Unlike choosing the top players in any sport, selecting the best sketch comedy performers in television history is very arbitrary. There are no stats to guide you, just what you witnessed in your lifetime and how these actors made you laugh. The only parameter I set for the list was that I had to have watched you during my lifetime. This basically sets the bar at anything Monty Python Flying Circus and after. Python was the most influential sketch show of all-time, as it was revolutionary in the way it used comedy. Anything before it was safe, so I feel confident that this list possesses the best sketch comedy performers.
1. Will Ferrell
2. Jim Carrey
3. John Cleese
4. Eddie Murphy
5. Martin Short
Will Ferrell consistently was funny in every sketch he did at Saturday Night Live. When he was a cast member, he often carried the show. Ferrell has a strange energy that inhabits each character he does that no one else I’ve ever witnessed can match. He is at his best when he portrays adults who act juvenile.
Some might forget that Carrey was one of the best comic impressionists of all-time, before he gave it up to pursue original characters. He brought them both to In Living Color. There doesn’t seem to be anything comedic ally that he can’t do. In some of his movies he is bit over the top, but in a sketch, he is hard to match. The one time he appeared on SNL might be the greatest performance ever by a host.
Cleese brought an intellectual snobbery to most of his characters that was aided by his imposing size. His verbal dexterity and physical comedic skills are unmatched.
While it was a pretty short tenure, no one dominated their time at SNL more than Eddie Murphy. His charisma was amazing, especially considering he was barely in his 20’s when he started appearing in what seemed like every sketch that was good.
Martin Short brought a Rat Pack style to many of his characters. It was like he was trying to be cool, but it is always overcome by his inner Jerry Lewis.
6. Dana Carvey
7. Phil Hartman
8. Dan Aykroyd
9. Chris Farley
10. Bill Murray
Dana Carvey has the rare ability to find the funniest possible thing about a person when doing an impression and then makes it the signature thing people remember them for. (See George Bush 41, Ross Perot, Johnny Carson, John McLaughlin, etc.) My 2nd favorite sketch character of all-time might be his “Lyle, the effeminate heterosexual.)
At the same time Carvey was at SNL, Phil Hartman was the true unsung hero of the show. He could play almost any type of original character, plus his Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton impressions nailed the comedic essence of each man.
Much like Hartman, Dan Aykroyd was often overshadowed by showy performers, but he was often held the sketches together. Watch his Best of SNL, if you don’t believe me in rating him the MVP of the original casts.
In 1989, I went to Second City in Chicago to see a show and was blown away by Chris Farley. I knew nothing about the guy, but in my lifetime, I have never seen someone dominate a stage like him. Less than a year later, I saw him as a Chippendales dancer, which still might be the funniest sketch in SNL history. Matt Foley, motivational speaker is my favorite sketch character of all-time.
Bill Murray’s top 5 movies I would take over any other comedic actor. On SNL, he was initially overshadowed by other cast members, but by the time most of them had left, he was given a chance to shine during his final season. The key to most of his SNL characters was the total confidence they exuded, despite little outward reason for having.
11. Alec Baldwin
12. Steve Martin
13. Dave Chappelle
14. Michael Palin
15. John Candy
Alec Baldwin’s appearance here might surprise, but he is the best SNL host of all-time. He controls a comedy sketch like Jack Nicholson does on the silver screen. The Canteen Boy sketch is my favorite one in SNL history. His batting average in sketch comedy is the highest of anyone I can think of.
Right behind Baldwin for best host is Steve Martin. During the late 70’s, Martin reached a level of stardom that no stand-up comic has ever reached, before or since. His absurd style meshed seamlessly with the cast. While Wild and Crazy Guy and Excuse Me became household phrases, I think his pinnacle on the show was Theodoric of York.
While others have tried, no one during my lifetime has had success with critics and the marketplace with a self-titled sketch show. Dave Chappelle changed this. I’ve always liked his standup, but I was never blown away by him until he did his self-titled show. Clayton Bigsby, the blind racist is the best comedy sketch of all-time.
My favorite characters that Michael Palin has played have always had a shyster quality to them. There was a nudge nudge, wink wink attitude to them that were hilarious. Like the other Python members, he also was brilliant in drag.
Much like Farley, there was a likeability factor to John Candy that made it almost impossible not to fall for what he was selling (Even porn peddler, Harry…the guy with a snake on his face.). He did a great list of characters during his time at SCTV, but my fav was Gail Fisher, the fishin’ musician. I love the idea of a TV fishing show host who doesn’t like the taste of fish.
16. Tim Conway
17. Carol Burnett
18. Damon Wayans
19. John Belushi
20. Bruce McCulloch
While it was stylistically like the old wave of comedy sketch shows, the Carol Burnett Show was consistently funny.
Conway has amazing timing. He was like Bird or Magic, as he could go more slowly and control the action even more, as things around him would adjust to his speed.
Carol Burnett is the greatest sketch actress, as she has never been afraid to go as far as it takes to make the comedy work. Her Improv abilities were amazing, as she demonstrated in her opening monologue taking questions from the audience.
While Keenan Ivory Waynans was the creator of In Living Color, his brother Damon is by far the most talented member of the family. No one has played more politically incorrect characters as Damon and most of them have been hilarious. His recent self-titled sketch show on Showtime was often sophomoric and vile, but it had a lot of really funny stuff. It was the first comedy sketch show that explored uncensored subjects.
I’m sure most would have John Belushi higher, but I’ve always felt he was a bit overrated. It’s not that he wasn’t a sensational performer, but I don’t think his body of work was deserving of legend status.
This might be a surprise choice to be in the Top 20, but I believe Bruce McCulloch was the genius of The Kids in the Hall. There is something very strange about all of his characters, but they are so real that is seems almost like a documentary. Bobby Torrance, Cathy the secretary, and especially Gavin the annoyingly precocious boy, are all versions of people I have met.
21. Mike Myers
22. Dave Thomas
23. Rick Moranis
24. Billy Crystal
25. Mo Collins
Mike Myers is another comedic actor who I don’t rate as high as most. My favorite characters of his were the one’s that were European in origin. (Scottish character and Sprockets)
No sketch show had a better 4 year run than SCTV did between 1980-1983. It’s hard to rate the players from the show separately, but Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis are the most closely aligned, especially considering their breakout charcters, Bob and Doug McKenzie. Thomas’ Bob Hope and Moranis’ Merv Griffin were brilliant in the way they both honored and skewered the legends.
Like Martin Short, Billy Crystal has an old vaudeville performer trapped inside him. While his time on SNL was brief, he did create some good original characters and his Sammy Davis Jr. impression was flawless.
Next to Burnett, the best comedic actress in sketch comedy is Mo Collins. With MadTV for many seasons, Collins created many great original characters. While Michael McDonald’s Stuart is the most famous character in the show’s history, I always thought the true star of these sketches was his mother, Doreen, played by Collins. No sketch actress has played so many comedic characters as Collins.
26. Darrell Hammond
27. Frank Caliendo
28. Ben Stiller
29. Bob Odenkirk
30. Eric Idle
I have worked with both Darrell Hammond and Frank Caliendo and let me say that doing stand-up that it is no contest on who is better on-stage. (Caliendo in a land-slide.)
Hammond gets the slim nod in sketch comedy, as MadTV really misused Caliendo during his time there.
Hammond’s Bill Clinton and Sean Connery impressions are his best known, but I love his Geraldo Rivera and Jesse Jackson takeoffs the most.
I suspect that now that Caliendo is getting his own show, he will move up this list, as Frank has only scratched the surface of what he can do. His variety of characters on the NFL on Fox has been pretty remarkable, considering he has to keep a football theme during the sketches.
The Ben Stiller Show was short-lived, but is still considered one of the best in the genre. Stiller’s Tom Cruise and Bono impressions being my favorite.
Bob Odenkirk was part of the Stiller ensemble, but his crowning achievement was as one of the co-creators of Mr. Show. No sketch show was as smartly written as Mr. Show.
Is there a person on this list who has played more unlikeable characters than Eric Idle. Unlike the other Pyton members, Idle wrote by himself (I’m guessing no one wanted to have to be in the same room with him during the process), so his offerings were the most different. While I’m not a huge fan, I can’t deny the long list of achievements he made to the show. He also is the most musical of anyone on the Top 50 list.
31. Eugene Levy
32. Joe Flaherty
33. Graham Chapman
34. Michael Richards
35. Harvey Korman
Eugene Levy and Joe Flaherty were at their best when playing off of other cast members. The parody they did together of the local news was brilliant, as it was a more low-key version of what the movie Anchorman became. Levy’s Bobby Bittman and Flaherty’s Guy Cabellero were their standout roles.
Graham Chapman was at his best when portraying insane British women. He was Cleese’s writing partner, which worked well for his career.
Before there was Kramer, Michael Richards appeared on a sketch show with Larry David, which was titled Fridays. Airing on ABC during the early 80’s, it was actually superior to SNL for a couple of years. Richards was great in everything he did on the show, with a character named Battle Boy showing off his weird genius the most.
While Harvey Korman was best known for playing off of Tim Conway, it should not be forgotten how great he was in his own right.
36. Amy Poehler
37. Gilda Radner
38. Jan Hooks
39. Andrea Martin
40. Catherine O’Hara
Since Will Ferrell left SNL, I think the real star of the show has been Amy Poehler. From way back in her days with the Upright Citizens Brigade, Poehler always brings a complete commitment to every character she inhabits. I wouldn’t be surprised if she climbs up this list most over the next couple of years.
While I’m not as big of fan of hers as many, Gilda Radner had an innocence that she brought to most of her characters. She was the only woman from the early years of SNL that held her own.
Jan Hooks was a truly unsung member of SNL during the great years of the late 80’s to early 90’s. I first noticed her on the TBS sketch show, Tush. She was truly the star of this show, as her Tammy Faye Bakker impression was flawless.
SCTV always seemed more like an ensemble show than SNL, so each member of the cast had a chance to shine in each episode.
Andrea Martin generally played a female misfit, with the immortal Edith Prickley and the bizarre pitchwoman Edna Boil my personal favorites.
Catherine O’Hara was at her best when inhabiting ditzy women, with Lola Heatherton her quintessential character.
41. Chevy Chase
42. David Allen Grier
43. Jamie Foxx
44. Jon Lovitz
45. Adam Sandler
You would think Chevy Chase would rate higher, but considering he only appeared on the initial season of SNL, his body of work is more limited than you would guess.
David Allen Grier is really underrated, as he filled the role for In Living Color that Hartman and Aykroyd did for SNL during their tenures.
Jaime Foxx was not on the show for long, but his time with In Living Color showed him to be an Eddie Murphy-like talent.
Jon Lovitz was hit or miss for me, but characters like the Pathological Liar and Master Thespian were homerun performances.
Adam Sandler’s best moments at SNL were often crazy little characters he did during Weekend Update like Opera Man.
46. Will Sasso
47. David Cross
48. Norm Macdonald
49. Chris Kattan
Another actor from MadTV who is unknown by much of the public, Will Sasso did a lot of quality work during his time with the show. His version of Kenny Rogers is one of the weirdest, but most hilarious impressions I’ve ever seen.
The other part of Mr. Show, Cross is a great standup comic, who did some excellent stuff with the HBO sketch show.
While Norm Macdonald is known more for anchoring Weekend Update, his impressions of David Letterman, Burt Reynolds, and especially Bob Dole were inspired.
I’m not a big fan of Chris Kattan, but his characters Mr. Peepers and Mango were freakishly funny.
Over the past 10 years, SNL has had better female cast members than men, with Maya Rudoph, Sheri Oteri, and Molly Shannon providing some of the best performances during this time. Hard for me to put one above the others, so I’ve lumped them in at the end.
A few final notes.
During his time as a writer for the David Letterman Show, Chris Elliott played a number of recurring characters, with my favorite being The Guy under the Seats. The key facet to all of his characters was that they were completely insulting to the host, David Letterman.
Christopher Guest would rate way up the list, if we were considering his movies on the list, but in his one season on SNL, he didn’t do enough to crack the Top 50.
I can remember laughing at a lot of Joe Piscopo’s characters when I was younger, but they don’t hold that well, today. He falls just outside this list.
Recent hires Jason Sudekis and Will Forte have aided SNL’s most recent revival.
The rest of the cast of The Kids in the Hall were great, but the characters they did were often so strange, it’s hard for me to rate them individually. I do think Scott Thompson is the Paul Lynde/Charles Nelson Reilly of my generation. (This is high praise from me.)
MTV’s Human Giant is the best of the new sketch shows. Well worth checking out.