40 for 40: SNL's all-time greatest cast members, ranked

Melody Baetens, Adam Graham and Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Live from Detroit, it's ... the most heated debate to hit our office in years.

With "Saturday Night Live" celebrating its 40th anniversary with a massive prime time special on Sunday — Justin Timberlake, Adam Sandler, Paul McCartney, Kanye West, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld and Eddie Murphy are just a few of the names scheduled to participate — The Detroit News entertainment staff decided to get together to rank the comic institution's all-time Top 40 cast members.

What followed was an intense, weeks­long debate that drew opinions from everybody on our staff: Metro reporters, editors, designers, even the crew in sports. It's a testament to the show's reach: Like no other program on television, "SNL" spans generations and inspires a passionate sense of ownership from viewers over their favorite eras, characters and cast members.

First we established our criteria, judging cast members by their work solely on the show, not what they went on to do afterward. We focused on on-camera talent, not behind-the-scenes players, and took into account each individual's unique characters, impression work and overall impact on the show.

We got dirty. We fought. We grumbled. And from the show's 141 original cast members, we winnowed the list down to 65, threw their names on a wall and let fists fly as we got down to the business of establishing and ranking our Top 40. It was by no means easy, and some of our favorites didn't make the cut — it's nothing personal, Rob Schneider! — but we came up with a list that we're proud to say represents the show, its influence and everything "SNL" has meant to the universe of comedy.

You'll have opinions. We want to hear them. Because if we've learned anything these past few weeks, it's that "SNL" means a whole lot to a whole lot of people. And as the show hits this milestone anniversary, it is still as important to audiences as it was the first time the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" hit the stage at NBC's Studio 8H.

Let the debate begin ...

1. Amy Poehler

(8 seasons, 2001-2008)

We choose Ms. Poehler as our top cast member because of her ability to jump into so many roles. A quick wit, she could improvise when needed, showed strong comedy chops on "Weekend Update," and killed it with uproarious moments like her uber-pregnant and flawless Sarah Palin rap.

2. Phil Hartman

(8 seasons, 1986-94))

Hartman never chased the spotlight. He was the ultimate straight man, the voiceover guy, the foil for his bigger, louder castmates. Yet his impressions left a mark: his Frank Sinatra is indelible and his Bill Clinton was the first to capture the essence of the ex-president.

3. Will Ferrell

(7 seasons, 1995-2002))

He excelled at outbursts, exposing the underbelly of rage simmering just below the surface of the average suburban dad. He also had no problem exposing his own underbelly, most memorably in the sketch that forever has us wanting "more cowbell."

4. Eddie Murphy

(3 seasons, 1980-84))

Murphy, who now calls "SNL" a "Harvard for the comic actor," was responsible for innumerable classic bits, including Gumby ("I'm Gumby, damn it!"); TV hustler Velvet Jones; Buckwheat (of Little Rascals fame); and Mr. Rogers' ghetto counterpart in "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood." His musical impressions included James Brown.

5. Mike Myers

(6 seasons, 1989-95)

The wildly talented comic burrowed so deep into his characters — party dude Wayne Campbell, German expressionist Dieter verklempt, talk show host Linda Richman — that we learned more about those characters than we ever did about Myers himself.

6. John Belushi

(4 seasons, 1975-79)

Belushi, the master of the raised eyebrow, was compelling to watch in such skits as a series of "Samurai" segments ("Samurai Hitman," "Samurai Tailor," etc.); his ethnic lunch counter worker ("Cheezboiger cheezboiger"); Jake Blues to Aykroyd's Elwood; a spastic Joe Cocker, etc. Despite his girth, Belushi was athletic and also musical, adding to his versatility.

7. Chris Farley

(5 seasons, 1990-95)

Breaking coffee tables, stripping, shouting, interpretive dancing or having "anudder heart attack," the late Chris Farley stole every sketch he was in. He had the wild man heart of Belushi, but with a sweetness that endeared him to the audience.

8. Gilda Radner

(5 seasons, 1975-80)

Second City alum in the first cast, Detroit-born Radner delivered rambling, nonsensical editorials as Emily Litella, dispensed advice as Roseanne Roseannadanna, and her impressions included "Baba Wawa" (her take on TV journalist Barbara Walters), Patti Smith ("Candi Slice") and Lucille Ball.

9. Dan Aykroyd

(4 seasons, 1975-79)

Another Second City vet, Aykroyd formed a bond with John Belushi that led to their musical sketch "Blues Brothers" and many other bits. His specialty was the laughably stiff pitchman (for products such as "Super Bass-o-Matic"), Papa Conehead, a hysterical, bloodied Julia Child and a wild and crazy guy (with Steve Martin), to name a few.

10. Kenan Thompson

(12 seasons, 2003-present)

Besides his long tenure, Thompson is known for his huge arsenal of celebrity impressions (Al Sharpton, Bill Cosby, David Ortiz, Steve Harvey, etc.), a talent essential to being an important cast member. Thompson is often the glue holding the less-funny sketches together.

11. Kristen Wiig

(7 seasons, 2005-12)

She has impersonated everyone from Barbie to Suze Orman, plus cranks out wacky characters like the Target Lady and Dooneese from "The Lawrence Welk" show ("Is that bad?").

12. Tina Fey

(9 seasons 1997-06)

The show's first female head writer, Fey also got a ton of air time as Weekend Update co-anchor with Jimmy Fallon and, later, Amy Poehler. She also performed in and wrote some of the funniest fake commercials in "SNL's" history, including "Mom Jeans" and "Kotex Classic." If this were a list of writers, she'd be much higher.

13. Dana Carvey

(7 seasons, 1986-93)

Carvey was the goofy Garth, sidekick to Mike Myers' Wayne in "Wayne's World," and was a memorable President George H.W. Bush, warbling about "a thousand points of light." But his star turn on SNL was probably as the prim, judgmental Church Lady, skewering foes with the tagline "Could it be... Satan?!"

14. Bill Murray

(3 seasons, 1977-80)

Murray always played somewhat spacey nerds, one of his best bits was as Nick the Lounge Singer, singing words to the "Star Wars" theme; as "Todd DiLaMuca," traded noogies with Gilda Radner; and as the hapless fry cook sidekick to Belushi in the "Cheezboiger cheezboiger" sketch.

15. Chevy Chase

(1 season, 1975-76)

It was Chase's voice that viewers first heard every Saturday night, intoning "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" Signed as a writer, but a last-minute add as a performer, he took pratfalls as a clumsy President Gerald Ford, played the Landshark and was the original "Weekend Update" anchor, using the sign-off "Good night, and have a pleasant tomorrow."

16. Darrell Hammond

(14 seasons 1995-2009)

Until Kenan Thompson came along, Hammond held the record for most celebrity impressions on "SNL." Besides spoofing Bill Clinton and Al Gore, he also did a recurring impersonation of a surly Sean Connery on the "Celebrity Jeopardy" sketches.

17. Andy Samberg

(7 seasons, 2005-12)

Through his Digital Shorts with his Lonely Island teammates — classics include "Lazy Sunday" and the Emmy-winning "(Blank) in a Box" — Samberg ushered "SNL" into the Internet era.

18. Maya Rudolph

(7 seasons, 2000-07)

The daughter of a soul singer and record producer, Rudolph has seemingly impersonated every type of person: black, white, Asian, Hispanic, man and woman. Her best moments came from her Donatella Versace skits and when teaming up with Poehler for the recurring "Bronx Beat" sketch.

19. Fred Armisen

(11 seasons, 2002-13)

His features allowed him to convincingly play any ethnicity, and he used his musician's background and his offbeat, indie rock sensibility to become one of "SNL's" coolest-ever castmembers.

20. Bill Hader

(8 seasons, 2005-13)

"SNL" wasn't clamoring for a guy to play Vincent Price in the '00s, but Hader's exasperated take on the ghoulish actor — along with his flamboyant Stefon character — became show standbys thanks to Hader's comic vision.

21. Jimmy Fallon

(6 seasons, 1998-2004)

When goofball Fallon wasn't cracking up during a sketch (and even sometimes when he was), he was dynamite, from pointing fingers with Mick Jagger to co-anchoring "Weekend Update" with Tiny Fey.

22. Adam Sandler

(5 seasons, 1991-95)

His characters — Canteen Boy, Opera Man — didn't dig much deeper than their names, but Sandler's free-associative songs on the Weekend Update desk ("Red Hooded Sweatshirt," "The Chanukah Song") showed off his wily man-boy charm.

23. David Spade (6 seasons 1990-96)

Birmingham native Spade had the perfect deadpan smirks and asides reacting to Chris Farley ("Down by the River," etc.), and specialized in caustic put-downs, whether saying "Buh-bye," playing Dick Clark's haughty secretary ("And you are?") or in the "Hollywood Minute," when he said, over a photo of Eddie Murphy: "Look children, it's a falling star, make a wish!"

24. Jane Curtin

(5 seasons, 1975-80)

Famous for her deadpan reactions, especially on "Weekend Update," in reaction to Aykroyd, Curtin played his Conehead wife and anchored "Weekend Update," often offering an outraged foil to the shenanigans of Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and John Belushi.

25. Molly Shannon

(7 seasons 1995-2001)

A wild physical comedian, Shannon's best known for characters like Mary Katherine Gallagher and Sally O'Malley.

26. Jason Sudeikis

(8 seasons, 2005-13)

Sudeikis infused every character and situation with manic sincerity, including the overly-enthusistic male dancer on "What Up With That," as a snarky devil quitting his job as Prince of Darkness over the Penn State sex scandal, and the gum-chewing wealthy preppie boyfriend in the recurring "A-Holes" skit with Kristen Wiig.

27. Kate McKinnon

(4 seasons 2012-present)

Both fierce and whacky, McKinnon will go out on a limb for a laugh (including licking Louis C.K.'s face), but she doesn't need to; her expressions alone kill us.

28. Taran Killam

(5 seasons, 2010-present)

A strong utility player (his Jebidiah Atkinson character is a scream) armed with a Brad Pitt impression so dead on it casts Brad Pitt in an entirely new light.

29. Tracy Morgan

(7 seasons 1996-2003)

Morgan always seemed off in his own wonderfully strange and funny world, whether in "Brian Fellowes' Safari Planet," the "enthusiastic young man with a sixth grade education and an abiding love for all of God's creatures," or as the enthusiastic Astronaut Jones, crooning atomic age tunes in "Destination Moon."

30. Dennis Miller

(6 seasons, 1985-91)

He had a way with a rant, and with his wry smirk and cocky delivery, he bridged the gap at the Weekend Update desk from the mid-'80s to the early-'90s.

31. Chris Rock

(3 seasons, 1990-93)

One of the world's sharpest comic minds, Rock spent his "SNL" years finding his voice, and succeeded most thoroughly with his militant talk show host Nat X.

32. Seth Meyers

(13 seasons, 2001-14)

The second-longest tenured castmember in show history (behind Darrell Hammond) and the longest-running "Update" host, his "Really?" segments with Poehler best embodied his wry snarkiness.

33. Will Forte

(8 seasons, 2002-10)

A boundary-pusher best at playing deeply weird misfits with a sad streak, he turned MacGruber, essentially a one-joke riff on action heroes, into a soap opera of familial discord.

34. Norm Macdonald

(5 seasons, 1993-98)

His impressions of Burt Reynolds and David Letterman were biting, but his legacy is his firing for his incessant and unrelenting O.J. Simpson jokes while anchoring Weekend Update.

35. Bobby Moynihan

(7 seasons, 2008-present)

"Is that Amazon Prime pumpkin-spiced?" is just one of the important questions posed by our favorite Moynihan character, Weekend Update's Drunk Uncle.

36. Jon Lovitz

(5 seasons, 1985-1990)

This Los Angeles native was nominated for an Emmy Award for his first two seasons on SNL. Some of his most memorable characters are Hanukkah Harry, Master Thespian and Tommy Flanagan, the Pathological Liar.

37. Kevin Nealon

(9 seasons, 1986-95)

Aside from pumping up half of Hans & Franz, Nealon excelled at slightly awkward everyman roles, a skewed perspective he brought to his three seasons on Weekend Update.

38. Ana Gasteyer

(6 seasons, 1996-2002)

Besides playing a topless Martha Stewart (which she later apologized to Stewart for), Gasteyer is best known for her original characters, like an NPR radio host and a high school music teacher.

39. Cheri Oteri

(5 seasons, 1995-2000)

A tiny comic with a loud mouth, many of Oteri's characters were shouters, including neighbor lady Rita DelVecchio and Arianna the cheerleader.

40. Garrett Morris

(5 seasons, 1975-80)

New Orleans native Morris scored on "Weekend Update" as the Dominican baseball player Chico Esuela, who insisted that baseball was "bery bery good" to him, and as the President of the School of the Hard of Hearing — Morris would shout the headlines for deaf viewers.

Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special

8 p.m. Sun.


Current Stars

These current castmembers keep us tuning in every week, but were edged out of our Top 40:

Vanessa Bayer (5 seasons, 2010-present): Her Miley Cyrus character has been buried (bring it back!), but we'll always tune in to see her do Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy on "Update."

Cecily Strong (3 seasons, 2012-present): Her reign on "Weekend Update" was cut short, even though we'll take her over Colin Jost and Michael Che combined.

Jay Pharoah (5 seasons, 2010-present): Had a rocky start, but has come into his own thanks to his killer, dead-on impressions of Denzel Washington, Will Smith and Jay Z.

Kyle Mooney (2 seasons, 2013-present): His sensibilities are so offbeat it's like he's beamed in from another comic planet, where he learned about life by watching discarded VHS tapes from the 1980s.

Beck Bennett (2 seasons, 2013-present): A member of comic clique Good Neighbor (alongside Mooney and 'SNL' writer Nick Rutherford), Bennett scored with his full-grown infant character Baby Boss.

Close Calls

These castmembers were in the mix, but we couldn't quite find a place for them on our list:

Laraine Newman (5 seasons, 1975-1980): One of "SNL's" original players, she made an impression as Lina Wertmuller and Connie Conehead, blazing a path that many followed.

Tim Meadows (10 seasons, 1991-2000): Hailing from Highland Park, the "Ladies Man" was a staple of the '90s cast.

Martin Short (1 season, 1984-1985): One of the bright lights in Dick Ebersol's last year as producer, Short brought his Ed Grimley character to Studio 8H from SCTV, as well as sharp impressions of Katharine Hepburn and Jerry Lewis.

Billy Crystal (1 season, 1984-1985): He looked mah-velous, but simply wasn't on the show long enough to have a lasting impact.

Jan Hooks (5 seasons, 1986-1991): She played an angry Sinead O'Connor and two First Ladies, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton, and came closest of any of the also-rans to making our Top 40.

Top 5 Hosts

They were never castmembers, but these master hosts might as well have been:

1. Alec Baldwin (16 shows): He had difficulty finding his center on the big screen ("The Shadow," anyone?), but his ease and comfort on the "SNL" stage made him an institution.

2. Steve Martin (15 shows): So many of "SNL's" classic moments are tied to Martin ("Two Wild and Crazy Guys," King Tut) that you're forgiven if you thought he was once a member of the cast.

3. Justin Timberlake (5 shows): We knew he sang and danced, but he's hilarious and totally at ease on the "SNL" stage. He even pulls off wearing an omlete costume with style. What can't he do?

4. Christopher Walken (7 shows): He gets weirder every time he hosts, peppering his bizarre line readings with awkward pauses and an almost total lack of eye contact with his co-stars. A true original.

5. Tom Hanks (8 shows): Hanks has had many great "SNL" moments, but his induction into the "Five-Timer's Club" — rare air for those who've hosted the show five times — was an all-time show highlight.