The 8 Kinds of Comedian You Have On Every 'SNL' Cast
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Luke Skywalker is a Hero. Loki is a Trickster. But what the hell is a Belushi?
Classic character archetypes are found in every story ever told, from Homer’s Odyssey to Space Jam: A New Legacy. Comedy has its own subset of character archetypes, and over the course of 46 Saturday Night Live seasons, Lorne Michaels and co. have refined the concept for late-night sketch. Here are the eight SNL archetypes—some spins on the classics, some show-specific—that come to life on the 30 Rock stage.
How well SNL cast members embody these archetypes appears to have a direct correlation to their show success. Funny people who want to be on the show someday? You might want to take notes.
Also known as: Everyday People, the Counter-Puncher, Phil Hartman
The Glue gets a lot of airtime, but not necessarily delivering the punchlines. The Glue is the doting parent, the clueless boss, the stupidly grinning game show host, the befuddled customer who doesn’t know how to deal with the Target Lady. In other words, the Glue is us—a regular person thrust into comic weirdness. The part is tougher to play than it looks, and it’s crucial to the comedy—imagine Chris Farley’s Motivational Speaker spewing life advice without the dread of Phil Hartman’s deadpan dad. Hartman’s show nickname was Glue because, according to Kevin Nealon, he held the sketches together.
Archetypal Glue: Phil Hartman, Dan Aykroyd, Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell, Beck Bennett
Current Glue: Kenan Thompson
The Wild Thing
Also known as: Force of Nature, Accident Waiting to Happen, Live Wire, Loose Cannon
The Wild Thing brings a sense of anything-can-happen to a sketch. It’s that gleam in the eye that says “I can go off-script at any moment, Reese Witherspoon, so buckle up.” Think of a samurai recklessly waving an actual sword (Belushi really did slice open Buck Henry during a live show) or a furious Leslie Jones ripping into no-lip Alabama senators for their abortion ban. Wild Thing also brings unpredictability to off-camera life—knowing the SNLer might get thrown in the pokey for something crazy, illicit, or illegal at the after-party just adds to the electricity.
This, my friends, is a Belushi.
Archetypal Wild Things: John Belushi, Chris Farley, Leslie Jones, Jim Breuer, Michael O’Donoghue
Wished He Was A Wild Thing: Jim Belushi
Looked Like a Wild Thing But Was Actually Glue: Horatio Sanz
Current Offscreen Wild Thing: Pete Davidson
Also known as: The Weirdo, Pretty Out There, Oddball, What The?
Eccentrics aren’t just funny characters like Mike Myers’ Wayne Campbell or Ferrell and Gasteyer’s Marty and Bobbi Moughan Culp, the music teachers at Altadena Middle School. We’re talking an extra level of sublime weirdness like Kristin Wiig’s Dooneese or GIlly, Molly Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher, Chris Kattan’s Mango or Mr. Peepers. These characters once may have been relegated to the experimental final-sketch-of-the-night (Will Forte used to live there), but in recent years, the Eccentric has taken center stage.
Archetypal Eccentrics: Kristin Wiig, Fred Armisen, Chris Kattan, Will Forte, Molly Shannon, Heidi Gardner, Chloe Fineman
Current Eccentric: Kate McKinnon
Also known as: The Mimic, the Human Parrot, Copycat
Here’s a ‘character’ you won’t find in those ancient Greek plays but who resides in every SNL cast—the celebrity/political Impressionist. Dan Aykroyd filled the role in the original cast with loose, hilarious impersonations of celebs like Tom Snyder, Jimmy Carter, and Julia Child. Latter-day Impressionists like Darrell Hammond, Jay Pharoah, and Melissa Villansenor are more specific mimics but less adept than Aykroyd at coming up with original characters (or at least they’re not as good at convincing Lorne to try them out on live TV). Recent Impressionists’ main and sometimes only role on the show is mimicking famous personalities.
Archetypal Impressionists: Darrell Hammond, Joe Piscopo, Dana Carvey, Jay Pharoah, Bill Hader
Current Impressionist: Melissa Villasenor
The Arrested Adolescent
Also known as: The Juvenile, Big Baby, Man Child, Oh Grow Up, Peter Pan
Victoria Jackson brought a baby-voiced idiocy to nearly every character she played, but it was the arrival of Adam Sandler in the 1993-94 season that kick-started the Man-Child parade. The Arrested Adolescent looks all grown up but something crucial hasn’t clicked yet on the inside. From Sandler’s The Denise Show (“Hello, Brian, this is your father. What the hell is wrong with you? You’re embarrassing the family!”) to Fallon’s Boston teen Sully (“He jerks it about four times a day!”) to Samberg’s Shy Ronnie, stunted developmental growth has found a permanent comedic home.
Archetypal Arrested Adolescents: Victoria Jackson, Adam Sandler, Jimmy Fallon, Andy Samberg
Current Arrested Adolescent: Kyle Mooney
Also known as: The Journalist, Voice of Reason, Tell It Like It Is, Teleprompter Baby
The serious newscaster has become its own archetype—knowledgeable, sardonic, the world-weary voice of sanity. SNL cast members who succeed here (Norm MacDonald, Dennis Miller, and Seth Myers come to mind) can be so-so in sketches but shine behind the Weekend Update desk. As Chevy Chase learned, the Anchor is a great vehicle for becoming a comedy star—you never have to worry if your segment will get cut and everyone knows your name.
Archetypal Anchors: Jane Curtin, Seth Myers, Norm MacDonald, Tina Fey
Current Anchors: Colin Jost and Michael Che
The Smart Ass
Also known as: Too Cool for School, The Wiseacre, The Smart Aleck
Smart Asses aren’t in every cast but they are easy to spot when they’re on camera. They often play variations on the same general (Smart Ass) character and those characters are suspiciously similar to the Smart Asses themselves. They give a wink to the camera that says “you and I get the joke—and aren’t we both above all this?” Chevy Chase is the model Smart Ass, never investing too heavily in character work and trusting that the audience is with him every smirking step of the way. In real life, the Smart Ass is the cast member most likely to get punched in the mouth—that Chevy Chase/Bill Murray brawl was inevitable.
Archetypal Smart Asses: Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Charles Rocket, Dennis Miller, David Spade
Current Smart Ass: Pete Davidson
The Reality Biter
Also known as: I Know You, The Real Character, Eerie Resemblance
Unlike the Eccentric’s creations, Reality Biters feel like people you actually know. Take Cecily Strong's Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With At A Party—she seems like a Girl You Could Actually Meet At A Party And Unfortunately Probably Have. Grounded in reality, Real Characters like Lisa Loopner or Morgan from Girlfriends Talk Show might break your friggin’ heart while they’re making you laugh. You’re definitely going to recognize someone you know.
Archetypal Reality Biters: Gilda Radner, Mike Myers, Maya Rudolph, Ana Gasteyer, Jason Sudeikis, Jan Hooks, Rachel Dratch
Current Reality Biters: Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant
What About Those Featured Players Who Rarely Get On the Air?
The real lesson of SNL Archetypes is for struggling new cast members. When you have trouble getting air time, it’s harder for audiences to identify your comedy type. And history shows those comics with fuzzy personas don’t last multiple seasons.
So hats off to Bowen Yang, easily identified as an Eccentric (who else could play the Iceberg that Sunk the Titanic?) and the first featured cast member to land an Emmy nomination.
But it’s tougher for current featured players like Lauren Holt, Punkie Johnson, and Andrew Dismukes. They seem funny and likable enough when they get screen time—but what’s their easily identifiable comic persona? The featured players who make it to the regular cast get that identity established sooner than later.
SNL Archetypes also explain why crazy talented cast members who went on to superstardom after leaving the show—looking at you, Chris Rock—never found their footing on the show. Their comic personalities just don’t fit well into the show’s established roles.
Comedy Transformers, Assemble!
In contrast, many SNL all-timers are just the opposite, succeeding as super-hybrids of the comic personas that make them iconic. While many cast members check multiple boxes, the best of all time deliver across multiple character types.
You’ve got the Eccentric Impressionists, like Bill Hader, Dana Carvey, and Mike Myers. The Glue Impressionists, like Phil Hartman and Dan Aykroyd. Amy Poehler is a Reality-Biting Anchor.
And sometimes that comedy equation adds up to the Optimus Primes of Saturday Night Live, the cast members capable of transforming into multiple comedy personas. Let’s assemble Eddie Murphy, equal parts Impressionist, Reality Biter and Smart Ass.
Will Ferrell is another comedy Autobot who can transfigure across multiple archetypes, and the ability to embody virtually any SNL Archetype makes Murphy and Ferrell the most powerful machines of late-night comedy.