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My Favorite ‘Saturday Night Live’ Sketch

Will Ferrell, Al Franken, Kate McKinnon and more on the most memorable ‘SNL’ skits ever

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.

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“Deep Thoughts”

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.

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“Solomon and Pudge” (Laid Off)

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.

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“Talk Show: Unsafe Toys” (Consumer Probe – Halloween Version)

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.

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“Bobbi and Marty Culp” and “Riding My Donkey”

Ana Gasteyer, cast member, 1996-2002: Every “Bobbi and Marty” was fun. Paula Pell, who’s a genius, wrote them with me and Will Ferrell, and we would laugh so hard at their passive-aggressive marriage and hostility. People always focus on the medleys, and the medleys were fun, but the much more fun part was the character stuff. If it was a Bobbi and Marty week, it tended to be a great week for me.

I also remember a sketch during the Monica Lewinsky scandal called “Riding My Donkey” that Andrew Steele wrote. It was so astute in that way that SNL often is. It was a political talk show featuring all these talking-head pundits discussing the Lewinsky scandal, but they were sitting on donkeys. It just had this completely hyperludicrous point of view. And then the donkeys lost their shit. At dress rehearsal, they started lunging forward, but they were tethered, like a kid’s pony ride. It was the only time on the show that I consciously broke. I was a commentator from CNN, and the only handle I had on the impression was that she had a perennial smile. So I kept breaking and then trying to recover. When Will’s breaking, he can keep talking through it, but he just weeps – like, tears stream down his face while he’s talking. Anyway, that was the most unhinged euphoria I think I’ve ever felt performing.

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“Mary Katherine Gallagher – Rosie” and “Spirit” (Spartan Cheerleaders)

Kate McKinnon, cast member, 2012-present: I love the Mary Katherine Gallagher Christmas special. Rosie O’Donnell was the headmistress. Penny Marshall was the pianist, and Whitney Houston was beautiful Jennifer singing her beautiful “Little Drummer Boy” solo. Mary Katherine Gallagher was playing “The Little Drummer Boy,” and she was doing all these tiny movements that you wouldn’t necessarily notice. But they become this very realistic portrait of a girl trying to be a girl in the right way but failing miserably.

That’s my favorite setup for a sketch – when you have a recognizable scenario of women behaving as women should and then one girl is displaying abhorrent behavior, but isn’t necessarily ashamed of it. They’re just proudly displaying this weirdness. That’s why I love that character so much. There’s a long tradition of that, beginning with Gilda Radner. I think a lot of us girls on the show do that now. But it’s not just the women.

Another of my favorites of all time is the Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri cheerleaders sketch, which is a man and a woman trying to be cool and just selling the crap that they’ve got. It’s this combination of specificity and absolute general relatability and the willingness to talk about stuff that is just new enough that no one’s written about it yet. That’s what keeps SNL relevant. 

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“The Sinatra Group”

Seth Meyers, cast member, 2001-2014: A favorite of mine – just because it happened when I was at the age where I was sort of living and breathing SNL – is “The Sinatra Group.” It was a play off the McLaughlin Group sketches that they had done. My parents made us watch The McLaughlin Group on Sunday mornings. The fact that there was this sort of dry politics show that was then being parodied on SNL was a delight to me.

“Sinatra Group” was Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Mike Myers and Chris Rock. Sting was the host. I loved Hartman’s Sinatra. Victoria Jackson and Myers played Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. I had no sense of who they were, but you learned pretty quickly in the sketch what their status level was compared to Sinatra. Rock played Luther Campbell and Hooks played Sinéad O’Connor and Sting played Billy Idol. There are lines from that sketch that my family and I quote all the time.

There were issues of the day on The McLaughlin Group. Frank’s issue of the day was to ask something like, “Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner – who would you rather nail? I disqualify myself because I’ve done ’em both.” And he just kept getting so angry and aggressive. He also couldn’t understand anything Luther Campbell said, until Luther says that he likes big butts. Then Frank said, “I hear you loud and clear.” It was a crystallization of someone who was at one point the biggest thing in show business, but now attention was on younger generations. A lot of people sometimes think that SNL over-relies on things like game shows or talk shows, but what makes them so perfect for jokes is that you don’t have to worry about entrances and exits. Everybody is on camera at the right time. Because SNL is a TV show, when you parody TV shows it works very well. This was a perfect example.

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“Halftime” (Locker-Room Dance)

John Lutz, writer, 2003-2009: Sometimes my writing is inspired by a piece of music. One day I took Herb Alpert’s “Casino Royale” to Will Forte’s office because we’d been talking about writing something together. He had this idea about a coach that was going to motivate his team with some really bad music. When he heard this good-bad song, he said, “This is perfect.”

We told Will, “You have to be dancing to this because you can’t just stand there the whole time.” And Forte is the funniest dancer, especially to that piece of music. He was doing this thing with his hands that almost looked like a Geiger counter. I didn’t even know what it was, but it looked hilarious.

Peyton Manning was coming up as the host in a couple of weeks, and we thought it would be a perfect scene to write for him. I remember being in Forte’s office or dressing room and rehearsing the dance with the music over and over and over again. He got better every time. It was making the guys laugh even in dress rehearsal, but on air they couldn’t hold anything in ’cause he was really going for it. Bill Hader and Kenan Thompson all had to hold their towels in front of their faces.

The thing I love about writing with Forte is that he finds the simplest things funny. Like in this scene, the song was on a cassette. It was funny to him that it was a cassette and not a CD or an MP3. And whenever he shook the cassette, he loved the sound of that. So in the scene he does it much more often than he needs to. He mentions it, shakes it, and then shakes it again. No one’s going to laugh at that at all, but Will Forte thought that was the funniest thing ever.

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“Julia Child”

Al Franken writer-performer, 1975-1980; 1985-1995: I wrote a lot of the political sketches. I’m pretty proud of that body of work. This one was just dumb – but it was hilarious, because it involved spurting blood.

Walter Matthau was hosting the show, and Tom Davis and I wrote it for him. Around Thanksgiving, we were watching The Today Show or The Tomorrow Show or one of these shows. Julia Child did a kitchen segment, and she cut herself – kinda badly. And that was the idea for the sketch. You go, “Hmm. What if she bleeds to death?”

Walter Matthau didn’t want to do it. Danny [Aykroyd] wanted to do it and we did it in dress and it worked really well except that the blood spurting wasn’t working as well as we wanted it to. So we just said, “You know what? Let’s hold this a week and really get that down.” It’s so rare that we did that
because anything that worked, you put it on.

When it finally aired, Tom was underneath the counter and he was working this thing that sprays insecticide so that Danny could release the pressure and this blood-looking substance would spurt. We were stuck for an ending and Tom said, “What if there’s a prop phone on the set? And she goes like, ‘Call 911!’ ” And so I said, “OK, that’s brilliant.” Thank you, Tom, for being brilliant. She picks it up, dials 911, and then she realizes it’s a prop.

One of the things Danny was great at as an impressionist is really being three-dimensional. I’ve seen some people that are very good impressionists. They’ll get someone’s voice and even mannerisms but they won’t become the person. Danny would do that. He did Nixon, he became Nixon. If he did Tom Snyder, he became Tom Snyder. You loved the character. He gave that person emotions and three dimensions and a likability.

There was nothing more thrilling than to be on live TV. [Watching that sketch] was like watching the Olympic gymnasts go through their uneven parallel bars thing. You go, “She’s capable of getting the gold if she does her best. She needs a 9.9, and she’s done that before.” Then it’s like, “Holy crap, she’s hitting everything! Beautiful, beautiful. Great work. Good spurt. Oh, unbelievable timing between the spurt and the thing. Oh, oh – and he lands it! Wow! He got everything out of that you can possibly get out of it. Like, perfect.”

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Colin Jost, writer, 2005-present; “Weekend Update,” 2014-present: One sketch that always was in my mind was the one where Christopher Walken interviews Chris Parnell, who’s a doctor applying for a job and he’s also a centaur. The centaur is a highly qualified doctor. But all Walken wants to ask him are centaur questions: Who does he find attractive? Does he like full humans and full horses, or only a mix?

It’s really silly and very random, but it’s also very smartly written. It’s the smartest approach to the dumbest premise, and that’s why I always loved it. It’s just two people talking, but there are so many jokes and the performances are so great. You could only do something like that with Christopher Walken. The rhythm is so him. It’s a great use of a classic host. I love a very simple setup full of jokes. That makes me very happy.

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“Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer”

Fred Armisen, cast member, 2002-2013: “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” is a perfect sketch. It is perfect in its premise. Phil Hartman is a caveman who was unfrozen and became a lawyer, and it’s always what he uses for his defense argument. He’s like, “I don’t understand your world. Whenever I see a fax machine I think it’s full of little demons. But my client…” It’s SNL at its best. I saw it in my basement on Long Island. Like everybody else, I watched the show live. You don’t know the premise right away. You see the fake opening credits and you think, “What is this gonna be?” And then, as I heard him talk, I was like, “Oh, my gosh.”

Phil Hartman was just lovable; you immediately trusted and loved him. As a cast member, he wasn’t a person I copied. I definitely copied Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, but I could never be Phil Hartman. I can’t really deliver like he does. I selfishly also feel bad because I never got to work with him. I’ve gotten to meet and work with all of my heroes at SNL – Carvey, Laraine Newman – and I just think, “Aw, damn it, I bet I would’ve been able to meet him.” It’s very sad.

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“Word Association” (Racist Interview) and Tina Fey as Sarah Palin

Albert Brooks, guest filmmaker: My favorite skit is Richard Pryor’s word-association game with Chevy Chase. Nobody had seen that kind of thing before they did it. There was probably no whiter man working in those days than Chevy Chase, so it was a very good combination of people. It doesn’t happen very often, but when a comedy sketch takes on another dimension where you almost think someone’s gonna get punched – it’s just great. Chevy cracked a smile on some skits, but he held it together in that one.

But you can’t talk about the show without talking about Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin. It was the melding of a performer and an event; the timing was so perfect that it probably influenced an election. Look, Saturday Night Live has done impressions forever. But here was a person who was not established enough where just doing an impression [of her] was so meaningful that it formed the perception of who this person was. You forgot you weren’t watching Sarah Palin. That could only happen a few times.

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“Chippendales” and “Motivation” (Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker)

Vanessa Bayer, cast member, 2010-present: Right now, I’m looking at this thing I made in Ms. Reinhardt’s art class in high school. It’s a montage of Chris Farley in different SNL scenes. I loved the “Chippendales” sketch so much. It’s a perfect use of Farley because he’s so light on his feet, despite his size. It’s also a perfect use of the host. On SNL, you realize it’s the best if you can make the host do something they’re great at, and Patrick Swayze is so perfect as a Chippendales dancer. Farley is fighting so hard to get this job, and so is Swayze. They both play it like it’s a real competition.

The other one that comes to mind is the “Van Down by the River” sketch. We had Christina Applegate host a few years ago for the first time since she’d been in that sketch. Hearing her talk about it was so interesting. When someone is being so funny like Farley was and they’re right in your face, it’s really hard not to break. And, of course, everyone breaks in that sketch.

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