I have been watching Saturday Night Live since it debuted in 1975. When the show first began, there was absolutely no reason to think that it would become a TV staple, and that 46 years later, it would still be an ingrained part of the culture.
But after a rough start, the show found it’s legs. It helped that the original cast included some of the best cast members in the show’s history, including Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Lorraine Newman, Chevy Chase, and the great John Belushi.
Ranking the SNL cast members is a bit of a fool’s errand, but what the heck? I did it anyway. You may agree or disagree with my rankings. After all, this isn’t science. It’s all based on personal preference. What you can’t argue with is the fact that SNL muscled its way into the national conversation, and continues to be relevant today.
Without further ado, here are the top cast members to ever do time on Saturday Night Live:
50. Robert Downey Jr (1985-86) – Robert Downey Jr. in 1985-86 wasn’t the RDJ we came to know later. While on SNL, he was distracted and undisciplined. Yet, there was something about him. He obviously had talent, and we now know he is one of the best actors in Hollywood.
49. Chris Elliott (1994-95) – Chris Elliot was hilarious and had a thriving career before he joined SNL. Then when he got there, he kind of fell flat. Instead of raising the level of the show, the show brought him down to its level. Looking back, as much as I like Chris Elliot, I have to admit that his time on the show was a disappointment. Little known fact: Elliot’s daughter, Abby Elliott, was on the show from 2008-12.
48. Don Novello (1978-80, 1985-86) – Novello was a one trick pony, but what a great trick that was. Novello, as Father Guido Sarducci, the rock critic for the Vatican newspaper, had a great, hilarious run on SNL. He didn’t do much else, but he was really good at what he did.
47. Harry Shearer (1979-80, 1984-85) – Shearer’s heyday on SNL was during the 84-85 season when he was teamed with Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean. Shearer held his own with McKean, but paled in comparison to Crystal and Guest.
46. Anthony Michael Hall (1985-86) – I like Hall more than most people like Hall. I can’t tell you exactly why that is. I just found him very funny. He went on to great success after SNL, appearing in such films as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Weird Science. Little known fact: His real name is Michael Anthony Hall, not Anthony Michael Hall.
45. Laraine Newman (1975-80) – I’m not the fan of Newman that a lot of people are, but I recognize that she is widely respected for her time on SNL. I think she benefitted from the players around her,. But the fact is, she was there at the beginning of SNL and she was good while she was there.
44. Seth Meyers (2001-14) – Meyers was on SNL for a long time. He was mostly known for working the desk at Weekend Update. In that role, Meyers brought a decency and charm that hadn’t been seen previously, yet it worked.
43. Jimmy Fallon (1998-2004) – I have to admit, I sometimes get Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers confused. Maybe that’s why they are next to each other on this list. Fallon’s forte (as opposed to Will Forte) was imitating rockers. In that role, he was very good.
42. Chris Rock (1990-93) – Rock had a forgettable run on SNL. The show didn’t seem to know how to use him, so they often didn’t. Since then, he has shown that he is one of the funniest comedians in the world, but SNL failed to bring that out of him.
41. Kevin Nealon (1986-95) – I personally liked Nealon better in sketches than as a Weekend Update anchor. On Weekend Update, Nealon seemed lost, like he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be doing. He was still funny, but as a Weekend Update anchor, he didn’t compare favorably to others on this list.
40. Rachel Dratch (1999-2006) – Every time I saw Rachel Dratch on SNL, I got the feeling that she was fearless. More so than many other players, Dratch put herself in uncomfortable, embarrassing situations, playing characters you wouldn’t expect her to play, and saying things you wouldn’t expect her to say. She was very good.
39. Tim Meadows (1991-2000) – Meadows was hilarious in “Ladies Man” sketches, playing a too-smooth-for-his-own-good Lothario who often falls flat in affairs of the heart. Too often, Meadows was an afterthought on the show. But when he got his shot, he hit it.
38. Ana Gasteyer (1996-2002) – Gasteyer was especially good at playing quiet characters in the most hilarious way. For instance, her NPR host of Delicious Dish where she discusses Schweddy Balls with Alec Baldwin is a classic. She also played a mean Martha Stewart.
37. Tim Kazurinsky (1981-84) – To me, Kazurinsky is underrated. Part of the reason is that he was part of weaker casts. Even so, he was fantastic on SNL, especially when playing awkward, angry characters. He could make me laugh with just a look.
36. Kenan Thompson (2003-Present) – Thompson holds the record for the longest serving cast member, currently sitting at 18 years. For the longest time, I had trouble thinking of Thompson as an SNL cast member. I first saw him on Nickelodeon’s Kenan & Kel, and for years associated him with that role. He has been very good on SNL. Even during some pretty thin periods, he shined.
35. Chris Parnell (1998-2006) – When I think of Parnell, I think of the word “solid.” He’s good at everything he does. He can be counted on. Even if he isn’t flashy or spectacular, he’ll do a competent job no matter what assignment he is given. It may not sound like it, but I mean that as high praise.
34. Tracy Morgan (1996-2003) – Morgan is one of those players that really hit his stride after leaving SNL. He was great on 30 Rock, and has had a good run on The OG. He was also very good while on SNL, and has gotten even better since leaving.
33. Darrell Hammond (1995-2009) – The second longest serving cast member in SNL history. He did great impersonations, my favorite of which was Sean Connery on the Jeopardy sketches. Truth is, his impersonation was nothing like Connery, yet was hysterical.
32. Molly Shannon (1995-2001) – Shannon will always be remembered primarily for her character Mary Catherine Gallagher, but the truth is, she was very good at everything she did. In that respect, she reminded me a bit of Jan Hooks.
31. Jan Hooks (1986-91) – Hooks could do it all, from redneck waitress at a truck stop to entitled elite. She always seemed to me like one of the players who would go on to bigger and better things. She didn’t, and that was sad. Even more sad, she died in 2014 at the age of 57.
30. Cecily Strong (2012 – Present) – Every time I see Cecily Strong, she is a breath of fresh air. She’s another cast member that reminds me of Jan Hooks. She can play any kind of character, from a beautiful heiress to a drunken tramp. Her two Emmy nominations bear that out. She was very good as an anchor on Weekend Update, and the sketch was weaker once she left.
29. Dan Aykroyd (1975-79) – I know it is a bit sacrilegious putting Aykroyd this far down the list. After all, he was a founding member and, in part because of his talents, SNL is still on the air. I’ll admit, Aykroyd is a very creative, talented guy, but he was never one of my favorites. I just didn’t find him all that funny. Interesting, yes. Funny, no.
28. Andy Samberg (2005-12) – To me, Samberg is the poor man’s Adam Sandler. Where as Sandler went on to great success in movies, Samberg did the same thing on TV with Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He was very good on SNL, especially in the Dick-in-a-Box skit with Justin Timberlake. His genius was in creating videos for the show. His live skits weren’t quite as good.
27. Joe Piscopo (1980-84) – I admit, I value Piscopo more highly that a lot of people. I get it. In a lot of ways, he was a blowhard who allowed his success to go to his head. Even so, I thought he brought the best out of Eddie Murphy, and I found his impression of Frank Sinatra hilarious.
26. Norm MacDonald (1993-98) – MacDonald had the rare ability of simultaneously being both the smartest and the dumbest guy in the room. He was great on Weekend Update (maybe my favorite Weekend Update anchor), and was hilarious as Burt Reynolds (Turd Ferguson) on the Jeopardy sketches.
25. Jane Curtin (1975-80) – I don’t know why Jane Curtin is so underrated, but she is. She’s underrated as a cast member on SNL, and she was underrated as a TV actress on such shows as Kate & Allie and 3rd Rock from the Sun. On SNL, she was terrific as an anchor on Weekend Update, and in the Point-Counterpoint sketches with Dan Aykroyd (“Jane, you ignorant slut!”)
24. Kate McKinnon (2012 – Present) – McKinnon is the brightest star on the present iteration of SNL. She is a fantastic character actor, inhabiting the characters she creates and uncompromisingly portraying them. She’s simply very, very funny.
23. Christopher Guest (1984-85) – When Lorne Michaels left SNL for a few years, the show brought in some heavy hitters to jump start the show. Guest was one of those people. He was good, but truthfully, sketch comedy was not his strong suit. He was brilliant in longer-form pieces, like This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show.
22. Amy Poehler (2001-2008) – Poehler’s Weekend Update opposite Tina Fey was fantastic. They have great rapport and play off each other very well. Poehler was especially good playing quirky, off-center characters. She brought an edge to her character portrayals that is a real gift.
21. Jason Sudeikis (2005-13) – Sudeikis looks like a normal guy, but brings a freaky side to his characters. I don’t know why I find his dancing guy in the red tracksuit so funny, but I do. His work on SNL is currently being overshadowed by his portrayal of Ted Lasso, but we should never forget how good he was as an SNL cast member.
20. Dana Carvey (1986-93) – Carvey was primarily known for his impersonations, particularly of George Bush. His Church Lady character became part of the late 80s/early 90s culture. And who can forget Carvey’s sketch where he played a rock musician creating the “Chopping Broccoli” song. I’m laughing just thinking about it.
19. Fred Armisen – (2002-2013) – What a talented guy Fred Armisen is. Whether acting, writing, or creating music, Armisen can do it all. He wasn’t the best actor of the group. Every time I saw him play a character, I was seeing Fred play a character. It was Fred who shone through. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
18. David Spade (1990-96) – Spade may not have invented snark, but he certainly raised it to an art form. As an actor, he’s limited, but what he does, he does very well. He was very good on SNL, and did some good films, including Tommy Boy with Chris Farley, and the classic, Joe Dirt. He also had a good run on TV (“Just Kill Me”) after his run on SNL.
17. Jon Lovitz (1985-90) – There are two recurring sketches that define Lovitz run on SNL for me. The first is the Master Thespian sketch (“Acting!”), and my favorite, the pathological liar, Tommy Flanagan (“Yeah, that’s the ticket.”). His use of his eyebrows was second only to John Belushi. Lovitz is one of those guys that can make me laugh just by looking into the camera.
16. Adam Sandler (1990-1995) – Sandler is a polarizing character. He has a ton of detractors. I get it. At times, I have felt the same way about him since his SNL days. But while on SNL, I thought he was hilarious. I loved his “Opera Man” character, and thought his occasional songs (“Chanukah Song”) were very funny.
15. Chevy Chase (1975-77) – I sometimes think Chevy Chase is overrated. I wonder if he would have had as much success post-SNL if he had not been a part of the inaugural cast. Don’t get me wrong, he was good. His portrayal of a bumbling, stumbling Gerald Ford was hilarious, and he was in one of my all-time favorite sketches, Chase playing “Barely White,” a Caucasian take-off of the great Barry White. But to me, as a cast member, he paled (no pun intended) next to many of the original members.
14. Maya Rudolph (2000-2007) – Rudolph was (and is) ridiculously talented and versatile. She was always the coolest kid in the room, confident she could pull off whatever stunt the sketch called for. Rudolph sometimes took a backseat to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, but she was every bit the performer they were, if not more so.
13. Tina Fey (2000-2006) – She was great as an anchor on Weekend Update, and was brilliant impersonating Sarah Palin. Fey is also credited as being one of the best writers ever on SNL. She could do it all. Since SNL, she has had nothing but success on shows such as 30 Rock, and several box office hits, including Date Night and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
12. Phil Hartman (1986-94) – Phil Hartmann was a genius. While on the show, he seemed to stand apart from the other players in talent and presence, yet melded with those same players to come up with some of the most memorable sketches in SNL history. He was great as Frankenstein, and his impersonation of Frank Sinatra was even better than Piscopo’s. His untimely death was a real tragedy.
11. Gilda Radner (1975-80) – When SNL first started, Gilda Radner was a revelation. We had not seen anyone like her on TV since Lucille Ball, a woman who was brainy and insanely funny. The characters she portrayed are timeless, whether Roseanne Roseannadanna (“It’s always something.”), Emily Litella (“Never mind.”), and Lisa Loopner, opposite Bill Murray’s Todd Dilamuca. Her life and her career were really just taking off when she died at the age of 42 of ovarian cancer.
10. Chris Farley (1990-95) – What a huge talent Chris Farley was. His big body hid the fact that he was very athletic. His athleticism was on full display in his famous Chippendales sketch, where he danced alongside Patrick Swayze. But his most famous character is Matt Foley, the overbearing, low-rent motivational speaker who goes ridiculously overboard to help keep kids on the straight and narrow (“…when you’re living in a van down by the river.”).
9. Eddie Murphy (1980-84) – Eddie Murphy had one of the most brilliant runs of any cast member ever on SNL. His portrayal of characters such as Buckwheat and Mr. Robinson poked fun at society’s racial hang-ups, as did his character’s poem, “Kill My Landlord” (“Dark and lonely on a summer night/Kill my landlord/Kill my landlord/Watchdog barking/Do he bite?/Kill my landlord/C-I-L-L my landlord.”). Here’s Eddie as Gumby, one of my all-time favorite characters.
8. Kristen Wiig (2005-12) – Wiig was an incredibly talented writer and actor on SNL. She was beloved by the casts she was part of, and recognized as one of the true geniuses of the series. One of the funniest things I ever saw on SNL was a take-off on the Lawrence Welk Show, where Will Farrell sings to the Maherelle Sisters (“From the Finger Lakes region.”). Rather than tell you about it, take a look. And keep an eye on Kristen Wiig. She’s great.
7. Will Farrell (1995-2002) – Farrell was one of the few cast members from SNL that was at the top of his game while on the show, and somehow got even better when he left it. His “More Cowbell” skit with Christopher Walken is a classic, but was just one of many sketches Farrell made memorable. After SNL, his career went through the roof with movies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step-Brother, and Old School.
6. Martin Short (1984-85) – I know a lot of people think I’m ranking Martin Short too high. He was only on the show for one year, and a lot of what he did during that year was knock-offs of things he had done previously on SCTV. Even so, he was hilarious. Whether he was playing Ed Grimly. Irving Cohen, Jackie Rogers, Jr. or Jiminy Glick (one of my favorites), Short was brilliant.
5. Billy Crystal (1984-85) – In just a year on SNL, Crystal created some of the show’s most memorable characters, including Fernando Lamos (“You look marvelous.”), Willie (alongside Christopher Guest’s, Frankie) (“I hate when that happens.”), and the blues singer, Buddy Young, Jr. (“Can you dig it? I knew that you could.”). Crystal had terrific success before he joined SNL, and he went on to even bigger success afterwards, but during the 1984-85 season, he was terrific.
4. Bill Murray (1977-80) – Although I don’t remember it this way, Murray didn’t join the show until season three. In my mind, he was there from the very beginning. Everything he did was good. He’s just one of those guys who makes you laugh no matter what he does. He created memorable characters like Nick the Lounge singer and Todd Dimuca (opposite Gilda Radner’s Lisa Loopner), and he went on to stardom after SNL in such films as Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbusters.
3. Bill Hader (2005-2013) –Hader had a great run on SNL. He was a guy who is a bit understated and doesn’t necessarily draw attention to himself, yet he was one of the best things going on the casts he was a part of. My favorite character from Hader was definitely Stefon, the emo kid giving hilarious club updates during Weekend Update. The funniest part for me was when Hader couldn’t suppress a laugh. Take a look:
2. Mike Myers (1989-95) – Everything Mike Myers did made me laugh. During the time he was on SNL, he was the best thing on the show. He created memorable characters like local access TV hero Wayne Campbell (“Broadcasting live from Aurora, IL”), talk-show host Linda Richman (“Her legs were like buttah.”), and Dieter, the monkey-petting German talk-show host from Sprockets (“Pet my monkey. Touch my monkey. Love my monkey.”). After his SNL days, he went on to fame and fortune reprising his role as Wayne Campbell in Wayne’s World 1 & 2, as well as the popular Austin Powers movies. Unfortunately, in recent years, he has largely disappeared, instead choosing to enjoy his family and his money out of the public eye. Can you imagine?
- John Belushi (1975-79) – Without Belushi, I don’t think the original cast of SNL would have been able to turn the show into a television staple. He was the glue that brought it all together for that cast. He was best known for characters like Samurai Hitman and the Chee-burger, Chee-burger skit, inspired by the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago (“No Coke, Pepsi.”). But it was his bigger-than-life persona that really lit up the SNL stage. Watching him was like watching a comet streaking across the sky before it inevitably burns out.