Saturday Night Live enjoyed it’s 40 year anniversary back in 2015 and made quite the spectacle of it with a Prime Time special that brought back many of the famous faces that the show helped launch. It was thought that it made more sense to go “all-out” for the 40th year anniversary as many of the original players might not make it to the 50th year, but either way you slice it the show that was originally dubbed as a cast of “Not Ready for Prime-Time Players” has spawned so many famous faces that it’s hard to count. Because we here at BabbleTop are huge fans of the show, but also skew to the younger side of things, our list may look a lot different than the plethora of lists that exist out there (especially Rolling Stone’s list of Best to Worst cast members ever), so hopefully you’ll find it interesting and different… If not, we could always add more Cowbell!
14. Kenan Thompson (2003-Present)
For those of us who grew up in the 90’s, Kenan Thompson will always be remembered as one half of the Nickelodeon comedy duo Kenan & Kel. While he was one of the few cast members to join SNL after already being pretty well known in his own right, Thompson joined the ranks as one of the greatest cast members of all time simply by pulling a Cal Ripken Jr. Today, (July 2017), Thompson is the longest tenured cast member in Saturday Night Live history, tying Darrell Hammond’s previous record of 15 seasons this year and surpassing it sometime next year (although, considering that Hammond is the announcer for the show now, perhaps his record will stand forever?). Despite the fact that he’s been on the show for longer than anyone, ever, he’s always been an integral part of each season, showing that his brand of humor and ability to write skits means that he’s always asked back for another season and that’s okay with us. Some of his famous characters/skits include: “What’s Up with That?”, David Ortiz, Scared Straight, Steve Harvey, etc.
13. Jimmy Fallon (1998-2004)
When Jimmy Fallon first joined the cast of SNL in the late 90’s, he was thought of as a younger, more attractive but less funny Adam Sandler by many who watched the show. His spot-on impression of Sandler (Which he used during his audition) didn’t help (or hurt?), either. Now that he’s the host of the Tonight Show after Conan O’Brien’s brief but legendary stint hosting the most sought after gig in Hollywood, it’s hard to think of Jimmy Fallon as anyone but Jimmy Fallon, the guy who has fake laughed his way to the top! He was (in)famous for “Breaking” during sketches (which means breaking character, notably by laughing, something that apparently creator/producer Lorne Michaels HATES), especially when teamed up with Horatio Sanz, who often made it his goal to make Jimmy laugh as much as possible. Because of his youth and “good looks”, Fallon was perhaps under-estimated as the master impressionist that was a major part of the show during the years that he was a cast member. He gets extra points for co-hosting Weekend Update with Tina Fey as well, something that took a lot of skill and talent as Fey was the head-writer of the show back then and has a legendary wit. His work with Justin Timberlake really helped his ranking here, as well.
Some of his famous characters/skits include: Jerry Seinfeld, Nick Burns Your Company’s Computer Guy, The Barry Gibb Talk Show, The Leatherman, etc.
12. Bill Hader (2005-2013)
Speaking of master impressionists… Bill Hader is one of the best impressionists the show has ever had, but is perhaps most well-known for his recurring character from Weekend Update named Stefon. His role as Stefon alone would get him on this list but it was his ability to essentially mimic any celebrity, living or dead, that puts him ahead of a few others. There seems to be a curse for a lot of the people who are so good at impressions after they leave SNL in that Hollywood doesn’t really know what to do with them. There have been other sketch shows (like The Dana Carvey Show) created for people who are this talented and some movies that take advantage of these talents (think most Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers films). But the reality is that once people see someone who can essentially act as anyone, they no longer want to see them just be themselves. Hader may have had his major film breakthrough in 2015’s Trainwreck, where he got to play a regular person for once. However, his role on IFC’s Documentary Now alongside SNL Alum and fellow master impressionist, Fred Armisen, is truly the best use of his talents. Some of his famous characters/skits include: Stefon, Vincent Price, The Vogelchecks, etc.
11. Cheri Oteri (1995-2000)
Some of the cast members on this list would most definitely rank higher had they not essentially disappeared after they left the show (or, as is the case with Adam Sandler, not ruined their reputation with mediocre “comedies” year after year) and Cheri Oteri definitely fits that bill. During the Will Ferrell era, which is one of the most prolific and hilarious of any era on the show, Cheri Oteri was often just as funny if not funnier than Ferrell and that’s really, really saying something. After appearing in the wildly successful Spartan Cheerleaders sketch along-side Ferrell, it was thought that Oteri was going to take Hollywood by storm as sort of a 90’s version of Melissa McCarthy. While this list is not about post-SNL fame, it’s hard to not feel for the gal as she really was one of the best cast members the show haS ever seen. She was often paired along-side Ferrell and did an amazing job keeping up with one of the more notorious ad-libbers in show/Hollywood history. She could win awards for her ability to keep a straight face alone. But, consider the fact that it was often-times just as hard for Ferrell to do the same and you’ll understand why they were the stars of the years they were on the show. Some of her famous characters/skits include: Spartan Cheerleaders, Collette Reardon, Morning Latte, Tiger Beat’s Ultra Super Dreamy Love Show, etc.
10. Tim Meadows (1991-2000)
It was surprising to see that Tim Meadows was on the show for “only” nine seasons since one of the recurring gags from the final years on the show was that he was always there, mostly in the background. While he may have had a slow start on the show he definitely grew into his role as (and beyond) the “token black guy”, completely killing his most famous role as The Ladies Man, a role that landed him a coveted SNL movie. Like Hader, Meadows could so effortlessly lose himself inside a character that it was hard for him to find work after the show (up until recently) because people really didn’t know who the “real” Tim Meadows was. He’s been in a plethora of projects lately and it’s definitely great to see him back in action! Some of his famous characters/skits include: The Ladies Man, Perspectives with Lionel Osbourne, The Quiet Storm, etc.
9. Darrell Hammond (1995-2009)
There are impressionists and then there’s Darrell Hammond. Hammond did have the record as the longest tenured member of SNL (up until recently) because his skill-set was not only a perfect match for the show, but also was nearly impossible to replace with just one person. He would be a lot higher on this list if he wasn’t really thought of as more of a poor man’s Phil Hartman, which, while not really fair does make some sense (especially as they both did spot on Bill Clinton impressions). He definitely did fill the role after Hartman left the show (after the 1994 season) and while he wasn’t great at writing sketches for himself, he was the type of cast member the show needs as he could imitate most anyone and that’s why he lasted so long and also makes this list. His Sean Connery impression during the recurring Celebrity Jeopardy! sketches helped make that a legendary skit, as well. Some of his famous characters/skits include: Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Sean Connery (Celebrity Jeopardy!), Appalachian Emergency Room, etc.
8. Andy Samberg (2005- 2012)
It’s not often that someone comes along and completely changes the format of the institution that is Saturday Night Live. The format had essentially been the same since the show debuted in 1975 and while they had always done pre-recorded bits, they never (obviously) did things that were meant specifically for the internet. Debuting the perfect skit at the perfect time, Samberg (and the rest of his Lonely Island crew), knocked it out of the park almost instantly with their Digital Shorts. The second short they recorded was titled Lazy Sunday and was one of the first videos to go viral on YouTube. It makes perfect sense now that a show like SNL is a perfect fit for the attention spans of people online, but back then it was next to impossible to find SNL skits online (unless you had Napster), especially right after the show had aired. Beyond his countless legendary Shorts, he was also an amazing impressionist, so much so that he actually ignited a feud with Mark Wahlberg after his hilarious impression titled Mark Wahlberg Talking to Animals, while the beef was squashed (and probably staged), it made for great television and made everyone want to say hello to their mothers for Wahlberg. Some of his famous characters/skits include: Lazy Sunday, I’m on a Boat, Dick in a Box, Jack Sparrow, etc.
7. Adam Sandler (1991-1995)
It’s really not fair to retroactively punish someone for the work that they’ve done after they’ve left the show, but if anyone has lost some of the cache that they got from starring on SNL (during a time that a lot of older Millenials would call it’s heydey), it would be Adam Sandler. He was thought of as sort of the bad-boy of the show, alongside cast members Chris Farley, David Spade and to a much lesser extent Rob Schneider. Some people will find it surprising to know that both Sandler and Farley were fired after the ’95 season, which was a disastrous move; if not for that the show would’ve given us a season where Sandler, Farley and Will Ferrell were able to work together. Imagine that. Despite what people considered to be sort of a limited range of skills, Sandler was objectively hilarious during his time on the show and definitely forged his own path. During his time on the show as well he filmed two of the better comedies of the 90’s in Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, so, he deserves some credit as well. Some of his famous characters/skits include: Opera Guy, The Hanukkah Song, The Lunch Lady Song, GAP Girls, Cajun Man, Canteen Boy, etc.
6. Kristen Wiig (2005- 2012)
The most recent addition to this list, Kristen Wiig is the best female cast member of all time. While that title may be in jeopardy considered how talented current cast member Kate McKinnon is, the fact that Wiig was pretty much omni-present in every skit during her run shows just how special she was (where it seems McKinnon can disappear for entire episodes, most likely because she’s filming a lot of movies). Wiig’s number of hit characters is almost too long to list; she was definitely part of the most female-centric version of the show (basically the opposite of what is considered the Bro-period of the show during the early 90’s when Sandler, Farley and Spade ruled the roost). She transitioned well to film with the breakout hit Bridesmaids, but since then she’s been mostly absent from the public eye (mostly because of disastrous roles in movies like Masterminds and Zoolander 2). Here’s to hoping she returns to form soon! Some of her famous characters/skits include: Secret Word, The Target Lady, Two A-Holes, Penelope, etc.
5. Mike Myers (1989-1995)
During the 1990’s/early 2000’s there was no bigger face in the comedy world than that of Mike Myers. One half of SNL‘s Wayne’s World (which was and still is the best film based on an SNL property), Myers was the type of person born to star on SNL. Unlike other master performers on this list, he was able to parlay his ability to disappear into characters and take them to the big screen, namely the Austin Powers franchise. Perhaps because of the popularity of those movies (or the disaster that was The Love Guru), Myers had mostly disappeared up until his re-emergence this summer as the host of ABC’s Gong Show, albeit under a lot of make-up and as a new character. Some of his famous characters/skits include: Waynes World, Sprockets, Stuart Rankin, Simon, etc.
4. Dana Carvey (1986-1993)
Speaking of people made for SNL, there is no bigger example of that than Dana Carvey. He may be the best and most likable impressionist the show has ever had and that’s saying a lot. He was so beloved as a sketch comedy mainstay that ABC offered him his very own show in the mid-90’s, titled the Dana Carvey Show. That show was actually a who’s who of comedy performers and writers, including: Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, Robert Smigel and Elon Gold. Despite his inability to find consistent work after SNL, Carvey is considered one of the top cast members ever by every generation of SNL fans and we’re all waiting to see him back as host. Stay the course, Dana, a thousand points of light! Some of his famous characters/skits include: Waynes World, George H. W. Bush, Hans and Frans, Tooncies the Driving Cat, etc.
3. Chris Farley (1990-1995)
It was almost as hard to believe then as it is now, but both Adam Sandler and Chris Farley were fired from Saturday Night Live after the 1995 season, leaving their friend David Spade behind as sort of the Senior who has to come back to summer school while his friends prepare for college. No cast member of SNL is more iconic than Chris Farley, who was amazingly prolific during his time there, despite the fact that he went to rehab more than ten times (at the behest of Lorne Michaels himself). While Farley wasn’t known as an amazing writer, he was able to come in and make any sketch funnier; apparently he was every writer’s (including cast members who wrote) favorite to write for. His story is a tragic one, the saddest part being that he never considered himself to be funny, but rather that people were essentially laughing at him. “Fatty Fall-Down” was what he referred to his style of humor, in the meanest way possible. The best anecdote about Chris from that period came from Norm MacDonald who was recently plugging his “Memoirs”. In it he said that the cast used to try to see who could fall face first onto the ground without instinctively putting their arms up to protect themselves. The only one that could was Chris Farley, as he lacked that survival instinct that most people did have. It’s as amazing as it is sad, but goes to show you how much Farley did put into his work and why he is a legend. Some of his famous characters/skits include: The GAP girls, The Herlihy Boy, Matt Foley Motivational Speaker, The Chris Farley Show, The Chip and Dales Dancer Skit with Patrick Swayze, The Bears Fans, etc.
2. Phil Hartman (1986-1994)
Word is that the cast of the show during Phil Hartman’s tenure referred to him as “The Glue”, as he was what held the entire show/cast together. Sort of a father figure to the younger cast mates, there was no more endearing cast member in SNL history than Phil Hartman. He was also probably the most talented, as well, as his audition tape is so polished and amazing that one has to wonder why it took so long for him to end up becoming famous. He died within 6 months of fellow-cast mate Chris Farley, in what was the darkest period in the show’s history. His goodbye to the show and it’s audience now resonates with palpable sadness, as he sat on the stage with Chris Farley’s head on his shoulder singing “Goodbye” to the camera in a somber but hopeful tone. It’s hard to comprehend how such a beloved and talented man could end up dying the way he did, so it’s better to think of the good times and thanks to his amazing work on SNL, there’s plenty to pick from. Some of his famous characters/skits include: Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, Bill Clinton, Frank Sinatra, Burt Reynolds and Frankenstein’s Monster, etc.
1. Will Ferrell (1995-2002)
Considering the impact that SNL has had on pop culture and the insane work schedule that goes along with it, people are often surprised when they hear how little the cast members actually get paid for performing on the show. The record for highest salary in SNL history belongs to the number one on our list, Will Ferrell, who was paid $350,000 ($17,500 an episode) during his final season on the show. Stepping in after Adam Sandler and Chris Farley were fired, Ferrell had gigantic shoes to fill and immediately began to shine as the star of the show. Often times paired with Cheri Oteri, Ferrell showed that he was born to perform in front of crowds; his ad-libs on the show made him him one of comedy’s biggest names to this day. He also did a lot of sketches with Chris Kattan, who was a cast-mate of his while they worked in the Los Angeles improv group The Groundlings, and it was because of Kattan’s work with Ferrell that Jim Carrey didn’t end up on SNL (that’s true). If there is any example of what makes Ferrell so great, it’s that he was literally so funny that he made Chris Kattan funnier than Jim Carrey in his prime by proxy. Wowzers. Some of his famous characters/skits include: The “Night at the Roxbury” Guys, The Cowbell Sketch, The Spartan Cheerleaders Sketches, The Morning Latte Sketches, Terrence Maddox the homeless/nude art school poser, Alex Trebek (Celebrity Jeopardy!), etc.