Ranking pointless stuff is fun. Claiming other people’s rankings are dumb is funner.
(Shouting about a grammar mistake an overworked journalist made? The funnest.)
It’s why within 10 minutes of Rolling Stone releasing their ranking of “all 141 cast members” from Saturday Night Live, everyone went from enjoying the list to noticing Norm Macdonald was ranked 135th, and thereafter expressing great scorn.
I could mock, but even though Rolling Stone said Macdonald is one of the worst cast members ever, Rolling Stone ALSO said U2 and Bruce Springsteen had the best albums in 2014, so…wait, that’s an even worse opinion. The point is, Rolling Stone is always wrong.
But when four people clamoured at me to make my own exhaustive and slightly pointless list (it’s like I have a reputation or something), I began to think if there was a
lazy way of writing this more objective way of rating all the people who have been in hackneyed game show parodies at 11:45 p.m. on Saturday over the years.
There’s one field of arbitrary rankings that has actually found a solution: United States presidents. Historians have been at this particular game for so long (1948, to be specific) that smart people (by which I mean Wikipedia) has decided the best way to present this these various lists is a) by aggregating the rankings, b) dividing them into tiers.
Which is what we’re going to do.
In the last year, there have been eight online lists ranking at least the top 25 SNL cast members ever. They’ve been done by crowdsourcing (Business Insider), online bracket voting (Grantland), and, well, arbitrary lists (Rolling Stone, Detroit News, Nerve, Complex, Brobile, TV Guide).
We’re going to use a formula (which is basically “find the average”, while correcting for the fact that each list ranks a different number of people and Grantland has plenty of ties), separate them into understandable tiers, and finally, compare them to how we view American presidents.
Aren’t you excited? Let’s get going.
James Buchanan Division
- 141: Victoria Jackson (Average: 92.83, Grantland-removed average: 115)
- 140: Colin Quinn (Average: 112.5)
Nobody though James Buchanan was good when he was president, and then he was immediately followed by Lincoln, making it easy to mark him for infamy. Nobody ever thought Colin Quinn was good when he hosted Weekend Update, and then he was followed by Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers. Nobody ever thought Victoria Jackson was good playing anything other than one-note ditzy blonde characters, and then she went on a train to crazytown.
Jackson has a higher pure average because she got in the Grantland bracket…but received 2.3% of the vote in her first-round matchup. Take that away from her, and her rankings are worse than Quinn.
Regardless of which one you put in last, they may not be objectively the worst ever, but history has framed them in a way where they will always be remembered, for the wrong reasons, by everyone.
John Tyler Division
- 139: Jim Breuer (104)
- 138: Jeff Richards (94.5)
- 137: Finesse Mitchell (94.5)
- 136: Robin Duke (92)
- 135: Gary Kroeger (78.5)
- 134: Ellen Cleghorne (78)
- 133: Julia Sweeney (65.8)
- 132: Abby Elliott (65)
- 131: Mary Gross (60.5)
Tyler was president for four years, and while you’re pretty sure he served in the 19th century, you don’t know anything about him. Nobody much cares for Tyler, but nobody actively hates him.
All of these people were on SNL for at least three years. Their legacy is about the same.
George W. Bush Division
- 130: Horatio Sanz (56.9)
- 129: Chris Kattan (55.5)
There are some people who defend the legacy of George W. Bush. There are some people who defend Mango and That Character Sanz Played Where He Struggled to Stay in Character. It’s for this reason that they don’t rank lower, even though many people would happily see them in the Buchanan Division.
William Henry Harrison Division
- 128-64: Alan Zweibel, Brooks Wheelan, Noël Wells, Patrick Weathers, Damon Wayans, Michaela Watkins, Nancy Walls, Dan Vitale, Danitra Vance, Terry Sweeney, Ben Stiller, Pamela Stephnson, Jenny Late, Sarah Silverman, Paul Shaffer, Tom Schiller, Charles Rocket, Rim Robinson, Anny Risley, Rob Riggle, Randy Quaid, Emily Prager, Michael O’Donoghue, Mike O’Brien, Jerry Minor, John Milhiser, Laurie Metcalf, Gail Matthuis, Matthew Laurance, David Koechner, Laura Kightlinger, Leslie Jones, Yvonne Hudson, Rich Hall, Anthony Michael Hall, Gilbert Gottfried, Janeane Garofalo, Siobhan Fallon, Chris Elliott, Christine Ebersole, Robert Downey, Jr., Jim Downey, Denny Dillon, Pete Davidson, Joan Cusack, Michael Che, Beth Cahill, Morwenna Banks, Peter Aykroyd, Sasheer Zamata, Fred Wolf, Casey Wilson, Robert Smigel, Tony Rosato, Kyle Mooney, Jay Mohr, Michael McKean, Colin Jost, Brad Hall, Dean Edwards, Brian Doyle-Murray, Paul Brittain, Beck Bennett, Jim Belushi
Harrison died on his 32nd day in office. Any attempt to rank him is pointless. So is trying to rank anyone who was on SNL for two years or less without becoming a star. Some people tried to rank a couple of these folk, but they are silly.
Jimmy Carter Division
- 63: Julia Louis-Dreyfus (54.5)
- 62: Rob Schneider (52.2)
- 61: Nasim Pedrad (49.3)
- 60: Joe Piscopo (48.9)
- 59: Garrett Morris (48.1)
- 58: Tim Kazurinsky (45.9)
- 57: Dennis Miller (45.5)
All of these folks were memorable in one way or another over their medium-length runs, but they were never seen as a star and their careers afterwards have often skewed people’s perceptions of them.
Okay, that last part doesn’t really apply to Pedard or Kazurinsky, but still! This grouping has plenty of parallels!
Barack Obama Division
- 56: Aidy Bryant (81)
- 55: Bobby Moynihan (60)
- 54: Jay Pharaoh (49.2)
- 53: Vanessa Bayer (45.8)
- 52: Taran Killam (45.9)
- 51: Cecily Strong (43.8)
- 50: Kate McKinnon (30.1)
Trying to rate any current world leader/cast member against their predecessors is a fool’s game for numerous reasons, even if I could watch Kate McKinnon mug all day.
You could reasonably guess at where these people will end up, but for now we’ll separate them from the rest of the pack. Keenan Thompson though? Don’t worry, his legacy is safe—and his ranking coming soon.
Gerald Ford Division
- 49: A. Whitney Brown (79)
- 48: Tom Davis (63)
- 47: Harry Shearer (54.3)
- 46: Don Novello (42)
- 45: Al Franken (37)
- 44: Christopher Guest (35.1)
All of these people had weird tenures—they were either longtime featured players/writers (Brown, Novello, Davis, Franken), or had a big impact for one year and then left (Guest and Shearer, who had two one-year stings). Everyone agrees they were somewhere between “not bad” and “pretty good”, but because their total number of scenes is relatively minimal, they get an incomplete grade.
Grover Cleveland Division
- 43: Will Forte (39.9)
- 42: Keenan Thompson (39)
- 41: Laraine Newman (38.4)
- 40: Cheri Oteri (37.2)
- 39: Kevin Nealon (36)
- T-37: Ana Gasteyer (35.9)
- T-37: Tim Meadows (35.9)
- 36: Nora Dunn (35.8)
- 34: Chris Parnell (34.8)
Sometimes you don’t become an above-average SNL performer for having tons of memorable roles; it happens because you’re they’re for many, many years as a likeable supporting player without rocking the boat. And there’s something to be said for that. And there’s merit in remembering the solid careers of many people in this tier who played solid complementary characters.
But because this is my website, we’re going to spend just a couple seconds appreciating the heck out of Will Forte.
Bill Clinton Division
- 35: Seth Meyers (35.1)
- 33: Chris Rock (34.6)
- 32: David Spade (32.1)
- 29: Jimmy Fallon (30.5)
- 28: Tracy Morgan (30.5)
It’s hard to get an accurate grip on these guys, because while they are very popular, they also went seamlessly from starring on SNL to being celebrities in their own right. People say they’re funny—but are people placing post-SNL laugh lines over what they did on the show?
(Seriously, name me any memorable Chris Rock SNL scenes that don’t look in retrospect like him workshopping later genius.)
- 26: Martin Short (27.8)
- 25: Billy Crystal (27.2)
The stars of the weird, all-star, hired gun 1984-1985 season of the show that was the last before Lorne Michaels returned, and Short and Crystal used their one season as a launching pad to become stars in the United States after years of being big in comedy clubs/Canada. Everyone appreciates their one season—but how do you properly rank someone with one year against someone with 4-8 years? Do you rank based on potential? Project your own biases? Or simply what you saw at the time?
Ronald Reagan Division
- 24?: Norm Macdonald (39.6, Rolling Stone-removed average: 23.8)
Of course, Macdonald was famously divisive, to the point where he was removed from Weekend Update at the insistence not of Lorne Michaels, but NBC executive (and O.J. Simpson golfing buddy) Don Ohlmeyer, who claimed Macdonald was not funny. And while most people, at this point, lionize the particular brand of dark, meta comedy Macdonald brought to the show, others—like say a certain Rolling Stone writer—see him as a “Dennis Miller clone with no mullet and no jokes”.
That’s always been the case with Macdonald though. If you don’t get him, not only do you not find him funny, but you don’t really get why everyone else is laughing. It makes it difficult to assess his legacy—do you ignore the naysayers? Minimize their counterpoint? Or be honest, point out that most found Macdonald funny but others didn’t, and let people form their own opinion?
James Monroe Division
- 31: Jane Curtin (31.9)
- 30: Fred Armisen (30.6)
- 27: Molly Shannon (29.2)
- 23: Jan Hooks (27.2)
- 22: Rachel Dratch (26.2)
- 21: Jason Sudekis (25.4)
- 20: Maya Rudolph (24.9)
- 19: Jon Lovitz (23.4)
These are sort of like the Grover Cleveland members, except virtually everyone acknowledges their talent, instead of simply saying “they were certainly
a two-term president! on the show for a while!”
None of them were ever considered all-time greats, but their versatility and ability to play both straight men and quirky recurring characters won them plenty of fans.
Lyndon Johnson Division
- 18: Darrell Hammond (21.7)
- 17: Adam Sandler (20.8)
- 16: Andy Samberg (20.6)
Hey, it’s that beloved but polarizing star! The one in a bunch of things that went viral! That had one sort of bit (impressions/goofy songs/digital shorts) he was really, really well known for! It’s clear he did great things, but can we really forget his limitations? Nobody will forget the
Civil Rights Act Lazy Sunday, or “Suck it Trebek!”, or the Hanukkah song. But Vietnam complicates things.
Andrew Jackson Division
- 15: Bill Hader (18.8)
- 14: Chevy Chase (16.9)
- 13: Tina Fey (13.2)
- 12: Kristen Wiig (12.3)
- 11: Gilda Radner (11.2)
All tremendous favourites in their times, but all have something obvious holding them back.
(Hader—rarely had to carry the show/few non-Stefon viral hits, Chase—left after one year, colossal dick, Fey-really only played herself and Sarah Palin years after leaving the show, Wiig-too many characters they beat to death, Radner-had less chances to shine in the somewhat sexist early years of SNL, Jackson-Trail of Tears)
Still, all of these people got at least one top-10 vote in the various rankings—and frankly, you can’t be too outraged that they’re below anyone in the Top 10. Or can you? Read on.
Dwight Eisenhower Division
- 10: Dana Carvey (10.1)
Pretty much everyone agrees Eisenhower was a good-to-great President and puts him between the 6th and 10th best all time. And all eight SNL rankings think Carvey was a good-to-great cast member, putting him between the 5th and 13th best all time, the smallest range on the list for anyone ranked at least four times.
If you were to build a President’s philosophy and background from scratch, it could easily look like Eisenhower. If you were to build an SNL star from scratch, it could easily look like Carvey: Full of energy, personality-based impressions, original characters that grate on you the 11th time they appear, catchphrases, and destined for a lackluster movie career.
(Yes, Carvey’s stuff hasn’t aged well. Neither do 98% of SNL scenes.)
Harry Truman Division
- 9: Bill Murray (9.9)
- 8: Chris Farley (8.9)
- 7: Amy Poehler (8.8)
- 6: Dan Aykroyd (8.7)
- 5: Mike Myers (7.6)
The only one you could claim is in here because of name recognition is Murray, who really only had 3 top years, and had a smaller range than virtually everyone else above him. Still, everyone on this list was a generational influence not just on SNL, but on North American comedy. Young
punks who need to get off my lawn people will probably look at some of their characters and see Farley as too overboard and Aykroyd as too manic and Myers as too broadly weird—but they got their laughs for a reason.
Teddy Roosevelt Division
- 4: John Belushi (6.2)
In the last few decades, a consensus has emerged around the top 5 presidents of all time unless you
really, really hate Democrats. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt are virtually always listed as the top three (with Lincoln usually, but not always, listed first), and then Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson are ranked fourth and fifth.
I’ll let people who were alive when Belushi was to debate whether he’s the top cast member of all-time, as Rolling Stone believes—but if you average up all the lists, he’s ranked #4 with their endorsement, and #4 without it. So #4 he goes here.
We’ll compare him to Roosevelt instead of Jefferson, because if there’s any SNL cast member who would continue their scene even after getting shot, it’s Belushi.
FDR/George Washington Division
- T-2: Will Ferrell (5)
- T-2: Phil Hartman (5)
Add up the eight rankings and you get a number of 40 for both. Ferrell has two #1 placements to Hartman’s none, but Hartman has a smaller average deviation (3.25 to Ferrell’s 4.75).
Ferrell finished #1 and Hartman #2 in Grantland’s uber-popular bracket, and the profiles written for both there contain pretty much anything I would say
at 3 a.m. in the morning deprived of originality.
If I were to pick the best SNL cast member, it would probably be one of these two, but I’m biased. Newsradio was the first adult sitcom I truly enjoyed, and I got into SNL in 2001—when Ferrell taking off his shirt was somewhat novel—because 14 is the age where every wiseass nerd gets into SNL as a gateway comedy drug.
In any case, the point of this exercise is to use SCIENCE to determine who people think is the best cast member of Saturday Night Live ever. And they think it’s this guy.
Abraham Lincoln Division
- 1: Eddie Murphy (2.4)
Murphy was rated #1 in three of the eight rankings. He was above Hartman and Ferrell in 5/8 of them and Belushi in 6/8. His lowest ranking was 4. The lowest ranking for anyone else was 16.
Murphy not only made the biggest impression on SNL; he did so in one of the shortest time span for any major cast member ever. He was just 19 when the show began, but he said “Live from New York” in his 6th episode, was in the main cast by his 8th, did Mister Robinson’s Neighbouhood in his 11th and Buckwheat in his 15th. With SNL for just 70 episodes, by the end of it he was poised to be one of the biggest stars on the planet.
Unlike everyone else on this list, Lorne Michaels was never his boss and he hasn’t returned for countless cameos, so his place in the never-ending SNL myth-making machine is somewhat downplayed.
Will that change tonight, on the 40th anniversary special, when he makes his first return to the SNL stage in decades? We’ll have to see—but in a night of pop culture history, at least one moment is guaranteed to stand out.