'Saturday Night Live': 145 Cast Members Ranked - Rolling Stone
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‘Saturday Night Live’: All 145 Cast Members Ranked

Our insanely ambitious, ruthlessly exhaustive ranking of every ‘SNL’ player ever

Saturday Night Live

Illustration by Anita Kunz; Photographs by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

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.

Laraine Newman

24. Laraine Newman

Era: 1975-1980

The most underrated member of the original cast. As the California girl of the bunch, not to mention the second-youngest (after Aykroyd), she now seems ahead of her time — from her pioneering Valley Girl (probably the first time "bitchin' bod" was uttered on national TV) to her oft-disturbing vampire-chick goth characters. Her most brilliant moment: playing Manson girl Squeaky Fromme in an ad for potholders made of human hair — Newman stares a hole in the camera as she commands, "You better buy them, you little piggies. I'm not kidding." It was terrifying, and not in a cute way.

Fred Armisen

23. Fred Armisen

Era: 2002-2013

Should you dock Armisen points for being even more brilliant on Portlandia? Nah. Only Armisen could thrive so long on SNL in so many different kinds of roles while retaining his own punk-drummer weirdness. Who else could play both Lou Reed and Liberace?

Andy Samberg

22. Andy Samberg

Era: 2005-2012

"Lazy Sunday" basically invented YouTube — most people in 2005 found out the site existed by frantically clicking around trying to rewatch Samberg and Chris Parnell mack on cupcakes. (Ironic, given how SNL is stricter than Prince when it comes to policing YouTube.) Despite Samberg's boyish energy, he had real staying power — let's just say the list of stars who were funny on SNL and then went on to star in funny sitcoms is a very short list, and Samberg is near the top.

Chris Rock

21. Chris Rock

Era: 1990-1993

Rock always had a hard time getting on the air — there was a classic In Living Color sketch about Rock getting thrown out by NBC security who refuse to believe he's a cast member. But make no mistake: Even back then, Rock was hungrier and faster than anyone else. Whenever he got a sketch (barely once a month, usually in the final 15 minutes), he blew the rest of the episode away, with his militant Nat X ("What's the matter, Whitney — you can't get a black bodyguard?") or his B-boy Onski from "I'm Chillin'." Nobody in the history of the show inspired more Monday-morning "Who the hell was that guy?" conversations. If he never worked a day after SNL, we'd all still know his name.

Al Franken

20. Al Franken

Era: 1975-1980; 1985-1995

What a country — the punk who wrote the "Roman Vomitorium" sketch is now a senator from Minnesota. (Alas, not alongside the late, great Sen. John Blutarsky.) Franken had two totally distinct runs on SNL. In the Seventies, he and partner Tom Davis were the gangly goofballs who resembled the kids in the audience, the ones Belushi dismissed as "the angel-dust crowd." Then he surprised everyone by coming back in the Nineties as self-help guru Stuart Smalley, one of SNL's most beloved and original recurring characters, at a time when 12-step-speak was still very much in the closet.

Greatest hit: Stuart Smalley meets Michael Jordan (he calls him Michael J., to protect his anonymity) and tells him, "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."

Jon Lovitz

19. Jon Lovitz

Era: 1985-1990

During the final credits of the horrific 1985-1986 season, Michaels watches as Yankees manager Billy Martin sets fire to the dressing room. The only cast member Michaels pulls from the room is Lovitz. Good move. Lovitz didn't have the widest range, but he didn't need one – he knew exactly what he was good at: playing slimeballs, from his Master Thespian to his "yeah, that's the ticket" liar to the bewigged perv from "Tales of Ribaldry." Lovitz had the creepiest eyebrows in SNL history. Acting!

Greatest hit: Mephistopheles goes on The People's Court so he can command the viewers at home to worship him.

Maya Rudolph

18. Maya Rudolph

Era: 2000-2007

Rudolph was always dauntingly versatile, yet loose and cool. She was the only comedian worthy of doing Beyoncé, back in the Destiny's Child days — Britannica from Gemini's Twin was a cartoon diva, but also a real-thing diva. Rudolph did finely shaded characters but could also aim for the cheap seats with her over-the-top Donatella Versace tantrums. Cue the rampage music.

Greatest hit: Her Donatella children's specials remain the stuff of nightmares. What could be more terrifying than Donatella singing kiddie songs? ("Imagine all the happy children when they hear me and John Galliano sing that tired-ass teapot song!")

Adam Sandler

17. Adam Sandler

Era: 1990-1995

The ultimate "love him or hate him" guy. Sorry — Operaman alone would make him rank high on this list. Sandler was the first to get a Boston-Irish accent right on national TV ("Get into the faaah left lane, then take the Mass Pike west and you'll see a wicked-huge Radio Shack"), which made him a local hero, even if it set off a very unfortunate comedy trend. Weirdly forgotten historical footnote: Everybody assumed Sandler was gay, because his first memorable bit was about coming out to his family on Thanksgiving. That made him seem edgier than he turned out to be.

Greatest hit: "The Chanukah Song," a major cultural event. Seriously, nobody had any idea Shatner was Jewish.

Rachel Dratch

16. Rachel Dratch

Era: 1999-2006

If you tuned in to SNL on May 1st, 2004, you saw Dratch as Harry Potter, quaking under the spell of Lindsay Lohan's cleavage — then, a few minutes later, as Debbie Downer at Disney World. One of the best nights any SNL player has ever had. Dratch had no ego — just the will to try anything. Her Sheldon on "Wake Up Wakefield!" was an agonizing portrayal of adolescent overtrying, and only Dratch could make it so soulfully funny.

Greatest hit: Debbie Downer was unstoppable, kind of like feline AIDS. Which is the number-one killer of domestic cats!

Chris Farley

15. Chris Farley

Era: 1990-1995

Reach for a bottle of Schmitts Gay and pour some on the floor for this guy. Farley made his act look like impulsive slapstick, but all you have to do is look at all the failed Farley imitators to see how intricate it was. For all his Chippendales antics, he had an easily overlooked finesse, especially when he was playing uptight mansplainers — like the strangely poignant "Medieval Scalders" sketch, where he mentors his son Macaulay Culkin: "You'd be surprised how many different things you can heat up and pour
on people."

Greatest hit: "Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker" — "You're gonna be doing a lot of doobie rolling when you're living in a van down by the river!"

Kristen Wiig

14. Kristen Wiig

Era: 2005-2012

One of a kind. You could argue she ran too many characters into the ground — Gilly again? — but she had a knack for high-strung basket cases, from her flirting expert Rebecca Larue ("I'm just really hearing you") to "Cougar Den" host Toni Ward. When Lana Del Rey showed up, she seemed like a real-life Kristen Wiig character. Wiig got the most sentimental send-off of any cast member ever, complete with Mick Jagger singing "She's a Rainbow," and she earned it.

Greatest hit: Mindy Grayson, a washed-out theater queen who still dreams of her Broadway glory in smash failures like And Sarah Made a Sound ("the story of a mute girl who desperately wanted to say the word 'jazz' ") and Sassy Slacks of 1963.

Bill Hader

13. Bill Hader

Era: 2005-2013

The unquestioned MVP by his last few seasons — a master shape-shifter who put real humanity into his characters. His weaselly newscaster Herb Welch or club kid Stefon would have fallen flat without Hader's affectionate touch. He was the most crucial utility player since Hartman — a glue guy who never needed to be the center of attention, just serving any kind of role.

Greatest hit: Stefon raves about New York's hottest clubs ("Built from the bucket list of a dying pervert, this Battery Park bitch parade is now managed by overweight game-show host Fat Sajak") and promotes a fundraiser for Doctors Without Boners.

Will Ferrell

12. Will Ferrell

Era: 1995-2002

Ferrell's SNL strategy was basically the opposite of Chevy Chase's: Stick around for years, make your mark as a team player, make everyone around you funnier, and (this is the really weird part) get a hundred times funnier after you leave. Indeed, the hardest thing about appreciating Ferrell's SNL tenure is that none of us knew the glories of Anchorman and Talladega Nights were yet to come. Great Odin's raven!

Greatest hit: Banging the cowbell to "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," his beard and belly jiggling to the music.

Dana Carvey

11. Dana Carvey

Era: 1986-1993

Carvey was the greatest impersonations guy in SNL history — his impressions were usually darker and more compelling characters than the originals. His Ross Perot was way more than a parody of a politician — Carvey turned the character into an American archetype worthy of Randy Newman, sneering "Here's the deal, see" in the voice of every boss or principal you ever despised. When people try to imitate Johnny Carson or George H.W. Bush (or Lorne Michaels), they're usually just doing Carvey's impression.

Greatest hit: Perot behind the wheel, taking Phil Hartman's Admiral Stockdale for a final joyride. "That was world-class."

Chevy Chase

10. Chevy Chase

Era: 1975-1977

Strange as it sounds, Chase might be the most under-rated SNL player. True, he stuck around for only one full season, but so did Farrah on Charlie's Angels — it took him only one season to define the franchise. Of all the original cast members, Chase was the one guy who got how TV worked — the others were theater types. So if you check out the first episode, which is 80 percent unwatchable, Chase is the only one who knows how to stare right into the camera without flinching. He looks like a coldhearted bastard surrounded by a bunch of needy kids. But without that deadpan arrogance, the whole SNL style of humor would fall flat. (By the 12th episode, his castmates are doing jokes about how much they all hate him.) He was famous for his stumbling Gerald Ford impersonation, but he was even sharper and more merciless as Ronald Reagan, the only killer Reagan SNL ever had. Alternate-history question: If Chase had stayed on SNL, would he have sunk Reagan the way he sank Ford?

Greatest hit: Chase reports an item about the Peanuts bird Woodstock. He's getting replaced by "a bird named Altamont, who will beat the other birds to death with a pool cue." The audience gasps. They're horrified. Chase loves it. And this is 1975. The whole Saturday Night Live story in 10 seconds.

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