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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.

Dan Aykroyd and Laraine Newman

1978 --- Original caption: Still photograph from the "Saturday Night Live" skit "Double Spare Rate." (Left to Right): Frank Zappa, Laraine Newman, and Dan Aykroyd. Frank Zappa is guest-starring on the comedy show. Undated photograph (1970s). --- Image by © Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis

Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis

32. & 33. Jason & Sunshine

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

Chevy Chase wearing a white jacket and print shirt at Rockefeller Center; circa 1970; New York. (Photo by Art Zelin/Getty Images)

Art Zelin/Getty

31. Very White

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."

Ana Gasteyer and Molly Shannon

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 9 -- Pictured: (l-r) Ana Gasteyer as Margaret Jo McCullin, Molly Shannon as Terry Rialto during the 'The Delicious Dish' sketch on December 14, 1996 -- (Photo by: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

29. & 30. The “Delicious Dish” hosts

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


28. Theodoric of York

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 ex-porn stars

26. & 27. The Ex-Porn Stars

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 "Bronx Beat" Ladies

24. & 25. The “Bronx Beat” Ladies

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

Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

23. Mindy Grayson

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

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 9 -- Aired 12/12/1992 -- Pictured: Adam Sandler as Opera Man during "Weekend Update" (Photo by Norman Ng/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Norman Ng/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

22. Operaman

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!"

Jon Lovitz

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 8 -- Air Date 01/25/1986 -- Pictured: Jon Lovitz as Master Thespian during "Master Thepian" sketch on January 25, 1986 (Photo by Al Levine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Al Levine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

21. The Master Thespian

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."

Eddie Murphy

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 15 -- Aired 03/27/1982 -- Pictured: (l-r) Eddie Murphy as Tyrone Green, Mary Gross as Ariel Feeley, Robin Duke as Lina during the "Poets" skit on March 27, 1982 (Photo by Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

20. Tyrone Green

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."

Christopher Walken

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 16 -- Pictured: Christopher Walken as The Continental during "The Continental" skit on April 8, 2000 -- (Photo by: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

19. The Continental

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."

Phil Hartman

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 15 -- Pictured: (l-r) Ellen Cleghorne as council member, Kevin Nealon as council member, Robert Smigel as council member, Victoria Jackson as council member, Phil Hartman as Cirroc the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer during the "Unfrozen Cave Man Lawyer" skit on March 14, 1992 -- Photo by: Al Levine/NBCU Photo Bank

Al Levine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

18. Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer

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 Aykroyd

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 13 -- Pictured: Dan Aykroyd as Leonard Pinth-Garnell during "Bad Cabaret for Children" skit on February 24, 1979 -- (Photo by: Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

17. Leonard Pinth-Garnell

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?"

Eddie Murphy

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE - Episode 5 - Pictured: Eddie Murphy as Velvet Jones during the 'Velvet Jones School of Technology' skit on November 7, 1981 - Photo by: (Fred Hermansky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Fred Hermansky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

16. Velvet Jones

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."

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!"