From making fun of Ant-Man in 1979 to making fun of Ant-Man in 2014, Saturday Night Live has always thrown a line to the world of comic book superheroes. Superman himself has been portrayed by the likes of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Phil Hartman, Jerry Seinfeld, The Rock, and even Macaulay Culkin.
With the increased mainstream popularity, the superhero skits definitely became more rampant in the latter half of the show’s tenure, though there’s still a gem or two in the early days. Here’s our take on which ones reign supreme.
10. Superman’s Fortress of Solitude
Season 7: Episode 8 (2001) – Hosted by Hugh Jackman
People always talk about how The Prestige is Wolverine vs. Batman, but in this one instance, Jackman did play the Man of Steel, truly making that movie the original Batman v. Superman. Which makes sense, since Jackman is done in by magic.
In this skit, Superman builds the Fortress of Solitude and readies the special Kryptonian crystals. Finally, he’ll learn about who and what he is! The disembodied head of Jor-El (Will Ferrell) appears to him and dramatically explains that this phantom version of himself will give Superman all the answers he needs.
After a moment, an awkward silence kicks in. The two really have nothing to talk about. They end up asking each other how they’re doing, but neither has much to add. Like a father on the phone, Jor-El gives the conversation over to Superman’s mother, Lara (Maya Rudolph), who is trying to hide her panic over the possibility that her son is gay, what with him wearing bright tights, insisting that Lois is not his girlfriend and that he likes to hang out with a teenager named Jimmy. Really, the highlight of this bit is Ferrell hitting all the right notes of a relative trying to carry an empty conversation purely out of politeness.
9. The Rock Obama
Season 34: Episode 17 (2009) – Hosted by Dwayne Johnson
President Obama (Fred Armisen) is known for his calm demeanor, but even he has his limits. Between the antagonizing of a trio of Republican senators and the egging on by Rahm Emanuel (Andy Samberg), Obama starts to give in to his negative feelings. After a verbal jab from Senator McCain (Darrell Hammond) breaks the camel’s back, Obama goes into a fit. His suit begins to rip and after a ghastly transformation sequence, we see Dwayne Johnson sitting in his place, clad in tattered clothes.
He’s labeled “The Rock Obama,” a pun that hits stronger since this was during the days when Johnson was trying his hardest to distance himself from his wrestling career. His voice sounds like Obama’s enough already, but he mixes the Shatner-like inflections of the president with the caveman speak of the Incredible Hulk. To Emanuel’s delight, the super-strong Obama proceeds to casually terrorize the Republicans.
Later that season, The Rock Obama returned to do the same bit, only this time with an appearance by his own personal Rick Jones, Vice President Joe Biden (Jason Sudeikis). Gotta love Sudeikis’ depiction of Biden. He’s such a scamp.
8. Digital Short: Batman
Season 37: Episode 8 (2011) – Hosted by Steve Buscemi
Steve Buscemi plays the role of Commissioner James Gordon to perfection in this pre-filmed parody of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. Gordon meets Batman (Andy Samberg) on the rooftop, next to the Bat Signal and talks shop. As expected, Batman vanishes when Gordon isn’t looking and Gordon makes a crack about it.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only place Batman does that. Gordon tries to get some late night ice cream from the freezer and Batman’s there to tell him that he thinks the Scarecrow is up to something. Gordon’s freaked, but he’s still on board with what’s going on. This doesn’t last as Batman keeps showing up in more intimate places, including a moment where he brings Aquaman with him to sneak into Gordon’s shower. To be fair, Aquaman’s water is off at his building.
Even Batman’s reasons for accosting Gordon get flimsier. We go from, “I think Two-Face is stealing chemicals!” to, “The Penguin got a credit card!” Soon things come to a head when Batman invades Gordon’s bedroom, where he goes well over the line and well into the deep end.
7. What If?
Season 4: Episode 10 (1979) – Hosted by Michael Palin
Over twenty years before Mark Millar penned Red Son, Saturday Night Live more or less beat him to the punch. The skit is based on the idea of a TV show that looks at what the world would be like if certain historical incidents worked out differently. It just so happens that instead of choosing from someone with a real zest for world history, they got their question from a ten-year-old paperboy. That question is, “What if Superman grew up in Germany instead of America?”
Through a dramatization, we see Adolf Hitler (Michael Palin) ranting and raving about the Russians, leading to him ranking all the different non-Aryan groups. He’s visited by the local propaganda reporters Klaus Kent (Dan Aykroyd), Lois Laneoff (Laraine Newman), and Jimmy Olstein (Al Franken). In a shot reminiscent of George Reeves’ Superman glaring uncomfortably at the television camera, Klaus sees with his x-ray vision that there’s a bomb hidden in a nearby briefcase. Surely, he must act quickly and save der fuhrer to uphold untruth, injustice, and the Nazi way! This looks like a job for Uberman!
The sketch is ultimately all over the place, overly long and gets pretty tired, even with a quick appearance of Jim Belushi as Marlon Brando as Jor-El. In the end, it mainly wins me over with Uberman explaining that thanks to his x-ray vision, he can tell that Jimmy is really a Jew!
6. The X-Presidents
Recurring, debuted in 1997
Ah, yes. The X-Presidents. As part of the “TV Funhouse” series of cartoons by Robert Smigel, we were treated to years of the world-saving hijinks of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. Granted powers through a radioactive storm during a golf game, the four were granted special abilities as ill-defined as the powers of the Hanna-Barbera superhero cartoons they’re based on. The easily-aggravated Reagan leads the bumbling fool Ford, sensitive Carter, and always-having-way-too-much-kinky-sex-with-his-wife Bush. The cartoons are half Hanna-Barbera inanity and half spoofs of world politics.
Most amusing of all is how iconic sound bites are changed up for the sake of action comedy. We have Reagan telling evildoers, “Just say no…to pissing me off!” George Bush leaps into action with the cry, “Read my lips: your ass is grass!” And when Richard Nixon is resurrected to help the team, he rises from the grave with, “I am not a crook! I am a killing machine!”
Dark days hit the team once Clinton is out of office. Not only does he insist on joining the X-Presidents despite having no powers, but George W. Bush uses the team for his own shady dealings. This leads to more super-powered resurrections as the X-X-Presidents show up to save the day. There was also an instance of the X-First Ladies showing up, with them taking the forms of Black Widow, Medusa, Hawkgirl, and She-Hulk.
Crazily enough, the X-Presidents got their own comic book one-shot. If only we could get one of those for The Rock Obama.
5. Moleculo: The Molecular Man
Season 26: Episode 14 (2001) – Hosted by Conan O’Brien
A Superman-like hero named Moleculo (Conan O’Brien) stands over a mountain of beaten criminals. When asked who he is, he identifies himself as Moleculo, looks to the camera and says with the hammiest smile, “THE MOLECULAR MAN!” His intro theme plays over a montage and as the singers repeat his name, it again ends with him smiling and yelling, “THE MOLECULAR MAN!”
Unfortunately, Moleculo likes doing that way too much. Whenever anyone mentions his name in earshot, he looks to the camera and shouts, “THE MOLECULAR MAN!” without fail. This gets extra hairy when he goes to work at the local newspaper in his secret identity and can’t help but scream, “THE MOLECULAR MAN!” whenever anyone compliments his excellent coverage of the foiled bank heist. This leads to an ending punchline that you can see a mile away, but the payoff is completely worth it and will never not make me laugh.
With anyone else, this skit would fall on its face, but Conan’s shouting of, “THE MOLECULAR MAN!” is so genuinely infectious that you can’t help but get into it.
4. James Franco and Willem Dafoe
Season 34: Episode 2 (2008) – Hosted by James Franco
One of the best things about any given episode of Saturday Night Live is the 12:55 skit because even though it’s a crapshoot, you know you’re going to get something weird and outside the box. Enter James Franco and Willem Dafoe
James Franco is in his dressing room when the lights dim and he hears psychotic laughter. Looking at him from the mirror’s reflection is none other than Willem Dafoe (Bill Hader), cackling at him and giving him orders to kill Spider-Man. When he’s reminded that Spider-Man is a fictional character, Dafoe corrects himself and says he meant to say he wants Franco to kill Andy Samberg. A hilarious take on the haunting scenes from Spider-Man 2 and that other sequel that never happened (shut up!), the drama gradually falls apart into an even stranger situation.
You have Hader killing it with his Dafoe impression across from Franco’s wondrous overacting. Samberg himself gets a moment when he walks in unannounced to show Franco his Willem Dafoe impression, apropos of nothing. Said impression is just him going, “I’m Willem Dafoe! I was in Mississippi Burning, remember? Bloop-blippity-bloop-bloop! Later!” and leaving the room.
3. Clark Kent
Season 25: Episode 15 (2000) – Hosted by Dwayne Johnson
At the Daily Planet, we see Lois Lane (Molly Shannon), Jimmy Olsen (Jimmy Fallon), and Perry White (Chris Parnell) waving goodbye at Superman and thanking him for saving the day. Then, like clockwork, they greet the returning Clark Kent (Dwayne Johnson). In this world, Superman’s coworkers aren’t so oblivious and have his secret identity figured out, mainly due to how much of a mess he is. It isn’t just the glasses. Clark Kent has red boots, a cape sticking out of his shirt, blue spandex creeping out of his sleeves and a noticeable S insignia behind his white shirt. The newsroom folk let him have his poor attempt at a ruse, what with him having saved their lives a million times over, but still laugh at him behind his back.
It’s the details that make this, such as Clark’s unkempt appearance. There are so many different ways he’s blown his cover while completely ignoring the idea that anyone could put two and two together. For instance, he used to call himself Supe R. Mann and had his paychecks sent to the Fortress of Solitude. The real treat is seeing the Rock try to play it off, as even when the truth is brought up, he fumbles and nervously laughs. Fittingly, it was this very episode that ultimately spring-boarded his career away from wrestling and into Hollywood.
2. The Ambiguously Gay Duo
Recurring, debuting in 1996.
Despite being such a staple for Saturday Night Live, the Ambiguously Gay Duo really debuted as part of The Dana Carvey Show, which was too awesome to exist in the ’90s (see also: Chris Elliot’s Get a Life). Over the course of a dozen episodes, enthusiastic superheroes Ace (Stephen Colbert) and Gary (Steve Carell) would fight the forces of evil while the forces of evil would debate over whether or not the two were more than friends. My favorite instance is when they take on Queen Serena, who wants to play the role of seductress, even though her henchmen know she doesn’t have a chance in Hell.
Ace and Gary are obviously based on the homoerotic undertones of Batman and Robin, but more than that, they appear to be mostly inspired by Green Lantern and his kid sidekick Kairo from The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure. Not only do Ace and Gary dress like palette-swapped versions of Hal Jordan, but the running gag of Gary straddling Ace as he flies looks exactly like the way Green Lantern would carry Kairo around.
In 2011, the Ambiguously Gay Duo got quite the finale as they were shot by a “flesh ray” that transformed them into live-action beings, transforming a TV Funhouse segment into a Digital Short. Played by John Hamm and Jimmy Fallon, the two wrestled with a giant, phallic beast while wondering, “What is everybody looking at?”
1. Superman’s Funeral
Season 18: Episode 8 (1992) – Hosted by Sinbad
Some of you might be wondering why the Superhero Party sketch from the ’70s isn’t on the list. While I’d certainly love to give ups to the image of Flash and Lana Lang being taken aback while John Belushi as the Hulk walks out of the bathroom, the truth is, the skit is 8 minutes of drabness, bad delivery and a lack of jokes. It should be funny, but it really isn’t.
“Superman’s Funeral,” based on the pop culture success of the Death of Superman storyline, succeeds where “The Superhero Party” failed. Not only is it funny, but in retrospect, it’s pretty mind-blowing to look at. It’s a complete love letter to comic geeks while starring comedians who would later become big names. Adam Sandler is the Flash. Rob Schneider is Jimmy Olsen. David Spade is Aquaman. Phil Hartman is Perry White. Dana Carvey is Batman with Chris Rock as Robin. Al Franken is Lex Luthor (13 years after portraying German Jimmy Olsen, too!). Then you have Tim Meadows as Green Lantern! Yes, Phil LaMarr was NOT the first dude from a Saturday night sketch program to play John Stewart!
The best casting is easily for the segment where representatives from Marvel Comics come to pay their respects. The Hulk (Chris Farley) is chosen to eulogize Superman and after stumbling over his words, he takes out a crumbled up piece of paper, puts on reading glasses, and recites a written speech. Suddenly, his words become clear and dignified as he talks up how Superman was always his hero. It’s silly, but at the same time kind of sweet and genuinely touching. Driven to tears, Hulk smashes the podium and mumbles, “‘Nuff said.”
And that’s where a lot of the fun is. There are so many Easter eggs here. Not only are the Teen Titans namedropped around Hawkman and Hawkwoman, but we also see extras dressed as Starfire, Storm, and I’m pretty sure I spy Man-Thing in the back row. Black Lightning (Sinbad) shows up with nobody recognizing him and it works. I didn’t know Black Lightning was an actual superhero, but having a guy with an afro insisting that he had a comic in the ’70s and used to be tight with Superman is funny regardless. He also zaps Rob Schneider a couple times and that’s always fun to watch.
“Get off my case, CHUMP!”
Honorable mention goes to a Saturday Night Live skit called “Justice League of America” from 1991. I honestly don’t know what it’s even about as I haven’t seen it and it’s not available on Hulu Plus. All I know from the little information available online is that Chris Farley played a hero named Super Pope. That has to be fantastic.