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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

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31. Coneheads: Family Feud

Original Airdate: January 21st, 1977

Bill Murray's portrayal of the romantically inclined Family Feud host Richard Dawson reached its peak in this obtuse take on the coneheaded clan of Beldar, Prymat, and Connie Clorhone. Dawson had a penchant for smooching female contestants as he went about his introductions – hey, it was the Seventies – and Connie being young (and from France) provided a neat excuse for Dawson to go all deep-throat French kissyface in one of the least erotic smooches to ever be committed to television history.

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30. Mom Jeans

Original Airdate: May 11th, 2003

Written by Tina Fey, this commercial parody was inspired by a pair of high-waisted jeans she accidentally purchased after a fire in her apartment wiped out her wardrobe. "And I was going around the office complaining about them all night, joking about it, and Maya Rudolph and I started singing a little Mom Jeans song," she told Vogue. By 2004, SNL's long-held reputation as a "boys' club" was changing. Fey was in her third season as head writer, and the women in the cast – Fey, Rudolph, Amy Poehler, and Rachel Dratch – were increasingly front-and-center. This opened up all kinds of comic possibilities, most notably the skit that popularized the phrase "mom jeans," assuring low-rise denim for the remainder of the decade.

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29. The French Chef

Original Airdate: December 9th, 1978

Public television staple (and spy!) Julia Child got sent up by Dan Aykroyd in which a mishap with a knife turns a simple chicken recipe into a Carrie-style bloodbath. At a celebration for Child in 2012, her former collaborator (and celebrity chef in his own right) Jacques Pepin revealed that the iconic sketch was based on an actual incident. The two were prepping for a TV appearance when Child sliced her finger, and Pepin tried to stop the bleeding with a kitchen towel – and failed. There was even a close-up of the wound! Child allegedly loved the tribute.

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28. Cluckin Chicken

Original Airdate: February 13th, 1992

Penned by Robert "Triumph the Insult Comic Dog" Smigel, this short bit is the guerilla comedy version of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, providing a stark, darkly comedic view of meat production and consumption in America. This bit predates, by two years, the Simpsons episode "Lisa the Vegetarian" which also starred Phil Hartman ("Meat and You: Partners in Freedom") and this evening's musical guest, Paul McCartney! Between the two shows, it all might have turned more Gen-Xers into vegetarians than any nude celebrity PETA stunt.

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27. Ask President Carter

Original Airdate: March 12th, 1977

"When I was in college, I would tape Dan Aykroyd off the television, tape his Jimmy Carter, shamelessly practice it, and then go to the clubs and just steal it, do his Jimmy Carter," said Dana Carvey in the book Live From New York. "Then eight, nine years later, Danny's in the office going, 'I really like your George Bush.' It was kind of surreal." In this classic sketch, SNL answers the question: How hip could the President be in the pre-Clinton era? Well, president Carter, in the hands of Aykroyd, was able to identify a brand of acid as "orange sunshine" from a phone call, and even helped a young constituent on a bad trip. ("Do you have any Allman Brothers?")

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26. The Guy Who Plays Mr. Belvedere Fan Club

Original Airdate: May 9th, 1992

Tom Hanks sells this twisted sketch about obsessive Christopher Hewitt fans so well that it's difficult to imagine if this would have made it to air at all, if he hadn't come in as a last minute replacement for original host Joe Pesci. "When you're there for a while, you begin to recognize the patina of a sketch that has yet to be on air because no one has fully committed to it," Hanks said in the Live From New York book. The Guy Who Plays Mr. Belvedere Fan Club" could be of historical importance as well, as the dawn of '80s kitsch – the decade, and Mr. Belvedere itself, had ended less than three years before, but already the mere name of the show felt like a curio of a bygone era.

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25. Tom Brokaw Pre-Tapes

Original Airdate: October 25th, 1996

This sketch was originally filmed for the Dana Carvey Show, the ill-fated, quickly cancelled ABC show whose cast and writers' room – Louis C.K., Robert Smigel, Stephen Colbert, Charlie Kauffman, Steve Carell, Jon Glaser, etc. – would basically foretell the next 18 years of comedy. The show was, infamously, not ready for prime time, and was canned before this classic sketch could air. So Carvey performed it on SNL, where it promptly became a classic, the first of many "told you so's" that the Carvey staff would boast over the next two decades.

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24. Centaur Job Interview

Original Airdate: May 19th, 2001

The last episode for writer Adam McKay (who would go on to write Anchorman) and the last to feature Chris Parnell (who would get rehired shortly after). This sketch begins as a silly, surreal platform for Christopher Walken’s typically loopy job interviewer. But what slowly begins to emerge is actually a crushingly dark racial allegory, as Walken grills his minority applicant about the most scandalous aspects of his life, like Centaur porn and ass-wiping techniques, ignoring his medical credentials entirely.

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23. Celebrity Jeopardy!: Sean Connery, Minnie Driver and Jeff Goldblum

Original Airdate: May 9th, 1998

A fairly straightforward parody of the over-simplified questions on Jeopardy!'s actual celebrity episodes, this recurring sketch hit its stride in its fourth installment, which escalated the hostile relationship between Will Ferrell's Alex Trebek and Darrell Hammond's Sean Connery. (It also contains Hammond's classic mispronunciation of the category "Therapists"). Despite the many jokes about his mustache and his mother, the real Trebek admired the sketch. "Every taping, somebody in the audience says 'How do you feel about the Will Ferrell impression of you on SNL?' And I say the same thing every time: I love it," Trebek told the Hollywood Reporter. As for Hammond's jeering Connery impression, it soon took on a life of its own. "I go around the country and people will yell out Sean Connery lines," Hammond said in a 2007 interview. "It's the most popular thing I ever did."

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22. Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood: X-Mas

Original Airdate: December 15th, 1984

In some ways, Mr. Robinson was a crude stereotype (a black version of Mr. Rogers who – surprise – lives in the ghetto and leads a life of crime) and in other ways, it was savvy, razor-sharp social satire (jokes about white flight, Reaganomics, racist cabbies abounded). But the real draw was the absolute glee with which Eddie Murphy threw himself into the role, – even more than he did with every role. In the Christmas installment, Mr. Robinson explains his hustle to the children while wearing a Santa suit and a shit-eating grin: "With this little operation, I figure I'll be taking on about $300, 400 a day. Oh, why oh why, must Christmas come but once a year?" Rising SNL star (and occasional Eddie Murphy impersonator) Jay Pharoah always mentions how the Mr. Robinson sketches were a formative influence.

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21. Happy Fun Ball

Original Airdate: February 16th, 1991

The comedy in the Jack Handey-penned commercial spoof isn't merely the contrast between the ostensibly innocent toy and the apparent risks involved in playing with it. It's that the entirety of the 90-second ad consists of Phil Hartman's increasingly ominous voiceover, where legal disclaimers begin with the relatively innocuous ("Do not use Happy Fun Ball on concrete") and gradually ramp up to outright science fiction ("Ingredients of Happy Fun Ball include and unknown glowing substance which fell to Earth, presumably from outer space"). In turn, it's become sort of a geek-culture favorite, referenced in video games like Unreal Tournament 2004, World of Warcraft ("happy fun rock") and N+.

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20. NPR’s Delicious Dish: Schweddy Balls

Original Airdate: December 12th, 1998

Ana Gasteyer, who wrote and starred in this legendarily naughty sketch, went on the actual NPR in 2012 to dish on the origins of this public radio send-up: "It was sort of a combination between [NPR's] "The Splendid Table" and a show that was aptly named, a show called "Good Food," on KCRW… You don't need to go to a commercial," she said about the secret to public radio's studiously understated intonation. "You don't need to leave, you just need to take your time and explore a subject to the point that people want to weep with boredom." Alec Baldwin, of course, was Pete Schweddy, a man who was producing a holiday treat – balls, branded with his name and sold in sacks. Those who didn't get the joke on first utterance would get multiple chances. So iconic was this simple bit of wordplay that Ben & Jerry's produced an ice cream in honor of the skit in 2011. "My parents tried it, which I thought was the funniest thing in the world," Gasteyer said. "My mom called. She said, 'Dad laid in a supply of Schweddy Balls.' OK, and then she goes, 'Zowee, is it rich.'"

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19. Theodoric of Yorick, Medieval Barber

Original Airdate: April 22, 1978

Steve Martin is one of SNL's all-time greatest hosts not merely for the record-holding frequency with which he's appeared (second only to Alec Baldwin), but for how he was the rare host that brought his own comedic sensibility to bear on the show's format. Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber was typical SNL in its period satire and silly costumes, but there was something very Martin about the shrewdly embedded commentary on the smug superiority every era feels about the previous era's scientific practices and customs. "Just 50 years ago, we would've thought that your daughter's illness was brought on by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach."

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18. The Judy Miller Show

Original Airdate: October 29th, 1977

No matter how filthy the joke, there was always a sweet, childlike quality in Gilda Radner's comedy. Her Judy Miller character, a Girl Scout Brownie imagining her own TV show, captured the essence in a manic burst of energy. Legend has it that the first time she rehearsed the sketch (co-written by Judy's namesake, Marilyn Miller), Radner threw herself into it with such abandon that she injured a rib running into Judy's closet door. She had the rib taped up and insisted on keeping the sketch in the show – closet door run-ins and all.

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17. Debbie Downer: Happiest Place on Earth?

Original Airdate: May 1st, 2004

In her autobiography, Rachel Dratch explained that her Debbie Downer character was inspired by a trip abroad: When she informed a stranger that she was from New York City, they replied, "So were you there for 9-11?" She and co-writer Paula Pell introduced the character in a Disney World sketch in 2004 – the first of seven appearances – and it was so funny that it induced some of the best character-breaking crack-ups in SNL history. Guest host Lindsay Lohan, who was 16, remembered laughing so many times in rehearsal that she was afraid of being fired. When the sketch went live, the line that broke everyone was, "It's official: I can't have children" – at which point, Horatio Sanz was literally wiping away tears with his Mickey Mouse waffle.

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16. Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton Address the Nation

Original Airdate: September 14th, 2008

"This sketch easily could have been a dumb catfight between two female candidates," Tina Fey wrote in her book Bossypants. Instead, "you all watched a sketch about feminism and you didn't even realize it because of all the jokes. Suckers!" In the sketch, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton (Amy Poehler) take a bipartisan stand against campaign sexism. At the time, Palin's vice-presidential candidacy was a satirist's dream, and no one fulfilled it better than Fey. Two years gone from the SNL cast, Fey returned play her Republican doppelgänger in this Seth Meyers-penned sketch – ultimately NBC.com's most popular video ever. Fey reprised the role four times leading up to the 2008 election, delivering SNL its highest ratings since 1994 – and its most political relevance ever.

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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.

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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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