Monday Morning Critic: The Best SNL Cast Ever
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
In this week’s installment: my all-time cast of SNL.
We saw a cavalcade of stars at last night’s SNL fortieth reunion show, which served as a reminder of just how wide-ranging this show’s influence has been since 1975. While we saw dozens of past cast members back in Studio 8H, the question remains: What would constitute the show’s best all-time cast?
I’m not talking in terms of individual seasons, although seasons 1, 14, 17, 24, and 32 all make compelling cases for that title. Rather, I’m talking about a much larger, much more subjective assessment: What combination of the show’s hundreds of Not Ready For Primetime Players would produce the comedy equivalent of the 1927 New York Yankees? Let’s lay some ground rules for this exercise.
- The list should have 12 cast members (the largest cast size that still lets everyone more or less participate) and one “Weekend Update” anchor. While “Weekend Update” has often featured two hosts, you can only select one, and that anchor can’t do anything but “Update” in this iteration of the cast. So Jane Curtin could anchor, but not appear in any sketches.
- Consideration must be made for the actor’s contribution to the show, not overall career. You can’t select Robert Downey Jr. just because he’s now one of the world’s biggest movie stars.
- Consideration must be made for the type of skill-set each actor brought to the table. You probably wouldn’t pick both Phil Hartman and Darrell Hammond, unless you really want to stack the show with versatile impressionists. You want a show that maximizes the types of comedy and tonality the show has deployed.
- Consideration need not be paid to an individual’s writing contribution to the show, which is important but more ephemeral from the outside looking in. Assume for this exercise the best writers of each individual generation are available to write for the show. We know how much Seth Meyers and Robert Smigel contributed, but far less is know about the writing skills of most of the cast.
- This is a fun exercise and not in any way meant to establish this is the objectively “best” cast ever. You can slice and dice this any way you want, and this list is designed as a starting point of a conversation, not an ending one. I know I’m supposed to say “THE DEFINITIVE LIST OF ALL-TIME SNL CAST MEMBERS,” in order to get the maximum amount of attention, but I like the show and its cast too much to pretend this is anything but a celebration of the show’s history rather than a reductive way to exclude its insane amounts of cultural contributions.
Honorary mentions, in alphabetical order:
These are six incredible performers that help form the backbone of what makes SNL great. The fact that they aren’t on the main list says nothing about them and everything about the insane amount of talent this show has amassed and let loose in 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Could you form a cast using these six and produce an incredible comedy show? Absolutely.
Now to the main cast, again in alphabetical order:
Dan Aykroyd: Aykroyd could be charming, sincere, off-putting, and bizarre, often in the same sketch. He could play the straight man as well as the oddball, which meant the show could use him in whatever scenario it could concoct.
Dana Carvey: There have been fewer actors more perfect for SNL, with Carvey’s impressions and unique characters filling the small-screen for seven seasons. From Carson to The Church Lady, Carvey could do it all.
Chris Farley: Belushi and Farley fought for the same space on this list, and ultimately I went with Farley, whose outsized persona was balanced out by a childlike sweetness that endeared him to the audience. There probably will never be another performer like him.
Jan Hooks: SNL honored her recent passing by airing “Love Is A Dream” in its entirety, which demonstrated the show’s recognition of her contribution to the show’s legacy. The ultimate ensemble player, she could make as much of a mark with one line as with a starring role in a sketch. Look no further than “Brenda The Waitress” to see sketch-comedy performing at its finest.
Will Ferrell: As part of the large cast turnover in the mid-90s, Ferrell took his opportunity and forged one of the great runs in show history. His George W. Bush impression is iconic, but what really elevated him to this list was his ability to serve the ensemble when not in the direct spotlight.
Tina Fey (“Weekend Update”): Much like most fans of Doctor Who favor The Doctor that they grew up with, most SNL fans love the “Update” anchor with whom they grew up. For me, that was Dennis Miller, but I still give the anchor spot to Fey, who seized the segment’s podium and forged a new voice for female comedy that still reverberates into today’s cultural landscape.
Will Forte: Forte is here not because he’s the most versatile performer in the show’s history, but because his type of odd-ball, often confrontational comedy is necessary for the show’s ultimate alchemy. There was always a sense of danger and “anything-could-happen” when Forte’s mind got unleashed in Studio 8H.
Bill Hader: If you’re going to build an entire cast around one person, you could hardly do better than to start here. Hader was the ultimate “glue” cast member, able to serve any role in any sketch. He’ll be forever remembered for Stefon, but Hader could do celebrity impressions, original creations, or simply serve as the host of the show’s myriad game-show sketches. His easy-going persona allowed the audience to see how much sheer fun he was having at all times, making him one of the most beloved performers in the show’s history.
Phil Hartman: If you want to argue he was the single best performer to ever grace Studio 8H, I will not disagree with you. It’s as simple as that.
Eddie Murphy: Almost single-handedly keeping the show afloat in the years after Lorne Michaels and the original Not Ready For Primetime Players departed the show, Murphy created a cast of characters so indelible that they are still quoted to this day. Few, if any, have displayed as much charisma and raw comedic skill on SNL in its history.
Amy Poehler: A strong performer before cementing her legacy as co-anchor of “Weekend Update,” Poehler was a force of nature during her run, serving as part of one of the great female ensembles in the show’s history. Yet despite this glut of talent, Poehler always managed to stand out while simultaneously not overshadowing the ensemble.
Gilda Radner: So many SNL traditions have roots in what Radner brought to the show, it’s almost unfair. Her influence cannot be overstated, from her colorful original characters to her talking head segments on “Update.” She may not have invented any particular form of comedy. She simply synthesized and perfected all of them inside the perfect medium for her skills and broadcast it to the world at large.
Maya Rudolph: If you drew up the prototypical “SNL” cast member, it would look uncannily like Rudolph. Yes, she could do a Whitney Houston impression that brought the house down. But she could also do something like “Wake Up, Wakefield!” in which a shy, yet borderline creepy, energy could emerge. As with most cast members on this list, Rudolph’s true strength lie in her versatility, which in turn let SNL explore an almost unlimited number of comedic avenues.
Check Out the Best SNL Characters Over the Past 40 Years