My relationship with "Saturday Night Live" has been haphazard, to say the least. I watched regularly during the late Will Ferrell period, which some say was the best cast, but every generation has a best "SNL" cast. Surely several lists could be made here, of best recurring characters, best guest hosts, best pre-taped moments and digital shorts, best musical moments, and more. But for now, I'm doing favorite sketches. As always, entries below are unranked and listed by airdate.
"Word Association" (12/13/1975) - Richard Pryor appeared on "SNL" only once, but that appearance gave the show a boost in legitimacy and signaled that it could tackle thorny subjects like race relations and deliver humor with some real teeth. Controversies would be a regular occurrence, but "Word Association" still seems to mark the limit of how far the show was willing to push the envelope. And of course, as we all know from the common refrain, it's all been downhill since then.
"Buckwheat Sings" (3/12/1983) - The first time I saw this, I barely understood who Buckwheat was, having never seen "The Little Rascals." However, Eddie Murphy's delivery was what sold it. His blazing charisma was already full blown, and his tenure on "SNL" understandably brief. However, he was around long enough to produce a slew of classic material, and some say that he saved the show from an early demise. I appreciated his smarter socially conscious sketches, but Buckwheat always made me laugh hardest.
"Chippendales'a Audition" (10/27/1990) - I think this was the first "SNL" sketch that I recognized as being from "SNL." I was young enough at the time that I hadn't heard of the Chippendale's dancers, but I got the concept immediately. Chris Farley's flailing flab in contrast with Patrick Swayze's professional moves were stupendous in their outlandishness. I actually felt bad for laughing the first time because the Farley character was clearly trying so hard, and I wasn't quite sure that it was really meant to be a joke.
"Coffee Talk With Linda Richman" (2/22/1992) - It's one of my favorite things, to see people really surprised and delighted, and even better when it's a celebrity I like. This installment of "Coffee Talk," helmed by Mike Myers in his fabulous Linda Richman persona, already had Madonna and Roseanne Barr on the couch as guests. But then Barbara Streisand drops in unannounced, and the glee and the joy are off the charts. It may not be particularly funny, but I still love the sketch to bits for delivering so much happiness.
"Down By the River" (5/8/1993) - Created by Bob Odenkirk and embodied by Chris Farley and his best, Matt Foley is one of the most fearless and iconic characters to have ever come out of "SNL." His physicality, his awkwardness, and his absolute commitment to his spiel are still something to behold. At the same time he's so silly and ridiculous, is it any wonder that the other actors in the scene struggle to keep it together? Of all the "SNL" spinoff films, why oh why didn't they ever build one around Matt Foley?
"Behind the Music: Blue Öyster Cult" (April 8, 2000) - The entire episode featuring Christopher Walken was great, but Will Ferrell completely stole the show as the enthusiastic cowbell player in the "Behind the Music" sketch. He was indisputably "SNL's" headliner after this. Walken, of course, still walked away with one of the era's most enduring catchphrases: "More cowbell!." Can anyone still listen to "Don't Fear the Reaper" without imagining Ferrell gyrating in the recording booth? I know I can't.
"Janet Reno Dance Party" (1/20/2001) - I don't even remember what this sketch was about, but the image of Will Ferrell in drag as Attorney General Janet Reno being confronted by the actual Janet Reno will forever be etched in my mind. It was the perfect convergence of celebrity guest spot, political humor, and Will Ferrell's most deeply uncomfortable reaction. Alas, from Reno's attempts to capitalize on the sketch's notoriety in her later political campaigns, it doesn't seem like she got the joke.
"Omeletteville" (October 11, 2003) - Justin Timberlake won over a lot of people thanks to his multiple appearances as host of "SNL." He's proven to be one of the best, displaying excellent comedic chops as well as musical talent and fancy footwork. The recurring "Omeletteville" sketches are a chance for Timberlake to really get outrageous, playing a costumed mascot with a big attitude. My favorite is still the original, where he trash talks Chris Parnell and rocks a giant foam omelet costume.
"A Nonpartisan Message from Governor Sarah Palin & Senator Hillary Clinton" (9/13/2008) - "I Can See Russia From My House!" Sarah Palin never stood a chance after Tina Fey so deftly skewered her in the "SNL" season premiere. The show instantly changed the tone of the campaign, and made Fey into one of the show's most valuable, high profile alumni. Amy Pohler, alas, never got enough credit. All the attention also gave "SNL" a boost in popularity, and cemented its topical satirical bona fides.
"Close Encounter" (Dec 5, 2015) - I haven't been keeping up with "SNL" in recent years, but I know there's at least one comedic treasure currently in residence: Kate McKinnon. Watching her systematically destroy everyone else in this recent alien abduction sketch is so much fun. It's just quotable line after quotable line, all delivered just right for maximum damage.