25 Recurring Characters That ‘SNL’ Beat Into the Ground
The days of the Saturday Night Live recurring character are seemingly behind us. These days, a popular sketch like Lisa from Temecula or Pedro Pascal’s overprotective mother might earn a second appearance, but that’s about it. What a change from the days when big laughs for a Church Lady or the Makin’ Copies Guy could mean a weekly diet of the same tired catchphrases. Here are 25 characters that SNL decided we couldn’t get enough of — even when we begged them to stop...
It was only about five weeks into the SNL careers of Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri when they debuted the Spartan Cheerleaders, two lovable, best-friend losers who didn’t have what it took to make the high school pep squad. “It was really catching on,” Oteri told The Hollywood Reporter. “Sometime later, I remember being at Bed Bath & Beyond in line and seeing a refrigerator magnet with our faces on it as cheerleaders. I couldn’t believe it.” Believe this — the Cheerleaders appeared 17 times, spreading school spirit at swim meets, wrestling tournaments and chess team battles.
The Killer Bees
According to Saturday Night: A Backstage History, the Bees were the first recurring characters in the show’s history. Originally, dressing the cast in bee costumes was a way to get everyone on stage at once. John Belushi wasn’t a fan, believing the whole business was beneath him as an actor. In this sketch where host Rob Reiner complained about another Bee appearance, Belushi got to kvetch on national TV: “I’m sorry if you think we’re ruining your show, Mr. Reiner. But, see, you don’t understand — we didn’t ask to be Bees. You see, you’ve got Norman Lear and a first-rate writing staff. But this is all they came up with for us. Do you think we like this? No, no, Mr. Reiner, we don’t have any choice.”
The audience applauded.
Chris Kattan says he based the androgynous, alluring Mango on several sources, including his Russian ex-girlfriend, his pet Dalmatian, Everything But the Girl’s song “Missing” and an actual stripper named Mango — which sort of explains everything. Mango flirted his way through 16 exceedingly horny sketches.
Even before Alec Baldwin was recruited to impersonate 45, Trump was a favorite subject for ridicule, er, satire for four decades. Phil Hartman first brought Trump to life back in 1988, a character who would later be played by Darrell Hammond, Jason Sudeikis, Taran Killam, Baldwin and James Austin Johnson. We’re pretty sure that’s the record for most actors playing a single recurring goofball.
Rob Schneider’s Richmeister (also known as Copy Room Guy and Makin’ Copies Guy) had a pretty simple shtick, riffing nickname variations on anyone unfortunate enough to use the copier by his desk. The whole point of the character was how much he annoyed coworkers, so you’d think SNL producers would get that Richard Laymer would have the same effect on viewers. Especially with nine appearances in two years.
Speaking of annoying, few recurring characters were more irritating than the Whiners, the sniveling couple brought to life by Joe Piscopo and Robin Duke in the early 1980s. It was part of producer Dick Ebersol’s commitment to promote his performers. Writer James Downey, in SNL oral history Live From New York, summed up Ebersol’s philosophy: “I’m going to pretend ‘The Whiners’ are popular characters whether the audience thinks so or not, and we’re going to keep doing it.” Insufferable.
Willie and Frankie
Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest play two sad sacks who treat self-inflicted, horrific injuries as everyday maladies, punctuated by the would-be catchphrase, “I hate when that happens.” As a sketch premise, it’s amusing enough, but the joke got old over six appearances during the 1985-86 season.
Tommy Flanagan, the Pathological Liar
At a time when SNL was desperate for a breakout character, Jon Lovitz came to the rescue with a guy who specialized in outrageous lies. You could tell he was full of shit when he ended his tall tales with the catchphrase, “Yeah, that’s the ticket!” There was even talk of a Liar movie, but why bother when Tommy Flanagan’s mind-boggling 19 appearances basically add up to a feature's length anyway?
The Church Lady
Dana Carvey broke out his Church Lady on his first-ever show, then seemingly brought her back on every episode in which he appeared. Enid Strict was a brilliant creation, a sanctimonious shrew whose main interest in religion was passing judgment on others. (Carvey based her on women from his own childhood church who tracked people's attendance.) Two things killed the bit — oversaturation thanks to 20 repeat appearances and obnoxious coworkers who insisted on repeating the catchphrase, “Well, isn’t that special?”
Hans & Franz
The body-building cousins of Arnold Schwarzenegger pumped you up over and over again (20 times!), proving so popular that Ah-nuld tentatively agreed to appear in a Hans & Franz film back in the 1990s. After Last Action Hero tanked, Schwarzenegger decided another self-deprecating comedy was a bad idea. Carvey, Kevin Nealon and Conan O’Brien brought the project back to life this year with a hilarious live reading of the screenplay, with Robert Smigel stepping in for Arnold. The former California governator thought the reading was so funny that he’s trying to convince O’Brien to revive the film.
Toonces, the Driving Cat
There’s an absurd beauty to the idea of a cat who can pilot a Plymouth, only to steer the damn thing off a cliff. But it’s a flimsy premise to support several Toonces appearances, including his own half-hour special on NBC. Nine lives, fine, but fifteen?
Mike Myers was Dieter, the West German minimalist who hosted his own talk show and invited you to touch his monkey. The character was delightfully weird, but the 14 sketches soon devolved into repetitions of the same despondent catchphrases (“I’m as happy as a little girl,” he would drone, pinching his black turtleneck to imply erect nipples). Dieter would have starred in his own SNL movie with David Hasselhoff as the villain, but Myers decided his own script was subpar and pulled the plug.
While Chris Rock had a difficult time finding his SNL niche as a sketch player, he did manage eight repeat performances of his “Dark Side With Nat X” talk show. The militant Nat X never caught on like Chris Farley’s Matt Foley or Adam Sandler’s Opera Man, but he took it to The Man nonetheless. Nat X was a vehicle for Rock to perform bits from his own stand-up routines, a smart strategy considering that’s where he shone brightest.
If you judged strictly on screen time — 12 sketches and a feature film — you’d have to rank Julia Sweeney’s Pat as one of the most popular characters in the show’s history. But history hasn’t exactly been kind. On a recent episode of the Fly on the Wall podcast, David Spade offered that Sweeney and Pat were ahead of the curve on gender-identity comedy, but Sweeney corrected him: “Or behind.” The central joke around androgyny — is Pat a guy or a gal? — hasn’t aged well.
“If I did it again, I would make Pat more enigmatic and make it clear that it was about the other people (who were confused about gender),” Sweeney said. “Almost more Charlie Chaplin-esque, not talking much and just about everyone else’s reactions — the way (Chaplin) was enigmatic and let everyone else react to him doing physical things. That would have been the way that I think it could have succeeded.”
Bill Swerski’s Superfans
In two years, the Mike Ditka devotees appeared nine times to extol the virtues of their favorite team, Da Bears. But the characters didn’t only get beat into the ground on SNL. The networks enlisted the Superfans to be part of NFL pregame shows, half-time events and even Super Bowl coverage. ESPN invited Bill Swerski (non-cast member Joe Mantegna) to talk about a possible Mike Ditka run for Senate. George Wendt’s Bob Swerski showed up on ESPN as well. In the 2010s, the Superfans showed up in TV commercials for State Farm and Old Navy. Add this to the list of proposed SNL films that never happened, despite a screenplay from Smigel and Bob Odenkirk.
Coffee Talk with Linda Richman
Mike Myers’s Linda Richman appeared 14 times for some Coffee Talk, no big whoop. Like all Myers characters, the Jewish talk show host engaged in a number of recurring tropes and catchphrases (a Barbra Streisand fixation, good things were “like buttah,” “I’m all ferklempt”) that made each subsequent appearance feel like we’d seen it before. And, as with all Myers recurring characters post-Wayne Campbell, there was talk of a feature film that never got made.
Before he was a senator, Al Franken channeled his personal 12-step experiences into the perpetually improving Stuart Smalley, a man who is good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like him. Not only did Smalley appear an ego-boosting 20 times, but he penned a real-life self-help book and starred in his own movie as well. Still didn’t get enough? Smalley often “guested” on The Al Franken Show, a radio program when Air America was still a thing.
Twelve SNL appearances was the charm for Opera Man, the Adam Sandler character who delivered news commentary via dramatic arias delivered-a in an Italian-a accent-a. The character was based on a real guy Sandler would see wandering around the city, he said last year during a Fly on the Wall podcast. “He used to sing opera on the street and hold the can up,” remembered Sandler of the man who would charge for spur-of-the-moment singing. Opera Man was “a fucking cruncher,” marveled Spade at the character who would return for SNL’s 40th anniversary and perform at the 2001 Concert for New York City.
The Gap Girls were a sore point for female cast members who couldn’t get air time during the Sandler/Farley/Spade heyday — those dudes had to play all the women too? The sketch came back six times, generally involving Spade or Sandler telling customers to “cinch it.”
Mary Katherine Gallagher
“The stuntmen said, ‘She’s out of her fucking mind’” when it came to Molly Shannon performing her own set-busting, Catholic schoolgirl stunts, Shannon confessed in her memoir Hello Molly. Considering that she did the character 19 times, that’s quite a collection of scrapes and contusions. “I woke up Sunday morning, bruised and cut, muscles aching,” Shannon explained. “But it felt so good because I had poured my fucking body into what I was doing. I liked how it felt.” (Yeah, she got her own movie too.)
It’s pretty impressive that SNL kept finding a way to bring back the clubbing brothers considering that they rarely if ever spoke. The inevitable movie (again, the guys didn’t speak!) is probably most famous for either sparking a Chris Kattan/Will Ferrell feud or for Kattan’s claims that Lorne Michaels suggested that Kattan sleep with director Amy Heckerling: “Chris, I’m not saying you have to fuck her, but it wouldn’t hurt.” All of which sounds much more interesting than A Night at the Roxbury.
One of SNL’s most unlikely repeat characters, Jim Breuer starred as the braying half man/half goat who happened to host a show called Hey, Remember the 80s? “I still get recognized for the goat thing,” he told a college audience in 2008. “It’s funny because I hate goats.” But he realized in college that when he ordered beers interrupted by goat noises, the bartender would assume something was wrong with him and send him to the corner with free drinks. Hey, whatever works.
The Ladies Man
It took Tim Meadows a minute to develop a character that SNL audiences loved, and when he finally hit upon Leon Phelps, aka the Ladies Man, he brought that smooth son of a bitch back 15 times. Meadows based the character on suave customers who frequented the liquor store he worked at during his college days — those lady killers would always go straight for the Courvoisier.
Rachel Dratch got the idea for the character while on vacation in Costa Rica. “When I told someone that I was from New York, they asked, ‘Were you there for 9/11?’ The conversation froze,” Dratch says. “When I got back, the name Debbie Downer popped into my head.” The character’s first appearance was an all-time crack-up fest, with the Disney World set practically shaking from all the laughs. SNL brought Debbie back nine times, but no sketch got bigger yuks than the original.
Did Kristen Wiig kill the SNL recurring character? We’re not saying she did, but Wiig was the last SNL cast member to have a virtual menagerie of repeat idiots, including travel writer Judy Grimes, the enthusiastic Target Lady, Lawrence Welk weirdo Dooneese, Kathie Lee Gifford, Suze Orman, sexy yet flatulent Shana and Secret Word’s Mindy Elise Grayson. As for Gilly? We often found her at it again, causing lots of ruckus like a barnyard hen. She terrorized classmates in eight different sketches during the 2010s.