'Saturday Night Live's Best Performer Rookie Classes, Ranked
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Saturday Night Live could be considered the National Football League of comedy, and it’s not just because Roger Goodell & Lorne Michaels are spiritual bros. For many hopefuls, years spent toiling in comedy clubs and improv troupes are rewarded by getting drafted to fill out the SNL team for the upcoming season and beyond.
Practically every SNL season drafts a few new cast members onto the team, and this year is no exception - with Sarah Sherman, Aristotle Athari, and James Austin Johnson joining an already-overstuffed squad. As rookies, they will begin on the junior varsity … er, as featured players. Unfortunately, that’s where some rookies end their SNL careers as well. Sorry you never got a legit chance to show your stuff, Lauren Holt.
(Let’s take 12 seconds to note that every ‘failed’ SNL cast member is a super-funny performer who wouldn’t have gotten on the show if they hadn’t killed it elsewhere. Just like the guy who gets cut from the Jacksonville Jaguars is a better athlete than anyone at your high school, ever. But like some quarterbacks who only find success on their second or third teams, not all talents are a fit in the funky SNL organization.)
With Lorne Michaels as General Manager for nearly the entire run of the SNL franchise, let’s take a look at his strongest rookie classes. For example, check out Season 27. Featured players Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, and Maya Rudolph graduated to the regular cast, Jerry Minor was let go. Chris Parnell was fired, then rehired. That left room to ‘draft’ four new featured players -- Seth Myers, Amy Poehler, Dean Edwards, and Jeff Richards.
Not bad! Myers started out as a decent sketch actor before graduating to a stellar stint behind the Weekend Update desk (a gig he’s translated into a long late-night career). Amy Poehler hit it out of the park from the start and got promoted to full cast member after only a few months. She stayed with SNL for eight seasons before starring in that little show, Parks and Recreation.
But Season 27’s draft grade gets dinged by Richards and Edwards.
Edwards got limited air-time in his single season, impressing with imitations of Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, and Colin Powell, but ultimately leaving the show over “creative differences," a reason for quitting something no one has ever used before.
Richards signed as a free agent from MADtv, the first guy ever to have appeared on both shows. (Answer to the inevitable trivia question: The only other was Taran Killam.) Primarily known for his Drunk Girl bits on Weekend Update, Richards was promoted to full cast member in season 29 before leaving after 10 episodes to pursue other projects, another first in the world of entertainment.
So: Two all-timers, a guy who makes it to the varsity cast, and a single one-and-done. Call it a solid B+ -- in contention for one of the ten best draft classes ever, but not spectacular enough to crack the top of the list.
So which class ranks best? For this exercise, we’ll take away points for star newcomers that didn’t stick around. That means years like that weird Season 10 -- with single-season superstars Billy Crystal, Martin Short, and Christopher Guest -- don’t rank as highly as those when a roster of unknown rookies shows up to carry the show for years. We’ll also downgrade the One-Person Wonders, like Season 2’s addition of BIll Murray, who had to carry his class all by his lonesome.
Here then are the cream of the crop -- the SNL rookie classes that receive an A grade for both quantity and quality.
4. SEASON 21: Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Jim Breuer, Darrell Hammond, David Koechner, Nancy Walls, Chris Kattan, Colin Quinn, Fred Wolf
What an exodus! Lorne cut a number of seasoned veterans from the previous year’s team, including all-time greats Chris Farley and Adam Sandler, reliable utility player Kevin Nealon, and roster fillers Ellen Cleghorne, Jay Mohr, Michael McKean, Chris Elliott, Laura Kightlinger, and Morwenna Banks. To make matters even more challenging, movie mogul Mike Myers, the unhappy Janeane Garafalo, and not-yet-disgraced vet Al Franken left the show mid-way through the previous season.
With such a depleted roster, Michaels needed to nail this rookie class -- and by drafting Ferrell, he did. (Ferrell didn’t even need to bribe Lorne with a fat suitcase full of counterfeit cash.)
The presence of Ferrell alone gets this class in the top 10. Rolling Stone has him as the show’s 12th best cast member of all time, Paste has him up at #2. Ultimately, that’s a matter of comedy taste but Ferrell is an undisputed SNL Hall of Famer.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Oteri and Kattan (Steven Soderbergh was a fan!) created several recurring characters that … may be the reason fans love ‘em or hate ‘em.
Darrell Hammond may still stand as SNL’s best-ever technical impressionist, a master of tics, vocal inflections, and on-target mannerisms. Extra points for finding his way back to the show as the 21st Century Don Pardo announcer.
Colin Quinn and Jim “no shows for the vaccinated” Breuer were solid blockers, leaving Nancy Walls, David “Whammy!” Koechner and Fred Wolf as talents that would find better fits elsewhere.
3. SEASON 16: Rob Schneider and David Spade (writers who got promoted), Chris Farley, Chris Rock, and Julia Sweeney. Later this season, Lorne hired Tim Meadows and Adam Sandler.
So basically, the 1990s.
There are no one-and-done performers in this group and nearly all created enough memorable characters to overstuff a Walmart Best Of DVD bargain bin.
Farley and Sandler stand out for having the most impact on the actual show. Farley, of course, was a force of nature, breaking tables as out-of-control Matt Foley but just as affecting as the insecure, starstruck host of the Chris Farley Show.
Sandler scored at the Weekend Update desk with goofy songs as well as man-child-archetype characters that he'd eventually translate to the big screen and make millions in movie theaters.
Spade never seemed to make a dent outside of his Buh-Bye Guy and Hollywood Minute, but he strung together enough memorable performances to merit his aforementioned Best of DVD. And say what you will about Schneider, but his Makin’ Copies guy was one of the first characters to break out for this group.
Rock is an interesting case. While we rightly think of him as a comedy superstar, he never completely reached All-Pro status on SNL. After leaving the show, he’d have more success than almost anyone on this list, especially as a stand-up.
The group has a strong argument for the top draft class ever, but it gets dinged for Lorne unceremoniously firing many of the cast members later in the decade. The best of the best get to leave on their own terms.
2. SEASON 31: Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig
Let the debate begin: Should the Class of Season 31 be on top of this list? In terms of quality, all three cast members belong in the SNL Pantheon.
Let’s start with Samberg. He scores major bonus points for bringing along Lonely Island mates Jorma and Akiva, kicking off the SNL digital shorts era. Oh, and they also introduced America to future unboxing platform YouTube when the dudes dropped Lazy Sunday. The video went viral before the term even existed, boosting the brand-new site’s traffic that week by 83 frickin’ percent. For many people, getting a link to Lazy Sunday was the first time they ever even heard of the site. “YouTube would have found its way without Lazy Sunday, ” says Parnell, “but we gave it a shot of adrenaline.”
Hader was an SNL Swiss Army knife, effortlessly switching between malevolent gameshow hosts, PTSD puppeteers, and the world’s most uncanny Alan Alda impersonation. And of course, there was Stefon.
Finally, we come to Wiig, creator of Gilly, Dooneese, Target Lady, failed Broadway actress turned failed game show contestant Mindy Grayson, and a Kathie Lee Gifford impression that the real Kathie Lee hated.
It’s not much of a secret that Wiig was one of Lorne’s personal favorites (and probably by extension, Roger Goodell's). No one before or since was given the send-off Kristen received on her final show.
The only argument against putting Season 31 at the top of the list is both the quality and quantity found in ...
1. SEASON 12: Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson and Kevin Nealon
Like Season 21, this was a clean-the-slate season, with most of the previous year’s mistakes (well-known Hollywood types like Randy Quaid, Anthony Micheal Hall, and Joan Cusack) released back into the comedy free-agent market. Realizing that he needed more ensemble talents and fewer solo stars, Lorne brought in a group of team players with a background in improv sketch comedy.
Victoria Jackson was probably the weakest link here, but she got plenty of air time and scored consistent laughs with her ditzy bimbo routine (actually, not a bimbo after all).
Kevin Nealon was never great behind the Weekend Update desk, but his turns as Franz, Tarzan, and Mr. Subliminal were crowd-pleasers. No word on whether or not Mr. Subliminal was related to Mr. No Depth Perception.
Jan Hooks! One of SNL’s most versatile cast members ever, Hooks was utterly convincing as a Sweeney Sister (oh why thank you!), a defiant Sinead O’Connor, or a mascara-stained Tammy Faye Baker. She’s also a genuine heartbreaker in the kind of straight-up character study sketches that SNL hasn’t done in years. Just watch Hooks as Brenda the Waitress set the screen on fire with an impossibly young Alec Baldwin.
If you’re Dana Carvey, you audition with a goofy little song called Choppin’ Broccoli. SNL lifts the bit intact and puts it in your very first show. You have a character called Church Lady? Let’s make it the first sketch -- of your very first show. The guy was the star of the show before viewers even knew his name! When you throw in the brilliant impressions -- Ross Perot, George Bush (who didn’t really talk like that until Carvey convinced us he did), Carsenio -- Carvey proved he could do it all. Including Garth Algar, a character he based on his genius brother.
Which brings us to The Glue, Phil Hartman. If it seemed like Hartman was in every sketch, that’s because he probably was -- supporting castmates as the beleaguered dad or smarmy game show host, or singing comedy lead as the Anal Retentive Chef or Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.
Lorne’s selection of Hartman, Carvey, Hooks, Nealon and Jackson cements the Class of Season 12 as the championship class. Can this year’s crop of rookies someday crack the list? We’ll find out on Saturday Night.