October 11 will mark the thirty-fifth birthday of America’s premier source of sketch comedy, political satire, pop culture mania, and annoying recurring characters.
No, not the forums on Perez Hilton’s site. I’m referring to Saturday Night Live.
SNL has largely been a part of my life since 1997, when I concurrently began taking in reruns on Comedy Central (losing the rights to the show may be CC’s biggest mistake other than giving Wanda Sykes her own program), and watched the live show on Saturday nights.
Recently, it was announced that Will “MacGruber/Falconer” Forte would be leaving the show after eight seasons, and I have to admit that I was never big on Forte. His George W. Bush impression was so hacky that they had to give it to Jason Sudeikis. Really, I mean, how can you not impersonate Bush? Squint the eyes, add a mock Texas drawl, and mispronounce difficult state names like Maine. It’s not that hard!
Sometimes, I find it funny as to who certain people liked on the show, and others who seem to be underappreciated.
Having watched a mean average of 5-7 episodes from every season, I’ve seen every cast member perform, except for the enigmatically invisible Emily Prager. Because of this, I feel I’m uniquely capable of forming an opinion on who was great on the show, and who wasn’t.
After poring through cast member lists to jog my memories, I’ve compiled the following list of SNL’s most overrated, as well as underrated, players.
And before I begin, one more thing: LIVE FROM NEW YORK—
Err, sorry, couldn’t resist.
Sandler’s movie career from 2000 onward has largely been one mediocre comedy after another, save for Punch Drunk Love. After showing promise in Happy Gilmore, which you better believe holds up today, Sandler fell into doing one-joke premises while surrounded by his real life BFFs as supporting players.
Truthfully, he wasn’t that good on SNL either. Sure, Operaman had his moments, but when he wasn’t getting on my nerves as Audience McGee, he was corpsing his way through songs on Weekend Update, or helping the show crash to earth in the 20th season with Chris Farley, while voices of reason like Phil Hartman were nowhere to be found.
Sandler may be a great guy with a big heart and a successful film career, but his time on SNL was nothing special in hindsight.
UNDERRATED: JIMMY FALLON (1998-2004)
Before I’m forced to turn in my Man Card, lemme just say that Fallon had the misfortune of falling into the Teen Scream Trap. That’s when women from ages 13-26 fall in lust with a male celebrity, causing their brothers and boyfriends to swear off said-celebrity completely, for fear of proving to be ball-less.
When you get past Fallon’s frequent character breaking, you’ll find a brilliant talent with a penchant for dead on impressions (Nicolas Cage, Robin Williams, Gilbert Gottfried), as well as a natural charm that certainly is easier to deal with than Sandler’s annoying caterwauls. Fallon even did a perfect impression of Sandler on Celebrity Jeopardy once, and he summed up Sandler’s entire SNL tenure in 5 minutes to boot.
OVERRATED: JOE PISCOPO (1980-84)
His name only comes up when people can’t remember many other players from the years that he was on. Sure, his Sinatra impression was great, but Doug Whiner and Paulie Herman weren’t. No one ever conclusively proved that Piscopo DIDN’T fall off the face of the earth in 1985.
UNDERRATED: NORA DUNN (1985-90)
Forgetting her ignominious exodus from the show after the Andrew Dice Clay fiasco, Dunn seamlessly blended into sketches as a utility player (such as a talk show host or moderator or housewife) and could get laughs with some wicked impressions, like her Leona Helmsley turn. If her reputation as being hard to work with didn’t precede her, she’d have gone on to bigger things for sure.
OVERRATED: ROBERT DOWNEY, JR (1985-86)
Let’s call this the Robert Downey Jr corollary: just because someone who is currently a star was once on SNL, it doesn’t mean that their tenure on the show was anything noteworthy. Other examples include Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverman, and Randy Quaid, among others. Downey had no notable characters or impressions, and basically existed to add a ‘Brat Pack’ element to the show. Low ratings and bad reviews led to Lorne Michaels shelving most of that year’s cast, including Mr. Tony Stark.
UNDERRATED: JOAN CUSACK (1985-86)
Joan was only 23 when she was on the show, and not only was she really beautiful at that point in time, but she also showed a ton of promise. Her most notable contribution was a flawless impression of Brooke Shields, but she could also fit into any sketch as the girlfriend, the sister, or the daughter. Sadly, she was part of the same purge that claimed Downey, et al, but her career hasn’t suffered a bit.
OVERRATED: AMY POEHLER (2001-08)
I simply never understood it. Poehler was loved by many (especially SNL’s female demo), but Poehler just seemed like she tried too hard to be funny. In addition, I think she may have been the worst Weekend Update anchor ever, relying on cutesy punchlines with an endearing smile.
That’s not to say I thought she wasn’t funny. In regular sketches, she was probably the strongest female performer of the last decade. Besides, it’s not her fault that her Hilary Clinton impression can’t touch Jan Hooks’ version. I mean really, whose can?
UNDERRATED: ANA GASTEYER (1996-2002)
Speaking of Hilary impersonators, this brings us to Ana. She replaced Nancy Walls in 1996, and then went on to skew some of my least favorite female celebs with total accuracy, from Joan Rivers to Hilary to Celine Dion to Carrie Donovan. Sadly, Ana was always bunched up with more popular female players like Tina Fey and Molly Shannon, so she rarely got to stand out in a packed crowd.
OVERRATED: MIKE MYERS (1989-95)
Would Myers have been a megastar if he had never come up with Wayne’s World? Myers is one of those performers whose knack for silly voices overshadowed the fact that he rarely said anything funny. Wayne’s World, as edgy and hip as it was twenty years ago (has it been that long?), simply doesn’t hold up now. The Austin Powers films, same thing.
When you look at Myers body of work on SNL outside of Wayne Campbell, you’re left with Sprockets (had its moments), Lothar of the Hill People (horrible), All Things Scottish (inane), Middle Aged Man (horrible AND inane), and Coffee Talk (good for the occasional pun).
Is it any shock that when he had total control over a movie like The Love Guru, that it was completely horrible? If dirty puns and outdated bathroom humor aren’t in play, Myers is lost.
UNDERRATED: KEVIN NEALON (1986-1995)
It astounds me that Nealon didn’t have a bigger career. In just about every sketch he performed in, Nealon was either the source of incredibly silly material in which he could keep the straightest possible face, or he could play a convincingly serious character that the lead character (the one going for the laughs) could play off of. Nealon, along with Jon Lovitz and Jan Hooks, played so well with Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey, which is why that cast is one of the greatest ever. Nealon simply doesn’t get the credit he deserves.
OVERRATED: HARRY SHEARER (1979-80, 1984-85)
I like Mr. Burns. I like Principal Skinner. I like Spinal Tap. Shearer, however, never showed his genius on SNL, perhaps because of the politics he hinted at in interviews. Regardless, Shearer still gets mentioned among the greats of SNL. The funniest thing he ever did with the show was when he quit in 1985, and then-producer Dick Ebersol sent out a press release, claiming the walkout was over “creative differences”, which led to Shearer quipping “Yeah, I was creative, and they were different”. Ah, Harry.
UNDERRATED: TIM KAZURINSKY (1981-84)
File this under “who?”. Kaz was a diminutive figure with a nerdy look, but he produced some rather clever characters during his short run, including The Guru, the punny Dr. Jack Badofsky, and his recurring bit during the news where he’d reveal insensitive and non-sensical newspaper headlines in his “salute to journalism”. Kazurinsky was basically a hybrid of John Belushi and Rick Moranis, only without the stardom.
OVERRATED: TINA FEY (2000-06)
I think Tina Fey is very witty and charismatic, and she makes my list of “women over 40 that are worth cheating on your wife with” but I just simply didn’t like her on Weekend Update. Her jokes just seemed really forced and intentionally cutesy. Plus, her dialogue with Jimmy Fallon (her co-anchor) was generally eye-roll material. Maybe that’s why Fallon gets so much hate.
I think what annoys me most about Fey is that, yeah, her Sarah Palin impression is good stuff, but then she performs next to the real Fey in 2008 preceding the election, and the real Palin (like her or not) was totally a good sport. And then Fey comes out and basically implores everyone to vote Obama, because “I don’t feel like playing this woman after Election Day”. Stay classy, four eyes.
UNDERRATED: COLIN QUINN (1995-2000)
He was marble-mouthed at times and looked like a red-headed Barney Rubble. He also had the unfortunate responsibility of taking over Weekend Update after the beloved Norm MacDonald was unfairly sacked. Quinn, however, handled the takeover with class and dignity, and actually performed a news segment that showed his passion for current events. The only other anchor I can say that for is Dennis Miller. All in all, Quinn didn’t steal Norm’s job as some claim, but he did a damn fine job of filling the chair after he got it.
OVERRATED: ROB SCHNEIDER (1990-94)
Seriously, watch SNL in that time period and tell me how many times Adam Sandler’s lapdog got larger parts over true talents like Chris Rock and David Spade. Richmeister was funny once, but that’s it. It’s good to see him living up to his potential of yelling “YOU CAINE DOO EET!!” in lieu of scrubbing Sandler’s swimming pool.
UNDERRATED: ROBERT SMIGEL (1991-93)
Most of his work came in bit parts, and technically it’s cheating to include his work as a writer (the best SNL writer ever next to Jim Downey, Al Franken, and Tom Davis). However, Smigel’s obscene absurdity (or is it absurd obscenity?) made for some hilarious cartoons, and we can give Smigel credit for voicing Bighead, can’t we? Plus, he gave us Triumph. That’s more than Schneider did!
OVERRATED: HORATIO SANZ (1998-2006)
I think the idea was that SNL was 2 for 2 in the “funny fat guy” department, with Belushi and Farley, so why not bring in the rotund Chilean? Sanz, however, was spastic, prone to corpsing, never had any witty lines, sucked during the 2 or 3 times he did Weekend Update, had possibly the most obnoxious character in SNL history (CAROL!) next to anything Cheri Oteri played, and somehow lasted eight years. Boat Trip, anyone?
UNDERRATED: JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS (1982-85)
If you think Elaine Benes is hot pushing 50, you should have seen her in her early 20’s. She never got much of a chance to shine, with the show’s direction more geared toward highlighting Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, but she came off well for someone who was so young. Larry David was a writer for SNL during her tenure, and he had to have seen something in her to cast her as Jerry Seinfeld’s platonic friend, right?
Highlights during his tenure included angrily demanding Lorne Michaels to get him soda, and playing Brian Fellows in “Brian Fellows’ Safari Planet”. People who saw “Cop Out” probably wondered what the Hell Morgan could have done on SNL to make him worthy of bombing in a movie with Bruce Willis. Well, I don’t know either. I guess Tim Meadows didn’t answer his phone during casting.
Morgan also wrote a fascinating tell-all book where he was all too quick to call everyone on SNL either a racist, a nobody, or a stooge. Except for Tina Fey. Must have something to do with the fact that he’s on another show of hers. I’m assuming, anyway.
UNDERRATED: MICHAEL MCKEAN (1994-95)
McKean turned down a chance to be a cast member ten years before during Dick Ebersol’s “All Star Season”. It’s all the more regrettable when he worked for the show a decade later during its darker days. Still, McKean brought authenticity and gravitas to many bad sketches, and actually added some osmotic decorum to bits where Adam Sandler and Chris Farley made fools of themselves. Of course, McKean’s a true pro, so this should surprise no one.
OVERRATED: SETH MEYERS (2001-present)
Almost gets Amy Poehler off the hook as the worst Update anchor ever. Meyers’ permanently strained expression reminds me of the face Jon Stewart might make if he was having a Brazilian wax done. Meyers was largely unspectacular on SNL for his first five seasons before being handed the update job after Tina Fey left. See, Fey’s smart: make her tenure as anchor look better by making sure her successor is fifty times duller.
UNDERRATED: BILL HADER (2005-present)
Fred Armisen is known for playing Barack Obama. Kristin Wiig is known as the ‘female lead’. Andy Samberg is known for his digital shorts. Bill Hader, however, doesn’t have a real title on the show. Yet, to me, he’s most refreshing and gifted current castmate. His impression of Vincent Price alone is incredible, and he may be the most versatile castmember since Will Ferrell’s departure. Did I mention he, Seth Rogan, and McLovin had the best scenes in Superbad? And that he had the lead voice in a hit Disney movie? Hader’s destined for bigger things, and I’m pulling for the guy.
OVERRATED: GILDA RADNER (1975-80)
Just typing that hurts, because I know it’s going to be misinterpreted. Gilda was incredible, make no mistake. People who watched her know this to be true.
However, the credit Gilda gets is because she died young. I’m not trying to trample her memory, and anyone who does is foolish. However, many people who praise Gilda have barely seen any of her work. Can you recite three or four of Gilda’s classic SNL moments off the top of your head? Probably not, even though she’s revered as the greatest female in SNL history.
Gilda Radner is only overrated in the sense of over-sympathetic fans tossing flowers on her legacy. If she were hardly talked about, she’d have been underrated. It’s the truth.
UNDERRATED: BILL MURRAY (1977-80)
Murray isn’t as highly regarded as an SNLer as Aykroyd, Belushi, and Chase, but he more than held his own in a memorable era.
However, it was when the the original three all exited by the spring of 1979 that Murray saw his star rise. In the 1979-80 season, Murray played nearly every male lead himself, carrying the show through the final year of its glorious infancy, although his female accompaniment (Radner, Jane Curtin, Larraine Newman) balanced out their half. In all, Murray did an admirable job largely carrying the show on his back during a turning point year for SNL.
The thirty-sixth season of Saturday Night Live begins on September 25. I hope this article has sparked your interest in a truly iconic program, and also opened some potential flame war debates. One can only hope, right?
Thanks for reading!