Saturday Night Live is one of the most well-known and beloved comedy series of all time. Since its debut in 1975, it’s managed to entertain audiences worldwide, becoming one of the most popular, long-running sketch shows in the history of comedy.
It’s one of those series that could feasibly be around forever, relying on the talents of the dozens and dozens of incredible cast members over the years who graced SNL’s stage.
With SNL about to return from its winter break on January 15, we thought we’d look back at some of the most entertaining comics that have ever been on the show, from the series’ earliest days to the more current talents featured in recent years.
One of the original SNL cast members (you’ll be seeing quite a few of them here), John Belushi was likely the most notably chaotic and high-strung of the principal SNL founders. Known for his manic characters and erratic behavior, he was the innovator of the party animal type persona he’s known for playing throughout SNL and, later, in movies like Animal House and The Blues Brothers, seeming almost like a perfect cross between Mick Jagger, Taz from Looney Tunes, and all the Marx brothers combined.
From week to week, Belushi kept viewers on their toes, unsure of what exactly they might see. He was a comedian where anything and everything was possible and who brought a ridiculous amount of crazed, supercharged energy to his roles. One moment, he could be innocently reporting the news, the next launching into a full-fledged tirade and screaming right at the camera.
A cast member who set the mold for later, similarly outburst-prone acts like Chris Farley, Belushi was a man you couldn’t help but laugh at, and whose career was (tragically) cut down when he was still in his prime, though he remains a huge reason why SNL excelled when it first went on air in 1975.
It speaks volumes about Gilda Radner that she was able to stand up with, and in some cases even surpass, the talents of iconic performers like John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Murray. She’s one of those comedians that just had “it.” Able to transform into any role she played (including her famous Roseanne Roseannadanna), she brought a terrific amount of charm and personality to each character she portrayed.
Sharp-witted, lighthearted, and unbelievably likable, Gilda could make anything and everything funny, from her hilarious Barbara Walters impersonation (“Hello, I’m Baba Wawa!”) to dancing horribly (deliberately so, of course) with Steve Martin in front of millions of people.
Rising in a time when female comedians failed to command the same respect and attention as male comics, Gilda pioneered roles for women on stage, proving once and for all that not only could women be funny, oftentimes, they could even be funnier than the men she starred alongside.
It’s fair to say Chevy Chase was SNL’s first breakout star, evidenced by the short but impressive single season he spent working on the show. Watching him, you felt you were witnessing the next big thing in comedy, a man full of charm and charisma able to make you laugh with his signature slapstick comedy, sight gags, or memorable one-liners.
Known today for his Gerald Ford impersonations and his deadpan, sometimes shocking wit, Chase’s sarcastic style of comedy meshed well with the more erratic performances of Belushi, Radner, or Aykroyd, earning him a distinguished place as perhaps the closest thing to the show’s first straight man.
While his time on the show may have been short, Chase’s lasting influence on SNL could be felt in every way, mainly through his role as the first host of “Weekend Update” (his flat delivery and punchlines became hallmarks of “Weekend Update” that every subsequent host adopted).
As he was the first to leave the show and join the elite ranks of Hollywood, Chase also established a long-running tradition for every successful comedian that joined SNL: arrive, make a name for yourself, and leave at the top of your game.
Dan Aykroyd may be known today as a supporting player in many memorable SNL sketches, but such a description does not do him any justice.
Sure, he was great playing second fiddle to Belushi’s frontman, and his comedic style paired fantastically well with someone like Chevy Chase or fellow “Weekend Update” anchor Jane Curtin. However, Aykroyd was also a hilarious leading man, able to rise to the occasion in some of the most straight-laced, absurdist sketches without ever cracking a smile.
Easily the most versatile member of the original SNL cast, Aykroyd proved that you don’t need to be the star of a sketch to be one of its major highlights. Sometimes, taking the back seat and supporting the act can improve the overall sketch enormously.
After Lorne Michaels and every original cast member left SNL by 1980, the show entered its most critically unstable period.
For five long years, cast members came and went, with only a handful of them managing to get genuine laughs from the audience.
Just when SNL seemed like it was about to meet its demise, though, an energetic young man named Eddie Murphy (then only 19) came along, saving the show from extinction.
Widely credited for carrying SNL throughout the 1980s, Murphy was the sole standout performer of the show’s era: the man people solely tuned in to see.
Whether he was playing a cantankerous, hot-headed Gumby or a grownup version of The Little Rascals’ Buckwheat, Murphy was a fearless star who never failed to trigger laughter in his numerous memorable sketches.
One of the first Black breakout stars on the show, he also proved himself fearless for tackling social issues during his time on the show, namely through his depictions of inner-city poverty through his famous Mr. Robinson character.
Many fantastic cast members may have come after him since he left the show in 1984, but virtually no one has come close to having the same influence on SNL that Eddie Murphy commanded.
Given how low a profile Dana Carvey has kept in his post-SNL career, it may seem like an odd choice at first to include him on this list. However, like Dan Aykroyd before him, Carvey was a performer capable of doing so much with any role he was given, whether he was a supporting character (Garth of “Wayne’s World”) or leading a sketch.
A first-class impressionist like no matter, Carvey was able to disappear into characters, performing spot-on mimic imitations of everyone from George HW Bush to Johnny Carson, with no trace of the real Carvey left behind.
A talented comic when it came to impressions, Carvey was also able to invest himself fully in creating fleshed-out characters that looked and sounded like real people, such as his now-iconic Church Lady.
Nowadays, Carvey might remain one of the more frequently overlooked SNL cast members in the show’s history, not reaching the same career heights as fellow alumni like Mike Myers or Chris Farley.
Despite that, he remains one of the most underrated performers the show has ever seen, paving the way for later impression-heavy acts like Darrell Hammond, Phil Hartman, Bill Hader, and Kate McKinnon.
After Dana Carvey left the show in 1993, Phil Hartman became the main impression guy at SNL, and boy, did he excel in that role and then some.
A key supporting player, Hartman might not have been the star player in many SNL sketches he appeared in. Still, he was always a joy to see included in any capacity, bringing an unbelievable amount of emotion and comedy to any sketch he appeared in, stealing scenes left and right.
When he was able to lead a sketch, he proved himself a capable performer who invested himself completely in any character he played. It didn’t matter if he was playing a charming, albeit a somewhat glutinous version of Bill Clinton, or a maniacally evil-genius version of Ronald Reagan. Hartman was the kind of guy able to take on anything he set out to do.
Another performer whose career was tragically cut short when the actor was still in prime, there’s no question that Hartman earned his nickname “The Glue” for holding the show together in the 1990s, helping new cast members establish themselves on the comedic scene.
Will Ferrell is one of those rare SNL talents that could literally do anything and make it funny. He could crack you up just by screwing up his face and squinting, as he did regularly and always effectively during his spot-on, side-splittingly funny impersonation of George W. Bush.
When he debuted on SNL in 1995, the towering, curly-haired Ferrell seemed like the ultimate performer. Rising from a mere background supporting player to one of SNL’s breakout stars of the 90s, Ferrell was someone you couldn’t help but laugh at even when he was being serious, as in the case of the classic “More Cowbell” sketch.
A man who excelled at high energy acts (as one of half of the Spartan Cheerleaders with Cheri Oteri), impersonations, or playing the straight man, Ferrell blessed audiences with one of the longer tenures on SNL, staying on from 1995 to 2002.
Even with the nearly decade-long time he spent on the show, though, when Ferrell did finally leave for an immediately successful post-SNL career, he left some rather large shoes to fill.
A performer who comes around every few decades or so, he’s the guy you immediately think of when you think of SNL in the late 90s/early 2000s, the man who launched the series into the new millennium, leaving audience members satisfied, but also wanting more.
Tina Fey is an SNL talent who rose to stardom both behind the scenes and in front of the camera simultaneously.
As SNL’s head writer in the early 2000s, she’s credited with carrying the series forward after the departure of heavyweight comics like Will Ferrell, ushering in a new, modern era for the show and making room for entertaining female comedians like Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and Kristin Wiig.
Just as was the case for fellow SNL alumni who started as writers (Seth Meyers, Dan Aykroyd, and many more), Fey was able to balance her dual roles incredibly well, setting the tone for the far more sarcastic SNL we know and love today, a trait especially notable on “Weekend Update,” which she memorably hosted from 2000 to 2006.
Remembered fondly for her role as Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Fey was yet another gifted comedian who could do endlessly well with whatever material she was given, which she just so happened to think up herself.
Nowadays, Amy Poehler may be more closely associated with her leading role on Parks and Recreation as the always likable overachiever Leslie Knope. Still, her formative years as SNL remain a major highlight not only of her career but of SNL during its 2000s era.
In a partnership that rivaled the duos of Belushi and Aykroyd or Farley and Spade, Poehler and Tina Fey were two of the most hilarious comedians to come out of SNL in the last decade, each of them going on to achieve extremely successful careers on their respective sitcoms (Poehler in Parks and Rec, Fey in 30 Rock).
Together, the two also breathed much-needed fresh air back into “Weekend Update” after a long period of stagnation throughout the 90s, anchoring together until Fey’s departure in 2006.
While she is arguably at her funniest when paired with Fey, Poehler is far from a simple supporting player, able to hold her own no matter the sketch or character she was portraying.
From freaking out aboard a JetBlue flight to rapping as Sarah Palin (while she was nine months pregnant, no less), there was something about how effortlessly Poehler performed that made her seem a natural talent SNL was lucky to scoop up, and one that audiences were fortunate enough to see week in and week out.
SNL boasts a long list of talented individuals to appear on the show over the years, establishing numerous household names and serving as a place where emerging comics could find their voice and develop their comedic styles.
With SNL set to return soon, we hope this list offers a look at some of the greatest and most noteworthy talents ever to be featured on the show, ranging from SNL’s early days in the mid-1970s to the comedians who have appeared in the past few decades.
In addition to these ten names, we would be remiss not to mention the literally dozens of other amazing comedians who have appeared on SNL, too, including Bill Hader, Chris Farley, Bill Murray, Kristin Wiig, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Kenan Thompson, Norm Macdonald, and Kate McKinnon.
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).