Saturday Night Live has become an American TV institution as it goes into its 39th season. It’s not just a comedy show, but a showcase for burgeoning musical talent and the home for the most influential political satire, arguably, in our nation’s history. The show is only as good as the cast and the cast right now is….bad. Take away Jay Pharaoh and it’s a desert island of talent. But that’s ok. It’ll come back.
The thing about SNL is that every time the show seems on the brink of obscurity or loses a huge cast member, a new cast gels and the show goes on a run. We’d gotten spoiled because the last two casts pretty seamlessly transitioned from the Will Ferrell era to the Tina Fey era and then to Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and company. The show’s been consistently good for about 15 years. But there have been dark ages before. The year after the original cast left (John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, etc.) was a dark, dark, dark year. The show nearly tanked. But then Eddie Murphy came along and off we went.
The variable each week is the host. Hosting SNL is a celebrity rite of passage and lots of people have trotted down the steps to do a really bad opening monologue, but there are some that stick. That really stick. Some stick so much that they just keep showing up even when they’re not hosting. Lots of people think Steve Martin was part of the original cast because he hosted and just showed up so many times that he held the record for most times hosting at 15 (not counting the dozens of times he showed up to do one sketch). Then came Alec Baldwin. He and Steve have had a battle over the record for years and in 2011, Baldwin hosted his 16th time, taking the lead (Steve Martin showed up when he tied AND when he passed him). In recent years, Justin Timberlake and Jon Hamm have shown surprising comedic chops on the show both as hosts and as frequent drop-ins (NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams also seems to be a frustrated comedian given how often he pops up).
It’s tough to differentiate between “who is the best?” when you get into a select echelon of hosts. So this is a very loose ranking of some of the most talented performers to make themselves part of the history of the show. By the way, in case you’re wondering, Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl is the record holder for musical guest at 13 appearances. Just as a note, trying to find the SNL clip you’d most want for these guys….not easy. So, you’re getting what you’re getting! Go watch it on Netflix or Hulu; they’ve got every episode.
1. Steve Martin
2. Alec Baldwin
3. Justin Timberlake
4. Tom Hanks
5. Christopher Walken
I’d be remiss if I didn’t feature his part of the Cowbell sketch
* Honorable Mention – Jon Hamm