Since its premiere episode on Oct. 11, 1975, “Saturday Night Live” has had its very high and despairingly low points in terms of creativity. At the time the show premiered, it was recognized as an edgy, groundbreaking comedy variety show that satirically commented on pop culture and current events. The show wrapped its 39th season in May of this year, and its reputation has gone from strength to strength despite a few blips and many more controversies.
Even though some of SNL’s low points included a few full seasons – the 1980-81, 1985-86 and 1994-95 seasons saw some of the worst creative slumps and highest cast turnovers – the comedy series has also earned critical accolades and has racked up numerous awards including a huge 40 Primetime Emmys.
The versatile performers and talented comedians of SNL molded characters based on real life experience, making SNL a pertinent representation of North American culture. The actors’ creative input, coupled with the energy infused into bringing their characters to life, resonated with audiences, even leading to successful (and not-so-successful) feature films, catchphrases and merchandise that entered the mainstream pop culture that the show itself so often satirized.
Some of the characters below were created for the sake of making the audience laugh; others were meant to make a biting social commentary by highlighting the subject’s flaws through insightful comedy. These ten characters from SNL – many of whom even our readers outside of North America will recognize – defined a moment in pop culture, a generation, and even a nation, going down in SNL and television history in the process.
10. The Spartan Cheerleaders (Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri)
Buckwheat, one of the tykes from the “Our Gang” film serials, was infamously known as the satirical embodiment of the offensive, racist stereotypes of America’s black community at the time: inarticulate, unintelligent and unrefined. Yet Eddie Murphy – one of the youngest cast members in SNL history – portrayed the risky character masterfully and to much hilarity, complete with Buckwheat’s trademark uncombed hair and suspenders. Premiering the character in October 1981, Murphy as Buckwheat mumbled incomprehensibly as he sang a number of pop songs in a continuous effort to promote his compilation album “Buh-Weet Sings”. Buckwheat grew so popular that he eventually became over-exposed and overplayed, and he bid his final farewell in a sketch that featured his assassination.
8. Mr. Robinson (Eddie Murphy)
A spin on a familiar and beloved childhood TV icon, Mr. Robinson presented a grittier reality to his young viewers, countering the lessons of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”. Whether it’s introducing words of the day like ‘ransom’ and ‘scumbucket’, reminding children of their limited job prospects as adults or dodging his landlord looking for rent money, Mr. Robinson spoke to his audience from his rundown apartment with a smile and a soothing voice.
7. Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker (Chris Farley)
Constantly hitching up his pants and screaming at his clients hoarsely, Matt Foley was not your typical motivational speaker. Despite doling out advice, his image as an overweight nervous wreck highlighted the ridiculous nature of his words. Foley took his one-of-a-kind brand of motivation to places like the gym, families’ homes and even prison, where he served time for failing to pay child support. His famous crashes into coffee tables further served as a reminder that his awkwardness confounded his talks. This character was a less-than-subtle satirization of the culture of ‘motivation’ pervading America in the 90s.
6. Enid Strict, The Church Lady (Dana Carvey)
Portrayed by Dana Carvey, the popular “Church Lady” AKA Enid Strict was often credited as a factor in the revival of SNL’s popularity in the late 1980s. Sitting at a desk in front of a stained glass window, this host of “Church Chat” spouted now-famous catchphrases such as “How convenient!” and “Well, isn’t that special?” She scolded celebrity guests like Shirley MacLaine and Jessica Hahn for their sinful natures. Strict once hosted a show in which she boycotted “SNL” for inviting comedian Sam Kinison to host. Carvey said he based the character on the women parishioners he knew in childhood, who kept track of other people’s shortcomings.
5. Ed Grimley (Martin Short)
Grimley’s trademark cowlick, plaid orange shirt and very high-waisted black slacks alone left an impression on TV viewers. But beyond the appearance, Grimley also won over fans with his unique dancing, his fascination with “Wheel of Fortune” and its host Pat Sajak, and his bizarre love of playing the triangle. Martin Short first debuted the character on Canada’s SCTV in 1982, then went on to bring Grimley to “Saturday Night Live”. The character inspired a short-lived NBC animated series “The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley” for the 1988-89 season. Other Grimley appearances include “Comic Relief 1986”, the 1989 TV movie “I, Martin Short, Goes to Hollywood” and “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me” in 2006.
4. Samurai Futaba (John Belushi)
Samurai Futaba was a psychiatrist, a TV repairman and a tailor. He appeared in a deli, a hotel and even a discotheque. Yet, given any situation or location, Samurai Futaba maintained a moral code as he wielded his katana and spoke boldly in faux Japanese. Belushi played the character 18 times between December 1975 and May 1979. Memorable sketches include assisting deli customer Mr. Dantley – played by Buck Henry – who was a recurring character in Futaba skits; dueling with Richard Pryor (also a samurai), and dancing in a discotheque wearing a kimono designed after the leisure suit John Travolta wore in “Saturday Night Fever”.
3. Roseanne Roseannadanna (Gilda Radner)
In her frizzy hair and high-pitched voice, talkative consumer affairs reporter Roseanne Roseannadanna delivered her opinions and advice on SNL’s “Weekend Update” segments. Her graceless advice was usually in response to letters often written by a certain Mr. Richard Feder of Fort Lee, N.J. “It’s always something,” Roseannadanna would usually say to cap her ramblings. The quote would later become the title of Radner’s 1989 autobiography. Oddly enough, there was a real Mr. Richard Feder of Fort Lee, N.J., although he had never written the letters! However, Feder, was on record as saying he received phone calls from around the country in relation to his supposed scribblings. As Roseannadanna, Gilda Radner addressed the 1980 graduating class of the Columbia School of Journalism.
2. Wayne and Garth (Mike Myers and Dana Carvey)
These two metalheads, who broadcasted their cable-access channel show “Wayne’s World” from Wayne’s basement, often bantered about hard rock bands and rated beautiful women that made them go “Schwing!” Memorable celebrity appearances by Aerosmith and Madonna (in a dream sequence) further cemented the two party animals in the annals of SNL history. Canadian Mike Myers originally created Wayne as a solo act for SCTV, but when Myers moved to SNL, his partner in crime Garth – played by Dana Carvey – was added in response to Carvey’s popularity on the show. The 1992 film adaptation of the pair became a classic (although the 1993 sequel didn’t fare as well) and in the minds of fans everywhere, Wayne and Garth continue to “Party on!”
1. The Blues Brothers (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd)
Elwood and “Joliet” Jake Blues – played by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, respectively – appeared three times on SNL in 1976 and 1978, but that was enough for them to warrant their own feature films, a touring musical act and hit albums. The 1981 feature film “Blues Brothers” was one of the most successful SNL sketch-based feature film of all time (“Wayne’s World” was the other), spawning the 1998 sequel “Blues Brothers 2000”. The Blues Brothers are still going strong, despite Belushi’s 1982 death from a drug overdose. The group reformed in 1988 and still tour the world, with rotating musicians that feature Belushi’s brother Jim.