Before we begin, an explanation: This is not a list of the 39 best SNL sketches of all time.
Any institution that lasts as long as Saturday Night Live has—and that experiences as much cast and writer turnover as Saturday Night Live does—will necessarily have stronger years and leaner years. In SNL‘s case, the difference between eras can be especially stark; you’re more likely to laugh at a meh John Belushi sketch than you are at even the finest display of Charles Rocket’s talents. Given that fact, it’s easy for a simple “best sketches ever” list to focus only on the best-known work of SNL‘s biggest stars (your Will Ferrells, your Eddies Murphy) while totally ignoring its less memorable seasons—which also means that such a list won’t really provide an overview of the show’s long, tangled, uneven history.
Thus this: In honor of the show’s upcoming 40th season, EW‘s team of SNL experts has assembled an inventory of each individual season’s best sketch. You’ll find many familiar picks below, as well as more obscure selections—and, perhaps, the absence of a few sure things. (There’s no “Celebrity Jeopardy,” for example, both because those sketches aired during a particularly fertile period—how can you pick even Turd Ferguson over “More Cowbell”?—and because we included one of them in a magazine feature called “Build a Perfect SNL Episode.”) Scroll through—and don’t forget to vote for your favorite one by 5 p.m. ET Sept. 26 at our poll here.
Season 1, 1975–1976
“Word Association,” Dec. 13, 1975
What kind of janitorial company gives job applicants a racist psychological test? The one Saturday Night Live invented for one of the most audacious two-minute segments in TV history. Even nearly 40 years later, Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor’s tense pas de deux (“Jungle bunny!” “Honky!”…”N—–!” “Dead honky!”) is just as sharp as it was in the ’70s—not to mention every bit as uncomfortably funny.
Season 2, 1976–1977
“Consumer Probe,” Dec. 11, 1976
Dan Aykroyd is at his slimy best as kids’ toy manufacturer Irwin Mainway, a shyster who hucks questionable products like “Mr. Skin-Grafter,” “Johnny Switchblade,” and one that’s simply called “Bag O’Glass.”
Season 3, 1977–1978
“The Festrunk Brothers,” April 22, 1978
Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd debut Yortuk and Georg Festrunk—a pair of characters you probably know better as “two wild and craaaazy guys!”
Season 4, 1978–1979
“Point/Counterpoint,” Dec. 16, 1798
Weekend Update anchor Jane Curtin and “station manager” Dan Aykroyd (him again! Can you blame us?) expertly skewer gender relations and vitriol-spewing talking heads. More importantly, their segment gives birth to SNL’s best catchphrase: “Jane, you ignorant slut!”
Season 5, 1979–1980
“Lord & Lady Douchebag,” May 24, 1980
Meet the British aristocrats behind some of the modern world’s most beloved innovations: Lord Worcestershire, the Earl of Sandwich, Lord Cardigan, and, well… the title of the sketch sort of ruins the punchline, but it’s still plenty great. (Also, watching is a great way to get your daily recommended dose of Gilda Radner.)
Season 6, 1980–1981
“Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” Feb. 21, 1981
“I hope I get to move in your neighborhood someday/The problem is, is when I movie in, y’all move away!” Watch three minutes of Eddie Murphy’s gritty, urban take on Mr. Rogers, and you’ll instantly understand why he kept SNL on the air nearly single-handedly.
Season 7, 1981–1982
“Buckwheat Sings,” Oct. 10, 1981
There’s not much to this classic sketch beyond Murphy’s hair, grin, and bizarre speech impediment—but that’s more than enough.
Season 8, 1982–1983
“Merry Christmas, Dammit,” Dec. 11, 1982
Hey, you know which recurring Murphy character we haven’t talked about yet? Gumby! There’s more to this Christmas special than the big green guy, though: Check out Joe Piscopo’s pitch-perfect Sinatra, as well as Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Gary Kroeger’s creepy-sexy take on Donnie and Marie. (At least, you could check them out if it were available in full online.)
Season 9, 1983–1984
“James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party,” Nov. 5, 1983
Okay, okay: We know there’s more to early ’80s SNL than Eddie Murphy. (Theoretically.) But what roundup of the show’s best sketches would be complete without the Godfather of Soul? “Here I go in the hot tub! Too hot in the hot tub!”
Season 10, 1984–1985
“Men’s Synchronized Swimming,” Oct. 6, 1984
And now for something completely different: A deadpan mockumenary made, naturally, by one-season cast member Christopher Guest (and starring his comrades Harry Shearer and Martin Short). Just consider it a blueprint for Waiting for Guffman.
NEXT: Church Chat, a driving cat, and “Get a life!”
Season 11, 1985–1986
“The Stand-Ups,” Dec. 14, 1985
There’s no sugarcoating it: SNL‘s 11th season, the first in six years to be produced by original visionary Lorne Michaels, was pretty rough. There were a few bright spots, though, thanks mostly to Jon Lovitz, who teams here with host Tom Hanks and short-lived cast member Damon Wayans to spoof a certain observational comedian.
Season 12, 1986–1987
“Star Trek Convention,” Dec. 20, 1986
Today in Things That Would Never Happen in 2014: Host William Shatner tells a convention of his most devoted fans (and, by extension, all the nerds watching at home) to get a life. “You’ve turned an enjoyable little job, that I did as a lark for a few years, into a colossal waste of time!” Fun fact: The sketch was written by future comedy superstars Judd Apatow and Bob Odenkirk.
Season 13, 1987–1988
“Church Chat,” Oct. 24, 1987
We’re out of the woods and into the Dana Carvey years. While any number of Church Lady (real name: Enid Strict) sketches are worthy of praise, this one’s the standout. That’s mostly due to a guest appearance by that week’s host, Sean Penn, who’s forced to answer for a multitude of sins (not least of which is being married to Madonna).
Season 14, 1988–1989
“Toonces, the Driving Cat,” May 20, 1989
Some classic SNL sketches rely on clever wordplay. Others are edgy examinations of tough topics like race and gender. Still more mine humor from quirky original characters. And then there’s “Toonces,” which is gleefully, absurdly, objectively stupid—and inexplicably hilarious.
Season 15, 1989–1990
“Wayne’s World,” Feb. 17, 1990
It’s about time we mentioned Mike Myers, one of SNL‘s most original minds—and, specifically, Wayne Campbell, perhaps his most beloved creation. There’s a reason Wayne’s World made more than twice as much money as The Blues Brothers, the second highest-grossing movie based on SNL characters: The combination of Myers’ goofy enthusiasm and Dana Carvey’s spacey cluelessness can’t be beat, especially in this sketch featuring Tom Hanks and Aerosmith.
Season 16, 1990–1991
“Chippendales Auditions,” Oct. 27, 1990
Patrick Swayze’s rock-hard abs and pelvic thrusts are totally on point, while Chris Farley exhibits surprising grace as the poor guy competing with Johnny Castle for a spot as a Chippendales dancer. Sure, it’s an extended fat joke—but what a fat joke!
Season 17, 1991–1992
“Mr. Belvedere Fan Club,” May 9, 1992
There’s no limit to what SNL can do when it decides to get weird and dark—as in this unsettling sketch from a Tom Hanks episode, which starts out as an exercise in harmless strangeness (why would there be a fan club for “the guy who plays Mr. Belvedere”?) before spiraling out of control (“I should want to cook [the guy who plays Mr. Belvedere] a simple meal. But I shouldn’t want to cut into him, to tear the flesh, to wear the flesh, to be born unto new worlds where his flesh becomes my key”).
Season 18, 1992–1993
“Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker,” May 8, 1993
Say it with us now: “You’ll have plenty of time to live in a van down by the river when you’re…living in a van down by the river!”
Season 19, 1993–1994
“The Denise Show,” Oct. 2, 1993
A full 16 cast members made this one of the most overstuffed SNL seasons ever, which (combined with a lot of increasingly tired recurring characters) may be why it’s tough to find many standout sketches here—though the melancholy vein of this segment (Adam Sandler plays a dude with a talk show all about how much he misses his ex-girlfriend) lifts it a tad above the rest.
Season 20, 1994–1995
“The Chanukah Song,” Dec. 3, 1994
Oh, you forgot that Sandler’s novelty tune began as a bit on Weekend Update? Well, it did—and despite diminishing returns with each sequel, the original holds up. (Although the O.J. Simpson reference hits a little softer today than it did in 1994.)
NEXT: A great debate, the dirty south, and some Schweddy Balls
Season 21, 1995–1996
“Night at the Roxbury,” May 18, 1996
Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan’s Butabi brothers absolutely got played out due to repeat exposure—but their first-ever appearance on SNL is still a giddy thrill, thanks also to host Jim Carrey’s fully committed performance as their partner in crime. Plus: Dig the unibrows.
Season 22, 1996–1997
“Tom Brokaw Pre-Tapes,” Oct. 25, 1996
This one is a bit of a cheat, since it was originally filmed for (but never shown on) The Dana Carvey Show. Either way, just try to watch it without speaking like Carvey’s exhalation-happy Brokaw for the rest of the day.
Season 23, 1997–1998
“Family Dinner,” Jan. 17, 1998
Few SNL cast members are as versatile as Will Ferrell was in his prime. He displays several of those shades—heartbreaking pathos, wide-eyed bewilderment, totally unearned confidence, simmering rage—in this criminally underrated sketch. Also on point: Ferrell’s frequent sketch parter Ana Gasteyer and host Sarah Michelle Gellar, who hits all the right notes as a tart-tongued teen: “I wish you were dead.”
Season 24, 1998–1999
“NPR’s ‘Delicious Dish’ with Pete Schweddy,” Dec. 12, 1998
A delectable mix of highbrow setting and lowbrow wordplay, all wrapped up in one delicious Schweddy Ball.
Season 25, 1999–2000
“Behind the Music: Blue Oyster Cult,” April 8, 2000
You may know this gem by another name: “More Cowbell.”
Season 26, 2000–2001
“First Presidential Debate,” Oct. 7, 2000
Every aspect of this political powerhouse is spot-on: Will Ferrell’s word-mangling George W. Bush, Darrell Hammond’s drawling, irritable Al Gore, even Chris Parnell’s even-keeled Jim Lehrer. How’d they get everything so right? One word: Strategery.
Season 27, 2001–2002
“Patriotic Shorts,” Oct. 6, 2001
Saturday Night Live’s first post-9/11 episode aired the previous week—but many Americans felt that they couldn’t truly exhale until this sketch, in which a shameless, well-meaning Will Ferrell shows pride in his country the best way he knows how.
Season 28, 2002–2003
“Colonel Angus,” Feb. 22, 2003
Magical things happen when you say “Colonel Angus” in a Southern accent: Just let Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Chris Parnell, and Christopher Walken show you how.
Season 29, 2003–2004
“Debbie Downer,” May 1, 2004
It’s famous mostly for being one of the worst examples of corpsing (that is, unintentionally breaking character by laughing) on live TV—but even without that element, Rachel Dratch’s gloomy performance and that goofy sad trombone noise are wonders to behold. Add in the accidental laughter, though, and you’ve got a sketch for the ages—just watch what happens when Dratch finally manages to spit out that Debbie can’t have children.
Season 30, 2004–2005
“Woomba,” Dec. 18, 2004
What, you don’t remember Woomba? It’s the little pink robot that cleans your noony!
NEXT: A boxed surprise, googly eyes… and Sarah Palin
Season 31, 2005–2006
“Lazy Sunday,” Dec. 17, 2005
The Digital Short that officially ushered SNL into the Internet age plays even better now than it did in the early months of ’06, when the web was lousy with low-budget remakes.
Season 32, 2006–2007
“Dick in a Box,” Dec. 16, 2006
Obviously. 1. Watch this video. 2. Put your junk in… this video? Wait, that’s not right.
Season 33, 2007–2008
There’s not much to this one besides hearing Christopher Walken say “googly eyes” over and over. It is, however, very funny to hear Christopher Walken say “googly eyes.”
Season 34, 2008–2009
“Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton Address the Nation,” Sept. 14, 2008
The sketch that gave us Tina Fey’s historic Sarah Palin impression—and the line “I can see Russia from my house!”
Season 35, 2009–2010
“Census Taker,” May 8, 2010
A.K.A. “Betty White screws with Tina Fey, to the tune of ‘Blarrrrrfingar.'”
Season 36, 2010–2011
“What’s That Name?” May 21, 2011
A bit more obscure than most of Justin Timberlake’s SNL sketches—but it’s some of his most charming work, even if he can’t remember that one guy from ‘NSync. You know. That one. No, not JC. (Just try to ignore Lady Gaga’s blatant mugging.)
Season 37, 2011–2012
“Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Laughs,” Feb. 18, 2012
Every former English major’s favorite SNL sketch, though even the less literary can appreciate Maya Rudolph’s lyrical, impish Angelou and Jay Pharoah’s avuncular Morgan Freeman.
Season 38, 2012–2013
“Stefon’s Halloween Tips,” Oct. 21, 2012
This bit has everything: hobo-cops, Bark Ruffalo, the Human Pinata, an old gay man people called Slimer, even Jewish Dracula. (Real name? Sidney Appelbaum.)
Season 39, 2013–2014
“Do It on My Twin Bed,” Dec. 21, 2013
The Digital Short era is over, but the show still knows how to slay a pre-taped musical sketch—even in an uneven season marked by Too Many White Guys syndrome. The solution? Kick ’em all out except host Jimmy Fallon, and let the ladies of SNL do their thang. In their parents’ houses.
|Available For Streaming On|