The grand idea behind Mount Rushmore (besides desecrating sacred Native American land, but who’s counting?) was to pay tribute to our four greatest presidents. Who made the cut? In 1927, sculptor Gutzon Borglum recommended Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Jefferson. And apparently, that was that!  No public debate, no squabbling in Congress.  Everyone just went with the opinion of the guy with the chisel. 

So when ComedyNerd decided to create its own Saturday Night Live Mount Rushmore, honoring the four most extraordinary cast members of all time, we felt no need to open up for discussion.  We hold the virtual chisel, if you will.  But in the interest of transparency (and page views), here’s the thought process that decided who we’re carving in the rockface.  

The Rubric

With more than 160 cast members over the course of SNL’s run, narrowing the list to four was a daunting task.  Throw out Jim Belushi and you still have a long way to go.  How do we whittle down the possibilities?  Sounds like we need a rubric.  Here are the criteria we used to start discarding the Victoria Jacksons of the world.  

Hilarity. More than any other factor, comedy skillz will be paying the bills here.  If you’re not really freaking funny, like generationally funny, you’re not getting anywhere near the mountain. So take a hike, Tony Rosato!

Indispensability. How important were you to the show’s success?  At any point, did you actually save the show?  Could the show count on you or were you always threatening to go on a bender?

Cultural impact. This broad category includes memorable characters (if one or more of your creations ended up on a t-shirt or coffee mug, you likely qualify). And if you headlined some of the biggest comedy movies of all time?  Bonus points for amped-up star wattage.

Longevity. Staying on the show for an entire decade isn’t enough to put someone on top, but it does count for something.  There’s a reason Lorne Michaels has kept Kenan around for all of these years -- he’s pretty damn good.  If you’re Billy Crystal and knocked it out of the park for a single season?  That’s not enough to make you a legend.

The Sweet Sixteen

With those funny factors in mind, we set about paring away our massive list of 160+ to 16 -- a 90% reduction!  Some of the cuts were easy -- see you later, Jay Mohr, you old sketch stealer you!  But others were much more difficult.  Here, with sincere and profound apologies, are all-time SNL greats that weren’t quite great enough to make our list of 16 finalists: Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Adam Sandler, Jan Hooks, Molly Shannon, Norm Macdonald, Seth Meyers, Cecily Strong, Jimmy Fallon, and Amy Poehler.  If you want to jump straight to the comments section and start the flamethrowing, we won’t blame you.

This leaves us with sixteen SNL superstars for the ages, listed here in alphabetical order:

John Belushi - He appeared in the very first SNL sketch ever, then spent the next four years cementing his comedy legacy.

Dana Carvey - When they trust you to carry the cold open on your very first show and you knock it out of the park with a Church Lady, you’re probably pretty good.  

Chris Farley - A force of nature who blustered with even more ferocity than his idol, Hurricane Belushi.

Tina Fey - An SNL icon who went on to create an incredibly popular sitcom about running a late-night sketch comedy show.  Bam!  She’s even nice enough to drop in from time to time.

Will Ferrell - Dominated the small screen, then dominated the big screen.  The guy is a screen dominator. Now GET OFF THE DAMN SHED!

Bill Hader - Maybe best known for Stefon, but our favorite Hader character is Anthony Peter Coleman, the Vietnam vet with a keen interest in puppetry.

Phil Hartman  - He’s the man they nicknamed The Glue.  Put Phil in any scene and he could hold that dang thing together.  And if you need someone to be the comic center?  He could kill that too.

Kate McKinnon - The impish McKinnon finally hung up her sketch spurs this season but not before giving crowd-fave Colleen Rafferty one final, intergalactic send-off.

Mike Myers - In his prime, no one was bigger and his Wayne’s World is still the highest-grossing SNL movie of all time. Excellent!

Eddie Murphy - After the original cast left, the show was on life support until Murphy willed it back to must-see TV.  Oh, and during the show’s summer hiatuses, he became the biggest movie star in the world.

Bill Murray - No one from the 1970s casts has endured like Murray, a charismatic sketch player and bonafide movie icon. 

Gilda Radner - Early SNL could easily have been a boys’ club (and some suggest that it was).  But Gilda’s sunny star power was irresistible and completely undeniable. 

Maya Rudolph - She can act! She can sing! She can do impressions!  Rudolph is perhaps SNL’s most underrated star.  

Andy Samberg - If Samberg and the Lonely Island crew did nothing else but introduce the Digital Shorts, they’d still be in the SNL Hall of Fame. 

Kenan Thompson - When writers fix sketches by writing “funny Kenan reaction here,” you know we’re talking about an all-timer. 

Our SNL Mount Rushmore

Spoiler alert: It gets absolutely brutal from here on out.  No one on this list deserves the ax, but with twelve cuts to go, we gotta get to chopping.  

Belushi’s talent was undeniable, but his behavior became more erratic as the early seasons progressed. Some nights, there were concerns if he would make it from dress rehearsal to the stage.  Out.  

Chris Farley was as funny as anyone on this list, but he was actually fired from the show. You can’t get canned and be top four.  Out.

Tina Fey shone as a Weekend Update anchor but her character work wasn’t as strong as Radner’s or Wiig’s.  She was awesome and she’s out.

Bill Hader was a comedy Swiss Army knife, and one of the show’s best-ever impressionists.  He’s one of our all-time favorites. And he’s Out.

Kate McKinnon? A delight who recently took a lot of time off to make movies.  Good for her!  Out.

Mike Myers is a tough cut since he was the show’s alpha for a few seasons.  Perhaps his recent slide has us biased.  We love him.  Out.

Bill Murray is a national treasure but was never the main guy on the show.  Extra points for punching Chevy Chase but Out.

Gilda Radner was a perfect Not Ready for Primetime Player who never had much impact outside of the show.  She set the standard, but she’s Out. 

We can’t think of any reason to cut Maya Rudolph.  She’s Out anyway. 

Kenan Thompson will go down as one of the greats, but his lackluster work outside of the show -- do you know anyone who’s watched Kenan? -- puts him one ladder rung below our top players. Out. 

Andy Samberg was a likable goof, but on his final episode, he wasn’t the one that got the special sendoff.  That was Kristen Wiig.  More later but Samberg is Out.

And then there were five.  Our toughest call may have been between castmates Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey, two guys who came into the cast together and revived SNL after another fallow period. Hartman’s versatility was incredibly valuable to the show but Carvey had more star power and breakout characters.  It’s a coin-flip -- and it’s got Carvey’s head facing up.  It breaks our heart, Phil, but you’re Out.

Shutterstock, Cracked illustration

So life-like!

Which leaves us with our monument to SNL greatness, forever chiseled in stone: 

Kristen Wiig, whose tenure was so awe-inspiring that Lorne brought in Mick Jagger to sing as the producer danced her off into the sunset. Says Kate McKinnon: “The finest sketch performer who ever lived.”

Dana Carvey, a man born for sketch comedy, and the creator of a hundred memorable characters. David Spade marveled in his early days that Carvey was a bigger star than most of the hosts. “Dana Carvey was the show,” says Chris Rock.  “He carried the show on his back.”

Will Ferrell, the versatile utility guy, the belly-baring man-child, and perhaps the only man who could make George Bush likable. Will Forte calls him “legendary;” Robert Smigel says Ferrell is “the best cast member ever.”

And the electrifying Eddie Murphy, the man who lured viewers back to SNL after audiences themselves declared the show dead. “Eddie was the biggest star,” says Rock. “It’s Elvis.” For writer Jim Downey, it’s no contest: “Eddie Murphy dominated the show like no other individual has.”

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