All 48 Seasons of ‘SNL,’ Ranked
Comparing Saturday Night Live seasons is a little like comparing sports teams across eras and sports. Would Michael Jordan thrive against the Kansas City Chiefs of today? Is Serena Williams faster than Willie Mays? Could Muhammad Ali knock out Messi? You get the idea — to a large degree, we’re comparing 2008’s apples to 1977’s oranges. And yet, who doesn’t love ranking random fruit?
Strap in SNL fans, because we’re going to rank each and every live-from-New-York season, all freaking 48 of them.
Season 6 (1980-1981)
The first season without Lorne Michaels. New producer Jean Doumanian assembled a lackluster cast and had to be talked into Eddie Murphy, who she kept hidden in the background. The guy groomed to be SNL’s next breakout star, Charles Rocket, ended up becoming the first man to say “fuck” on network TV, ruining his career in a decade where most stand-ups used the word constantly. The cast seems even worse in hindsight when you consider who Doumanian overlooked — Jim Carrey, Mercedes Ruehl, Sandra Bernhard, John Goodman and Paul (Pee Wee Herman) Reubens. An all-time disaster. Even ABC’s rip-off Fridays got better ratings.
Season 11 (1985-1986)
Michaels returned for the first time since Season Five, but he forgot to bring the original magic sauce with him. He tried the Dick Ebersol trick (see Season 10) of constructing a cast of comedy pros — Randy Quaid, Robert Downey Jr., Joan Cusack, Anthony Michael Hall — but the new group failed to connect with viewers. It was only the unknowns, including Jon Lovitz, Nora Dunn and Dennis Miller, who survived to see better days. The Season 12 season opener attempted to erase this entire season from memory, dubbing it “a horrible, horrible dream.”
Season 46 (2020-2021)
The pandemic continued to wreak havoc with masked audience restrictions and COVID-centric sketches at a time when we all needed an escape from the virus. Jim Carrey took an ill-fated turn as Joe Biden. The show’s strongest cast members, including Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon, all took extended leaves to work on outside projects. Their replacements, Andrew Dismukes, Punkie Johnson and Lauren Holt, fail to make an impact (or get much screen time).
Season 5 (1979-1980)
Harry Shearer endured his first unhappy stint as a cast member, failing to fill the hole left by the departed John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. Bill Murray and Gilda Radner broke up and decided to stop speaking to each other. A gaggle of writers (Peter Aykroyd, Tom Schiller, Don Novello, Brian Doyle-Murray and Alan Zweibel) were promoted to the featured cast and then quickly forgotten. Drug use, always rampant in the early years, finally affected the quality of the show. A total mess.
Season 9 (1983-1984)
Jim Belushi joined the cast. The spectacular Eddie Murphy wanted to do movies, so he skipped the live shows and pre-taped a bunch of sketches before jumping ship in February. His departure was followed by those of Robin Duke, Brad Hall, Tim Kazurinsky and Joe Piscopo at season’s end.
Season 44 (2018-2019)
The world was talking about SNL this season, but rarely about its comedy. Kanye showed up for a bizarre, unrehearsed pro-Trump rant, a preview of things to come. Pete Davidson got engaged to Ariana Grande, but it wasn’t meant to be — after which, they dissed each other in the tabloids and in Davidson’s stand-up specials. Rumors swirled that Kenan Thompson and Kate McKinnon were leaving. (Neither did — Thompson’s never leaving.)
Season 20 (1994-1995)
If we were ranking seasons by cast unhappiness, Season 20 might be number one. That’s what happens when Phil Hartman and Julia Sweeney are replaced with Janeane Garofalo, Chris Elliott and Laura Kightlinger. The three newcomers were hilarious elsewhere, but all of them had absolutely miserable experiences on SNL. Meanwhile, Jay Mohr stole jokes and lost his job. Not great, Bob.
Season 45 (2019-2020)
The pandemic cut this season short, with weird remote episodes that didn’t deliver. Shane Gillis was cast and fired before ever appearing, thanks to racial slurs he threw around in a podcast. A failed year that we’re bumping up a few notches for the triumphant and long overdue return of Eddie Murphy, back after 35 long years.
Season 47 (2021-2022)
The most bloated cast of all time, with 21 cast members (plus the three dudes in Please Don’t Destroy). Maybe that excess was to be expected when many of the show’s most charismatic leads (McKinnon, Strong and Davidson) took extended leaves to film other projects. Davidson at least shows up to kiss Kim Kardashian, sparking a year of Kanye threats. The year’s breakout character was probably Aristotle Athari’s Angelo, so of course, Athari wasn’t asked back.
Season 41 (2015-2016)
The show was still trying to live down its decision to have Donald Trump host. Trump also caused problems for the show’s impressionists, with the character changing hands from Taran Killam to Jimmy Fallon (he was offered the part!) to Darrell Hammond hopping down from his announcer’s perch. In the end, though, the role went to Alec Baldwin. At least McKinnon’s UFO-abducted Colleen Rafferty made her debut.
Season 42 (2016-2017)
The decision to bring in Baldwin to play Trump led to multiple seasons of “look at me!” cameos by slumming stars, all of which relegated cast members to the bench. Trump sketches dominated nearly every cold open, to the detriment of the show. In terms of redeeming qualities, Tom Hanks’ delightfully weird David S. Pumpkins dictated the next few years’ worth of Halloween costumes.
Season 48 (2022-2023)
An incomplete since we still have a long way to go, but with Cecily Strong’s departure, we’re not sure how this season gets better from here. Eight departing cast members at least open up space for new performers to shine, although few of the show’s four rookie comics are getting much of a chance. Final ranking TBD.
Season 8 (1982-1983)
Drew Barrymore became the youngest host ever. When Nick Nolte went on a bender, Eddie Murphy filled in as the first cast member to host. But as the pressures of fame got to Murphy, he decided to kill Buckwheat. Julia Louis-Dreyfus joined the cast, but she’d do better work elsewhere.
Season 43 (2017-2018)
The show’s cast got more diverse than ever, but with an excessive roster of comics, screen time was hard to come by. Heidi Gardner impressed with a series of well-drawn Weekend Update guest spots like Bailey Gismert and Angel, Every Boxer’s Girlfriend from Every Movie About Boxing Ever.
Season 19 (1993-1994)
Phil Hartman’s last year and Norm Macdonald’s first. Adam Sandler, Chris Farley and David Spade were officially in charge now. We’re still squeamish about the sketch where Baldwin molests Sandler’s Canteen Boy. Yeesh. We won’t count the release of the It’s Pat movie against this season, but yeah, this was the year it happened.
Season 4 (1978-1979)
The last season for Belushi and Aykroyd, and Belushi especially seemed halfway out the door. Season Four might have had more legendarily bad hosts than any other, including disastrous turns from Frank (“Hey, I’m Reading Cue Cards!”) Zappa and Milton (“Give Me a Standing Ovation!”) Berle. Few new characters were introduced as the exhausted cast mostly reprised their most popular creations from Season Three. In the silver-lining category, the underused Garrett Morris finally got a breakout character with Chico Escuela.
Season 39 (2013-2014)
It took SNL being called out by its own (Jay Pharoah and Kenan Thompson) to add a Black female comic — mid-season addition Sasheer Zamata. Seth Meyers abandoned ship mid-season to host his own late-night show, leaving Weekend Update in the hands of noticeably nervous Colin Jost. (He would get better.) A ton of new cast members brought the overall total to 17, leading critics to criticize the bloated cast.
Season 30 (2004-2005)
Jimmy Fallon had left the building and the not-bad Rob Riggle couldn’t quite fill his shoes. Ashlee Simpson committed a musical gaffe for the ages. And it was another election year — but unlike 2000 and 2008, the Bush v. Kerry snoozefest didn’t inspire comedy or public buzz. Notable: The Tina Fey/Amy Poehler all-female Weekend Update team, the only one before or since.
Season 13 (1987-1988)
Little cast turnover led to a strong season that was cut short by a Writers Guild strike (depriving us of a Gilda Radner-hosted episode). Tune in now for the first-ever appearances by Hans and Franz, Tonto, Tarzan and Frankenstein’s Monster, as well as Dana Carvey’s hilarious dig on Dennis Miller.
Season 40 (2014-2015)
More cast tumult, with five cast members jettisoned off to comedy sea. Michael Che joined Jost to stabilize the Weekend Update desk. Cecily Strong came on strong with Cathy Anne, Gemma and A One-Dimensional Female Character from a Male-Driven Comedy. And hello there, Pete Davidson!
Season 18 (1992-1993)
A transition year, as Mike Myers was on leave for the first half of the season and Dana Carvey was out for the second half. A frustrated Chris Rock also says adios. David Spade finally found his footing with Hollywood Minute. What would become increasingly cringe characters such as Canteen Boy and the Gap Girls make their first appearances, as well as the transcendent Matt Foley and his van down by the river. Sinead O’Connor unexpectedly ripped up a picture of the Pope as chaos ruled 30 Rock.
Season 17 (1991-1992)
The Bad Boys of SNL (Sandler, Rock, Farley, Spade) advanced their takeover with the introduction of the Chris Farley Show and Opera Man. Dennis Miller turned over the Weekend Update desk to solid but not-as-good Kevin Nealon. No season can lose the remarkable Jan Hooks and get better.
Season 33 (2007-2008)
Another Writers Guild strike means a truncated season with only 12 episodes, punctuated by a sneaky-quiet Maya Rudolph departure. New Kristin Wiig characters arrived — Suze Orman, Sue, Judy Grimes — but none of them would be considered classics today.
Season 29 (2003-2004)
Notable for All That’s Kenan Thompson joining the cast, but at this stage of the game, he was still wet behind the ears. Rachel Dratch’s Debbie Downer livened things up, though that one-joke premise was never funnier than in its original Disney World version. This was Peak Cracking-Up Fallon and Sanz.
Season 23 (1997-1998)
Tragedy loomed in the air with the untimely deaths of Chris Farley and Phil Hartman. Norm Macdonald was booted from the Weekend Update desk for his refusal to ease up on (ALLEGED!) murderer and NBC exec Don Ohlmeyer pal O.J. Simpson. There was great sketch work mixed in with the pain, but we have a confession: We downgraded this season for introducing Chris Kattan’s Mango.
Season 38 (2012-2013)
It was the final year for Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen as the killer cast of the early 2010s moves on. Jay Pharoah took over for a miscast (at best) Armisen with his stellar Barack Obama. Rookie Cecily Strong hit right away with the Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party.
Season 36 (2010-2011)
Kristin Wiig got nominated for an Emmy for her work (in total, she earned four nominations in a row but never took home the prize). Will Forte was replaced by Pharoah, Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer, who impressed with her Miley Cyrus and Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy. A solid cast but one with new members finding their footing.
Season 28 (2002-2003)
Another transition year as Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer took their leave. The new kids were impressive, but not yet in their prime as Armisen, Forte and Seth Meyers joined the good ship SNL. Forte in particular brought appealing weirdness, introducing soft-spoken political candidate Tim Calhoun and ex-businessman-turned-bird-friendly-hermit The Falconer.
Season 24 (1998-1999)
Not the peak, but it was a solid effort by the Will Ferrell/Ana Gasteyer/Cheri Oteri crowd. New featured players included Horatio Sanz, Chris Parnell and young buck Jimmy Fallon. So cute! This season also introduced Tracy Morgan’s Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet, as well as Ferrell and Molly Shannon’s delightfully bonkers Dog Show.
Season 25 (1999-2000)
Fallon ascended to Main Dude, introducing the Boston teens (along with newcomer Rachel Dratch) and Nick Burns, Your Company’s Computer Guy. Molly Shannon showed she wasn’t done yet with Sally O’Malley — she’s 50!
Maya Rudolph came aboard mid-season. Your head writer but not yet cast member? Tina Fey.
Season 37 (2011-2012)
Kate McKinnon became the show’s first openly gay female cast member. Hands in the air, too, for the debuts of Drunk Uncle and the Californians, as well as a bittersweet farewell for Kristin Wiig and Andy Samberg. No one before or since has gotten a goodbye like Wiig’s Mick Jagger send-off.
Season 15 (1989-1990)
Many SNL guests who hold records for the most hosting appearances showed up for the first time, including John Goodman (13-timer), Christopher Walken (strange pause--7-timer) and record-holder Alec Baldwin (17-timer). It was the first season in which we met The Continental — that said, Walken’s romantically assertive character via Pepé Le Pew hasn’t aged well.
Season 27 (2001-2002)
Another kick-ass Will Ferrell season, which automatically qualifies for the top half of this list. We like Season 27 for promoting not one, not two, not three, but four important comics to the main cast: Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, and midway through the season, Amy Poehler. Throw in the underrated Ana Gasteyer and that’s a very impressive lineup.
Season 12 (1986-1987)
Michaels returned to his original playbook and wisely built a new cast with unknowns from a sketch/improv background, including Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks and Dana Carvey. This season built the foundation for the 1990s, introducing the Church Lady, the Sweeney Sisters and Kevin Nealon’s Mr. Subliminal. (It also made screen time for some unfortunate characters, such as Carvey’s Ching Chang.)
Season 16 (1990-1991)
This year was notable for the addition of soon-to-be stars Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade, Tim Meadows, Julia Sweeney and Rob Schneider. Schneider of all people was the first to break out with his “Makin’ Copies” guy, the Richmeister. But in the meantime, the show still belonged to the veterans, with sketches introducing Coffee Talk with Linda Richman, Bill Swerski’s Superfans and Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey.
Season 31 (2005-2006)
Fey and Dratch slipped out the back door, but not all was lost. No one knew it in 2005, but simultaneously adding Bill Hader, Kristin Wiig and Andy Samberg was an all-time Lorne Michaels power move. The SNL Digital Shorts debuted, including YouTube jumpstarter Lazy Sunday and Natalie Portman proving she was a badass.
Season 35 (2009-2010)
The internet spoke, landing a hosting gig for Betty White. While the show was a certified banger, we’re still thankful it was the first and last time Michales gave into a Facebook begging campaign. (Other thirsty fan crusades clamored for Carol Burnett, Stan Lee and Cookie Monster.) After years of lurking in the background, Kenan Thompson finally stepped up and asked, “What Up With That?”
Season 26 (2000-2001)
An election year inspired Ferrell to perfect his George W. Bush alongside Darrell Hammond’s delightfully dull Al Gore in a move that, for better or worse, cemented SNL’s place in the political universe. Fey finally joined the cast, paring with Fallon as the first Weekend Update team with sexual tension. Ferrell and Dratch debuted their Lovers, ruining hot tubs and spiced meats for everyone.
Season 7 (1981-1982)
New producer Dick Ebersol ditched everyone from Season Six except for Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy, wisely building the show almost entirely around Murphy. The comic dazzled by introducing an array of classic characters, including Buckwheat, Velvet Jones and Gumby, dammit. Maybe the greatest single season by any cast member. Heat check!
Season 22 (1996-1997)
It was homecoming season as a bevy of ex-cast members returned to host, including Dana Carvey, Robert Downey Jr., Phil Hartman, Chris Rock, Martin Short, Chevy Chase and Mike Myers. (Take note: Funny people who can do sketch comedy make great hosts!) A rock-solid season introduced Ferrell’s Harry Caray, the Ambiguously Gay Duo, middle-school music instructors the Culps, the NPR show Delicious Dish and the Ferrell-led Celebrity Jeopardy.
Season 1 (1975-1976)
If nothing else, credit this season for starting it all. The show took some time to find its comedy footing, with more of an emphasis on music and variety in the beginning. There were Muppets all over the place (much to the consternation of head writer Michael O’Donoghue), and that isn’t counting the multiple Andy Kaufman appearances. Uneven? Sure, but it was the template from which all future seasons would operate.
Season 32 (2006-2007)
Budget cuts meant fewer shows and a smaller cast. In this case, it worked! Poehler and Meyers sizzled on the Weekend Update desk. And the hits kept on coming all season long — from Bronx Beat to MacGruber to Dick in a Box.
Season 21 (1995-1996)
With the show on the ropes after a miserable Season 20, Michaels roped in Darrell Hammond, Jim Breuer, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan, and a fellow by the name of Will Ferrell. With Molly Shannon promoted to the main cast, another strong foundation was firmly set in place. Almost everyone hit with a recurring character, from Ferrell and Oteri’s Spartan cheerleaders to Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher to Ferrell and Kattan’s Night at the Roxbury guys (funny at first!) to Breuer’s Goat Boy and Joe Pesci. The SNL online gift shop is still full of merch featuring these characters.
Season 2 (1976-1977)
Now we started getting somewhere. The “adult” Muppets were relegated to a felt dumpster out back of Studio 8H. When Chase’s head got too big for the show, it traded him in for an even better Bill Murray. The Not Ready for Prime Time Players hit their stride, joined by 16-time host Steve Martin making his debut. The Coneheads arrived from France. Even the disastrous live show from Mardi Gras has become the stuff of legend.
Season 10 (1984-1985)
The ringer year. In Dick Ebersol’s final season as producer, he assembled a murderer’s row of established comics including Harry Shearer (back for more punishment), Rich Hall, Christopher Guest, Martin Short (who brings along all of his best SCTV characters), and most importantly, Billy Crystal. It didn’t always feel like SNL — it relied on pretaped bits more than ever before — but the show was once again driving the zeitgeist.
Season 14 (1988-1989)
SNL added two of the biggest movie comedy stars of all time — Mike Myers and Ben Stiller, though only one became an SNL legend, too. Myers and Dana Carvey descend to the basement to debut Wayne’s World, joining the Anal Retentive Chef, Sprockets and Toonces the Driving Cat in a stellar season.
Season 34 (2008-2009)
The season where political relevance and hysterical comedy collided, highlighted by Tina Fey’s game-changing Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler’s oh-so-thirsty Hillary Clinton. New characters included Bill Hader’s Stefon, along with Kristen Wiig hitting the trifecta: homicidal schoolgirl Gilly, flatulent office hottie Shana and Lawrence Welk weirdette Dooneese.
Season 3 (1977-1978)
The show officially became Saturday Night Live after the demise of Howard Cosell’s rival version on ABC. Dan Aykroyd joined Jane Curtin on the Weekend Update desk. Chevy Chase and Bill Murray got into a fistfight. Elvis Costello taunted the censors with “Radio Radio.” It was the last season where the cast was referred to as the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, introducing iconic characters like the wild and crazy Festrunk Brothers, Roseanne Roseannadanna, the Nerds, the Blues Brothers, Steve Martin’s King Tut and Father Guido Sarducci.
TV Guide named the Steve Martin-hosted show as the #12 Top TV Episode of All Time. The cast hit its stride before drugs, fame and fatigue wiped it all away. The gold standard.