50 Greatest ‘Saturday Night Live’ Sketches of All Time – Rolling Stone
Home TV TV Lists

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

NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

50. Supreme Court Spot Check

Original Airdate: April 17th, 1976

When NBC's beautifully named network censor Herminio Traviesas first heard about this sketch from Season One, he actually thought Chevy Chase and Jane Curtin would be having actual sex on camera. In reality, they merely rolled around while the Supreme Court stood by telling them what they could and couldn't do – "forcibly remove Dwyane's hand from underneath the blankets," Dan Aykroyd rules. It might be the show's greatest commentary on the nexus of sex and politics.

49. Willie and Frankie

Original Airdate: October 20th, 1984

In the pre-Fallon era, cast members breaking character and laughing were rare occasions. And to catch a pro like Billy Crystal losing it at the end of this sketch, to the point that he can barely utter his last line, or even walk in the right direction offstage, is almost shocking. But then, it was Christopher Guest's incredible poker face that broke him down. Even before the sketch takes the dark turn that becomes its hook, Guest makes the most of a throwaway line like "a stallion needs to run," staring ahead intensely, leaning into the audience's laughter, "and run free."

NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

48. Nixon’s Final Days

Original Airdate: May 8th, 1976

The first season of SNL featured this darkly hilarious depiction of Nixon's final days in the White House. Played by a perfectly glowering Dan Aykroyd, the Watergate-besieged president drunkenly talks to a picture of Abe Lincoln on the wall ("Abe, you were lucky. They shot you") and demands John Belushi's Henry Kissinger to join him in prayer ("Don't you want to pray, you Christ-killer?"). The sketch was written by future U.S. Senator Al Franken and the late Tom Davis and goes well beyond easy political satire into something far deeper: "Tom was very, very oriented towards human feelings and very sensitive," Aykroyd told Rolling Stone when Davis died in 2012. "So, when they wrote the Nixon piece, which was lifted right off the pages of history, it's a little sentimental, it's a little sad. When Nixon goes to his knees you almost feel sorry for him, because he's at the bottom."

Play video

47. Garth & Kat: Christmas

Original Airdate: December 19th, 2009

The scatterbrained singing duo Garth & Kat, played by Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig, brought real danger to live televison: If they always appeared to be inventing their holiday songs on the spot, it's because they were. "He definitely starts and I just try to follow," Wiig told Movieline. "We don't rehearse. The first time we do it that week is literally at the dress rehearsal." Armisen has referred to Garth as his favorite SNL character, and though Wiig has had several more popular characters, she has said that Kat was the "most fun" to perform. "So much of the show is writing, working, deadlines, trying to figure things out, punching up your sketch, knowing you're going to perform live," she said. "And that two and a half minutes of airtime is so freeing and fun."

Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

46. The Falconer: Time Travel

Original Airdate: May 20th, 2006

A quick case for Will Forte as the most underrated cast member in SNL history. He didn't get the fête that Kristin Wiig and Andy Samberg received on their exits and, along with Jason Sudekis, he pushed SNL's male WASP count too high. But Forte, more than any other recent cast member, could walk the line between funny and genuinely unsettling. His nondescript face was the perfect canvas for shut-ins and right-wing conspirators like his recurring character the Falconer. In the Falconer's time travel sketch, each cast member (and host Kevin Spacey) mimics Forte's character, but they're unable to match the barely-contained psychosis of the original. This kind of absurdist Forte was too often relegated night's final segment. In some way, his outsider characters have prepared him for his acclaimed role in the Oscar-nominated film Nebraska. We're sure to see more of him soon.


45. The Cobras

Original Airdate: November 16th, 1996

Norm MacDonald's presence on SNL included a constant scraping of the fourth wall – his Weekend Update sign-on was "I'm Norm MacDonald and now, the fake news," after all. Maybe the best showcase for his deadpan, tirelessly sardonic, matter-of-fact personality was the sketch where he played the hapless ringleader of a West Side Story-style street gang confused by all the impromptu singing. Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan – folks who put everything into a role – provided the necessary juxtaposition for MacDonald's voice of reason.

Jimmy Tango

44. Jimmy Tango’s FatBusters

Original Airdate: May 18th, 1996

Jim Carrey is probably the biggest comedy star launched into movies by a sketch show other than Saturday Night Live, and when he finally hosted in 1996, he was at the peak of his fame. Ten minutes before the end of the show – the infamous timeslot where the darkest sketches often wind up – Carrey unleashed the deranged Fire Marshall Bill side of his In Living Color days as Jimmy Tango, the host of a weight loss program predicated primarily on smoking crystal meth. The sketch comes horrifyingly alive when Carrey has a showdown with his future box-office competition, a blood-gushing Will Ferrell, still working out his oft-yelling persona in his first season.

Bill Murray and Paul Shaffer

Bill Murray as Nick the Lounge Singer, with Paul Shaffer on piano.

©NBC/Everett Collection

43. Nick at the Powder Room

Original Airdate: January 21st, 1978

Rumor has it that Nick the Lounge Singer (his last name changed with every sketch) was based on Chicago's Jimmy Damon, who was crooning at nightclubs during Murray's tenure at Second City. And 25 years after Nick's SNL debut, the character inspired director Sofia Coppola to give Murray a karaoke scene in Lost in Translation. But it's best known for the hilarious conceit of adding lyrics to the theme song that was stuck in everyone's head in 1978 during the first wave of Star Wars mania.

Star Wars

42. Star Wars Auditions

Original Airdate: January 11th, 1997

Long before his Oscar-winning roles in The Usual Suspects and American Beauty, Kevin Spacey was doing stand-up comedy in bowling alleys. He honed a few impressions in his youth, and when SNL invited him into their usual game of celebrity Mad Libs – Burt Reynolds as Darth Vader? The joke writes itself! – he turned it into a national platform for a special hidden talent. His Christopher Walken (as Han Solo) and his Walter Mathau (as Obi-Wan Kenobi with a golf club in his hand) were as good as anyone in the cast could have conjured.

Play video

41. Alec Baldwin’s Belated Season’s Greetings

Original Airdate: January 20th, 1996

Although he progressively loosened up more and more in later hosting gigs, Alec Baldwin became an SNL legend during his initial hosting run in the '90s by being able to play so perfectly off of his affable movie star persona. This video holiday card is a rare example of a host confident enough to carry a sketch all by himself, and it's hard to imagine anyone else pulling off the sketch's straight-faced references to a variety of fill-in-the-blank religious affiliations, always ending with "Voodoo."

Play video

40. Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet: Monkey and Box Turtle

Original Airdate: May 15th, 1999

Animal talk show host Brian Fellow was inspired by someone that Tracy Morgan's ex-wife knew in high school – Morgan built a character around her descriptions. "I said he was this weird gay dude who imagined stuff in his head and thought he knew everything. My man [SNL writer] Tim Herlihy picked right up on that shit," Morgan said in his autobiography, adding that Herlihy came up with the animal element. "A delusional gay guy interviewing animals? What the fuck is that, Tim?" Tracy Jordan's tenure on SNL, sorely underappreciated at the time, spawned a host of running characters who were hysterically strange but never quite took off, from Astronaut Jones to Dominican Lou. But few were stranger than Fellow, a dense young man who hosted a show about animals despite seeming to lack even the most basic understanding of the animals or their surroundings ("The rainforest, that sounds wet!"). Few SNL cast members have had a greater knack for delivering a sublimely stupid line, and Jordan gave it all with signoffs like "Join us next week, when our guests will be a dog, and a baby dog."

Play video

39. Jeffrey’s

Original Airdate: February 17th, 2001

"I worked so hard for so long to create an environment where people were nice, where people were treated nice, and where people realized how important it was to be nice," former Barney's New York shoe buyer Jeffrey Kalinsky told the Advocate And then there was a skit, and it needed a name, and somehow because we were new in town and doing something different and cool, it got associated with not acknowledging people. It was polar opposite to everything I'm about… All my friends, anybody that I knew, thought it was the most incredible, wonderful thing in the whole world and that I should be thrilled." In this recurring sketch, Will Ferrell and Jimmy Fallon (and whatever guest host was around) sent up the high-end store Jeffrey, a designer-stuffed house of haute owned by Kalinsky. When Will & Grace's Sean Hayes hosted in 2001, he joined Fallon on the floor in a sketch that peaked with Ferrell answering a cell phone approximately the size of a paperclip – and then peaked again when Fallon and Hayes succumbed to the giggles. Real life outpaced its farcical counterpart seven years later, when Christian Dior launched its very own miniphone – although the $5100 gadget one-upped the SNL writers' snob fantasia by adding a mirror.

NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

38. The Courtroom

Original Airdate: October 11th, 1975

Taboo subject matter (it's a joke about sexual assault, though they were able to demonstrate legitimate disgust), an unforgettable performance from Gilda Radner, and a big payoff. From the very first episode – airing between Billy Preston performing "Nothing From Nothing" and Andy Kaufman's brilliant Mighty Mouse pantomime – comes a structurally simple and socially complicated sketch that set the tone for the next 39 years.

Play video

37. Film Beat: Jeff Daniels

Original Airdate: January 14th, 1995

You know that thing where Paul Rudd always shows the same clip on Conan? Here's its ridiculous successor. After Letterman, Get a Life, and Cabin Boy, cult bizarro-comedy star Chris Elliott found himself adrift on one the most maligned SNL seasons in history. With Jeff Daniels as a hapless victim, he keeps replaying the diarrhea scene from Dumb & Dumber – Elliott carrying the type of puerile, childish sketch that 30 Rock spoofs with "Fart Machine," but with the straight, unsettling, manchild delivery that is his trademark. Life imitated art in 2010 when CNN aired the same scene.

Play video

36. Adam Sandler: Cheap Halloween Costumes

Original Airdate: October 30th, 1993

"Adam doesn't have much interest in being cool or hipper than the room," Judd Apatow told SPIN about his occasional collaborator. "He's not fascinated by pop culture. He is purely hilarious in his own space. He's not about irony. He's not a smartass. He's not cynical. He just loves being funny." What other explanation could there be for gut-busting hilarity of Sandler's ballin'-on-a-budget Halloween costumes – literally, just some simple props ("I'm Crazy Pickle Mustache!"), some goofy faces ("I'm Shaky Lip Guy!"), and some funny voices ("I'm Crazy Teabag Mouth!" And I do believe I want some candy!") The third installment was his most finessed.

Play video

35. MetroCard

Original Airdate: February 16th, 1991

The legendary Phil Hartman cuts a unique figure in comedy, his stock in trade being characters that are ostensibly straight-laced on the surface, but utter jackasses just underneath – from Troy McClure on the Simpsons to Bill McNeal on Newsradio. So while the MetroCard commercial spoof gets big laughs simply by letting Hartman and host Roseanne Barr be a predictable contrast of rough and smooth, but the genius is in how their different accounts of the same phone call slowly reveal Hartman as an unreliable narrator.

Play video

34. The Nerds: Broken Fridge

Original Airdate: October 7th, 1978

"The censor said, 'Don't put that pencil in there,'" Dan Aykroyd says in Live From New York, recalling a sketch that racily revealed some male posterior on network TV years before David Caruso. "I was checking this fridge and I had put the pencil somewhere. 'Don't put the pencil there!' And of course I said I wouldn't, but then on the air, I did. And you know – massive laugh." In the bit, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner's noogie-loving "nerds" – electric characters that writer Anne Beatts says were inspired by Elvis Costello – couldn't keep their eyes on their homework because Aykroyd was showing off his pencil holder. ("The moon came out surprisingly early," exclaims Murray as Todd.) "Todd and Lisa ended up mirroring [Murray and Radner’s] relationship in a sick way," said Beatts in the book American Nerd. "Billy had this girlfriend who he ended up marrying… and when Gilda would laugh louder at all of his sketches when they were being read, you knew that they were together. But I think that mild sadism of Todd toward Lisa was a reflection of the dynamic of their relationship."

Play video

33. SportsCenter

Original Airdate: March 13th, 1999

Comedian Ray Romano seemed all too happy to leave behind the domestic concerns of Everybody Loves Raymond for an absurd turn as an ESPN anchor who can't stop blurting out failed attempts at banter. ("Hey! Try not to shoot that puck up my pooper!") There's no better way to have your cake and eat it too in comedy than to ridicule catchphrases in a way that itself spawns it's own catchphrase, and "Sweet Sassy Molassy" has entered the pantheon as a minor catchphrase in its own right. Boo-yah!

Play video

32. Sincere Guy Stu

Original Airdate: January 24th, 1987

One could almost feel the writers and the cast working extra hard to prop up a decent show around guest host Joe Montana, somebody whose acting experience, by 1987, likely didn't even include posing for a Wheaties box. They put together a sketch that made the absolute most of a guileless, slightly wooden performer, who, memorably, was brave enough to pull off a hysterical, nuclear bomb of a final punchline.

Play video

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.

Play video

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.