Last season of SNL was one of those “in transition” years. That meant a lot of new cast members trying to carve out an identity, with varying results depending if your name ends with Wheelan or Bennett. There were few classic sketches we’ll remember in 10 years, but it wasn’t all bad: with so many new faces, the writers couldn’t rely on old characters as much as they do some seasons. Without the otherwise-wonderful Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen, we were spared multiple appearances from the Target Lady and Nicholas Fehn, one-joke characters who were resurrected an infuriating number of times.
To show that we’re not complete haters when it comes to recurring characters, here are 20 who we never got tired of seeing. Consider them the Anti-Gillys, and if you disagree, sorry.
Ass Dan was a man of few words, and the ones he did speak were usually, “You know I’m gonna live…” Poor guy was killed and/or memorialized five times at five different events: Kickspit Underground Rock Festival, Crunkmas Karnival, Crunk-Ass Easter Festival, Columbus Day Assblast, and Donkey Punch the Ballot. He was too extreme for this world, but he left behind a legacy of a thousand laughs (I’ve watched Crunk-Ass Easter Festival a thousand times) and a million bastard children, probably.
Tracy Morgan didn’t have many recurring characters on SNL, and their gimmicks were limited at best, but the guy’s charm was enough to make them all hilarious every time. While Brian Fellows had the advantage of having adorable animals “talking” to Morgan, Astronaut Jones was far more absurd and possibly had a more limited punchline, but I’ve watched the Cameron Diaz and Britney Spears sketches probably 50 times each and I giggle like an idiot every single time.
“Brian Fellow is not an accredited zoologist, nor does he hold an advanced degree in any of the environmental sciences. He is simply an enthusiastic young man with a sixth grade education and an abiding love for all of God’s creatures.” What the voiceover forgets to mention is Fellow’s crippling paranoia. He loves turtles, unless they’re snapping turtles, in which case, he gonna kill it. In the early 2000s, I had the “Safari Planet” with Sarah Michelle Geller downloaded as mp3, so I could listen to it on my Discman and memorize every “I’M BRIAN FELLOWS I’M BRIAN FELLOWS.” (I was a very sad teenager.) Morgan’s enthusiastic arrogance was hilarious then, and it’s still classic now.
Christopher Walken is an honorary SNL cast member — he’s the proverbial Fifth Beatle, making Lorne John, Paul, George, and Ringo, I guess? Anyway, his census sketch is an all-time classic, as is Ed Glosser: Trivial Psychic, but those were one-time affairs. Speaking of affairs: it’s tough for a single character to still be funny after six appearances over a 13-year span, but Walken pulled it off with the Continental, everyone’s favorite sexual predator. There’s no way a sight gag involving Walken slipping a Mickey into some poor woman’s drink would make the cut these days, but thanks for the memories, you magnificent pervert.
The only time that I was ever annoyed with a Debbie Downer sketch was when Lindsay Lohan hosted and this specific sketch took place at Disney World. Obviously, Rachel Dratch breaking character and laughing her ass off had become part of the routine by that point, and it’s what made the character so great, because Debbie’s attitude and comments are so absurd and inappropriate that they’re supposed to make everyone cry with laughter. Unfortunately, with Lohan, it was like she was waiting for Dratch to break so she could react first and tell everyone, “I get jokes!” But aside from Lohan ruining everything, Debbie Downer was one of those perfect situational sketches that could use any setting and succeed by just being more absurd each time.
Delicious Dish Hosts
Molly Shannon’s Teri Rialto and the ever-underrated Ana Gasteyer’s Margaret Jo McCullen are more than just Schweddy Balls. They’re the template for thousands of NPR jokes; Portlandia before Portland was “a thing”; a master class in finding humor in the plainspoken. They didn’t have to yell to stand out — their soft-spoken “there’s a fungus among us” said more than a million screaming Mister Peepers.
The Denise Show
I’m honestly shocked that with all of the tired ideas and stale jokes that Adam Sandler has offered us in his Happy Madison tour de farts, there hasn’t been a movie about a loser who has been dumped by dozens of girls throughout his life, and each one leaves him as emotionally volatile and hilariously pathetic as the next, leading up to the point that he meets a girl (probably Drew Barrymore) dealing with the same problem in a relationship counselor’s waiting room, and they help each other get back at all of their exes by showing them how happy they are together, and that in turn makes them fall in love. Would you be shocked if this actually became a Happy Madison movie? As long as it was as funny as “The Denise Show” (and rated R, but not a terrible That’s My Boy rated R either), it could actually be pretty funny.
Tommy Flanagan, the Pathological Liar was Jon Lovitz’s SNL breakthrough, but I much prefer Hanukkah Harry, an intentionally hacky high-concept character who saved Christmas when Santa is incapacitated with a stomach virus. The jokes aren’t particularly special — it’s mostly just things your Jewish mom would say, like, “Try a little cottage cheese, it’ll settle his stomach” — but Lovitz has a rare ability to make anything funny, even something as simple as the words “buy my book.” Hanukkah Harry surprisingly only made two appearances on SNL, because what is he, molded white fish all of a sudden?
Disclaimer: Bill Hader is one of the rare, greatest SNL cast members who could make me laugh just by talking. Of course, Herb Welch had a repetitive gimmick – he’s an incompetent, old and possibly senile news reporter who has a tendency to repeatedly hit his subject in the face with his microphone, and then he’d eventually appear to die, only to come back to life and scare everyone. Maybe that’s enough to make people think that Herb was funny once and then he got old, but I think that hypothetical situation that I just made up is inaccurate, because “I’m trying to press 2 for English” is absolutely delightful.
Jarret and Gobi
If there’s any sketch in this feature that people complain about for not ever being funny, I expect it to be Jarret’s Room, which featured Jimmy Fallon as Jarret, a white guy with dreds, and Horatio Sanz as his pothead friend Gobi. But if you’ve spent enough time around A) perpetual stoners, B) guys who think they’re budding YouTube stars, and C) people exactly like DJ Jonathan Feinstein – or basically anyone you meet in college – then you can really relate to it. Also, Jill BUTT. Sometimes the best jokes are the simplest.
Jimmy Fallon couldn’t even start this sketch without a smile on his face, as if he had just given up and accepted that he was going to eventually break when Will Ferrell showed up to do something ridiculous. Some things are always funny, including Fallon and the week’s guest host ragging on Horatio Sanz over his Looney Tunes jacket and half-eaten taco, and especially zip-up fashion shirts being worn by Ferrell in a bowl cut. Honestly, though, I’m just a sucker for jokes about Looney Tunes clothing, because that hits way too close to home, and specifically my dresser in high school.
It has been 21 years since Chris Farley debuted his legendary motivational speaker, and people still quote him like he came up with it last week. Obviously, we’d all love it if it had been last week, because then we’d still have Farley in our lives – even though he’d probably just be starring in all of Kevin James’ Happy Madison roles – and he’d probably still be swinging by SNL every now and then to shout about his van down by the river, and we’d obviously eat it all up. Unless, of course, things had gone terribly wrong (career-wise) for Farley and he was, in fact, living in a van down by the river. But that would probably only somehow make it funnier.
Merv the Perv
Chris Parnell has always been one of the most underrated supporting cast members in SNL history, as he was like the 6th Man of the Will Ferrell era (not to mention the Emmys should have created a category just so 30 Rock’s Leo Spaceman could have been celebrated properly). What’s shocking is that Parnell was actually fired from the show twice because, as he’d later admit, it took him longer than the other guys to build confidence and “find his footing.” Lorne Michaels admitted that he was wrong, though, and Parnell spent eight seasons on the series as one of the most important sidekicks, and if he’d been given a better shot with characters like the uncomfortably hilarious Merv the Perv, he could have been one of the show’s stars.
There’s an entire generation of humans who think of Eddie Murphy as the fat guy from those Nutty Professor movies, or DONKEY, or the titular daddy in Daddy Day Care. That is so, so sad, but it’s been so long since Murphy’s been dangerous and, well, funny, that it’s hard to blame them. 48 Hrs. and Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop and Coming to America are obviously all classics and should be mandatory viewing for all teenagers, but even if Murphy had gone straight to making trash like The Adventures of Pluto Nash after leaving SNL, he’d still be on the Comedy Mt. Rushmore, thanks to characters like Mister Robinson. When people complain about SNL not being as edgy as it used to, he’s what they’re referring to. “You know, I did have the money to pay this rent…and then all of a sudden it mysteriously disappeared! And then my wife showed up with a new dress on. Want to see that dress now, boys and girls? See the footprint on it? I ain’t take it off when I do that, neither!” Yeah, Colin Jost probably isn’t writing something like that anytime soon.
Nick the Lounge Singer
I could say we picked Nick the Lounge Singer because of his captivating Star Wars song, or his drawn-out “Stairway to Heaven,” or his ability to be both sleazy and charming, but then we’d be lying. He’s here because he’s Bill Murray. But why this Bill Murray over “Dick Lanky” Bill Murray or “Ronnie Bateman” Bill Murray? Well, remember when I called Nick “sleazy and charming”? Bill Murray became one of our favorite people for playing characters with those exact characteristics, and it all began here.
Phillip the Hyper Hypo
This sketch originally aired on November 11, 1993, as Nicole Kidman hosted with musical guests Stone Temple Pilots, and it has been stored in my brain for the rest of eternity. Some Mike Myers fans would probably say that Simon was the character that had stronger staying power, but as much as I loved Danny DeVito talking about taking a poop in the bathtub, Philip was a more versatile child. His hyperactivity could have been used in any situation, and they could even bring him back for the 40th season by having a doctor, played by Rob Schneider, blame his hyperactivity on vaccines.
A lot of people thought that Bill Hader’s Stefon had become redundant by the time that the hilarious actor left the show, and because the character was limited to Weekend Update (after his debut, of course, which was a weird sketch in general) it was all just a gimmick that was intended to get Hader to break by making him say the most ridiculous things that the writers could come up with. Yeah? So? Stefon was the greatest, and if I was an eccentric world dictator with billions of dollars from my family’s oil reserves, I’d hire Hader to come perform as Stefon for me on every random holiday.
Toonces the Cat
In recent years, SNL has gotten increasingly absurdist (remember “Bugs: Where the Heck Do You Gotta Be”?). This is not a bad thing. I’d rather watch a sketch that’s weird and bad than safe and fine, but every so often, the writers will come up with something bizarre and GREAT, and every time they do, I thank Toonces. It doesn’t have to make a lick of sense, so long as Toonces, a cat that’s behind the wheel of a car for some reason, drives off a climb and there’s a giant stock-footage fireball. That is never not funny. (Honorable mention to Will Forte’s “The Falconer,” another hilarious animal-centered oddity.)
Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer
Here’s what Jack Handey, who wrote “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” and about three thousands other classics for SNL, had to say about Phil Hartman: “Roles I gave him, from an unfrozen caveman lawyer to a giant businessman to a frustrated robot, Phil made shine. He was especially good at being the patient, authoritative voice of reason, gently explaining to an idiot why he was an idiot, and why he had to stop being an idiot. He could basically do it all. You’d hand him the ball and he’d punch it over the goal line. If he couldn’t, the ball you handed him was probably slippery or flat.” Pretty much. I miss that guy.
Before last night, I didn’t know the Running Man from “What Up with That?” had an actual name: Vance. Not that he needs one. His track suits and dancing skills are enough.