In honor of Bill Hader's awesome return to host the fabled late-night show, I wanted to re-post this oft-had conversation amongst my comedy friends.
I came across this recently, even though it happened in August. Grantland attempted to do a user-voted tournament bracket on the greatest SNL performer ever. Guess who won?
|The region was named "More Cowbell." Of course he was gonna win.|
I try to be succinct. Of course you can throw 15 or 17 funny people together at 11:30 and it'll be fine. But how do you make a truly classic ensemble, works well, everyone is featured quite prominently (not necessarily equally), and you cover all your bases?
But I instill some rules.
We go old-school.
1.) The cast is seven people total.
2.) Three girls, four guys.
3.) Any era is allowed, no limitations on the dearly departed.
4.) Take into account only the tenure on the show, nothing pre- or post- SNL, nothing from their personal lives, and evaluate character variation, longevity, versatility, and of course... humor.
5.) No feature players.
Ready for mine? Here we go.
To me, the strongest aspect of SNL is its ensemble nature. I tried to go for people who have a good mix of ensemble work and can feature strongly on their own. There are people who I therefore love but I don't think work as well in the seven person format, only because we saw them featured at a time where they were literally carrying the show. The only glaring loss I think is Will Ferrell who may quite possibly be the greatest SNL performer of all time, as long as tenure on the show is the only thing taken into account. Eddie Murphy is also absent, because he could've been the show by himself and very much was. I feel like he'd outshine any ensemble he was placed in, no matter how talented. I also decided against Kristen Wiig. I know, these three are definitely in the upper echelons of SNL performers, but I definitely think you won't be disappointed by my decisions. Ferrell and Murphy are among my favorites of all time, Wiig is most definitely one of the show's most legitimate recent stars.
I tended to go for a group more used to working constantly in partnered sketches and the like. I tried to think of the most characters, and whose characters I enjoyed the most over the years.
Part of the early 2000s powerhouse female cast (Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri) Poehler quickly distinguished herself for her quirky characters and her often-used Hillary Clinton impression. Poehler is kind of unique in the show's history, as really there was only Victoria Jackson before her, who really only played ditzy blondes. Poehler was intelligent, sarcastic, witty, and eventually rightfully earned a spot at the Weekend Update desk.
In my cast, she'd be doing Update solo, but like how it was in the Chevy Chase days, she'd still appear regularly in the sketches, unlike what they did later on.
I think it's also fantastic that Poehler rapped and I'd love it if she did it on a regular basis.
Recently named by one of the show's most beloved performers as the greatest to have ever appear on the show, I have always had a massive soft spot for the affable, energetic, chameleon-voiced Bill Hader.
From the ridiculous Vinny Veducci who hosts an Italian-only talk show with celebrities unaware of the non-English, to the abrasive, loose cannon Herb Welch, to the countless game show hosts that were different every time, to the now-iconic Stefon, Hader was irreplaceable and irrepressible.
Possessing a similar quality of everyman, while also possessing an unbelievable versatility allowed Hader to be accepted in every role he played without ever being deemed offensive or off-color in any way. His commitment to the characters was also enjoyable. Before Stefon rolled in, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Hader sketch where he broke character. Ten years ago, this might've gone to someone else, but now, I can't imagine SNL without him. His episode reminded me of just how much of a gap he leaves behind.
By the way, it was this guy that called Hader the greatest. And that's high praise coming from a comedian who was both beloved on the show and now in the post-SNL days, when some others are not so revered. Murray was a powerhouse on the show. Effortless, witty, and much like in Ghostbusters, he seemed to be making it all up as he went along. He could rally the crowd like nobody's business and was able to elevate everything around him with the subtlest of performance. If the weird moment where Eddie Murphy ended up hosting the show for the night had happened earlier, they would have sent Murray out to do it.
One of things I do want to talk about is how in the tournament, the regions split by era, Farley and Phil Hartman dominated, with Hartman eventually winning, which seems curious, because Farley is usually the sentimental favorite. But I think posthumous stories have come to light of Hartman's ability and flawlessness.
Ultimately, they represent two opposite sides of comedy. Hartman disappears, transforms, is effortlessly versatile, at times a straight man, at times the feature quirk.
Farley is pure energy, the clown. By his second appearance of the evening, he can illicit laughs from the audience before he's even done anything. I will always have Farley on my all-star cast, no matter what. He was part of my favorite "Boy's Club" from the show, with Spade, Sandler, Schneider, Myers, and Rock. It's tough to imagine Belushi or Farley without their demons and without that difficult line they walked, but I think Farley, his childlike admiration of a tragic figure, gives him the edge for me over the enigma of comedy that was Belushi.
If I was ever forced to only pick a single female performer for the ensemble, it would be Gilda for all time.
There was no beating her. She was amazing. Brilliant. Unforgettable. Her spirit would not be denied. And I would never deny her a place on the all-star cast. Without her and Laraine Newman and Jane Curtin, you wouldn't have the powerhouse late-era women of the show. I've come to appreciate Laraine and Jane much more post-SNL, because, well, they've had careers since then. Gilda's life, like so many of the rare ones, was tragically cut down before we could see everything she had to offer the comedic world. On the show, she was clearly the star, and she deserves every tenet bestowed upon her.
My favorite of that 00s group of women, Rudolph could do it all: straight man, characters, impressions, music, she could get away with just making ridiculous faces, she was magic by herself like as Whitney Houston or Donatalla Versace, and she was equally as inspiring paired with Fred Armisen's Prince, or on Bronx Beat with the aforementioned Poehler.
If I couldn't choose Gilda, I'd go with Maya. Maya to me represents everything good about the show, and like Ferrell or Wiig or Farley was for many people, if Maya Rudolph was part of a sketch, I'd stop to watch it even if I thought it was going to be lackluster.
Like Gilda, what could you say about the great Phil Hartman that hasn't already been said?
Phil is in the pantheon of the all-time greats. It was for his seemingly endless of characters, his commitment to those characters, and his ability to elevate lackluster material as well as his fellow castmates, whether he was a feature or a background character.
Again, another comic tragically ended before he could really make a name for himself outside of the show, we'll never really know just how great Hartman was, but at least we can see how good he was, in one of the most densely populated casts of all time, with names as indelible as Dana Carvey, Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Jan Hooks, Dennis Miller... Hartman stood head and shoulders above the rest.