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 longest-running sketch shows in the history of comedy. It’s a 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.
From some of the earliest members of the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” to the latest stars who made their career on the show, here are some of the best Saturday Night Live stars to ever appear on the show.
One of the original SNL cast members (you’ll be seeing quite a few of them here), John Belushi had the most chaotic persona 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, bringing a ridiculous amount of crazed, super-charged energy to each of 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.
It says a lot 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, light-hearted, and unbelievably likable, Radner 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 their male counterparts, Gilda pioneered roles for women on stage, illustrating once and for all that women be every bit as funny as men.
It’s fair to call Chevy Chase SNL’s first breakout star, evidenced by the short but impressive single season he spent working on the show. Watching him, it was like 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 delivery, Chase’s sarcastic brand 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 leading 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 inaugural host of Weekend Update (his flat delivery and punchlines became hallmarks of the segment that almost every subsequent host has adopted since). 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 regarded as a supporting player in many memorable SNL sketches, but such a description doesn't do him nearly enough 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. But Aykroyd was also a hilarious leading man, able to rise to the occasion in some of the most absurd 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 series creator 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, an energetic young man named Eddie Murphy (then only 19) came along, saving the show from extinction. Widely credited for carrying SNL on his back throughout the 1980s, Murphy was the sole standout performer of the show’s era: the man people specifically 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. 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 Murphy commanded.
Given how low a profile Dana Carvey has kept in his post-SNL career, it may seem like an odd choice to include him on a list of the show's best cast members. Yet, 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 or leading his own sketch.
A first-class impressionist like no other, Carvey was able to disappear into every one of his characters, performing spot-on imitations of everyone from George H.W. Bush to Johnny Carson. Not only that, but he was also able to invest himself in creating fully fleshed-out characters that looked and sounded like real people, such as his now-iconic Church Lady or Garth of “Wayne’s World.”
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 impressionist at SNL. A key supporting player throughout the '90s, Hartman might not have been the star player in many of SNL sketches he appeared in, but he was a joy to see in any capacity, bringing an unbelievable amount of hilarity to any sketch he appeared in, stealing scenes left and right.
When he was able to lead a sketch, he made a name for himself as a capable performer completely invested in any character he portrayed. It didn’t matter if he was playing a charming, albeit somewhat glutinous version of Bill Clinton, or a maniacal evil-genius version of Ronald Reagan, Hartman was the kind of guy able to take on any role he set his mind to.
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 effectively during his spot-on impersonation of George W. Bush. 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.
When he debuted on SNL in 1995, the towering, curly-haired Ferrell seemed like the ultimate performer. Rising from a mere background player to a '90s breakout stars, Ferrell was someone you couldn’t help but laugh at even when he was being serious, as happens to be the case for the classic “Cowbell” sketch.
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 craving 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 out 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, but her formative years as SNL remain a major highlight of her career. In a comedic 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 2000s, each of them going on to achieve extremely successful careers on their respective sitcoms (Poehler in Parks and Rec, Fey in 30 Rock).
Together, they 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 alone, able to hold her own no matter the sketch or character she was portraying.
From freaking out aboard a JetBlue flight to rapping side by side with Sarah Palin (while she was nine months pregnant, no less), there was something about how effortlessly Poehler performed that made her seem like a natural talent in SNL, one that audiences were fortunate enough to see week in and week out.
Fulfilling the larger-than-life role left behind by John Belushi decades prior, Chris Farley had some mighty big shoes to fill when it came to succeeding his idol’s place on SNL. Never one to shy away from a good challenge, Farley fully committed to his role as Belushi’ heir. Like Belushi in the late ‘70s, Farley became known for his explosive air of unpredictability on stage, adding a degree of danger to SNL the likes of which hadn’t been seen in some time.
A key member of SNL’s “boys club” in the early ‘90s alongside Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, and his frequent comedy partner David Spade, Farley was able to mix various comedic styles into his performances, blending slapstick with low-brow humor for some hilariously memorable results.
Whether he was tearing off his shirt and engaging in a dance contest with Patrick Swayze or going off-script and throwing himself through a wooden table in the middle of a skit, Farley added a good deal of excitement and energy to SNL’s pivotal years at the start of the decade. A testament to any great performer, it’s simply unimaginable to picture anyone else except Farley in certain SNL sketches (most especially in the case of the fan-favorite Matt Foley, who lives in a van down by the riverrrr, as Farley would’ve put it).
How does one describe Bill Hader? An exceptional talent both behind and in front of the camera, Hader has that rare chameleon-like ability to disappear into any role he chooses – whether it’s an emotionally troubled hitman in Barry or his famous socially awkward news correspondent, Stefon.
Arriving to SNL in the late 2000s, Hader was poised to inherit the role of master impersonator previously held by Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey. This time around, though, rather than being relegated to a supporting role, Hader was able to take center stage in many of the sketches he was featured in, evoking the same chaotic energy as Will Ferrell, Mike Myers, and Chris Farley rolled into one.
The rarest kind of comedian, Hader could do well as the comedic straight man or delight as a more cartoonish character. He could deftly handle impersonations of practically every actor or celebrity he gots his hands on, and maintained miraculous chemistry with everyone on SNL’s soundstage (whether they were a regular cast member or a mere host). Even now, any time he returns to oversee the show as a host, he feels so comfortable appearing in any one of the sketches, it’s like he hardly left at all.
It speaks volumes that Chevy Chase himself once said the only other person who did well on Weekend Update was Norm Macdonald. One of the most ingenious and underrated comic minds of his time, Macdonald didn’t need celebrity impersonation or colorful characters to get by. All he needed was his pitch-black comedic wit and uber-dry, straight-faced delivery, both of which he expertly used every time he appeared on SNL.
Appearing on Saturday Night Live for the first time in 1993, Macdonald eventually took over hosting duties on Weekend Update after Kevin Nealon stepped down from the role in 1994. For the next three years, Macdonald outfitted the recurring segment with his own distinct style, espousing a variety of sobering topics with a deadpan expression.
Never one to censor himself (fittingly one of the reasons he was fired from SNL in 1998), Macdonald took satisfaction in telling jokes seemingly for himself, not caring whether the audience laughed or not. Possibly the best Weekend Update host of all time, in a way, he almost made the segment difficult to watch for the succeeding decade, with few other hosts coming close to matching Macdonald’s unique take on the skit.