Let’s break it down. The entire cast of Saturday Night Live, 40 years of it, ranked from top to bottom. Insanely ambitious? You bet. Absurdly exhaustive? No doubt. Ruthlessly complete? Damn straight. From the Samurai Hitman to the poor bastard who played Walter Mondale. Everybody.
So — live from New York — a passionate, definitive, opinionated, subjective, irresponsible and indefensible breakdown of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. It’s a celebration of Lorne Michaels’ creation 40 years on — and as every SNL fan knows, part of loving the show means surfing through the lows along with the highs. Keep in mind: We’re not ranking their careers, merely their stints on SNL. Also, we’re ranking them strictly for what they did onscreen, not behind the scenes. As for who counts as an SNL player, there’s a lot of gray area. The whole point of this list is ranking everybody, not just the big names, so it tries to err on the side of being inclusive. “Writers who occasionally showed up in sketches” is a mighty crowded category, but they’re ultimately judged by onscreen impact. It’s a game of inches out there. And no guest hosts, no matter how often they return. No Alec Baldwin or Andy Kaufman or Justin Timberlake, even though they’ve had way more airtime than many cast members.
Some of these stories get grim, especially below the Joe Piscopo Line. (You don’t want to be on the Cleghorne side of the Piscopo Line.) But these are all comedians who made it to the big leagues. This list is full of worthy performers SNL bumbled, or ugly ducklings who turned into swans elsewhere. So if you were funny in Anchorman 2 or you ended up a legend on Seinfeld, that’s sweet, but it doesn’t factor in here. The hilariously disastrous misuse of talent is part of what makes it SNL — we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Also crucial: If you were an SNL player and your feelings get bruised easily, you might want to stop reading now. Like Stuart Smalley says, it’s easier to put on slippers than to carpet the world.