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.
Gilda Radner's immortal frizzy-haired wiseass, snapping her gum and discussing boogers, warts and nose hair, while Jane Curtin squirms in disgust. Roseanne was always a divisive gal — for some fans, she was an early example of an SNL character who got recycled way too many times. But she's gained a whole new resonance in the age of the social-media overshare. We are all Jane Curtin now.
Best line: "It's always something."
The Vatican newspaper's rock critic and gossip columnist, played by Don Novello with his constant cigarette and shades. The predictable move would have been to make Father Guido the butt of the joke, as a lampoon of religious squares. Yet Novello turns him into a hipster in monsignor's robes, sponsoring a "Find the Pope in the Pizza" contest and reviewing the various Popes' musical output. He's a big fan of Paul VI's White Album.
Best line: "The Pope's doing an encyclical. It's called the Vita Est Lavorum. In English, that means 'Life: It's a Job.'"
Bill Hader gets to revel in his nasty streak as veteran TV newsman Herb Welch, a crank who's been on the air for six or seven decades, as his glasses get thicker and his fuse gets shorter. Herb is prone to temper tantrums, memory lapses, bigotry and smacking people in the face with his microphone. And sometimes dying.
Best line: "Hey, I got a question for ya. Do you think Lucille Ball is a pinko?"
Chris Rock's first breakout character, the homeboy host of I'm Chillin'. Onski brings you his show live from the Marcy projects, sponsored by 168th Street Spring Water ("the only spring water that comes directly from a fire hydrant") or Bitch Come Running cologne. Hip-hop humor was new to SNL, to say the least, even in the 10-to-one time slot. Onski always rolled out a big intro for Chris Farley as his pal B-Fats: "Sitting by my side, my main man, my ace in the hole, my New Jersey toll, my Esther Rolle, my 10-foot pole, my Billy Joel, my Nat King Cole, my Dead Sea Scroll, my Dr. Scholl, my Helmut Kohl, my grassy knoll, my Kid Creole, my La! Cage! Aux! Folles!"
Best line: "Your mother got so much hair under her arm, it looks like she got Buckwheat in a headlock."
Jan Hooks and Nora Dunn as a lounge-singer sister act, weaving show tunes and cheesy pop standards into their own private language. The comic brilliance is all in their expert timing. Liz and Candy Sweeney manage to channel all their frustrated hopes and dreams into intricate medleys, even when they're stuck singing in the Holiday Inn lobby.
Best line: "But seriously, remember the ice machines are on every floor in the west wing."
Taram Killam's mega-bitch 1860s newspaper critic — one of the only signs of life on Weekend Update these days. Jebidiah's first rant was a negative review of of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, but he soon moved on to movies ("You know what wasn't on Schindler's list? An editor!"), Broadway ("Cats? I've seen a less depressing play starring a hundred cats — it was called Hoarders") and music: "To answer your question, Bono — without you!"
Best line: "Iggy, smell the Azaleas: you're white. The last time anybody stole that much from black people, everybody still dressed like me."
Dan Aykroyd and Laraine Newman as a pair of cosmic hippie lovers — Sunshine was sometimes known as Sunset, for no special reason. As the two youngest players in the cast, Aykroyd and Newman knew the culture they were satirizing. Talk about ahead of the game: they were doing proto-Portlandia gags about organic foodies in 1976, with their Natural Causes Restaurant, serving dead seagulls (from the Santa Barbara oil slick) or insects (from the windshield of Jason's van).
Best line: "Like today, the Kahoutek Special might be leg of lamb, because we have a sheep back in the kitchen that's dying of anthrax." "Bad news — the sheep's still wheezing!"
Chevy Chase's soul singer, sitting down at the piano and bringing all his smug-preppy-asshole deadpan to a Seventies slow jam. The perfect example of a one-joke character who appears the exact right number of times (once) with the exact right number of jokes (one). Perhaps Chevy's most well-rounded SNL original character.
Best line: "Baby, I remember the first time I saw you — you were down on the beach, entertaining the Van Der Camps. And I was at the tennis camp, looking for a fourth for mixed doubles."
Mmmm — good times. Margaret Jo McCullen (Ana Gasteyer) and Teri Rialto (Molly Shannon) host NPR's "Delicious Dish," all passive-aggressive tension under their mild-mannered voices. They shared their finest moment with Alec Baldwin, their mouths watering at the sight of his Schweddy Balls.
Best line: "I can't help but notice, Pete — your Balls are a little misshapen."
Steve Martin's horrifying medieval doctor, treating his patients with leeches or boar's vomit. He smiles as he tells Bill Murray, "You'll feel better after a good bleeding." And sweeping up in his office: Broom Gilda.
Best line: "Just 50 years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter's was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays, we know that Isabel is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors — perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach."
Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong as a pair of former porn stars making their own ads for luxury brands, in the hopes they'll score some free swag. They gush about "spectaculance" and "indeligance" while playing with their hair and rambling about their sexual adventures. Why do they talk that way? "I fell off a really steep boner and banged my head."
Best line: "I tried to bang a quiet guy, but it was just a corpse. I was like, hey, it's your funeral. And his family was like, yes it is — now get out of the coffin."
The perfect combo of Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph. Betty and Jodi are two jaded moms from the Bronx, hosting a talk show even though they do not have time for this. They don't got enough going on? Their kids, their lazy husbands, the way the city smells today? This whole world is bananas!
Best line: "You know what? When my husband brings fish into the house, I say, 'Go have your other wife cook it. Go have Angelina Jolie cook it.' That one, she drives me nuts."
Kristen Wiig is the woman of a thousand faces, but her most enduringly brilliant character is Mindy, a marvelously emphathetic portrait of an over-the-hill Broadway diva. She's a regular guest on the Seventies game show Secret Word, except she'd rather gush about her triumphs in productions like Juicy Boots of 1961 and "the unnecessary revival of the play The Incoherence of Miss Tiffany."
Best line: "Bob Fosse said the same thing to me in the smash failure Wigwam Suzy and the Corn Maize Crew, the story of a Native American girl who slept her way up to a two-room teepee."
Adam Sandler's prima donna, wearing a tux to sing mock arias about the news events of the day, from John Wayne Bobbit ("donde es schlongo?") to Pearl Jam ("Nirvana kissa my assa"), occasionally blubbering into his hanky. Operaman was a key figure in SNL's early-Nineties renaissance. And quite possibly the finest use of Sandler's musical skills.
Best line: "Oh solo Mia, Mia solo! Soon-Yi incesta, Woody addio!"
Only Jon Lovitz could create this over-the-top ham, dedicated to the pursuit of "Acting!" A highlight of the late Eighties SNL, the Master Thespian earns most of his applause in his own mind, striking flamboyant poses in a smoking jacket and gushing about the actor's craft.
Best line: "The face of death is near — and so, I flail."
Artist, poet and felon. Eddie Murphy introduced Tyrone Green in the "Prose and Cons" sketch about winning his prison's literary festival with his poem "Kill My Landlord." Has any SNL character ever made a bigger impact in under a minute? No. Tyrone went on to win acclaim for his conceptual art pieces like Rodney Johnson's Bad Luck, which consists of Rodney Johnson's possessions.
Best line: "Slip in the window, break his neck/Then his house I start to wreck/Got no reason — what the heck?/Kill my landlord."
The skeeviest of lotharios, played by Christopher Walken, leering into the camera to address the viewer. Or undress the viewer: "Forgive me if my hungry eyes feast on the banquet of your sumptuous decolletage." Based loosely on a Fifties TV series, the Continental was a highlight whenever Walken hosted, offering a glass of "champagne-a" like a nightmare version of a Bryan Ferry song come to life. Possibly the creepiest dude Walken ever played.
Best line: "The champagne-a you have thrown in my face stings my eyes. You are a fiery vixen."
Nobody could top Phil Hartman when it comes to slick-talking con men in suits. As the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, he now seems like a template for the entire Republican platform of the 21st century.
Best line: "I'm just a caveman. I fell on some ice and later got thawed out by scientists. But there is one thing I do know. We must do everything in our power to lower the capital gains tax. Thank you!"
Dan Ayrkoyd's tuxedo-clad culture vulture, the host of Bad Playhouse, Bad Ballet and Bad Opera. He brings his audience the very worst in contemporary performances, from the stage ("Voorstraat's early plays dealt with 'the existentialism of being' — difficult to understand because they were so very poorly written") or screen ("tonight's selected bad film really bites it"), while applauding with cries of "Awful! Awful! Couldn't be worse!"
Best line: "There now — that wasn't very good, was it?"
America learned the word "ho" from this man. We owe him a lot. Velvet Jones was one of Eddie Murphy's original star-making characters, the founder of the Velvet Jones School of Technology, offering career courses on how to be a pimp or touting his book I Wanna Be a Ho. ("You get to meet new people, travel, wear nice clothes, make money, and have lots and lots of sex.") He also sponsors his own line of Velvet Jones romance novels: "When she touched her lips to the glass, LaWanda's heart beat inside her. I knew from that very first moment the three dollars I had spent on wine would not go to waste."
Best line: "If you order now, I'll throw in absolutely free this pamphlet called 12 Easy Ways to Stomp a Ho."
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!"
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'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 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'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 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'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."
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?"
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."
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."