The 20 Best 'Saturday Night Live' Cast Member Ever Just In Time To Celebrate 'SNL 40'

In 40 years, Saturday Night Live has seen its fair share of cast performers. Some washed out after a season (sorry, Brooks Wheelan!), some didn't get their due on screen but went on to greater things after they left the show (we love you, Julia-Louis Dreyfus!), and some stuck with the cast for a while until they hopped out to do movies (bring back Stefon again, Bill Hader!). And then there were those that became the SNL powerhouse players — the ones who created enduring characters and sketches that people are still talking about, even decades later. Here are some of those players, the 20 best Saturday Night Live performers of all time.

Now, choosing the best SNL performers is a hard and sometimes thankless task. Pretty much everyone who got on the show had a shining moment, and a majority of them are probably somebody's favorite. I'm sure a lot of people are going to be angered by this list because I'm leaving somebody off. (No, Jimmy Fallon did not make the list; yes, I stand by that — remember all those sketches where he did nothing but giggle at Horatio Sanz?) But that's part of the fun of SNL: It inspires nerdy, pop-culture arguments — let's be nice and call them conversations — about things like best sketches, best characters, and best casts. 

Here are the 20 that I've determined to be the Best of the Best.

Image: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

Gilda Radner

Not only was Gilda Radner a key member of the very first SNL cast, she was the first performer recruited for the show, according to her obit in the New York Times. It was a smart move to cast her first: she created characters that still endure 40 years later, like Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella. Maybe it’s because there was always something warm and loving about her characters, even when they were being pests.

Required Viewing
Emily Latella on Puerto Rico

Image: Al Levine/NBC

Will Ferrell

Will Ferrell was a triumph of goofy commitment; if he decided that he wanted to wring out laughs by walking across the room in an absurd way, he’d find a way to get it done. (Usually, this involved screaming.) Recurring characters like the Spartan Cheerleaders and music teachers the Culps show that he was also good at sharing the laughs with his castmates, too.

Required Viewing
More Cowbell

Image: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy was on Saturday Night Live from 1980 to 1984, and during that time he basically carried the entire show by himself. (Everybody knows Gumby, Buckwheat, and Mr. Robinson, but can you name another funny recurring character from that era?) Murphy’s relationship to the show has been touchy since he left, but he definitely should get credit for keeping it alive long enough to see its 40th.

Required Viewing
Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood

Image: Al Levine/NBC

Bill Murray

Everything we love about Bill Murray now — his laid-back, just-shy-of-smarmy charm, his comedic swagger, his unpredictability — started back on SNL. Basically, inside I believe he truly is Nick the Lounge Singer. 

Required Viewing
Nick Winters

Image: Alan Singer/NBC

Amy Poehler

By the time Amy Poehler made it to SNL, she had already been through Second City and Improv Olympic and had her own sketch show, The Upright Citizens Brigade. Her skills were honed. She was also the first actress to score an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her work on SNL, a feat only accomplished by Poehler, Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon.

Required Viewing
Palin Rap

Image: Dana Edelson/NBC

Dan Akyroyd

To paraphrase one of his famous characters, when Akyroyd was on SNL, it was like he was on a mission from God. Whether he was going for deadpan serious or “wild ‘n’ crazy,” he always brought a zany enthusiasm to all of his characters.

Required Viewing
The Festrunk Brothers 

Image: Al Levine/NBC

Phil Hartman

In sketch comedy, the straight man doesn’t always get his due, but Phil Hartman was an exception in that is smooth, deep voice made him a consummate straight man, but he could also head into total absurdity when he needed to. (In some sketches, like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, he was both at the same time.) On top of that, he had a hell of a Bill Clinton impression.

Required Viewing
Clinton at MacDonald’s

Image: Alan Singer/NBC

TIna Fey

You might call this cheating, because, apart from being a formidable head writer and Weekend Update anchor, Tina Fey wasn’t in many sketches (and, even then, she was usually in the background). So calling her one of the best performers might seem inaccurate. But her Weekend Update jokes were viciously insightful and delivered with maximum sharpness, which is no small feat. Just look at the way Michael Che flubs a line every week for proof.

Required Viewing
Bitch Is the New Black

Image: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

Jan Hooks

When Jan Hooks played a character, it didn’t feel like a hollow, sketch parody. Her characters all felt like well-observed, real people, who just all happen to be funny for one reason or another. Her sketch about Brenda, a diner waitress in a weird flirtation with Alec Baldwin, is so layered, it’s a think of genius. (Pie is never free!)

Required Viewing
Brenda the Waitress

John Belushi

As one of the founding cast members, John Belushi set a bar for frenetic energy that is hard to match and almost impossible to beat. It’s all about his delivery; I’m not sure if something like his samurai character is even funny in theory, but he totally sold it.

Required Viewing
Samurai Delicatessan

Image: Fred Hermansky/NBC

Jason Sudeikis

Like Phil Hartman, Sudeikis had the unusual combo of straight-man good looks with over-the-top-crazy personality. This gave him a comic versatility; they could just plug him into any sketch and he’d be good to go. Plus, he was the best background character in the What’s Up With That sketches — he can do amazing things with a tracksuit.

Required Viewing
Two A-Holes at a Crime Scene

Mike Myers

From Wayne to SImon (the kid who draws in the bathtub) to Philip the Hyper Hypo, there was always something naive and sweet about Mike Myers’ characters. It’s easy to be funny and mean at the same time, but it’s a lot harder to be funny and innocent. 

Required Viewing
Phillip the Hyper Hypo

Dana Carvey

Dana Carvey was one of those impressionists who wasn’t always the closest mimic of the person he was impersonating (like, say Darrell Hammond was) — but it’s definitely better that way. I personally prefer Carvey’s Ross Perot to the real one. On top of his litany of impressions, he created his own characters that were equally cartoony, like the beloved Church Lady. Isn’t that special?

Required Viewing
Church Chat

Image: 
Al Levine/NBC

Maya Rudolph

Like Carvey, Maya Rudolph’s celebrity impressions, of people like Donatella Versace, Beyoncé, or Oprah weren’t necessarily close approximations of what they looked and sounded like, but they always latched on to something real and weird about the people she was imitating. And, while many of the SNL cast members could sing, Rudolph could really sing, which made for a lot of fantastic musical sketches.

Required Viewing
Last Call

Adam Sandler

Adam Sandler was really young on SNL; he started on the show when he was just 24. That means his sketches were often juvenile and most of them involved bellowing of some kind, but that’s why we love him. Plus, he got to write basically the only Hanukkah song that gets played on the radio, even decades later.

Required Viewing
The Hanukkah Song

Kristen Wiig

Wiig was always willing to go there for a joke, even if it meant making her look like a crazy person — or maybe especially if it meant making her look like a crazy person. In that way, she was an amazing physical comedian. Her recurring characters, like Penelope, Gilly, or the Target Lady, could be obnoxious, but her delivery usually saved them.

Required Viewing
Super Showcase

Image: Dana Edelson/NBC

Martin Short

Martin Short was only a cast member on SNL for one year, and he’s written that the show made him feel ”perpetually under pressure.” But even with all that, he left a hell of an impression, with characters like the spiky-haired Ed Grimley and impressions of celebrities like Jerry Lewis.

Required Viewing
Ed Grimley

Image: Al Levine/NBC

Andy Samberg

I know it’s strange to name Samberg one of the best SNL performers when his strength was definitely not performing live. But even though they weren’t live, the Digital Shorts he did on the show with the rest of the Lonely Island guys proved that the show could adapt to changing times. (And what would the world be like without ”Lazy Sunday?”)

Required Viewing
Dick in a Box

Chris Farley

Like Belushi, Chris Farley’s energy usually built to a fever pitch in his sketches. It made him a huge presence on screen, both physically and personality-wise. Nobody could crash through a table quite like Farley.

Required Viewing
Down by the River

Image: Alan Singer/NBC

Aidy Bryant

It’s hard to tell who from the current cast is going to enter into the SNL Hall of Fame. My money is on Aidy Bryant. She might fly a little bit under-the-radar right now, but sketches like the Girlfriends Talk Show prove she has keen insight into people, but characters like Li’l Baby Aidy show she can be really silly, too.

Required Viewing
Peter Pan

Image: Dana Edelson/NBC