The results have always varied with Saturday Night Live. They’re doing an incredibly hard thing at an incredibly fast speed that requires an unnatural attitude toward exhaustion and uncommon precision. And they’re doing it every week with a different host that possesses different tastes and strengths.
Look at the episode from a few weeks ago with Blake Shelton pulling double duty – the worst of the season and a lot of that had to do with the country-fried angle of the material. Rather than take Shelton too far out of his comfort zone, the entire show went out of theirs. That’s just the way it is sometimes. Live by the host or die by the host.
The best episodes of Saturday Night Live are typically the ones where things are a bit more fluid and boundary free. Funny is the master and that week’s host is down to serve it. Unfortunately, that kind of host is a rare breed, but over the life of the show, there have been enough to at least fill a list of the best Saturday Night Live hosts with ample spillover. So here we are, about to embark on such a list.
A couple of things, though. First, this is in no particular order. Second, I kept out former cast members like Bill Murray and Tina Fey because obviously they know what it takes to be great hosts. Anyway, off we go.
Hamm has hosted the show three times and he’s made six stray appearances. In a way, he’s a bit like Alec Baldwin 2.0 in that he plays off of his movie star good looks to be the perfect straight man. That’s what sells something like “Jon Hamm’s John Ham” and the “Finger in Butts” campaign ads, but he’s also willing to get weird and slathered in imitation birthing fluid to play Sergio, the sexy saxman conjured by a curse (above).
Hamm is also enthusiastic about being a part of the show. That’s evidenced by his want to keep doing it and his willingness to pop up for cameos as the live-action version of Ace in the Ambiguously Gay Duo sketch and in the “Darrell’s House” sketch with Zach Galifianakis.
It’s always hard to believe that Steve Martin wasn’t a cast member in the early days of SNL since both comic institutions burst onto the scene at roughly the same time, but when they have aligned (as they have 15 times as host with five guest appearances), moments have been created that are stitched into the fabric of the show in a way that no other “outsider” can boast about.
The “Festrunk Brothers,” “King Tut,” and even Martin’s own ridiculous branded product, “Steve Martin’s Penis Beauty Cream” come to mind, but Martin’s most impactful moment may have been his saddest — the night he grieved with the audience over the loss of Gilda Radner.
Remember, it was a different time when news wasn’t always at our fingertips. For a lot of people, word of Gilda Radner’s death didn’t get to them until they were watching SNL and that news needed a family member to deliver it. That’s exactly what Steve Martin is to SNL: family.
Baldwin has hosted more than anyone else and that familiarity with the institution has clearly been an asset to him. For someone who is a constant tabloid target and prone to saying things that can be turned into headlines the next day, Baldwin’s limitless faith in Lorne Michaels to protect him and his willingness to make an ass out of himself for a good laugh are surprising and invaluable.
Bergen has hosted the show five times and she was the first woman to host the show and the first person to host twice when she came back just six weeks after her debut. Unlike Baldwin and Martin, Bergen’s best work on the show really belongs to the early years in her first three appearances. It’s not that she did a bad job in 1987 and 1990 when she hosted again, but her chemistry with Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman, and Jane Curtin was off the charts. Bergen’s debut was so strong that it has often been cited as the first episode of Saturday Night Live to fully click. For that alone, she deserves inclusion on a list like this.
In that he was dropping by almost bi-weekly for a brief time during the Monica Lewinsky scandal to play Linda Tripp, I’m prepared to say that John Goodman actually was a cast member, but while that isn’t technically true, he actually almost was an official cast member back in 1980, auditioning for the show only to get beaten out by Joe Piscopo. This explains the reverence that Goodman has for the show and why he has embraced making repeated appearances. But while it’s a shame that he never got the chance to be a full-fledged cast member, it’s also probably a blessing considering the fact that ’80s cast members were often easily replaced and quickly forgotten.
Walken’s trick on the show is that he lets the writers play with his wonderfully weird mannerisms. It’s not so much that he’s being made fun of, but the legend and the stereotypical “Walken” impression is being enhanced on the regular whenever he comes on. Again, it all comes down to trust and a willingness to embarrass yourself for laughter. Walken isn’t afraid to live the myth.
More cowbell, if you please…
This goes hand in hand with Walken’s willingness to be used as the writer’s puppet. Justin Timberlake isn’t afraid to make fun of himself and his persona as a sex symbol. I’ll let Timberlake and Lorne Michaels explain why that’s vital in an excerpt from a recent THR feature on the Five-Timers Club, of which Timberlake is a member.
Timberlake: I find too, it’s the one place to go to be self-deprecating. I think that goes miles with the audience and with the people at home. That’s what people want to see.
Michaels: Like the Irish immigrant sketch you did.
Timberlake: Yeah! That may be my favorite sketch that I’ve ever done. And it’s mostly, if you count up the jokes, it’s 20 to one me making jokes about myself versus anybody else who was included in that sketch.
Last is not least. Not even close. Truth be told, Tom Hanks is my favorite host. As I said up top, the show is variable and a lot of things can influence the result, but a Hanks episode always seems to have an abundance of memorable moments. He’s also got a little bit of everything required to be a great host.
Like Hamm, he’s got the ability to be a straight man but there’s also a bit of clown in him and he certainly isn’t afraid to go weird or poke fun at himself. Versatility is a big plus for any host and Hanks — once one of our best comic actors before switching to drama — is as versatile as they come. Like Baldwin and Martin, he’s familiar, having hosted eight times to this point and he trusts the cast and crew. More than that, he gets down in the trenches with them.
Here’s a favorite excerpt from the Live From New York oral history and Conan O’Brien:
“I think my favorite host, other than like a Steve Martin, is Tom Hanks. I remember he’d stay up all night and he’d write with you. I mean, literally there was the walkthrough that some hosts did where they clearly were just being paraded around and pretending to listen to you ideas but they just couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel room and let these idiots hash it out. But Tom Hanks would actually roll up his sleeves. Sometimes you’d pass him and it’s like four in the morning, and he’s in the corner scribbling away on something, just constantly trying to make it better.”
It all comes down to whether a host accepts that they are a part of the machine or if the machine has to stop and drag them along. Hanks and these other SNL legends commit themselves to something greater than themselves in the pursuit of comedy and that’s why they have delivered some of the best shows in Saturday Night Live history.