Throughout 46 seasons, Saturday Night Live has had over 160 cast members. There are ones that are very memorable due to the show spotlighting more often than others. There are ones that were on so briefly most people don’t even know they were on the program (Ben Stiller, Damon Wayans, Robert Downey Jr.). Some cast members are incredibly overrated (looking in Kate McKinnon’s direction), while others are solid MVPs that never got the praise they deserved (did someone say, Ana Gasteyer?). Here are my top 10 favorite cast members (in order of joining the show) of Saturday Night Live with my thoughts on why I love them and a tiny sample of their work.
Phil Hartman (1986 – 1994)
Phil Hartman never developed a recurring breakout character on Saturday Night Live, yet he’s still a beloved cast member. I think this is due in part to his solid nature as a comedian & performer. Hartman started with The Groundlings in the late 1970s, where he helped Paul Reubens develop his Pee-Wee stage show. Hartman played Captain Carl. On SNL, the actor was often the dad in sketches, straight man to the wild comic antics of others. He was the father in the Matt Foley (Chris Farley) sketch and did a fantastic job there. But I loved when Hartman got the spotlight shone on him. In the clip below, he plays The Anal Retentive Chef, and it is such a wonderfully acted piece of comedy. My heart broke as a kid when I heard Hartman had been murdered. He was someone I was drawn to because of his brand of humor on The Simpsons and Newsradio, and it hurt to know he wouldn’t be there anymore.
Jan Hooks (1986 – 1991)
Jan Hooks is one of the most criminally underrated performers on SNL. She played everything with her whole heart, from Bette Davis delivering a video will or the terrible show tune singing Sweeney Sisters. Hooks was born in Decatur, Georgia, and she played Southern characters with such authenticity. Hooks came up in the Groundlings with Hartman, and when they were paired together, it was a wonderful thing. SNL was a stressful schedule for Hooks, so she left in 1991 to join the cast of Designing Women. Sadly, in 2009, Hooks was diagnosed with leukemia, and a tumor was found in her throat. By 2014, the cancer was too much, and her life ended on the evening of October 9. Like Hartman, she was a comedic genius who will be missed. Enjoy this beautiful sketch about a truck stop waitress that Hooks gives her all.
Tim Meadows (1991 – 2000)
Much like Hartman, Meadows was never a superstar. He didn’t have a recurring character until the latter half of his tenure on SNL with The Ladies Man. While that was his most significant character and got him a feature film, it was never really my thing. I think Meadows was best in run-of-the-mill classic sketches. He took many small parts in all sorts of bits, but when he was made the center of comedy, he blew the roof off. I loved seeing him with Christoper Walken in the census taker sketch. Meadows has had a fantastic post-SNL career getting tons of guest spots, supporting roles, and voice acting gigs since. He’s currently a cast member on AMC’s strange & wonderful stop-motion series Ultra City Smiths. Enjoy this classic job interview sketch where Meadows gets to play someone completely wacky.
Ellen Cleghorne (1991 – 1995)
Ellen Cleghorne is another criminally underrated cast member of SNL. There was always something so charming about her, and yet the show never managed to give her anything substantial to do it. It didn’t help that she was brought into the cast during an incredibly bloated period. She was also the only Black woman to be a cast member on SNL for the entirety of the 1990s. I think the white performers were given more attention than her for obvious racist reasons. She did an incredible Whoopi Goldberg impression & did have a recurring character in Zoraida, an NBC page who would pester the guest host backstage, eventually becoming annoyed with her, and then cause Zoraida to get pissed at them. I personally think Cleghorne was at her best when she was just herself. You can see that in this very fun Weekend Update commentary about the series finale of Full House.
Norm MacDonald (1993 – 1998)
Norm is my personal favorite Weekend Update host of all time. That all comes down to my love of his style of humor, telling something that lies between a dad joke and anti-humor. The set-up implies one thing, but when the punchline comes, it’s not what you expect. Or instead of something witty, he drops the honest truth in your lap instead. I love his sketch with Sylvester Stallone as a man in a car accident who can’t help but critique Stallone’s poor film choices as he waits for paramedics to arrive. Norm was in no way a fantastic actor; he’s purely a stand-up when it comes down to it. Telling jokes is his strength. Here is a compilation of some of his best Update bits. I get that Norm isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I absolutely love the guy.
Chris Parnell (1998 – 2006)
Like Hartman, Parnell was never a superstar. Instead, he was a solid ensemble performer that got the spotlight every once in a while. His most famous recurring was probably a version of himself on Update breaking into hardcore gangster rap. My personal favorite character Parnell played was Merv the Perv, a disgusting human being but also hilarious. Parnell excelled at playing creeps, and it was always fun to see him do that. He was known as “The Ice Man” because, unlike other cast members, Parnell never broke during a performance. If you watch the famous cowbell sketch, you will see that he keeps it together, unlike Fallon. In addition, he would often play fantastic supporting characters that stole attention from the leads. Since SNL, Parnell has had a great career as a voice-over artist on Rick & Morty and Archer. He also played Dr. Leo Spaceman on 30 Rock.
Rachel Dratch (1999 – 2006)
Rachel Dratch is an utterly fearless performer. She honed those comedy chops at the legendary Second City alongside Adam McKay & Tina Fey. While I strongly dislike Jimmy Fallon, I always enjoyed Dratch in the Boston sketches as his girlfriend, Zazoo. She also regularly played male characters, often boys like Elian Gonzalez or Harry Potter. Most people familiar with SNL probably remember the infamous Debbie Downer sketch from the first Lindsay Lohan-hosted episode. I was always disappointed that the sketch resulted in so many people, including Dratch, breaking because the character concept is so good. But, on the other hand, maybe it was just so funny even the cast couldn’t help but laugh as it was happening. Since SNL, Dratch has been on so many sitcoms and is still just as amusing as she was on the show.
Will Forte (2002 – 2010)
Will Forte played the best quiet & insane characters. He is one of those performers I always saw as being wasted on SNL, restrained from being the insane performer he would show off later in things like the Tim & Eric Awesome Show. The characters Forte plays start in soft, quiet space and then, at some point, explode into complete madness. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. His significant recurring character was MacGruber, and the film based on that character is pretty good. However, his best moments on SNL were random sketches he would appear in with characters we’d never see again; they just embodied his ethos as a performer. For a great example, here is Forte playing a man obsessed with potato chips.
Bill Hader (2005 – 2013)
Like many of the performers I’ve listed before, Hader represents the glue of his cast, always there to play a game show host or a mild-mannered regular man. However, it’s when he showed up as Stefon or Herb Welch that you got to see some real acting chops revealed. Post-SNL, Hader has had a fantastic career co-starring with Fred Armisen on Documentary Now! He’s blown me away on his HBO series, Barry, playing a hitman turned aspiring actor and showing how fantastic he can be with a dramatic performance. I admit I did get tired of the endless game show host roles, but when Hader was given something meatier, damn, he would take the show to a whole other level.
Vanessa Bayer (2010 – 2017)
I definitely have a type when it comes to the SNL actors I enjoy most. They are not the big names on the marquee but the ones that will always make you laugh no matter where they show up. Bayer was that for me during her time on the show. She has such a knack for playing people in awkward situations or overwhelmed moms. When Bayer was 15, she had leukemia, and it was during her treatment, she discovered how comedy could relieve herself and those around her. Bayer has a strong background in music, even doing a comedy web series where she interviewed indie bands. But my all-time favorite Bayer character was Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy on Update. There is such honesty to that character that it is clear Bayer is basing him on either one person or many people she knew growing up. I always laughed when that character was on.