Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The 44 Best SNL Cast Members

Just one man's opinion, of course.  Granted, a man who has seen every episode of SNL since 1997 (January 11, 1997, to be exact) and dozens of older episodes courtesy of reruns on the Canadian Comedy Network.  So while this is just my humble opinion, it's not at all humble --- bow down to my SNL knowledge, jerks.

Comic versatility and length of tenure were two factors I took into consideration for the list, but the overriding factor was simply judging people by how funny I found them specifically on Saturday Night Live itself.  This was more difficult than it sounds, since some people who did nothing on the show went on to have great careers after leaving Saturday Night Live, and vice versa.  For example, Robert Downey Jr. was nowhere close to this list and he was arguably the best actor the show ever turned out.  (Yes, Robert Downey Jr. was once a cast member on Saturday Night Live.)

I tried as hard as I could to keep post-show bias out of the equation, but it's probably impossible.  And, while I've seen a lot of the older episodes, my knowledge of those eps and casts is obviously not nearly as strong as my knowledge of the last 15 years.  Also, I should note that I was picky about the official "cast member" designation.  If you were just a featured player, then no dice….hence, no Al Franken.

Before, we get to the list proper, let's get to the honourable mentions, or as I call it, "The Rest."

Nasim Pedrad, Amy Poehler, David Koechner, Mark McKinney, Darrell Hammond, David Spade, Rob Schneider, Chevy Chase, Abby Elliot, Dennis Miller, Victoria Jackson, Tracy Morgan, Jimmy Fallon, Bobby Moynihan, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael McKean

My methodology for the list was to look at every person who's ever seen in the SNL cast, and immediately sift out the ones that I never found funny or never/rarely ever saw perform.  From there, I had a list of about 90-some odd people that I pared down to around 60, then got to numbering.  After the top 44, however, I found myself really labouring to rank one over the other since really, I could take or leave pretty much everyone in "the rest."  So here they are, in one big blob.  If your favourite is in here, just presume I would've put them at 45th in a just and fair world.

A few notes on some of these cast members….

* Chase, Miller, Spade and Morgan are all love 'em or hate 'em comedians.  Either you enjoy their schtick or you don't, since they're limited enough that they don't give you any other options.  I wasn't crazy about any of their SNL tenures so here they are.

* McKinney and McKean are prime examples of the "judging them just on SNL" rule.  If we're ranking people on pure sketch comedy ability, these two are not just on the list, but making respectably high showings.  McKean, in particular, was hurt by the fact that he had just one season on SNL and he didn't get much to do.

* Darrell Hammond, man of a million impressions and none of them (save Bill Clinton and Sean Connery) actually funny.  I sincerely believe that the only reason he was on the show for 14 years wasn't because "he was the only one who could do the political impressions," but rather Lorne used the show as a way of keeping Hammond relatively stable form his drug and alcohol addictions.

* I feel like the entire 2003-2006 span of Saturday Night Live could be summarized by Amy Poehler's Weekend Update laugh.  You know, when Fey or Fallon or Sanz or Meyers or even herself would tell a joke that bombed hard, Poehler would chime in with this high-pitched chirp of a laugh.  The effect was "Hey, no problem folks, we're all friends here, here's another joke!"  That's all well and good….but while the cast camaraderie was arguably never higher during this period, the show sucked.  Guess what, I'd take a FUNNY cast that's back-biting and at each other's throats backstage any day of the week over a bunch of giggly best friends who act like they're in a ninth grade talent show.  I liked Poehler in her first season and then things just spiralled downhill from there, to the point where I was actively cringing at her appearances.  I fully recognize that most would rank Poehler quite highly amongst all cast members and mine is a minority opinion, but it's my list, so (puts on sunglasses) deal with it.  It's weird, I don't care much for Poehler as an actress whatsoever except for Parks & Recreation, where she is beyond perfect and great in the role of Leslie Knope.  It's like a band whose music you hate except for one awesome song.

* I've said this before, but Jimmy Fallon is either the most overrated SNL cast member of all time or the biggest waste of talent in the show's history.  Here's a guy who obviously has comic ability and is a gifted impressionist, yet even though we saw glimpses of it on SNL, it was buried under 15 tons of giggly nonsense.  Fallon literally did break character and start laughing in at least 50 percent of his sketches and I'm probably being generous in that assessment.  There's nothing at all wrong with the occasional crack-up (and sometimes cracking up adds to the comedy) but good god Jimmy, keep it together.  Fallon seemed to treat his stint like SNL fantasy camp --- Fallon is very obviously a guy who loves SNL and was completely appreciative of his time on the show, but it's like he was so blown away by being a cast member that he forgot to actually be a cast member.  If you ever wanted to see what Jimmy Fallon could've been had he only been slightly more on the ball, just look at Bill Hader.  

So, after expending all those words on people who didn't make the list, here are far fewer words on THE ACTUAL LIST.  Enjoy!

44. Kenan Thompson…He just escapes the "rest" designation by dint of some of the funniest reaction shots going and underrated comic timing.  
43. Rachel Dratch
42. Adam Sandler
41. Julia Sweeney
40. Maya Rudolph
39. Taran Killam…
Since the new SNL season starts on Saturday, this list could quickly become outdated if some of the current cast make the leap into becoming stars of the show.  Killam is definitely the guy I could see taking a big step up in 2012-13.
38. Molly Shannon
37. Kevin Nealon
36. Chris Kattan
35. Laraine Newman…
She's one of the few original cast members whose talent didn't immediately jump off the screen.  I feel like I'd rank her higher if I'd seen the 75-79 run in its entirety since it's easy to get lost behind all the big personalities of that era.  
34. Mary Gross
33. Rich Hall….
Another "if I'd seen more of him, he'd be higher" cast member.  A real unique and odd comic talent.  
32. Dana Carvey…
Ah, controversy.  Literally any other SNL list would have him at least 20 spaces higher than this, but I was just never a big Carvey fan.  Broad impressions, broad and repetitive characters and I never saw the appeal.
31. Tina Fey…
Similarly, I think a lot of lists would have Fey much lower since she didn't do much of anything besides Update and Sarah Palin.  To this I say nyah nyah, it's my list, and I thought Fey was tremendous.  "Only doing Update" is harder than it looks, as evidenced by Seth Meyers' weekly trampling of his own lines.
30. Jon Lovitz
29. Cheri Oteri
28. Tim Kazurinsky
27. Nora Dunn…
Somewhere, Andrew Dice Clay turns off his computer in disgust.  Well, not 'his' computer, the public library's.
26. Tim Meadows
25. Fred Armisen
24. Harry Shearer……
It was hard to figure a ranking for Short, Crystal, Guest and Shearer so I just lumped them all together.  All were only on the show for one season and all were "ringers" in the sense that they were already established comic stars before being brought onto Saturday Night Live (with Shearer having had a cup of coffee in the cast in 1979).  It didn't really seem "fair," in a way, to compare them to the larger hill that the rest of the cast members had to climb since the vast majority were unknowns when they got their SNL break.  It'd be like if a PGA Tour golfer became a member at your local country club and entered the club championship tournament for the hell of it, breaking every record in the book.  Needless to say, all four were awesome on the show.  
23. Christopher Guest
22. Billy Crystal
21. Martin Short

20. Andy Samberg….While only an above-average sketch performer, the Digital Shorts have been the funniest recurring bit on SNL since their inception.  You can make a case that Samberg should actually be significantly higher given how the Shorts were a huge part in keeping SNL relevant in the digital age, though he was only the public face, as the other Lonely Island guys obviously were huge co-collaborators.  
19. Kristen Wiig….s
ee, I don't hate her!  Still can't get over Lorne calling her a top-three all-timer.  Dumbfounding.  
18. Jason Sudeikis

17. Bill Hader
16. Norm Macdonald…
Remember how I cited other mostly-Update guys like Chase and Miller as love 'em or hate 'em comedians?  Well, I didn't much like them, but I loved Norm Macdonald.  Actually, I'm doing Norm a disservice by calling him a mostly-Update guy, since his Letterman and Tarantino impressions were pure gold.  And Bob Dole!  Bob Dole likes Norm being this high on the list!
15. Will Forte
14. Chris Parnell…
In addition to being awesome and an underrated force on the show, I think Parnell holds the record for most appearances on SNL with never breaking character.  Everyone else on this list cracked at least once, except for Concrete Chris.  He's the anti-Fallon.  If you can point me to an instance of Parnell breaking, I will owe you a penny.
13. Mike Myers…
For all of Myers' famous recurring characters, I don't think I'm wrong in stating that his single funniest SNL performance was his role in the Timesavers sketch with Heather Locklear.  The fact that this situation then basically happened to Myers in real life with Kanye West years later is phenomenal.
12. Jan Hooks
11. Ana Gasteyer….
An underrated star of the modern SNL era.  Whereas Oteri and Shannon's characters were irritating at least 50 percent of the time, Gasteyer was rock-solid funny in comic roles and a great straight woman in straight roles.  
10. Joe Piscopo….
It's too bad that Piscopo has been largely forgotten today, or if he is remembered, it's as a bit of a hack who got way too into bodybuilding.  Piscopo was a GREAT cast member who was overshadowed (like the rest of the cast) during the Eddie Murphy era, but Piscopo was more than capable of carrying sketches by himself or acting as Murphy's straight man.  He was also arguably the best impressionist the show ever had.  Aside from when Julia Louis-Dreyfus hosts, Lorne Michaels like to pretend that the 1980-1985 era of SNL never happened since he wasn't producing the show at the time.  That decision has hurt Piscopo's legacy more than anyone's, as Murphy was so big that no manner of historical whitewashing can erase his legacy, but the rest of the cast just got written off as Murphy's backup band.  Piscopo deserves better.   
9. Jane Curtin….
Did anyone have a funnier "barely-concealed look of contempt" than Jane Curtin?  The idea of an Update anchor who's disgusted by the nonsense around her is a really funny one.  Given how straight-edge Curtin was in comparison to the rest of her castmates, maybe it wasn't acting.  Anyway, Curtin was another of those great-at-everything versatile cast members.
8. Bill Murray
7. John Belushi
6. Dan Aykroyd
5. Gilda Radner
4. Chris Farley….
This one might cause a bit of debate.  While Farley could go low-key and was more versatile than people give him credit for, his bread and butter was going BEAST MODE in the large majority of his sketches.  After praising so many cast members for their versatility, it seems odd to put the relatively one-note Farley in the #4 spot but my god, his "one note" was an atomic bomb of laughs almost every time.  Few things, if anything, in SNL history is funnier than Chris Farley yelling at the top of his lungs about some misfortune that's befallen him.  It's weird, I don't think many would dispute Radner or Belushi this high on the list, but they and Farley were pretty similar performers; force of nature types who couldn't help but take over scenes.  Farley may have been one note, but it's like having a ballplayer who can't field, throw, run or hit for a big average, but he gets a lot of walks and hits a ton of homers.  If you only have one strength, that's a pretty great strength to have.
3. Phil Hartman
2. Eddie Murphy
1. Will Ferrell….
I'm not sure any 'best SNL cast member' list could have anyone but one of these top three guys as a number one.  It's all about personal preference as to who would get your top spot, but for me it's Ferrell.  It could be because Ferrell was the star of my first era of Saturday Night Live and thus I'm a little biased, yet I truly think he was the all-around best performer the show has ever had.  If Hartman's strength was being a chameleon and a perfect straight man, and Murphy's strength was taking over scenes and making them funnier by his very presence, Ferrell was both of those strengths wrapped up in one guy.  He was the man.  The only problem with Ferrell was that the show came to rely on him too much, so when he left, things went into a tailspin for a few years. 

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