Best SNL Characters Bronx Beat
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Here are the best SNL characters in the nearly 50 years of Saturday Night Live — according to us.

Obviously, comedy is subjective, so our list of the best SNL characters may not be the same as your list. And that’s OK. Let us know you’re favorites in the comments section, down by the river.

And, finally, when the characters are a duo or group, we’re just counting them together. And with that, here’s our list of the 15 best SNL characters, in no particular order.

Emily Latella (Gilda Radner)

NBC Credit: NBC

Gilda Radner was the heart of the early Saturday Night Live, and misguided concerned citizen Emily Latella was one of her most endearing characters.

Her routine feels like it would have worked as well on a vaudeville stage in the 1920s or today as it did in the 1970s: She latches on to some upsetting piece of news while visiting the Weekend Update desk, launches into a heartfelt rant — and soon realizes she’s misheard some crucial piece of information fundamental to her point.

You see it play out on social media every day, but most people don’t have the grace to deliver Emily’s catch phrase: “I’m sorry. Nevermind.”

The Samurai (John Belushi)

NBC Credit: NBC

Look, no one’s saying John Belushi’s Japanese Samurai character would fly today in these more enlightened times. But a white actor playing a Japanese icon is only the first level of absurdity in the Samurai sketches, which found a very honorable and sincere Toshiro Mifune-influenced samurari working normal, often mundane jobs.

Our favorite of the Samurai sketches is Samurai Night Fever, which finds Belushi paying homage to samurai films while also parodying John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever character, alongside his brother, played by O.J. Simpson. It’s one of the most surreal things you’ll ever see.

The Wild and Crazy Guys (Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin)

NBC Credit: NBC

The hard-boogieing Czech-born Festruck brothers, Yortuk (Dan Aykroyd) and Georg (Steve Martin), had a wide-eyed Bicentennial-era love of America, and their awkward attempts to assimilate into a disco-driven culture are impossibly endearing.

So are their malapropisms, catch phrases, and oddly gentlemanly approaching to inviting “foxes” back to their “swinging bachelor pad.”

One thing that makes them some of the best SNL characters is that they aren’t making fun of Czech expatriates — they’re making fun of the trendy vanities of 1970s New Yorkers.

Also: When we’re talking about characters who are part of a duo or group, like the Festruck brothers, we’re only counting them once. And we’re counting original characters, not impersonations.

Gumby (Eddie Murphy)

Eddie Murphy as Gumby and Joe Piscopo as Pokey. NBC Credit: NBC

I know, we said no impersonations, but Eddie Murphy twisted ’50s clay hero Gumby so completely that he became a wholly original creation, a washed-up, cigar-chomping showbiz crank with endless resentments and an unplacable accent.

Eddie Murphy was one of the few highlights of the awkward years after SNL creator Lorne Michaels and the original Not Ready for Primetime Players departed the show, and Gumby (along with Buckwheat) was one of his many brilliant, meta riffs on the dark side of the entertainment industry. It’s still totally bizarre and we love it.

Hans and Franz (Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon)

NBC Credit: NBC

Kevin Nealon has said the Hans and Franz originated while he was watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger interview on TV and called Dana Carvey to tune in. They nailed the characters when they realized that despite their commitment to avoiding flab, they would never, ever touch a piece of fitness equipment.

Conan O’Brien, Robert Smigel, Carvey and Nealon once had plans for a Hans and Franz movie that would have prominently featured Schwarzenegger, but the action star’s packed schedule made it impossible.

Fortunately, they gathered together to re-enact it for the Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend podcast.

Keyrock, Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer (Phil Hartman)


Phil Hartman, nicknamed “the glue” by castmates for his unflappable ability to do just about anything, usually went for excellent, nuanced acting. But with Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer he got to play someone deliciously absurd, and the result is one of the weirdest and best SNL characters.

In a truly nuanced and well-observed twist on what could have been a basic fish-out-of-water routine, Keyrock cynically exploits his unfrozen identity to convince jurors that he’s just “a simple caveman.”

Matt Foley (Chris Farley)

NBC Credit: NBC

Chris Farley’s hoarse motivational speaker, who famously lives in a van down by the river, is one of the most buckle-in, frenetic, fully committed of all SNL characters.

No one on the history of the show could pull a laugh from nothing like Chris Farley, and with a full-throated, magnificent character like Matt Foley, he was unstoppable. One of the pleasure of the Matt Foley sketches is watching Farley’s co-stars try, just try, not to break up.

But the best thing about Foley was how somehow, Farley managed to wring out our sympathy and begrudging respect for Foley, a relentless hustler who never quit.

Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar (Mike Myers and Dana Carvey)

NBC Credit: NBC

Hard-rocking Aurora, Illinois teens Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) may be the most profitable of all SNL characters — the first Wayne World film was a massive hit, and follow-up Wayne’s World 2 also did quite respectful business.

What made them so funny was the deep intellects behind their seemingly zonked facades. It was easy to look at their long hair and ripped jeans and catchphrases and underestimate them — and Wayne and Garth (especially Wayne) loved it.

He was the quick wit of the duo, while Garth had a mix of innocence and soulful wisdom that makes him perhaps the more lovable of the duo. (Carvey based him in part on his brother, Brad.)

For our money, Wayne’s World was at its most Wayne’s World when Wayne interrogated the members of Aerosmith about the state of communism in Eastern Europe.

Lionel Osbourne (Tim Meadows)

NBC Credit: NBC

We know, this isn’t the most familiar name on this list, or any list of the best SNL characters. But Lionel Osbourne, played to bone-dry perfection by Tim Meadows, is one of the most fascinating of all SNL characters, a man muddling through his job hosting a public affairs talk show called Perspectives.

It airs in the 4:50 a.m. time slot in order to just barely fulfill a local New York station’s “community programming requirement.” And at seven minutes, Perspectives is still, apparently, too long for Lionel: He fills the time by frequently reintroducing himself and his guests, asking vacant questions while smoothly skating past anything interesting or useful. In this episode, he wastes most of an interview listing New York City’s five boroughs.

Lionel Osbourne is one of the strangest and most haunting of all SNL characters, made more so by the show’s refusal to tell us anything about his origins or motivations. Does he know he’s fulfilling a quota? Does he care? Is he phoning it in as a quiet, brilliant protest of the station’s lack of commitment to authentic public affairs programming? Meadows gives away nothing.

Sally O’Malley (Molly Shannon)

NBC Credit: NBC

A lot of Molly Shannon characters could be on this list of the best SNL characters, but the irrepressible Sally O’Malley is our favorite. Fifty years old, as she likes people to know, she still has the grace and grit of an athlete-dancer half her age.

One thing we love about the Sally O’Malley sketches is that she’s not the butt of the joke — all her boasts are proven to be true.

The Californians

NBC Credit: NBC

We couldn’t possibly choose one standout in a series of masterful soap opera parodies with recurring stars Stuart (Fred Armisen), Karina (Kristen Wiig), Devin (Bill Hader), with pop ins by Trey (Kenan Thompson) and Rosa (Vanessa Bayer).

We think about it every time anyone asks directions to anywhere. It’s one of those perfect setups that gets more joyful with every delicate change of inflection in lines as simple as “What are you doing here?” And it’s changed the way we say “jammed.”

David S. Pumpkins (Tom Hanks)

NBC Credit: NBC

A character who makes fun of the whole idea of big, flashy, recurring characters, Tom Hanks’ David S. Pumpkins is a deliberately one-note, poorly fleshed-out parade of Halloween hackery with the ultimate low-effort catch phrase: “Any questions?”

Mikey Day and Bobby Moynihan are just as much a part of the character’s success as Tom Hanks, given how enthusiastically their skeleton B-boys have to sell the whole thing.

The Bronx Beat Ladies (Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler)


Gossipy, cynical, but ultimately good-hearted, Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler’s salt-of-the-earth Bronx Beat characters Jodi and Betty are two of the most human-seeming characters ever to pass through Saturday Night Live.

Through motherhood, complicated marriages, complaints, and gentle counseling for library volunteer Maureen Diccico (Katy Perry), the ladies get through their harried lives with wisdom, friendship, and realistic expecations, because what are you gonna do.

Debbie Downer (Rachel Dratch)

NBC Credit: NBC

Rachel Dratch’s perfect commitment to Debbie Downer, who can find the gray behind any silver lining, makes her one of the most timeless of all best SNL characters of all.

Spend five seconds on social media and you’ll find a flock of Debbie Downers who can put a negative, bad faith spin on any situation.

If there’s anyone who made castmates break more than Chris Farley, it’s Rachel Dratch as Debbie Downer. We think about her literally every day.

The Church Lady (Dana Carvey)


A magnificent vehicle for Dana Carvey’s goodhearted, fiercely insightful, magnificently observed character work. We all know a church lady. She’s non-denominational, endlessly judge-y, skillfully cruel, and yet — somehow — we kind of admire her.

She is who she is and makes no apologies, and we have to admit, she’s good not just with a catch phrase but with a skillfully placed zinger,

Dana Carvey comes up more than anyone else on this list, and there’s a reason for that. He may be the most all-around best character player in the very long and funny history of Saturday Night Live, and responsible for more of the best SNL characters than anyone.

Liked Our List of the 15 Best SNL Characters?

Lots of great SNL moments that are not on this list are on our list of the 13 Best SNL Sketches.

All images from NBC’s Saturday Night Live.

Editor’s Note: Corrects galleries and typo.