When the indefatigable Dw. Dunphy asked Popdose’s writers to come up with a list of ten classic Saturday Night Live sketches, we quickly got bogged down in trying to rank them — by theme, by season, by cast member, etc. And after everyone got their nostalgia fix for the day and nodded off, we were left with some random scraps of memories, but nothing we could publish.
Upon realizing there was no way we were going to get any kind of consensus — and remembering that Dw. never asked us to rank sketches in the first place — I suggested that those who wanted to participate write a paragraph or two about a favorite sketch (short films and commercial parodies were considered fair game under this umbrella term) and provide a clip from Hulu.com or another online source. That’s when Matt Wardlaw asked if Bruce Springsteen’s appearance as SNL‘s musical guest in 1992 counts as a sketch, at which point I pulled out my Matt Wardlaw voodoo doll and went to town.
Without further ado, here are 15 of our favorites, in chronological order, from the past 35 years of NBC’s long-running late-night hit. —Robert Cass
“Word Association” (air date: December 13, 1975)
I love this sketch on so many levels that it’s hard to focus on just one. First off, it’s one of the few instances in which Richard Pryor was really allowed to be Richard Pryor on television (let us not speak of Pryor’s Place, his ill-conceived foray into Cosby-like Saturday-morning TV), and it allowed Chevy Chase to put the pratfalls aside and inhabit a thoroughly WASP-y persona.
The second thing is that the skit is smart, certainly smarter than one would initially give it credit for. Yes, it’s Chase and Pryor in an ever-escalating war of words, ticking down a list of epithets until they reach the bottom of the barrel, and for people who like that kind of verbal repartee delivered as only these two could, that might be enough. Under the surface, though, you could easily interpret this sketch as a warning about “just a little racism” and be correct; the interviewer and the applicant play the “black” and “white” word association at first in an innocuous manner, but as things heat up they and their speech get uglier and uglier until the “nuclear option” is launched. No neon-lit message sign has been switched on for you, but if you consider the sketch just a little deeper, you’ve been taught.
The third, and maybe most important, thing is that “Word Association” is funny, and likely could never be done on TV today, certainly not on a broadcast network like NBC. The 1970s was an era when Saturday Night Live saw the risks laid before it, took every one, and, fortunately for us, did something great with them. —Dw. Dunphy
“Don’t Look Back in Anger” (air date: March 11, 1978)
This short film by Tom Schiller, in which John Belushi plays himself as an old man, has become one of the most poignant things ever aired on Saturday Night Live, mainly because Belushi died four years later, when he was barely 33. But in this one instance he outlived them all.
In “Don’t Look Back in Anger” he takes a train to the cemetery and dances on the graves of those who went before him. (In fiction it was Garrett Morris, not Belushi, who died too soon from a drug overdose.) If you don’t know the ending, the film is funny and shows what incredible talent Belushi had. If you do know the ending, you watch it and weep. —Ann Logue
“Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood” (air date: February 21, 1981)
There were so many great Eddie Murphy sketches to choose from that it became mostly an exercise in flipping a coin. That he had so many memorable moments on SNL before he turned 21 is remarkable in and of itself. That he got away with murder on the program is even more notable. Turns as the enterprising pimp Velvet Jones (see below), a grown-up Buckwheat, and this, his inner-city send-up of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, all feature elements that were only suited for 11:30 on. (Take note of which of Robinson’s digits in his finger-puppet show gets the last question for the President Reagan puppet.) —Dw. Dunphy
“Velvet Jones School of Technology” (air date: October 17, 1981)
“Be somebody. Be a ho.”
Sage advice from a true American pioneer: Velvet Jones. Prostitution is widely known as the world’s oldest profession, but not until Velvet came along had anyone tried to codify it into a cottage industry. When it comes to whoring around he wrote the book, and back in ’81, when he was selling his book “I Wanna Be a Ho,” his message was one of aspiration. Of course, if Velvet was peddling today his message would be one of desperation: in these troubled financial times maybe people should be less worried about landing on their feet and spend more time landing on their backs. And one nice thing about selling “I Wanna Be a Ho” in 2011 is that it now has an equal-opportunity message: originally, Velvet was selling the dream to women, but nowadays women and men alike are doing whatever they can to escape financial free fall. Hey, when the going gets tough, the tough get blowing.
Nineteen eighty-one wasn’t a good year for SNL, but it was a great year for Eddie Murphy. His reoccurring characters — Velvet, Buckwheat, Mister Robinson — and a killer Stevie Wonder impersonation carried the show through its seventh season, and he went on to make many iconic movies and comedy concert films throughout the ’80s. Unfortunately, Murphy also went on to take Velvet’s advice, whoring himself up and down Hollywood Boulevard by making one crap movie after another in the ’90s and beyond. —Judd Marcello
“Jackie Rogers Jr.’s $100,000 Jackpot Wad” (air date: April 6, 1985)
Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Martin Short were members of the Saturday Night Live ensemble for a grand total of 17 episodes, but their single season as writer-performers is probably my single favorite season of the show. All three were in their mid-30s and firmly established as comedy veterans when they signed their one-season contracts — Guest was riding high from the success of 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap, Short had just ended a three-year run on SCTV, and Crystal was well-known from the sitcom Soap — but they were also at the top of their game, seemingly eager to try out new ideas and characters while being confident enough in their abilities to simply have fun and see where their talents would lead them.
The trio of “ringers” shines in the game-show parody “Jackie Rogers Jr.’s $100,000 Jackpot Wad” — the studio audience gets to participate by shouting out each word of the show’s title in unison — but it also serves as a showcase for Mary Gross, playing a nervous contestant named Mindy, and Jim Belushi as belligerent guest panelist Captain Kangaroo, whose temper grows shorter the more tongue-tied Mindy gets. The show’s host, Jackie Rogers Jr., a garish Vegas-style entertainer (and a holdover from Short’s stint on SCTV), is less interested in explaining the rules of the game — “They’re very much like Pyramid, but different” — than bantering with guest panelist Sammy Davis Jr. (a wicked impression by Crystal), who proves his mensch credentials when he says, “To win money for these cats that you don’t know, well, that’s exciting, man.” As he gives clues to contestant Rajeev Vindaloo (Guest), a private investigator who’s also something of an idiot savant, Crystal, Guest, and Short demonstrate how ridiculously rewarding live comedy can be when it’s entrusted to seasoned (well, one-seasoned, anyway) professionals. —Robert Cass
“16th Annual Star Trek Convention” (air date: December 20, 1986)
When William Shatner hosted SNL in 1986 he appeared in this sketch, as himself, addressing fans at a Star Trek convention, eventually losing his shit due to their inane questions and telling them to “get a life!” The real fans didn’t take offense, however, proving that geeks have the best sense of humor in the world. Bootleg VHS tapes of the sketch circulated throughout the dealer rooms at conventions for years to come. —Jeff Johnson
“Tales of Ribaldry” (air date: April 1, 1989)
I’ve never found dirty jokes to be funny — they just seem like an easy way to get a laugh. However, I don’t mind the occasional double entendre or sly wink, as illustrated by a classic skit from Saturday Night Live‘s 14th season. This particular tale of ribaldry is “The Woodsman and the Lady,” starring guest host Mel Gibson and Nora Dunn, and it’s hilariously presented by Evelyn Quince, played by probably my favorite SNL cast member, Jon Lovitz. I can still quote it to this day (“Goodbye, everybody, goodbye!”). —Tony Redman
“Colon Blow” (air date: November 11, 1989)
One of the things SNL always did better than its competitors was extract the absurdity of the language of advertising, then plaster it front and center in its ad parodies. There are clearly subjects we’re not prepared to address between segments of The Ghost Whisperer, but when we must, we should also ask ourselves what erectile-dysfunction medication has to do with lounging in outdoor bathtubs, holding hands, and being capable “when you’re ready.” And what does a picnic in a park on a sunny day have to do with the girl who leans in and asks her mom about those times when she’s, y’know, not so fresh, y’know, down there.
There was brilliance all over 1989’s “Colon Blow” clip, and it can’t be denied that Phil Hartman, with his strait-laced, spokesmanlike delivery, was the only cast member for the job. It’s mostly because, if he hadn’t been part of the cast, he likely would have been in Total cereal commercials for real, amazed and incredulous that one bowl equaled ten of the competitor’s. Yes, today they push the vitamin angle and not the fiber angle, but what Total implicitly sold back then — and what Colon Blow explicitly sells — is a product that really will make you take a huge dump.
The SNL studio audience knew it from the start, and you can hear it in their response when the cereal box is placed on the countertop. The code had been shattered, and having songstress Phoebe Snow, who was doing a hell of a lot of jingle singing at that time, deliver the musical tag completed the triangulation of a perfect parody. —Dw. Dunphy
“The Sinatra Group” (air date: January 19, 1991)
In 1990 Frank Sinatra, for reasons we still don’t know, issued a few public statements to some of the biggest rock musicians of the day. He wrote an open letter to the suddenly serious artiste George Michael in which he told Jason Hare’s idol to “Loosen up. Swing, man,” and he threatened to kick Sinéad O’Connor’s ass for her complaints about the national anthem being played before one of her stateside concerts. SNL jumped on this, with Phil Hartman as the Chairman of the Board leading a McLaughlin Group-like panel discussion on issues in contemporary music. Hartman gets the outdated Rat Pack swagger of the aging Sinatra perfectly; his sparring with Sting as a sneering Billy Idol (“I’ve got chunks of guys like you in my stool”) and his cozying up to Chris Rock’s Luther Campbell (“That’s right. Put a bag over her head and do your business”) still cracks me up 20 years on. He also asks the most pressing question of the day: “Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner — who would you rather nail?” —Dave Lifton
“The Chris Farley Show” (air date: February 13, 1993)
Chris Farley’s gift for physical comedy and his irrepressible desire to do anything for a laugh were a combo that made sketches like “Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker” and the Chippendale dancers’ audition with Patrick Swayze into instant classics. When he sat down for his faux chat show on Saturday Night Live, the audience may have seen a little bit of Farley, but journalists working within the milieu of pop culture saw a whole lot of themselves. I’m not going to lie to you — Farley’s close encounter with Paul McCartney in 1993 is a pretty decent approximation of just about every interview I conducted from 1992 through 2000, and should I ever get the opportunity to chat with Macca myself, I reserve the right to channel Farley’s spirit once more.
Probably the best part about this sketch, though, is that it’s not just used by journalists as a frame of reference for intimidating interviews. When I talked to Bobcat Goldthwait in 2009 and asked him about getting Ray Davies’s blessing for a musical based on the Kinks’ Schoolboys in Disgrace, he said, “Oh, man, it was totally ‘The Chris Farley Show.’ I was sweating, and I was like, ‘Remember when you did that album? That was cool.’ And in the middle of it I even told him that — I said, ‘Did you ever see that sketch with Chris Farley when he meets Paul McCartney?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, that’s what I’m doing right now!’ And he goes, ‘Don’t worry, it’s gonna be okay.'” —Will Harris
“Sexy Cakes” (air date: February 5, 1994)
Promoting the final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Patrick Stewart demonstrated the same willingness to make a fool of himself in the name of comedy that would characterize his brilliant guest spot on Ricky Gervais’s Extras 15 years later. “Sexy Cakes” is one of those comic onions that loses a bit of its luster once it’s peeled, so just watch and laugh. Suffice to say that the idea of Stewart as the proprietor of an erotic bakery is, unbelievably, just where the laughs start. The fact that the show’s writers didn’t leave the comedy hanging on an easy punchline demonstrates a level of mild genius. —Matt Springer
“Old French Whore!” (air date: February 28, 1998)
“Old French Whore!” was one of the first sketches written by Tina Fey to make it to air during her inaugural season at Saturday Night Live. That being said, of course it was written by her, what with the wordplay, the juxtaposition, and the gross and weird sex stuff, all hallmarks of 30 Rock.
At the center of one of the better game show parodies in SNL history (“Old French whores team up with high school honor students to win fabulous prizes!”), the old French whores are Babette from Marseilles, Simone from Quebec, and Coco, the 67-year-old returning champion and one-time collaborationist. Coco’s played by Garth Brooks, who decided shortly afterward that playing dress-up, speaking in an accent, and pretending to be somebody else was a viable career choice.
By the by, don’t do a Google Video search for “old French whore” at work. Or anywhere, really. There are a lot of old-French-whore videos on the Internet, but almost none of them are this one, underscoring both the popularity of old French whores and the obscurity of “Old French Whore!” —Brian Boone
“The Barry Gibb Talk Show” (air date: October 11, 2003)
Jimmy Fallon has his share of detractors for his stint on SNL, but he gets a lifetime pass from me for this sketch. A lot of hilarious elements go into it: Fallon turns in his best work portraying the eldest Bee Gee as a dancing, high-talking, violent John McLaughlin type, and Justin Timberlake, one of the greatest guest hosts the show has ever had, is understated but excellent as Robin Gibb. When the two of them start harmonizing I lose it every time.
And can I just add that parodying an all-time earworm like “Nights on Broadway” for the talk show’s theme song is genius? Because it is. —Chris Holmes
“Lazy Sunday” (air date: December 17, 2005)
Let’s face it — it’s been a good 15 years since Saturday Night Live started its decline. Some would argue that it’s been even longer but for one saving grace: the advent of SNL Digital Shorts. Written and produced by Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, and Andy Samberg, better known collectively as the Lonely Island, these short films have taken the concept of the Internet viral video and turned it on its head, providing what were possibly the only water-cooler-worthy moments on SNL in the latter part of the last decade. While “Dick in a Box,” “Like a Boss,” “Natalie’s Rap,” and “I’m on a Boat” may have all brought bigger laughs, it’s “Lazy Sunday,” featuring Samberg and Chris Parnell, that stands as the original upon which the rest are built. —Michael Parr
“Mega-Mart” (air date: November 20, 2010)
SNL‘s satiric take on “Black Friday” consumer craziness and the big-box stores that enable it contains one great joke after another, including Mega-Mart’s boast that it’ll be selling a “secret, unpublished” Harry Potter novel the day after Thanksgiving for only six bucks. It’s easy to complain that SNL isn’t funny anymore — in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if people started complaining during the show’s second season, after Chevy Chase left for movie stardom — but to paraphrase Chase himself, “It’s Saturday Night Live and you’re not.” I couldn’t write a 90-minute comedy show each week, making sure every sketch was funny, and neither could you, so shut it. Bobby Moynihan has some of the same wild-eyed energy John Belushi had back in 1975, when Moynihan was minus two years old, and that’s as good a sign as any that the show’s original spirit is still intact. —Robert Cass