For the past 40 years, the mastermind behind one of the longest running late night sketch television shows in history, Saturday Night Live will celebrate with a star-studded celebration this Sunday night. We take a look back at some of the funniest sketches in the show’s long history.
From the very first show hosted by iconic comedian Richard Pryor to the most recent show, SNL has been a launching pad for generations of funnyman during its distinguished history. Comedians that have come from the show are now legendary names such as John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase through Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, Jimmy Fallon, Adam Sandler, Billy Crystal and tons of others.
Trying to determine our Top Five skits, we combed through four decades of hilarious moments looking for magic moments that in addition to being funny also offered social commentary that has stood the test of time. With so many notable performers through the show’s history, we tried to limit our final five to different performers so for example, we wouldn’t have one performer with multiple skits on our final list.
There were several skits that fell outside of our Top Five and they deservedly are recognized in our Honorable Mention section. As we prepare for television history this Sunday night, here is our list of our Top Five Skits from SNL.
Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood: X-Mas
Original Airdate: December 15th, 1984
During the five seasons that Murphy was on the show, he often dominated the proceedings creating one memorable character after the other. His Black version of the popular Mr. Rogers characters was an instant winner. In addition to Mr. Robinson offering savvy, razor-sharp social satire (jokes about white flight, Reaganomics, racist cabbies abounded), the real draw was the absolute glee with which Murphy threw himself into the role, – even more than he did with every role. In the Christmas installment, Mr. Robinson explains his hustle to the children while wearing a Santa suit and a shit-eating grin: “With this little operation, I figure I’ll be taking on about $300, 400 a day. Oh, why oh why, must Christmas come but once a year?” Rising SNL star (and occasional Murphy impersonator) Jay Pharoah always mentions how the Mr. Robinson sketches were a formative influence.
Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet: Monkey and Box Turtle
Original Airdate: May 15th, 1999
Inspired by someone that Tracy Morgan’s ex-wife knew in high school, Morgan built a hilarious character around her description. “I said he was this weird gay dude who imagined stuff in his head and thought he knew everything. My man [SNL writer] Tim Herlihy picked right up on that shit,” Morgan said in his autobiography, adding that Herlihy came up with the animal element. “A delusional gay guy interviewing animals? What the fuck is that, Tim?” During Morgan’s tenure on the show, he created a litany of characters who were hysterically strange but never quite took off, from Astronaut Jones to Dominican Lou. But few were stranger than Fellow, a dense young man who hosted a show about animals despite seeming to lack even the most basic understanding of the animals or their surroundings (“The rainforest, that sounds wet!”). Few SNL cast members have had a greater knack for delivering a sublimely stupid line, and Morgan gave it all with signoffs like “Join us next week, when our guests will be a dog, and a baby dog.”
Original Airdate: February 17th, 2001
In this recurring sketch, Will Ferrell and Jimmy Fallon (and whatever guest host was around) sent up the high-end store Jeffrey, a designer-stuffed house of haute owned by former Barney’s New York shoe buyer Jeffrey Kalinsky. When Will & Grace’s Sean Hayes hosted in 2001, he joined Fallon on the floor in a sketch that peaked with Ferrell answering a cell phone approximately the size of a paperclip – and then peaked again when Fallon and Hayes succumbed to the giggles. Real life outpaced its farcical counterpart seven years later, when Christian Dior launched its very own miniphone – although the $5100 gadget one-upped the SNL writers’ snob fantasia by adding a mirror. “I worked so hard for so long to create an environment where people were nice, where people were treated nice, and where people realized how important it was to be nice,” Kalinsky told the Advocate and then there was a skit, and it needed a name, and somehow because we were new in town and doing something different and cool, it got associated with not acknowledging people. It was polar opposite to everything I’m about… All my friends, anybody that I knew, thought it was the most incredible, wonderful thing in the whole world and that I should be thrilled.”
Original Airdate: February 16th, 1991
Gone but not forgotten, the legendary Phil Hartman cut a unique figure in comedy with his stock in trade being characters that are ostensibly straight-laced on the surface, but utter jackasses just underneath. From Troy McClure on the Simpsons to Bill McNeal on Newsradio, Hartman mined that unique trait for plenty of laughs. So while the MetroCard commercial spoof gets big laughs simply by letting Hartman and host Roseanne Barr be a predictable contrast of rough and smooth, but the genius is in how their different accounts of the same phone call slowly reveal Hartman as an unreliable narrator.
Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton Address the Nation
Original Airdate: September 14th, 2008
One of the few sketches that not only successful mirrored what was going on, it expertly tapped into a fluid political situation with amazing effect. “This sketch easily could have been a dumb catfight between two female candidates,” Tina Fey wrote in her book Bossypants. Instead, “you all watched a sketch about feminism and you didn’t even realize it because of all the jokes. Suckers!” In the sketch, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton (Amy Poehler) take a bipartisan stand against campaign sexism. At the time, Palin’s vice-presidential candidacy was a satirist’s dream, and no one fulfilled it better than Fey. Two years gone from the SNL cast, Fey returned play her Republican doppelgänger in this Seth Meyers-penned sketch – ultimately NBC.com’s most popular video ever. Fey reprised the role four times leading up to the 2008 election, delivering SNL its highest ratings since 1994 – and its most political relevance ever.
Original Airdate: October 10th, 1981
Once again, one of the funniest comedians to grace SNL’s stage, Murphy, was a part of another landmark sketch spoofing a famous childhood comedy. “I remember typing the first Buckwheat sketch and almost falling off my chair because it was so funny,” recalled SNL production assistant Robin Shlien in the Live From New York oral history. Debuting in late 1981, “Buh-Weet Sings” was based on Murphy’s memories of the Our Gang comedies. It eventually blossomed into this hilarious infomercial for an imagined album of pop standards (“untz, tice, fee times a nady”). Murphy’s Buckwheat became so popular and long-running that the staff eventually got tired of the character and decided to dramatically knock Buckwheat off in the equally brilliant “Assassination of Buckwheat.”
NPR’s Delicious Dish: Schweddy Balls
Original Airdate: December 12th, 1998
Excellent wordplay and the ability to maintain a straightface were the key to this landmark sketch. Ana Gasteyer, who wrote and starred in this legendarily naughty sketch, went on the actual NPR in 2012 to dish on the origins of this public radio send-up: “It was sort of a combination between [NPR’s] “The Splendid Table” and a show that was aptly named, a show called “Good Food,” on KCRW. You don’t need to go to a commercial,” she said about the secret to public radio’s studiously understated intonation. “You don’t need to leave, you just need to take your time and explore a subject to the point that people want to weep with boredom.” Alec Baldwin, of course, was Pete Schweddy, a man who was producing a holiday treat – balls, branded with his name and sold in sacks. Those who didn’t get the joke on first utterance would get multiple chances. So iconic was this simple bit of wordplay that Ben & Jerry’s produced an ice cream in honor of the skit in 2011. “My parents tried it, which I thought was the funniest thing in the world,” Gasteyer said. “My mom called. She said, ‘Dad laid in a supply of Schweddy Balls.’ OK, and then she goes, ‘Zowee, is it rich.'”
Original Airdate: December 13th, 1975
The sketch that set the tone for the entire series, Word Association was described like this: “It’s like an H-bomb that Richard and I toss into America’s consciousness.” That’s how comic and Pryor accomplice Paul Mooney describes writing the ballsiest race joke – possibly the ballsiest joke, period – that anyone had ever done on network TV. The audience laughs, not gasps, when Chevy and Pryor’s black/white word association test peaks with: “Nigger?” “Dead honky.” The whole week, Chevy had been begging to be in a skit with Pryor, while Mooney was fuming about assorted bullshit and questions from producer Lorne Michaels. So Mooney killed two birds by writing one skit. It could be the last time a white guy said the N-word on TV and actually diffused racial tensions rather than ignited them. Bonus points: At Pryor’s insistence, Gil Scott-Heron was the musical guest that night.
White Like Me
Original Airdate: December 15th, 1984
Almost twenty years before Dave Chappelle’s landmark skit about Black/Blind/White supremacist Clayton Bigbie debuted, Eddie Murphy’s whiteface sketch was the most provocative SNL moment since Richard Pryor dropped by in Season One. (In fact, it was an explicit homage to Pryor, who played the author of a book called White Like Me during his SNL appearance.) Murphy had recently become a movie star – “the first black actor to take charge in a white world onscreen,” as he later told Rolling Stone – and was struggling to find his place among the Hollywood elite. “White Like Me” satirized his discomfort, showing the hidden opportunities afforded to white people when black guys leave the room. We wouldn’t see such powerful, audacious comedy about American race relations until Chappelle’s Show arrived, 20 years later.
Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker
Original Airdate: May 8th, 1993
The late Chris Farley was on top of his comedic game in this memorable skit that is as funny today as when it aired 20 years ago. “It paints a picture; the phrase has a lot more meaning to it than just a catchphrase that stands alone,” sketch writer Bob Odenkirk told the Chicago Reader about Matt Foley, the motivational speaker who’s “35 years old, thrice divorced, and living in a van down by the river.” “[T]here is a lot more to it when Chris did it, and he made that character whole. It’s not a gimmick. You felt like there was a real person in that character.”
Beyond Odenkirk’s vivid storyline and Farley’s honest portrayal, Foley was the single best use of the manic energy stored inside SNL’s greatest physical comedian since John Belushi; a bundle of twitches, tics, throat-busting yells, and extreme pratfalls that made Chevy Chase look like Baryshnikov. Foley was invented by the pair in their days at Chicago’s Second City, but quickly became a national legend since the folks on stage were laughing almost as hard as the audience. “Lorne didn’t like us cracking up on air,” said Norm MacDonald in The Chris Farley Show. “But it was always Chris’s goal when it was live on air to make you laugh, to take you out of character, and he always succeeded. You could never not laugh.”
The main victim in this sketch was David Spade: “In rehearsal, he’s done the thing with his glasses… But he’d never done the twisting his belt and hitching up the pants thing,” said Spade. “He saved that for the live performance, and so none of us had ever seen it. He knew that would break me.”
Original Airdate: December 16th, 1978
If Pryor’s Word Association made viewers squirm, Ackroyd and Curtin personal assaults on one another in this iconic sketch still elicits laughter. A parody of the 60 Minutes “Point/Counterpoint” segments that ran throughout the Seventies, Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd argued in the steely tone of televised debates, but with insults that thwarted decorum. “Jane, you ignorant slut” quickly become a pop-cultural catchphrase, but the invective seems downright tame when compared to the nastiness lobbed across cable and radio these days: Rush Limbaugh called a women’s rights activist a “slut” as recently as 2012.
Dick in a Box
Original Airdate: December 17th, 2006
One of the consistently funny co-hosts to grace the stage is Justin Timberlake who has the rare ability to perform songs and cutting edge comedy during his appearances on SNL. Him and Andy Samberg created a song for ages with this holiday classic. “[W]e wrote this song in a delirium of no sleep on a Wednesday or Thursday of the week. We recorded it that night, and we were laughing so hysterically – and probably through the delirium of trying to write something so funny, this came out of it,” Justin Timberlake told NPR about co-writing the most popular SNL Digital Short of all time (and possibly the best Timberlake song post-FutureSex/LoveSounds). Though co-star Andy Samberg says this R-rated, very-bleeped send-up of ’90s R&B was written in two hours, it’s shelf life is seemingly endless – a performance at Madison Square Garden, an Emmy for Outstanding Music and Lyrics, two follow-up sketches, and a stardom for Samberg that continues today. “[Lorne Michaels] says the thing you’re known for will be in quotes in the middle of your name,” he told Esquire He’s Lorne ‘SNL’ Michaels, and I’m Andy ‘Dick in a Box’ Samberg. If that’s how it goes down, that will be A-okay.”