You’ve probably noticed in the 3 months I’ve been doing this feature, I have yet to mention anything about the many recurring characters that have appeared on the show through the years. There’s a good reason for that—although the various SNL characters over the years are iconic and have delivered a lot of great moments in comedy, some would argue that Characters in general are nothing more than Comedy Crutches—show up, say your catchphrase, get the applause, good night! While I strongly disagree with those who think that, it’s not completely untrue. The characters that make up SNL’s Universe can be a little predictable at times, but the show wouldn’t’ve been the same without them. So after thinking very long & hard about it throughout the summer, it’s about time I put my PERSONAL favorites in List form…10 of them to be exact…
*The characters HAVE To have appeared a minimum of 5 times AND/OR have been listed as official Characters either in “The First 20 Years” book, or the “Taschen” 40th anniversary book, or on NBC’s Website. Also, for an appearance to count, it has to have been on the show itself, and not elsewhere.
*No filler pieces like ANY of Jack Handy’s bits (Deep Thoughts, Fuzzy Memories, Big Thick Novel, you name it).
*I’m also not going to count people who are based on Actual People/Things, political leaders or newsmakers—This means No Presidents, No Celebrities past or present, Nobody you’d hear about ad nausium on TV/Internet/Newspapers or any other medium. This means No Sinatra(s), No Sammy, No Buckwheat, No Gumby, No Fernando, No Barbara Walters’, No Jeopardy, No Kidding (among MANY others).
*I’m also cutting the ultra-rare characters that were not originally made for the show…ultra-rare, because “Ed Grimley” was actually created for SCTV originally (Jackie Rogers Jr. too), and I think that might be the ONLY example.
*The most painful cut to make is that of the ENTIRE “TV Funhouse” & “Digital Short” collections, mostly because they’re their own independent segments within the show, and there’s more than enough of those shorts to make several lists just for them…which I’ll probably do sometime in 2017.
*Above ALL Else, the characters not only have to be funny, but the value of the humor still manages to hold up years after the fact.
So to recap; The Characters must be Fictional, Non-Newsmaker, Non-Smigel, Non-Shorts characters made for the show only, appeared more than 5 times and are stull funny after all these years…and that STILL leaves us with a lot to choose from—and remember, this is MY OPINION ONLY, so if you’re upset that I left one of YOUR favorites out or that one is ranked where another SHOULD be, you really shouldn’t be. I’m sure you have your favorites too, and I’m sure this is going to be BEGGING for a “Viewer’s Choice” at some point. But for now, these characters are the Reason why I keep watching the show in good times or bad, so my apologies in advance for being a little TOO subjective.
With that much of a brief introduction (pfft, Yeah Right!), let’s begin…
- JUDY GRIMES – I know, I’m burying the long promised “Good” Kristen Wiig moment at the bottom of the list, but considering all the other moments of Shrill some of us wound up getting from her as a cast member, Judy Grimes is probably Wiig’s “Diamond in the Rough”—and is also her most tolerable character. I don’t know what it is about them, but anybody who’s a fast talker and STILL manages to not only make me laugh but also get the point across efficiently has to be doing SOMETHING right (which would also probably explain my penchant for collecting Micro Machines as a kid, Using FedEx to mail things, and the fact that whenever I talk, my P’s Pop and my S’s are sibilant…but I digress). This has always been not only one of my favorite Wiig characters, but the fact that she can rattle off several dozen “Just Kiddings” in land-speed record time and STILL do it in a way that doesn’t go over the top like her other characters is enough to watch in total awe.
- BRIAN FELLOW(S) – Any character that starts out as one entity only to evolve into something out of left field altogether certainly deserves some respect (See #1), and Brian Fellow(s) is one of them. Hard as it is to believe/remember; but before he had his “Safari Planet”, Tracy’s Uber-effeminate animal enthusiast actually started out as an Uber-effeminate Sports Correspondent for “Update”. Watching that again, and then watching the “Safari” sketches makes me wonder if there was some sort of Time/Space anomaly happening where there could’ve been a “Brian Fellows Sportscenter” in an alternate universe……at which point, I put down my 4th bottle of Heineken. Point being; I’m glad they decided to go the animal route instead, largely because…well, you know. One thing that kinda bugged me about him, though…Was it “Brian Fellow”, “Brian Fellows” or “Brian Fellow’s”? Seems like they’ve used all 3 at some point.
- THE LIAR – Behold, the Biggest reason people still gave a damn about the show in the 1985-86 season…Well, him and These, but that’s beside the point. Tommy Fla-NAY-Gan became the show’s rallying cry, and it showed considering he was on every other week as a result of very little else being worth watching. So much was “The Liar” overused, that Smigel once made a rather scathing cartoon called “The Life of a Catchphrase” and used Lovitz as Patent Zero showing the rise, the peak, the downfall and the bottom of a catchphrase’s (and possibly the actor’s) lifecycle—so much for saving his life in the fire. Nevertheless, “Yeah, That’s the Ticket” wound up becoming everybody’s favorite way to cover one’s tracks, and you can’t fault Lovitz for that—no matter How repetitive it got.
- ENID STRICT – Let’s face it, we ALL call her “The Church Lady” (I think they only mention her actual name maybe twice in the Entire run); but no matter what you call her, the show REALLY would’ve died if it weren’t for Church Chat (Maybe that’s why Lovitz “Killed” the character several years later, maybe he was jealous all along? Lot of good it did, though, since it came back several times since). I hate to revisit old clichés, but this too is an example of what I’d like to call the “Albert Brooks Principle”. Lovitz’s Liar was the booster rocket that got the craft into space, but it was Dana Carvey’s contrarian, judgmental, Satan-Baiting hostess that kept the ship in orbit around the Earth. Of course, if religion/televangelism wasn’t big in the news back in the late 80s, these sketches would’ve probably been given the “One & Done” treatment. I never thought I’d say this with an ounce of sincerity (Or should that be SIN-Cerity?), but Thank You Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, and (of course) Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker for keeping the pipeline full…I’d say that’s “Special”, indeed.
- MR. ROBINSON – Just as Lovitz was the biggest reason people gave a damn about the show in Season 11, Eddie Murphy was the Biggest reason the show stayed alive, Period. But since Buckwheat & Gumby are pre-existing characters in the real world, and I never really cared for “Velvet Jones”, this one stands alone by default…but that doesn’t mean the character is any more/less memorable. I just enjoyed these sketches because it removes the Rose-colored tint of Children’s television and it gives us a cold splash of reality (at least in the Early 80s) that people could easily take. The sing-songy way Murphy plays Anti-Mr. Rogers is so delightfully cracked that it almost makes living in the “Bad” part of town seem like a fantasyland. What I like the most about this character is the fact that this is a guy that now could’ve ONLY existed in the Early 1980s; not like today where the Outer Boros have pretty much been cleaned up and Gentrification took hold. It also makes me wonder (if Eddie ever bothered to host) what would’ve became of Robinson in passing years. How would he have handled the Bush, Clinton, Bush Jr. & Obama Years? Would he eventually have his life back on track, or would he still be hustling? My guess is, he’d eventually move from the Ghetto to a place like Bed-Stuy after several trips to rehab, jail and/or church and become one of those “Counselors” on Daytime talk shows that turn around the lives of troubled teens…but that’s just me being an optimist (Do YOU know any optimists? I’ll bet you do).
- MR. BILL –Originally featured as part of a contest where viewers submitted their short films to be part of the show, this marked Possibly the ONLY time in SNL history where a recurring character was crowdsourced. Since his first appearance in 1976, Mr. Bill not only made 23 more appearances on the show, and not only did creator Walter Williams eventually become an official member of SNL’s payroll because of it, but Mr. Bill himself became the kind of overnight sensation a marketing wizard would only dream of—countless commercials & PSAs, the random appearances on Other TV shows, and even a theatrical short film. And of course, all the many ways we see him meet his doom is schadenfreude to the highest regard…Not bad for a pile of play-doh from New Orleans. The example above is certainly Not enough; so instead—when you have a moment–take a look at Walter Williams’ own Vimeo playlist featuring anything/everything Mr. Bill related, and even a few Non-Bill rarities that further show just how underrated Williams truly is…Also, for the record, “Oh No, Mr Bill!” ranks up there with “You Dirty Rat” and “Judy, Judy, Judy” on a list of things that have NEVER EVER Been said By ANYONE. It’s just “OH NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo!”, let’s leave it at that.
- WAYNE & GARTH – OK, Full disclosure time…at the beginning of S.O.S.N.L., I had mentioned that the First episode I ever saw was when Dana Carvey hosted in 1994…TECHNICALLY, That Remains true, it Was the first show I saw…on a regular basis in its entirety. But a few years earlier when the “Wayne’s World” movie came out, my Sister & a friend of hers rented a videotape…Say it with me now, it was a “Starmaker Special Edition ‘Wayne’s World’ Tape” that happened to coincide with the movie’s release. To be fair, I was 7 years old—and at that age, I honestly had no Idea that Wayne & Garth and their involvement with SNL were one in the same; plus, my understanding of what SNL was back then was minimal at best. That being said (and to borrow some questionable housing metaphors); “Carvey ‘94” laid the foundation for my SNL fanhood, Billy Crystal put up the framework, but Wayne & Garth was getting me approved for the Mortgage so that I could start building the damn house. For a long time, one of the true marks of a character’s success aside from increased popularity is just exactly how that popularity evolves. “Wayne’s World” famously started out as a “10 to 1” sketch at the end of a show, and from there, the phenomenon began to snowball. The sketches aired earlier, then they started adding non-host guest stars, then it became big enough to spawn not one, but Two movies; and then it becomes so hallowed that on the random times it makes a surprise appearance long after its peak popularity, it almost feels like a long lost member of the family comes home. Party on, Wayne! Party on, Garth!
- FUTABA THE SAMURAI – Sometimes the Best humor is that of the Non-Verbal variety–Just ask Charlie Chaplin. Belushi, along with writer Alan Zweibel (with Tom Schiller writing the first one) managed to give a voice to what was virtually voiceless. Yeah, there was a lot of guttural Japanese grunting going on, but the bulk of what made these sketches iconic was the ability to “Show, Don’t Tell”. In Shales/Miller, Zweibel sort of lamented that all he was really doing was writing stage direction while giving the foil (most often, Buck Henry) the straight lines—and to a degree, that’s pretty much it. But it was the way Belushi adapted and adopted the stage directions that not only complimented the straight lines; but at times, it even enhanced them (Re-watch Samurai Delicatessen if you doubt the claim). And in an effort to make a clean segue; if it weren’t for Belushi maniacally wielding a sword around, there probably would Never have been………….
- MATT FOLEY – I came of age comedically during the tail end of SNL’s “Bad Boys” era, and nobody…BUT NOBODY…was able to wave the flag, lead the troops and yell CHARGE during those years like Chris Farley. Even despite one “SON OF A BITCH” too many from him at times, it was Farley’s energy and (to quote Ana Gastyer) Surprising Athleticism that kept people coming back for more. To use some bowling metaphors for a second; “Chippendales” set up the pins, “Schillervisions” was the ball speeding down the lane, Matt Foley was what happened when the Ball knocks down the pins…or the tables…or the staircases…or the walls…or whatever else propmaster Eugene Lee could come up with that Farley could easily break away. That, and Foley was probably one of the first characters I saw that was highly immitatable; not just for me, but for a seemingly countless number of people I went to school with at the time. Every once in a blue moon, there’d be a “Foley-Off” to see who could bellow that they live in a VAN DOWN BY THE RIVER the best…no matter who did it best that day, it was no match for the real thing. Samurai Futaba brought physical comedy back from the dead, Matt Foley honed and refined it.
And my #1 favorite SNL Characters (Yes, Plural) of All Time Are……….
(TIE) EMILY LITELLA, ROSEANNE ROSANNADANNA & STEFON – You would think that this trio has absolutely NOTHING in common aside from the fact that they’re “Update” characters. But believe it or not, all of them are more similar than you think. Yes, their styles are different. Yes, two of them seem folksy compared to the party boy. And Yes, one broke down on camera more than there are James Bond movies while the others kept it relatively straight. But the common threads these three have in common is the ability to stray far from the subject while acting as a common foil for their respective anchor. Gilda going on long-winded tangents about bodily functions, Hader giving us coked-out descriptions of “New York’s Hottest Clubs” when he’s supposed to keep things simple. In another time/place/dimension, all three would’ve been kindred spirits—albeit in a “Harold & Maude” way, but they’d still be made for each other (Or at the very least, have Stefon be Roseannadanna’s long lost son—Litella might be too meek to have someone in the family taint the bloodline). Just like Brian Fellow(s), two of the three characters had their origins in the opposite direction; Hader in a sketch with Ben Affleck, Gilda in a piece called “Hire the Incompetent”. Meanwhile, Litella did it in reverse; starting as a Desk piece, but then evolving into more formal sketches later on—No Video/Transcript available, but I do recall one with Ruth Gordon and another where she’s telling classic stories that are altered by her impairment (I.e. “Porky & Bess” instead of Porgy). It’s the flexibility of all three that makes me wonder why SNL doesn’t let more people out of the bubble these days. Why not have Kate McKinnon’s Russian character lament on her old country WHILE she’s there in some run down shack? Why not have Anthony Crispino try his shtick on the Streets of NYC while selling bootleg DVDs? Why not have Drunk Uncle introduce us to the rest of his family while they’re visiting his (presumably) one bedroom apartment for an ill-conceived intervention? Y’know, examples that show that SNL is willing to think outside the box once a Decade…well, anyway, These three I feel are the quintessential SNL characters; they try to fit into the real world, they often don’t, but above all else, they make us laugh—and at the end of the day, that’s what SNL is REALLY all about.
SPARTAN CHEERLEADERS – At a time when the show was hurting to be relevant again, they COULD’VE Done better than Craig & Ariana. But considering the show was trying to get back on its feet again, let’s just call these characters a “Baby Step” in terms of show recovery–Yes, they’re uber-annoying, but at least Ferrell’s energy helps even out Oteri’s mosquito-like tendencies. Also, at least Jim Carrey & Tom Hanks made them look good for a few episodes.
THE WHINERS – As much as I mentioned not being a fan of Wiig’s Shrillness, that DOESN’T mean that I’m Not a fan of so-called “Abrasive” humor—“Urkel” would’ve never lasted 9 years on TV if that wasn’t the case. Doug & Wendy Whiner certainly fit the bill.
DR. JACK BADOFSKY – As I mentioned in the Kaz Article, this was not only his best character, but probably the best known character of the Ebersol Era NOT helmed by Murphy or Piscopo. Puns that make you roll your eyes “Liz Lemon Style” certainly help.
THE BEES – Despite the fact that these are probably the ultimate “Love ‘em/Hate ‘em” characters, they WERE the show’s first, and you can’t take that away. That, and the fact that they were like the “Swiss Army Knife” of sketches back then—plug ‘em into Anything, and it’ll work.
STUART SMALLEY – The “Biased” pick of the list—largely because I come from a dysfunctional family and these sketches were actually a pretty good way to cope with some things back in the day………long story.
TIM CALHOUN – Will Forte’s erstwhile, under-modulated Senator clearly has no business being in politics…which is EXACTLY why the stuff that comes out of his mouth is all the funnier.
SUEL FORRESTER – Chris Kattan’s gibberish speaking everyman was probably the ONLY character of his I straight up Liked…oh, don’t worry, Kattan’s Day of Reckoning will come……(*THUNDER RUMBLES IN THE DISTANCE*)
Like I said before, if you felt like I left someone out or if I put a character in a place where it shouldn’t’ve been, I’m MORE than open to the criticism—Remember though, these were my personal favorites, you may have favorites of your own, you may have a personal #1 of your own, and we can agree to disagree. In the end though, that’s what makes a show like SNL stand the test of time—everybody has a favorite thing about it that they will defend til the day they die. Whether it be characters, sketches, hosts, cast members, musical performances, even Set Pieces. SNL has always managed to touch someone’s life in big or small ways whether they realize it or not. In essence, that’s the purpose of S.O.S.N.L., not just to show you the sketches that touched my life, but chances are some/most/all of the sketches I mentioned so far may have touched yours as well—and hopefully, this past summer accomplished more good than harm.
And We STILL have 3 more sketches to go, afterward we have to discuss the future…Until next time, “New York’s Hottest Club is…….“