Last night NBC aired its Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special, which was basically a who’s who of comedy all-stars. It’s kind of staggering to see the collective comedic talent that has appeared on SNL over the last 4 decades and even more impressive when you look at who has spent time in the SNL writer’s room. You’ve got to tip your hat to Lorne Michaels, who has an uncanny ability to spot people with comedic potential.
Saturday Night Live has been on longer than I’ve been alive, so I don’t know a world where SNL doesn’t exist. My relationship with the show has ebbed and flowed over the years; there are periods of time when I was really into SNL and then there are times when I’ll go years without being a regular viewer. I was in my SNL heyday from the late 80s through the early 2000s, which makes sense since that was when I had the most free time (middle school – early grad school) and when I would argue the show had the most resonance in pop culture. There were a lot fewer options for comedy during this time, so SNL was appointment viewing for me. As the show became intolerably uneven (it’s always a little uneven) and there were more options for my limited free time, I stopped being a consistent viewer. Now I just wait to see what sketches people are talking about and catch them online. They only times I’m likely to watch a whole episode are if I really like the host; if Jimmy Fallon or Justin Timberlake are hosting, it gets a spot on my DVR.
In anticipation of the SNL 40 event, I started thinking about my favorite recurring characters and sketches that SNL has done of the years. There are plenty of individual sketches that I’ve loved – who isn’t a fan of “More Cowbell? – but I wanted to focus on the aspects of SNL that had more staying power. These are the sketches that I always hoped would pop up and that I rarely tired of, not matter how many times they were revisited. When I think of SNL, these are generally the first sketches that come to mind. Because of my sporadic history with SNL, these sketches come primarily from the early years of the show (which I watched when they were syndicated in the early years of Comedy Central) and the period when I was a devoted fan of the show. I didn’t count political impersonations as recurring characters, which means that Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin and Phil Hartman’s Bill Clinton didn’t make the list despite them making me laugh every.single.time. So given that constraint, here are my favorite recurring sketches/characters from the history of Saturday Night Live (in chronological order).
The Festrunk Brothers (first appearance – September 24, 1977)
These two “wild and crazy guys” are among the first sketches that I remember from the show; when I was a kid they cracked me up. I don’t think I really got these characters fully at the time, but I liked their loud clothing and their dance moves. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that Steve Martin wasn’t actually a cast member.
Roseanne Roseannadanna (first appearance – January 21, 1978)
I don’t know if I was taken by Gilda Radner’s hair, her funny voice or her memorable name, but I always enjoyed when the brash consumer affairs reporter made an appearance on Weekend Update.
Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood (first appearance – February 21, 1981)
As I fan of Mister Rogers, I couldn’t help but giggle at Eddie Murphy’s parody of a neighborhood that was a little less welcoming and magical. Given how much Murphy’s stock has dropped over the years – when’s the last time he did anything worthwhile? – it’s always startling to look back at his run in the early eighties (standup, SNL and movies) to see what a dominant force he was in comedy. These sketches are a good example of how talented he was.
Church Lady (first appearance – October 11, 1986)
Dana Carvey may be one of my favorite all-time cast members and the Church Lady sketches had a lot to do with that. This was the era when SNL was producing all sorts of catchphrases and the Church Lady was among the most quotable; I still hear her voice and pronunciation in my head any time I see the word Satan.
Wayne’s World (first appearance – February 18, 1989)
PARTY TIME! EXCELLENT! My unadulterated love for Wayne’s World was as complete as it was inexplicable; I have no idea why this public access show from Aurora, Illinois tickled me so, but it may be my favorite recurring sketch that SNL has ever done. I drove my mother mad quoting the sketches and I think that the original Wayne’s World movie is the only SNL based film that was actually any good. I recently re-watched the first Wayne’s World and it totally stands up. Good comedy is timeless and Wayne and Garth were just never not funny to me.
The Continental (January 20, 1990)
Christopher Walken + a failure at the art of seduction = a SNL classic.
The Richmeister (first appearance – January 19, 1991)
This may be the only thing that I’ve ever liked Rob Schneider in, but this sketch wisely played upon his inherent annoyingness. The Richmeister’s ability to create nicknames for every person who was “making copies” was a good harbinger of the interesting personalities I would encounter once I entered the working world.
Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley (first appearance – February 9, 1991)
“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” Before he became a U.S. Senator, Al Franken created a memorable character in this self-help devotee. Stuart never met a platitude that he didn’t like and he had more issues than Time magazine. The sketch with Michael Jordon was especially hilarious.
The Chris Farley Show (first appearance – October 4, 1991)
“Remember when you were in The Beatles? That was awesome.” I am convinced that if I ever met some of my favorite celebrities, I would act exactly like Chris Farley in these sketches. In other words, like a babbling idiot that just recited their IMBD page to them. #notsmooth
Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer (first appearance – November 23, 1991)
Phil Hatman was great in pretty much every sketch he was in, but I always loved his appearances as the Unfrozen Cavemen Lawyer. I’ve been known to use “Your world confuses and frightens me” on occasion in casual conversation. Just a solid and original character.
Delta Delta Delta (first appearance – January 11, 1992)
At the time, these sketches reinforced every negative stereotype that I had about girls in sororities – vapid and not that bright. Yes, I fully see the irony that only four years later I would be a proud sorority sister myself. Regardless, these sketches still made me laugh. “Delta Delta Delta, can I help ya, help ya help ya?”
Opera Man (first appearance – April 18, 1992)
The premise of Operaman is so simple yet so amusing – Sandler discusses current events by singing them in a terrible fake Italian accent and by adding “o” to the end of words. I think Operaman worked because his segments were short – always part of Weekend Update – and because Sandler just sold the hell out of the premise. Sandler’s recent movies may be terrible, but he really did shine on SNL.
Hollywood Minute (first appearance – October 3, 1992)
This Weekend Update segment where David Spade took potshots at celebrities was the perfect platform for Spade’s trademark snarkyness. That man knows how to deliver a sarcastic one-liner, laced with a little bitchiness, with the best of them.
Matt Foley (first appearance – May 8, 1993)
Oh man – there are a lot of reasons to miss the late great Farley and Matt Foley is certainly among them. Farley’s willingness to do anything for a laugh made his failed motivational speaker one of the most memorable characters that Saturday Night Live has created. There aren’t many people who don’t know what you are talking about when your reference “living in a van, down by the river.” Tragic that we didn’t get to see more from Farley before he passed away.
Melissa McCarthy paid tribute to the character last night:
The Denise Show (first appearance – October 2, 1993)
Sandler’s talk show that was all about his ex-girlfriend Denise (inexplicably Shannen Doherty) made stalking funny, with his pathetic obsession with the woman that dumped him and his father (Phil Harman) angry call-ins demanding he shape up. Always made me laugh.
Celebrity Jeopardy! (first appearance – December 7, 1996)
If Wayne’s World was my favorite recurring sketch then Celebrity Jeopardy! runs a very close second. These sketches were just so, so funny thanks to Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery. Whether he was mispronouncing categories (“I’ll take The rapist for $200”) or just generally insulting Alex Trekel (Will Ferrell) and his mother, this sketch never failed to disappoint. Norm MacDonald’s Burt Reynolds (aka Turd Ferguson) was always great too. Pretty much everything about these sketches was on point; they brought it back last night at it was as spectacular as I remembered:
Mango (first appearance – October 18, 1997)
I wish I could tell you why the absurd Mango (Chris Kattan) made me laugh, but I have no idea. Maybe it was seeing Kattan in that ridiculous outfit or his total commitment to the character. Whatever the reason, I was always happy when the male burlesque dancer of questionable sexual orientation popped up in a sketch.
The Boston Teens (first appearance – November 13, 1999)
C’mon….you knew that I had to have Jimmy Fallon on here somewhere. As I wrote in my pop culture tribute to Boston, Sully and Denise always made me laugh with their over the top accents and their constant bickering. As a Yankees fan, I have to enjoy anything that pokes a little fun at Beantown. It’s in my fan contract. These sketches are also when I first started paying attention to Fallon, who generally annoyed me on SNL with his frequent inability to keep himself from breaking in sketches.
Waking up with Kimye (first appearance – November 16, 2013)
I have to thank my friend Brigette for tipping me off to these sketches; Jay Pharoah‘s Kanye is spot on, and I say that as a Kanye defender. But what really sells these skits is the voice that Nasim Pedrad uses for Kim – it is just the perfect level of baby doll annoying and captures the nails on the chalk board experience of listening to Kardashian speak. Just so well done.
Now it’s your turn – what are your favorite recurring characters and sketches from the last four decades of SNL? Sound off in the comments.