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40 Best ‘Saturday Night Live’ Characters of All Time

Legends, obscurities, opera men: a look back at the funniest concoctions to grace Studio 8H

Mike Myers, Bill Hader, and Adam Sandler

Raymond Bonar/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty; Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty; Norman Ng/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

No comedy franchise has ever generated as many unforgettable characters as Saturday Night Live. Fans develop an intense bond with their favorite SNL heroes — we love our Stefons, our Mr. Robinsons, our Roseanne Rosannadannas. So here's a salute to the 40 greatest — not necessarily the most famous, just the funniest. Some are legendary, others obscure. Some recurred week after week; others only showed up once or twice. (Better one dose of Gene Frenkle than a herd of Goat Boys.) No impressions — that's a whole other list — so no Sarah Palin or Buckwheat or Mark Wahlberg. (And only the SNL incarnation, so no Blues Brothers, who had to wait until their movie to hit "We're on a mission from God" mode.) This Top 40 comes from every era of SNL's 40-year history — the only thing these characters have in common is that they're classics.

Bill Murray and Gilda Radner

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 4 -- Pictured: (l-r) Bill Murray as Todd DiLaMuca and Gilda Radner as Lisa Loopner during the 'Matchmaker Nerds' skit on November 10,1979 -- (Photo by: Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

14. & 15. The Nerds: Lisa Loopner and Todd Di La Muca

Gilda Radner and Bill Murray as a couple of high school nerds in love. Talk about a rarity: the Nerds were a functional couple on SNL, trading noogies and cornball quips like, "That's so funny I forgot to laugh" or "Let's not and say we did." Radner and Murray were a real-life couple, yet tempestuous as their offscreen relationship was, the Nerds shared an affection that was genuinely touching.

Best line: "Did you ever have a lollipop kiss? Close your eyes and pucker up. Sucker!"

John Belushi

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 5 -- Pictured: (l-r) John Belushi as Samurai Futaba, Buck Henry as Mr. Dantley during "Samurai Optometrist" skit on November 11, 1978 -- Photo by: Fred Hermansky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Fred Hermansky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

13. The Samurai

The ultimate explosion of John Belushi's anarchic energy — he waves his samurai sword, he grunts, he screams, he chops up everything in sight. He appears in many different guises — a deli owner, a stockbroker, a psychiatrist, a mob hit man. And he hits the dance floor in "Samurai Night Fever," where his brother gets played by O.J. Simpson. (Oh, those innocent Seventies.) Belushi once accidentally slashed host Buck Henry's forehead with his sword; for the rest of the show, the cast wore Band-Aids on their foreheads.

Best line: "Yeeeeh-aaaaiiiigh!"

Will Ferrell

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 19 -- Aired 05/14/2005 -- Pictured: (center) Will Ferrell as Gene Frenkle onstage with musical guests Queens of the Stone Age (Photo by Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

12. Gene Frenkle

Will Ferrell's cowbell king, rocking in the studio with Blue Oyster Cult and performing the hell out of "(Don't Fear) the Reaper." The way his shirt ascends to expose his jiggling paunch is true mastery. Bonus points for not trying to milk Gene Frenkle into a recurring bit — although when Ferrell hosted SNL in 2005, Gene came out to jam with musical guests Queens of the Stone Age. He really knew how to explore the studio space.

Best line: "If Bruce Dickinson wants more cowbell, we should probably give him more cowbell!"

Mike Myers

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 1 -- Aired 09/25/1993 -- Pictured: Mike Myers as Linda Richman during the "Coffee Talk" skit on September 25, 1993 (Photo by Gerry Goodstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Gerry Goodstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

11. Linda Richman

Mike Myers based this chatty yenta on his real-life mother-in-law, who eventually wrote her own self-help book, because the Nineties. Linda Richman was all America's Jewish mother, hosting Coffee Talk to discuss Barbra Streisand or anything else that makes her verklempt. No big whoop. The episode where Linda's on the couch with Madonna and Rosanne Barr — and then Barbra herself shows up? SNL's all-time best "sneaker upper" gag.

Best line: "She has legs to die for. They're like buttah. The left one is salted and the right one is courtesy of Land O' Lakes."

Chris Rock

NBC

10. Nat X

Chris Rock's dashiki-rocking militant, host of The Dark Side. He's the man so black he goes to funerals naked, so black they counted him four times in the Million Man March, railing against institutions like chess: "A game that for some racist reason cannot start unless the white piece moves first." Nat X always counts down his Top Five list — because the Man's afraid to let him have a Top 10.

Best line: "February is Black History Month — isn't that nice? The Man gives us February because it's the shortest month of the year. It's also the coldest month of the year, just in case we wanted to have a parade."

Chris Farley

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 9 -- Aired 12/17/1994 -- Pictured: (l-r) George Foreman, Chris Farley as Matt Foley during "Foley Trains Foreman" skit on December 17, 1994 (Photo by Al Levine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Al Levine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

9. Matt Foley

Chris Farley had a hundred different moves for hitching up his pants, and he got to use them all as Matt Foley, the maniacal motivational speaker who rants about how rolling doobies leads to living in a van down by the river. As Linda Richman might say: Neither motivational nor a speaker? Discuss!

Best line: "Well, la-de-freakin'-da!"

Rachel Dratch

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 1 -- Aired 10/02/2004 -- Pictured: Rachel Dratch as Debbie Downer during "Debbie Downer" skit (Photo by Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

8. Debbie Downer

Rachel Dratch's buzzkill goddess travels everywhere from Disney World to Vegas, but she always brings that sad trombone music with her. A birthday bash, a wedding, a bachelorette party — you can always count on Debbie to be there to bring up feline AIDS or the latest earthquakes. Like mad cow disease, she can ravage your brain.

Best line: "By the way, it's official — they've located my birth mother. Deceased."

Mike Myers

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 7 -- Pictured: Mike Myers as Dieter during "das ist jeopardy!" skit on November 20, 1993 -- (Photo by: Raymond Bonar/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Raymond Bonar/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

7. Dieter

Another brilliant Mike Myers creation: the black-clad German host of Sprockets, inviting his guests to touch his monkey as he raves about Berlin art-scene highlights like "Scabs on Canvas" and the Wall of Unhappiness. ("That poem pulls down my pants and taunts me.") Like everything else Myers did on SNL, Dieter has been imitated to death, but the original can't be topped — his impact, as Dieter would say, was like a cultural Chernobyl.

Best line: "Your presence intimidates me to the point of humiliation. Would you care to strike me?"

Eddie Murphy

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 11 -- Pictured: Eddie Murphy as Mr. Robinson during the 'Mister Robinson's Neighborhood' skit on February 21, 1981 -- Photo by: Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

6. Mr. Robinson

Hardly a mere parody of Mr. Rogers — Eddie Murphy created a whole new character, a criminal-minded charmer with a streak of inner-city anger lurking behind a sweet smile for the kiddies out there. Can you say "scum bucket," boys and girls?

Best line: "You know where drums come from? Africa! You know where these drums come from? Smokey Robinson was at the Apollo Theater and left his van open."

Bill Murray

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 20 -- Pictured: (l-r) Gilda Radner as Kathy GorlyGilda Radner as Kathy Gorly, Bill Murray as Nick The Lounge Singer during "Nick at Trader Nick's" skit on May 24, 1980 -- (Photo by: Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

5. Nick the Lounge Singer

The velvet song stylings of Bill Murray. For all his schmaltz, Murray put real heart and soul into this crooner — no matter how miserable the dump where he's singing, he wants to win the audience's love, one rendition of the Star Wars theme at a time.

Best line: "Welcome to the Powder Room, everybody up here at beautiful Meatloaf Mountain. I'm Nick Winters and I'm here to entertain you. So sit back, have a hot buttered rum and let it happen."

Dan Aykroyd

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 12 -- Pictured: Dan Aykroyd as Irwin Mainway during the 'Judge Judy' skit on February 7, 1998 -- Photo by: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

4. Irwin Mainway

Dan Aykroyd specialized in two-bit hustlers, from Richard Nixon to his Bass-O-Matic salesman. But this pinkie-ring New Jersey sleazebag was the darkest and funniest. Irwin Mainway showed up up on Consumer Probe to defend his line of children's toys, including "Mr. Skin Grafter," "Bag O' Glass" and "General Trahn's Secret Police Confession Kit," as well as the popular Halloween costume "Johnny Human Torch" — a pile of oily rags and a lighter. He also ran his amusement park Kiddie Funworld, featuring rides like the Ice Palace (a bunch of abandoned refrigerators) and the Tunnel of Noxious Gases.

Best line: "Look, we put a label on every bag that says, 'Kid! Be careful — broken glass!' I mean, we sell a lot of products in the 'Bag O' line, like Bag O' Glass, Bag O' Nails, Bag O' Bugs, Bag O' Vipers, Bag O' Sulfuric Acid."

Al Franken

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 8 -- Aired 12/14/2002 -- Pictured: Al Franken as Stuart Smalley during "Daily Affirmation" skit on December 14, 2002 (Photo by Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

3. Stuart Smalley

The host of "Daily Affirmations," a caring nurturer and a member of several 12-step programs — but not a licensed therapist. Al Franken dispensed wisdom like "Compare and despair" or "I'm shoulding all over myself," in a bold crusade against stinking thinking. And his dork cardigan really qualifies for its own slot on this list.

Best line: "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it — people like me!"

Mike Myers

Mike Myers as Wayne Campbell during the "Wayne's World" skit on February 17th, 1990.

Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

2. Wayne Campbell

Mike Myers' party-commando hero. He might be just a suburban metal kid hosting a public-access cable show in his mom's basement, but he's a rock star in his dreams. With him, as always, Dana Carvey as his loyal sidekick Garth — they keep telling each other how cool they are, whether Wayne is making out with Madonna or debating the future of socialism with Aerosmith. SNL gave us so many beautiful bromances — the Blues Brothers, the Wild and Crazy Guys, the Chippendales dancers — but this was the sweetest. Best SNL spin-off movie ever, too. Party on, Wayne.

Best line: "Garth, get it together, man. Because if you hurl, and I catch a whiff of it, I'm gonna spew. And if I blow chunks, chances are someone else is gonna honk, all right? And that's gonna set off a peristaltic chain reaction, all right?"

Bill Hader

Bill Hader as Stefon during Weekend Update on October 11th, 2014.

Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

1. Stefon

Oh Stefon — more fun than a date with Tranderson Cooper. Bill Hader's dazed Chelsea club kid hyperventilates about the latest parties, dropping names like Gaye Dunaway or Tranny Oakley or "lazily named drag queen Melvin in a Dress." Wherever he goes, Stefon always truly believes this party has everything. ("Don't be fooled by the charred Red Lobster sign out front — this club is a burned-down Red Lobster!") No matter what kind of hellhole he's in, Stefon truly believes this party has everything. An inspiration to us all.

Best line: "This place has everything: geeks, sherpas, a Jamaican nurse wearing a shower cap, room after room of broken mirrors. Look over there — is that Mick Jagger? No! It's a fat kid on a Slip & Slide. His knees look like biscuits and he's ready to party."

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