“Saturday Night Live” has been around for 40 years with nearly 150 regular players, and Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield has exhaustively ranked every player from worst to best. The full list is available here, but these “SNL”-ers made the top ten:
1. John Belushi (1975-1979)
2. Eddie Murphy (1980-1984)
3. Tina Fey (2000-2006)
4. Mike Myers (1989-1995)
5. Dan Aykroyd (1975-1979)
6. Bill Murray (1977-1980)
7. Phil Hartman (1986-1994)
8. Amy Poehler (2001-2008)
9. Gilda Radner (1975-1980)
10. Chevy Chase (1975-1977)
Here’s Sheffield on his top pick:
He was the first rock & roll star of comedy — a touch of John Lennon soul behind all that Keith Richards pirate bravado. All the extremes were there in his weird physique — a wrestler’s body with a dancer’s feet, a palooka face with a showgirl’s eyelashes. He was the first to make a cocaine joke on SNL (sixth episode — Beethoven takes a hit from the snuffbox and turns into Ray Charles), as well as the first to make the host (Buck Henry) gush blood after accidentally slashing him in the head with his samurai sword. There was always something boyishly vulnerable in his madness, whether he was doing the slow burn (Captain Kirk, George Wallace) or exploding (his horrifying Sam Peckinpah). Belushi was the “live” in “Saturday Night Live,” the one who made the show happen on the edge. We should have gotten a lot more years with him than we did. But no. Greatest hit: “Samurai Hitman,” where Belushi proves he doesn’t need words — just a robe and a sword — to turn a one-joke premise into a savage comic ballet.
Tina Fey is the highest-ranked woman on the list, and credited for making “SNL” matter in the 2000s:
You could argue that most of her onscreen contribution was “Weekend Update,” but Fey did a lot more than salvage “Update” from a decade-long losing streak — it swiftly became the highlight of the show, as the entire franchise remade itself around the wry, sardonic, not-afraid-of-her-brain Fey style. She slapped “SNL” out of its late-Nineties coma. Suddenly the skits were full of ass-kicking women, just because Fey proved how much they could get away with. And her 2008 return as Sarah Palin might be the most brilliant move “SNL” ever made. Talk about a hot streak — it was a moment when all America spent the week waiting to see what Fey would come up with on Saturday. Greatest hit: “I can see Russia from my house!” almost made it worth having Palin around.
The top ten is populated with bigger stars, from Bill Murray to Amy Poehler, but my personal favorite regular, Phil Hartman, is at number seven. I could protest a bit that my favorite Hartman sketches, “Robot Repair” and his brilliant take on Ronald Reagan, weren’t mentioned, but Hartman had so many great moments that it’s hard to fit all of them:
He was nicknamed “the Glue” for holding the show together. Chris Farley’s motivational-speaker rant never could have worked without Hartman as the cool dad in chinos, keeping a straight face. No role was too small for him. He was a master at playing bitter old men; his Sinatra made Piscopo’s look like a cream puff. (“I got chunks of guys like you in my stool!”) But his speciality was charming assholes, from the Colon Blow ad to Bill Clinton. Oh, that smug smile when he tells the Secret Service, “There’s gonna be a whole bunch of things we don’t tell Mrs. Clinton.” Greatest hit: “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer,” where he sums up the classic pitch of the all-American con man: “Your world frightens and confuses me. . . . But there is one thing I do know.”
Also in the top 25: Will Ferrell, Dana Carvey, Adam Sandler, and Maya Rudolph. Still, one of the most underrated “SNL” player, Jan Hooks, just barely missed out at number 26:
One of the virtuosos — Hooks could play 18th-century aristocrats (on “Tales of Ribaldry”) or a truck-stop waitress canoodling with Willie Nelson. It was rare in the 1980s to see a Southern woman on TV played by an authentic Southern woman, which is only one of the reasons the world grieved when Hooks died last fall. One fondly remembered moment: her sincere wince of pain during the “good nights” when Christopher Walken announced Atlanta had just lost the 1992 World Series. Sing on, Candy Sweeney.
Lower on the list is the “sad crash-and-burn” case of Charles Rocket, an ill-used Randy Quaid, annoyingly squeaky-voiced (and current Tea Party activist) Victoria Jackson, Jay Mohr, and the sure-to-be-controversial pick of Norm McDonald (hey, I always thought he was funny):
Macdonald clearly thought he was hilarious, and that counts for something — confidence is essential for a “Weekend Update” anchor. Unfortunately, he was just a Dennis Miller clone with no mullet and no jokes. Stare into the camera a little longer, Norm; maybe it’ll get funnier.
The lowest-ranked player, though? None other than the world’s biggest star at the moment, Robert Downey, Jr.:
Robert Downey Jr. is a comic genius. Making him unfunny stands as “SNL’s” most towering achievement in terms of sucking. How do you fuck up a sure thing like Downey? He’s funny in anything. I mean, dude was funny in “Weird Science.” He was funny in “Johnny Be Good.” He was funny in “Iron Man.” But he met his Kryptonite, and it was “SNL,” where he spent the 1985-1986 season sucking up a storm. His greatest hit? A fart-noise debate with Anthony Michael Hall. In a perverse way, the Downey Fail sums up everything that makes “SNL” great. There are no sure things. No rules. No do-overs. No safety net — when you flop on “SNL,” you flop big. And that’s the way it should be. The cameras roll at 11:30, ready or not. Live from New York — it’s “Saturday Night.”