50 Greatest 'Saturday Night Live' Sketches of All Time - Rolling Stone
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50 Greatest ‘Saturday Night Live’ Sketches of All Time

From Bass-O-Matic to Buckwheat, Garth Algar to Garth & Kat, the best of SNL’s (almost) 40 years


America's greatest living comedy institution, currently in its 39th year, requires no introduction – but this list might. This is not a Wikipedia browse of SNL's most successful franchises or its most iconic moments, but a look at the best individual sketches – mainly because no one can convince us that a half-dozen dates with the Roxbury Guys are funnier than 90 seconds of Happy Fun Ball. Here are the classic moments that deserve their canonical status, and quiet cult skits that earned the same. And if you don't agree? Well, excuuu-uuuse us.

By Steve Ciabattoni, Jon Dolan, Kory Grow, Maura Johnston, Al Shipley, Jessica Suarez, Gwynne Watkins and Christopher R. Weingarten

15. Men’s Synchronized Swimming

Original Airdate: October 6th, 1984

"It was funny before we put one word to paper," Martin Short told Roger Ebert. "I saw synchro swimming on TV – real synchro swimming – and I laughed out loud. It is the funniest sport in history." In 1984, Short and SCTV weren't really mainstream and This is Spinal Tap hadn't become a cult favorite yet, so this mini-mockumentary was Short, Harry Shearer, and Christopher Guest's biggest splash. Saying you're "not a strong swimmer" became a hip catchphrase as the skit set a new standard for the filmed SNL short. You can find DNA from this masterpiece in Guest's Waiting For Guffman (mincing director, check) and really, almost every parody streamed on Funny or Die. Fun fact: Also, off in his own corner of the writer's room that year? Larry David.

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14. Super Bass-O-Matic ’76

Original Airdate: April 17th, 1976

"To those on the 17th floor, the 'Bass-O-Matic' was so exhilaratingly strange that many remember sitting and listening, open-mouthed, when Danny [Aykroyd] presented it at the Monday writers' meeting," wrote Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad in A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. "Nobody felt jealous of it because they couldn't imagine writing anything remotely like it." According to producers and cast members, Dan Aykroyd was SNL's sharpest writer and performer at the time. At 23, he was also their youngest, a not ready for prime time Orson Welles. But he didn't come into his own until he parodied late-night pitchman Ron Popeil with this mutant of his Veg-O-Matic and the Pocket Fisherman. The sketch only lasts 90 seconds but it's enough time to blend a fresh bass into a bubbly pink smoothie. From then on, the gross-out sketch became a regular feature on SNL, stretching from the projectile vomiting Rookie Cops to the Kissing Family's on-air make-out sessions.

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13. Consumer Probe

Original Airdate: December 11th, 1976

A morbid jewel of the Michael O'Donoghue era. Dan Aykroyd was great at playing slimeballs and mustachioed hucksters, and perhaps his greatest, sleaziest creation was crooked toy manufacturer Irwin Mainway (an in-joke reference to Irving Mainway convenience stores, popular in Aykroyd's native Canada). Mainway Toys seemed to make products not just with a disregard for children's safety but with the intent to harm, from the Pretty Peggy Ear-Piercing Set to Bag O' Glass, with its charmingly direct warning label "Kid! Be careful, broken glass."

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12. Old Glory Insurance

Original Airdate: November 18th, 1995

"My finest hour," is how Law & Order stoneface Sam Waterston once described his role as Old Glory Insurance's "compensated endorser." And in a recent Reddit AMA, writer Adam McKay (of Anchorman fame) put this skit at the very top of his top five pieces he penned at SNL. No surprise since the gag totally holds up today. Watch the ads airing on a certain cable news channel, and it's nearly the same approach (right down to featuring a Law & Order cast member) as the neo-con commercials that tell you to invest in gold, get a reverse mortgage, or buy your survival bunker today!

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11. Chippendale’s Audition

Original Airdate: October 27, 1990

The breakout sketch for one of SNL's most explosive masters of physical comedy was Chris Farley's shirtless dance-off with guest host Patrick Swayze, his rival for the last spot in a Chippendales show. "I'd say it was one of the funniest sketches in the history of the show," SNL writer Robert Smigel said in Farley's biography, The Chris Farley Show. "The way it was constructed, with everyone sincerely believing that this guy has a shot, and the judges studiously scribbling notes on his dance moves, that's what makes it original and completely hysterical." Not everyone in Farley's life agreed. "Chippendales was a weird sketch. I always hated it," said co-star Chris Rock. "The joke was basically, 'We can't hire you because you're fat'… It's just fucking mean. A more mentally together Chris Farley wouldn't have done it, but Chris wanted so much to be liked."

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10. Word Association

Original Airdate: December 13th, 1975

"It's like an H-bomb that Richard and I toss into America's consciousness." That's how comic and Pryor accomplice Paul Mooney describes writing the ballsiest race joke – possibly the ballsiest joke, period – that anyone had ever done on network TV. The audience laughs, not gasps, when Chevy and Pryor's black/white word association test peaks with: "Nigger?" "Dead honky." The whole week, Chevy had been begging to be in a skit with Pryor, while Mooney was fuming about assorted bullshit and questions from producer Lorne Michaels. So Mooney killed two birds by writing one skit. It could be the last time a white guy said the N-word on TV and actually diffused racial tensions rather than ignited them. Bonus points: At Pryor's insistence, Gil Scott-Heron was the musical guest that night.

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9. Behind the Music: Blue Oyster Cult

Original Airdate: April 8th, 2000

America loved it, but for new cast member Jimmy Fallon this sketch was a revelation. "I had just started on the show and I'm not the best actor in the world," he said later. "I do impressions and stuff like that. So I was stuck in a scene with the great Will Ferrell, who's one of the funniest guys ever and we do the sketch in dress rehearsal and it's OK – it's not even that great. And then, on air… he came out with a smaller shirt so that his gut would hang out when he banged the cowbell. And everyone just broke up laughing, and I couldn't stop laughing. That's what you get when you play with the big boys." Though, yes, you got sick of the catch phrase, and the T-shirts and maybe even the whole idea of cowbells – and cows and bells. But the majesty of this lovingly ironic Seventies rock parody is pretty undeniable.

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8. White Like Me

Original Airdate: December 15th, 1984

Eddie Murphy's whiteface sketch was the most provocative SNL moments since Richard Pryor dropped by in Season One. (In fact, it was an explicit homage to Pryor, who played the author of a book called White Like Me during his SNL appearance.) Murphy had recently become a movie star – "the first black actor to take charge in a white world onscreen," as he later told Rolling Stone – and was struggling to find his place among the Hollywood elite. "White Like Me" satirized his discomfort, showing the hidden opportunities afforded to white people when black guys leave the room. We wouldn't see such powerful, audacious comedy about American race relations until Chappelle's Show arrived, 20 years later.

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7. Choppin’ Broccoli

Original Airdate: October 11th, 1986

Dana Carvey's first appearance on SNL, the season 11 opener, is still one of his most popular works. This sendup of rock-star burnout, in which Brit crooner Derek Stevens play the morose piano ballad "The Lady I Know" (or as SNL fans have come to call it, "Chopping Broccoli") dates back to Carvey's audition reel. In it, he called it his impression of a "very pretentious" rock star. "I think all of us at one time in our lives wanted to be a rock star," he said. "All you have to do is flare your nostrils and look like you're about to vomit. Everything you say is suddenly very important. It doesn't have to make any literal sense."

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6. Stefon’s Halloween Tips

Original Airdate: October 21st, 2012

Of all the nightclub namedrops from twitchy NYC club kid Stefon (D-bag Chopra or Fat Sajak, anyone?) no one could have known that the anti-joke left hook of "Jewish vampire" Sidney Applebaum would get the biggest laugh. Not even Hader knew, since Mulaney subbed in this inside gag (it's a name of a Woody Allen character from Love and Death, by the way) without alerting his co-writer. "It's like a whole country watching John and I laugh at our sense of humor," Hader told the Daily Beast. We're glad they let us in on it.

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5. Point/Counterpoint

Original Airdate: December 16th, 1978

A parody of the 60 Minutes "Point/Counterpoint" segments that ran throughout the Seventies, Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd argued in the steely tone of televised debates, but with insults that thwarted decorum. "Jane, you ignorant slut" quickly become a pop-cultural catchphrase, but the invective seems downright tame when compared to the nastiness lobbed across cable and radio these days: Rush Limbaugh called a women's rights activist a "slut" as recently as 2012.

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4. Wayne’s World: Madonna Fantasy

Original Airdate: May 11th, 1991

"It was terrifying," Mike Myers has said of kissing Madonna. And no wonder: In 1991, there was no more intimidating star than the just-banned-from-MTV Material Girl. Her fantasy rendezvous with Wayne and Garth was probably SNL's most perfect pop culture convergence ever: One of the most famous people on earth, writhing in the black-and-white world of "Justify My Love," the most controversial video of all time, speaking in the dopey slang ("No way!" "Way!") of the most popular recurring characters since the Blues Brothers. And we were only approaching Waynemania, which would peak in 1992 with their feature film. During shooting, Myers and Dana Carvey had a personal falling-out, and were never quite able to re-capture the magic – though that didn't stop Lorne Michaels from producing a sequel or doing the sketch seven more times.

Dick in a Box

3. Dick in a Box

Original Airdate: December 17th, 2006

"[W]e wrote this song in a delirium of no sleep on a Wednesday or Thursday of the week. We recorded it that night, and we were laughing so hysterically – and probably through the delirium of trying to write something so funny, this came out of it," Justin Timberlake told NPR about co-writing the most popular SNL Digital Short of all time (and possibly the best Timberlake song post-FutureSex/LoveSounds). Though co-star Andy Samberg says this R-rated, very-bleeped send-up of '90s R&B was written in two hours, it's shelf life is seemingly endless – a performance at Madison Square Garden, an Emmy for Outstanding Music and Lyrics, two follow-up sketches, and a stardom for Samberg that continues today. "[Lorne Michaels] says the thing you're known for will be in quotes in the middle of your name," he told Esquire He's Lorne 'SNL' Michaels, and I'm Andy 'Dick in a Box' Samberg. If that's how it goes down, that will be A-okay."

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2. Buh-Weet Sings

Original Airdate: October 10th, 1981

"I remember typing the first Buckwheat sketch and almost falling off my chair because it was so funny," recalled SNL production assistant Robin Shlien in the Live From New York oral history. Debuting in late 1981, "Buh-Weet Sings" was based on Eddie Murphy's memories of the Our Gang comedies. It eventually blossomed into this hilarious infomercial for an imagined album of pop standards ("untz, tice, fee times a nady"). Murphy's Buckwheat became so popular and long-running that the staff eventually got tired of the character and decided to dramatically knock Buckwheat off in the equally brilliant "Assassination of Buckwheat."

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1. Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker

Original Airdate: May 8th, 1993

"It paints a picture; the phrase has a lot more meaning to it than just a catchphrase that stands alone," sketch writer Bob Odenkirk told the Chicago Reader about Matt Foley, the motivational speaker who's "35 years old, thrice divorced, and living in a van down by the river." "[T]here is a lot more to it when Chris did it, and he made that character whole. It's not a gimmick. You felt like there was a real person in that character."

Beyond Odenkirk's vivid storyline and Farley's honest portrayal, Foley was the single best use of the manic energy stored inside SNL's greatest physical comedian since John Belushi; a bundle of twitches, tics, throat-busting yells, and extreme pratfalls that made Chevy Chase look like Baryshnikov. Foley was invented by the pair in their days at Chicago's Second City, but quickly became a national legend since the folks on stage were laughing almost as hard as the audience. "Lorne didn't like us cracking up on air," said Norm MacDonald in The Chris Farley Show. "But it was always Chris's goal when it was live on air to make you laugh, to take you out of character, and he always succeeded. You could never not laugh."

The main victim in this sketch was David Spade: "In rehearsal, he's done the thing with his glasses… But he'd never done the twisting his belt and hitching up the pants thing," said Spade. "He saved that for the live performance, and so none of us had ever seen it. He knew that would break me."

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