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SNL’s Greatest Hits

Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Saturday Night Live: How it Shapes Our Politics & Culture, September/October 2011

Two wild and crazy guys? Yeah, that’s the ticket. Find a popular catch-phrase associated with “Saturday Night Live”—past or present—and you will undoubtedly be talking about one of the long-running comedy-sketch show’s most popular sketches—its greatest hits, if you will.

Right from the start, “SNL” seemed to understand that, when a sketch went over so well that people were talking about it at the watercooler the following Monday, there was practically a mandate to bring those characters back. Recurring characters became the show’s bread and butter, whether it was John Belushi as the multi-occupational samurai warrior (who once actually accidentally cut guest host Buck Henry’s forehead with his sword during a sketch) or Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin as the swinging Czech brothers who told anyone who would listen that they were “two wild and crazy guys.”

Not that all of the classic skits involved a character who returned over and over. Early on, Aykroyd played a fast-talking commercial pitchman on an ad that still has people talking: “Super BassoMatic 76,” in which he put a whole fish into a blender.

More often, however, the best skits showed up regularly and the recurring characters become part of the performers’ repertoires, even generating their own catchphrases: Mike Myers and Dana Carvey as the stars of “Wayne’s World,” with “Shwing!” and “No way! Way!”; Eddie Murphy as Buckwheat (“O-tay!”) and, occasionally, as Gumby (“I’m Gumby, dammit!”); Jon Lovitz as Tommy Flanagan, the liar (“Yeah, that’s the ticket”); Carvey as the Church Lady (“Could it have been … Satan?”); and, most currently, Kristen Wiig as Gilly  (“Sorry!”) and the “SNL Digital Shorts” starring Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake in parodies of smooth early-90s soul videos, beginning with “Dick in a Box.”

Through the years, some of the most popular characters have even spawned movies, from The Blues Brothers, with Aykroyd and John Belushi, to The Coneheads, from Stuart Saves His Family (starring now-U.S. Sen. Al Franken as self-help nerd Stuart Smalley) to A Night at the Roxbury (with Chris Kattan and Will Ferrell reprising two mostly silent characters who, unfortunately, spoke in the movie). Some movies (Wayne’s World) were better than others (It’s Pat, Superstar).

Which of the greatest hits that you remember may depend on which generation of “SNL” cast you watched regularly. The original group had more than its share—including Bill Murray as Nick the Lounge Singer; Murray and Gilda Radner as the nerds, Todd LaBounta and Lisa Loopner; and Garrett Morris as baseball star Chico Escuela (“Beisbol been bery bery good to me”). But subsequent casts created their own indelible marks as well—including Billy Crystal as Fernando (“You look mahvelous”); Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon as Teutonic workout coaches Hans and Franz (“Ve vant to pump you up!”); Will Ferrell as Alex Trebek doing “Celebrity Jeopardy” battle with Darrell Hammond’s sharp-tongued Sean Connery; or, more recently, Bill Hader as super-fey club kid Stefon, always willing to direct viewers to the most bizarre New York attractions (“This place has everything!”); and Wiig, showing up on a recurring parody of “The Lawrence Welk Show” as the Lennon sister that the Lennon family probably kept locked away in a closet.

Of course, the all-time greatest hit is the one that’s been with the show from the beginning: “Weekend Update,” which turned Chevy Chase into a star and, since then, has been a showcase for everyone from Aykroyd and Jane Curtin to Dennis Miller to Norm McDonald, Tina Fey and now Seth Meyers. Like “SNL” itself, “Weekend Update” stays young by living in the moment—and there’s a new set of headlines to spoof every week.

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