A highly scientific survey that will surely lead to no disagreements.
By Phil Nugent
We are gathered here today to rank the — what is it? Jesus! — ninety-two past and present cast members of Saturday Night Live, in ascending order of their contribution to the show. This is no way to make friends. But while no one will be completely happy with the results, let’s at least stress one of the ground rules: for the purpose of this experiment, these performers are being graded solely on the work they did on SNL itself. If we were talking about their entire careers, Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Rock, and Joan Cusack would be clustered at the top. As it is, they’re not even serious contenders for the top twenty.
92. VICTORIA JACKSON (1986-1992):
Jackson’s cute-ditsy-idiot act got pretty thin when dragged out over the course of five seasons. Plus, it turns out it wasn’t an act.
91. JIM BELUSHI (1983-1985):
It seems unlikely that the people who hired Jim Belushi believed they were bringing his brother John back on board, especially since John Belushi had been dead for a year at that point. But the alternative explanation is that they knew who Jim Belushi was and still wanted him, and how likely is that?
90. GARY KROEGER (1982-1985):
Kroeger was so boring that he was cast as Walter Mondale during the 1984 presidential campaign. His most memorable bit featured him begging viewers to elect Mondale so that he’d still have something to do on the show after November. In retrospect, it may have cost Mondale some votes.
89. COLIN QUINN (1995-2000):
Quinn is a funny guy, but he just looked miserable when he was on this show, and the feeling soon became contagious. The definition of one-note comedy.
88. ROB SCHNEIDER (1990-1994):
We’ll say this for Schneider: considering how doggedly he insisted on pounding one-joke characters into the ground, doing the same shtick over and over and over again, he couldn’t have picked a more fitting catchphrase than “Makin’ copies!”
87. ELLEN CLEGHORNE (1991-1995):
Perhaps the biggest laugh ever generated by Cleghorne’s name was a throwaway reference on Family Guy, when someone wondered aloud if she’d ever find “an appropriate vehicle.” The most appropriate vehicle for Cleghorne’s career is probably a hearse.
86. BRAD HALL (1982-1984):
If anyone remembers Brad Hall today, it’s because he married Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
85. HORATIO SANZ (1998-2006)
Too much laughing at his own jokes, not enough funny.
84. MELANIE HUTSELL (1991-1994)
Hutsell did a few memorable appearances on Weekend Update as Jan Brady (a role that she had played before joining SNL). Otherwise, pretty forgettable.
83. CHRIS KATTAN (1996-2003):
I just don’t get it. Is it a monkey?
82. TONY ROSATO (1981-1982):
After trying and failing to snag SCTV’s John Candy and Catherine O’Hara, producer Dick Ebersol hired two lesser cast members, Rosato and Robin Duke. Rosato’s main contribution to the show was to put a dent in the notion that Canada was an inexhaustible source of rich comedy talent.
81. JANEANE GAROFALO (1994-1995):
Garofalo was becoming a very hot property — after The Ben Stiller Show, The Larry Sanders Show, and Reality Bites — when she joined SNL, and to hear her tell it, she hated every second of it. She spent most of her time giving interviews in which she complained about how bad the show was and how it was a boys’ club; she wasn’t necessarily wrong on either count, but even people who liked her felt that her time and energy would have been better spent fighting to get better stuff on the air.
80. JIMMY FALLON (1998-2004):
He always seemed like a nice guy. I just could never figure out why he was so giggly. Hadn’t he already heard these jokes during rehearsal? Was he just now getting them?
79. ANTHONY MICHAEL HALL (1985-1986):
Coming fresh off his roles in three consecutive John Hughes movies, Hall was touted as the big catch of the season that marked Lorne Michaels’ return as producer. But he was never funny on the show and often came across as lost and surly, as if he had no idea what he was doing there. By the end of one season, he was ready to return to the movie career that wasn’t waiting for him any more.
78. CHARLES ROCKET (1980-1981):
A tragic figure who committed suicide in 2005, Rocket was hyped as the breakout star — the new Chevy Chase — of the first season of the show after the departure of Lorne Michaels and the original cast. When that season went over like a ride on the Hindenburg, Rocket found himself the public face of the disaster. After becoming increasingly hostile and seemingly dazed during shows, he made TV history by saying the word “fuck” on the air, in what looks, in retrospect, like a nationally televised cry for help.
77. GILBERT GOTTFRIED (1980-1981)
Gottfried’s twelve-episode stint on SNL actually featured little of the abrasive, screeching persona he’d eventually adopt. He was barely used in sketches, and only had one recurring character. But he didn’t do much worth remembering, either; his best contribution to the show was an impression of Roman Polanski.
76. MORWENNA BANKS (1995)
British actress Morwenna Banks joined SNL for the last four episodes of the tumultuous ’94-’95 season. The series of web videos she now produces for the BBC suggests what could have been — her impersonations of Lady Gaga and Noel Gallagher are spot on. Morwenna Banks, we hardly knew ye.
75. ANN RISLEY (1980-1981)
Risley was among the young comedians given the thankless task of replacing the beloved original cast in the 1980 season. She’s described her SNL experience as “horrible;” we might more charitably go with “forgettable.”
74. JEFF RICHARDS (2001-2004)
The first comedian to be made a full cast member on both SNL and MadTV, Richards’ Everyman features let him slip into a variety of impressions, though his most memorable character was the incredibly irritating “Drunk Girl” on “Weekend Update.”
73. JULIA SWEENEY (1990-1994)
For unleashing Pat upon the world, Sweeney should count herself lucky to land at #73.
72. FINESSE MITCHELL (2003-2006)
Do you realize that Finesse Mitchell was on Saturday Night Live for three full years — not even that long ago? Do you know who Finesse Mitchell is?
71. GEORGE COE (1975):
A good character actor and familiar face in TV and movies, Coe is a footnote to the first season of SNL: he was hired specifically to play the older authority figures the network figured the freakishly young cast members couldn’t handle. He appeared in a few bit parts and commercial parodies before it was discovered that Dan Aykroyd knew how to apply aging makeup and stick a pillow under his shirt.
70. CHRISTINE EBERSOLE (1981-1982):
Ebersole, who’s since gone on to become a Tony-winning Broadway star, was at the center of one of the weirdest moments in SNL history: after reviewers complained about the show’s demeaning use of its female cast members, Ebersole was permitted to sing a song aimed at expressing moral support for her sisters and defiance of the way they were being treated on the very show she was singing on. Having used her to get its moment of self-criticism out of the way, the show declined to renew her contract for another season.
69. JIM BREUER (1995-1998):
Is there any recurring character more bewildering, pointless, and universally despised than “Goat Boy?” (Maybe the flight attendants who say “Buh-bye,” and they don’t count because they only appeared once, even if it felt like you saw them a million times.)
68. DANITRA VANCE (1985-1986)
Danitra Vance was a troubled figure on SNL: dyslexic, she struggled with reading lines she hadn’t memorized in advance and found herself getting pushed into stereotypically “black” roles like Cabrini Green Jackson, the perennially pregnant teen mother — though she did address the race issue head-on with a biting Barry Manilow parody, “I Play the Maids.”
67. CHRIS ROCK (1990-1993):
Rock landed this gig before he fully blossomed into “Chris Rock,” and to his credit, he’d be the first to tell you that he and the show were not the best thing that ever happened to each other.
66. DENNIS MILLER (1985-1991):
Miller pioneered the idea that the guy who anchored Weekend Update shouldn’t have to do much else on the show, and that came to look as lazy as it sounds. The only thing he brought to the table was attitude, and nothing evaporates faster than topical wisecracks dripping with attitude.
65. CHRIS ELLIOTT (1994-1995):
Let him tell it: “I think people just thought that I would go there and do my own thing and, you know, be great on the show. And I was thinking… that I would go there and everybody else would write for me and I’d have an easy walk through the show. And neither happened.”
64. JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS (1982-1985)
Though she came into her own on Seinfeld, Louis-Dreyfus was mostly forgettable in her three SNL seasons.
63. ROBIN DUKE (1981-1984)
Robin Duke is best known for being one-half of the Whiners, playing Wendy to Joe Piscopo’s Doug. Duke didn’t gain much traction on the show other than that role and a smattering of obscure impressions, though her role as “Mrs. T,” alongside Mr. T, was beautifully surreal.
62. ROBERT DOWNEY, JR. (1984-1985)
Before he was the scruffy leading man that everyone loves, Robert Downey Jr. was the scruffy utility player that no one liked. He and most of his castmates were scrapped after one year on the show.
61. KENAN THOMPSON (2003-)
Thompson has his fans, but he still seems like he’s escaped from some other sketch comedy series, possibly on Nickelodeon.
60. JOE PISCOPO (1980-1984)
Poor Joe Piscopo seemed like an also-ran for his entire tenure on the show: despite being pushed by Dick Ebersol as a major talent, he was deeply jealous of Eddie Murphy’s ascent to fame and grew increasingly difficult during season nine, when Murphy left mid-season. But his recurring characters, “Weekend Update” spots, and impressions were more valued than history would have us believe.
59. MICHAEL O’DONOGHUE (1975):
O’Donoghue was one of the show’s most important writers, and the stories about his backstage behavior are legendary. On-camera, though, he thought it was funny to talk about sticking needles in Mike Douglas’s eyeballs. (To you kids out there asking, “Who was Mike Douglas?” I say: exactly.)
58. TIM KAZURINSKY (1981-1984)
Despite clashing frequently with Dick Ebersol and complaining about poor writing, Kazurinsky put in some of SNL’s most idiosyncratic characters: he careened across ethnicities and time periods. Even though he’s probably more remembered for Police Academy at this point (poor bastard), what other cast member could claim to have played Adolf Hiter, FDR, and Gen. MacArthur?
57. MARY GROSS (1981-1985)
Poor Mary Gross was most visible playing Alfalfa to Eddie Murphy’s Buckwheat, an admittedly funny part that overshadowed most of her other work.
56. MOLLY SHANNON (1995-2001)
Having created one of the most grating characters in SNL history, Shannon proceeded to milk Mary Katherine Gallagher for six years, probably driving an entire generation away from SNL in the process.
55. WILL FORTE (2002-2010)
The affable Forte always came off as a nice guy, but doesn’t it seem like a parody of a target as big as MacGyver, given a full fifteen years to gestate, should’ve been funnier than MacGruber?
54, 53. MICHAEL McKEAN (1995-1995) and MARK McKINNEY (1995-1997):
These two now seem yoked together in the show’s history. They were both old pros who’d done brilliant things, but didn’t bring much to SNL. (McKean must’ve been hired just because he was the only member of Spinal Tap who’d never been a cast member.)
52. JOAN CUSACK (1984-1985)
Lorne Michaels has always had an eye for talent, as evidenced by his hiring Robert Downey Jr. and Joan Cusack for the 1985 SNL season. But once he finds that talent, he doesn’t always know what to do with it, as evidenced by the fact that neither Downey nor Cusack became stars until years after leaving the show.
51. SETH MEYERS (2001-)
Meyers has done an admirable job holding down the Weekend Update anchor desk for several years, but he hasn’t quite elevated that segment to the greatness it’s occasionally achieved in the past.
50. ABBY ELLIOTT (2008-)
Though her original characters are somewhat lacking, Elliott has emerged as one of the more talented chameleons on SNL — her biting impressions of everyone from Zooey Deschanel to Brooke Hogan have made her a valuable asset.
49. PAMELA STEPHENSON (1984-1985):
Stephenson used to do hilarious impersonations of rock stars like Cyndi Lauper and Billy Idol. Apparently comedy was just something she did when she was too young to know any better, and she’s since quit the business and become a writer and clinical psychologist.
48. DAVID KOECHNER (1995-1996)
Koechner never made much headway on SNL, but the friends he made there — particularly Will Ferrell and Adam McKay — carried him far; if you recognize him, it’s probably from Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, or Talladega Nights.
47. BOBBY MOYNIHAN (2008-)
Though he mainly fills the requisite “goofy chubby guy” role, Moynihan can at least be said to do a mean Guy Fieri.
46 & 45. GAIL MATTHIUS and DENNY DILLON (1980-1981):
The sketches these two did as high-school girls hanging out together were probably the high point of their dire season. Sadly, they never had a chance to do much else.
44. RICH HALL (1984-1985)
Rich Hall has had an interesting career. Did you know he’s huge in England? Did you know he was the inspiration for Moe the bartender on The Simpsons? These qualities probably distinguish him more than his short (albeit unembarrassing) tenure on SNL.
43. GARRETT MORRIS (1975-1980)
A Julliard-trained singer whose time on SNL now stands as a cautionary example to African-American cast members (Eddie Murphy once told TV Guide that producer Jean Doumanian “had tried to Garrett Morris me”), Morris occasionally turned the stereotyped roles he was given into gold (see for example the convict in “Lifer Follies,” whose performance for the parole board consists of a song called “I’m gonna get me a shotgun and kill all the whiteys I see”).
42. NANCY WALLS (1995-1996)
At this point, Nancy Walls is probably better known for being Mrs. Steve Carell than for anything she did in a short term on SNL.
41. RANDY QUAID (1984-1985)
Though Quaid has become a punchline nowadays, back when he was fresh off the Vacation films, he was considered a hot commodity. He’s too weird-looking to effectively transform himself in impressions, but his characters (like salesman Rudy Randolph, Jr.) gave us a brief glimpse of that old Cousin Eddie magic.
40. LARAINE NEWMAN (1975-1980):
For my money, Newman was underrated. Reportedly, she wound up on the outs with Lorne Michaels and the writing staff partly because she didn’t want to do recurring characters; she wanted to do something new every time out. This is admirable, and part of what made her exciting to watch, but when the show fully embraced its commitment to flogging the same characters over and over, she was left stranded, a woman without a catch phrase.
39. HARRY SHEARER (1979-1980; 1984-1985)
Brilliant in his own right, Shearer never clicked on SNL; the meticulousness that would serve him so well in This is Spinal Tap made him “a pain in the butt” (in the words of producer Dick Ebersol) on a show defined by a seat-of-its-pants weekly scramble.
38. TERRY SWEENEY (1985-1986):
Sweeney was the first openly gay cast member of the show. That may explain why the show never had much idea of how to use him. But he was talented, and his Nancy Reagan impression was a thing of sleek, cruel beauty.
37. FRED ARMISEN (2002-)
Fred Armisen took an unlikely path to SNL, first spending time drumming for Chicago rockers Trenchmouth and the Blue Man Group. But once on the show, he quickly showed a penchant for surreal, Andy Kaufman-esque characters and biting (if oddly chosen) impressions, ranging from Lou Reed to Lawrence Welk to Ice-T.
36. DAVID SPADE (1990-1995)
David Spade’s smarmy personality is an acquired taste, to be sure, but his impressions on SNL didn’t rely too much on his acerbic bitchiness, which made them easier to take. Besides, the “Hollywood Minute” set the standard for cringe-inducing celebrity bashing before it was cool: Spade’s takedown of Eddie Murphy (“Look, kids, a falling star — make a wish”) was so savage and well-timed that Murphy’s only now beginning to feel better about it.
35. ANA GASTEYER (1996-2002)
Gasteyer often seemed overshadowed by the outsized personalities she shared seasons with (Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, Molly Shannon) but she made her mark by going in the opposite direction, relying on quieter characters and impressions, like NPR personality Margaret Jo MucCullen and Martha Stewart (whom she once played topless).
34. MAYA RUDOLPH (2000-2007)
A calm presence in a manic cast, Maya Rudolph was easily overlooked. But her few moments in the spotlight were charming and memorable. Her caricature of a chain-smoking and hot-tempered Donatella Versace was consistently one of the highlights of her seasons.
33. TRACY MORGAN (1996-2003)
Morgan wasn’t given much to do on SNL, but his best moments (“Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet”) show off the loopy ingenuousness he later brought to 30 Rock.
32. CHERI OTERI (1995-2000)
Did anyone really love the Spartan Cheerleaders? How many times can you laugh at booty bumps between two people of disparate heights? But Oteri won us over when she applied her Spartan enthusiasm to darker characters like Rita DelVecchio, Philadelphia’s finest female curmudgeon, or butch public-access host Mickey.
31. CHRIS PARNELL (1998-2001; 2002-2006)
Chris Parnell had a rough time on SNL. He’s the only cast member in the show’s history to have been fired twice — Lorne Michaels fired him in 2001, rehired him in 2002, then fired him again in 2006, despite his appearance in the massive hit “Lazy Sunday.” His performance as Dr. Leo Spaceman on 30 Rock suggests that Michaels was missing something.
30. ADAM SANDLER (1991-1995):
Sandler was cut loose after four years on the show, and immediately proceeded to take over Hollywood and conquer the world. The seeds of his stardom may have been sewn on SNL, but his actual accomplishments on it are less clear. Suffice to say, there’s never been an “Opera Man” movie in the works.
29. ANDY SAMBERG (2005-)
He can be annoying, but “Lazy Sunday” makes up for a lot. His digital shorts are often the best thing on the show.
28. RACHEL DRATCH (1999-2006)
Rachel Dratch is one of the most criminally underrated SNL cast members in the show’s history. Jimmy Fallon could have learned a thing or two from the committed Dratch — she was able to deliver such over-the-top lines as “At this point during the soak, my lov-ah and I usually crave spiced meats” with nary a smile.
27. KEVIN NEALON (1986-1995)
Nealon’s long stint on the show was distinguished less by standout characters (though he was one half of bodybuilding duo Hans and Franz) and more by an amiable intelligence. If he rarely dazzled us, he rarely made us cringe either.
26. NORM MACDONALD (1993-1998)
The best “Weekend Update” host in SNL history, McDonald mastered a wry delivery that made even terrible jokes funny. (And a big part of succeeding on SNL is learning how to squeeze some life out of terrible jokes.)
25. CHEVY CHASE (1975-1976)
A glib wiseass, probably on drugs, a little cocky (“I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not”), the show’s first breakout star set a template for male SNL stars for years to come.
24. JASON SUDEIKIS (2005-)
Sudeikis’ affability has stuck him in a lot of “normal guy” roles (plenty of coaches and dads), which make his occasional forays into insanity (DJ Supersoak, the Devil) that much more appealing.
23. NORA DUNN (1985-1990)
In tough times for SNL, Nora Dunn pulled her weight, and got more than her fair share of laughs in the process. Probably as a result, she was one of only five cast members who weren’t fired at the end of the ’85-’86 season.
22. CHRIS FARLEY (1990-1995):
Farley worshiped John Belushi, but while Belushi’s personal life was a mess, he was always in control of himself as a performer. Farley never looked as if he were in control of anything — his weight, his voice, the way he gracelessly flung himself around the set. That kind of heedless anything-to-make-’em-laugh approach could be exciting, but since subsequent events confirmed that he really was out of control in every way, watching his antics today can feel a little sad.
21. JANE CURTIN (1975-1980)
Sometimes called the Queen of Deadpan, Curtin was a key player in the original SNL cast, providing the direly needed straight woman for John Belushi’s and Gilda Radner’s out-of-control characters.
20. BILL HADER (2005-)
Many of the biggest laugh-out-loud moments on SNL these days seem to come from Hader. His impressions add a hyper-reality to his subjects, whether doing Al Pacino, Vincent Price, John Malkovich, or the ever-hilarious Keith Morrison.
19. KRISTEN WIIG (2005-)
Wiig is hugely talented, and it would be a pleasure to rate her within whistling distance of the top ten. But she gets docked a few spots for an incredibly irritating stable of recurring characters.
16, 17, & 18. BILLY CRYSTAL, CHRISTOPHER GUEST, and MARTIN SHORT (1984-1985):
Along with Harry Shearer — who had already done a stint five years earlier, and who had trouble concealing his contempt for the show — these guys were producer Dick Ebersol’s “all-stars,” established performers with reputations as comics’ comics, who were brought in for a single season to goose things up. They earned their paychecks, big time: they all did good work, and the season was a success. But without that element of new, untested talent thrown onto live TV, this season felt less like Saturday Night Live than a lot of much worse ones.
15. JAN HOOKS (1986-1991)
Jan Hooks was brought on to SNL after the disastrous ’85-’86 season, and helped to put the show back into the national spotlight. A versatile performer, she delivered spot-on impressions of Sinead O’Connor and Tammy Faye Bakker, and a really brutal Kathie Lee Gifford long before Kristen Wiig got the chance.
14. JON LOVITZ (1985-1990):
Lovitz’s cartoonish persona can be off-putting, but there’s a reason he was the sole survivor of the ’85-86 season. He injected a spurt of pure, silly energy into the show when it was badly needed.
13. GILDA RADNER (1975-1980)
Radner won an Emmy for her performance on SNL in 1978 and carried many a sketch amongst the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.” Her Barbara Walters and Roseanne Roseannadanna characters remain legendary.
12. TIM MEADOWS (1991-2000):
Meadows was underutilized for much of his long run on the show, until he finally landed a crowd-pleasing recurring character in Leon Phelps, the smooth-talking ’70s leftover and self-styled ladies’ man. Meadows tended to slip into characters without working hard to call attention to himself, so he’ll probably always be a little underrated. The nice thing about that is that people taking another look at his sketches may find themselves surprised to rediscover how good he is.
11. DARRELL HAMMOND (1995-2009):
Hammond would probably chart higher if he just hadn’t stuck around so long. For a while there, he seemed indispensible to the show, and was often brilliant. But he wasn’t Phil Hartman or Will Ferrell — both of who he sometimes seemed to be understudying — and it’s hard to last fourteen years without the seams starting to show.
10. TINA FEY (2000-2006):
Fey breathed new life into Weekend Update, bringing sharp, literate political satire to what had been a regularly scheduled dead spot for years. It says a lot that the show’s best political joke since her departure has been the Sarah Palin impression she started doing as a special guest.
9. DANA CARVEY (1986-1993):
The difference in intensity between Carvey when he’s just himself and when he’s playing a character is downright eerie. And whether he was Garth or the Church Lady or George Bush, Senior, nobody could squeeze more juice out of unpromising characters.
8. MIKE MYERS (1989-1995):
With his youthful energy and his pre-Internet savvy about how technology and pop culture were reshaping American life, Myers’ trademark characters made SNL seem central to the lives of a new generation in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He made Wayne’s World and Sprockets essential pop culture references for years.
7. AMY POEHLER (2001-2008):
Poehler, whose work on the Upright Citizens Brigade series amounted to an extended, nationally televised SNL audition, was the first performer nominated for an Emmy for her work on the show in years.
6. DAN AYKROYD (1975-1979):
The most versatile and skilled of the original cast members, Aykroyd, who started out on SNL when he was twenty-three, gave the edgiest years of his life to the show. His letter-perfect impressions were new to TV audiences in their mercilessness, and his targets (Tom Snyder, Richard Nixon) couldn’t even pretend not to be insulted.
5. JOHN BELUSHI (1975-1979):
Belushi brought the pleasures of brash slapstick to a show that otherwise tended towards hip and cerebral. He made it look easy to dominate the stage and make audiences laugh by brute force. But if you look at the performers influenced, including Chris Farley and his own brother Jim, you can see that it isn’t that easy after all.
4. PHIL HARTMAN (1986-1994):
Always game, often inspired, and seemingly egoless, Hartman earned the backstage nickname “The Glue,” delivering night after night for eight years, whether the show around him rose to his level or not. He once broke up on the air while playing Frankenstein’s monster; it was like seeing Nolan Ryan pitch wild and bean the umpire.
3. BILL MURRAY (1977-1980):
Murray’s stature as the most beloved of all the SNL alumni was hard-won. He basically made it onto the show over Lorne Michaels’ dead body, and he had a rough couple of weeks trying to win over an audience that was hell-bent on hating him because he’d replaced the show’s first breakout star, Chevy Chase. But by the time Chase returned to guest host, it was Murray’s show he came back to. Murray really proved his mettle when he himself hosted the only exciting episode of the notorious 1980-81 season. It looked then and still looks today as if Golden Age SNL is something Bill Murray carries around in his back pocket in case of emergency.
2. WILL FERRELL (1995-2002):
Long before Old School, Ferrell looked like the friendly, super-straight guy at the fraternity beer bash who’d been putting off graduation for too long because he wasn’t looking forward to managing his dad’s construction firm. Watching strange demons take over that normal-looking countenance was a joke that seldom got tired. His surrealist sensibilities carried the show for years.
1. EDDIE MURPHY (1980-1984):
After the disaster of the first season without Lorne Michaels or any of the original cast members, NBC was seriously considering canceling the show, and they probably would have if Murphy hadn’t been turned loose to get people talking about SNL again. Whether doing Gumby, James Brown, or Mr. Robinson’s neighborhood, Murphy’s performances transcended the show and made him the most exciting thing on television at the time.