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The 10 Greatest Cast Members Of 'Saturday Night Live'

April 7th, 2008 2:30pm EDT
Eddie MurphyLive from New York, it's Saturday Night! These seven words have been shouted from Studio 8H of Rockefeller Center since Lorne Michaels created "Saturday Night Live" in 1975. The original name of the show was simply "Saturday Night" because at the time ABC had a show entitled "Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell."

Choosing 10 of the show's best cast members is not a task to be taken lightly. We looked at what qualities go into making a perfect cast member as opposed to just picking performers who went on to greater fame after they left the show (though sometimes this happened anyway). No era of the show was ignored, although only one current cast member made the list. Too many of the current cast members grades are incomplete, although five years from now it could be entirely within the realm of possibility to see Kristen Wiig or Jason Sudeikis on the list. For now we present the 10 greatest cast members in the history of "Saturday Night Live."


10. Chris Farley

In the history of "Saturday Night Live" no cast member had the ability to cause uncontrollable laughter by not only in the audience but also by the cast onstage. It took a high level of self-control to dare appear in a Matt Foley sketch, as David Spade and host Christina Applegate found out in the now-famous scene. Jay Mohr recounts an incident in his book "Gasping for Airtime" about a bet Farley accepted in which he agreed to take "a dump" out of the window of Rockefeller Center. Not having any toilet paper, Farley used his bare hand and then proceeded to chase Mohr and Dave Attell around the offices with his contaminated hand. Mohr described the late Chris Farley as "the most beautiful person I have ever met."



9. Mike Myers

Mike Myers is an interesting case. In the past, certain cast members entered the show to inject new life into a struggling era. Myers entered the show as a featured player in 1989 when it was flying high with that solid late 1980's cast. What he did was take a show that was already doing well and took it to another level with "Wayne's World," "Lothar of the Hill People" and "Sprockets." For better or worse Myers is the reason a run of "Saturday Night Live" sketches were turned into movies after the success of the Wayne's World movie in 1992. Not to mention his addition to the cast happened in between the Jon Lovitz/Dana Carvey era and the Adam Sandler/Chris Farley era. He served well in bridging the gap to these both successful, but entirely different, SNL casts.

Mike Myers


8. Norm MacDonald

Norm MacDonald may very well be the most underrated cast member in the history of SNL. Norm's years on SNL have almost achieved cult status, which is in sharp contrast to the lack of appreciation for him when he was actually on the show. He fits squarely in the category of "ahead of his time." Unbelievably, reruns of his weekend update segments still hold up today, yet after some of his uncomfortable deadpan deliveries a pin could be heard dropping in the studio audience. Norm fed on this - the more uncomfortable he could make the audience it seemed the more satisfied he was. Norm clashed with some cast members, and he was never one to really socialize with the cast much after a show. In fact, he even falsey outed fellow cast member Chris Kattan in an interview in Rolling Stone. Norm survived the riffs an on-air explicatives but could not survive NBC President of West Coast Operations Don Ohlmeyer, who allegedly fired Norm after one too many jokes about Ohlmeyers's friend O.J. Simpson.

Norm MacDonald


7. Jon Lovitz

Lorne Michaels had just re-taken over the show in 1985 and started off with an entirely new cast. The 1985-86 season is considered by many to be the worst season ever with cast members such as Robert Downy Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, Joan Cusack, Randy Quaid, and Terry Sweeney. In fact, the show was considered so bad that in the final episode of the season the studio was (fictionally) set on fire, prompting viewers to tune in next season to see which cast members survived the blaze. The entire cast was on stage during the "fire" save one that Lorne instructed on air not to enter the studio. That would be Jon Lovitz, the sole breakout star (with characters such as Tommy Flanagan) from that season. For the start of the 1986-87 season only Lovitz, Nora Dunn and Dennis Miller returned.

Jon Lovitz

6. Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy may very well be the only reason why "Saturday Night Live" is still on the air today. When Lorne Michaels left the show after the 1979-1980 season (later to return in 1985) and was replaced by Jean Doumain (and later by Dick Ebersol) the show and cast was overhauled with disastrous results. Names from prior seasons such as Bill Murray, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were replaced with the likes of Denny Dillon, Gilbert Gottfried, Gail Matthius, Ann Risley and Charles Rocket. As Tom Shales' brilliant "Live From New York" documents, a little known bit player for most of the season, Eddie Murphy, would emerge (along with, to a lesser extent, Joe Piscopo) as the superstar the show needed to stave off cancellation (though it could not keep Jean Doumain from losing her job). When looking back on the only era of the show not produced by Lorne Michaels, other than the 1985 season when Ebersol assembled his all-star team cast of already known comedians such as Billy Crystal and Martin Short, Eddie Murphy remains a shining star in what remains a down era of the show.



5. Amy Poehler and 4. Gilda Radner

In an era of SNL where the female cast members have dominated like no other era (Tina Fey, Kristin Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch) Poehler's work not only in sketches but also behind the desk of "Weekend Update" stands out. There's been some criticizms that she is in too many sketches, but the reason for this is she breaks down the longstanding wall of being categorized as "being funny for a girl" and instead is just simply "funny." None of this would have been possible though without the genius of the late Gilda Radner. In fact, John Belushi was quoted on several occasions stating he did not think women were funny. To him, Gilda was the exception.

Amy Poehler


3. Will Ferrell

Just like when Eddie Murphy joined the cast in 1980, when Ferrell joined in 1995 the show was once again in trouble and just completed a huge overhaul. Fired from the show were staples such as Adam Sandler and Chris Farley. With the exception of four holdover cast-members from the previous season (David Spade, Norm MacDonald, Tim Meadows, Mark McKinney, and Molly Shannon who was a featured player the previous year) the cast was entirely new. Ferrell had the unique ability to play the outlandish characters just like prior cast members such as Farley had done before, but he also had the ability to play the everyman. This made Farrell both likable and funny at the same time, which led to his rise on the show at a time when it needed a star. Of course, the exclamation point of his career on SNL was his portrayal of then-Governor George W. Bush. Ferrell's portrayal came across as scathing and dense, yet at the same time his charm made the governor seem likable. Some maintain Ferrell's impression actually wound up helping Governor Bush. His Bush impression was so good, to this day SNL has not found a suitable replacement, even after using four different cast members (Chris Parnell, Darrell Hammond, Will Forte, and currently Jason Sudeikis) to play the role since Farrell left in 2002.



2. John Belushi

According to Tom Shales' book "Live From New York," Lorne Michaels had little interest in John Belushi being a cast member, and in turn John Belushi had little interest in being on television. After they met, Michaels changed his tune and decided that not only was Belushi funny, but they needed someone who looked like him. Thanks in part to Chevy Chase leaving the show after only a little more than one season, John Belushi became the star - though never so much that the rest of the cast was overshadowed like when Chase was there. His breakout characters such as The Samurai and Jake Blues propelled the early days of SNL when it could have easily died an early death after its biggest star (Chase) left.

John Belushi & Dan Aykroyd


1. Phil Hartman

Phil Hartman was the heart and soul of "Saturday Night Live" from 1986 until he left the show in 1994. Every word that came out of Hartman's mouth was hilarious and he never broke character. Ever. He was the epitome of what a sketch character actor should be. He appeared in almost every sketch during his time at SNL because he could blend in to a bit part without hamming for the camera. He also shined in the limelight, playing everyone from Bill Clinton, the late Charlton Heston, and Johnny Cash, to an anal-retentive chef. People may disagree with this choice as number one, but we defy you to name a more complete cast member. Adam Sandler nicknamed him "The Glue" for the way he would keep sketches from falling apart. As Jay Mohr describes in his book "Gasping for Airtime," the glue did fall apart on his last appearance. Phil Hartman sat onstage alone except for Chris Farley who was leaning on his shoulder, and his voice cracked as he said goodbye. Less than four years from that moment both of them would die within six months of each other. They are both missed today.


Story by Mike Ryan
Starpulse contributing writer