Lorne Michaels’ original idea for Saturday Night Live was to skewer not just pop culture and current events, but television itself. And what could be a better target than the self-important talk show? Beginning with Weekend Update in its very first season, SNL has heavily used – some might say abused – the talk show format. The writers have tapered off a bit since the Wayne’s World era, when it seemed like every other sketch was a show-within-a-show. But their use of the fake talk show continues to pay off in sketches like Girlfriends Talk Show and Waking Up with Kimye. To narrow our list to 15, we struck off Update (which is now in a category of its own) and stuck to recurring live sketches. From Fernando’s Hideaway to Church Chat and Bronx Beat, here are the SNL talk shows that still make us laugh.
The theme song said it all: "Wayne's World! Wayne's World! Party time! Excellent!" No one ever had more fun making television than misfit metalheads Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) and Garth Algar (Dana Carvey), whose public-access show was broadcast from Wayne's parents' wood-paneled basement. Their enthusiasm for music, babes ("schwing!") and the video camera's zoom function ("EXTREME CLOSE-UP!") was contagious. So were their catch phrases; you could hardly say a sentence in the early '90s without throwing a "not!" or "way!" onto the end. Wayne's World aired 18 times in its heyday, and inspired a 1992 feature film that was actually funnier than what we saw on TV. How many SNL sketches can make that claim? (Answer: only Wayne's World and The Blues Brothers.)
The idea of Bee Gees singer Barry Gibb (Jimmy Fallon) hosting a political talk show isn't inherently funny. But the chemistry between Fallon and Justin Timberlake, playing Barry's taciturn brother Robin Gibb, made this sketch sing. Whenever Barry would get worked up about a political topic, his voice would go full-on falsetto, and Robin would reluctantly chime in with the harmony. They did it all with a straight face, except when Jimmy managed to crack Justin up (which was often). In retrospect, it was completely obvious that Fallon would go on to host a talk show with a heavy musical component – and that Timberlake would be his favorite guest.
Well, isn't that special? Dana Carvey is one of the all-time great SNL cast members, and his signature character was the smirking, self-righteous and secretly filthy-minded Church Lady. Celebrity guests on "Church Chat" – including Sean Penn, Joe Montana and Rob Lowe – were given the third degree about their sinful thoughts and behavior, which was very satisfying to watch. (Heck, isn't that basically what Oprah is doing these days?) The Church Lady appeared on SNL twenty times, more than almost any character in the show's history.
Two decades before Zach Galifianakis premiered Between Two Ferns, Chris Farley was exploring the comic potential of the awkward celebrity interview on SNL. On The Chris Farley Show, he played a shy, bumbling version of himself, ill-prepared and hopelessly star struck by his guests. A typical question, from his Paul McCartney interview: "Remember when you were with the Beatles, and you were supposed to be dead, and there was all these clues, that, like, you played some song backwards, and it'd say, like, 'Paul Is Dead,' and everyone thought that you were dead? That was a hoax, right?" The Chris Farley Show aired just three times, but it provided the title for the authorized Farley biography, published 11 years after his death.
"He loves animals and they love him back," went the theme song for Brian Fellow's Safari Planet. Actually, Brian Fellow (Tracy Morgan) didn't so much love his animal guests as he was deeply suspicious of them. When a trainer taught his parrot to chirp the show's catchphrase, "I'm Brian Fellow," the host blurted out "That bird is a liar!" When Fellow wasn't asking the animal handlers to keep the creatures away from him, he was asking childlike questions like, "When that bat turns into a man, how old will he be?" Safari Planet gave Morgan his most distinctive character, and is one of only two SNL sketches (the other being "I Married a Monkey") to repeatedly feature live animals. What fun is live TV without the danger of being bitten by a tarantula?
Remember that moment when you realized that you and your childhood best friend were growing into completely different people? That's what's happening on air to teenagers Morgan (Aidy Bryant) and Kyra (Cecily Strong), who co-host Girlfriends Talk Show from completely different wavelengths. Morgan wants to sing original songs, do amateur magic and chat about snow globes; Kyra keeps inviting her "new best friends" along to discuss selfies and hip-hop. The odd-couple pairing of Strong and Bryant has made this sketch one of current cast's best. It would be nice to see these two work together more often. Rumor has it there's an open spot at the Weekend Update desk. . .
Looking back, it's crazy how many Mike Myers characters were TV show hosts: there was Wayne, Dieter from Sprockets, Simon who liked to make drawings, Lothar of the Hill People, Theatre Stories host Kenneth Reese-Evans, and so on. Even so, Linda Richman of Coffee Talk was a character close to Myers' heart: she was based directly on his Bronx-born, Jewish mother-in-law. Maybe that's why Richman always seemed like a real person, despite being a sequin-clad drag character with the world's New Yorkiest accent (like buttah!). Her chit-chat about dawgs, dawtuhs and cawfee was sprinkled with catchphrases in both Yiddish ("I'm farklemt!") and faux-Yiddish ("shpilkis in his genechtagazoink"). When Richman she got choked up, usually when talking about Barbra Streisand, she would instruct the audience to "tawk amongst yourselve." Even now, we can't look at a box of Grape-Nuts without hearing, "It contains neither grapes nor nuts. Discuss."
Stuart Smalley (Al Franken) was an oddball, even by SNL standards. "A member of several 12-step programs but not a licensed therapist," Smalley bundled all the self-help clichés of the'90s into his public-access talk show, starring himself and a mirror. The sketch is best remembered for Stuart's lisping mantra: "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me." Yet Stuart was a pathetic guy, barely holding it together at any given moment. Sketches like this one, in which he ridicules Valentine's Day cards for encouraging co-dependence, hardly seem like jokes; in fact, Smalley's mopey sarcasm would have made him a terrific future blogger. Instead, Franken became a U.S. Senator. Guess people liked him after all.
"You look mahhhvelous," Fernando Lamas (Billy Crystal) would tell everyone who visited his Hideaway. After that, all bets were off. Fernando's Hideaway was the only SNL talk show that was entirely improvised; neither the famous guests nor the writers knew what Crystal would ask during the interviews. Mostly, he just tried to make them laugh. But that unpredictability gave Hideaway the kind of energy that should always go hand-in-hand with live TV.
This fourth-season Gilda Radner bit aired only twice, but it invented a trope that SNL has run with for decades: the TV show hosted in somebody's room. Young Judy Miller, stuck upstairs while her mother entertained friends, didn't have an audience of her own. But The Judy Miller Show had everything else: ballet numbers, stuffed-animal romance, catchy commercial jingles ("Here's the thing that is so smooth and creamy and that everybody loves and so you should get it!") and guest appearances by the Queens of France and Germany. Gilda Radner's one-woman TV extravaganza is the rare SNL sketch that feels too short.
Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler's chat show was basically the next generation of Coffee Talk: a conversation with two gossipy Bronx moms, Jodi Deets and Betty Caruso, who had an opinion on everything. (Usually that opinion was, "Who cares? Live your life. Have a glass of wine.") Like Mike Myers' sketch, this one had a real-life inspiration: the actual Jodi was an SNL hairdresser. Instead of being broken into segments, Beat was one long conversation, changing topics organically until the guest came on. Those guests were often attractive men, and rarely did they manage to keep a straight face under Poehler and Rudolph's flirty interrogation.
Eddie Murphy's ghettoized Mister Rogers parody was considerably more shocking in the '80s, when the real deal was required viewing for every child under five. You can hear the disbelief in the audience's laughter when Mr. Robinson teaches kids to pronounce the word "bitch" or tells them how to flee the scene of a crime. Make no mistake – this is dark stuff, and that's why it's funny. Murphy was unafraid to bring some edge to his comedy, and sketches like this one carried SNL through a few rough years in the early '80s.
Kenan Thompson's fake BET talk show was an exercise in comic chaos. Thompson played host DeAndre Cole, who couldn't say three sentences without launching back into his own theme song. Whenever the music played, a series of random characters would dance onto the stage. For the few seconds in between, Cole would interview guests, often unannounced A-listers like Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson and Robin Williams. (Rarely did they speak a word.) And then there was perennial guest Lindsey Buckingham, played by Bill Hader, who showed up every week hoping for his turn. Not all viewers loved this sketch, but its energy was hard to top, and it had enough mojo to air nine times. Seeing as Kenan's still around, we may see it again.
Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer totally nailed the soothing, banal chatter of NPR hosts on their fictional culinary show, The Delicious Dish. But it was one of their guest stars who secured this sketch's place in the SNL Hall of Fame: Alec Baldwin, who introduced Terri Rialto (Shannon) and Margaret Jo McCullen (Gasteyer) to his signature holiday treat: Schweddy Balls. (His name was Pete Schweddy, and the treats from his shop included popcorn, cheese and rum balls.) Oblivious to the double entendre, the ladies raved about his balls' taste and appearance. That joke was hard to top, but the ladies very nearly did it when they brought the sketch out of retirement for Betty White, playing a baker who came to talk about her famous Dusty Muffin.
Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon wore muscle suits to host their "informative training program for the serious weight lifter," which was basically a showcase for their Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions. Even so, Carvey and Nealon managed to take the characters to some interesting places. We saw Franz (Nealon) develop sexual feelings for another man, and Hans (Carvey) contemplate the vastness of the universe on a camping trip. Hans and Franz are among SNL's most-quoted characters, and their go-to insult, "girlie man," was eventually co-opted by the Governator himself.