The 35 greatest Saturday Night Live sketches

 "Debbie Downer" on Saturday Night Live.
"Debbie Downer" on Saturday Night Live.

With just seven iconic words put together, you know when it is, where it is, and what you're in for: "Live from New York, it's Saturday night!" Since its beginnings in 1975, Saturday Night Live (SNL) has been a cultural institution, its mixture of sketch comedy and the unpredictable energy of live television. Tracing the history of SNL means learning the vibes of a specific time and place. As cultural attitudes and values slowly but suddenly change, the answer to the simple question, "Is it funny?" is always figured out in real time. Making it to SNL remains a dream come true for many comedians, with the lucky few going on to even bigger and better levels of stardom.

With half a century's worth of hilarious sketch comedy, only some deserve recognition as truly the greatest. In celebration of the show's continued legacy, here are 35 of the greatest SNL sketches of all time.

35. "Lazy Sunday" (December 17, 2005)

Way before Please Don't Destroy, comedy troupe The Lonely Island - made up of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer - made their presence known on SNL in late 2005. Centered around two guys who aggressively rap about killing a winter afternoon watching The Chronicles of Narnia, "Lazy Sunday" served as one of the first-ever Digital Shorts. In one swoop, SNL made history by shaping millennial era comedy and creating a viral sensation that helped power early YouTube. The sketch (and its song) is simply a banger unto its own ("Let's hit up Magnolia and mack on some cupcakes!"), never mind the seismic influence it left behind.

34. "Short Shorts for the USA" (September 29, 2001)

With New York City still picking up the debris of 9/11, SNL hesitantly went back on the air to kick off its 27th season with actor Seann William Scott as a guest. Emotions were still heavy, but SNL did what it does best - make people laugh - with a fully locked-in Will Ferrel helping America heal by splitting everyone's sides. An office worker (Ferrell) shows up to an important meeting dressed inappropriately in American flag short shorts and a crop top, all in an effort to "show patriotism." Welcome to the land of the free, baby.

33. "Potato Chip" (December 5, 2009)

"Potato Chip" may not be an all-time favorite of SNL fans, but ask any comedian, and they can't get enough of it. Co-written by writer John Solomon and Will Forte, who performs alongside Jason Sudeikis and guest star Blake Lively, the sketch follows two cartoonish Southern gentlemen at NASA who blow up over a missing potato chip. In a 2016 oral history published on UPROXX, Forte revealed that it was originally meant to feature Taylor Swift, who hosted several weeks earlier, in the part played by Lively. Swift was game to participate and even did a dress rehearsal, but was later forced by her managers to drop out.

32. "Omeletteville" (October 11, 2003)

It's so unfair having to sing and dance against Justin Timberlake. Chris Parnell learned that the hard way in this classic 2003 sketch, in which Parnell - dressed in a corny bacon-and-egg mascot costume - struggles to advertise for Denny's when he gets upstaged by a high-energy Timberlake, himself shilling for an "Omeletteville." The sketch succeeds mostly because of Timberlake, who can carry a tune like "Bring it on down to Omeletteville" in the way only an ex-boy band singer can. It's no wonder the sketch spawned its own recurring series whenever Timberlake swings by 30 Rock.

31. "Wing Pit" (February 5, 2023)

Just in time for Super Bowl LVII, guest star Pedro Pascal teams up with Kenan Thompson for this sketch satirizing the saucy excesses of hot wings food franchises. At some point, Wing Pit's onslaught of increasingly epic meal combos - and their "butt-destroying sauces" - gets too overwhelming. Before Pascal can put a stop to the madness, it's too late. The eldritch darkness of devouring massacred animals settles in, with Wing Pit summoning the god of chickens to consume these helpless football fans like they've consumed chickens.

30. "Cobras and Panthers" (November 16, 1996)

Of course Norm Macdonald would be in a West Side Story-like musical and wonder why the heck everyone is singing. In this gem from mid-'90s SNL, Robert Downey Jr. guest stars as a member of the greaser "Cobras" who can't help but sing his little heart out - all to the confusion of a flummoxed Macdonald. Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, Cheri Oteri (a delight in the part of "tomboy girl who wants to be one of the guys"), and Tim Meadows all help make us wish "Cobras and Panthers" were a real golden age Hollywood musical.

29. "E-Sports Reporter" (October 27, 2019)

As esports became a billion-dollar industry, it was inevitable that Saturday Night Live got in on the action. Guest star Chance the Rapper plays unsuspecting MSG Network correspondent Lazlo Holmes - who "usually covers the Knicks" - who is stunned by the upside down world of professional video games (and their bunny-hat wearing groupies) at a League of Legends tournament. While one can accuse SNL of trafficking in old stereotypes about video games and video gamers, you have to admit: "To me, this game looks like how a seizure feels" is stone cold.

28. "Suel Forrester, Southern Lawyer" (November 14, 1998)

Two years after debuting his indecipherable "Suel Forrester" character at a high school, Chris Kattan reprises the part at a Mississippi courtroom in this underrated sketch from late '90s SNL. Lampooning Hollywood's strange obsession with courtroom dramas released during that era - with hit movies like The Client, A Time to Kill, Philadelphia, The Pelican Brief, and A Few Good Men - Kattan blabbers his way to a shocking confession out of witness, played by John Goodman. Tim Meadows beautifully assists in the sketch as a judge who would be offended if he weren't so puzzled.

27. "Gap Girls at the Food Court" (January 15, 1994)

After their debut as the Gap Girls in January 1993, the trio of David Spade, Chris Farley, and Adam Sandler delivered what is arguably the best in the sketch series, set at the mall food court. While the familiar archetype of teen girls who hang out at the mall has virtually vanished alongside shopping malls themselves, the sketch is still a laugh riot, capped off by Farley's iconic delivery of "Lay off me, I'm starving" in a deep voice. Rewatch the moment and pay attention to Sandler's face. You can visibly see him try so hard not to break.

26. "George Bush Talks About the White House Drug Problem" (September 30, 1989)

In 1989, Saturday Night Live started a new tradition of stunningly accurate political impersonations with Dana Carvey, playing a cartoon version of then-president George Bush. Donning a remarkable New England speaking voice, Carvey's George Bush lulls viewers into a sense of calm as he rambles about his family vacation, before abruptly slapping them with reality by holding a handful of illegal substances in a Ziploc back, which Bush admits to having been bought "right here, in the White House." As the drug epidemic plagued America, Carvey's Bush sketches showed us how to have a laugh over it.

25. "The Wizard of Oz" (October 4, 2013)

The legend of the fifth character in The Wizard of Oz is finally revealed in this beautifully hilarious sketch from 2013. Featuring guest star Anne Hathaway (in a mesmerizing impersonation of classic film star Judy Garland), SNL reveals "deleted scenes" of a fifth Oz traveler, a weather vane rooster played by New York actor Lon Donson (Fred Armisen). Armisen really plays up the "New York" part of Lon Donson, with his rooster a Woody Allen-esque neurotic who becomes a nuisance to the iconic story, not to mention ruining an otherwise beautiful rendition of "Over the Rainbow" by Hathaway.

24. "Ronald Reagan Schemes with Sammy Davis, Jr." (March 17, 1984)

In a sketch that no one in their right mind would pitch today, actor/comedian Billy Crystal plays singer Sammy Davis, Jr. (yes, read that again) in this sketch opposite Joe Piscopo as Ronald Reagan. While Piscopo's portrayal of Reagan is pretty good, Crystal's impersonation of Sammy Davis Jr. is scary good. For proof, watch the moment he walks in; the live audience is rendered speechless, unsure if it's Billy Crystal or actually SDJ himself. While nothing in the sketch is gut-busting hilarious, it's hypnotic just to see Crystal locked in as someone else completely.

23. "Black Widow Trailer" (May 3, 2015)

At the height of Marvel's reign over pop culture, Saturday Night Live took the franchise to task over its inability to greenlight a female-led superhero movie. So when Scarlett Johansson came to spend the week at 30 Rock to advertise Avengers: Age of Ultron, the team at SNL cooked up a hilarious parody of what a "girl superhero movie" would look like: a sugary, ineffective and inoffensive rom-com about Black Widow (Johassnon) falling in love in New York. In meshing the theatrics of superhero action movies with the worn-out cliches of romantic comedies, SNL highlighted just how "gendered" mainstream movies typically are.

22. "Wayne's World: Aerosmith" (February 17, 1990)

You know you're watching something special when Tom Hanks is, like, the third-most interesting person in the segment. A year after Mike Myers and Dana Carvey first appeared as Wayne and Garth respectively, the two reunite to welcome hard-rockers Aerosmith; the sketch supposes Aerosmith are playing in their town and that being on Wayne's World is good press. Before Steven Tyler can belt out his own cover of the Wayne's World theme however, you've got Tom Hanks as Garth's cousin Barry, who is so sharp as a guy who takes his roadie job too seriously. Props to Carvey, who actually played drums and successfully jams along to rock and roll legends.

21. "Pool Boy" (April 17, 2016)

It's maybe not out of line to say that Chad, the ultimate "eff boy" with inexplicable power over women is probably just Pete Davidson playing a version of himself. In the first-ever sketch featuring Davidson's Chad, titled "Pool Boy," Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a bored suburban housewife who acknowledges the cliche of having an affair with her 23-year-old pool boy. The twist in the knife is that Chad doesn't really care, with the most he can physically say are variations of "Okay" and "sick." Okay. Sick.

20. "Breaking Into the Central Park Zoo Polar Bear Cage" (May 13, 1995)

One of the strangest sketches in SNL history has an even stranger origin story. In the season finale of SNL in 1995, Norm Macdonald was convinced that he was going to be fired, alongside castmates Tim Meadows, Chris Farley, Jay Mohr, and Adam Sandler. So he wrote, and somehow successfully pitched, a gruesome sketch in which all the men get torn apart by a polar bear after they break into the Central Park Zoo. The exaggerated splatters of fake blood plus the pin-drop silence of the audience says everything about how well the sketch went. But it was only for the performers to have the last laugh. (In a twist, only Farley, Sandler, and Mohr wound up being dropped. Macdonald stayed through until the 1997-98 season, when he was fired after laying into O.J. Simpsons for the umpteenth time.)

19. "Harry Potter: Hermione Growth Spurt" (May 1, 2004)

By the release of the third Harry Potter film, the cast and their adolescent characters were growing up. Fast. With then-teen sensation Lindsay Lohan as the guest star for the week, Saturday Night Live hilariously chose violence with Lohan as a suddenly buxom Hermione dressed in a form-fitting Gryffindor sweater. Rachel Dratch, Seth Meyers, Chris Parnell, and Jimmy Fallon co-star in the piece, their characters suddenly wanting to be more than boy wizards playing with their wands. There's also Horatio Sanz as Hagrid, who steals the sketch with "I'm going to tame my dragon."

18. "Little Chocolate Donuts" (November 19, 1977)

With the help of legendary sports commentator Marv Albert, John Belushi looks like a real Olympic athlete in this satire of Wheaties commercials (actually advertising fattening chocolate doughnuts). Ditching the in-your-face hysteria that Belushi would be known for in the National Lampoon movies, "Little Chocolate Donuts" delights in its subtlety, notably the lit cigarette in Belushi's fingers. Unlike real doughnuts, the sketch is quick and lean, selling its joke without caking on much more. It's a real darling of early SNL, and indicative of all the ways SNL would smartly lampoon commercial advertising in the decades to come.

17. "Three Sad Virgins" (November 14, 2021)

In the breakout year for comedy group Please Don't Destroy at SNL, the trio cemented their place in SNL history with "Three Sad Virgins." Riding on the coattails of veteran Pete Davidson (who would leave the show by the end of the season), Please Don't Destroy are invited by Davidson for a music video as his best friends, only to get emotionally eviscerated by him. The sketch is capped off by pop megastar Taylor Swift, whose soft aesthetic suddenly turns venomous when she deep fry roasts them with lines like "sad Ron Weasley" and "none of them have the guts to take their shirts off in front of a girl."

16. "Beavis and Butt-Head" (April 14, 2024)

The weighty topic of A.I. innovation disrupting human labor meets the improbable obstacle of a solid Beavis and Butt-Head joke. In this viral April 2024 sketch with guest star Ryan Gosling, a NewsNation live stream event ostensibly about humanity's future in the face of rapidly evolving artificial intelligence gets comically interrupted by two Beavis and Butt-Head lookalikes (played by Gosling and series regular Mikey Day). The characters claim to have never heard of Beavis and Butt-Head, nor do they even know each other. But after an IRL appearance on the red carpet for The Fall Guy (starring Gosling), their story began taking on a life of its own.

15. "Star Wars Undercover Boss: Starkiller Base (January 17, 2016)

There have been several great Star Wars sketches on SNL, from Mark Hamill's kidnapping on the Shopping at Home Network (from 1997) to a roast of adult toy collectors (from 2015). But perhaps the greatest SNL spoof took place on January 17, 2016, when guest star Adam Driver reprised his Kylo Ren in an epic spoof of Undercover Boss. Going "undercover" as lowly radar technician Matt, Kylo Ren finds out what kind of ship the First Order is running on Starkiller Base. Although Driver is unstoppable in his commitment to the joke, Bobby Moynihan steals the whole thing with a simple, "Dude, Matt straight up sucks."

14. "King Tut" (May 22, 1978)

King Tut! How'd you get so funk-ayyy? When a popular museum exhibition centered around Egyptian figure King Tutankhamun made him an unexpected point of obsession in the late 1970s, the incomparable Steve Martin tried to separate fact from fiction. With a song, he tried "to use the ancient modalities and melodies" in the hopes that "we can all learn something." Then, with a gaping O-shaped face and exaggerated arm movements, Martin did the complete opposite, in a killer musical number that gets people holding their sides to this day.

13. "Haunted Elevator" (October 23, 2016

"Any questions?" A lot, actually. When Beck Bennett and Kate McKinnon get on a Tower of Terror-like haunted theme park ride, they don't expect David S. Pumpkins (Tom Hanks in a pumpkin suit). "Haunted Elevator" is one of those gems no one sees coming, a piece that mystifies before delivering a note-perfect punchline at the end. In 2017, an oral history piece on Vulture revealed the sketch was inspired by a scene from the 1990 Indian movie Athisaya Piravi, combined with Mikey Day's own childhood living by Disneyland. Hilariously, the writers wrote Tom Hanks breakdancing before Hanks said to them, "Fellas, I don't breakdance." "I don't know why we assumed Tom Hanks would know how to break-dance," said writer Streeter Seidell.

12. "Black Jeopardy with Tom Hanks" (October 23, 2016)

Tom Hanks' October 2016 episode is top-to-bottom one of the greatest episodes in modern era SNL. In that episode's installment of "Black Jeopardy," Hanks plays a middle aged white male contestant in a MAGA hat named "Doug" who, quite unexpectedly, wins over the crowd and even show host Darnell Hayes (Keanan Thompson). After Doug nails a question - to the surprise and delight of Darnell - the sketch takes a sharp turn where Doug could actually win the whole thing, so long as he doesn't answer the last question.

11. "WWE Promo Shoot" (March 29, 2015)

Pro wrestling meets Chan-wook Park's Oldboy in this pitch black classic from the 2010s. Former WWE champion turned Hollywood megastar Dwayne Johnson channels his previous occupation in this sketch with Bobby Moynihan, with the two playing wrestlers filming confrontational "interviews" to promote their match. After Bobby invites Johnson (playing a wrestler named "Koko WatchOut") to really go for it, Koko does the unthinkable by revealing Bobby's darkest secrets. Brace yourself, this one hits harder than a steel chair to the head.

10. "Chippendales Audition" (October 27, 1990)

The sketch that made Chris Farley an SNL legend is also one of its most controversial. Hinging entirely on the joke that Farley's body is nothing like chiseled specimen Patrick Swayze (who was that week's guest star), Farley embarrasses himself as an aspiring Chippendales dancer to the delight of audiences. Unfortunately, the sketch and others like it (which Farley described with the universal theme of "fatty falls down") had a tremendously harmful impact on Farley's mental health and self-esteem. Today, "Chippendales Audition" remains divisive, as both an example of Farley's full-throated commitment to his performance and a reinforcement of body negativity.

9. "Medieval Times" (January 26, 2020)

Adam Driver is known for his deadly serious commitment to his craft, but he also knows how funny that reputation can be. With "Medieval Times," Driver lampoons actors who are just a bit extra, playing a local community theater thespian named Cameron who crosses the line at his gig at a New Jersey Medieval Times. As Driver veers way off script to live out his own improvised version of Braveheart, emcee Mikey Day quickly spirals into a hilarious panic. Adam Driver is easily one of the best guest stars SNL has ever had, and sketches like "Medieval Times" prove his mettle.

8. "Jingleheimer Junction" (September 26, 1998)

"Jingleheimer Junction" is a comedy classic built entirely around a simple idea, and does all it can to keep it from happening. In this parody of cheery children's television shows, Tim Meadows plays the blindsided host who tries to make sure that Will Ferrel, who wears a baby blue sweater with a giant "F" on his chest, from joining his friends with the letters "U," "C," and "K." (Cameron Diaz guest stars, wearing "K.") "Jingleheimer Junction" proves SNL doesn't always have to be topical or complex to deliver outrageous laughs.

7. "Election Night 2016" (November 13, 2016)

With the pungent odors of the 2016 election still in the air, SNL finally acknowledged how myopic one side of the political spectrum had been going into that fateful day in November. Dave Chapelle, with surprise guest Chris Rock, join their friends Vanessay Bayer, Aidy Bryant, Beck Bennett, and Cecily Strong to give them a dose of reality as they struggle to accept just how ineffectual the Clinton campaign was (as well as how insufficient the electoral college is). In the end, "Election Night" reminded us that we would be in for a long eight years.

6. "Pumping Up with Hans and Franz: Arnold Schwarzenegger" (October 26, 1991)

Fans of Conan O'Brien know why this sketch, featuring guest Arnold Schwarzenegger, is the stuff of SNL legend. While the sketch itself is amusing - with Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey reprising their Austrian bodybuilders as they meet their "cousin" Arnold Schwarzenegger - it's more interesting because of its inspired movie that never was. Along with comedian and writer Conan O'Brien, and even Schwarzenegger on board, a movie musical was written under the title Hans and Franz: The Girlyman Dilemma. Eventually the project fell apart, but its hilarious script was read aloud in a May 2023 episode of O'Brien's podcast, Conan Needs a Friend.

5. "Matt Foley: Van Down By the River" (May 8, 1993)

This one has it all. Chris Farley, in his prime years at SNL, explodes like a nuclear missile as over-caffeinated motivational speaker Matt Foley, who tries his best to get two teenagers (played by David Spade and Christina Applegate) to quit wasting their potential or else they'll live the rest of their lives in "a van down by the river." With Farley firing on every single one of his cylinders, "Matt Foley: Van Down By the River" is recognized today as a classic of '90s SNL and one of the best sketches in its long history.

4. "Debbie Downer: Disney World" (May 1, 2004)

Once upon a time, it was forbidden to crack as a performer on Saturday Night Live. But in a legendary 2004 sketch with Rachel Dratch at the center, "Debbie Downer" (which coined the slang term) infamously had everyone losing it. Set during an Ohio family vacation to Disney World, Debbie (Dratch) ruins the mood by constantly bringing up bleak news stories and other unfortunate topics. Jimmy Fallon, Fred Armisen, Amy Poehler, Horatio Sanz, and guest Lindsay Lohan try their hardest to keep themselves composed, but the audible wah-wahs mixed with Dratch's deeply expressive mugging gets too much. Eventually, the dam breaks, and everyone laughs their way into SNL history.

3. "Papyrus" (October 1, 2017)

Easily one of the greatest SNL Digital Shorts of all time, "Papyrus" stars Ryan Gosling playing a man haunted by the fact the billion-dollar hit movie Avatar used a comically cheap font. "He just randomly selected papyrus, like a thoughtless child," Gosling bemoans to his therapist (Kate McKinnon). Gosling is simply unstoppable here, imbuing depth and pathos where none is needed, as well as channeling the rain-drenched sad vibes of his most popular films - like Blue Valentine and The Notebook - to really sell the joke as actually pointing out the artistic crime of the century.

2. "Andy Kaufman" (October 11, 1975 and November 8, 1975)

Saturday Night Live
Saturday Night Live

There never was, nor will there ever again be, a comedian like Andy Kaufman. A comedian seemingly playing 3D chess with the audience, Kaufman's style can be reductively called "anti-comedy," with his sketches challenging expectations of what is funny and who is actually being laughed at. While Kaufman was never a full-fledged SNL cast member, he made multiple guest appearances that have become SNL lore. On October 11, 1975, during the very first episode of SNL, Kaufman was invited to play out his absurdist act of "Foreign Man"; his legendary "singing" of the Mighty Mouse theme song was aired that day, while the other portions of his act were broadcast weeks later on November 8. Kaufman's presence proves that even from the very beginning, SNL was trying to change everything audiences would assume what comedy is supposed to be.

1. "More Cowbell" (April 8, 2000)

Saturday Night Live
Saturday Night Live

Is "More Cowbell" actually the greatest SNL sketch? Or is it just the most popular? Whatever the case, "More Cowbell" has basically enjoyed a life of its own. With Christopher Walken as a guest host playing the role of a prominent record producer, the sketch brings audiences back to 1976 as Blue Oyster Cult record their classic rock single "(Don't Fear) the Reaper." Will Ferrell stars as a band member playing the cowbell, which annoys frontman Chris Parnell but delights Walken, who constantly demands "more cowbell." Before the sketch, no one could have told you that the song has an audible cowbell. But after Will Ferrell's overexaggerated playing, his jelly roll hips gyrating in the air, no one can ever forget it.