The 10 Worst Breaks in Classic ‘Saturday Night Live’ Sketches

Trying not to laugh just makes it more hilarious
The 10 Worst Breaks in Classic ‘Saturday Night Live’ Sketches

According to Saturday Night Live legend, producer Lorne Michaels hates it when his comics break character. From the show’s earliest days, per Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, Michaels made it clear that the Not Ready for Primetime Players would be the Anti-Carol Burnetts. Performances would be less broad — no Harvey Korman mugging allowed. There would be more integrity in the writing process. And unlike Tim Conway and his snickering cohorts, there would be absolutely no self-congratulatory smirking, chuckling or outright guffaws, especially not over how funny the sketch was.  

For many seasons, that ethos held true. You never saw Dan Aykroyd or Bill Murray lose it during a sketch (although the same couldn’t be said for 1976 host Candice Bergen — see below). And the late 1980s/early 1990s crew featuring Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey and Jan Hooks almost always held it together. But since then, things have gotten a little more, shall we say, Carol Burnett-esque. And to hear several cast members tell it, a little cracking up now and then might actually be good for the show. 

Here are 10 times SNL performers couldn’t hold in the laughs, and we have to admit, it did make the sketches even more hilarious…

Dog Show

“Sometimes I could hardly perform in a sketch with Will (Ferrell) because I would just start laughing,” remembered Molly Shannon in her memoir Hello Molly. And unlike Michaels, she added, “I think it’s a good sign when someone laughs during a sketch. It shows that you’re open, you’re really listening and your instrument is relaxed. The audience likes it, too. It gives them license to laugh. And they feel in on something happening live.”

Maybe that’s another reason Ferrell and Shannon’s “Dog Show” sketches were so popular. In addition to being delightfully weird, the unpredictable antics of dogs Rocky Balboa and Mr. Bojangles provided the tension/release hilarity that comes with “anything can happen.” 

Extremely Stupid


SNL was in only its second season when the aforementioned Bergen completely lost control during a sketch with Gilda Radner. “I dropped a line,” Bergen confessed in the oral history Live from New York: A Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. “And Gilda, of course, handled it beautifully. I just started laughing and threw the sketch to the wind.”

Close Encounter

Host Ryan Gosling is an underrated member of the All-Time SNL Crack-Up Club. His defenseless inability to suppress a laugh is on par with Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz. To be fair to Gosling, he’s not alone in this first appearance for Kate McKinnon’s Colleen Rafferty, the chain-smoking crackpot who always seems to get abducted by the wrong group of degenerate aliens. Bobby Moynihan and Aidy Bryant can barely hold it together themselves. Kudos to Cecily Strong for mostly keeping a straight face, even when Rafferty demonstrates how the aliens slap one’s knockers around.

The Love-Ahs with Barbara and Dave

Well, well, well, if it isn’t our friend Fallon. He and Sanz were the Batman and Robin of breaking character, earning them their own segment in the “That’s When You Break” music video on the 40th-anniversary show. But not everyone thought Fallon’s tee hees were adorable. “Laughing and all that dumb *** (Fallon) used to do, he wouldn’t mess with me because I didn’t ***ing play that s***,” Tracy Morgan griped in a Penthouse interview. “That’s taking all the attention off of everybody else and putting it on you. Like, ‘Oh, look at me, I’m the cute one.’ I told him not to do that s*** in my sketches, so he never did.”

Super Showcase Spokesmodels

Hats off to stone-face Vanessa Bayer, the only comic who’s (mostly) able to keep things sober during this drunkenly hilarious sketch. Wiig and Rudolph leave their composure in the dressing room, losing control from practically the first line before deconstructing into uncontrollable giggle beasts. By the time Wiig’s golf cart veers into no man’s land, it’s utter comedy chaos. 

There was something crazy about that sketch from the beginning,” Rudolph told the L.A. Times. “It tickled a funny bone where Kristen got the giggles — even in rehearsal. When we were coming out in the golf cart, I looked at her and I knew. I heard it, this laugh of hers that comes from the throat. It tripped some sort of wire in her where she couldn’t stop. Something about that voice… It’s a voice we do when we’re joking around with each other in life. It’s just a stupid, dumb voice, but it gets her every time.”

Short Shorts for the USA

Amy Poehler was only two shows into her SNL tenure, in only the second show that aired after 9/11, when she was cast in this patriots’ nightmare. “I watched (Will Ferrell) spread his legs," she remembered in her book Yes, Please, “and realized that America could and would laugh again.”

Host Seann William Scott did his best before eventually succumbing to laughter. “I’m just trying to focus on the cue cards,” he told Seth Meyers. “But what happened was, I got a little view of Will’s penis and testicles playing peekaboo, how do you do.” To this day, Scott says, he’ll wake up in a cold sweat having Will Ferrell nutsack flashbacks. 

Matt Foley: Van Down By the River

Chris Farley would destroy fellow actors with his Matt Foley character over a series of sketches, but the gold standard was the original, with both David Spade and Christina Applegate hiding behind their hands for most of the scene. “In rehearsal, he’d done the thing with his glasses where he’s like, ‘Is that Bill Shakespeare? I can’t see too good,’” Spade explained in The Chris Farley Show. “But he’d never done the twisting his belt and hitching up his pants thing. He saved that for the live performance, and so none of us had ever seen it. He knew that would break me. He started hitching up his pants, and I couldn’t take it. And whenever the camera was behind him focusing on me, he’d cross his eyes. I was losing it.”

Spade acknowledged that Michaels “doesn’t like it all” when comics lose it on live TV, but that rule only goaded Farley: “Chris loved to bust us up. Sometimes after the show, he’d say, ‘All I’m trying to do is make you laugh. I don’t care about anything else.’”

More Cowbell

The sketch would have been a classic if everyone could have suppressed their smirks, but Sanz and Fallon — especially Fallon — snickered this sucker into Hall of Fame status. “The whole thing was so surreal and dumb,” remembered Fallon in Live from New York. “And then (Chris) Kattan and Will (Ferrell) were screwing around, and Kattan pushes Will and somehow knocks his sunglasses off and Will turns his head and looks at me. I saw the eyes of a lunatic. His sweaty stomach was hanging out the bottom of his shirt, his eyes are just staring at me, and that was the moment for my line, and man, oh, man, I just broke. I just couldn’t stop.”

Nearly Every Bill Hader Sketch Ever

Is it fair that we smack Fallon around for self-serving chucklefests but give Bill Hader a pass for similar crimes? Because Hader couldn’t get through a single Californians or Stefon sketch without his face contorting into hysterics. At least we know why with Stefon — partner-in-crime John Mulaney made it his business to get Hader to crack during live performances. 

I think it’s very funny to mess up,” Mulaney confessed in a behind-the-sketch video, revealing his secrets for screwing with Hader. “I started changing the lines before he would go out there, just a little. Like I’d thrown in ‘three screaming babies in Mozart wigs’ as a detail.”

Debbie Downer

Like Molly Shannon, Rachel Dratch wasn’t necessarily against sketches going off the rails. “I always loved when things went ‘wrong’ on the show because it reminds you the show really is live,” she said in Live From New York. That was never more apparent than in the original Debbie Downer sketch. “Jimmy and Horatio were laughing really hard at rehearsal and I was thinking, ‘These guys, they better not mess up my thing with cracking up,’ even though sometimes it’s like we all crack up. But then I don’t know what it was — I did the sulk through one of the lines, and I think we were all just giddy from the rehearsal. I can’t really explain — it was just a random giggle fit that was completely contagious.”

Rather than just the usual offenders (looking at you, Fallon and Sanz), this was a scene where even the most stiff-lipped comics couldn’t keep it together. “‘Debbie Downer’ was one of the few sketches where I broke,” Poehler has admitted, “and I remember watching Horatio Sanz laugh so hard that tears squirted out of his eye. I still believe that sketch may be a cure for low-level depression if watched regularly.”

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