Remember when SNL was still worth watching? These are the Not Ready For Primetime Players that made it so.
<strong>1. Phil Hartman</strong>- His on-set nickname, “Glue,” tells you everything you need to know about the role he played during SNL’s late-'80s/early-'90s resurgence. He elevated everything and everyone with which he came in contact—his beatific grin during “Chopping Broccoli,” for instance, merits almost as big a laugh as the skit’s premise. Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, the Anal Retentive Chef, Bill Clinton visiting McDonald’s…In honor of his ego-free comic eminence, say it once more, with feeling: Sassy!
Best bit: The Sinatra Group
<strong>10. Bill Murray</strong>- With his trademark smirk, Murray simultaneously celebrated and lambasted the sketch-comedy genre. Thrust into an impossible situation—essentially replacing the too-big-for-his-britches Chevy Chase—Murray added both knowing smarm (nerd kid Todd DiLamuca) and blank-faced understatement (“cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger”) to a cast lacking both. He established such an indelible cool-guy persona that 20-plus years later, we’re still incapable of holding missteps like Garfield against him.
Best bit: Nick the Lounge Singer
<strong>9. Dana Carvey</strong>- He makes the list owing to the sheer number of breakout characters he created and embodied: the Church Lady, Garth, Hans, Carsenio et al. No player in the show’s history counts more to his or her name. Throw in his gift for mimicry—George Bush, Jimmy Stewart, Ross Perot, even cast mate Dennis Miller—and it’s no wonder that Carvey was featured in roughly 92.5 percent of all scenes during his seven-year tenure on the show.
Best bit: "Chopping Broccoli"
<strong>8. Molly Shannon</strong>- The most underrated performer in SNL history, and one of the few woman cast members who was too dark, manic, and, well, weird to shepherd into a window-dressing role. Oh yeah—and her Mary Katherine Gallagher orchestrated a much better pratfall than Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford ever did. You almost felt sorry for the chairs into which she careened.
Best bit: Delicious Dish on NPR (a.k.a. Schweaty Balls)
<strong>7. Chris Farley</strong>- Forget that he weighed half a ton and, toward the end of his run, couldn’t scratch his ear without breaking into a massive sweat. Farley trumps his idol John Belushi and every other comer as SNL’s most physically agile comedian, whether destroying thousands of dollars worth of sets as hopped-up motivational guru Matt Foley or retreating into himself as the sheepish host of “The Chris Farley Show” (to Paul McCartney: “You remember when you were with the Beatles?”).
Best bit: Chippendales audition
<strong>6. Gilda Radner</strong>- The show’s most joyous performer, Radner’s sunny smile masked a serious anarchic bent. Unlike most of the show’s early-era legends, Radner was as comfortable fronting a band (as Patti Smith sound- and sleaze-alike Candy Slice) as she was at the “Weekend Update” desk (where she weighed in as confused pundit Emily Litella and hygiene-obsessed Roseanne Roseannadanna).
Best bit: Lisa Loopner
<strong>5. John Belushi</strong>- He got more laughs with a single arched eyebrow than Horatio Sanz did with 25 minutes of nonstop madcap antics. Whether touting the nutritional bona fides of donuts or wistfully reminiscing while visiting the graves of former cast mates, Belushi boasted more range than most classically trained stage actors—and could still pull off fart jokes with aplomb. Had he not been derailed by substance-abuse issues, he’d have morphed into a hell of a character actor by now.
Best bit: Samurai Delicatessen
<strong>4. Eddie Murphy</strong>- Of all the 300-odd SNL cast members, none has been asked to carry the show by him or herself like Murphy was—and none could have pulled it off with such seeming ease. Without Eddie Murphy, in fact, SNL wouldn’t have survived the lean years between the original troupe and the Carvey/Hartman/Nealon era. For that reason, it’s easier to forgive him for his sharply reduced effort once 48 Hours punted him into the comic stratosphere.
Best bit: James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party
<strong>3. Dan Aykroyd</strong>- By far the most versatile player in the original troupe, and one of the few who excelled equally as a performer and as a writer. Aykroyd also ranks among the few players who could bounce easily between political sketches (especially as President Nixon in “The Final Days”) and stoner silliness (“Fred Garvin: Male Prostitute”). Is there a way to legally stop him from beating The Blues Brothers even further into the ground?
Best bit: Super Bass-O-Matic ’76
<strong>2. Will Ferrell</strong>- He cheered and danced and sang. He took off his shirt. He reveled in character-specific details (grizzly beards, cowbells, etc.). And oh!, the impressions: He played Unabomber Ted Kaczynski as a glib everyman, Neil Diamond as a porn-addicted hothead, and James Lipton as…well, James Lipton. Then as now, Ferrell is constitutionally incapable of not wringing every bit of funny out of a gag.
Best bit: Anything involving Harry Carey, Robert Goulet, Janet Reno, or Bill Brasky