Since its first episode debuted in 1975, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” has been turning little-known comic talents into household names. Every era of the show has had its own batch of distinct stars and anyone who has watched it has their own favorite cast members, but some have undoubtedly left a deeper mark than others.
Ranking funny people is as subjective as it gets but we’ve looked back through the show’s long history and picked out the ones that most consistently killed audiences, whether with dead-on impressions, memorable recurring characters or showing off the many other talents it takes to succeed on “SNL.”
Here are the funniest cast members to ever star in that legendary sketch-comedy series.
30. Fred Armisen (2002-2013)
While Jason Sudeikis was perfect in straight-man roles, Fred Armisen was the go-to guy when things needed to be a little weird. From Garth and Kat to “¡Show Biz Grande Explosion!” to the nonstop corpsing in “The Californians,” Armisen had a knack for making a sketch seem otherworldly simply by being there. He spent a remarkable 11 seasons as a cast member at “SNL” and wore countless faces while on the show, playing everyone from a Native American comedian to Latino TV hosts to President Barack Obama.
29. Ana Gasteyer (1996-2002)
In the rich history of memorable “SNL” impressions, Ana Gasteyer’s take on Martha Stewart has to be one of the all-time classics. For six seasons, she consistently used her everywoman looks and flawless timing to steal scenes from some of the show’s biggest stars. Gasteyer’s outsized performances as Will Ferrell’s operatic-singing wife in The Culps sketches were in direct contrast to her hilarious, hushed work as an NPR radio host on “Delicious Dish” alongside Molly Shannon, showing her broad comedic range.
28. Chris Rock (1990-1993)
Chris Rock was destined for bigger things than “SNL,” but his brief run on the show was full of memorable performances. He’s one of the few cast members to be given their own “best of” DVD collection, showing how much he brought to the series in just three seasons in the early 1990s. He did impressions of major celebs like Arsenio Hall and Michael Jackson, to name a couple, and recurring characters like Nat X and the host of “I’m Chillin'” made him a strong Black voice in a show that has often been white to a fault.
27. Darrell Hammond (1995-2009)
Many “SNL” cast members have shown off a knack for impressions but Darrell Hammond was the indisputable master of the art form during his long run on the show. He spent a then-record 14 seasons in the cast before leaving in 2009, doing brilliant takes on people like John McCain, Donald Trump and Ted Koppel, while also giving the comedy world the definitive impression of Bill Clinton. He was typically dialed back but his classic performances as Sean Connery in “Celebrity Jeopardy” showed he could also go big and leave the audience dead.
26. Norm Macdonald (1993-1998)
Speaking of “Celebrity Jeopardy,” Norm Macdonald’s performances as Burt Reynolds on those sketches also helped make them all-time fan favorites. But Macdonald was at his best behind the “Weekend Update” desk, where he anchored for several seasons during the mid-’90s. His unique delivery and fearless jabs made him arguably the best to ever hold that coveted position on “SNL.” His no-holds-barred jokes on “Weekend Update” during the O.J. Simpson murder trial are what many believe led to his sudden firing after just five seasons.
25. Tim Meadows (1991-2000)
Tim Meadows is part of a tiny club of people who spent at least 10 seasons in the “SNL” cast. He was one of those rare performers who could fit into virtually any sketch without looking out of place or hogging too much attention until it came time to deliver his lines. He once played O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings in the same sketch and also brought Sammy Davis Jr. and David Dinkins to life during his run on the show, which also included work as a writer. Meadows’ turn as the smooth-as-butter “Ladies Man” Leon Phelps perfectly showed the affability that helped him stick around so long.
24. Andy Samberg (2005-2012)
Since the beloved 1990s era of “SNL,” Andy Samberg has probably been the closest thing to Adam Sandler that the show has found. Like his predecessor, Samberg was great at making the thinnest characterizations into something memorable, like his Out-of-Breath Jogger bit. His greatest innovation was helping make the show’s prerecorded digital shorts into must-see segments, including his music videos “Lazy Sunday” and “I’m On a Boat.” His work helped keep the show accessible for a modern audience as YouTube became a prime place for people to watch sketches.
23. Vanessa Bayer (2010-2017)
The versatile Vanessa Bayer was one of those rare “SNL” stars who could make a sketch funnier simply by showing up in it. Her natural energy made her a master of playing perky, upbeat characters. She was able to nail everything from retired porn stars to cheery homemakers to Miley Cyrus to a nervous young Jewish boy named Jacob, which ranks up there with the best recurring “Weekend Update” characters ever created. Her seven seasons on the show made for one of the longest tenures of any woman.
22. Maya Rudolph (2000-2007)
It’s tough to find a fan of “SNL” who doesn’t love Maya Rudolph. Her performances always flirted with going way over the top but her charm kept them from being irritating, as some characters on the show can be. She played countless Black icons in her nine seasons in the cast, from Beyonce to Michelle Obama to Oprah Winfrey — and now Kamala Harris as a returning guest — but her recurring take on Donatella Versace was one of the highlights of the show in the early 2000s.
Her work alongside real-life friend Amy Poehler on “Bronx Beat” made comedic chemistry look effortless.
21. Kenan Thompson (2003-Present)
Sketch-comedy lifer Kenan Thompson has been on “SNL” for so long that it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t listed in the opening credits. His incredible 18 seasons as part of the cast easily make him the most tenured performer in the show’s history and it’s hard to imagine anyone breaking his mark. In all that time, he’s done brilliants turns as Al Roker, Bill Cosby and Steve Harvey, among many others, while also leading some of the best recurring sketches in recent memory.
“What Up With That?” might be his most beloved starring role on the show but his work in “The Californians” and “Deep House Dish” was also perfect.
20. Rachel Dratch (1999-2006)
If you think about your favorite sketch from the early-2000s era of “SNL,” there’s a good chance Rachel Dratch was in it. Whether it was the Boston teens, her excruciating displays of PDA with Will Ferrell in a hot tub as the Love-ahs or her legendary turns as Debbie Downer, Dratch was a master at making her co-stars break in the middle of a scene. She spent eight seasons on the show, first as a featured player, and played everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Harry Potter with aplomb.
19. Amy Poehler (2001-2008)
Few performers in the history of “SNL” have ever brought as much attitude to their characters as Amy Poehler. Before the beloved comic struck out and made “Parks and Recreation” a phenomenal show, she spent eight seasons in the cast of the sketch-comedy juggernaut. Part of that time was spent co-anchoring “Weekend Update” but her best work was always in bringing wild characters to life. From her unforgettable gigs as the host of “Bronx Beat” and “The Cougar Den” to her turn as Amber, the one-legged woman who has uncontrollable gas, Poehler was as confident under the lights as they come.
18. Adam Sandler (1991-1995)
Adam Sandler isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but “SNL” was arguably the perfect vehicle for his style of comedy. It’s tough to imagine any other performer in the show’s history-making paper-thin characters like Opera Man and Cajun Man into anything memorable but Sandler made them classic parts of the show’s history. His impression of Bruce Springsteen was flawless and his work as a miserable ex-boyfriend hosting “The Denise Show” showed his ability to dial it down. He was perhaps at his best with a guitar in his hands, singing one of the many hilarious songs he debuted on the show in just five seasons.
17. Chevy Chase (1975-1976)
No performer ever did more with less time on “SNL” than Chevy Chase. He broke out as the star of the show’s original cast in 1975 and took off after less than two seasons to pursue his film career. He won two Emmy Awards for his work on the show, one for performing and one for writing, and his natural charisma established “Weekend Update” as a must-see staple that continues today. Chase was brilliant as a physical comic, making the art of dangerous pratfalls look like a piece of cake.
16. Molly Shannon (1995-2001)
Speaking of pratfalls, Molly Shannon seemed fine with killing herself on stage during countless “SNL” performances during her seven years on the show. Her star-making turn as the awkward Catholic schoolgirl Mary Katherine Gallagher saw her do physical gags that would likely have made many stunt performers nervous. Her other most beloved original creations, like Helen Madden and Sally O’Malley, were also filled to the brim with Shannon’s signature kinetic energy, making her one of the most exciting players to behold.
15. Bill Murray (1977-1980)
In the wake of Chevy Chase’s departure from “SNL,” Bill Murray probably came as close as anyone to replacing his unique magnetism on the show. The comedy icon was only in the cast for four seasons before his movie career took off but he was a constant presence in that time, even anchoring “Weekend Update.” His work alongside Gilda Radner as an aloof nerd in a series of early recurring sketches established his persona for years to come and his musical performances as Nick the Lounge Singer are still about as funny as anything that has come from the show in the decades since.
14. Tracy Morgan (1996-2003)
Tracy Morgan was one of those “SNL” cast members whom you couldn’t help but watch whenever he was in a sketch. His many performances as the dimwitted nature show host, Brian Fellow, were comedic tours-de-force that showed how truly off the wall he could make a character. He was in the cast for seven seasons, launching straight into the main cast from the start, and made original characters like Dominican Lou and Astronaut Jones guys we wanted to see every week.
13. John Belushi (1975-1979)
Due to his larger-than-life performances and his tragic, drug-related death at the age of 33, John Belushi might be the most legendary figure to come from “SNL.” He was part of the original cast and was a magnetic, natural performer but his bad habits made his tenure on the show fraught and much too brief. He was on the show for just four seasons but in that time he was part of the Blue Brothers, did a dead-on Joe Cocker impression and killed audiences as an explosive samurai working regular jobs.
Had his tenure been longer — and his views on women in comedy not been so condescending — Belushi could’ve been a lot higher on this list.
12. Gilda Radner (1975-1980)
Another member of the show’s ultra-talented charter cast, Gilda Radner’s work on “SNL” would lay the tracks for madcap performers like Molly Shannon and Amy Poehler decades later. The late icon spent five seasons in the cast before leaving in 1980, when the entire remainder of the original cast left along with series creator Lorne Michaels. Radner was unforgettable as Judy Miller, a little girl who hosted her own show in her bedroom, in what is still one of the most heartfelt characterizations to ever appear on “SNL.”
She often stole the show with her other original characters, including “Weekend Update” regulars Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella.
11. Chris Farley (1990-1995)
Like his idol, John Belushi, Chris Farley’s problems with addiction interrupted his brilliant tenure on “SNL” and cut his life short at the age of 33. As soon as Farley debuted with the main cast in 1990, he was someone you had to watch and he became arguably the show’s biggest star in the years that followed. In five seasons on the show, Farley showed his remarkable physical talents, legitimate acting chops and unmatched ability to command a scene every weekend.
His work on classic sketches like “Bill Swerski’s Superfans,” “The Chris Farley Show” and as Matt Foley, the short-fused motivational speaker, remain some of the show’s most beloved bits.
10. Tina Fey (2000-2006)
Of all the former cast members on this list, it’s arguable that none had a bigger impact backstage than Tina Fey. In addition to six years spent in front of the camera, Fey spent even more time as a writer, even becoming the first woman to be the show’s head writer. Her work as a cast member is what made her a household name, however, with her work behind the anchor desk on “Weekend Update” being as strong as anyone’s who has ever held that job. It’s impossible to imagine “SNL” in the 2000s without Fey’s voice.
9. Dana Carvey (1986-1993)
Some performers on “SNL” give a half-assed version of whatever character they are trying to pull off but Dana Carvey was far from that guy. He was such a chameleon, going all-in when inhabiting his characters, that it was sometimes tough to recognize him at all. Just look at two of his most iconic original characters, the Church Lady and Garth from “Wayne’s World,” which have virtually nothing in common with one another, to understand his brilliance.
In seven seasons, he also carved out a niche as the best impressionist the show had ever had to that point, nailing everyone from George H.W. Bush to Ross Perot to Johnny Carson and Casey Kasem.
8. Phil Hartman (1986-1994)
For eight seasons bridging the 1980s and 1990s, when the show got back to its original level of greatness, Phil Hartman was the glue that held together some talented casts. With his commanding voice and traditionally handsome looks, Hartman was able to fit into virtually any scene — and he did. His takes on Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Phil Donahue were spot-on but the late icon wasn’t limited to straight-man parts. Just check out his recurring roles as Frankenstein and an unfrozen caveman lawyer to see that Hartman was just as good at playing broad.
7. Bill Hader (2005-2013)
Gifted with a commanding speaking voice and a knack for hilarious facial expressions, Bill Hader was an indelible part of the show’s cast for eight years. He was one of those performers that could disguise himself into virtually any role, no matter how weird it needed to be. His scene-stealing work as New York’s top nightlife expert, Stefon, on “Weekend Update” was guaranteed to make the room explode and his bizarre turns as Lindsey Buckingham on “What Up With That?” were fantastic despite him never saying much.
Hader’s impressions were also brilliant, as he took on everyone from Al Pacino to Daniel Day-Lewis to Vincent Price, just to name a few.
6. Dan Aykroyd (1975-1979)
While the original cast of “SNL” was loaded with talent, Dan Aykroyd always seemed the most natural of the bunch. He played countless memorable characters during the show’s early run, including Beldar, patriarch of the alien Conehead family, Elwood of the Blues Brothers and Yortuk Festrunk, all of whom would return regularly to the delight of viewers. While those characters were often bizarre and a lot of harmless fun, his turns as shadier figures like Irwin Mainway and Fred Garvin were just as great.
5. Mike Myers (1989-1995)
There have been many popular recurring characters in the history of “SNL,” but Mike Myers’ Wayne Campbell might be the most beloved ever. His work as that lovable dork hosting a cable access show from his basement alongside his soft-spoken best friend, Garth, was emblematic of what made Myers such a perfect fit for the show’s formula. In seven seasons, he threw everything he had into creating some of the best original characters in “SNL” history, including Linda Richman from “Coffee Talk” and Dieter from “Sprockets.”
4. Kate McKinnon (2012-Present)
Kate McKinnon probably has as much natural talent for performing in her little finger as many “SNL” cast members have had in their entire body. In 10 seasons on the show thus far — the longest tenure ever for a woman in the cast — McKinnon has proven to be a comedic powerhouse who is able to slip into virtually any skin that’s required. Her work as the amorous drunkard Sheila Sovage and the miserable Russian woman, Olya, on “Weekend Update” show what she can do when she’s fully unleashed.
But it’s McKinnon’s endless list of impressions that have made her so endearing. She’s played everyone from Justin Bieber to Hillary Clinton and has shown herself to be a dead ringer for Ellen DeGeneres.
3. Will Ferrell (1995-2002)
Nobody dominated the screen on “SNL” in the late 1990s like Will Ferrell and it was for good reason. He was often at the center of some of the most inspired and quoted sketches in history, including “More Cowbell,” “Celebrity Jeopardy!” and the ones featuring the Bill Brasky guys. Ferrell’s brand of raucous humor came through in virtually all of his characters, whether they were subdued, like his legendary George W. Bush impression, over the top, like his Spartan cheerleader, or something else entirely, like his impression of Janet Reno.
Ferrell virtually never missed in seven seasons on the show and is still one of the most identifiable players ever.
2. Kristen Wiig (2005-2012)
Like Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig spent seven seasons in the cast on “SNL” and was front and center for much of that run. She was truly the woman of 1,000 faces, doing impressions of everyone from Taylor Swift to Paula Deen to Kathy Lee Gifford, but it was her long list of original characters that made her the best performer of the post-2000 generations.
Characters like the Target lady, Penelope the one-upper, Gilly and the most unfortunate member of a quartet of singing sisters on “The Lawrence Welk Show” recurred so regularly that Wiig was basically the star of the entire show for several years. That’s not even to mention parts like Judy Grimes and Aunt Linda, which stole “Weekend Update” every time they appeared.
1. Eddie Murphy (1980-1984)
In the long history of “Saturday Night Live,” no performer has been as talented in as many ways as Eddie Murphy, making him the show’s ultimate star. The series was on the brink of cancellation in the early 1980s when Murphy was hired at the tender age of 19 and he almost single-handedly brought it back to life with his commanding performances every week. For four brief seasons, he nailed impressions, created all-time classic original characters and showed off his legitimate musical talents at every chance he had.
Whether he was playing a pissed-off Gumby, a grown-up Buckwheat from “Our Gang,” Mr. Robinson, a version of Mr. Rogers in a very rough neighborhood, or James Brown hosting a celebrity hot tub party, Murphy was always must-see TV.