'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.

Gilda Radner

9. Gilda Radner

Era: 1975-1980

The most beloved of the original cast — in the years between Mary Tyler Moore and Seinfeld's Elaine, Radner was the prototype for the brainy city girl with a bundle of neuroses. She looked frail, but she was a live wire whether she was playing bratty kids, pushy talk-show hosts or old ladies like Emily Litella, who spoke out on "endangered feces," "natural racehorses" and the "deaf penalty." Like so many other SNL legends, she died way too young and remains missed.

Greatest hit: Lisa Loopner, patron saint of nerdy girls everywhere.

Amy Poehler

8. Amy Poehler

Era: 2001-2008

She got more amazing every year. She could do warmth, yet was always buzzing with a real don't-mess-with-me hostility never far from the surface. The ultimate pro — the way she read and responded to the people around her raised everybody's game. She revived the ancient concept that the "Weekend Update" anchor should also raise hell the rest of the show. Poehler and Fey have more chemistry than any SNL duo since the Blues Brothers. It's a tragedy if they don't host every awards show from now on.

Greatest hit: Betty Caruso on "Bronx Beat," an urban mom grousing about her husband, the weather and everything else. ("You know what word I hate? 'Hemoglobin!' ") You can see that caustic edge in the way she sneers when Maya Rudolph starts to cry: "Here we go with the waterworks!"

Phil Hartman

7. Phil Hartman

Era: 1986-1994

The grown-up in the room. In the credits, he's not hanging on the street like most of the others; he's relaxing at a swank lounge with a blonde. (Hard to watch, now that we know the blonde was the real-life cokehead wife who killed him in 1998.) He was nicknamed "the Glue" for holding the show together. Chris Farley's motivational-speaker rant never could have worked without Hartman as the cool dad in chinos, keeping a straight face. No role was too small for him. He was a master at playing bitter old men; his Sinatra made Piscopo's look like a cream puff. ("I got chunks of guys like you in my stool!") But his speciality was charming assholes, from the Colon Blow ad to Bill Clinton. Oh, that smug smile when he tells the Secret Service, "There's gonna be a whole bunch of things we don't tell Mrs. Clinton."

Greatest hit: "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer," where he sums up the classic pitch of the all-American con man: "Your world frightens and confuses me. . . . But there is one thing I do know."

Bill Murray

6. Bill Murray

Era: 1977-1980

He was the cast's first "new guy," which probably gave him that underdog's mean streak. More than anyone, he embodied SNL's this-could-be-you realness; he looked like a random Seventies burnout who happened to bluff his way to the stage — he made it seem like anyone could do it. Nobody's ever been so good at making audiences feel like they were funny, which in many ways is the essence of SNL.

Greatest hit: Nick the Lounge Singer, who treats every dismal gig like it could finally be his chance to shine. Whether he's in the Zephyr Room at Lake Minnehonka or the Powder Room on Meatloaf Mountain, he croons his heart out: "The first couple on the floor will also get their picture on the cover of next week's Breezy Point Lodge Bulletin, so, ladies and gentlemen — it's dancing time!"

Dan Aykroyd

5. Dan Aykroyd

Era: 1975-1979

Of the original greats, Aykroyd is the least imitated — just because nobody else can do what he did. His seriousness, his biker-intellectual intensity — he could grab your attention just standing onstage for the "good nights" and asking if anyone could sell him fuel tanks for his '71 Harley. The classic sketch where he's a grumpy mechanic telling his daughter Gilda a bedtime story about doing a wheel alignment — only Aykroyd could make that so touching as well as funny. He had a real empathy for American hucksters and sleazebags – what makes the "Bass-o-Matic" sketch isn't the joke (a fish in a blender, big deal), it's Aykroyd's demented grin.

Greatest hit: President Jimmy Carter, talking down a kid from a bad acid trip. "Remember, you're a living organism on this planet and you're very safe. You've just taken a heavy drug. Relax, stay inside and listen to some music — do you have any Allman Brothers?" If the actual President Carter could have governed like that, the 1970s might have turned out differently.

Mike Myers

4. Mike Myers

Era: 1989-1995

Myers has kept a low profile since his Austin Powers days, so at this point he seems curiously obscure. But more than anyone, he epitomized the manic, art-damaged energy that revitalized comedy in the early Nineties. Like his British idols Peter Sellers and Peter Cook, he threw himself into his characters with madcap enthusiasm — metalhead Wayne, middle-aged yenta Linda Richman, monkey-stroking German aesthete Dieter. He missed the first few episodes in 1992 because he was working on the Wayne's World 2 screenplay; it turned into a nationwide vigil praying for Myers to return. The only word to sum up his genius is "asphinctersayswhat?"

Greatest hit: Linda Richman hosting "Coffee Talk," getting verklempt over Barbra Streisand's legs. Like buttah.

Tina Fey

3. Tina Fey

Era: 2000-2006

You could argue that most of her onscreen contribution was "Weekend Update," but Fey did a lot more than salvage "Update" from a decade-long losing streak — it swiftly became the highlight of the show, as the entire franchise remade itself around the wry, sardonic, not-afraid-of-her-brain Fey style. She slapped SNL out of its late-Nineties coma. Suddenly the skits were full of ass-kicking women, just because Fey proved how much they could get away with. And her 2008 return as Sarah Palin might be the most brilliant move SNL ever made. Talk about a hot streak — it was a moment when all America spent the week waiting to see what Fey would come up with on Saturday.

Greatest hit: "I can see Russia from my house!" almost made it worth having Palin around.

Eddie Murphy

2. Eddie Murphy

Era: 1980-1984

It's customary (and accurate) to say Eddie Murphy is the only reason SNL survived the five-year wilderness without Lorne Michaels. Nobody had seen anything like him. He stood out from anyone else on TV, mostly by being so young — he was the first post-boomer comedy star, a kid born in the Sixties and down with the Eighties. He mocked SNL's racial hang-ups (which isn't to say he made them go away). Murphy could make any moment memorable — the shooting of Buckwheat, the boiling of Larry the Lobster, the C-I-L-L-ing of his landlord. But he was funny just standing still, as in the classic Tootsie sketch that basically consisted of Gary Kroeger putting makeup on Murphy. He knew how to stare into a TV camera like he owned it.

Greatest hit: His 1981 "Kill My Landlord" poem remains a heartwarming piece of verse. "Dark and lonely on the summer night/Kill my landlord, kill my landlord/Watchdog barking — do he bite?"

John Belushi

1. John Belushi

Era: 1975-1979

Nobody embodied the highs and lows of Saturday Night Live like Belushi. He was the first rock & roll star of comedy — a touch of John Lennon soul behind all that Keith Richards pirate bravado. All the extremes were there in his weird physique — a wrestler's body with a dancer's feet, a palooka face with a showgirl's eyelashes. He was the first to make a cocaine joke on SNL (sixth episode — Beethoven takes a hit from the snuffbox and turns into Ray Charles), as well as the first to make the host (Buck Henry) gush blood after accidentally slashing him in the head with his samurai sword. There was always something boyishly vulnerable in his madness, whether he was doing the slow burn (Captain Kirk, George Wallace) or exploding (his horrifying Sam Peckinpah). Belushi was the "live" in Saturday Night Live, the one who made the show happen on the edge. We should have gotten a lot more years with him than we did. But no.

Greatest hit: "Samurai Hitman," where Belushi proves he doesn't need words — just a robe and a sword — to turn a one-joke premise into a savage comic ballet.

In This Article: Saturday Night Live, SNL

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