The 10 Best ‘SNL’ Casts of All Time
There’s never been a more powerful star-maker than Saturday Night Live, the comedy institution that’s been giving funny people their big break for nearly 50 years. Which seasons’ casts packed the most collective punch, though? The 10 funny groups below represent distinct eras in the show’s history; here’s how we rank them in the all-time pantheon…
You won’t find a lot of love for Christine Ebersole, Tony Rosato and Robin Duke on all-time SNL cast lists. Even the relative success of Joe Piscopo wouldn’t be enough to elevate this cast, one of the first groups after the mass exodus of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players. But we had to include Season Seven for the presence of Eddie Murphy, a one-man wrecking crew who could practically populate a sketch comedy show with his characters alone, from Mr. Robinson to James Brown to Gumby to Buckwheat to Velvet Jones. Not a championship cast but at least it featured a Hall of Fame player.
Season 10’s cast was even more top-heavy than Murphy’s a few years earlier. That season delivered some killer sketches courtesy of ringers Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Martin Short and Harry Shearer — all well-established stars before they showed up at 30 Rock in 1984. But let’s not forget that cast also included names like Gary Kroeger, Pamela Stephenson and Jim Belushi, who not only failed to make a dent but barely got a chance due to the dominance of the established stars.
In the SNL Bloated Cast Era, it’s hard for individual players to break out in the way that Will Ferrell or Kristen Wiig did in earlier years. There are not a lot of weak links in a cast that includes Aidy Bryant, Michael Che, Pete Davidson, Mikey Day, Chloe Fineman, Heidi Gardner, Colin Jost, Kate McKinnon, Alex Moffat, Kyle Mooney, Ego Nwodim, Chris Redd, Cecily Strong, Kenan Thompson, Melissa Villaseñor and Bowen Yang, but how can anyone find their groove with so many people competing for stage time? (And that’s not even counting an additional five featured players who wanted to prove themselves.) In another era, it’s possible that more of these comics would have made a bigger splash — but Lorne Michaels handcuffed the entire group via overpopulation.
This season represents the peak of the Bad Boys of SNL. Sure, Phil Hartman was still doing his Glue thing and Mike Myers was hanging out while not making hit movies, but Season 19 was dominated by Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider and David Spade — comics known for loud, obnoxious characters who were the favorites of middle-school boys everywhere. It wasn’t exactly highbrow, but you can’t help but smile when Farley goes high-kickin’ it through the cafeteria.
Consider Season 40 a kinder, gentler version of Season 47. You still have your Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant and Kenan Thompson, but they had a little more room to play without so many comedians to bump into. SNL faves Bobby Moynihan, Jay Pharoah, Vanessa Bayer and Taran Killam were also around to join the fun. None of this season’s cast has gone on to kill it in the movies or on prestige TV (yet), but it’s a funny group with few weak links. First-year featured players Beck Bennett and Pete Davidson get some reps as well.
Holdover all-stars Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan are joined by Tina Fey, Ana Gasteyer, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch and Maya Rudolph in what may have been the show’s strongest female cast. (It’s debatable, but this one is up there.) We’re also at the peak of “Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz find each other hilarious.” But forget those goofs — take it away, ladies.
Ferrell, Kattan and Gasteyer are here from Season 27, along with peak Tracy Morgan, Molly Shannon, Darrell Hammond, Tim Meadows and Cheri Oteri. If Michaels was leaning in too hard on recurring characters like the Spartan Cheerleaders, Mango, Mary Katherine Gallagher and the Ladies’ Man, it might be because this cast was so good at creating them.
Take the one-two-three punch of Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey and Jan Hooks — then add newcomer Mike Myers to the mix. We’re not sure what your SNL Mount Rushmore looks like, but if you had these four carved into the rock, it wouldn’t be crazy. The fact that they shared the stage for Season 15 is kinda nuts, though. Throw in Nora Dunn, Jon Lovitz and Kevin Nealon, pop Dennis Miller behind the Update desk, and you have a classic cast for the ages.
Sure, you can make an argument for the original Not Ready for Primetime Players, but we think a swap of Bill Murray for Chevy Chase is a good trade. Chase’s departure also cleared the way for John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner to take center stage, a move that put more emphasis on the classic ensemble rather than a breakout star. You’d think a more contemporary writing staff could have given Garrett Morris more to do, but otherwise, it’s hard to argue with Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman and the rest of the gang hitting on all cylinders.
On a recent episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, Seth Meyers talked about a cast picture that’s hanging right outside his Late Show studio. Nearly every single performer in that picture — Meyers, Fred Armisen, Will Forte, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis and Andy Samberg — have returned to host the show, a distinction that Meyers believes is unique to that cast. The one cast member who hasn’t hosted? That’s Kenan Thompson, the longest-tenured comic in show history who we’re pretty sure will get his shot some day.
Between Late Show, Barry, Bridesmaids, Ted Lasso, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Portlandia (and that’s far from counting all their wins), it’s fair to say that the cast of Season 35, comic for comic, has also had more post-show success than any other group. For its success both on and after Saturday Night Live, the Season 35 cast takes the crown as the greatest of all time.