Since its initial launch under creator Lorne Michaels in 1975, Saturday Night Live has become one of the United States’ most famous comedic institutions, helping to launch the careers of some of the greatest comedians of the last 40 years. The list is truly astounding, and includes John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Phil Hartman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Amy Poehler, Chris Rock, Andy Samberg, Chris Farley and Kristen Wiig. The show has received more Emmy nominations than any other in television history, and enjoys an audience of millions for its distinctive brand of humor and constant innovation, all within the constraints of a proven formula. This formula pairs the SNL cast with a musical guest and special celebrity host for each episode, allowing thousands of other well-known stars the chance to grace the live stage in New York and show their talents.
While the guest hosts are often other actors, several athletes have also had the opportunity to host the show or appear in a cameo. Given the chance to display their comedic sides, some have enjoyed mixed success at best, while others have shone and created lasting laughs for audiences everywhere. While athletes may have the opportunity to win championships year in and year out, the vast majority only get one chance on SNL. This list seeks to count down the top 10 best athlete appearances on the show, and will no doubt lead some to disagree with my choices. Humor is subjective, and unable to be assessed through statistics or quantitative analysis, but hopefully you’ll have the opportunity to find each clip and make your own decisions.
10 Charles Barkley (1993, 2010, 2012)
As a three-time host, Barkley should be higher on this list. While an engaging presence as a broadcaster, his live scripted work was less impressive than many other athletes who have hosted the show. His highlights come from his initial 1993 appearance, especially a segment where he dominates a game of one-on-one basketball with Barney the purple dinosaur, who was a staple of children’s programming at the time. Out-rebounding and knocking him over while the Barney theme song plays in the background. Another highlight was the Reel Quotes video, which is shown above, where Barkley engages with Bill Hader on a quiz show. Barkley was able to provide at least a couple of memorable moments for viewers.
9 Lance Armstrong (2005)
Months after retiring from professional cycling, and still a seven-time champion of the Tour de France, Armstrong was able to capitalize on his still-loved story, years before the many doping allegations surrounding him were proven and his Tour de France victories stripped from him. His most notable sketch has him participate in a triathlon event, while Seth Meyers analyzes from the booth and interviews him afterwards. The crux of the sketch is that, while an excellent cyclist, Armstrong has no idea how to run or swim, requiring a helicopter to rescue him out of the water and flailing his arms above his head as he runs. The funniest line comes when Armstrong, in answer to a Meyers question about his swimming, replies, “You know, they say you never forget how to ride a bike. Well, they never say that about swimming, and now I know why. Man, I totally forgot how to swim! That water took me totally off-guard, I was, like, what’s going on, that’s crazy!” The sight of Armstrong’s attempted running is also enjoyable physical comedy.
8 Lebron James (2007)
After leading the Cavaliers to their only NBA Finals appearance, James was still a popular figure and thus given the opportunity to host the season premiere alongside musical guest Kanye West. In the episode, James comes off as extremely likable and game for anything. His opening monologue allows him to laugh about his NBA Finals loss to San Antonio, as well as interrupt himself with a sketch in which he plays three different characters and makes fun of how stale a concept an opening monologue can be at times. His best segment, however, came when he appeared as Alexander, a member of the Solid Gold Dancers, shown above, wearing a gold spandex dancing outfit and headband, as well as sporting an 80s-style mullet. Able to show off some dance moves and appear completely comfortable while being utterly ridiculous, it’s hard to believe he would become Public Enemy Number One to some basketball fans, after taking his talents to South Beach in 2010.
7 Joe Montana (1987)
Two words: Sincere Stu. Most of Montana’s appearance is hard to find online, but this sketch was enough to put him on this list. Montana’s roommate, played by the late, great Phil Hartman, is trying to seduce a woman in their apartment, and during their conversation their thoughts, which are totally different from what they say to each other, are heard after each line. The real humor comes, however, when Montana arrives and is so sincere that his thoughts are identical to what he says. Stu cannot seem to understand what Hartman is trying to do, and stifles his attempts at every turn. The repetitive nature of his lines, combined with the performance of the other two in the scene, allows Montana to make audiences laugh without making him have to work too hard, and creates a great sketch.
6 Eli Manning (2012)
5 Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (1989)
After retiring from tennis, Chris Evert became the first female athlete to host the show, using the opportunity to highlight one of the most famous aspects of her career: her rivalry with Martina Navratilova. In the most famous sketch, Evert joins a real estate firm, only for Navratilova, also appearing in a cameo role, to also retire and join her at the company as she is bored without Evert as competition and desires to beat Evert in the real estate business as well. Navratilova overachieves and leads Evert to change careers to farming, only to be once again followed and outshone by Navratilova. Weaving through several careers and activities, the friendly rivalry between the two women is taken to comedic extremes, but is strengthened by both of their performances and the comfort the two women have with each other. Though it requires an understanding of tennis history to be fully appreciated, the sketch is truly funny and demonstrates the funnier side of both Evert and Navratilova.
4 Tom Brady (2005)
3 Wayne Gretzky (1989)
Waikiki Hockey, Gretzky’s most famous sketch, seems incredibly stupid until you realize it’s actually a clever parody of older Elvis Presley movies, at which point it becomes absolutely fantastic, helping it rise to the number three spot on this list. Gretzky plays a Hawaiian hotel employee who has never played hockey, but finds a hockey stick washed up on the beach and displays extraordinary hockey ability to his co-workers who are desperate for a new player in time to play their arch-rivals. In the game, Gretzky’s Coconut Kings (a play on Gretzky’s recent trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings) defeat the Flying Yachtsmen, led by Jon Lovitz, by a score of 10-0, helping Gretzky win the attention of his boss’s daughter. In its conclusion, all the characters attend a party where the singer becomes sick and cannot perform because the hotel’s food is so bad, forcing Gretzky to go on stage and sing Waikiki Hockey. Some of the words include “Mona luckahiki means hockey, Mona luckawiki means love. A moonlit ice rink means romance with my baby and the stars above.”
Gretzky is a terrible actor, and recently admitted on Conan, who was working on Saturday Night Live at the time and was in the background of the sketch, that he originally turned down the gig. Gretzky’s wife, an actress in Los Angeles, instead phoned back to tell the show he would do it, leaving him dumbfounded when he later read about his appearance in the newspaper. Though he has thankfully declined any similar appearances, the writing allowed Gretzky a spot to appear alongside Lovitz, Hartman, Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey in one of SNL’s funniest sketches. He also appeared in a sketch with Carvey and Mike Myers, adding a second Wayne, if only for one episode, to Wayne’s World.
2 Michael Jordan (1991)
Space Jam has become Jordan’s signature non-basketball screen moment, but this episode allowed Jordan to demonstrate why the producers of the film felt he could do it in the first place. His best sketch came alongside Al Franken, playing recurring character Stuart Smalley. On the show, Smalley hosts a self-help show called Daily Affirmation, but is unskilled and demonstrates considerable insecurity and self-doubt. As the sketch progresses, Smalley tries to project his own feelings onto Jordan, who repeatedly assures Smalley that he doesn’t lay awake fearing he isn’t any good or can’t make a basket, and ends up having to reassure Smalley that he is a good host and that his show helps people. Franken excels in the role, but the sketch would not be what it is without Jordan, whose likability, charm and sincerity play out for maximum laughs.
1 Peyton Manning (2007)
While many of the athletes on this list did tremendous jobs, Manning truly shines and creates a classic sketch that stands alongside the best done by the show’s comedic guests. As a United Way ambassador, Manning appears to be running a football camp and helping the children...until he pegs one of them in the back of the head and yells at him for not catching the ball, forcing him to serve a time-out for doing so in a nearby portable toilet. After hitting other children with the ball, Manning teaches them how to break into a car, forces one to get a tattoo of his face on his leg and admits to a group of them, “Alright, I'll KILL a snitch! I'm not saying I have, I'm not saying I haven't. You know what I mean.” A true comedic masterpiece, Manning is the undisputed champion of athlete SNL hosts.