheads popularity has only grown in the years since they were a fixture on SNL. So much so, that the Coneheads starred in their own movie released in 1993.
Buckwheat, one of the characters featured in the “Our Gang” film serials of the 1930s and 1940s was largely forgotten by 1981 when he was revived by SNL cast member Eddie Murphy. And many people said “good riddance” to Buckwheat, complaining that the character represented all of the offensive, racist stereotypes of black people at that time in history. After all, Buckwheat was inarticulate, unintelligent and unrefined. And it was those qualities that Eddie Murphy exploited for maximum laughs when he debuted the character in a 1981 skit on SNL. Sporting Buckwheat’s trademark uncombed hair and suspenders, Eddie Murphy, as Buckwheat, mumbled incomprehensibly as he sang several pop songs in an effort to promote his album Buh-Weet Sings. The skit was awesome and the character of Buckwheat became a pop culture phenomenon in the early 1980s, appearing on t-shirts, lunch boxes and bumper stickers exclaiming his trademark phrase “O-tay!” Eventually, Buckwheat became over exposed and SNL retired the character by having him assassinated on air.
8. Ed Grimley
Whether you love Ed Grimley or find him super annoying, there is no getting the character (played by Martin Short) out of your mind once you see and hear him. With his trademark cowlick, plaid orange shirt and high-waisted pants, Ed Grimley left an indelible impression on SNL fans when he appeared on the show in 1984. Television viewers were won over by Ed Grimley’s unique dancing, his fascination with the show Wheel of Fortune and its host Pat Sajak, and his bizarre love of playing the “triangle” of all instruments. Martin Short first debuted the character on Canada’s SCTV in 1982, then brought him to SNL. The character went on to inspire an NBC animated series called The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley. Other Ed Grimley appearances include Comic Relief in 1986, and the TV movies I, Martin Short, Goes to Hollywood (1998) and Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me (2006).
7. The Church Lady
In terms of catchphrases produced by SNL characters, there is none more memorable or popular than the phrase “Well isn’t that special,” spoken by Enid Strict, aka The Church Lady who was created and performed by SNL cast legend Dana Carvey. Credited with helping to revive SNL’s popularity in the late 1980s after a few disastrous seasons, The Church Lady was a breakout character for the show and someone that everyone could identify in the late 1980s. Seated at a desk in front of a stained glass window, this host of “Church Chat” spouted her famous catchphrases such as “How convenient!” and “Well isn’t that special.” She also made a name for herself by scolding celebrity guests such as Shirley MacLaine, Jessica Hahn and Sean Penn for their sinful behavior. The character was even featured in a mock protest when comedian Sam Kinison hosted SNL. Dana Carvey has said that he based the Church Lady on women parishioners he knew in childhood who kept track of other people’s sins and faults.
6. Samurai Fatuba
John Belushi as the character of Samurai Futaba is one of the most iconic and oft shown images of SNL. And for good reason. Samurai Fatuba was one of the most popular characters on the show during its first five seasons. In fact, John Belushi played the character 18 times between December 1975 and May 1979 when he left SNL to pursue a career in movies. During that time, Samurai Fatuba appeared as a psychiatrist, a TV repairman and a tailor. He most famously appeared in a deli where he cut up the meat and sandwiches with a sword. No matter the situation, John Belushi made the character memorable as he wielded his Katana sword and spoke in a Japanese accent. In addition to the infamous “Samurai Deli” skit, the character also dueled with Richard Pryor (who was also a Samurai), and danced in a discotheque wearing a Kimono designed after the white leisure suit John Travolta wore in the movie Saturday Night Fever. There were plans to give Samurai Fatuba his own movie before John Belushi’s untimely death in 1982 from a drug overdose.
5. Hans and Franz
It says something that nearly 30 years after they debuted on SNL, the characters of Hans and Franz (played by SNL cast members Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon) are still appearing in commercials for Discount Double Check. Two pint-sized Austrian bodybuilders who were mocking Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of his mid-1980s fame, Hans and Franz were hilarious and had many memorable catchphrases, including “Girly men” and “We’re here to pump you up!” These phrases became so iconic that Arnold Schwarzenegger took to using them in his political speeches when he was Governor of California. The bodybuilders have also been copied many, many times by other comedians and other comedy shows such as MAD TV. Playing the characters of Hans and Franz appears to be the only thing comedian Dana Carvey is doing these days.
4. Matt Foley
Who can forget the motivational speaker Matt Foley played by SNL cast member Chris Farley? Or his warning that “You’ll be living in a van down by the river!” This character was a breakout for Chris Farley and made him a star. It also helped audiences to accept a new SNL cast in the early 1990s that included David Spade, Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider. A less-than-subtle satirization of the motivational speakers that pervaded America in the 1990s, Matt Foley was an overweight nervous wreck who tried to dole out advice to people at the gym, families in their homes, and even to inmates in prison, where Matt Foley himself served time for failing to pay child support. The character crossed over to live performances by Chris Farley and was even featured in some real life self-help books.
3. Mr. Robinson
A blatant and hilarious take on the kid friendly Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Mr. Robinson was played by SNL cast member Eddie Murphy, and was a grittier inner city patriarch who provided his young viewers with, er, pragmatic advice such as how to hide from your landlord when you haven’t paid the rent. He also famously introduced words of the day such as “ransom” and “scum bucket.” And, Mr. Robinson frequently reminded kids of their limited job prospects as adults. Of course, all of Mr. Robinson’s words were spoken with a smile on his face and a soothing voice—as well as a backdrop of a rundown apartment. It was a hilarious and edgy take on kid-friendly characters such as Mr. Rogers, and it helped send Eddie Murphy into the stratosphere of great comedians.
2. Wayne and Garth
Suburban metal heads Wayne (played by SNL cast member Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) were so popular that they spawned not one but two movies in the 1990s. Hosting a public access cable show in his mom’s basement, Wayne and his sidekick Garth came to epitomize the early 1990s with their fashion (torn jeans), choice of music (Aerosmith) and catchphrases (“Party On” and “Excellent”). During their run on SNL, Wayne and Garth did everything from make out with Madonna to debate the future of socialism with Aerosmith. Even after Mike Myers and Dana Carvey left SNL, the characters of Wayne and Garth were so popular that they got to star in two movies as the beloved characters, who continue to be the poster boys for Gen X slackers everywhere.
1. Blues Brothers
As the Blues Brothers, SNL cast members John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd had a number one TV show, a number one record and a number one movie. All between the years 1978 and 1980. The characters of Jake (Belushi) and Elwood (Aykroyd) have become true icons in their black suits, shades and fedora hats. They are pop culture touchstones who have become known for the classic 1980 Blues Brothers movie (the first SNL movie spinoff) and for their renditions of blues songs such as “Soul Man.” The characters remained so popular that Dan Aykroyd resurrected them with John Goodman replacing John Belushi for a live series of concerts and the ill-fated 1998 movie Blues Brothers 2000. Regardless of the failure to revive the characters, the Blues Brothers remain hugely popular, recognizable and influential to this day. R.I.P John Belushi.