During the course of its 37 years spanning more than 700 episodes, Saturday Night Live has inspired some of the best-loved characters (Church Lady, Wayne and Garth), as well as the worst movies (Coneheads, MacGruber) of all time. It’s surprising how many familiar faces got their showbiz starts on SNL; Janeane Garafalo, Ben Stiller, Paul Shaffer, Robert Downey Jr., Randy Quaid and Joan Cusack all had blink-and-you-missed-it stints on the one of the longest-running shows in TV history. Other ex-cast members are still associated with the groundbreaking sketch comedy program, despite going on to bigger and better things. Still others are frozen in time, having had their comic careers cut short by personal demons, illness and other tragedies. Here we pay homage to the five funniest casts to grace Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center.
Castmates from the 1994-95 to 1996-97 seasons benefited greatly from momentum generated by SNL’s “Dream Team” of the early 1990s (more on them later). But this era also introduced us to some of the show’s strongest comics, including Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, Ana Gasteyer and Tracy Morgan. The show’s 1994-95 season also boasted some beloved cast members from the legendary early 1990s era, including Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, David Spade, Kevin Nealon, Molly Shannon, Al Franken and Tim Meadows. It was also during this time period that we were first introduced to the “Roxbury guys” (played by Ferrell and Chris Kattan), as well as the armpit-sniffing Mary Katherine Gallagher (Molly Shannon) and the hyperactive Spartan cheerleaders, Arianna and Craig (Ferrell and Cheri Oteri).
4. Early to Mid-1980s
SNL got off to a strong start in a new decade, thanks again to some carryover from its trailblazing cast. Some of the show’s most talented cast members, including Bill Murray, Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin, all had their last hurrahs during the 1979-80 season. But it was also during this new decade that SNL welcomed Eddie Murphy, who regularly rates at or near the top of the list of most beloved cast members. In 1982, Julia Louis-Dreyfus joined the show, with this time period ending on a high note, thanks to the addition of Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks. Many of the most memorable characters of this era and SNL in general begin and end with Murphy, courtesy of his Gumby and Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood sketches, as well as his impressions of James Brown, Jesse Jackson and Bill Cosby. Murphy is considered by some as the reason people started talking favorably about SNL again, after it transitioned from original talent (like the aforementioned Curtin and Murray) to new cast members like Louis-Dreyfus.
It’s really hard to determine where one cast era ends and another begins. For example, several of the early 1980s cast members were still around in 1985 and ’86 for the addition of the talented Dana Carvey, Dennis Miller, Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman and Kevin Nealon. But by that time, Murphy was gone, and he was such a high point for the show.
3. Early 2000s
The sky wasn’t falling at the millennium for SNL, as it started the 1999-2000 season with the likes of Ferrell, Hammond, Morgan, Kattan, Gasteyer, Meadows, Shannon and Oteri, as well as new cast members Jimmy Fallon, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch. The following season, one of the funniest ladies of SNL, Tina Fey, would join the cast, with Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers making their Studio 8H debuts in 2001. Just as Craig and Arianna did their last space cadet-style cheer, Dratch and Fallon debuted their best Bostonian accents as rabid Red Sox fans, Pat and Denise. Dratch was also front and center for many other memorable sketches during the time period, including Debbie Downer and Sheldon, the awkward teen boy with the afro-puff on “Wake Up Wakefield.” The latter part of this era also bode well with the addition of both Jason Sudeikis in 2004 and Kristin Wiig in 2005, but two people can’t save an entire show.
2. Early 1990s
Where do we even start? This era was pure comic gold for the revolutionary program. Saturday Night Live had, going into the 1990s, Carvey, Lovitz, Hartman, Hooks, Nealon, Myers and Dennis Miller. A year later, the show would gain a crop of talent not seen since its start — thanks to Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, David Spade, Rob Schneider, Julia Sweeney and Tim Meadows being introduced during the 1990-91 season. Many of the characters most associated with the show’s run emerged from this time period. Carvey and Myers rocked as Wayne and Garth, spawning two Wayne’s World movies — one of the few palatable SNL spin-offs to hit the big screen. Carvey’s Church Lady, as well as his stint as “Hans” to Nealon’s “Franz” also provided a reason to be pumped up about the show. And many of us can still hear Carvey channeling George H.W. Bush and his famed line: “Wouldn’t be prudent!” As to Nealon, his take on Weekend Update was by far the funniest in some time, especially when compared to the abominations to come later, courtesy of Norm Macdonald and Colin Quinn. Of course, Spade had his snooty Gap girl, “Christy Henderson” — a sketch shared with Sandler as curly-haired Lucy. While always bordering on the annoying (even back then), Sandler gave rise to several other memorable characters of the period, including the crotchety Hank Gelfand, Cajun Man, Opera Man and Canteen Boy. But arguably the most memorable characters of the era came from Chris Farley, who like John Belushi before him, would die at age 33. Be it channeling a motivational speaker living in “a van down by the river,” a wannabe Chippendale dancing alongside Patrick Swayze or a Chicago Bears fan who said “’Da Bears” almost as often as he feigned having a heart attack, Farley was always good for a gut-busting laugh.
1. The Original Cast
In 1975, Lorne Michaels was tasked by NBC execs to launch an edgy variety show unlike anything seen before on late night. The resulting creation, first featuring Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase and the lesser-known characters of Laraine Newman and Garrett Morris, was an instant hit. What is now considered a legendary cast only got better in the 1976-77 season, with the addition of Bill Murray. By 1977, Chase had moved on but the show was bolstered again with the addition of Al Franken, who is also one of the longest-tenured cast members in the show’s history. He would remain with SNL until 1995. Not only was the cast in those early years pioneering a new type of variety show, but they were good. We can’t hate Aykroyd and Curtin for popularizing the Conehead family from outer space. How were they to know the sketch would spur an atrocious film (er, which both Aykroyd and Curtin appeared in) nearly two decades later? Aykroyd had a much better showing with Belushi when their musical sketch spun-off The Blues Brothers movie in 1980. To her credit, Curtin was always there to play the straight woman to Radner’s famously out-of-control characters, like Roseanna Roseannadanna. Radner was probably the first person to dare take aim at Barbara Walter’s speech impediment, thanks to the late comic’s “Baba Wawa” creation. Nick the stereotypically schmaltzy lounge singer is probably Bill Murray’s most famous recurring character and, while Chase was on the show for a comparatively short period of time, he was the original Weekend Update anchor, complete with the memorable catchphrase: “I’m Chevy Chase … and you’re not.” He also introduced almost every show in its inaugural season with the now famous line: “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”