Few TV shows have had a bigger impact on comedy than Saturday Night Live. Since its debut in 1975, the sketch comedy series has created film and TV stars, as well as two current late-night TV talk show hosts. It’s also a rite of passage for many comedians on the rise. Getting on SNL isn’t a guarantee of future success, but the breakout cast members almost always use the show as a springboard for even bigger gigs.
As SNL continues its 49th season in 2024, we’re looking back at the seven best Saturday Night Live casts of the show’s nearly five-decade run. Note that this list wasn’t ranked for any single performer, otherwise Eddie Murphy would be on top for carrying the show in the early ’80s. Instead, this list focuses on the top ensembles that have made SNL appointment television for a very long time. And you’re going to see a lot of familiar faces here.
Following the departure of Eddie Murphy in 1984, it took some time for SNL to load up on future comedy stars. But by the end of the decade, Saturday Night Live had done it again.
Season 15 marked the promotion of Mike Myers from featured player to one of the main cast members alongside his future Wayne’s World co-star, Dana Carvey, as well as Jon Lovitz, Kevin Nealon, Victoria Jackson, Jan Hooks, and Nora Dunn. Dennis Miller was also a main cast member and one of the most memorable hosts of Weekend Update. Al Franken and A. Whitney Brown were the featured players this season.
As Seth Meyers has pointed out, only one member of the Saturday Night Live season 32 cast hasn’t gone on to guest host the show after leaving the cast. The person in question is Kenan Thompson, and the only reason he hasn’t hosted yet is because he’s been a member of the cast since 2003.
The rest of season 32’s lineup included Will Forte, Barry star Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg, Amy Poehler, Fred Armisen, Darrell Hammond, Maya Rudolph, Jason Sudeikis, and, of course, Meyers himself.
This is the most recent season of Saturday Night Live on our list, and also the SNL swan song for Andy Samberg and Kristen Wiig. Bill Hader was also in season 37’s cast alongside a powerhouse lineup that included Fred Armisen, Seth Myers, Bobby Moynihan, Jason Sudeikis, Kenan Thompson, Abby Elliott, and Nasim Pedrad. Also featured this season were Vanessa Bayer, Paul Brittain, Taran Killam, Kate McKinnon, and Jay Pharoah.
The season 27 premiere of Saturday Night Live took place only a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, and seeing this cast back on TV really felt cathartic at the time.
This was Will Ferrell’s last season on the show before taking off to make movies, but the rest of the cast went on to bigger and better things as well, including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Jimmy Fallon, Darrell Hammond, Chris Kattan, Maya Rudolph, Horatio Sanz, Ana Gasteyer, and Rachel Dratch. This season’s featured players also included future late night host Seth Meyers, as well as Dean Edwards and Jeff Richards.
As any longtime Saturday Night Live fan can attest, the show has its up and down periods. In 1997, the cast once again had a lineup that could rise to the occasion.
Will Ferrell, Tim Meadows, Tracy Morgan, Colin Quinn, Chris Kattan, Ana Gasteyer, Jim Breuer, Molly Shannon, and Mark McKinney helped make the show peak again. But for our money, the late Norm Macdonald made Weekend Update worth staying up late for again.
The end of one era on SNL and the beginning of another led to one of the most star-studded lineups that this show has ever seen. The primary cast of Saturday Night Live season 17 included holdovers Dana Carvey, Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Victoria Jackson, Mike Myers, Kevin Nealon, Chris Rock, and Julia Sweeney.
But the supporting cast included future SNL headliners, including Adam Sandler, David Spade, Rob Schneider, Tim Meadows, and Ellen Cleghorn. There’s only one SNL cast that’s ever been stronger than that group.
There have been many great SNL casts over the last five decades, but the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players set the bar incredibly high. No comedy Hall of Fame would be complete without first-season cast members Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner.
George Coe stayed for only a single episode, while Michael O’Donoghue and Chase left after the first season. But Bill Murray was added to the cast in season 2, and most of this core group remained with the show for the first four seasons.
Getting a group like this was truly special, and they paved the way for everyone who came after them.
Watch every season of Saturday Night Live on Peacock.
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