Top 10 Busts (Other)

Top 10 Busts: All-Time SNL Performers

Synopsis: Betting against Saturday Night Live might be as futile as betting against Las Vegas. Critics have questioned the continued development of Sin City for decades, yet it continues to grow. Similarly, critics have questioned the sustainability of SNL, yet it remains a mainstay on NBC. Granted, the show is a shadow of its former self considering the unbelievably strong early years. Just look at the featured picture of the Season 2 cast and you’ll see three or four of the all-time best SNL performers. While I’m not willing to bet against the longest running variety show in television history, I fear the end might be coming. 


TOP 10 BUSTS: SNL PERFORMERS

Approximately six months ago, I started this post with the intention of identifying the best and worst performers in SNL history. However, the new season has changed my focus. Despite being a loyal watcher of SNL for over 30 years, I no longer consider it Must See TV. Specifically, the writers/performers have traded comedy for politics. If they continue this trend, they’ll soon find themselves working for sister station MSNBC instead. Still, I’ve done the research so I’ll share my thoughts about which SNL performers deserve to be recognized as Top 10 Busts.

As a background, I have watched a lot of TV during my life. By a lot, I really mean A LOT! Given my ability to multi-task (i.e. watch multiple shows simultaneously), I likely have seen over 100,000 hours of television programming. Fortunately, I’m also able to work (i.e. write posts) while watching TV. Based on my viewing habits, Malcom Gladwell would consider me a Boob Tube expert 10x over.

Regardless, does my sad addiction make me an expert on every TV show? Certainly not. For instance, I can’t tell you about America’s infatuation with the Kardashians.

TOP 10 BUSTS? Perhaps.
Call me crazy, but I still don’t get it.

Fortunately, I have wasted less than 30 minutes in my life watching anything Kardashian. To be fair, I’m excluding the 1976 Olympics, the O.J. Simpson trial, and Caitlyn Jenner’s coming-out special with Diane Sawyer. However, with hundreds of hours of SNL under my belt, I consider myself a long-time viewer whose opinion shouldn’t be discounted too quickly.

SNL RATINGS

When I began researching for this post, I quickly realized that any support from TV ratings would be skewed. In particular, our viewing options today make historical comparisons invalid. Of note, the ratings from the catastrophic 1985-86 season were 40% higher than those from the last few seasons. For those of you without an intimate knowledge of SNL, that season’s cast included Top 10 Busts Randy Quaid and Anthony Michael Hall. 

As support, the following chart shows the trend.

Note: The previous chart ends with the 2012-13 season. After that, ratings declined to 4.5 and 4.0 in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, respectively. Thanks to the spirited presidential election cycle, ratings increased to 4.4 last season and have averaged 5.3 this season. Hmm, I wonder if Lorne Michaels thought he learned something in 2008. Notice the big bump that year after Tina Fey began her impersonation of Sarah Palin.  

While ratings don’t provide a valid comparison, other statistics should. In particular, I have tracked the all-time ranking of SNL performers by four sources. As summarized below, those sources include: Rolling Stone, Nerve.com, Grantland, and Business Insider

TOP 10 BEST SNL PERFORMERS – BASED ON AVERAGE RANKING
SNL Performers - Murphy as Buckwheat
Eddie Murphy as Buckwheat
Overall Rank Performer Start Finish Rolling Stone Nerve.com Grantland Business Insider Avg.
1 Eddie Murphy 1980 1984 2 1 3 3 2.0
2 Phil Hartman 1986 1994 7 4 2 4 4.3
3 Will Ferrell 1995 2002 12 2 1 5 5.0
4 Bill Murray 1977 1980 6 3 6 1 5.0
5 John Belushi 1975 1979 1 5 10 2 5.3
6 Tina Fey 2000 2006 3 10 7 8 6.7
7 Dan Aykroyd 1975 1979 5 6 14 6 8.3
8 Mike Myers 1989 1995 4 8 13 9 8.3
9 Amy Poehler 2001 2008 8 7 11 13 8.7
10 Dana Carvey 1986 1993 11 9 9 10 9.7

Unlike most Top 10 rankings, this one has a fair balance of old versus new. Of note, the individuals responsible for the rankings don’t seem to be overly biased by recent history. Instead, they seem to be biased based on a need to have female representation. With respect to this comment, don’t blame me. Blame the writers.

As support for my seemingly sexist comment, Tina Fey’s best work as Sarah Palin occurred after she left the show as a full-time cast member. Additionally, I don’t know how anyone could rank Amy Poehler ahead of Chris Farley or Adam Sandler. For those of you who doubt me, compare any Poehler character with Farley’s Matt Foley or Sandler’s Opera Man. At the same time, there’s no comparison with Farley’s Chippendales performance (which ranks with “Cow Bells” as the best SNL skit ever).

I do have concerns about the Top 10 rankings. However, I can be comforted by the next ten. In essence, a ranking of the Top 20 all-time performers eases my concerns over any bias of my fellow experts.

NEXT 10 BEST SNL PERFORMERS
SNL Performers - Gilda Radner as Roseanne Roseannadanna
Gilda just fell outside of the Top 10, but she easily could be considered one of the greatest.
Overall Rank Performer Start Finish Rolling Stone Nerve.com Grantland Business Insider Avg.
11 Bill Hader 2005 2013 13 20 4 17 12.3
12 Kristen Wiig 2005 2012 14 19 5 14 12.7
13 Gilda Radner 1975 1980 9 13 21 11 14.3
14 Chris Farley 1990 1995 15 22 8 7 15.0
15 Chevy Chase 1975 1977 10 25 17 15 17.3
16 Jon Lovitz 1985 1990 19 14 24 20 19.0
17 Andy Samberg 2005 2012 22 29 12 NR 21.0
18 Jason Sudeikis 2005 2013 25 24 15 24 21.3
19 Adam Sandler 1990 1995 17 30 18 12 21.7
20 Billy Crystal 1984 1985 30 16 27 22 24.3

Note: NR signifies Not Ranked

Being mindful of a difference of opinion, I accept the average of the four sources as a reasonable ranking of all-time best SNL performers. Still, I feel certain performers have been underappreciated. Of note, I believe the following table highlights those whose rankings seem too low.

TOP 10 MOST UNDERAPPRECIATED SNL PERFORMERS
SNL Performers - Norm MacDonald
Norm MacDonald as Burt Reynolds on Celebrity Jeopardy
Overall Rank Performer Start Finish Rolling Stone Nerve.com Grantland Business Insider Avg.
59 Norm MacDonald 1993 1998 135 26 30 21 63.7
49 Joe Piscopo 1980 1984 66 60 41 NR 55.7
47 Rob Schneider 1990 1994 44 88 32 NR 54.7
46 Cheri O’Teri 1995 2000 95 32 26 NR 51.0
39 Dennis Miller 1985 1991 34 66 34 NR 44.7
30 Jane Curtain 1975 1980 47 21 36 NR 34.7
26 Darrell Hammond 1995 2009 49 11 31 25 30.3
29 David Spade 1990 1996 27 36 38 23 33.7
19 Adam Sandler 1990 1995 17 30 18 12 21.7
14 Chris Farley 1990 1995 15 22 8 7 15.0

Note: NR signifies Not Ranked

When preparing the table, I simply listed these performers based on the reverse order of their average ranking. You may question the omission of current SNL star performer Kate McKinnon. I excluded her simply because her average ranking of 32 by Rolling Stone and Grantland likely would be higher if/when they ever update their lists. Additionally, it’s hard to call her under-appreciated considering her recent Emmy win as Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.

Despite my claims about being a loyal watcher of SNL for over three decades, I’ll admit that I record most episodes. As a result, I’m able to fast-forward skits which aren’t funny. That being said, I don’t remember ever fast-forwarding any skits with any of the ten performers listed in the previous table.

In contrast, the following table highlights the SNL performers whose skits/scenes I fast-forwarded most often. 

TOP 10 MOST OVER-APPRECIATED SNL PERFORMERS
SNL Performers - Wiig as Gilly
Kristin Wiig as Gilly
Overall Rank Performer Start Finish Rolling Stone Nerve.com Grantland Business Insider Avg.
9 Amy Poehler 2001 2008 8 7 11 13 8.7
12 Kristen Wiig 2005 2012 14 19 5 14 12.7
22 Martin Short 1984 1985 31 18 29 19 26.0
23 Fred Armisen 2002 2013 23 37 19 NR 26.3
28 Seth Meyers 2001 2014 28 51 22 NR 33.7
33 Tracy Morgan 1996 2003 53 33 23 NR 36.3
37 Will Forte 2002 2010 52 55 25 NR 44.0
53 Al Franken 1975 1980 20 NR 58 NR 59.3
72 Chris Katan 1996 2003 94 83 44 NR 73.7
84 Chris Elliott 1994 1995 103 65 NR NR 81.0

Note: NR signifies Not Ranked. When calculating averages, I assumed each unranked performer tied for last in the Nerve.com or Grantland rankings. 

Importantly, I’m not saying that these people aren’t funny. I’m simply saying that I found them “least funny” based on their average ranking. Furthermore, many of their characters seemed annoying (e.g. Ed Grimley, The Californians, Gilly, Brian Fellows, Stuart Smalley, and Mango) more so than funny.

As an aside, I could have included #6 Tina Fey as an over-appreciated cast member. In particular, her best work impersonating Sarah Palin came after she left the show. Then again, I never remembering fast-forwarding any of her scenes so I couldn’t include her in the table.

Given the post-SNL success of many cast members, it’s hard to argue against Lorne Michaels’ ability to access talent. However, he certainly missed the mark with many of the following performers.

TOP 10 MOST UNDER-UTILIZED SNL PERFORMERS
SNL Performers - Robert Downey Jr.
Robert Downey Jr – Who’da thunk?
Overall Rank Performer Start Finish Rolling Stone Nerve.com Grantland Business Insider Avg.
119 Robert Downey Jr. 1985 1986 141 62 NR NR 92.7
40 Chris Rock 1990 1993 21 67 46 18 44.7
55 Julia Louis-Dreyfus 1982 1985 45 64 NR NR 61.3
132 Ben Stiller 1988 1989 124 NR NR NR 99.7
126 Damon Wayans 1985 1986 114 NR NR NR 96.3
82 Jim Belushi 1983 1985 72 91 NR NR 79.3
118 Sarah Silverman 1993 1994 101 NR NR NR 92.0
138 Jay Mohr 1993 1995 131 NR NR NR 102.0
78 David Koechner 1995 1996 109 48 NR NR 77.3
89 Casey Wilson 2008 2009 71 NR NR NR 82.0

Note: NR signifies Not Ranked.

In case you couldn’t tell, I ranked these cast members based on my perception of their post-SNL success. Clearly, they’re all talented performers who could/should have been utilized better. Arguably, they could be considered busts within the context of their time on SNL. However, as indicated by the following table, I believe there’s a group of more deserving candidates. 

TOP 10 BUSTS: SNL PERFORMERS – THE LIST
SNL Performers - Season 11
If I were lazy, I could have gotten half of the Top 10 Busts just from this picture
T10B Rank Performer Start Finish Rolling Stone Nerve.com Overall Rank
#1 Randy Quaid 1985 1986 134 41 92
#2 Anthony Michael Hall 1985 1986 112 79 112
#3 Chris Elliott 1994 1995 103 65 84
#4 Janeane Garofalo 1994 1995 102 81 97
#5 Colin Quinn 1995 2000 136 89 133
#6 Jeff Richards 2001 2004 117 74 111
#7 Finesse Mitchell 2003 2006 118 72 109
#8 Paul Brittain 2010 2012 116 NR 128
#9 Charles Rocket 1980 1981 127 78 120
#10 Gilbert Gottfried 1980 1981 137 77 125

Note: NR signifies Not Ranked

TOP 10 BUSTS: SNL PERFORMERS – RATIONALE

Before you get too worked up about any particular person’s inclusion on the list, please realize that other sources besides me ranked every one in the bottom quartile of all SNL performers. Furthermore, I don’t think that anyone would consider them a success while on the show. Unlike the cast members listed in the previous table, the performers in this table had limited to no success after the show. Yes, that includes Gilbert Gottfried.

I recognize that Gottfried deserves credit for his post-9/11 rendition of the Aristocrats joke at the Hugh Hefner Roast. However, I just don’t get his sense of humor. Fortunately, he hadn’t developed his annoying persona yet while working on SNL. As such, I could watch old clips for this post without shoving pencils in my ears.

With respect to the first five spots on the list (i.e. #1-5), I reserved them for actors with known résumés before arriving at 30 Rock. In essence, they came in with higher expectations. Therefore, their failures became magnified. I determined the order of #1 to #5 primarily based on a ranking of their pre-SNL fame or success. Anthony Michael Hall had the most success (Breakfast Club, Weird Science) but I moved him out of the top spot given that he started SNL at the age of 17. Randy Quaid didn’t have the same excuse.

With respect to the remaining five spots (i.e. #6-10), I reserved them for the worst of the worst. Other performers such as Noël Wells, Tim Robinson, Laura Kightlinger, Morwenna Banks, and John Milhiser also meet this criterion. However, I don’t remember seeing them on the show. In contrast, I remember each and every one of the cast members in the table. Specifically, I know I didn’t find them funny or entertaining. 

SNL POLITICAL AGENDA
SNL Performers - Fey and Poehler as Palin and Clinton
Fey’s impersonation of Palin was hilarious, albeit brutal

If we learned anything from the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, we know that the media had it wrong. In particular, they underestimated the frustration of middle America with the current political system. Unlike most pollsters, I saw through the bias and correctly predicted the results. In a post highlighting the hypocrisy of Hillary Clinton, I commented that our electorate would choose Donald Trump instead.

While technically not part of the media, the folks at SNL missed the mark as well. Their one-sided coverage of the candidates even may have contributed to the results. Specifically, SNL effectively proclaimed that the election was over too soon. Perhaps, some misinformed Democrats in battleground states stayed home due to this overconfidence. Part of my confidence in Trump’s chances related to the lack of urgency by the other side.

I understand Lorne Michaels’ rationale to politicize the show given the ratings success from SNL’s portrayal of Sarah Palin during the 2008-09 season. Tina Fey’s impersonation of the Republican Vice Presidential candidate attracted a lot of viewers to both SNL and the Michaels/Fey-produced 30 Rock. The same approach helped increase ratings by almost 20% this season. However, now that President-elect Trump gets ready to take office, the bump in ratings should reverse. Of note, I predict that the ratings will fall back to the levels experienced from 2013-15. 

[As the 2016-17 television season comes to an end, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Specifically, SNL’s ratings soared after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. Thanks in large part to Alec Baldwin’s impression of Trump and Melissa McCarthy’s impression of White House press secretary Sean Spicer, SNL became the subject of water cooler conversation again. It’ll be hard to maintain the same momentum next year (especially if/when Spicer gets fired), but I’ve been wrong before.]  

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS

Shortly after the election, a friend of mine from New York City called to express his disbelief that Ohio (my home state) and other Midwestern states could vote for Trump. Granted, he’s exposed to the biased media which believes that everyone in America wants to be like people who live in New York or Los Angeles. Now, the secret’s out. Most of us don’t.

In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, modern-day Don Drapers gathered to reevaluate the way they market to Americans. Supposedly, they now realize that elitism doesn’t sell to most consumers. To emphasize the point, I’m reminded of a saying used to describe the success of McDonald’s. I may be paraphrasing, but I remember it as such:

Feed the classes, eat with the masses.

Feed the masses, eat with the classes.

Said differently, companies like McDonald’s can make a lot more money serving average people than companies like Ruth’s Chris can make serving wealthy people. Rich people still go to McDonald’s, yet average folks can’t go to Ruth’s Chris. So, why would anyone intentionally alienate a large demographic? That’s right – elitism. Led by wealthy urbanites, the Democrats now seem to have taken the driver’s seat with respect to being elitists.

CLOSING THOUGHT – WATCH YOUR BACK STEPHEN COLBERT

Despite the previous advice, certain television programs don’t seem to be worried about alienating a core demographic. Channels like MSNBC and Fox News exist because they cater to a specific audience. However, they’re on cable. Networks like NBC, ABC or CBS need to cater to a broader audience in order to be successful.

In that regard, left-leaning networks need to reprogram or risk losing half of its potential audience. In addition to SNL, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert is at risk. Given Colbert’s weak ratings, I bet that James Corden will take over the 11:30 p.m. slot within 18 months. Just like most failures at SNL, Colbert is funny but doesn’t seem to care about appealing to a broad audience. What’s that called? Oh yeah – elitism.

[As of May 2017, I missed this one as well. Colbert’s show trailed The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon by 1 million viewers last year. That gap fell to 500,000 viewers in the fall after a strong election season. However, Colbert has eclipsed Fallon every week since Trump’s inauguration. For the last few weeks, the CBS show has drawn 300-400,000 more viewers than its NBC counterpart. I don’t watch it anymore, but many others do.

Sorry Corden. For now, you’ll just have to settle for award show hosting gigs and Carpool Karaoke primetime specials. Not that it matters, but I still watch your show.]   

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