We asked 25 cast members, hosts and writers about the most memorable SNL sketch they wrote, starred in or just saw on TV. Their answers were full of great stories and surprising picks.
Kevin Nealon, cast member, 1986-1995: I was one of the judges in the Chippendales sketch. it was me and Jan Hooks and Mike Myers, and then there was Patrick Swayze competing with Chris Farley to fill in the slot as a Chippendales dancer. It was one of the most difficult sketches I ever had to be in without laughing. To keep from breaking, I stared at Farley’s stretch marks. I was rearranging the marks into words in my mind to kind of distract me.
Farley was so committed to the sketch, and he had such tenacity when it came to performing. It might have been a little embarrassing to him. Later, I heard that he had questioned whether or not to do it, because it was making fun of his body. But he was a team player, and he totally dived into it and was just amazing. I remember thinking that if Farley would really do it, and if it all really came together, the sketch could really be something. And it was.
Jan Hooks was one of the greatest sketch performers ever. We dated for a couple of years – a year before Saturday Night Live and then a year while we were on Saturday Night Live. The Chippendales sketch happened after we broke up. That’s how she kept from laughing: She kept looking at me.
Will Ferrell, cast member, 1995-2002: I could probably pick 50 sketches from the history of the show, but I’ll just use the cowbell. Not as a pat on the back, but as an example of a sketch with a complicated journey. Every time I heard “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” by Blue Öyster Cult, I would hear the faint cowbell in the background and wonder, “What is that guy’s life like?” When I first presented the sketch at the table read, Norm Macdonald was the host. It played pretty well, but then Lorne was asking questions like, “Oh, is that a famous part of that song? The cowbell?” [Laughs] We were all saying, “No – that’s why it’s funny.” It kinda died in committee. In Lorne’s defense, I don’t know if it was its best version then.
So I held on to it for, I think, three months, until Christopher Walken was the host, and rewrote it for him. His odd rhythms fit so perfectly. He gave it that special sauce. At dress [rehearsal] the sketch was kind of put at the back of the show. I thought it probably wouldn’t make it. And then, lo and behold, the audience just keyed into how bizarre it was.
It’s symbolic of the ideas I would come up with. I was terrible in our pitch meetings on Monday, because how do you articulate what’s behind that sketch in a condensed pitch? I would literally say things like, “I have a sketch that takes place in a recording studio.” And everyone would laugh at how vague it was. I’m like, “No, I’m not trying to be funny. I really have something that I can’t explain. I just have to write it and then hopefully you’ll get it.” Sometimes you just have to write the sketch and get it up on its feet, and then people have the lightbulb moment. It’s a gift that Lorne was always willing to try out-of-the-box ideas.
To the less-observant eye, the sketch was an excuse to let my belly hang out and wear tight Seventies clothing. But it really was about the exuberance of a guy who was given the green light to really express his art. Even though it’s funny, it was rooted in something real. There was someone working in the art department at SNL who was, I think, the daughter of someone who’d worked on that Blue Öyster Cult album. Apparently, her dad was talking to the band, and they had seen the sketch. One of them said, “How did Will know?” Because the guy who played the cowbell was a little bit like that. This guy really wanted to be heard.
It’s referenced all the time now. I hope that Christopher Walken doesn’t hate me too much, because, despite his amazing body of work, he is now routinely accosted with “more cowbell!”
Jon Lovitz, cast member, 1985-1990: Phil Hartman and I did “One More Mission.” It was in the style of movies from the Forties where they talk really fast. I was playing the head of a studio at the end of World War II. Phil was Johnny O’Connor, who played a flying ace in the movies, a war hero. Johnny got too into the role. He really thinks he’s a war hero. I have to tell him the war’s over.
Phil’s like my brother. I loved working with him. We rehearsed it a lot, so the scene really works. There’s a difference between a premise and a sketch. A sketch has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s a mini-movie. There’s a climax and a resolution. Sometimes it takes hours or days to figure it out.
The third “Master Thespian” that I did with
John Lithgow has a perfect structure. He’s in bed. I come over and go, “I
have two tickets for you to see me in Hamlet tonight,” and he goes, “I can’t go, I’m too
sick.” By the end of the scene, I end up in bed, sick, and I go, “Let’s
practice the death scene,” and then – it’s a very silly sketch – I go, “Oh,
I’ve gone too far, I’m actually dying. I can’t go on. Who will I ever get to
replace me?” He rips off his nightgown and he’s dressed as Hamlet. I go, “I’ve
got to see it!” and he goes, “I have two tickets!” and I go, “Oh,
good!” That’s a great sketch.
Kenan Thompson, cast member, 2003-present: I was always a huge fan of “Toonces the Cat.” We all know it’s about a driving cat, but I love the fact that it has such a casual conversation with the other people in the car, usually Phil Hartman or Victoria Jackson in a shitty late-Eighties Oldsmobile. They’re always coming from dinner or something and the cat’s driving. Then the cat gets upset and drives off a cliff.
It’s the shittiest cat puppet ever. It looks so weird. It would always make the same face when it was about to drive off the cliff. I’m a huge fan of repetition, and it was always the same footage of the same car going over the cliff. That shit killed me. They never explained why the cat was driving. It’s just good escapism. That’s what TV is for, in my opinion.
Darrell Hammond, cast member, 1995-2009: There was a sketch in which Molly Shannon reprised her 50-year-old dancer character [Sally O’Malley], and I played Tony Soprano. The premise was the Sopranos were at Bada Bing, Tony’s strip club. And Molly Shannon’s dancer character came on to audition to be a stripper. Molly did what she does as well as just about anyone, which is take the whole room by storm. She didn’t wear underwear and she made her pants real right. Her character realizes that Tony Soprano is the boss, so she does her own version of a lap dance in a pantsuit. Pretty darn funny.
Three minutes earlier, I had been doing Dan Rather and a scaffold fell on me. I had chalk in my mouth and powder in my mouth and mascara in my eye. The cue cards changed for the sketch at the last minute, which they almost always do. With all those things up against me, I ended up doing more of a Stanley Kowalski than a Tony Soprano. If you see the sketch at read-through, it’s just a skeleton with potential. Then you see a virtuoso performer like Molly just gradually add layer and layer and layer and keep layering things into small bits. Dana Carvey used to tell me, “Don’t give it all at dress [rehearsal]. Save some for air.” I never really understood what he meant until I was out there with Molly and she added about 10 percent for air.
[This sketch] had 100 percent of the room laughing the whole time. And as someone who was always sort of addicted to that sort of energy, having that very famous room laughing 100 percent for the whole sketch is really unforgettable. The only other sketch where I think I saw that happen was “More Cowbell,” but, ya know, Molly did things on air that were so bold and so audacious and so genius. It took my breath away and I cracked up during that sketch. I admit it.
Tracy Morgan, cast member, 1996-2003: I don’t have no favorite sketches. I enjoy everything I did there. Why would I have a favorite? Would you ask anybody who’s a parent do they have a favorite child? I love all my kids. I love all of them.
I love “Woodrow.” I love “[Uncle Jemima’s] Pure Mash Liquor.” Astronaut Jones, all of them. I wrote them. I’m smart enough to write them by myself. I love collaborating with other writers, though, whenever I got a chance to collaborate. Molly Shannon, Andrew Steele, a lot of people. Colin Quinn. It was all energy being passed. That’s all acting is: energy.
What’s closest to me is Woodrow. We loved him because he lived in a sewer. He was such a tragic figure. He was inspired by my man Ghostface Killah, from Wu-Tang. He did a sketch on one of his albums called “Woodrow the Base Head.” And it was that.
Laraine Newman, cast member,
1975-1980: This was always an impossible question for me until I got a chance to watch the DVD collection of the first five years. There’s a sketch written by Michael O’Donoghue that I knew as “Plato’s Cave.”
The setting is a beatnik coffee shop from the Fifties. Jane Curtin and Michael are on a date, and Michael is kind of Jane’s tour guide, explaining the culture. This sketch was like a finely cut diamond. It’s tight. Not a wasted word or trope. From Danny’s Lord Buckley-style MC, Chevy’s Spanish guitar player Juan Kutner, Garrett’s blind Negro Jackson, Steve Martin’s Beat poet Rodney, Belushi as a Lenny Bruce-style comedian who only gets laughs from the band – that’s priceless – to me as a modern dancer/poet Isadora Schwartz and Gilda’s sweet, victim-y waitress. It’s so deeply funny. And how lucky we were to have Michael’s National Lampoon poison pen.
Christopher Walken, host, 1990-2008: “The Continental” was based on a real show that was on in the Fifties, when everything was live. It was on late at night, and it only ran about 15 minutes. It was basically the same thing as I did on Saturday Night Live. I think it was hosted by an Italian actor, Renzo something [Renzo Cesana], and he was a handsome guy with an accent. He had on a smoking jacket with an ascot. You’d never see the lady; you’d just see her arm. She had a long glove on, and they would sit down and you never heard her speak. She would come in and they would smoke a cigarette and he would give her champagne and he would talk about himself, basically. It was all very wholesome and romantic.
Anyway, when I did Saturday Night Live, I mentioned that
show. And they went to the TV archives. There’s this library of old kinescope;
there was no videotape in those days. And they found some episodes and watched
them. The cameraman who played the woman, he would hold a camera and he had
this glove on one arm. I think he probably got an Emmy for doing that. I
enjoyed it because it wasn’t meant to be funny, but I thought it was. It was
just something I watched as a kid. I was probably staying up too late.
Andy Samberg, cast member, 2005-2012: There was a run of Will Ferrell sketches when I was just finishing college, or right out of college, where my brain exploded open. A lot of people who get into comedy have those seminal moments where you’re like, “Whoa, you’re allowed to do this? Adults can do this?” The Robert Goulet Coconut Bangers Ball compilation CD commercial was like that for me.
The premise was Goulet was doing an infomercial for a new CD he’s releasing, which is all rap covers. It’s called Coconut Bangers Ball, just the fucking wackest name ever. The sketch combined the overt whiteness of Robert Goulet with all this Nineties rap. That was right in my wheelhouse. It referenced “Thong Song” and “Big Poppa” and all this shit in super-super-hokey Goulet style, which was basically me and all my friends’ joke all through high school. It was exciting to see the stuff we were into acknowledged on TV.
At that point, Ferrell was just on fire. My friends and I were tuning in every week to see what Ferrell and Adam McKay were cooking up. What insane thing were they gonna try and get away with?
SNL has this tradition where you just sort of say the name of a famous person, but then your impression turns into this entire other character that’s just a lunatic. I did it when I started doing Nicholas Cage on “Update.” We knew nothing of Robert Goulet. I mean, I knew who he was, but it wasn’t like the world was chomping at the bit for a Goulet impression. It was the kinda thing we loved doing when we were at the show, too. Seth Meyers would give us playful shit about how we’d always pull references from 15 years ago that had nothing to do with a current event. He’d be like, “[Fake laugh] That’s not topical at all. No one’s talking about it.”
Ferrell’s the greatest. I was there one of the times he hosted. He’s the most delightful guy and so laid-back and quiet, and then he’ll be in the room when you’re writing and he’ll pitch something that you can’t believe he just thought of it ’cause it’s so good. And then you find yourself in one of those sketches or watching one of those sketches, and it transcends the nuts and bolts of the show. You’re into a different territory, which is just joy.
Michael Schur, writer, 1997-2004: “Happy Fun Ball” was a commercial parody that Jack Handey wrote. It’s very simple and so perfectly executed. It’s just a commercial for a small red rubber ball. In the beginning, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey and Jan Hooks say, “It’s happy, it’s fun, it’s happy fun ball,” and that’s it. That’s the ad, and it’s really cheesy, but then there’s a series of warnings about Happy Fun Ball – “Don’t use Happy Fun Ball on concrete; Happy Fun Ball will often accelerate unexpectedly to very high speeds. If Happy Fun Ball begins to smoke, get away immediately. Seek shelter and cover head.” And so on.
What’s amazing is that it completely presaged the era that we’re in now, where prescription-drug ads will start with something like, “Do you have arthritis? Take this pill!” Then it’s followed by 65 seconds that tell you the 10,000 things that might go wrong with you if you take the pill.
“Happy Fun Ball” just gets more and more absurd, as the best SNL sketches always do. It has everything that really good SNL writing has: It’s short, it’s succinct and it has really low production values. (Sometimes SNL sketches, especially commercial parodies, can almost be harmed if they look too good.) It probably cost $40 to make.
There were so many times when I would have an idea and I would think, “Oh, this is great, I’m totally gonna score with this.” And then I’d realize I was just ripping off “Happy Fun Ball.”
Billy Crystal, cast member, 1984-1985: Christopher Guest, Martin Short and I were only on the show a year, but everyone thinks that we were there for four or five because there were so many good pieces. So I narrowed it down to a couple of favorites: There was a Fernando piece that was all improvised. The intro was written and then whatever happened happened, and then it was different from the dress and the air. The host had no idea what I was going to do, and sometimes I didn’t.
One night, we had Barry Manilow scheduled to be in the hideaway with Fernando. So at a quarter to 11 that night, Barry decided he didn’t want to do it. Now we were stuck for a guest. On the crew was a guy named Bobby. He drove a camera crane around, and he weighed about 350 pounds, but he had the sweetest personality and he was funny. So I asked him, “Would you be in the hideaway with me and you’ll play Barry Manilow?” So I brought Bobby into the booth and we improv, and it’s really funny. He was really charming. What was so much fun about it was that it was dangerous, it was live, and the audience could feel it. There were no cue cards up in front of us, so they all knew that we were just flying.
Another favorite was a film that I did with Chris Guest, where we played 75-year-old former Negro League baseball players, who now live together, and it’s a documentary on them that Chris directed. Again, we improvised. It was a time when you could play African-American characters without people getting all upset about it. Different time. And we so loved these characters and were so true to them. That was such a fun year, and those two sketches really stand out to me because they were so in the spirit of the danger of the show, the live-ness of the show, and I got to work with such great people. There’s some really beautiful work there.
Molly Shannon, cast member, 1995-2001: I did “Mary Katherine Gallagher – West Side Story” with [writer] Steve Koren. Mary Katherine really wants to be Maria, but Teri Hatcher, who was hosting, gets the part. Will Ferrell and Teri Hatcher are Tony and Maria. I’m in the background, and I really wish that I could be her so I could kiss Will. I did a monologue, and I end up pushing Teri and kissing Will and it was just beautiful. I think Lorne really liked it.
It’s the combination of all these things: comedy with love, with drama, with a gun, a dramatic monologue from West Side Story. They hardly ever replay it because I think the music to West Side Story is so expensive.
I love performing with Will Ferrell. We made a little agreement where if we were failing, we would commit harder. If a sketch was tanking, and you weren’t getting any laughs and it was just crickets, we always said, “We’re gonna commit even harder and pour our hearts into it even more.” It was an exercise in being supercreative. Embrace the failure!
We did a sketch where we were two people who had just recently lost 100 pounds. We went out and we did it center stage, which usually was a good position to be in, because you can play to the audience as opposed to being stuck with a set built in the corner of the studio. But this time, there was not a single laugh. We’re looking at one another’s eyes like, “Holy shit. This is so funny. This is such a bad sketch.”
We just kept going for it and gave the best
performances of our lives in that sketch. When we came off, we were dying
laughing. We failed beautifully. Comedy is hard. The stuff that fails is
important, because you learn so much from it. Even if something doesn’t work,
there’s something beautiful about putting yourself out there.
Conan O’Brien, writer, 1988-1991: I was getting lunch in Midtown with [fellow SNL writers] Robert Smigel and Bob Odenkirk and Greg Daniels one day. I would do this thing where an attractive woman was walking by and I would pretend I was flirting with them. I’d go, “Hellooo there.” She would walk right by, and I’d say, “And goodbye.” My attitude about being blown off was just as cheerful and smarmy as if I had scored. Then I started saying, “She thought my face was too wide and my jeans were too cheap.”
That was one of the ways that I wrote. I would just do silly things, and every now and then people around me would say, “That’s funny.” I still do things like that; I could be at a restaurant and do a strange or comedic thing just for the sake of doing it.
Anyway, we went back to SNL and wrote it up. We called it “Girl Watchers.” Tom Hanks was the host that week. And so Hanks and Jon Lovitz are on a street corner, and a woman would walk by and Hanks would be like, “Helloooo.” And she would walk by and he’d be like, “And goodbye.”
Then he would say, “She thought my eyes were too close together and my teeth were yellow.” And then another girl would walk by and Lovitz would go, “Good evening.” And then she would keep walking and he’d go, “And good night.” And then he would say, “My hair is thinning and I’m heavy in the middle.” And they both just acted like the happiest guys in the world. I remember Al Franken walking up to me afterward and saying, “How did you think of that?” He really liked it, but he was just kind of saying, “I don’t see where that idea came from.”
Writing a good sketch for Tom Hanks was like the ultimate ringing the bell at a carnival. I was always really proud of that one. There were sketches that I’d toiled over, but this had meaning to me because it didn’t come from “Oh, it’s three in the morning and I really need an idea.” It came out of just being silly at lunch. It came from joy.
Adam McKay, writer, 1995-2001: My favorite writer of all time is Jack Handey, and “Deep Thoughts” might be my all-time favorite thing I’ve ever seen on SNL. It was a type of humor I’d never been exposed to. Sort of a brilliant, poetic, absurd humor that still makes you laugh out loud, with a disturbing center to it.
Obviously, there is a history to that type of humor – you could go back to National Lampoon, or Army Man, the comedy magazine that Handey used to write for. It’s using style parody, or using the familiar to take an audience into strange comedic waters. Certainly, The Simpsons had some great moments, and Letterman too; early on, Steve Martin and Monty Python.
But I’ve never seen such a sharp point to it like “Deep Thoughts.” Every time one would come on, I would get excited. I bought all the Deep Thoughts books, and I’ve shared them with my daughters, who’ve laughed at them. The fact that someone wrote this and a show as esteemed as Saturday Night Live actually produced it and put it on television – network television – gave me the sense as a teenager that anything could happen.
The definitive one is “Consider the daffodil. And while you’re doing that, I’ll be over here, going through your stuff.” That’s a pretty famous one, but I don’t know if that’s my favorite. There’s one about a solid-gold baby: “What is it that makes a complete stranger dive into an icy river to save a solid-gold baby? Maybe we’ll never know.” Seeing that one was like the first time I heard Run-DMC or the B-52’s or Fugazi. It’s that feeling of “Oh, this is something new.”
And it’s his real voice – that’s actually Jack Handey reading the deep thoughts. He wrote sketches, too, that have that same feeling of anything could happen, like “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.” I would always tell Lorne that you can create fans – deep, passionate fans – when you create those new kinds of sounds and new types of takes and humor. And Lorne knows that.
I feel like Hartman was Tom Handey, or Jack Handey’s muse, in a way, because he had that perfect deadpan, solid, square-jawed American presentation. Will Ferrell had a bit of that too. And Ferrell also loved that kind of comedy. I think of some of the best sketches we got to do, like “Shirtless Bible Salesman,” which was written by Matt Piedmont; “Old Glory Insurance,” which I wrote; “The Census Taker,” with Chris Walken, which Tina Fey wrote, or another sketch about a morning show with David Alan Grier, where the prompter breaks down and they end up in a state of anarchy – that one’s probably my favorite sketch I got to do on SNL. Those sketches all are cousins of Jack Handey. Maybe more than cousins – grandchildren of Jack Handey.
Michael Che, writer, 2013-present/”Weekend Update” co-anchor, 2014-present: In “Solomon and Pudge,” Joe Piscopo plays a piano player at this divey piano bar, and Eddie Murphy plays this old man that’s always at the bar with this giant mustache. His life is terrible; he’s got real bad luck; his wife leaves him. But he keeps telling jokes from a real place.
In this episode, he’s talking about how he’s on welfare now and people are asking him how is he doing, and he goes, “Well, fair.” And it’s just silly jokes like that. So it kills for the first two minutes and then it goes into this real sweet part where Piscopo makes him take some money, but Eddie won’t take it because he’s too proud. So he gives it back when Piscopo’s not looking.
I think that’s something that is missing from a lot of comedy these days: the sweet relatableness. There’s no point that’s political. There’s no political agenda, no social agenda. It’s just a slice of life.
I once spoke to Piscopo about it and he laughed that I would even know that sketch, because when you think of Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo and Saturday Night Live, you think of Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra. There’s a thousand things that they’ve done that are more famous, that everybody can quote. This one’s a deep cut.
Chris Parnell, cast member, 1998-2006: My favorite sketches are the ones I remember from being a kid. One is the “Consumer Probe” show, where Dan Aykroyd plays Irwin Mainway, the guy who sells children toys that are really dangerous and inappropriate. So this one was for Halloween costumes, and he had a Johnny Space Commander mask that was basically just a plastic bag and a rubber band that kids were supposed to put around their heads and pretend they were spaceship commanders. There was another costume called Invisible Pedestrian, which was basically a solid-black outfit with a black head covering. And then there was Johnny Human Torch, which was just some oily rags, safety pins and a lighter.
Jane Curtin was so great in those sketches too. Aykroyd was such an awful man selling such awful products so confidently. It’s just wrong on so many levels, and I don’t know that they could do a sketch like that now. Aykroyd really disappears into the characters. In the hands of a lesser actor it would just not have had that life.
Aykroyd and Bill Murray were definitely influences in my youth. A cool thing happened to me after I left the show. I was at a bank, using an ATM, and out of the bank walks this guy in sunglasses and a ball cap going, “Chris Parnell.” It took me a second to realize it was Dan Aykroyd. He was coming out to visit and chat. He’d hosted while I was there and we’d encountered each other quite a few times, but it was then that felt like, “Oh, wow, I guess I’m really part of this world, this big family of cast members present and former.” Another time I got to have a great conversation with Bill Murray at a bar in New York, just a low-key, nice, sincere conversation. It’s pretty awesome to get to have these kinds of moments with people you grew up idolizing. I feel so lucky I got to do such a good stretch and got to be there with Will Ferrell and Molly and Cheri and Tracy and Darrell. I still watch the show. I don’t watch it live because I’ve got a kid. But when it’s good, it’s good.