With the start of the new season of SNL it seems like a good time to review an easy debate topic for SNL fans – what was the best era of SNL. It is very easy to hate the current cast of SNL members when many views hold on to their childhood cast as a model of what SNL should look like and how the players should act. Often times that criticism is unfair. And sometimes it is [see the current cast].
First and foremost I will define the different eras of SNL. For each era I will define it by the alpha cast members. For me each year’s cast has 3 levels [even though, yes I know SNL has two levels repertory and featured players], the top repertory player[s], the consistent repertory/featured players, and back ground players. Therefore a new “era” of SNL will begin when a “top repertory” player leaves or a new one emerges to change the dynamic of the show. So before we can rank them, and upset most of our readers, lets define the eras.
Key: Era Name years active seasons in place | Alpha Players (impact repertory/featured players)
- The Original Cast 1975-1980 seasons 1-5 | Dan Akroyd, John Bellushi, Chevy Chase [seasons 1 & 2], Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Garrett Morris, and Bill Murray
- The Eddie Murphy Era 1980-1984 seasons 6-9 | Eddie Murphy & Joe Piscopo (Julia Louis-Dreyfus)
- The Hired Guns Era 1984-1985 season 10 | Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Marry Shearer, Martin Short (Julia Louis-Dreyfus & Jim Belushi)
- The Year it almost came crashing down 1985-1986 season 11 | Al Franken & Jon Lovitz (Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, Dennis Miller, Randy Quaid)
- The Hartman/Carvey Era 1986-1990 seasons 12-15 | Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman (Nora Dunn, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson, Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, Kevin Nealon, Mike Meyers)
- The Sophomore Humor Era 1990-1995 season 16-20 | Dana Carvey [leaves after season 18], Chris Farley, Phil Hartman [leaves after season 19], Mike Meyers, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider (Jan Hooks, Tim Meadows, Dennis Miller, Norm McDonald, Jay Mohr, Kevin Nealon, Chris Rock, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Julia Sweeny)
- The Will Ferrell Era 1995-2002 seasons 21-27 | Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond (Jim Breurer, Jimmy Fallon, Ana Gasteyer, Chris Kattan, Tim Meadows, Cheir Oteri, Colin Quinn, Molly Shannon, Tracy Morgan)
- The [Tina Fey] Head Writer Era 2002-2006 seasons 28-31 | Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Maya Rudolph (Fred Armisen, Rachel Dratch, Will Forte, Chris Katttan, Seth Meyers, Chris Parnell, Amy Poehler, Horatio Sanz)
- The Armisen / Hader / Wiig/Digital Shorts Era 2006-2012 seasons 32-37 | Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig (Will Forte, Darrell Hammond, Seth Meyers, Amy Pohler, Maya Rudolph, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, Kenan Thompson)
- The Armisen / Hader / Sudeikis Era 2012-2013 season 38 | Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis (Vanessa Bayer, Aidy Bryant, Taran Killam, Kate McKinnon, Seth Meyers, Bobby Moynihan, Nasim Pedrad, Jay Pharoah, Kenan Thompson)
- The McKinnon Era 2013-present seasons 39-present | Kate McKinnon, Kenan Thompson, Tarran Killam, Cecily Strong (Beck Bennett, Aidy Bryant Leslie Jones, Kyle Mooney, Bobby Moynihan)
Now lets have some fun and upset everybody!
11. The Year it almost came crashing down 1985-1986 season 11
Lorne Michaels returns after the Jean Doumanian  and Dick Ebersol [1982-85] produced years. Michaels tries to make a splash ala 1975 and hires and completely new group of players that he considered young and hip. They group was young but not hip as audience members left in droves. The show almost got cancelled but stuck around to usher in one of the better ears of SNL history.
10. The Eddie Murphy Era 1980-1984 seasons 6-9
If you take away Eddie Murphy from the period it becomes the Joe Piscopo era. Who’s that you ask, well you must be born after 1980, and that’s a good question. He was a good repertory player but not a star. Meanwhile, Eddie Murphy was a burning start that single-handedly get the show on in 1980 and was the only real reason to tune in from 1980-1984. He was behind a number of signature characters and brought any sketch he was in to life. As there’s nothing but drama, gossip, and negativity surrounding the rest of this era we will move on.
9. The McKinnon Era 2013-present seasons 39-present
The fault of the McKinnon era is that unlike the Amerisen/Wiig, Hartman/Carvey, or Ferrell Era’s [all ranked higher] SNL is not giving its one true star the rock all the time. Kate McKinnon could go comedic toe-to-toe with the best SNL has ever had to offer [with the exception of maybe the original cast and Murphy outpacing her]. The other big downfall to this era is the lack of consistency from episode to episode and the inability to make the rest of the repertory and featured players mesh together. Hurting this era is head writer Colin Jost.
8. The [Tina Fey] Head Writer Era 2002-2006 seasons 28-31
After nearly 15 years in which personalities dominated SNL [Crystal, Carvey, Hartman, Farley, Sandler, & Ferrell] a shift to the writers room happened. I am going to be really honest here. Of all the eras this one along with the years 1984-86 are my biggest SNL blind spots. I was in college from fall of 2002-spring of 2006 so I missed a number of SNL episodes with nothing in the media or reviews drawing me back in. It was during the 2005-2006 season that I started coming back due to sketches I saw online. Hurting this era in the rankings is every time Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz couldn’t hold it together and broke character to laugh in a sketch. I understand that some of our readers loved this. I. Did. Not.
7. The Hired Guns Era 1984-1985 season 10
It was one year. It was dominated by one guy. And yet those 17 episodes have produces a number of classic sketches. And even though he was on for just one year Billy Crystal still gets quoted for characters he played during this SNL year. If this year flip-flopped with #8 I wouldn’t make a big argument one way or another.
6. The Armisen / Hader / Wiig/Digital Shorts Era 2006-2012 seasons 32-37
Two of the most overrated players in modern history, for me, has been Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen. Krsiten Wiig often played the most annoying characters in recent SNL history [I genuinely like Ms. Wiig as a comedic and dramatic actor – I really think she is very talented] . However, the impact of this era is beyond important as it brought SNL back into cultural relevance and can not be forgotten in its ranking. The Digital Shorts probably have the biggest impact, helping usher SNL from being stuck in a 1990s mold into the 21st century.
5. The Armisen / Hader / Sudeikis Era 2012-2013 season 38
In being even more honest here – I would not object to a re-ranking of my #8-#5. I am a big Jason Sedeikis fan and with the void left by Kristen Wigg, Bill Hader and he got much more screen time which always makes me happy. Hence the higher ranking for season 38 than the entirety of the Wigg Era.
4. The Sophomore Humor Era 1990-1995 season 16-20
Most SNL fans hold a special place of the SNL of their child hood. For me rankings #4 and #2 make it pretty clear I am no exception. I easily understand why fans of the show who either grew up with the Original Cast, Eddie Murphy, or had just come of age during the Hartman/Carvey Era would react so negatively to the Sophomore Humor Era [as I call it]. But for me it’s pretty easy, Chris Farley and Adam Sandler’s characters plus the height of Alec Baldwin’s hosting makes for a solid 5 years of SNL.
3. The Hartman/Carvey Era 1986-1990 seasons 12-15
I dare you to watch these four years of SNL and not appreciate the great writing, the wonderful acting, the return of some bite to SNL political humor, and the magic that was Phil Hartman in front of a live studio 8H.
2. The Will Ferrell Era 1995-2002 seasons 21-27
What can I say? Will Ferrell era SNL was my middle school and high school years. I have a theory that SNL has two markets, teenagers who aren’t able to go out yet and adults who are not going out to party as much or as late. With the invention of the DVR I think that demo is changing but it still is a pretty big chunk of the SNL audience. For me those teenage years in which I wasn’t driving around and allowed to be out past midnight on a Saturday all occurred during the Will Ferrell Era. I have a ton of fond memories of these casts and the GREAT chemistry they had together [something the McKinnon Era is also missing].
The 1996-200 years has THE casting of players that I still remember as “being just yesterday” and so enjoyed watching [Breuer, Ferrell, Gasteyer, Hammond, Kattan, MacDonald, Meadows, Morgan, Oteri, Quinn, Shannon w/ Fallon, Parnell, & Sanz coming in 1998 & Dratch, & Rudolph coming in 2000].
On top of all the the great political sketches of MacDonald and Hammond’s Dole & Clinton plus Ferrell & Hammond’s Bush & Gore are comedic gold mines.
I’ll pause here to acknowledge that I get that my criticism of Kristen Wiig during her later SNL years is a valid and often used against Will Ferrell during his later SNL years. However, I maintain that when you come up with an era you have a soft spot for it. I was watching and enjoyed the Sophomore Era in which Will Ferrell came right after and then rose to prominence in the shadows of the repertory players left over from the Sophomore Era. Therefore, Will Ferrell’s bullish characters did not rub me the wrong way rather it was “Will being Will” much as if I had stayed consistent with my SNL viewership while in college I would have seen that same rise of Kristen Wiig and had the “Kristen being Kristen” feeling during that 2006-2012 period she dominated.
and finally the best era of SNL
1.The Original Cast 1975-1980 seasons 1-5
Do I even need to explain this!?
I look forward to the debate in the comments section.
Bonus List: Top 5 players from each decade [in no order]:
- John Belushi
- Chevy Chase
- Dan Aykroyd
- Gilda Radner
- Eddie Murphy
runner up: Jane Curtin
- Phil Harman
- Dana Carvey
- Jan Hooks
- Mike Myers
- Chris Ferley
runner up: Adam Sandler/Billy Crystal for his 1 year
- Will Ferrell
- Darrell Hammond
- Molly Shannon
- Tracy Morgan
- Tim Meadows
runner up: Rachel Dratch/Jimmy Fallon
- Kate McKinnon
- Kristen Wigg
- Bill Hader
- Amy Poehler
- Maya Rudolph
runner up: Jason Sedeikis/Fred Armisen because yes I get it.